On Destroying the World

Yesterday I blew up the front page. This was unintentional. I was tricked by one of my friends:

petrov_day_admin_account September 26, 2020 11:26 AM Hello Chris_Leong,

You are part of a smaller group of 30 users who has been selected for the second part of this experiment. In order for the website not to go down, at least 5 of these selected users must enter their codes within 30 minutes of receiving this message, and at least 20 of these users must enter their codes within 6 hours of receiving the message. To keep the site up, please enter your codes as soon as possible. You will be asked to complete a short survey afterwards.

In retrospect, this was quite silly of me. I actually noticed that the account was different from the one that sent the first message, which should have given it away, but the message really did feel legit so I trusted it anyway.

But beyond this, there were further details that should have made the message somewhat suspicious. The first is that this experiment occurred after midnight for San Fransisco. Given that most of the users on this site are based in the US, they wouldn’t have been awake. While they might have specifically chosen users from suitable timezones, it would have made much more sense for them to just wait until more users woke up. Secondly, 2030 users within 6 hours seems a bit high given that users weren’t told in advance that the game was going on, so it’s not clear how many would be available even if they knew.

One thing that greatly surprised me was how much the following comment was misunderstood:

Should I press the button or not? I haven’t pressed the button at the current time as it would be disappointing to people if they received the email, but someone pressed it while they were still asleep.

People read the comment and assumed I was intending the press the button and the only different the trick meant was that it occurred earlier. One of the dangers when writing comments quickly is that the meaning might not be very clear at all. I hadn’t actually made up my mind about whether to push the button or not as I was waiting for comments to come in. All I had decided was that I didn’t want the site to blow up while people were still asleep because I thought it’d be less fun for them. That said, I was entirely open to blowing up the site if I thought that the argument for was stronger than the argument against.

Ruby pointed out that I didn’t spend as much thinking about this:

This seems plausible. I do want to note that your received message was timestamped 11:26 (local to you) and the button was pressed at 11:33:30 (The received message said the time limit was 30 minutes.), which doesn’t seems like an abundance of caution and hesitation to blow up the frontpage, as far as I can tell. :P

I saw the email notification almost immediately after it was sent and I thought about it for a bit before deciding that it really just felt legit. I considered messaging the mods, but I assumed they were asleep as it was like 2am over there. The timestamps indicate that I only spent about seven minutes thinking about it, but it definitely felt like longer.

I responded to Ruby with the following comment, which certainly wasn’t the best comment that I’ve ever made.

Well, it was just a game and I had other things to do. Plus I didn’t feel a duty to take it 100% seriously since, as happy as I was to have the chance to participate, I didn’t actually choose to play.

I suppose the thing I should clarify about this comment is, “I didn’t actually choose to play”, as I did kind of choose to play by posting comments asking whether I should press the button on not. What I could have said if I had wanted to be more precise is that at most my commitment from engaging was to read the comments that people posted and to take them into consideration. That is, to not waste the time of people who took the effort to reply.

I don’t think I really had a duty to do anything further, including spending the full or most of the half an hour considering the decision. JacobJacob wants to draw a distinction between acting and not acting and I think that’s fair enough for the original version of the game, but as soon as I received the email, the difference between acting and not acting collapsed and the decision not to act would have been an action in and of itself.

This brings me to Oliver Habryka’s comment:

To be clear, while there is obviously some fun intended in this tradition, I don’t think describing it as “just a game” feels appropriate to me. I do actually really care about people being able to coordinate to not take the site down. It’s an actual hard thing to do that actually is trying to reinforce a bunch of the real and important values that I care about in Petrov day. Of course, I can’t force you to feel a certain way, but like, I do sure feel a pretty high level of disappointment reading this response.

We’ll come to this in a moment, but first I want to address his final sentence: “Like, the email literally said you were chosen to participate because we trusted you to not actually use the codes”. I’ve played lot of role-playing games back in my day and often people write all kinds of things as flavour text. And none of it is meant to be taken literally.

I want to point out a few things in particular. Firstly, the email was sent out to 270 users which from my perspective made it seem that the website was almost guaranteed to go down at some time, with the only question being when (I was aware the game was played last year, but I had no memory of the outcome or the number of users).

Beyond this, the fact that the message said, “Hello Chris_Leong” and that it was sent to 270 users meant that it didn’t really feel like a personal request from Ben Pace. Additionally, note the somewhat jokey tone of the final sentence, “I hope to see you in the dawn of tomorrow, with our honor still intact”. Obviously, someone pressing the button wouldn’t damage the honor or reputation of Less Wrong and so it seemed to indicate that this was just a bit of fun..

But beyond this, I remember when I was a kid and I played games super seriously, while other kids just wanted to have some fun. And I was annoyed with them because I wanted to win, but I felt that they were holding me back. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised my mistake here.

Now Habryka is annoyed because he was trying to run a specific experiment and that experiment wasn’t, “Can people who kind of care about the game, but don’t care too much get fooled into taking down the site”. I can understand that, I imagine that this experiment took a lot of time to set up and he was probably looking forward to it for a while.

At the same, the purpose of this experiment wasn’t clear at all. I wasn’t sure if it was having fun, increasing awareness or gaining insight into people’s psychology. I read the email and the post, and the feeling of this “I do actually really care about people being able to coordinate to not take the site down. It’s an actual hard thing to do that actually is trying to reinforce a bunch of the real and important values that I care about in Petrov day” wasn’t really articulated anywhere. And if there was a particular goal, instead of us being supposed to decide for ourselves what the goal was, then maybe it would have made sense to have been clear about it?