QWOP Complexity

by Don Boudreaux on January 30, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Hubris and humility, The Economy

My 13-year-old son, Thomas, plays a video game called QWOP (which Thomas pronounces “Que-opp”).  Thomas reports that this game is the most challenging video game that he plays.

The game requires the player to control the muscle movements of an Olympic-style sprinter so that the sprinter dashes down the track.  The goal of the game (if I gather correctly) is to get the sprinter down the track in the shortest time possible.  The better the player is able to make the movements of the cyber-sprinter look as much as possible like the movements of a real sprinter, the more success the player will have at QWOP.

Thomas tells me that the player controls the cyber-sprinter’s movements by manipulating four keys on the keyboard: q, w, o, & p.  (Thus the name of the game.)

Thomas, alas, can hardly get the cyber-sprinter to put one foot in front of the other for a single time, much less in coordinated succession for a successful sprint to the finish line.  I tried it a couple of times, with even less success.

QWOP should teach us a valuable lesson about the economy and efforts to control it.

Observing a real-world sprinter run a race gives us the impression that it’s easy to do.  (Not so much to achieve the speed of world-class sprinters, but just to run.)  We all run – or have run, more or less, at some point in our lives.  We’re experienced at that endeavor!

And, if asked, we could describe what the runner does.  “Well, first he raises his right leg, then pushes forward with his left foot behind him to give him sufficient momentum to move his entire body off of the ground – and moving forward – for a split second.  Then the sprinter repeats the process, but this time pushing off with his right foot behind him…..”

Seems pretty simple.

But try to control the movements of the cyber-sprinter in QWOP.  It’s incredibly difficult!  He falls on his face, moves spastically, and goes nowhere fast.

In fact, a sprinter’s movements are an indescribably complex pattern of muscle contractions and expansions.  And while a skilled QWOP player (I assume) can master the relatively simple keyboard movements required to get the relatively simple cyber-sprinter down the track in some fashion that visually resembles the movements of a real-world sprinter, it’s hubris to suppose that any third person could control a wired-up but unconscious real-world sprinter and, by using some piece of technology, manipulate that sprinter’s muscles in ways that would get him down the track successfully.

If we want to watch a foot race, we let each individual runner run on his or her own.

We should be on guard against such hubris when we imagine ourselves – or some geniuses whom we admire – ‘running’ the economy or any significant portion of it.  What meets the eye in any marketplace – meets the eyes even of experts – is only a tiny tip of an immense iceberg of complex feedback loops, unique and often fleeting bits of knowledge, and countless adjustments of coutless people, none of whom could describe in detail exactly what they’re doing any more than even a world-class sprinter could describe in detail all that he does with his muscles when he sprints.

Even the best models of an economy or of an industry capture, at most, only this tiny tip of this immense iceberg of feeback loops, knowledge, and adjustments.  Anyone who mistakes mastery of even the most useful economic model or theory for mastery of all that that model or theory aims to represent is foolish beyond words.  “Smart,” perhaps, but no wiser than dryer lint.

Back in 1998 I wrote a column with a similar theme.

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