Moral vs. structural problems of laser tag

The sport of kings

The sport of kings

Last night, a select few observed my birthday at The Hub Family Entertainment Center, where we played laser tag and drove go-karts.1 It was entertaining, and they let us in even without families. Even though I love it, I am terrible at laser tag and came in second to last, probably thanks to one of those five-year-olds who is operatively a stand for eyeglasses. But in my defense, one reason I got lit up so much was that a little girl followed me around the maze at a distance of about two feet, constantly pulling the trigger, not caring if I shot her and simply waiting until her gun reactivated to shoot me again. It turns out that’s a great strategy, in terms of maximizing points. But we didn’t come to laser tag to maximize points, to walk single-file and smile meekly at the person in front of us, even after he told us to go away, even after he tried to run off on his strong adult legs. So the big, important question:

  1. Is this little girl a dickbag, deserving of our censure? or
  2. Is this a structural problem of laser tag?

Before we explore this critical interface between ethics and game theory, let us agree on some premises. First, I don’t know exactly how laser tag is scored, but it does reward this strategy. Probably the best way to win laser tag is still to use all your cunning, reflexes, and bravery, but following one person and shooting them point blank whenever your gun is active works comparably well. So agreed that ignoring the spirit of the game to repeatedly shoot one opponent at close range—henceforth known as short following—is an effective strategy.

Let us also agree that this behavior makes the game less fun, both for the player who is followed (me) and the player who follows (alleged little dickbag girl.) If every player chose the short following strategy, the game would collapse entirely. To follow short is therefore to violate Kant’s best-known categorical imperative.

The question, therefore, is whether we can fault our little girl for doing it. Is she a dickbag for trying to win? In last night’s game, I think so. The point of laser tag is not to win; the point is to have fun. No adults—and our number was substantial—pursued the short following strategy. It would be unseemly to have done so, because no adult should care about winning laser tag that much. The only reason the little girl might be forgiven for pursuing the short follow strategy is that winning laser tag seems very important to a child.

So what we have here is a question of stakes. Let us imagine that, instead of receiving a printout of their scores, people who played laser tag at The Hub Family Entertainment Center got food for their families. The families of players who consistently lost at laser tag would weaken and die. In that situation, we would not call our short-following little girl a dickbag. If she were an urchin who supported her aging parents by entering the laser tag arenas of western Montana, we might commend her resourcefulness and determination.

Now let’s imagine that instead of playing laser tag, we were trying to run a good society. Depending on its structure and design, our society might encourage citizens toward more effective behaviors that were less fun for the overall game. Citizens might, for example, follow strangers into corners and take their money, rather than pursuing the more fun strategy of trying to sell them increasingly sophisticated cell phones. Or rather than trying to build those better cell phones, they might just buy ailing cell phone manufacturers and strip them of assets before abandoning them to bankruptcy.

I submit that the amount of censure players deserve for employing these strategies is inversely proportional to the stakes of the game for them. As those stakes approach survival, effective but anti-fun strategies deserve less censure. In certain parts of America, the structure of our game makes selling drugs the most effective strategy for any kid smart enough to execute it. For him, the stakes are high enough that having fun—playing the game instead of winning the game—is a self-destructive option.

Those of us who find the game more a matter of fun than of survival condemn this drug dealer, this player who chose a short-following strategy. We censure him for jeopardizing other people’s enjoyment of the game for a few hundred bucks a week. Money is important, we say, but more important is a sense of fair play. From a certain perspective, our sense of fair play becomes indistinguishable from our sense that winning doesn’t matter. I submit that can be a rich person’s perspective, the perspective of an adult playing laser tag.


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