Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Theory, Practice, and Games

Much like some people sneeze in the presence of dust and allergens, I tend to squirt out blog posts after being exposed to things that irritate me. As my vast hordes of angry, brainwashed readers know I take issue with the notion of plans looking good in theory, but not working in practice. Quite simply when a plan looks good in theory and doesn't work in practice, the problem lies with the observer, and particularly with the way they consider the relation between practice and plans. I recall reading something apocryphal about Sun Tzu when he was applying for a job at some royal court I can't recall, or be bothered to look up.

Essentially the Prince he was applying to asked him to demonstrate his ideas using the royal concubines. Sun Tzu asked that they be given spears, lined them up, and appointed the Prince's favourites as officers. After explaining the drill to them, he banged on his drum and called out an order, only to be met with silence. Sun Tzu acknowledged the Prince's criticism of the lack of results by noting that the concubines weren't professional soldiers, and the fault was his for not explaining clearly. So he got another chance, explain the whole business more carefully to the women, and banged on his drum. Yet again, nothing happened.

This time Sun Tzu noted that the orders had been clear, and therefore the problem was that the officers had not enforced them, and ordered the officers, the Prince's favourites, executed. The Prince protested, and Sun Tzu offered his third point: The commander in the field is the ultimate authority. Whether this happened or not is immaterial to the allegorical point that it shares with my post today, that there are three things at stake in the relation between theory and practice.

The third thing is execution.

If we cannot apply a theory, then the theory itself may be at fault for not predicting our shortfall in ability, or the theory may be mis-applied, or we may simply flub it. In sports like swimming the theory and practice are pretty straight-forward, and the main job of the competitors is to keep it together and repeat the performance that they have trained to execute. Indeed, it's often only at the sport's highest levels that anything like interaction between the participants beyond a little wake-dragging is even possible. It's hard to game a race when the participants are by no means assured of executing their moves perfectly.

Of course, we can get lucky as well, and be the beneficiary of our opponent(s) flubbing it. But the point is that we can flub the theory as well as the practice. Which is why the problem with a plan looking good in theory and failing in practice is both a failure of theory and of practice. On a logical note we have to abandon the notion of thinking of theory and practice as somehow disjunctive, as though they do not inform each other, and reflect the following meta-critical move: Theoretical practice, practical theory, theoretical theory, and practical practice.

Theoretical practice is just that, the practice of specific elements of a task in order to ameliorate a specific weakness in the complete task. Just as one might perform drills in swimming to adjust kinaesthetic sensation in one's stroke, a gamer might practice eyeballing the movement distances between models in order to maximize their ability to spot the opportunity to pull a charge or surround an enemy vehicle (or to minimize mistakes in target prioritization, etc). It is the preparation that one engages in to ensure that instead of wasting time thinking during a task, that one is able to act with the surety of instinct.

Practical theory is likewise pretty straightforward: the legwork of mechanically checking theories for virtues such as completeness, validity, and so on. To qualify the unmediated application of imagination as 'theory' is to dignify squinting as a form of measurement. Just as a craftsman might measure carefully the tolerances on a precision-machined component, a competent theoretician might check their calculations. Not all theories are equal, and theories with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, for example, wasn't Einstein simply using his imagination, but using it to consider the application of tensors to describing the observed cosmological phenomena available at the time. Practical theory is thinking in a structured and validatable manner.

Theoretical theory is also known as philosophy, where one considers the perspective adopted by the theory, and its merits relative to theories and plans that might yield an equivalent result. If we want to consider how to differentiate between practical theory and theoretical theory, we should consider the difference between the practice of a well-documented theory, and our motivations for employing that theory.

Practical practice is performance, the 'reality' that the the idiots so often complain sullies the greatest of plans, and the 'contact' in the contact with enemies that sees plans 'thrown out the window' (presumably the opposite of contemplating them at our leisure with a cup of tea). Much like theoretical practice adjusts aspects of performance, the practical practice is bringing it all together to both produce a result, and to practice producing a result. As Gennadi Touretski said of how many times a year Alexander Popov broke the world record during practices back in the 1990s: He does one hundred starts a year (paraphrased).

Hopefully this helps to clarify why there might seem to be a gap between theory and practice, if we consider theory only as theoretical theory, and practical only as practical practice. Of course no plan survives contact with the enemy when your planning is slipshod, your understanding of the enemy is vague, and your preparation is meagre. Generals fighting a war might have some excuse given the discontinuities between their orders, the boots on the ground, and the limits of their knowledge, but gamers with their God's Eye View have no such excuse.

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