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Modeling the Socioeconomic Future with Dungeons and Dragons
Gary Gygax. Charles Murray. Artificial Intelligence. Here be Dragons.
This article was originally published in COSGRRRL on May 14, 2018, which is a kind of a feminist neopagan nerd zine run by the fantastic author Marjorie Steele. She has since included it in a hardcopy anthology, which you can order from Creative Onion Press.
Readers can use the phrase “BJDROOLS” as a discount code. Don’t blame me, her idea.
When I get too fed up with the relative noise level in the media about whether Charles Murray is or isn’t racist, or James Damore is or isn’t misogynist, or the coming wave of Artificial Intelligence is or isn’t going to destroy humanity, I crack open a cold beer with a few friends and play Dungeons and Dragons.
The first big reason nobody thinks of Dungeons and Dragons, the ultimately nerdy tabletop roleplaying game, as racist, is because it has different “races” than we do. There’s no differentiation between nationalities or ethnicities in it, and unless you’re climbing to the top of the pile of nerds to build a Drow (dark elf) character, there’s no accounting for skin color in it either. It does, however, dive deeply into the idea that different players characters, or “PCs,” have different levels of aptitude at doing different stuff. The game calls these “ability scores,” and the distribution of natural aptitude in these ability scores is set on none other than a classic bell curve.
Let’s suppose one day you wake up and decide to live the nerd life. You bust out a blank character sheet, which looks something like this: (at least the top of it)
You pencil in your hero’s name, Doolin the Destroyer or whatever, and you crack out your iconic dice bag. Everybody has a dice bag. They look like bags of gems, with clear or opaque multicolored multifaceted dice, which I think may be part of the allure of the game itself. Makes you feel adventurous. You select three six-sided dice, you roll them, add the results, and get a number somewhere between 3 and 18. You write that in the first box under the ability score for STR — Strength. You repeat for each of the six ability scores, and you discover how good your character is at doing things.
This is a game. This is not real. Let’s continue.
Here’s what you rolled:
These are pretty good rolls. What do they mean? Strength represents how strong you are, which is self-explanatory. It will help you climb ropes and bash orcs. This PC should be pretty good at bashing orcs. Dexterity is a measure of fine motor skills and overall coordination, for tight-roping while picking a lock. Constitution is how tough you are, both in terms of your resiliency when being bashed by orcs, and in your endurance and resistance to disease on your forced march through the swamp to avoid the orcs. Intelligence is how smart you are, at learning languages, disabling complicated Indiana Jones traps in the orc temple of orc doom, or casting spells from a stolen spell book. Wisdom is how sensible, judicious, or crafty you are. While intelligence lets you know it’s raining on your forced march through the swamp, wisdom tells you to pitch your tent or you might catch cold. Charisma is a catch-all for your social aptitude, which might include how pretty you are, how funny you are, or how talented you are at that lute you keep carrying around for some reason.
Now you have created a model of a character, a “PC,” with some dice. Before you select your profession, or “class,” you need to think about what this character is going to be good at. This character is strong, resilient, and charming. A fine candidate for a “Paladin,” which is a sort of overbearingly lawful, marginally priestly knight, whose classic job in Dungeons and Dragons unfortunately ends up being 80% preventing the “Rogue” character from trying to pick everyone’s pocket in the bar, and 20% talking to the town guard after they’ve apprehended the self-same Rogue.
If you’re a truly dedicated nerd with a personal Xerox machine, you could make a thousand character sheets, populate them with six thousand sets of die rolls, and the statistical distribution for each statistic would look like this:
This is the classic “3d6” bell curve, generated from adding the results of rolling a six-sided die three times and adding the results.
Wait, Where’s the Racism?
Well, here we go. That’s the distribution for a human. Dungeons and Dragons, being basically a complicated JRR Tolkien rip-off, has elves, dwarves, halflings, and such, as options. And each of these options get a little boost in one stat and a little penalty in another stat. Doolin the Dwarf would get +2 to his constitution roll, owing to how tough he is, and -2 to his charisma roll, perhaps because dwarves don’t often bathe. Whatever. Make a thousand dwarves and here’s their charisma distribution:
By the rules of this particular game, the median dwarf has an 8 or 9 charisma, while a median human has a 10 or 11. Does this mean some dwarves aren’t charming? No, it does not. Does this mean if you meet a Dwarf on the street you should automatically presume he’s a social oaf? Only if you’re racist. Here’s what it does mean. 50% of humans have an 11 or better, while 25.93% of dwarves have an 11 or better. A dwarf in the top 5% of all dwarves (14) would find himself in the top 16% of humans in the same statistic. This is how we properly speak of population level statistical differences in an ability score, for this completely concocted, not at all real game.
Now the second (and more important) reason nobody thinks Dungeons and Dragons is racist. Even though there are population level statistical differences in races in Dungeons and Dragons, there’s no one race that’s objectively better than another one at the overall game. Any of them can be good at any profession, be it Warrior or Rogue or Priest or Wizard or the rest, depending on the dice. But certain races tend to end up in certain professions owing to the statistical bonuses laid out in the rules. All the different professions available are useful in your adventures, so there’s no race that’s just garbage and not worth playing.
Meet the Shitty Dungeon Master
All Dungeons and Dragons nerds have had a shitty dungeon master at some point. The dungeon master (DM) is the story teller, who plays all the non-player characters, sets up the story, sends you on quests, and generally builds a game session, or series of game sessions, into a reasonable facsimile of an original JRR Tolkien rip-off novel. A good one will spin an elaborate yarn whereby your characters start out as nobodies and end as great and renowned heroes.
But you ended up with a shitty one this time. And I mean, the worst.
First off, in his game world there’s no orcs. Not a one. No dragons either. The world is conspicuously bereft of monsters. “We still get to fight, right?” Oh yes, he says, you get to fight other people. “Whew.” But, he says, hundreds of years ago a Court Mage by the name of Barron le Bourgeoys invented a cheaply reproducible magic stick that kills people at range, much better than a bow, so nobody uses swords or bows anymore. All it takes is dexterity, and perhaps a little constitution if you have to march across the Kingdom of Ahlissa on your military campaign. “Can I be a blacksmith?” Certainly not, he says. All blacksmithing is done by magic golems now, which are tireless, and owned by a small cloister of merchant wizards who know how to build them. “What the hell, dude, I have a Strength character over here, can I at least, like, farm or something?” Oh no, he replies, farming is done with elaborate self-propelled gnomish contraptions and the world has infinite food.
So now you’re pissed off because the character you’ve got rolled up and ready to go is pure crap in this game world, all the while Joe over there (screw you Joe) is giggling all the way to the bank, because his character has a high Intelligence. His wizard is going to learn to craft golems. You’re screwed, Joe’s not, and this game isn’t going to be very much fun at all. Be glad you brought a six pack.
This is what Charles Murray’s book “The Bell Curve” is mostly about.
The Bell Curve
I’m not going to get deep in the weeds defending this book, because if you want to argue about the book’s validity, or methodology, or politics, there is a near infinite amount of other stuff you could read, that’s much more complete than I could ever pray to do. It might be right, it might be garbage, but I increasingly believe it’s relative position on the rightness-garbage scale won’t matter anyway, in the not-too-distant future. To understand why, let’s lay out some of the positions he took, restated in the terms of our Dungeons and Dragons model.
1) Your INT ability score (for him, I.Q.) is basically static, and you can’t really increase it.
2) Your INT is noticeably “heritable,” a term with which you should familiarize yourself.
3) Our economy is currently and increasingly rigged so that INT is way more important than all the other stats, if you’re trying to get rich or powerful.
4) This is going to create a situation where a small number of highly intelligent technocrats are going to end up concentrating a disproportionately large amount of the wealth.
5) There’s a racial bonus to INT.
While #1 is certainly debatable, that #5 is the sticky part, and it’s the part that gets Murray called either a racist, or a bad scientist, and I’m not going to take a position on that discussion at all. Could be neither, or one, or the other, or both. But we have to admit that there are measured differences between the IQ of different races, and most of the quality scientific argument goes back to whether those differences are genetic or environmental. We’ll break down some ways to argue against this book in a moment, but first let’s do some math, because math is fun.
Mapping IQ to INT
I’m about to give every statistician in the audience a heart attack, because the shape of the gaussian distribution of IQ does not match the overall shape of the 3d6 bell curve, especially at the tails. But in the end these approximations aren’t too terrible for the middle, and I wanted to keep them simple for the muggles. Since we’re manipulating median numbers, we’ll work with one standard deviation of the mean. IQ tests are intentionally rigged to have a median of 100, with 68% of the population between 85 and 115. 68% of the Dungeons and Dragons population has an INT between 8 and 13, so let’s take that band as roughly approximate. That means around the median, every 6 points of IQ is roughly equivalent to 1 point of INT.
If we’re going to translate median racial IQ differences to Dungeons and Dragons INT bonuses, we’d need a table showing median IQ by race. A table like this is very hard to come by, although all serious scientists indicate that there are differences. The best one I could find is here, and I cannot vouch for its source because they don’t list one, but I have definitely heard some of the numbers there repeated by scientists before. If you know of a better, more academic reference to get a table like this, please comment below, and I’ll adjust the numbers if they happen to be different.
Based on that table, and our correlative approximations, here are the Gygaxian Earth Race modifiers for INT on a 3d6 ability scale:
Ashkenazi Jews: +1.7
East Asians: +0.8
Native Americans: -1.6
Latin Americans: -1.8
African Americans: -2.5
Middle Easterners and North Africans: -2.6
Sub-Saharan Africans: -5
Now we have some perspective.
The very bad way to argue against Charles Murray is to claim there’s no such thing as race, as Newsweek does here. Or to call him a racist for for claiming there’s a racial bonus to INT, as the Southern Poverty Law Center does here. I mean, he might be racist. I don’t know, because I’ve never met the guy. But if someone claims he’s racist simply for mentioning something that’s verified by numbers, then they automatically undermine their own case and buttress Murray’s. Ignoring numbers is a very bad way to win an argument.
The smart, scientific way to argue against The Bell Curve is to peel apart what the word “heritable” actually means, in a detailed and deep-thinking way, such as what Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying do here. (jump forward to the 37-minute mark)
Just looking at the difference in the table above between Sub-Saharan Africans and their United States descendants seems to me to show very plainly that at least a lot of this disparity is environmental in nature. Bret Weinstein in the above podcast makes a compelling case that environmental factors could even show up as “heritable” in the statistics, owing to lead exposure or nutrition or who knows what else. But again, I’m not making the position that anything in the book is right or wrong. I’m making the position that very soon nothing in the book will matter anyway, because we’re about to get a very, very different dungeon master.
Meet the New DM
After about ten gaming sessions you, Joe, and your other friends are deep into your Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Your strength-based character is having a really hard time, because STR is a wallpapered statistic in this game world, while Joe’s character has amassed a small fortune selling horseshoes that his newly crafted stone golem pounds out over on the Grayhawk City lower east side. Linda’s Bard, a character strong in Charisma, is doing okay playing the bagpipes in dockside taverns, and Larry’s Cleric has a pretty good worshiper following of disenfranchised blacksmiths, but neither are remotely keeping pace with the Wizard. Your old DM gets burned out, and you get a new one you met at DragonCon last year in the dealer’s room. Here she is, with the horns and rattle-wand-thingy:
She takes over one night, identifies the curious plight this game world is experiencing in terms of class imbalance, and has a unique solution. Her first session, the King’s cryers announce that a certain courtier Sir Jawbs has invented a new magic item, called a “Smart Stone.” Everyone can carry one of these things, which are relatively cheap to manufacture, and get an automatic 13 INT score. What’s better, every full moon all Smart Stones will upgrade by +1, expanding their capabilities. They can talk to you, solve problems for you, and make your lives easier. This is great for the Wizards in the short term, because it gives them a new revenue stream. Anyone can make a Smart Stone who has an 18 INT. Then Joe pipes up. “Woah, wait a minute, what happens when the Smart Stones reach 18?”
And the new GM just smiles.
And you smile a bit too.
Here Be Dragons
When the Silicon Valley intellectual elite foretell the Artificial Intelligence Apocalypse, their doom and gloom is couched as if it’s a concern for the wellbeing of mankind. But it seems to me to be disingenuous, or myopic, or both. They’re not actually worried about our demise, they’re worried about theirs. The intellectuals have already wallpapered the STR jobs, through the industrial revolution, the transition of manufacturing to robots, and the mechanization of agriculture. They already made STR not matter, materially, to success. That INT would be next on the chopping block is not any more a disaster than the last time it happened. What’s interesting to me, is to think deeply about how the automation process will shift market power to the remaining four ability scores. Charisma, in the form of art, Wisdom, in the form of spirituality, Dexterity, in the form of skilled trades, and Constitution in some form, perhaps the ability to survive the coming antibiotic collapse, may simply become the important remaining character defining statistics. And nobody cares about Charles Murray anymore, until his granddaughter publishes an updated edition of the Bell Curve stating that black people have a heritable edge in jazz music, and then we can all have more handwaving freakoutery.
And what happens to our intrepid Dungeons and Dragons group once every character in Greyhawk has an 18 in every ability score, and there are no more dragons to fight? Well, I guess that group of characters is going to have to open up a gaming shop in Greyhawk, invent an in-character version of Dungeons and Dragons, and start playing it.
And round we go.