Randomization and Locus of Control

In personality psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.

If “a good game is a series of meaningful choices” (Sid Meier), I am clearly in the camp that your choices should be the primary determinant of your outcomes. The more tenuous the connection between your choices and your outcomes, the less meaningful your choices are. Games of pure chance are, from this view, barely even games. You do not so much play a slot machine or Candyland as take action to watch it play out. You cannot affect the outcome, and you have no meaningful decisions to make.

At the lower level of skill for many games, players can view their games this way because they cannot see the connections between their decisions and their outcomes. Indeed, many people in life are surprised by the predictable consequences of their decisions. For them, as for small children, their lives and games are nearly undifferentiated chaos, where they take actions and are repeatedly astonished by the outcomes. It is fate, it is random, it is outside their control.

Sometimes they are right and external forces dominate. Sometimes they are wrong and their are reaping as they have sown. Some people have trouble telling the difference between those.

People with a low locus of control will favor greater randomization. It has a lower opportunity cost for them and a higher potential payoff. That is, if you already see little connection between your actions and outcomes, making sure there is little connection cannot reduce your expected value. As far as you know, it was already a roll of the dice, so let’s roll more and bigger dice. The potential payoff is greater because people with a low locus of control generally do rather badly in circumstances where their decisions really do affect the outcome. If you are deciding randomly in an area where skill matters, you generally lose, because there are far more ways to be wrong than right. If you were already going to do badly, re-rolling the dice or reducing the importance of your decisions gives you more chances to win. In a game of skill, it nullifies the advantage of the highly skilled player.

When you are losing and falling further behind, chaos helps you and takes away their advantages. In a later post, I will talk about how randomization and variation affect people who are skilled in an existing environment, but let’s stick to the perspective of someone who is not in control of their environment, due to random chance, malign opposition, or poor decisions. Why not wipe the slate clean? If the system is stacked against you, burn it to the ground and start over.

To take an example from a different area, I saw some people support Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. If you are thinking of ideology, that does not make much sense. But if your plan is “voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race,” yeah, those are candidates who would do a lot to upend the existing order. Younger voters tend to be more passionate about this. They have little to lose and are facing opponents who control the levers of power. Of course, outside games, there are real consequences to losing, and degrees of winning and losing matter a lot more. In a game, 2nd and last place are both losses — go big or go home.

As a child, I loved the random tables in Dungeons and Dragons. I could spend hours rolling up characters, generating loot hoards, whatever. And I could cheerfully ignore all the uninteresting rolls, “counting” only the ones I liked. It was just as random and real a roll as any other when I got the 18/00 strength or got the wildest result on a Wand of Wonder. I saw more power in the roll of the dice than my own self efficacy. Lately I hear about children watching absurdist videos on YouTube, procedurally generated chaos with only the faintest semblance of coherence, animated fever dreams. And I get it, when life is chaos outside your control, choosing to turn up the chaos is the most control you have.

But when you learn that random outcomes are just noise, it stops being interesting. It can still be surprising, but it is not meaningful.

: Zubon

2 thoughts on “Randomization and Locus of Control”

  1. As you say, in games, when you are losing, generating chaos might be the best strategy. But it is intereetting to see how the current winner find this type of action very badly. In general the winner would prefer a competitor that suddenly improves and make them loose, than the last player wrecking chaos without changing the order too much. ( to be clear : i am discussing chaos that stay within the rules, not returning the board ! )
    I find it true both when i am playing the wrecking loser, or the winner confronted to the others.

  2. To build on Ettesiuns points, I’ve found out that many of my friends who enjoy gaming are not very good at them, or often at least not to my level. In most highly skill based games, that leaves me with the options of A) Playing below my skill level to let them win, or B) Winning until they have no interest. (Or just stick with co-op comp stomping, but that can get predictable very easily, and it’s more of a hang out reason then anything else (not that that is a bad thing)).

    Personally, I have no problem with A, as I don’t have a problem with losing (a trait that it took me a while to realize very few other people have). In contrary, I really enjoy when a friend wins, and can share in their success, especially if I am able to hold back less at the end, and it becomes more of a real match (a sort of self handicap, if you will). However, I’ve also learned that with B, once someone is turned off a game, it’s very very hard to get them interested again.

    Randomness in games I find can make them very, very enjoyable for me. I can play at full tilt, bemoan my bad luck, revel in good draws, and congratulate or console the other party on the same, usually without fear of outplaying them too much. For every irksome event that I feel is ‘unfair’, I get several more games worth of good play. That’s a trade I’m more then willing to make, and I think everyone is the happier for it.

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