Thursday, June 24, 2010

Games and Critical Thinking

There's always talk, generally unsubstantiated, about the negative affects of videogames on lifestyle and attitude.  So once in a while it's valuable to point out some demonstrably positive effects of the hobby.

One benefit that doesn't get much press, in part because commercial media outlets don't necessarily recognize its value, is development of critical thinking skills.  Playing games of any kind encourages us to understand the rules of the situation, and if we're clever we can figure out how to exploit them for gain or protection.  Videogames, moreover, are uniquely positioned to encourage exploration and questioning -- the world is artificial, designed, so if something appears unusual, there's probably a reason behind it worth investigating.  A waterfall may lead to a hidden area; an unusual patch of wall may hide a secret passage; a flashing, unexplained light in the distance is something we ought to investigate.  From Adventureland to Grand Theft Auto, game worlds reward players for being suspicious and inquisitive, and testing our fundamental assumptions -- the greatest rewards are often reserved for those with an urge to do so.

Real life, of course, is vastly more complex and unpredictable than any video or computer game.  Major life decisions involve circumstances and emotions and timing and confluences of factors beyond what any game engine could readily muster or manage.  But within specific problem-solving domains, approaching a real-world situation as a game can have great benefits, enabling us to understand the situation better, stay objective and figure out what's behind anything that seems a little off.  A sense of play can be a valuable asset.

I've been thinking about this because recently my wife and I had a window salesperson in for what proved to be an entertaining evening (for us.)  This was not something we solicited -- someone knocked on our door a while back, offering a free estimate, and we had been thinking about replacing our windows at some point for better energy efficiency, so we agreed to meet with a sales rep and look at the possibilities.  It's not a must-do by any means, but it's on our long-term list.

We knew we were in information-gathering mode going in, which the salesperson did not seem to know, although we told him several times; he may have assumed he could overcome that and talk us into a sale.  So we had an advantage from the get-go -- this was a recon mission from our point of view, and if we had some numbers in hand at GAME OVER, our goal would be accomplished.  We were not in a mood to be sold anything on the spur of the moment, and any salesperson would have found it difficult to move the goalposts.

As gamers, my wife and I are skeptical by nature and inclined to probe the situation -- so as the presentation got underway, we both made mental note of sales tactics that were not exactly lies, but seeemed exaggerated to favor the selling proposition.  What we noticed did not make us inclined to take the company up on its offer, even as the price dropped and dropped in the face of our casual disinterest, which the sales rep interpreted as active resistance.  Not once did we say, "Can you do better on the price?"  All we said from point one was that we were interested in an estimate.  Preparing for combat, we had no other estimates in hand, and we knew we were naive and ignorant about the whole subject of replacement windows going in.  But we knew the general rules of the game, so we assumed our opponent would try to take advantage of our lack of hard data, armoring us against his attempts to do so.

The salesperson seemed not to notice this, of course, because his job, as he stated toward the end of the whole debacle, was not to write quotes, but to close sales.  He assumed from the get-go that we were "upset" (his word) with our existing windows, which was not really the case; we know they could be better-insulated, but we have no emotional drive to replace them.  He insisted on taking a certain seat at our kitchen table, which I presume was meant to gain some sort of psycho-tactical advantage, though I couldn't fathom the rationale.  He assumed that we would take his word for the quality and superiority of his products, and asked me to read aloud from a couple of magazine articles supporting his claims; I did so good-naturedly, but quickly.  I assumed this was meant to encourage me to internalize the material and think of it as my own words, an effort I did my best to contravene. 

Then he brought out a heat lamp for a demonstration that seemed fishy at the time, and in retrospect may have been very deceptive; I wish I'd asked for a more direct A/B comparison at the time, but only thought of better experiments later on.  What transpired was this -- he turned the infrared/red light lamp on and asked us to feel the opposite side of his sample window, observing that the glass remained cool to the touch; then he sent us outside and turned it on again, beaming a palpable level of heat through our existing sliding glass door.  It seemed like an impressive demo, but I couldn't help recalling that I felt no such heat near the lamp itself during the first pass at our kitchen table -- which means that the lamp may have two modes of operation, light-only and light-and-heat, or that it had warmed up by the second round, or that other factors like distance from the glass were being manipulated in the salesperson's favor.  I also don't know how much relationship an infrared lamp really bears to natural sunlight -- the frequency range is different, certainly.  Given the source alone, I was inclined to dismiss the demo as flashy, irrelevant and skewed, at least until we had a chance to do some independent research on the actual differences between what the salesperson claimed were R 0.5 and R 4.8 windows.

By this point, we had a pretty good handle on our opponent's algorithm.  Unscrupulous salespeople usually follow a script that makes the most rudimentary AI bot look sophisticated -- maximize profit and commission, don't brook any questions or delays, and close the sale NOW.  The grains of salt with which we received his statements were getting larger and larger as he estimated our likely savings from upgraded windows, based on his guess about "a house this size," and gave us a number that was clearly exaggerated, as it claimed an annual savings in heating cost that amounted to more than half our gas and electricity costs combined.
In the end, he had made a reasonable case for what he had to sell, but didn't seem to understand or could not accept that we were not going to make a decision in this meeting.  As we had stated up front, we were meeting to obtain the estimate; of course, we wished to verify his claims for ourselves, comparing pricing and options from other vendors before committing to anything.  He actually feigned personal insult to his ethics when we suggested that we naturally assumed he would promote the products he was selling, and did not expect him to present any counterarguments, but that we could do that research on our own.  At this point, the algorithm shifted to a price-based approach.

It became a boss battle of attrition, though all we had to do was keep our shields up.  We repeated that we were not going to make a decision right now, because this was the first estimate we were obtaining and we intended to do some more homework and shop around a bit.  He responded by doing "a little better" on the price -- a range that started at one number, then with "discounts" and "deals" and "incentives" came down to less than half of that.  When he thought he had softened us up a bit, as we were giving each other inside looks, he claimed to have been paged and stepped outside for a while.  Guessing that his expectation was that we would talk each other into it now that we had a "great deal" on the table, we laughed and resolved once again not to do anything at this time.

When he returned, and was met with our consistently lukewarm response, he went into a "now or never, yes or no" spiel, a completely unsupported assertion insisting that we had to do this tonight or we probably never would.  This was a transparently self-serving argument -- we could have done this two years ago, or five years ago, and we can just as easily do it two years or five years in the future.  If his company doesn't want the business, someone else surely will take it on.  But it was his "experienced opinion" that we'd never get such a deal from his company, or anyone else, ever again... although he could now come down to about a third of the original price quoted.

When we pointed out for the umpteenth time that price wasn't the central issue, we just had no reason to commit to this right now, and that it seemed foolish for him, from a business perspective, to walk away and not be willing to discuss the deal further someday, he began swearing on his "father's grave" that he would not be able to offer us the same low, low price at a later date.  Which may in fact be the case, as business circumstances do change, but the missed opportunity for us to spend what was still a fairly large and discretionary amount of money seemed to be a much greater tragedy in his eyes than it was in ours.  We knew the "retail" price range now, and how far he was willing to come down if forced to do so, which was quite a bit more than we had expected to get out of the discussion.  His algorithm's unwarranted confidence that it could get us to sign on the dotted line by focusing solely on price adjustment ultimately tipped his hand, completely.

There was some hesitation on our part, truth to tell - the final price did seem reasonable, at least much moreso than the original quote.  But we also learn from videogames that stress and risk are temporary, that if a problem seems intransigent there is probably another, better solution available, and that we can always go away, level up, power up, come back and try again.  So our reply, given the proffered ultimatum, was that if we had to make the decision right now, our answer remained a clear and resounding no.

It was an interesting transformation to watch -- the salesperson metamorphosed from a glad-handing, friendly guy who laughed at all our lame jokes and humored our questions into a frustrated, ticked-off individual who seemed determined never ever ever to sell us windows no matter how hard we might beg, just for spite.  Before he went his way in the highest of dudgeon, I had the distinct impression he wanted to stamp his feet so hard he would disappear into the ground.

You know that sound when Pac-Man dies?  That dvvuu-vvuu-vvuu-vv-wk-wkkk sound? 

It's nice to be the monster once in a while.

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