The Red-Green game had two directives; one, the object of the game is to win, and two, you win by accumulating the most points possible. I can say this from memory because these rules were repeated word for word every time anyone asked a clarifying question, and were the full extent of the information we were able to gather.
Needless to say, I smelled a rat.
The Red-Green game is a dark chapter in the history of my ability to be smug, and thus a subtle but essential undermining of my desire to even try. Back in the halcyon days of my smugness, the tried-and-true shtick for me had always been waiting for a subject that intrigues me to come up, proving that I can handle it better than that teacher, and repeating those steps until my peers considered me noteworthy. She was never my first option, but that old warhorse served me well. Every time but this once, three years ago.
Someone said that thing about reputations. Three and a half years of mind-numbing, spirit-crushing high school to build, seconds to destroy.
While my actions are the truly cretinous part of this story, I’ve never lost my perspective on my logic behind it all. At my boarding school, the life skills seminar workshop was even less challenging than a regular class, and I felt a strong moral compulsion to prove myself an exception to their Stanford Prison Study in bullshit. What’s more, I saw through the Red-Green game immediately.
I was on a team of seven people. Team 2. There were only two teams, and Team 1 had seven people as well. The game consisted of each team privately holding a vote between the colors red or green, comparing their vote to the other team’s vote, and receiving points based on that. There would be ten sets of votes. Ten rounds.
If both teams voted red, both teams lose a point. If both teams vote green, both teams gain three points. If they vote green and we vote red, they lose two points and we gain five. Vice versa. The groups disbanded to their respective voting rooms, and I saw this complex mathematical function was already painstakingly mapped out on poster board for our convenience.
Ironically, the one situation this whole enterprise kept taking me back to, with a twitch of mild nostalgia, to a summer ethics course I’d taken in 6th grade at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development. Yes, it was exactly as fucked up as it sounds, let's just leave it alone.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma. A canonical examination of game theory that shows us why two purely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears to be in their best interests.
The number of rounds is known. That means that through backward induction, it’s logical for each team to betray the other back to the first round.
It was a mark of my arrogance, not my enthusiasm for classical rationality and formal game theory, that I didn’t bother to wrestle a moral from the prisoner’s dilemma that fit into the context of this seminar — a seminar that, by the way, was focusing on the overwhelming importance of trust and healthy friendships. But I just saw a chance to sandbag a sandbagger, humiliate someone else before they could humiliate me. Smug motherfuckers.
So I waited it out. I assumed my seat in our little democracy. We passed out snacks. We discussed.
“Vote red.” I said. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
I Putsched hard. When the first round was over, Team 2 voted red and lo and behold, Team 1 voted green, the idiots. We were in the lead.
We reconvened. I am genuinely ashamed to admit that I was smirking.
Round 2. Red. Round 3. Red.
Rounds 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Red red red.
Winner winner, chicken dinner.
Who is John Galt.
When the whole group got back together, we listened intently (“intently” here having the meaning of “with the grim resignation of samurai”) as the exercise leader provide us with the post-show commentary and metaphor explanations.
Instead of launching into her famous drone, she stepped past the circle of students over to the big whiteboard, uncapped a dry erase marker, and drew a curved line with an arrow at one end, peppered with little dashes.
“This,” she announced flatly, gazing around the room with the eyes of a seasoned huntress “is the grand arc of time time time. Voting red helps you from here to here” — indicating a very narrow slice of the grand arc — “but voting green helps you from here to here.”
“Let’s take a look at your assumptions. You assumed that by putting you in two teams, you were competing against each other. You assumed that the rules meant getting the most points possible for your team. Most importantly, you” — swivels to face us — “voted red against the other team before they could vote red against you. And sure, maybe that’s fine for going ten rounds and parting ways forever. But is it? Because in life, the game doesn’t stop after a certain number of rounds. You’re in it, forever. Want to be rude to a cafeteria because you’re having a shitty day? Go ahead. Maybe you’re missing out on a friend. More practically, maybe you’re missing out on an extra couple strips of bacon in the morning. Maybe he’ll even spit in your food. But the world voted red at you today, so you’re going to pass the buck and throw a red vote on. Because, says traditional wisdom, if someone’s voting red at you that’s all the reason you need to vote red right back.
“And that’s where the grand arc of time comes in. Because the red vote, however satisfying it feels now, isn’t going to do anything for anyone in the long run. Little things do not matter, especially little things that aren’t in your control in the first place. And what is the one thing you can control? Your vote.”
The words rang out. I could feel the traditional sullenness at being duped settle heavy in my chest. But also… something else. Something that made my dozens of objections to this weird, illogical, borderline communist philosophy die in my throat. I sat silently as she finished.
“Having the courage to take the high road and vote green when someone throws a red vote your way — that gets you a lot further in life.” the instructor said. And then, because she absolutely had to, “and on the grand arc of time time time as well.”
I turned the Red-Green game over in my mind for weeks afterward. When I was able to look it up, I found that the grand arc of time (time time) was a Stoic concept originally. It involved a basic element of the Stoic quest toward freedom from all things. The idea that on a humanistic level, self-interest is all but irrelevant. Inflicting pain, causing conflicts, lashing out in anger — a waste of valuable energy. Grudges, on an even grander arc of time time time, are even more wasteful.
Try as I might, I found no philosophical-humanist interpretation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But I did find one intriguing sentence on its ample Wikipedia page: “…pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both cooperated.” But, the article went on to describe that every time this theory had been tested on a sample population, no matter how small or how large, “humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by simple models of "rational" self-interested action.”
After I thought on that game long enough, I began to see things in terms of red and green in real life. And I started voting green. That gap between theory and reality seemed to be of vital significance to me. Essentially, I began to see it as a manifestation of some unquantifiable responsibility to and trust in each other that was more firmly embedded in the human condition than simple Darwinian self-interest. It's the same ballsy, optimistic little subroutine that makes Reddit the real community it is. And that quality, whatever it was, made humans capable — in fact, the only organism in the world consistently capable — of acting completely against our own self-interest. Sacrificing for others. Sacrificing ourselves for others.
I don’t pretend to really have a firm grasp on this concept. /r/philosophy was the first to hear me even try to summarize or explain it, but /r/humanism seems more in line with the thinking. I do claim one more mental leap here: that same instinct, I think, makes the biological reproduction instinct found in humans worthy of such a mythic, melodramatic descriptor as ‘love’. Love, friendships, relationships of any sort: illogical to the extreme. The most absurdly unnecessary risk any of us take. Yet we’re the only creature on the planet that signs up for it with masochistic dedication. Idiotic as it may be, we ride together, we die together. The ultimate green vote, to circle around back to the metaphor.
Anyway, I expect all that weird nonspecific stuff to come into play a little later on. Time time time is a flat circle, after all. For now, on a practical level, it’s given me a great reason to stop jumping to conclusions. It gets me nowhere fast.