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Jeff and Mindy Glickman - Randomness and Uncertainty White Paper


Life has uncertainty.

We don’t know what will happen. It is unsettling, but exciting.

One of the best ways we prepare for uncertainty in life is through play. Uncertainly is modeled in the playing of many games. The roll of the dice, the deal of the cards or the tile picked from a bag – all of these are forms of uncertainty.

This paper will examine different ways of dealing with uncertainty in games, and their effect on the play.

Randomness Is A Type Of Uncertainty:

The biggest difference between uncertainly in life and in the playing of games can be explained by the concept of randomness. Uncertain things can be random, but most uncertain outcomes are NOT random.

Randomness, over time, leads to certainty. A thousand coin flips will have nearly 500 heads and 500 tails. At one million flips, the difference between the total number of heads and the total number of tails becomes almost meaningless. The same is true for dice – coins can be thought of as two sided dice.

Randomness can be found in nature. Eventually, rain water will flow to the sea, sand will form on the shore and almost all systems find an equilibrium.

However, uncertainty in life usually is not random. It is uncertain that you will skin your knee today. It is uncertain which time tomorrow you will be amazed. You might not skin your knee or be amazed. The biggest things in our life are not random.

Games model life, and randomness is a way to prepare for life’s uncertainties. We forget that randomness is an imperfect way to understand all uncertainty.

Randomness In Games:

Games deal with the random element. Games like War are only random – no skill. Games like Chess have nothing random – only skill.

Some games confuse the two. Boggle uses dice and looks like it is random, but it is not. No player has an advantage because of the dice rolls – each play the same situation. Bingo appears to have skill, but, once a minimal level of competence is achieved in recording every call, it is entirely random. Rock, Paper, Scissors, at a competitive level, is anything but random!

Randomness can come in many forms. Responsibility is perceived in different ways as the method of randomness varies. You can blame the dice or the deal of the cards, but it is harder to blame your choice of domino tiles. You could have taken another one. It appears as though you are responsible.

Most of my games use randomness where the player can’t shift responsibility. Because it is implicit, the lessons learned from this randomness are internalized, not attributed to magic or superstition.

Some methods of randomness in games are actually less random than others – some are simply perceived that way.

Limited Pool vs. Limitless

The more limited the pool, the less actual randomness.

A deck of cards is a limited pool. You can never be dealt more than four Jacks. If you see that there are several Jacks in play, there is a small chance that you will draw one. This shifts the game play more towards skill. A player who is more observant and remembers the cards in play will be able to make choices based on favorable percentages. That is why casinos shuffle multiple decks together at the Black Jack table – to make the pool closer to limitless.

Dice have a limitless pool of outcomes. If there have been many rolls of the number six, there still might be more of them. Skill is less of a factor.

Ability To Opt Out

The ability to play or not play – to continue or to stop – increases the amount of skill, which diminishes the role of randomness. The Black Jack table demonstrates this. The dealer has no choice about taking an addition card. The gambler does.

Many games, such as Don’t Be Greedy, focus on this point of opting out.

Enlightened Player

If one player knows what the outcome is for each option, the random element is replaced. If Monte Hall knows what is behind doors 1, 2, and 3, is the contestant really making a random choice? Persuasion, manipulation and perception replace randomness. This is found in “Mother May I” and games with a dungeon master. How would Black Jack be different if the dealer looked at the next card before you had an opportunity to ask for a hit?

Ritual, Mystique, Fun And The Tactile Element

The way the random element is clothed is VERY important in games. The mechanics of randomness are unchanged, but the enjoyment of the game can be magnified.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is much more about choreography than drinking. The manner in which Mahjong tiles are set up is an important part of game play. The clacking and stacking might be the biggest reason for its popularity. There is ritual in card shuffling, cutting and dealing.

Mystique also adds to game play. Imagine the difference between rolling a 20 sided die and having that same die mystically appear in “Magic 8 Ball.”

Bingo numbers can be generated by a computer program. It is much more fun having the bingo balls blown around in a clear box before being sucked up.

The sense of touch also greatly affects the random element of games. You could play Dominoes with cards instead of tiles …. but who would want to? The more players are active in touching and choosing, the more fun a game can be.


Uncertainty is what we find in life. We don’t know what will happen next. There are two basic ways to approach uncertainly:

  1. Fear that something will be lost, broken or hurt. That you will have less that you had before. Something you cherish will deteriorate. Tomorrow will not be as good as today.

  2. Faith that something will grow, be discovered or heal. That you will have more than you had before. Those seeds will blossom and bear fruit. Tomorrow will be better than today.

Because games use randomness to model uncertainty, we can’t be hurt by it. The most we could lose or gain has bounds. This prepares us for the uncertainly life gives us, and helps us to see that tomorrow can be better than today.

Randomness and Uncertainty

White Paper Presented to ChiTaG 2017

Jeff and Mindy Glickman of Turn To The Wonderful, copyright 2017

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