May 4, 2014

SCHULMAN | Am I Studying a Kids’ Game? I Hope So

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By ERIC SCHULMAN

Sid Meier’s Civilization is near and dear to my heart. I have great memories playing this game with my little brothers (who incidentally are bigger than me now). To clarify in case you’re not familiar with it, Civilization is a turn-based strategy game for PC. Civilization (which fans call Civ) makes a game out of history where your actions have predetermined consequences. You win by making choices that guide your civilization from the stone age to the space age the fastest. I find this really interesting — so much so that I’m actually studying about it in school. I study both economics and computer science. Making a computer-generated simulation of the economy reminds me of how Civilization models history.

I pretend I’m studying a game in school. Civilization makes a simulation out of history in the same way economics and computer science model the economy. In Civ, your choices result in predetermined, predictable outcomes. For example, choosing to develop writing results in trading with other civilizations. Choosing archery results in hunting (obviously, my brothers prefer the more violent options). Winning requires predicting your opponents choices and their outcomes. Explaining the game in more detail would take a while so I’ll stop there and let you google Civ if you’re interested.

Playing Civ reminds me of combining C.S. and Econ to model an economy. In the same way certain actions result in specific consequences in Civ, Econ tries predicting our choices’ consequences by creating a model describing our decision-making process. C.S. improves the predictions accuracy by handling more complex computations. Although some people combine Econ and C.S. (I would regret it if I didn’t mention the research the Information Science department does on networks), most people don’t get the Econ-C.S. combination. Sometimes I have misgivings about it too. Yes, I like that it reminds me of Civilization, but it’s a little childish to think we simulate and predict people’s choices accurately by combining economics with a boost from computing. Civilization, a kids game, is built around the premise that our actions are formulaic and predictable. The real world is probably more complicated than a kids game — albeit a very complex game like Civ.

Writing this column has helped me come to terms with my misgivings about the Econ-C.S. combination. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I saved this topic for my final column this semester because I wanted to wrap-up by reflecting on that. I’ve spent a semester now, revisiting the things I found imaginative and inspiring as a kid, trying making them relevant again to my life. It’s been a lot of fun, and researching topics every other week has convinced me that the imagination — which comes so naturally when we are little — drives creativity and innovation in academia as well as the professional world.

According to Wikipedia (which means this information is correct as long as some middle-schooler from Thailand hadn’t messed with Wikipedia when I checked), Econ is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. Using computer-generated models to better understand why certain people have, or don’t have, resources like food, shelter or an education is an incredible step towards ensuring everyone’s access to those things, and it’s what I want to do with my life. Yes, I might be studying a kids game by doing so because it’s so similar to Civilization. I’m okay with that. I’m taking a risk because combining Econ and C.S. captures my imagination. If you’ve kept up with my column, you would know imagination pays off (or at least I think it pays off. I’m not sure my social life would agree). The imagination we lose as we age drives real world innovation.

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