Matthew Baldwin

The Peril of A.P.

08.17.09 | 19 Comments

It’s always strange to hear a term you thought you “owned” in a complete different context. Case in point: as a board gamer, I have been using the phrase “analysis paralysis” for years, completely unaware that the term was affiliated (and perhaps originated) with A.A.

Most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis … That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good … In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.

The problem of analysis-paralysis crops up so often in board game discussion that it is usually just abbreviated as “AP”. And we tend to use the term in two distinct ways: in reference to people, and in reference to design.

A person who is, in our lingo, “AP-prone” is someone who freezes up on their turn as they mentally traverse the entire decision tree, terrified of making a less than optimal move. Imagine a chess-playing computer, that calculates every possible move and its outcome before taking its turn; now imagine some guy who’s already had two beers and half a bag of Cheetos trying to do the same thing, looming over the table with furrowed brow, stuck in a endless loop because, by the time he considers the last of all possible choices, he has already forgotten the first, and must therefore start again. And meanwhile the fun whooshes out of the room like atmosphere through an open airlock.

A game that is “AP-prone”, on the other hand, is a design that encourages exactly this kind of minimaxing behavior.68 Whereas many players have learned to turn a deaf ear to AP’s siren song, certain games can ossify even the most casual of gamers.

AP is such a problem in modern board games, that designers are taught ways to prevent it. The quickest method is to throw a sand timer into the game and declare that each player only has x seconds to complete their turn. Another is to introduce an element to chance into the game, thus making it difficult or impossible to successfully predict future events. A third is to reduce the number of options available to a player at any given time.

In other words, the solution to analysis-paralysis–at least in terms of board game design–is to reduce freedom: reduce the amount of time, or the amount of information, or the amount of choices. Constraint facilitates action.69

Even if you don’t play board games, you are surely familiar with the phenomenon. Your 8th Grade English teacher says you can write an essay on anything, and your mind’s a blank; she instead says you have to write it on leaf cutters ants, and at least you know which Wikipedia page to plagiarize. Or consider Twitter: I would argue that the 140 character “limit” (no longer a technical necessity, by the way) is precisely what makes the service so popular.

Although the term “analysis-paralysis” only crops up on Infinite Jest a few times, in many ways it seems to be the crux of the novel, the delicate balance between freedom and constraint, action and thought, territory and map. Indeed, the recent passages about Randy Lenz and Bruce Green practically depict the two men as incarnations of the extremes: Lenz with his gerbil-in-a-wheel logorrhea, Green clocking in at “about one fully developed thought every sixty seconds, and then just one at a time, a thought, each materializing already fully developed and sitting there and then melting back away like a languid liquid-crystal display.”

It’s a theme present in all major storylines: Schtitt imposing his Draconian training regiment on the unruly student, honing them into world class tennis players; A.A. teaching “Substance-addicted people” how to stop overthinking and instead “fake it until you make it”; and Marathe lecturing Steeply about the perils of too much choice.

The rich father who can afford the cost of candy as well as food for his children: but if he cries out “Freedom!” and allows his child to choose only what is sweet, eating only candy, not pea soup and bread and eggs, so his child becomes weak and sick: is the rich man who cries “Freedom!” the good father?

One has to wonder if Wallace wasn’t so keyed into the chaos v. order equipoise because of his own relationship with editors, the tempering force to his own voluminous output, the catalyst between madness and genius.