The Universe is a Great Casino

Posted on Apr 16 2012 by pomomojo in Uncategorized

Luck and Life
Recently, my wife and I joined millions of other people across the country in purchasing a few lottery tickets for a chance to win the 600 million dollar jackpot (we didn’t win). Although we engaged in the typical “What would you do with the money” talk as we waited for our numbers to be called, I’m sure neither of us had any delusions that our $10 was wisely invested. Yet, I can justify occasionally giving a couple dollars to our state lottery because playing the lottery is fun. As a board game enthusiast it’s a bit strange to admit that, though.

When debating the merits of various board games, often one of the worst criticisms to make of a game is that the game plays you instead of you playing the game. If your decisions aren’t meaningful or you have little control over the outcome then the game almost ceases to be a game. Yet, millions of people spend untold hours playing Bingo or pulling slots in a casino each year and other than some level of mental endurance and ability to withstand monotony, there isn’t any skill to either of these games. The chance for large prizes is obviously the main draw of lottery type games, yet there must be more to it than that. After all, if the only point was to buy a ticket and hope to win a prize then that could be accomplished much more efficiently. Why spend an entire evening in a Bingo Hall marking squares? Why pull a slot arm a thousand times when you could just have a computer spit out a thousand results in a matter of seconds? I think there is something fundamentally familiar and uplifting about these sorts of luck-based “games.”

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking once said “the universe is a great casino, where dice are thrown, and roulette wheels spin on every occasion.” In other words, chance is at the core of our existence. Whether we ascribe this power over our lives to a deity, some nebulous thing called Fate, or to the unpredictability of subatomic particles, being a human inevitably means living in a world that is not fair or is beyond our control. As I suggested in a previous blog post, one of the appealing things about board games is that they offer the player a great deal more control over their “fate” than they would normally experience. Every chess player knows that he or she will win or lose based solely on the choices they and their opponent make.

On the other hand, games can approach this problem from the opposite direction. Rather than eliminate randomness and luck from the game, the game can embrace it. And there’s something appealing about this as well. The woman who has played Bingo every Sunday for the past 40 years has no better chance of winning than the child playing his first game. As the ping pong balls bounce or the dice tumble or the roulette wheel spins, every one of us is equal. Yet, even in these games an illusion is maintained that we have some control. We pick our “lucky” numbers for the lottery. We mark our Bingo cards. We place our bets on the roulette wheel. Although most of us know that nothing we do during these games matters, we feel gratified by the sense that we our somehow participating in our fate rather than being buffeted about as we are in our daily lives. Yes, instead of playing Bingo all night we could just buy a handful of tickets, claim any prizes and go home, but then we wouldn’t be playing a game and, strangely, that’s almost as important as any prize.

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