Transcript Interview Episode with Alex Wittig

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[00:00:00] Laurin: Welcome to the Curiously Wise Podcast. I'm your host Laurin Wittig. This podcast is all about honoring, sharing and celebrating the natural and experiential wisdom of my guests through curiosity provoking conversation, shared stories, and tips…

[00:00:26] …we've all gathered along this journey. And from time to time, I’ll be sharing my own stories and my own wisdom in solo episodes. Oh, and we’ll be laughing. A lot! I invite you to join in the fun as we uncover the unique wisdom, we each carry within us. Ready? Let's get curious. Hi, friends and welcome to Curiously Wise. I'm your host, Laurin Wittig and I have a wonderful guest here today. My son, who I'm very proud of and his name is Alex Wittig and he has taught me a lot over the years, but recently I've gotten really interested in this concept of Game Theory.

[00:01:02] And so I've invited him to come and talk to us about that because he's been doing Game Theory for decades.

[00:01:08] Alex: Yeah. Yeah. It's a little over two decades now.

[00:01:11] Laurin: So tell people a little bit about you and how you came into gaming.

[00:01:14] Alex: My father was always into tech and we built computers relatively early in my life and got me kind of into gaming that way. We were early adopters of like the PlayStation systems and things like that. So I've always had games in my life like that. I'm very into card games at the moment.

[00:01:30] I consider myself to be a semi-pro magic player. Not quite enough to make a living off of it, but not quite

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enough to say I'm losing all the money I'm putting into it. So semi-pro. I've been playing video games pretty much my entire life at this point. And. It's how me and most of my friends hang out and spend time with each other as well as being probably about three or four years into being a Dungeon Master or Game Master for a D and D campaign which I played for three or four years before I took over that role.

[00:01:59] Yeah. So I'm very, very involved in gaming.

[00:02:01] Laurin: Yeah. Yeah. I think we got the first PlayStation for you guys when you were six, because it's when we were moving here. And that was our way to kind of help with the move. And I'm not much of a video game player. We used to play what a Crash Team Racer and a few things like that, but I love board games.

[00:02:25] I still love games and we play a lot of games as a family as well, but today we're going to talk about Game Theory because I've noticed that this is a phrase that's coming up quite a bit and it's coming up in places I wouldn't expect it. So, it's really becoming a cultural way of looking at things and how a lot of businesses I'm finding are using Game Theory.

[00:02:47] So I brought in my personal expert. Can you just tell us a little bit about what it means to say Game Theory? Cause not everybody's familiar with the term?

[00:02:57]Alex: Sure. So Game Theory is very much about the strategies and the ways of thinking about playing a specific game. A lot of times you'll see Game Theory broken up into multiple parts.

[00:03:08] You'll have like Casual Game Theory. So like you could be playing Katan with a bunch of people that you know and the goal is to have fun. And so the Game Theory in that situation is going to be about not being the most competitive, but just trying to make everyone have an enjoyable experience.

[00:03:25] Maybe the game is very close. Cause that's what people think is fun. Maybe it's one person running away with it because people are just helping them have fun. It really depends on what your situation is as to what the Game Theory actually has you doing. If you're in a very competitive space, Game Theory has a very different connotation.

[00:03:43] It's going to be very much about like, well, what are the best possible strategies and the best possible moves. And what are my opponents doing in these situations. And what are the best strategies against their strategies?

[00:03:55] Game Theory has different meanings in different contexts. What I'm usually talking about when I talk about Game Theory is going to the more highly strategic aspects of it because that's usually what's most applicable to like business, stock market stuff, that kind of stuff.

[00:04:10] That's where I find myself applying it in my life. It is in my investments and in my, business dealings.

[00:04:16] Laurin: Well, why don't we start with Dungeons and Dragons, which has been around since I was a kid. I've only played it once when I was in my twenties and I did not get it at the time.

[00:04:28] Now I understand the concept of it a lot better, I know that's been a part of your game education, shall we say?

[00:04:34] Alex: Yeah. About a decade into Dungeons and Dragons now.

[00:04:39] Laurin: So tell us a little about that and the Game Theory.

[00:04:40]Alex: So for one thing, Dungeons and Dragons, the creators of it, their Game Theory has changed over the years.

[00:04:47] So when you were playing it back in your twenties, it was very focused on the Math, the strategy, the very strategic aspects of it. Modern Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, which is what I generally play is way more focused on storytelling. They take a lot of the Math out of the game. They make it a lot easier to play without really understanding every aspect of what's going on.

[00:05:10] I have to. I'm the Dungeon Master. My job is to basically be the computer for everybody that makes all the decisions. And I personally love Dungeons and Dragons because it is a safe space to try out social interactions. It's a safe space to fail. In fact, a lot of Dungeons and Dragons is a lot about failure, both for the DM, the Dungeon Master who's running the game, and the players who are participating in the game.

[00:05:36] Laurin: So tell us a little bit about what kind of failures do you see, or you learned the most from?

[00:05:40]Alex: So probably the biggest thing I've learned is to stop planning past the second thing. When I personally started off playing the game as a Dungeon Master, I would say, all right, my players are going to be attacking this dragon or this beast in the next game session we're playing.

[00:05:55] And I would say, all right, well, here are the six different ways I would personally go about that. So let's plan for those six different ways. And you'd have a tree of possible paths your players could take out from that. Your players never choose one of those six ways.

[00:06:11] They are always going to come up with something you've never expected and throw all of your plans out the window immediately. Whether it means, oh, they befriended the owl bear instead of fighting it. And now you're like, well, I guess there's a quest line for this owl bear now that I didn't come up with.

[00:06:29] And so you got to do it on the fly. So now I spend less than an hour preparing for any individual session. I consider myself a sandbox DM, which is there's this big sandbox that I throw my players into and I watch what they're doing with all the sand. And I build the game around that. So yeah, I will show up and I'll have plan A and sometimes I'll have plan B, but if I find myself planning plan C, I stopped myself because they're never going to go for plan A or B or C.

[00:07:00] They're always going to be down by Q or Y or Z, and I'm not going to spend the time figuring out what all those different things are. That's just not worth my time to plan for.

[00:07:08] Laurin: Yeah. It's interesting. When I was writing novels, I was taught that you should plot the whole novel out front to back. And so I spent years trying to learn how to plot a whole story only to find that I get three scenes in and everything would change.

[00:07:26] So I came to the same conclusion that there's no sense in me trying to figure it all out. I'll have some way points along the way, but two or three possibilities and move on.

[00:07:34] Alex: Yeah. And one of the things I've found is for one thing, well, growing up with an author as a mom you become very story literate.

[00:07:44] You can read all the stories as they're happening, figure out what is likely to happen. And what kind of twists and turns might be coming pretty easily. And that's great for my situation because all of my friends that are playing this game with me are also pretty story literate.

[00:08:03] And that means they're pretty good at forming stories around their own characters. And so if you just throw them out there and let them interact with each other, they're going to build a story for you. You don't have to be the guide on the story. You can just be the one setting up the foundations around everything.

[00:08:20] And so at the moment I have a campaign in which a character said, well, I kind of want this, like Eldridge God to be a mother figure in my life. Like my family abandoned me and this Eldridge God discovered me and raised me. I'm like, all right, we've got motivation here I can work with.

[00:08:41] We've got this authority figure that I can embody in certain situations and provide guidance to players in certain spots and also create some motivation in a storyline with that. And I didn't come up with any of that. That's just them handing me pieces of a story that I can then assemble.

[00:08:58] And your players only know their characters really well. They don't know the other player is characters because they only get to interact with them in the game. I know all of them. And so now I can say, all right, well, this person had a tragic thing happened in their backstory. Let's say that this person over here was indirectly responsible for it when their tragic backstory thing that they kind of gave me the bones of, but didn't fill everything in.

[00:09:23] All right, now we've got tension in the party at any place you find tension like that, you get a good story.

[00:09:29] Laurin: Yeah. That's the conflict is what you need for stories. So it sounds like it would be really common sense that you could work out…well, how do I want to put this? You could experiment with solutions as a character and see what works and what doesn't, because I assume if you die you in the game, you role a new character from scratch.

[00:09:49] Alex: You roll a new character,

[00:09:50] Laurin: So then he makes a new character and you can try a different way of getting through whatever the scenario is at that moment, which is lovely because our culture doesn't allow for failure very well.

[00:10:01]Alex: Oh, and one of the things this game teaches you, failure doesn't mean anyone's responsible for it. I had a character who there's a concept called a wild magic table.

[00:10:15] And this character is a source where they cast spells and they wanted it to be like, time-based magic. They want it to be able to like rewind time a little bit here and there and change the outcome of that event. It's a very cool idea. Yeah. So I made a wild magic table with a hundred different possibilities on it.

[00:10:34] And when they use time magic, they roll on that table and something random happens. Now. I don't like to punish my players for doing things that are fun. Rolling on a wild magic table. That's fun. You don't know what's going to happen. It's like rolling the dice at a craps game. Like you don't know what's happening.

[00:10:53] That's the fun part. So I put one bad thing. They have to roll a one on a D 100 to get it. And my player, the first time they rolled, rolled a one, which then caused two other players in the party to cease to exist because their parents never met. Oh no, they had to make new characters. And I said, look, if this happens, I'm not going to stop it from happening.

[00:11:23] I'm not going to say, oh, this isn't fun. Oh, this is part of the fun is you, okay? Your character is gone.

[00:11:29] Laurin: It's like jumping a timeline. In the metaverse kind of being in a different path on it. Interesting.

[00:11:35] Alex: And, my players were super cool about it. They're like, no, this is great. You’ll love this.

[00:11:40] This is a great story. And they made new characters. And no one was directly responsible for any of the negative things that happen there. There was an aspect of failure in that your characters are no longer playable and no one was responsible for it. No one was even upset. Yeah.

[00:11:58] Laurin: Yeah. I feel like we spend a lot of time trying to figure out who's to blame for it.

[00:12:00] Alex: Exactly. And a lot of times there's just no one.

[00:12:05] Laurin: True. So that's lovely. So that's another way that this kind of game really can help you work through things that we don't get a lot of opportunity to work through in real life.

[00:12:15] Alex: Oh. And one of my players has a history with anger management issues and since he started playing, D and D has resolved a lot of those issues.

[00:12:25] Oh, that's cool. Yeah. And, he was one of the characters that lost his character in that situation. And he left and then he messaged me privately with a new sheet he'd already prepared. Cause he was pretty sure his character was going to die at some point in time. And I was like, this is amazing that this guy who spent, I think he just got his 10 year chip in anger management or something.

[00:12:47] I was like, damn, that is impressive.

[00:12:49] Laurin: That's really nice to have some real-life validation for what the theory is. Yeah, that's great. Cause I know one of my other guests was talking about games as a therapeutic tool. Oh yeah. And just for exactly this reason, and I think that's really part of why I'm so fascinated with this.

[00:13:06] Cause I knew to me, I love everything healing. In your recent years, or maybe not so recent years, I don't really know when you got into magic. But magic I know has been around a long time.

[00:13:17] Alex: Yep. It was originally published in 92 the year I was born. So the game's almost 30 years old now.

[00:13:23] Laurin: Okay. Yeah. And I know it also has gone through iterations and refinements and changes.

[00:13:28] And so I know that you're fascinated with it and I've, known that about you for a long time, but I don't really understand the fascination. I don't understand the game enough to know why it's so fascinating. So. Bring the Game Theory theme into that too, if you would.

[00:13:42] Alex: Yeah. So it probably helps to have a little bit of foundation for the game if you're not familiar with it.

[00:13:47] I find most people are familiar with poker. Poker is where everyone's playing with the same deck of cards. And your hand might be better than your opponent's hand, depending on the type of poker you're playing. Sometimes there's shared resources sometimes there's not, it depends on the game of poker exactly you are playing.

[00:14:01]Magic is a lot like poker except you get to build the deck of cards you're playing with and your opponent gets to build their deck of cards. Now magic, the gathering after 30 years has 64,000 unique cards in it. And they come out with four sets a year that have two to 300 cards in them that are sometimes unique, sometimes reprints of earlier versions of cards.

[00:14:27] So you're probably adding about 500 cards a year that are brand new to the game. So obviously some cards are better than others. So you're probably talking more about two to 3000 cards that you have to be keeping track of in any given format of magic, just like different games of poker. Sometimes you're playing Texas Hold'em sometimes you're playing I dunno poker well enough to know.

[00:14:47] But. different formats allow for different cards. Usually there's like, this format goes all the way back to 1992. This format goes back to 2010. So they'll have cutoffs like that based upon when cards are printed. But you have to both be able to determine what your opponent's plan is and what your plan is against them.

[00:15:08] So there's an aspect of deck designed to build a deck that can respond to other people's decks and their strategies, and also understanding how your deck best responds to those things. And then of course you're shuffling the deck. So there's an aspect of randomization. Oh yeah. So you don't always get to see the pieces you need to stop your opponent's plan.

[00:15:26]And so the aspect of Game Theory that I probably get the most out of in magic is what we call knowing your outs. Which is to say in this situation, is there any card I can draw that would win me the game or save me from the situation that I'm in, because sometimes you're up against a deck and you can see that they're going to win the game in five turns.

[00:15:49] And so now, you know, I'm going to get to draw five cards. Is there even a card in my deck that I put in there that can get me out of this situation. And if not, let's just call it here and move onto the next game because you've locked up the game. Okay. So very frequently, especially in competitive magic, you're on a time constraint you're playing best of three.

[00:16:07] So you have to win two out of the three games. And sometimes your best option is to just move onto the next game. Okay. Cut your losses and go. Yeah, basically. So knowing your outs is all about knowing what the best case scenario for you is, knowing how likely that is saying, oh, I've got four of these cards in my deck, but I've seen three of them already.

[00:16:32] And it's the only card that can, and there's 45 cards left in my deck. So I've got a one in 45 chance of drawing this card. That's going to save me. That point, just move on. Yeah. The odds are so stacked against you, that you should just start from scratch. And knowing that will save you so much time.

[00:16:48]The number of times I have won games because I got to turn three and it's like, I'm not winning this game. Let's move on to the next game and gotten to change my deck around a little bit, to make it better for this particular match and then won the match because I moved on. It's uncountable at this point in time.

[00:17:08] Laurin: That's an interesting lesson to bring it to day-to-day life. Because sometimes it is sometimes you do need to just go, I'm banging my head against the wall and nothing is happening. Nothing is going to change. And I've done. I think in relationships, you know, your grandmother that was a lesson I really had to learn with her is that nothing was going to change.

[00:17:26] And so I could make myself miserable and drag things out, or I could decide there was something better for me to be doing than what I was doing. And it wasn't like I could just stop playing another game, but it did change. How I felt about my time with her. Yeah. I love how we can take these things and just really apply them to life.

[00:17:45] Alex: As a real life example of that, I was doing my taxes this year and I was trying to get as big a deduction as I could. And I realized that I was looking at spending four to six hours, just doing Math to figure out how much. And I just, I was like, I'm not going to get as large a deduction, but I'm going to save myself some hours and just do the standard deduction.

[00:18:11] And it was, you know, that kind of moment of life, is this worth my time is getting a few hundred dollars more back from the government really worth that. And I decided for myself it wasn't so my taxes took like an hour and a half this year instead of the like six and a half or seven hours, it was going to take me and I was going to lose my entire weekend, basically that wasn't worth it.

[00:18:32] Laurin: Yeah. And it's, it's good to be able to stop and go. Okay.

[00:18:36] Alex: You know, pros and cons time to cut.

[00:18:39] Laurin: Cut to the chase here. Yeah. Something that I find I do a lot too, especially around time. It's like, okay, I can spend a lot of time doing this, or I can do something different that maybe won't be quite as interesting or quite as automated.

[00:18:56] I'm doing a lot of automating systems now. And so maybe I can just do it, simplify it and move on. And then my time is better spent doing things like this. That's a really interesting way to look at it or a way to bring it into the world. So there's this other piece of video games that you and I have talked about recently that I find I did not understand it all until you explained it to me. And that is there are people who do what's called Speed Running or Speed Runners of video games. So first of all, you have to define what a speed runner is.

[00:19:26]Alex: It's another competitive form of game play. These people are trying to take a game, say the Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, which is an old game, very old, lots of polygons, very angular, not great graphics. And they're trying to beat the game as quickly as they can.

[00:19:45] Record the score posted online so everyone can see the video of them beating this game in 25 minutes or an hour and a half or whatever it ends up being for that game. And then a lot like swimmers at the Olympics, you'll see, oh, wow. Like Michael Phelps cut like 13 seconds off that time.

[00:20:04] Or that's ridiculous for swimming, but that's more realistic for speed running. I mean, you will see people literally cutting partial seconds off a game to be the world record holder for the speed run of that game. Wow. And so one of the things you learn when you're watching speed runners play these games is there are rules to play these games by and you do not have to follow them.

[00:20:26] One of the best examples is in Zelda Ocarina of Time. You go into one of the starting areas and there's a place where you can clip through a wall and end up in the final boss fight. And if you are a skilled enough with the stick and the shield you have, instead of like the sword and all of the armor and things that you would normally have by the end of the game, you can still beat the final boss.

[00:20:49] You cut 99% of the game out of the game to do that. Right. But it feels like cheating. It does feel like cheating. Yeah. But if the way you define beating the game is defeating the final boss, then that's how you beat the game. And if you look at all of these games, they have 30, 40, 50 different ways of classifying a speed run that all have their own records.

[00:21:15] So you have a hundred percent completionist speed runs where people do every mainline quest thing in came to be that you have glitch lists where you are trying to do things without glitching the game in any way, but you don't have to complete every aspect. So if there's something that you could skip without using a glitch, then you can skip it.

[00:21:33] It's like a room in the house. You don't have to go in and search or something like that. You don't have to do that. And then you have the original one I explained, which is a glitch speed run, which is, here's an aspect of the game. I can exploit to skip a large portion of the game and get to the last thing that we need to see, to see the credits roll.

[00:21:50] Okay. And that was the original kind of speed run. There's all sorts of speed runners that do these kinds of things. And you'll see them sit there and take apart the code of the game and like, see, all right, technically in the game environment, all of these levels are stacked up on top of each other like a pancake.

[00:22:09] And so if I can find a way to fall through the floor of this map, I can fall into a different map. Okay. And if they can figure out how to do that reliably, suddenly you have a new strategy in that speed run. Okay. Speed running is all about breaking the rules of the game to play it more efficiently.

[00:22:25] Laurin: I'm always fascinated how people find ways to be competitive with, I mean, with themselves or with others. But in this case, it's really about defining what winning the game is, right?

[00:22:37] Alex: It's about figuring out what your goal is.

[00:22:40] Laurin: So for instance, the person who found the glitch and went straight to the end boss battle that feels like cheating to me because to me, a game, you play by the rules that are laid out in the game.

[00:22:50] But speed running is more about redefining the rules.

[00:22:53] Alex: Yeah. You define the goal. You define the rules by which you can achieve that goal and then everyone is competing on that same field to get the fastest time to complete that task.

[00:23:06] Laurin: How would you bring that into real life? What is the Game Theory part of that, that we can apply?

[00:23:12] Alex: So no one starts off speed running a game. Everyone plays the game the way it's intended the first time. Cause it's the most obvious way to play it. Right. You're gonna pick up the sword and fight all the guys. Speed runners are gonna run backwards past all the monsters because they figured out that jumping backwards is faster than walking normally.

[00:23:28] They're going to do whatever it takes to cut off time. The takeaway I get from speed running is once you've done something once or twice, and you've learned the rules about how to do it, you don't necessarily need to follow them every time. Hmm. Okay. It's not necessary to follow every outline unless you're like working for the government or something like that, where it is literally required, If I'm making a salad, I don't follow a recipe every time. I know what I wanted.

[00:24:00] I'm going to get that all out. I'm going to put it in the salad. I'll mix it up and throw a dressing on it and eat the salad. I'm not going to sit there and read through every line and be like, oh, I'm supposed to put the lettuce in.

[00:24:10] Like we don't live life like that. And it's important to remember that you don't have to do every aspect of your life like that just because you've always done something some way doesn't mean it's the most efficient or even the right way to do it. Yeah. I like to think of speed runners as making a new game out of an old piece of software.

[00:24:31] It's like taking a Scrabble board and using it as a battleship board and playing Scrabble ship or something like that. And so you are taking a game that you've played hundreds of hours on and you love, and you love all the mechanics and the way the game works, but you've played the game. And so now you've got to come up with a new challenge for yourself that the game didn't have built into it already.

[00:24:56] I'm going to figure out how to beat this game in two hours or 30 minutes or something like that. And that's, the kind of thing I love about speed runners. You're not watching the game that they bought to play. You're watching the game they've made out of what they already had available to them.

[00:25:11] Laurin: I see so many uses for that idea in life. It is creating creativity. I always said that when you guys are kids, and I know when I was a kid being bored is useful. It's good because it forces you to go, well, I consider me boreder, let me figure out something that'll entertain me.

[00:25:28] And so that's, it feels like, you know, I'm bored with this game, but I love this game.

[00:25:33] Alex: What else could I do? What else could I do with it?

[00:25:36] Laurin: But we get into habits, especially I know in my sixties. And so I have lifelong habits that don't really serve me, but they're comfortable. I don't have to think about it.

[00:25:46] It's like making that salad. And one of the things that I know I'm doing right now is I'm challenging myself to do some physical things that I never thought I would even think about doing.

[00:26:00] And it's because I'm challenging those habits. I'm challenging the way my life usually goes, the kinds of trips I usually would want to take and pushing the boundaries a little bit, trying to see if I can stretch myself a bit.

[00:26:13] So it's kind of like this where you're stretching the way you look at the game and how you can move through it, to find something new about it.

[00:26:20] Alex: Oh, and I see outside of games as well. Like I love rock climbing documentaries. There are a lot of fun to just throw on and kind of how on in the background and a lot of the historical rock-climbing documentaries, there'll be like, oh, well, they started off with, 500 pounds of rock-climbing equipment.

[00:26:39] And they were using mechanical winches decline up, the walls of Yosemite and things like that. And the next generation came in and looked at. I can do it with 60 pounds of gear. I don't need 500 pounds of gear and I don't need all of the mechanical assistance to do it. I can just work on myself until I'm capable of doing that climb at that way.

[00:27:00] And the next generation came in and said, I need like two ropes in some carabiners and I can climb that wall the same as they did, but with less weight and less effort. And the next generation, there's a famous rock climber named Alex, ironically, who just free climbs. He doesn't have ropes just climbs himself in sanity.

[00:27:24] Yeah. But you know, he's very good at it. And he's doing what speed runners we're doing. They're seeing the game, they saw the way it was played. And they said I don't have to play by those rules. Yeah. I can do different. I can find different way to do this same