What is randomness? We tend to imbue the term with more authority than it ought to have, to invoke an ideal of completely unknowable numbers and events that come from nowhere, from nothing, beyond nature, supernatural. However, all of the things that we think of when we talk about randomness are actually quite predictable: Dice, cards, roulette wheels, these tools of chance generate seemingly arbitrary results through a series of individually very simple and straightforward physical interactions. These are still causal. These are still predictable, if one had the depth and clarity of vision and the time for calculation to glean those predictions. Computer random number generation is no different – every computer science text about random number generation goes to pains to establish that the algorithm is not truly random because the outcome can be predicted, but the same is true of basically everything we consider random. Thus, in practice, random doesn’t mean not deterministic, it means undeterminable.
Every reaction has an action. Every effect has a cause.
All this may seem pedantic, but where it becomes important is it shifts the way we tend to think about nominally non-random events. Even games that go to great lengths to strip out elements of chance, such as competitive FPS games, frequently have an element of luck to them. Sure, you could perfectly predict the behavior of all of the opposing members of the enemy team, but unless you have intimate knowledge of their psychology you’re not going to be doing that. You’re going to be playing the odds, judging where your opponents are most likely to make their move based on the state of the game and their habits as best as you know them. A lot of the time this will work out just how you expect it to, but sometimes the outcome will be completely different, and even though there’s nothing we would traditionally consider randomness at play the outcome of what is an overall strong play may turn out to be dramatically different, may lead to a win or a loss, based entirely on circumstances beyond the human capacity of insight.
Randomness is about lack of insight as much as it is about chaos of result. If you fail to understand what factors lead to an outcome, it will seem random. A feeling of a game being unfair is just as often because of a poor understanding of what situation leads to what outcome as it is about the outcome itself being biased. Almost every game hides information from its player – even in Chess or Go, these pure games of open-information causality, you do not know the internal state of your opponent, possibly the most vital information of all for victory.
It all comes back to luck, the thing no one wants to rely upon. The more we come to understand what random is, what we mean when we say random, the more we come to understand where the boundaries of what we know and can predict and what we don’t know and can’t predict lie; the more we can control luck. When we understand what these factors are and how they interact, we can begin to make our own luck.
We’ve invented probability to estimate the likely outcomes of overly complex systems using simplified models, and this is hugely useful and hugely insufficient – not least because very few people have any sort of intuitive understanding of what these numbers mean. During the 2016 election, people were passing around the supposed 10% chance of victory Donald Trump had as an indication that he had somehow lost. 10% isn’t 0%, and a 10% chance is actually pretty likely – hardly much better odds than those offered by Russian Roulette, a pastime few people would willingly indulge in. And, when the estimate rose to a 30% chance, people were still weirdly reassured – and felt betrayed by these numbers, regarded them as failed somehow, after he won, even though the numbers said there was a 1/3rd chance of this happening. Perhaps the mistake was that people conflated the percent chance of each side winning with the percent of the populace projected to vote for each side – in which case 70%-30% would have been an unprecedented and implausible landslide. Either way, there seemed to be a generalized lack of literacy as to what these numbers meant.
All of which brings me to XCOM. In XCOM, you’re tasked with defending (or, in XCOM 2, retaking) Earth, after it is attacked by a multi-species conglomeration of aliens with mysterious motives. You give your elite squad of soldiers orders of where to move and what to shoot, and each shot has a percentage chance of success, and it is a hugely effective tool for imparting the core concept that a 95% chance is not a certainty. Success, then, becomes a matter of ordering and improving these chances, hedging bets, and trying to keep outside factors from interfering while you do so.
Unfortunately, the game undermines this simple and vital lesson in a few ways. There are a number of options which have zero risk of failure – indeed, most of your options tend to trend that direction as you get late-game upgrades to shot accuracy and abilities with no chance for failure, but even early on there are very few problems that can’t be solved by the simple expedient of a deftly placed hand grenade. Or three. So, in the end, rather than hedging all your bets, most of them are just backed by a couple of completely reliable fallback moves, and when well played the enemy units seldom get any real chance to counterattack.
More insidiously, though, the lower difficulty levels also sneakily tweak the odds in your favor. The more you miss your shots the more likely you are to hit subsequent shots – the gambler’s fallacy, codified into game mechanic. The odds of hitting are, as well, far higher than they are represented as, and your odds of getting shot are similarly reduced. All of these strange concessions and tweaks work to make the game feel more ‘fair’ – or, read less charitably, to uphold fallacious views of what probability means that have been elevated to narrative necessity.
Who do these views serve? Does the belief that the world is fundamentally knowable and controllable outside a few supernaturally random events make us vulnerable to believing that we are more in control than we actually are? Vulnerable to believing that those who have lost control, who are downtrodden and oppressed, deserve this treatment for having lost grip of the reins? Or does it make us think that the world we live in now is far more intentionally, carefully, and competently controlled than it sometimes seems, that any attempt to seek change within such a system is impossible?
We only see a tiny, narrow slice of the world in front of us, and anything outside of that view may as well be RNG. It might be time to test our luck.