Friday, December 25, 2015

Goblin Extermination and Social Engineering

A few days ago I've published the following "ad" on my Facebook page:

Our village has recently been vandalized by a squad of 3 vicious goblins - help us rid the world of their presence!
Each goblin has 10HP and they'll keep fighting viciously until their dying breath. Should you accept this quest we'll provide you with a weapon of your choice:
- Sniper rifle (deals 10 damage per round to a single target)
- Grenade launcher (deals 4 damage per round to ALL targets)
What would you choose?
What if there were 4 goblins instead?

So? What would you do?

Originally I saw the question in a game balance course I'm reading - they used the first part of the question to show that even though the grenade launcher did more total damage (12 each round) it was the wrong choice, so not necessarily had to be priced higher at the weapon shop. Why is it the wrong choice? As most of the replies to my status stated - assuming the damage each goblin deals each round has nothing to do with how wounded he is - you'll suffer only 3(=2+1) attacks if you choose the sniper rifle but 6(=3+3) in the case of a grenade launcher. 

At first glance that's it - a cute mathematical exercise that shows that you should remember to optimize on the right parameter - in this case not the straightforward choice of "damage dealt" but "damage received".
But - as some of my friends pointed out - this cute mathematical exercise is heavily based on unspoken assumptions. Mathematically speaking, the question is undefined. Even if the "standard" RPG assumption, that damage dealt doesn't change when enemies are wounded, holds (and there are games where it doesn't) - there are still many unknown factors. 
What weapon is more useful in the future? How strong and in what numbers do you expect to encounter future goblins? Do we even get to keep the weapon?
A more important (and less "smart-ass-like") issue is time. In the second version you take less damage using the sniper rifle (6 vs 8) but it takes 4 turns to kill all goblins - vs only 3 using grenades. Why did we decide that minimizing damage is so important? Maybe we are so strong that practically no amount of goblin attacks can kill us - so we should actually optimize time. It might sound weird but in many grinding games (think WOW, Diablo etc.) player time is often the strongest restriction. 

These hidden assumptions are just an example of our human tendency to fill information gaps using what we already know about the world (in Bayesian probability it's called Prior). And if we have strong default beliefs about a fantasy universe, imagine how absolutely confident we feel about things in the real world.
Usually it's very useful - when a caveman saw a lion - and remembered that last week he also saw a lion and it attacked him - the caveman made the correct call and run the hell away. The problem is when our beliefs about the world are wrong/inapplicable or worse - if someone is manipulating us using said beliefs and social norms. 
Imagine someone in a blue uniform knocks on your door, demanding to see some ID. He's a cop - right? We assume he's a genuine police officer - even though anyone can buy a uniform and look intimidating. Social engineering experts (like con artists, "art of seduction" practitioners and sales people) use these Prior assumptions and beliefs all the time. Although most of us don't encounter con attempts everyday, we do encounter salespeople and advertisements...

Until next time, may you be less wrong about the world.


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