Monday, 14 May 2012

Probability Can Suck It!

I am the Warden!!

Seeing as this is a roleplaying blog, I don't have to get into explaining probability and how much it factors in game design, right? (I have talked about it before.) This time, I'm talking about the perception of probability in real life with an emphasis on the word "perception."

During my numerous therapy sessions last year - brought about from the trauma caused by the accident - I heard a lot about probability and traffic accidents. "Do you know what I mean when I say 'probability?'" my therapist asked me. I chuckled and gave a quick explanation on how it's gospel when it comes to RPG design.

From there, she attempted to break down the odds of the average person being involved in a serious accident based on frequency on the road, speed, time spent on highways, and a few others I can't remember. When she came to her conclusion, she proclaimed there was only a 0.0001% chance of the average person being in a car accident and the odds of the same person getting into another astronomically increased to 1 in a million.

I chuckled again. This wasn't the first time I'd heard this argument and the funny - nigh, hilarious - aspect about it was I had just been knee deep in reading forums and engaging in personal discussions with the mathematically inclined on probability in roleplaying games. The answer I gave was an off-shoot of my reply to those points.

"Perhaps, but that's not what I'm concerned about. For me, I was driving that route for only 3 weeks when the accident happened because we only just moved into our new house. That's 15 times driving back and forth to work on the highway, meaning 30 trips over a 3-week period. The last trip was the accident, so that's now a 1 in 30 chance of getting into an accident on that highway. Take it a step further: your point is there's a minimal chance of getting into any accident. In my case, the car caught fire and pretty much exploded within minutes of the crash, so for me, it's a 3% chance of blowing up. And it's those odds are still very low, why did I blow up? From my chair, 3% is a big number for a route I have to drive every time I need to go anywhere, including these appointments. It means I have a 10% chance every week of getting into a devastating explosion when I have to leave town."

Hence my point. It's not about the actual odds, but the perception of those odds. You can break things down to the chances of something good or bad happening, but how often does that frequency occur? And where does someone else stand on those odds? For example, we play Lotto MAX nearly every week and there's a 1 in 8.1 chance in getting a least a free ticket. Yet after a year of playing with over 40 tickets, we've only won a free ticket once (and that's the best we've ever done). Still, we play. Actually, she plays. I moan about it being a waste of money. Winning the big jackpot is 1 in 28 million, yet the whole country lines up to play every week because those are acceptable chances.

(It's at this point I'm going to admit I'm not a mathematician and only know the basis of probability. I'm sure there are mathematical formulas for these kinds of things and probability only means a 1 in 8.1 chance with each individual ticket, not the overall odds over a period of time, but that's not relevant to my case today.)

Complicating the Issue

Now let's take a look at really fucking with this, going back to the probability of the accident once more. Let's look at the decimal percentage. Does that include the odds of other drivers and how they operate on highways or is it simply the odds of a individual person on the road without these external factors? And considering I was struck by another person who was driving irresponsibly without any awareness of other cars on the road, am I not confined to HER odds of getting into an accident? I'm not the cause, I'm the victim. Finally, even if the odds are only 0.0001% of getting into an accident, why was I in a fucking accident in the first place?

Oh, wait, I'm not done yet. This past weekend, I was almost in another accident but for completely different reasons. There were some disturbing similarities - driving home on a two-lane highway on a Friday night as the sole occupant of the vehicle - but this time mechanical malfunction was to blame. I was driving home in my mother-in-law's car when the wheel bearing on the rear driver's side tire suddenly cracked and caused the car to suddenly shift into the oncoming lane while I was driving at 90 km/h. Luckily, the oncoming traffic wasn't close enough to become a threat, but if the bearings cracked five seconds later, it would have been. So what are the odds of that happening in less than two years under similar environments? Honestly, I don't care. It happened and it's happened all too frequently.

It's why I don't put much stock in probability and it's a major basis for the Optional System. I have no stock in flat-out probability because I don't believe life works as simple as a tidy percentage. Having central characters with an automatic 75% chance of striking their opponents takes away my enjoyment of the game because life does not work as simple as that and if you know the odds of your success, where it the actual thrill and danger? Wondering if you'll hit 75% or succeeding despite not knowing the odds?

In other words, call me the Han Solo of RPG design.