The Strategy of No Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy in practice seems to be a cruel and even silly joke. I learned that the hard way when I went to college long before I ever studied strategy formally. My own “strategy” about how to get through college collapsed virtually the moment I set foot on campus. I was living on my own for the first time and had never been outside of California’s perennial summer weather environment before. I was a poor fit for an East Coast school and didn’t last a full year, getting ill from the cold temperature and transferring out to a California school. At the time, I felt like a failure.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX. CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many people of my generation and my socio-economic bracket, my teenage years were eventually consumed by the looming issue of where to go to college. I tried to get the best grades, study hard for the SAT, and make whatever connections I could with alumni to get into colleges I wanted. I applied to many of them, recycling and modifying personal statement letters like the individual payloads and sub-payloads of a MIRV’d nuclear missile. Once I got to college, the clarity and structure that routine provided evaporated. I had to make my own. It was certainly very difficult.

That was a bad first year in general, but not all of my memories are of struggling. In my first year of college, I had a roommate that stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing computer games. I had a hard time sleeping because I was always hearing the clickety-clack sound of his mechanical keyboard. My memory of that time is hazy. But I do remember my roommate and his games well enough. I struggled to keep up with my economics problem sets, my legal studies essays, and everything else that college required. I also had to somehow maintain a long-distance relationship carried over from high school that was fraying and would later die when I returned to California. And meanwhile, here my roommate was, playing computer games into the late night and wee hours of the morning. Everything I was doing had some sort of externally imposed purpose. But for him it was just fun, natural. A way to pass time and enjoy things. I was too consumed by my own worries back then to care too much about how well he did in his classes. But I did know that he was pretty good at PC games. He devoted a lot of time and energy to it, and as far as I know no one was paying him to do it or giving him a grade for it. It didn’t improve his social status at the college as as far as I could tell, and I recall that it created friction with his girlfriend when it cut into the time he spent with her. This was before E-Sports really became as lucrative of a pro sport as it is today, so I don’t think he got much or any professional benefit out of it either. But yes, forget about him and fast forward for a moment.

The summer after I transferred out, I attended the Boyd conference at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. There, I met many people interested in the strategic theories of fighter pilot John Boyd. It put me on a path I’ve traveled for a decade now, studying strategy and writing about for both policy and academic audiences. As a researcher, I’ve tried hard to explain how strategy works. I was motivated by an interest I’ve had since I was young in the way that people and groups make decisions in competitive situations. My parents keep copies of a story I wrote when I was little about wars between colonies of ants and bees (respectively) in my backyard. When the war in Iraq occurred, I remember being shocked, angered, and dumbfounded at the catastrophically inept way that we prosecuted it and the horrifying consequences for our nation, the Iraqis, and the surrounding region. I wanted to understand what happened and think about how America could do better. In the process, I became fascinated with models and representations of strategy and tactics work.

My college BA thesis was on military campaign planning models and command and control. I looked at the debate between different schools of thought about how groups and organizations planned and tried to investigate competing claims about which method was more normatively justified and which method was more descriptively justified. I came to realize that the two things were intertwined. Normative models would be useless if they strayed too far from what we descriptively knew about how people and groups made decisions. And one of the most important descriptive things to consider was how people and groups used information and communicated. My master’s thesis compared models of special operations, information warfare, and deception operations. I tried to see if a composite model that I created to explain how organizations attacked other organizations’ ability to sense, think, and act explained modern conflicts as well as World War II military operations that predated the information era. And as a PhD student I’ve immersed myself in mathematical and computer models of competitive decision-making in a number of domains that are mostly outside of the realm of war or security.

What I’ve learned is that we struggle at understanding how even simple things work, and that struggle shows how much we have to learn about the things that aren’t so simple. And that’s a big problem. If people’s lives – or even just their political fortunes or money – depend on the ideas we have about strategy, we have an heavy ethical burden. Unfortunately American history is replete with too many examples of men and women with big ideas that have led to big disasters. Many of these ideas have something in common: they are grandiose, systematizing if not totalizing, and yet somehow fatally incomplete. As my friend Lynn Rees pointed out a while ago, the people who make these grand plans often see things in their narrow area of expertise quite intensely but see everything else as vague and fuzzy colors. More recently, a writer describing the quirks of Silicon Valley technocrats noted that while they are afraid of superintelligent artificial intelligence, they also seem to be doing the very things (intelligence amplification, hacking, economic optimization) that they fear in a hypothetical superintelligent killer robot:

Such skull-and-dagger behavior by the tech elite is going to provoke a backlash by non-technical people who don’t like to be manipulated. You can’t tug on the levers of power indefinitely before it starts to annoy other people in your democratic society. I’ve even seen people in the so-called rationalist community refer to people who they don’t think are effective as ‘Non Player Characters’, or NPCs, a term borrowed from video games. This is a horrible way to look at the world. So I work in an industry where the self-professed rationalists are the craziest ones of all. It’s getting me down.

That quote resonated with me on a deep level. I’m convinced that we think too much about superintelligent adversaries in general and mold ourselves in that image. Instead, we need to think about the strategies and tactics of how people like my roommate play PC games. The games he played – which if my faulty memory serves me right included first person shooter (FPS) and real-time strategy (RTS) games – didn’t give him any tangible rewards that society valued for continuously honing his skills. It cost him time, money (mechanical keyboards specialized for playing games can be pricey, to say nothing of a nice PC gaming rig), and cut into opportunities to focus on things that society might conventionally value more (grades, friends, a job, etc). But he did it nonetheless. Intrinsic motivations, curiosity, and striving without explicit goals are, after all, something that scientists want to understand in order to build better robots. And games are simple and real human activities involving strategic and competitive interaction that we know that humans actually play, as opposed to the Prisoner’s Dilemma (an abstraction we invented) and geopolitics (too big to easily study as a whole).

Most importantly, studying the more complex games people play reveals that players have strategies of no strategy. In this essay, I’ll try to walk you through what that means. I will weave together, as I do here in this opening, big ideas and questions as well as episodes from my own life and the subjective experiences that I’ve had that inform my research interests, understanding of those questions, and potential answers to them. I will try to consider, in particular, a paradox that has haunted me for as long as I have been studying strategy in all of its forms: strategy is everywhere, but strategy is also nowhere. Our society values strategy, craftiness, Machiavellianism, and nth-level chess to an absurd degree. But we nonetheless seem so remarkably bad at it and our institutions consistently fail at it. What is wrong? What don’t we understand? How can we fix it? Ultimately I leave the answers to these questions up to you, dear reader. What I hope to accomplish here is at least to help you think about them in a way that is less tied to the fantasies of power and rationality that often sadly accompany most discussions of strategy.

The Poverty of Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy is also nowhere. Businesses have “strategy” for managing competition. Yet this seems to do very little for them in a dynamic and unstable external environment. The Pentagon has “strategy” for winning wars. But we’re going on a decade and a half of inconclusive bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere. Policy analysts perpetually talk about having a “grand strategy” for American geopolitics but seem unable to get this strategy through government. And if you don’t have a strategy for convincing a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats, how “grand” really is your strategy?

One possible (if depressing) conclusion to take from this is that strategy is just an illusory abstraction that we have invented to give meaning to that which has none. We use it as a retrospective framing device to explain a complex series of events (of our own making but mostly of external provenance) that we do not understand. So maybe strategic theory is really just an gussied up form of conspiracy theory. We need to impose order on the world and believe that someone, somewhere, knows that the hell is going on. That certainly has a grain of truth to it, but its also too excessively nihilistic. What seems more clear is that the dominant ways of thinking about strategy that we use – which are actually just variations on the same underlying assumptions we have about the world – don’t work. I will explain at length why it does not work and I have already hinted as much in this section and the one that opened this essay.

But before I explain further, I would like you to temporarily take your mind out of the realm of “serious” things like war, politics, business, foreign policy, or geostrategy. As a PhD student I have learned the hard way that the manner in which I thought about serious things was profoundly unserious and un-scientific.

When I thought about areas of life where strategy decided something big and important, I often did so without an open mind. I took for granted the things that were written in textbooks and the things that practitioners said. I would often discover upon closer investigation that these things I took for granted had an at best minor relationship to reality. The elegant theoretical model in the textbook was a just-so story that was destroyed by “out-of-sample” data. The memoir of the general was a mixture of some ground truth but far more self-serving selective memory and self-promotion. And the cutting-edge of research in academic journals often was little better and sometimes much, much worse.

These big ideas — as well as plenty of small and medium-sized ones —  can become a trap because they can separate you from seeing the obvious. So leave all of that behind for a moment and think purely about your own life experiences as an individual. You do not have to be an great political leader, a decorated soldier, a captain of industry, or really anyone important. Suppose that your experiences are “data” that should be counted and measured just as much as any of the aforementioned figures’ histories. And so imagine that you are trying to explain to a neutral observer about the how and why of major life decisions you have made or how you perform an intricate professional skill that you have spent years and years mastering. You could try to explain it as the outcome of a series of explicit plans you have made (“I knew I was going to do N, which requires K, and so on”) or a policy/rule that you adopted (“My logic is to always do N in situations of K”). You could try but you would likely fail.

For example, you did not know in advance that you were going to meet your husband at that bar, and perhaps he was your second or third choice but grew on you when you got to know him. Maybe you did not know in advance either that you would stay together at all given the tests that your relationships endured even when it became serious. On a different tack, perhaps you could say that it was your goal to become president of the fraternity and you took the actions that were contextually and pragmatically necessary to reach that goal. But that doesn’t tell you how you balanced your goal of being fraternity president with other competing imperatives, such as the need to eat, sleep, attend classes, maintain a romantic relationship with your girlfriend, and work part-time. And what if you were on the fence about wanting to be president and the sudden and unexpected exit of an formidable rival pushed you to do it? Or that you may have never originally wanted to become president at all and you ended up doing it because you failed at something else important to you? And what about situations where you did not have a goal at all and managed to somehow, through tinkering, curiosity, and exploration, arrive at a major achievement that you would later retroactively claim was the result of a pursuable goal you always had?

The same explanatory problems occur when we think about the aforementioned ‘serious’ topics described a few paragraphs up. We always tend to leave something out when we think about strategy, perhaps because it is simply too large and multifarious to be any one thing independent of our own subjective beliefs about what form of strategy matters and where strategy can be found. When you try to explain in retrospect how you fought decades ago in that particular battle, you will leave critical details out unintentionally and describe how you fought vaguely and incompletely. When people read about the strategy of a particular figure in history, they also are the helpless victim of the historian or the social scientist’s need to make the figure’s strategy coherent and linear enough to fit into a coherent narrative. He was bound to do X because of his overriding idea of how the struggle was to be waged, an idea that the researcher has often retroactively read into a pattern of behavior with no logical organization or the contradictory documentary evidence available from the historical figure’s personal papers. And to what degree can a particular leader’s success really be attributed to her own strategic genius as opposed to the opponent’s mistakes, the quality of her subordinates, or the favorable geostrategic position of her country? Maybe we might even say that we cannot talk about strategic success or failure at all without discussing the human genetic and evolutionary heritage and the benefits and limitations it offers anyone engaged in a competitive interaction? The purpose of the study of history and the pursuit of better theoretical and empirical knowledge of strategy is that study is supposed to rectify this problem. But have they been successful at finding the answer?

Yes and no. Disciplines that study strategy are products of the Enlightenment and its urge to formally represent, systematize, and organize the world’s knowledge in great chains of being and tree-like hierarchies. The hope is that this yields time-invariant principles of how the world works. Perhaps they are not to be mechanically applied in action. They are, as the caveat goes, only a guide to professional thinking that must be done contextually. All models are wrong but some are useful. Yada yada. You have heard many of these cautions — or less charitably, handwaves — before.  But there is still some expectation that theories and concepts provide meaningful guidance due to their capturing of regularities. Things that exist outside of individual human minds and survive long after particular humans are dead. Ideas about strategy are also products of a secular but nonetheless mystical belief that everything serves a clearly definable, teleological end. So strategic knowledge aims to formalize, to discover and lay out the rules, and most importantly to make the complex simple. That has proven to be a tremendously successful way of doing research on and thinking about competitive interaction in many cases. But it has flaws. I will briefly list them here before moving on.

How do we really know that any of these ideas are correct? Much of the most relevant aspects of human behavior are beyond human retrospection and conscious self-awareness. And the behavior of human experts in particular things are also not really well-described by rationality or rule-following. But rational behavior is a perennial explicit and implicit assumption in the study of strategy, and qualitative structures and rules are a big part of what produces it. Creative strategic behavior can certainly be approximated by conceptual descriptions, mathematical models, or computer algorithms. Perhaps we can even build computer programs that can perform the tasks humans can or perform the tasks human can in a way that is biologically plausible. But the urge to formalize, to say that “___ complex thing is like ___” is also a trap. We believe that we can somehow separate ourselves and our own subjectivity from the models and maps that we use. But that’s a lie that we tell ourselves that will end up as our undoing. Financial models, for example, describe how decisions are aggregated by markets. But those decisions are also based on financial models and other ideas that people have about the market. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone that is being licked by a self-licking ice cream cone that is being licked by another self-licking ice cream cone, and so on and so forth.

Even one of my intellectual heroes, the polymathic researcher Herbert Simon, falls into this trap while trying to explain away objections to his model of human problem-solving (which depends on problems being well-structured). Simon says that ill-structured problems are just well-structured problems that haven’t been structured yet. OK, but that isn’t really helpful, especially when some problems lack some sort of optimal structure to be discovered and instead depend on the problem-solver being willing to juggle an number of different images of it and pragmatically apply them as need be. Worse yet, the strategy field has also gotten bogged down in a stupid and inconclusive fight between fans of the rational-technical and emergent approaches to strategy. The rational-technical school holds that strategy is the product of an deliberate, top down process of problem setting, problem analysis, planning, and execution. The emergent school instead argues that the strategy emerges from the bottom-up from informal collaborations, improvisations, and hacks. But this distinction would have been utterly foreign to the premodern world. They would say it is both — but also neither.

The major image of strategy held in the ancient world was one of steering a path between order and uncertainty, melding both detached forethought with a constant probing of the front lines to adapt and change the ultimate design as need be. Strategy had to ‘spread out’ according to particular circumstances of competitive interaction and the form that the military-political organization took at any particular point in time. Strategy occurred at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. This idea perhaps still survives today in some parts of the world. The idea that one develops a feel for the configuration or propensity of things and shapes the opportunity that arises from them is a prominent aspect of Chinese philosophy and to some extent martial thinking in other Asian civilizations. The American strategist Boyd expanded it by fusing this idea with modern Western philosophical and scientific ideas, arguing that the purpose of strategy is to isolate the opponent from the ability to perceive and influence the world while increasing one’s own efficacy at doing so. And you could even argue that this idea is present in entities ranging from terrorist cells to Silicon Valley startups. So why don’t many of the academics studying strategy get it?

Some of them do. But many of them also still are chasing the unified field theory that will make everything make sense. The problem comes from the same shared assumption held by both rational-technical and emergent schools: a vaguely triangular organization of strategy, tactics, and some kind of collection of vertical and horizontal mediating layers exist, strategy is some kind of formalizable and discoverable thing arrived at either through deliberation and/or improvisation, and a singular objective representation of it can be found via scholarly research and analysis.

The debate between what became known as the ‘emergence’ school and the planning or ‘design’ school, began fairly inclusively (Mintzberg called for an opening up of the definition of strategy to include patterns, perspectives and ploys, in addition to planning and positioning). However, things became increasingly polarized in the first half of the 1990s. In so doing, they reflected one of the modernity’s key tenets: ‘objective representationalism’; the idea that the purpose of knowledge is to represent, without logical contradiction, the ‘ways things really are’ or the linear, functional causes of actions. Given this, finding opposing schools of thought is problematic for any field seeking to develop as a modern science.

Despite the particular biases about what I think strategy is that I display in this essay, I urge you not to take them as the gospel truth. So it may be appealing to say, that for example, the Chinese game of Go is a more realistic way of thinking about strategy than the Western game of chess because of its emphasis on opportunistic thinking and acting and paying mind to an evolving balance of time, space, and knowledge. And I have come to believe that this claim is, to some extent, true. But taking in that contention uncritically would be to repeat the mistake that the quoted excerpt describes. Barring tremendous advances in how we can know about the world of Copernican proportions, we are going to have to settle with the uneasy recognition that there is no one correct, Platonic idealization of strategy. There is only the subjective means by which we use to study it, learn from it, describe it, and make it ourselves. This is why studying how people play strategic and competitive games is important. Economists study abstract representative agents that solve abstract mathematical models that are neither true nor false. That certainly has its purpose and utility, and I’m not going to take it away from them. But real people play games. And the complexities of how and why they play them is often surprising even to someone like me that studies real-world strategies of states and armies.

The Game(s) of Life

I’m not alone in thinking that games are important. So did Simon. For all of Simon’s faults, he also ingeniously saw the game of chess as a metaphor for the problem of a democratic society. Simon, like many 20th century progressive intellectuals, thought that Western society was faced with an false choice between the unlimited freedom to choose imagined by economists fascinated with self-interested agents in a market-driven liberal capitalist society and the top-down behavioral control imagined by psychologists, sociologists, and authoritarians that either lamented or celebrated the passive and controllable nature of the individual in a mass society. Simon wanted a world in which people with limited capacity to choose could handle the burden of choice without having their choices induced into them like rats in a Skinner box. So he looked at games like chess, in which experts could use clever heuristics, adaptive learning, and efficient collection and storage of knowledge to play a game that was too big to solve by planning everything out beforehand.

The political problem that Simon sought to solve still exists today. And it has gotten worse. We face so many competing demands on our attention and resources and so many things that we must juggle. And so I strongly believe that RTS games like Starcraft are what Simon would study today if he was a young researcher, as they present a particularly useful subjective map of our experiences in an information-saturated and increasingly fast-paced life. This is perhaps why RTS games are being studied by Google DeepMind as the next games for its artificial intelligence programs to conquer and RTS games are studied by both cognitive scientists and computer scientists in the same way chess used to be. But if one looks at the history of chess research, it is questionable whether scientists will really grasp the essence of PC strategy games even if they quantify it or build an mechanical player capable of beating a human. What might they fail to capture? It’s hard to put into words (for reasons that ought to be clear by now), but I’ll do my best anyway.

This particular story starts, like many important events in my life lately, with a conversation I had with my wife. One day late last year, I was flying back to California with my wife to visit my family. I was reading a book on Go written by an sociologist. My wife told me about a Go master that had reached such a state of strategic excellence in playing the game that he didn’t need to think about playing Go or even care about winning or losing. It reminded me of an article written by David Auerbach about game-playing artificial intelligence programs. Auerbach pointed out that in games like Go whose state spaces and branching factors were too high for move-by-move board evaluation, the computer had a “strategy without a strategy.”

[Research opens] the possibility that our process of analogy making may be even less rational and more stochastic than we suspect, and that the deep archetypes we match against in our brain might bear far less relationship to reality than we might think. Underneath our apparent rationality may lie neurobiological processes that look considerably closer to random trial and error. In this view, human creativity and randomness go hand in hand. The power of randomness is amply visible in new approaches that have finally enabled computers to play games like Go, Hex, Havannah, and Twixt at a professional level. At the heart of these approaches is an algorithm called the Monte Carlo method which, true to its name, relies on randomized, statistical sampling, rather than evaluating possible future board configurations for each possible move. For example, for a given move, a Monte Carlo tree search will play out a number of random or heuristically chosen future games (“playouts”) from that move on, with little strategy behind either player’s moves. Most possibilities are not played out, thus constraining the massive branching factor. If a move tends to lead to more winning games regardless of the strategy then employed, it is considered a stronger move. The idea is that such sampling will often be sufficient to estimate the general strength or weakness of a move.

This sort of “meta-strategy” is just playing out semi-random games and sampling the possibilities. But it works better than “strategic” board evaluation methods that attempt to accurately evaluate the strength of prospective board positions. My wife’s comments also reminded me not just of Go but the popularity of computer fighting games like Street Fighter or Super Smash Bros that are now played semi-professionally and professionally online as a sport. Whereas Go eventually became highly professionalized and formal due to mass media coverage of play, the rise of professionalized computer game playing made the informal and even aesthetic aspects of competitive gaming more important. When describing Starcraft RTS play, professional E-Sportscaster Sean “Day9” Plott clinches exactly why all of the informal elements are so important:

Despite the fact that these games function in drastically different ways and demand completely different skill sets, the expert players, the players who consistently win, always share a single commonality: they play comfortably with a marginal advantage. The marginal advantage embodies the notion that one cannot, and should not, try to “win big.” In a competitive setting, the strong player knows that his best opponents are unlikely to make many exploitable mistakes. As a result, the strong player knows that he must be content to play with just the slightest edge, an edge which is the equivalent to the marginal advantage. More importantly, a one-sided match ultimately carries as much weight as an epic struggle. After all, the match results only in a win or a loss; there are no “degrees” of winning. Therefore, at any given point in a game, the player must focus on making decisions that minimize his probability of losing the advantage, rather than on decisions that maximize his probability of gaining a greater advantage. In short, it is much more important to the expert player to not lose than it is to win big. Consequently, a regular winner plays to extend his lead in a very gradual, but very consistent manner.

In other words, the kind of games being played here prize those who are able to maintain an advantage over time. They do not admit one obviously good strategy or tactic for any particular problem. The individuality, style, and character of the player is inseparable from that player’s skill or mechanical button-mashing. And most importantly a player must deal with a stream of large, small, and medium-scale decisions rather than any particular “cooperate or defect” choice. RTS games are perhaps the best example of Plott’s “marginal advantage.” In a typical RTS, players control a base full of buildings, workers, and soldiers. The goal is to destroy all of the enemy’s buildings. While this may sound simple enough, this description belies the task of the player. The player must control groups of soldiers in combat, from simple and slow-moving infantry soldiers and tanks to fast-moving recon scouts and jets. Some of these units have unique abilities that must be harnessed in a tactical group. Strong “micro” control over these units is essential to maximize their effectiveness and keep them alive. On the other hand, making units depends on gathering resources and constructing buildings that keep them supplied, give them new abilities, and recruit them to build the army. Strong “macro” is necessary to build and manage the player’s force and the military-industrial complex that supports it.

In between are other functions such as scouting the map to discover the enemy’s whereabouts and infer the opponent’s intention to perform a future operation. Or deciding whether or not to expand one’s resource production to different corners of the map. All of these tasks  would be a pain to do in a turn-based game like Civilization . It is a nightmare to do in real-time, which Starcraft necessitates. Top players are capable of hundreds of actions per minute, can flexibly allocate their attention to different spatial and functional parts of the game as need be, and also are skilled at developing and executing strategic plans (which are valid for only a few minutes at a time ) quickly and effectively. And amidst all of this frenetic action and task-switching, players must be able to follow through with short to long-term plans and keep track of the state of play. But this is not really what necessarily makes the game interesting.

Consider the simple fact that players do not directly “move” pieces as in chess. Players instead direct autonomous units or groups of units to do things. The behavior of these units is very simple but also unpredictable, necessitating that players continuously arrange, re-arrange, and manage their autonomous units over the course of the game. Players can automate their behavior to a limited degree but have to be constantly watching and waiting to step in. Starcraft ’s complexity also at least partly reveals how easy to infer a greater rationality post-hoc to explain a complex strategy or tactic. Upon closer analysis , a plan is often only a weakly determinative resource for guiding action, and it is mostly used post-hoc for explanatory purposes. “I planned to do X and so I did it.” As I say here and there throughout this essay, I think that the experience of playing an RTS is a much more useful representation of the kinds of decisions we make and challenges we face in today’s information-saturated, unstable, and perhaps “liquid” modern world. RTS tests our ability to impose coherence on it despite the multitude of task-switching and task balancing across spatial, temporal, and functional scales.

So to sum things up, Go, computer fighting games, RTS games, and FPS games are all interesting to me for roughly similar subjective reasons. First, players’ strategies only vaguely resemble the “strategy” of game theory or military strategy. Everything else might be thought of as a kind of heuristic circle of action that owes far more to the vagaries of memory, perception, and intuition than game-theoretic reasoning or deliberate campaign or operation planning. Second, these games all have large and mostly informal communities of players that have developed an elaborate “metagame” of strategies through decentralized collaboration, cooperation, and play. Many of them passionately argue, analyze, and test these strategies and tactics with a rigor that peer review in academia often lacks and a creativity that many MBA schools and war colleges often do their best to kill before students graduate. They do it despite widespread societal prejudices agains t the idea that playing computer games will amount to anything in life. Like my college roommate in the anecdote that opened this essay, their intrinsic motivation is unconventional but also powerful and meaningful. So  all of these games are about, to some degree, a confluence of what Simon studied in chess and my wife mentioned when talking about Go.

They are both about a conceptual model of how people produce creative and effective strategic behavior in adversarial and difficult circumstances as well as lessons in why the best people who do it are those that can let go of all of the things that get in the way of them playing their best – including even the desire to avoid loss. I’m convinced that modern computer games tell us a lot about competitive interactions in the world that we live in now, a world that forces us to do too many things at once over the short, medium, and long term. That’s my subjective image of the world that I hope to pursue in my PhD research.  And as my wife pointed out, the most challenging aspect of explaining the manner in which people play complex games in general is that the fact that they are playing to “win” does not tell us much about them. It doesn’t explain the cognitive mechanisms behind play or really the strategy selection and execution. But more broadly a basic preference to win can be held even if the person in question plays as if they have no earthly attachments to hold them down – including the desire to win. They have Auerbach’s strategy of no strategy, and are able to balance the formalized ideas of what they will do before they enter the game with the ways in which they become whatever the game requires at any particular moment. That is why competitive games are not just useful for understanding strategy, but also essential to better understand our own humanity and purpose in life.

The Humanity in Strategy

I have come to believe, as Simon did in linking his idea of bounded rationality to normative ideas about democracy and society, that the way that we make decisions cannot be de-contextualized from the human and social stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. That is why this essay is not just about the problem of understanding how people make strategy, it is also partly a story of my life and the story I have told myself about it.

Come 13 July of this year (2017), it will be 10 years to the day that I embarked on this journey by attending the Boyd conference at the Alfred M. Gray Research Center on Marine Corps Base Quantico in 2007. What have I learned in the time since I took my first step on the road I would travel for a decade? What I’ve learned is that the answer to – or at least a way of generating better questions about – many of the puzzles I wanted to solve was sitting in that college dorm room that first year of college. If your theory of strategy cannot explain the way in which my roommate played computer games, it is probably not going to live up to its full explanatory potential in terms of providing insight about how nations fight wars, businesses dominate the market, or social movements make lasting change.

That’s not to say that studying the way that my roommate played computer games will provide immediate, actionable insights about those domains or even good theoretical models. I’m also not saying that you should give up studying things like how nations fight wars or businesses dominate the market in favor of dropping everything to study my old roommate and his PC game strategies and tactics. But my wife’s comments triggered another realization about the relevance of such games that became clear when we later watched a movie about the Go master Wu Qingyuan’s life and times. Wu was truly devoted to the game of Go and played through even the chaos and destruction of World War II. He did not know for sure what would come of it, he only had the game as an fixed constant as everything else in the world he knew was destroyed by war.

Strategy is, at the end of the day, not just a way of attaining your desired ends or a theory about how people make competitive decisions. It is a way of life and the story of our lives. Researchers have a responsibility to get it right because important decisions are made based on what people believe strategy to be. But the broader reward for studying it is to reflect on our own individual struggles as human beings to strategically make our own way through a finite, random, and cruel world and to make meaning out of that finite, random, and cruel world. If we do not think about and reflect on that struggle and the strategies we develop in response, we are unlikely to accomplish much of importance, whether we are generals fighting wars or ordinary people simply trying to get by. Strategy of the kind that makes people feel smart and powerful is everywhere — for a consultant’s fee. Bona fide results are far less common than the deluge of promised results from them. But the kind of strategy that arises from merely a will to become something other than a passive vessel for fate to toss around resides potentially within each and every one of us. And by thinking about strategies of others we are more likely to discover it in ourselves.

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About Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a New America Foundation Cybersecurity Initiative fellow. All opinions are his own.


  1. Fascinating reflection. I came to many of the same conclusions as you, but from the other direction. With rare exceptional periods, I’ve been mostly a no-strategy player myself. My formative vices were not video games, but the general behavior of just allowing myself to get sucked into stuff where I could be attentively engrossed, rather than coming up with a grand plan for life, has been the foundation of my thinking about strategy.

    I think I’ve ended up a little less skeptical than you, and a little more opinionated… I do believe the emergent school has a stronger basis in effectiveness than the rationalist school, as you characterize them. In Tempo I called the two schools narrative versus calculative rationality.

    I think a key explanatory variable in whether or not you consider ‘strategy’ a real thing or some sort of post-hoc conspiracy theory (very clever characterization there) is your expectations going in. In terms of the Thiel determinate/indeterminate//optimist/pessimist 2×2, if you’re in the indeterminate half-plane, your expectations are fundamentally framed in terms of patterns of luck and bad luck (serendipity/zemblanity/bahramdipity) which means you tend to read a different narrative into the seemingly unpredictable contingencies that shape the actual determiante “plot” that unfolds.

    You may not anticipate *how* you might meet a girlfriend or boyfriend, but your behavior patterns make certain stories more probable than others. For some, bars are high-probability locations, for others, libraries might be. I think one thing that people get caught up in specificity beyond the probability “tube” of adajacent-possible stories. This is easier to see when you’re not the hero of the story. You could not have predicted that Trump specifically would pwn the GOP and become President, but the likelhihood of a populist rising to power at this time was higher. For Trump, there is an interest in explaining specifically why *he* rose to the top in a self-serving way that brings up the temptations of conspiracy theory as strategy. But for an outside party, he is kinda interchangeable with any populist. So there’s a robust version of the story of what happened that I think captures real information, but also a bunch of stories that are a case of overfitting and taking noise too seriously.

    Your comments about games actually support this reading of strategy. Winners carefully accumulate small advantages even if they are not sure where those advantages will come from or how big or small they’ll be. What they cultivate is the ability to recognize their importance when they appear. Hence the coup d’oeil Clausewitz model for Napoleon as opposed to Jomini: it’s the ability to see the pattern of luck and to some extent create/shape it, rather than to deterministically shape the course of events down to the specifics of names and places.

    Sure, there are Asimovian “Mules” so to speak, in every story, where the rare/unexpected plays a pivotal role and specific names matter (there was a theory going around that Trump was the Mule, but I don’t buy that metaphor…). But in general, you take the specific story that evolves as a sort of representative thread of a high-likelihood space of narratives that expands and shrinks as it evolves in time, sometimes going through narrative-evolutionary bottlenecks, and at other times sprawling messily into a wide zone of many equivalent stories where basically any path would have worked.

    I recommend Walter Kiechel’s Lords of Strategy btw for a useful retrospective of strategy in the business world. Something of a similar story of strategy has played out there, with the equivalent to emergent/rationalist being the people vs. structuralist school divide, and a similar evolution of no-strategy –> conspiracy theory strategy with overstated claims –> return to a sort of enlightened no-strategy phase.

    With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, I would not pay a farthing for the no-strategy on this side of the conspiracy theorizing, but my life for the no-strategy on the other side of conspiracy theorizing :D

  2. Strategy is just another way of saying “long-term planning.” The further out in time that plan is meant to address, the fuzzier and less accurate is the estimate of future reality (thank you chaos). Think weather forecasting.

    The lesson here is that while long-term planning is often advantageous, it is not (and never can be) an exercise in certitude. Hence the maxim that no plan survives impact with the enemy. Planning should be secondary to building robustness in your primary elements.

    • DensityDuck says

      Which is to say–and it goes with this essay’s examples–the only strategy that means anything at all is “don’t lose money”. Any move you make should either minimize your risk of loss, increase resources without risk to your existing ones, or be resource-neutral.

  3. Romeo Stevens says

    The middle section reminded me of in that it sounds like you are discussing the need to bounce back and forth between problem formulation/knowledge representations and problem solving strategies/tools/solution candidate generators.

    Another metaphor is bouncing back and forth between forward chaining and back chaining until you find a joint node between these two sets. So now you have a path from where you are to where you want to be. You can observe this in yourself operating very quickly when you have a desire for some particular food and your mind very quickly finds the shortest path automatically. The interesting thing here is how much your thinking is constrained by what your mind already has mapped as affordance space. Variations that could be better and might be trivial to implement are ignored in this sort of automatic process. Another way of saying that this type of thinking has a low branch factor.

  4. One of my long-standing interests has been personality ( or temperament, if you prefer ) and my standard way of summarizing personality is that it is our general personal strategy for life. In that sense, everyone has a strategy. Even refusing to play the game out of cynicism is a strategy. Strategies typically can be summarized with pithy aphorisms or archetypes.

    The definitional boundary between strategy and tactics is somewhat fuzzy , but I think there is a meaningful distinction to be made, in that strategy is a general approach to take independent of specific situations that arise, and tactics which addresses specific approaches to specific scenarios that arise. Boyd’s OODA loop strikes me as more tactical (or perhaps meta-tactical), in that it is an approach to dealing with specific situations occurring in real time.

    Like so many abstract things, you can’t take anything to the bank, but it is undeniable that choosing different abstractions often leads to different results, and different habits of outcome.

  5. DensityDuck says

    Boyd thought that the future of air combat was Mach 2 gun-only fighters so I wouldn’t put much faith in what he thought about much of anything. His prime achievement was the F-16, and the current blocks of that type basically have a whole ‘nother aircraft built around them to have room for all the extra stuff.

    As for strategy? I had plans, too, but I realized that the only plan that was worth following was “have money in the bank”. And, of course, there’s more than one kind of money. Sometimes it’s contacts, sometimes it’s experience, sometimes it’s not owning a house so that you can move across country without much trouble.