Simulation Theory and Dungeons and Dragons Psychology

After an excellent SSPP run by Gualtiero (who deserves great thanks!), I thought a modestly humorous post from here in Savannah was in order:

Here is a question, which I think suggests a funny criticism: if simulation does play a prominent role in mindreading (the attribution of mental states to others) shouldn’t it be a lot like playing dungeons and dragons?  But I don’t think it is.  Hence, while it is of course plausible that mental simulation plays some role in human mindreading I suspect that it is a very minimal. Here is a quote from the SEP entry on simulation theory:

“It is assumed that in role-taking, one’s own behavior control
system is employed as a manipulable model of other such systems. (This
is not to say that the “person” who is simulating is the
model; rather, only that one’s brain can be manipulated to model other
persons.) The system is first taken off-line, so that the output is not
actual behavior but only predictions or anticipations of behavior, and
inputs and system parameters are accordingly not limited to those that
would regulate one’s own behavior. Although this sometimes results in
vicarious decision-making, more typically it stops at the more modest
goal of establishing which options would be attractive (so that one
would not be surprised to find the other pursuing one of them) and
which unattractive (so that one would be surprised to find the other
pursuing any of them).

Compare this to playing D&D, which seems to also involve simulation.  One designs a character, including various details about history, class, abilities and so forth.  In deciding what actions one’s character takes, whether it be communicating with other characters or combat, one is constrained by these details; one in effect tries to imagine what one’s character “would do”, and this imagining seems to fit the profile typically given of simulation processes that are thought to be involved in mindreading.  For example,iIn playing D&D, our system is “off-line” in that we do not ourselves do the acts we suppose our character would do (some, I even lack the ability to perform: e.g. cast spells).  And, typically one is stopping at the “modest goal” of a plausible action that one’s character might perform in the circumstances at hand.

There are of course some disanalogies.  D&D is fictional, and we are not merely prediction actions but making decisions about what our characters will actually do.  But these are rather superficial difference (notice many experiments that test mindreading involve fictional scenarios, for example).  In fact, the “psychology” of playing D&D seems to be very much what mindreading via simulation “should” be like, or the psychology of D&D should be very different than it is, depending on whether one thinks the simulation occurs consciously or unconsciously:

1. If one thinks the simulation occurs consciously, then one might think mindreading should be a lot like playing D&D since the simulation involved in the game seems to pretty clearly be explicit and the product of slow conscious deliberation and inference (often, it is even verbalized!).  But, while in some cases of mindreading it does seem to be similar to playing D&D, often our attributions are certainly not: they are quick, effortless, and involve little to no conscious inference.  So, if simulation plays a prominent role in mindreading (as, for example Goldman and Gordon think it does) one might suspect it should be more like playing D&D.

2. Alternatively, if the simulation is unconscious, then one might wonder why playing D&D relies on conscious simulationat all!  If we have a well-tailored simulation process that is regularily relied on in mindreading, then why do we seem to always reply on the more deliberative conscious kind when playing the game?  Plausibly, if unconscious simulation exists, that is what we would rely on in playing D&D instead of the conscious kind. So, if unconscious simulation plays a prominent role in mindreading, then one might think the psychologica states we seem to experience when playing D&D should be different than they actually are.

If 1 or 2 is correct, then I suspect simulation has a minimal role in mindreading.  None of this has been argued in detail, of course, but I think this is a modest and rather interesting criticism if correct.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Brendan,

    Nice to meet (and talk with) you at the SSPP.

    Can you explain a bit more about the “psychology” of playing D&D that you have in mind? I’ve never played, but I would have thought that, like everyday cognition, sometimes you make snap decisions, and sometimes you make deliberative decisions, and sometimes those deliberative ones are based on what you think the other player is going to do (which includes what you think she knows, what you think she thinks you will do, etc). That all seems perfectly compatible with simulation theory (although maybe I’m using it in a looser sense than others).

  2. shannon

    the goldman line is that there is both high-level (conscious, deliberate, etc.) simulation and low-level (sub-conscious, immediate, etc.) simulation. some behaviors are explained by high-level simulation, and some are explained by low-level simulation.

  3. Brendan

    Corey,

    (ditto)

    All of what you said is true. What what is unique to D&D, and which I did not fully articulate is, the fact that one tries to imagine what one’s character will do. So, it is not a matter of snap decisions, or what another player will do, but rather what the character who you created will do, and deliberationg about this (anecdotally) involves the following:
    1. conscious deliberation
    2. using general reasoning and inference abilities
    3. while insulating our own personal beliefs from having an effect
    4. using the beliefs and attributes we know the character has.
    4. and producing a “plausible” prediction about what such a character would do.

    This role-PLAYING mirrors the role-TAKING of simulation theory (at least on first blush). And I take it as an interesting question whether mindreading really seems to be like role-playing in most cases. Minimally, I gave some prima facie reasons for why it might not. If so, then in so far as you might question whether mindreading seems to be like playing D&D (that is, role-playing) one might be suspicious of simulation theory. Because, one might have thought, if mindreading is primarily role-taking/simulation, it “should” be a lot like role-playing (in so far as these might be nearly synonymous!).

    [For the record, I have only played D&D once or twice in my life!]

  4. Brendan Ritchie

    Shannon,

    You are absolutely right, of course.  More specifically, he thinks low-level simulation involving the mirror system produces attributions of emotional states (based on fearful facial expression, for example).  But this would not be the kind of simulation that would be relevant for playing D&D (for one thing, the small characters used to play tend to have fixed facial expressions ).  High-level simulation is what is likely to be involved in D&D, under Goldman’s view.

    Of course, this was just a prima facie case: that in so far as simulation theory holds that mindreading involves role-taking and D&D involves role-playing, which might amount to the same thing,  then it is worth comparing the experience of playing the game to the psychological processes that purportedly underlie mindreading (this, I should have been clearer about).  What a sophisticated account like Goldman’s would say about the simulation in D&D is another matter, and will depend on the details.  Mine was just a very general point.

  5. Brendan Ritchie

    Corey,

    (ditto!)

    All of what you said is true. What is unique to D&D, and which I did not fully articulate is, the fact that one tries to imagine what one’s character will do. So, it is not a matter of snap decisions, or what another player will do, but rather what the character who you created will do, and deliberating about this (anecdotally) involves the following:
    1. conscious deliberation
    2. using general reasoning and inference abilities
    3. while insulating our own personal beliefs from having an effect
    4. using the beliefs and attributes we know the character has (level 12 warlock, 200yo, elven, suffers from dementia. Hates orcs, loves mahogany)
    5. and producing a “plausible” prediction about what such a character would do (Rolls D20 to try to kill orc with branch…hits comrade)

    This role-playing mirrors the role-taking of simulation theory (at least on first blush). And I take it as an interesting question whether mindreading really seems to be like role-taking in most cases. Minimally, I gave some prima facie reasons for why it might not. If so, then in so far as you might question whether mindreading seems to be like playing D&D (that is, role-playing) one might be suspicious of simulation theory. Because, one might have thought, if mindreading is primarily role-taking/simulation, it “should” be a lot like role-playing (in so far as these are near synonymous!).

    [For the record, I have only played D&D once or twice in my life!]

  6. You could actually think of playing D&D as adding an extra layer of complexity to the simulation theory. When analyzing a characters reactions in D&D, especially that of another player, one must consider not just the character, but how the player perceives the character and in what way the player in question would react to that perception.

    In analysing your own character, there is always the temptation to diverge from the the conclusions your perceptions make of said character because, in the end, the character is your own and you cannot “go wrong” so to speak, within certain limitation. So, then, your characters possible reactions carry with it a certain elasticity. This elasticity is carried over to any other characters played by other players in a more complex fashion since you must guesstimate at the effect of said elasticity on the players decision making.

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