Thursday, March 22, 2007

Thoughts on the Jeopardy Three Way

Interesting questions from dg,

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on last week’s Jeopardy 3-way tie. If you haven’t seen the game, two players were tied for second going into final jeopardy and the player in the lead (actually a Mt St Mary’s CS professor) wagered so that if all three got the final Jeapordy question right then they would end in a three way tie – the first time that has happened in the show’s history. The question that interests me deals with the fact that the player in the lead (Scott) probably should have wagered a dollar more so that he would be the sole champion, but he admits that he wagered for the tie because it would be really cool and because it didn’t really come at any expense to him (other than the additional money he would have wagered) – in the event of a tie, all three player’s came back this week and all won the money they ended the game with. I’m curious – do you think this move was ethical?

In most competitions, we assume that players are playing to win, and we would find it unethical if we find out they were point-shaving or throwing a ballgame. So does that apply in this situation? On the other hand, one could argue that Jeopardy isn’t a zero-sum game – in particular, all three players won $16K because of his move while if he had wagered a dollar more he would have only won $16,001 and his opponents would have won a lot of Rice-a-Roni. So maybe what he did was not only not unethical but actually admirable? OR if you view it as a game against Merv Griffin maybe he won by bleeding them for more money? Should the tv show not have aired because it violates our trust in the premise of Jeopardy, or is this whole thing just really cool in the same way that I like watching tie-breaking procedures in athletic conferences and secretly root for ties in the electoral college just because it would be fun to watch it play out?

I’ve had a lot more thoughts on this question (and on the ethics behind non-cooperative game theory more generally), and I have spent more time than I would like to admit discussing it online this past weekend. But I was curious to hear your point of view and/or how ethicists would deal with this question.

The place to start the discussion is that competitive games do require a social contract. All the players go into the game agreeing to a general ethos that governs many aspects of play...the level of competitiveness (where is this game on the scale from just fooling around to completely cut-throat), how much rule-breaking will be tolerated (from completely straight play is expected to whatever you can get away with as long as you don't get caught), and a number of other factors. What is acceptable in the game is a function of the game's community ethos -- a children's basketball game would have a different ethos from an adult pick-up game which again is different from a professional championship game -- and this ethos derives from what the community of players value in the game, what they are trying to get out of the game. Is it strength of opposition and maximizing the level of competition, friendship and commeraderie, exercise and health, the opportunity to learn the sport and sportsmanship,...? Unsportsmanlike play is a violation of the understood spirit of play.

In Jeopardy, which holds itself up as the Cadillac of game shows for smart people, the ethos is one of strict rule following and playing your best, smartest, most strategic game in order to try to win. Scott certainly played within the rules, did not throw the game, and played to win...he just played to win in a very unusual way. The two players who were tied in second-place were playing for a first-place tie because that was the best they could acheive. He, on the other hand, with the wager of one additional dollar would have won. If he had bet two dollars less and thereby intentionally cost himself the game but conveyed the sense that "I could have won if I wanted to," that would be a violation in that he was expected to play his best to win.

But playing your best to win doesn't in this context doesn't necessarily mean playing to beat the others as long as anything he did to not beat his opponents didn't make the game easier for them because winning here is not exclusive. If he was whispering answers to them or intentionally ringing in slowly, that would compromise the level of challenge in the game and undermine the ethos. But his way of winning while not beating his opponents was actually much more clever, something that is held in high esteem in the Jeopardy watching and playing community. His choice showed a deep commitment to the values of of those who love Jeopardy. It was not unsportsmanlike because he acted in line with the community ethos.

The sort of people who love Jeopardy (I've met Scott Weiss briefly -- when I worked at Mount St. Mary's for a year, he was just starting there and we went through new faculty orientation together) do not care as much for money as they do for (1) fair play, (2) breadth of knowledge, and (3) problem solving ability. Problem solving ability is tied to a love of puzzles which is correlated with an attraction to degenerate situations. Scott was clever in setting up something that you thought you'd never see and this showed him not to be less of a Jeopardy committed member of the community, but more in creating a scenario that would appeal to Jeopardy lovers.

That being said, the other two winners no doubt feel (quite correctly) like they cannot in good faith call themselves Jeopardy champions since they were given the win as a gift. They didn't win it outright, they didn't show themselves to be smarter than Scott Weiss, but rather were awarded the win at the whim of Scott. Scott ended up tied for first, but certainly was the biggest winner in that he not only showed himslef to be smarter than his Jeopardy opponents, he showed himself to be smarter than Jeopardy, making the show bend to his will to create a bizarre situation that is highly unusual. He used his bet to manipulate things into an unnatural state. The tie really gets an asterick in the record books because it wasn't a natural tie. In some contexts this asterick would make the action unsportsmanlike, but here because the community would appreciate the unnatural state, it was not only morally fine, it was pretty darn nifty.