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There is an experiment called Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, and if you have to learn one thing form it, this is:

Absurd situations lead to absurd behaviour.

Explanation: The game is one interaction between two players that choose either «cooperate» or «exploit». Both cooperate, both win big. Both exploit, both are screwed. But if just one exploits, he wins big and the guy gets even more screwed. It is a dilemma because you always want cooperate-cooperate, but if you know the other guy is exploiting, you’re better off exploiting too, but if you know he is cooperating, you are also better off exploiting, so you always get the worst outcome possible.

But another, different take on the thing, is that some situations are just outright completely screwed. There are some games that are unwinnable. If you put someone in a game like this, you have no idea what he will do.

The Wire has a tremendous scene where the bad boys at school get rounded up and put on a room just for themselves, and a teacher and a psych try to get to them. And the kids just don’t say anything. When they do speak it is just to comply to the expectation of speech, but there is no meaning. It is scary.


Time and again, the students do stupid shit just to get suspension and be out of school for three days. They are aware of the rules, and they are playing the game, but the way they play it is alien to the teachers. It goes against everything the teachers take for granted. The teachers assume school is about learning, the students plainly see that what is being taught is nothing that actually matters in their life outside school. The teachers assume want to succeed, the students clearly see that succeeding at school has nothing to do with succeeding.

From the point of view of the problem kids, they are in a game they cannot win. It is game of none of the outcomes is a good thing for them. If you rule out the teacher delusion of everyone magically transmuting into exemplary robot-citizens, and you work with all the ways the kids can imagine school turning out for them, they are all much worse them being left alone. It is not that school is a waste of time, it is actually making their lives miserable in so many ways the teachers can’t fathom. Like the guy who actually learns something being picked for a snitch and beaten to death. And worse.

So the kids end up developing new goals, they start wanting things that actually have very little to do with the game they were supposed to be playing. The few teachers who have a measure of control over the kids are the one playing this second game. The rules are unspoken, so they have to develop an instinctive feeling for it.

But this, in turn, changes the original game. An objective is a part of a game, and if you add new goals you change it, and this change can range from superficial to complete. It becomes a third game, where the rules are from the first game and the victory conditions are from the second. In this way, the always-losing players end up dominating the situation, but they do it by basically screwing up everything.


From the point of view of the teachers, the problem kids want to burn the world to be kings of the ashes. They are just barbarians at the gates, trying to sack and pillage, lacking even language to articulate their demands. That’s what barbar means, unspeaking. But being a mute is very different from the stone wall silence of the kids. The mute wishes to communicate but lacks the preferred means, so he develops other means. The barbar does not wish to communicate.

What happens if you sit a man at the chess table and he starts to paint the board? What happens if you put him at the tennis court and he proceeds to jump the fence and punch you up?

Meeting a Crusoé blank-slate-man at some lost island is way less scary. He might try to kill you, but then again maybe you’ll kill him first, it is a coin-toss, a 50-50 situation. The unwillingness to play of the barbar is a situation where 99 percent of the time he will die, but if he gets his chance he will not only kill you, he will destroy everything you love, rape your sons and daughters, desecrate your temples and force you to watch. Most of the time he will be trapped into your game, and fail at the game that is designed to make him fail, but when he escapes you have absolutely no idea whatsoever what will happen.

My examples are extreme cases, but it doesn’t even have to be.

Most of the times, in a relationship, if you hear “Explain yourself!” you pretty much assume nothing you ever say will actually “explain” anything. You just have to pretend to “respect their authoritah”, you have to grovel and humiliate yourself until the other person is satisfied.

Game theory should dedicate a few treatises to games that are exceed the limits of the game itself. The definition of Game Theory might seem to exclude these kinds of situations, but you have to assume there is a third-level game and try to understand it. It is a kind of over-gaming and under-gaming (to mimic Eco’s terms) where the games are over-determined and under-determined. Albeit it is chaotic, a lot of good thinking could be thrown that way.

But, more than that, we should pay a kind of sacred respect to the silence of the person who is refusing to play the game.


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