Saturday, June 10, 2006

Exploitation VS Exploration

Apologies, this is not only late; it's also another divergence from the regular scheduled programming.

As I've mentioned before, I am a CS grad student, primarily working with AI and machine learning. Much of the ML literature talks about the conflict between exploitation and exploration.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. Should a learning system use the knowledge it has already gathered, or should it explore for better solutions? Exploration usually comes at a cost in time and effort, and there is no guarantee it will lead to any improvements. It may also create short-term problems.

Let's take a real-world analogy. I moved to Honolulu a year ago. Traffic here is crazy. The roads are clogged. Often you cannot turn left. Many roads are one way. It really helps to plan out your route in advance, otherwise, you may find yourself stuck in the wrong lane, unable to make the turn you want, and eternally circling your destination.

I know a few decent routes to the places I often need to drive. However, these routes may be sub-optimal. When I head out to pick up my daughter from daycare, should I use the route I know (exploitation), or should I try a new route and see whether it's faster (exploration). Recently, I took a chance, and I found a route that cuts the drive time nearly by half, but that experiment could have been a disaster.

So, what does this have to do with gaming? Well, I love buying new games. I like reading through new rules and thinking about new ways of doing things. I like exploration. But, I often have trouble convincing other players to try an exciting new game. In short, the players are hesitant to pay the cost of exploration (time and effort involved in learning a new system, plus the possibility of wasting one or more gaming sessions on an experiment in not-fun). They would rather spend their time exploiting a system they already know.

There are a couple of things that naturally strengthen this tendency to exploitation. For most of us, our gaming time is limited. It's precious and we'd rather not risk it on an untested system. Better the devil you know--particularly if you get at least some level of enjoyment from the existing system. That leaves the role of explorer to those of us who have grown the most disillusioned with our current games.

Secondly, most games add positive feedback to continue exploitation. In strongly tactical games (like D&D), the players' mastery of the rules actually determines how effective they are in the game. Players who invest time into learning strong play strategies are rewarded. There is, therefor, a strong negative incentive for them to move to a new system. They would have to abandon their tactical (or perceived tactical) advantage.

So, here's the question of the week. Do you tend to prefer exploitation or exploration? How can we encourage more exploration? Should we encourage more exploration? What are your thoughts? Please leave a note in the comments.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, great blog, though I appreciate much of the forgeness for what has been offered to RPG theory and application, though most "traditional" RPG's don't seem to acknowledge the excellent work done, I do have many, many issues with elements of its portrayal...

Now to answer your question. I explore so that I can exploit. Its interesting with d20 and its self-fullfilling exploitation loop that kinda keeps people bound to that system. I'm not good at that system, nor do I want to be, but I am looking for a system that will allow me to play the game I'm trying to play. Once I find it I will exploit it, though I probably will never stop exploring.


1:02 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Thanks Alex,

I often have mixed feelings about the forge. When I found their site, they were expressing things that I had been feeling for a long time, but had not yet found the words for. I've purchased a number of games associated with the Forge community--and they are some of my all-time favorite games.

The games themselves seem to fit very well within my style of gaming--however, I often find I have trouble with some of the essays coming out of the same community. This can be especially confusing when the essays and the games are written by the same people.

Maybe I'm misreading the essays--or taking them the wrong way, but the Forge (especially as expressed in the essays) often seems to describe emergent stories as the one, true version of narativism. I think there are other routes to story. For example, I strongly believe in the story-fostering ability of the GM--and I think many games (Sorcerer and Burning Wheel to name two) fit well within that style. The players have strong influence over the story--but the GM still has a unique and vital role.

Still, I think the extended Forge community has done a great job of pushing the limits of gaming. And, even when I disagree with things I see there, it always makes me think.

Regarding exploration--I think I will always be an explorer as well. It's part of my nature. Heck, I've lived on three different continents and tropical island, and I'm pursuing research as a career.

I just wish I could encourage others to explore a little more, at least once in a while.

8:54 PM  

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