Back in the 1980s and 90s, Exxon and Imperial Oil developed a model for global climate change whose predictive power has met with almost unparalleled success. This was a major breakthrough. The model made many predictions including the relationship between various greenhouse gas emissions and the warming of the overall climate.
The model, being a predictive model, was built to advise its creators on wise investments. With emission levels unchanged, it could predict what land would be destroyed by rising sea levels and which land would become uninhabitable due to the heat. It also predicted what ice would melt and create new habitable land. It could also predict these things for reduced and increased levels of emissions.
The takeaway: Oil rights on the Canadian Beaufort Sea would become valuable indeed as long as emission rates did not decrease.
Hidden information games are among the most compelling games on the market. Most games incorporate hidden information in some form or fashion, otherwise they are a Perfect Information game. Perfect Information games include Chess and Checkers as well as any game where no element is hidden or left to an unknown chance.
Not just any game with hidden information is a Hidden Information game. To be a Hidden Information game, the hiding of the information between players needs to be an important aspect of the game itself. The classic example of this is Poker, and Texas Hold ‘em is a particularly well-crafted specimen.
Texas Hold ‘em contains all the necessary elements of a Hidden Information game: public information, private information, and unknown information.
The private information is the two cards in each player’s hand. The public information, initially, is that there are five cards in the middle of the table, two cards in each private hand, and that there are a certain number of each card in the deck. The unknown information is the values of each of the cards face down in the center.
As the game advances, all unknown information becomes public, then the game ends. That’s the key thing for a hidden information game: the game is over when all information is made public.
Prior to that, though, is the most powerful part of Texas Hold ‘em: investment. Investment is another piece of public information that is entirely created by the players. This, as well as myriad physical and social tells, constitute the strategy. In poker, wagering is where the game is.
Exxon and Imperial Oil had a problem. Their findings were not unique. The information they worked on was public even though the model they developed was still private. They neared the end of the game, and they had not yet turned a profit. They needed to create more information, and they needed that information to be unknown.
Exxon and Imperial launched an unprecedented misinformation campaign. They found spokespeople willing to put their reputations on the line to make that public information back into unknown information. This was the only way to remain in the game. Once global climate change became widely accepted in the public, Exxon and Imperial would no longer be able to leverage their private information to make investments.
And invest they did.
With the debate over climate change fueled by company owned mouthpieces, Exxon and Imperial were free to purchase frozen-over land at rock bottom prices. Without the debate, the land would rise in price – as forecasts showed it growing increasingly desirable – but that didn’t happen. With the melting of the ice in question, Exxon and Imperial were free to swoop in and buy it up on the cheap.
Here’s a tip from one gambler to another, always watch where the other players choose to put their money.
Misinformation has no mechanical equivalent in Texas Hold ‘em. Well. Not in a normal game. For the actions above to have a clear parallel, one of the players would need to conspire with the dealer to stack the deck. More likely, the deck would need to be changed to another deck entirely. Maybe only one player would know of the existence of jokers. Or perhaps there were secret hands which always win. Aces and Eights and all that.
Then we’re not really playing Texas Hold ‘em. We’re breaking its rules. Let’s look at another game: Archipelago.
In Archipelago, each player has two key pieces of hidden information: their resources and their objective. Each player has an objective, and that objective performs two tasks. It establishes a hidden end condition for the game – such as building five markets – and establishes a scoring mechanic for all players at the end of the game – such as holding iron at the end of the game provides victory points.
The possible objectives are public, so the game cultivates a dynamic whereby players watch each other’s public actions and guess which secret objective the others might be trying to fulfill. Oh, is Bob hoarding iron? Then Bob must have the iron and markets objective!
The core mechanic for teasing that private information out comes from Crises. At the start of each round, there is a crisis, and the players must pool their resources or more of the indigenous people of the archipelago will rise up in rebellion. If rebels outnumber the population controlled by players, then the rebels rise up and kill the players in their sleep. Everybody dies. Everybody loses.
In a crisis, there is a key piece of public information. How many resources each player has is private, the remaining number of resources in the game’s supply – however – is known. Following the examples from earlier, people can be pretty sure that someone has the iron objective when the players fail to fulfill the demands of an iron crisis and yet the iron supply in the box is depleted.
When that happens, everyone knows that someone has the iron objective. That person is holding out, and they are willing to risk the entire game in order to maintain their advantage. They’d rather go extinct than miss out on a chance for profit.
Back in the really real world, Exxon and Imperial’s model was making some truly dire predictions in the far term. Apocalyptic warnings foretold the extinction of the human race. These warnings were as secret as they were remote. Action on emissions could be delayed with minimal cost to the company. Property and lives would be lost, but none of that property would be company property. The lives? Well, those didn’t belong to the company either.
In Archipelago, there is one objective which stands out from the rest. There is a chance that a player is holding an objective which states that they win if the archipelago rebels. Much like millennial sects of Christianity, these players will work to make certain the end times come sooner rather than later.
When a player like our iron-hoarder from earlier is at the table, other players are forced to come to terms with the possibility that the hoarder is not holding the iron objective at all. They may just be hoping to watch the world burn. Sometimes, this is the most fun and exciting moment of the game. The whole world – the game world in this case – is held hostage by a maniac. Or is it? Maybe it’s not a maniac at all. Maybe it’s just a man who would rather see everyone lose than anyone else win.
I’ll give you another tip from a tired gambler. When a player comes to your table and you can’t tell if they are motivated by profit or suicide, thank them and send them away. Maybe not the first time, they could just be trying something new. If it happens again and again over the course of years, just lead them away.
Your life will be better without them in it.