Overcoming Toxicity

The Dunning-Kruger Effect in the Pokémon TCG

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So you play Pokémon. Since you also have an internet connection, it’s more than likely you’re aware of the infamous Virbank City, origin of all that is toxic. After reading what must be a lifetime quota of profoundly ignorant Facebook comments, I decided to examine what it is about public expression that makes people so noxious online.

Some background: Virbank City is a nearly five thousand-member Facebook group, originally known as HeyFonte. Eventually, as the group got bigger, Jason Klaczynski decided that the group needed some moderation. Since the name no longer fit the mission statement of the group (free speech), it was changed to Virbank City.

As the group swelled in numbers, moderation actually became less necessary. The players who appreciated the lawless nature of HeyFonte stopped posting, and the forum was flooded by mid-level players. Unfortunately, when you get a lot of players of the same skill level in one place, egos and ideas tend to clash.

Meanwhile, David Dunning and Justin Kruger were examining something that is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. While it got a lot of press in 2010 especially, the media is currently experiencing a sort of psychological renaissance, and the concept is back in the spotlight. At this point, most people involved in gaming know what the DKE is. For the rest of you, I want to relate the effect specifically to Pokémon players.

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

1) fail to recognize their own lack of skill;

As this relates to Pokémon, players simply tend to think of themselves as being better than they actually are.

2) fail to recognize genuine skill in others;

Pokémon places less of an importance on celebrity status than you would think, especially compared to certain esports. It seems to make sense that in order to be an accurate judge of skill that the judge would have to possess more skill than the person being judged. Thus, bullet number two makes it difficult for almost everyone to judge player quality at the highest levels of the game.

3) fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;

Everyone knows they have to keep learning to improve, but this bullet will never allow you to know to what degree you’re actually lacking. It’s easy to say “Look at me, I’m bad at Pokémon!” and use that as a basis on which to justify an opinion or create an argument online, but to people who have bullet number three in their lives, the distance between themselves and the best of the best is impossible to judge.

Conversely, good players tend to underrate themselves. The DKE supports the idea that the less competent a person is, the more skilled the person falsely believes that he or she is. This isn’t necessarily an ego problem, but due to lack of experience, the player won’t know any better.

4) recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

The DKE is a long tunnel, filled with lights on switches. Every time you flip a switch, an area lights up. If this is your enlightened state, you can only know what’s behind and around you.

Everything ahead of you is shrouded in fog. To dispel the darkness, you have to go up to the switch and flip it on. The darkness represents inadequacy, what I’ll call a state lacking both upper-level skill and understanding. Pokémon is a game that is impossible to master, so we all have an indeterminate amount of darkness in our tunnels.

The crux of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that a person can never actually relate to what is ahead until they’re there. This might not make a ton of sense in relation to Pokémon.

Think of it like this: mid-level players can make misplays and defend them even though such plays are incorrect to anyone at a high level. Even through their own analysis, they won’t be able to see why the play is wrong until it is pointed out to them.

The DKE is like Virbank City, the Facebook group. It’s a whole subterranean world of parallel tunnels. Pretend every one of the 5,000ish members is gradually walking along turning on the lights as they go. Got it? Good.

Now pretend that every one of those members is a monkey (am I wrong?).

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The price of progress—letting down one’s guard and having willingness to learn.

Of course, monkeys in tunnels brings up another problem. Who am I to even use the word “middle” to describe the position of a hypothetical Pokémon playing primate? I myself am still walking through the darkness, but at what speed? “Speed” of progress is only relative to the length of the hypothetical tunnel itself.

Monkeys like Jason Klaczynski, Ryan Sabelhaus, Jay Hornung, and some of my fellow SixPrizes writers are probably at around the same place in the DKE tunnel. We’re all walking to the same end, but even if we’re only feet away from that point, we’ll never actually get there. This represents the game’s skill cap. It’s impossible to truly master a game like Pokémon but, in theory, it’s possible to come infinitely close. Reaching the end of the tunnel would mean that a player can 100% of the time make optimal plays based on every bit of knowledge he or she has, while also making perfect predictions with deck choice.

The idea that someone can do both consistently is absurd when you consider how easy it is to make a misplay. A misplay is any move that isn’t optimal—a mistake. Even the best players in the world make small mistakes every few turns. I often tell myself that I played a game perfectly after a win only because I didn’t make any mistakes that my opponent was able to punish me for, but this is an instance of me lying to myself (falling victim of points one and three above).

It’s rare that an excellent player makes a major misplay, but I’m talking about minor mistakes. These are the mistakes that usually aren’t big deals, but all this changes when one small mistake ends up losing a game. More often than not, these are the misplays you don’t even realize you make, even after a loss. It’s hard to define them as poor plays when they look optimal when they’re made (surely I won’t need this Ultra Ball more than I need this Energy Switch…).

Consider that all the monkeys can see each others’ progress. For the vast majority of players reading this, Pokémon is a competitive experience. While the ultimate goal is to win games, that goal is comprised of an infinite number of micro-goals, all of which involve improving as a player both on and off the table.

As in any game with variance, losing is inevitable at some point, and when the goal is only to win, it’s easy to get nothing out of a loss at all. A great player must be clear-minded enough to see through his or her own affliction with the first three points of the DKE listed above. By accepting inadequacy and realizing that everyone has room to improve, it becomes easier to apply the fourth point. Rather than shrugging off defeat, recognize another player’s skill for what it’s worth and invent a learning experience.

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Don’t turn back—the mediocre monkey revels over its inferiors and fails to notice its peers.

As I wrote this, I wondered what it is about the internet that makes it so much more obvious how many citizens of Virbank City suffer from the first three points of the DKE. One of the first posts I saw on the day I wrote this was a picture of a European regional champ’s decklist. I couldn’t help but notice the 50+ painfully ignorant comments below, many of which were thinly veiled criticisms of the player’s consistency cards.

What I’ve found from reading Facebook comments is that monkeys tend to have hilariously poor depth perception. Monkeys notice that they aren’t alone in the tunnel of Pokémon TCG, but the DKE feeds the illusion that the ones that are ahead are closer to the observer than they actually are, while the monkeys that are all around them remain unnoticed. Simply put, players with DKE problems think they’re better and more enlightened than others, while in reality they’re exceptionally ordinary.

Those monkeys around the middle are walking the fastest. They’re motivated and they have plenty of resources to educate themselves. They’re learning how to turn the lights on quicker but they have a lot left to learn. Unfortunately, these monkeys are also the most naive.

These moderately enlightened monkeys are incredibly far-sighted. They only see what is way ahead and far behind them. Seeing monkeys behind them gives them an idea that they are ahead of the pack, but they remain blind to the fact that they aren’t alone.

There are monkeys all around them with the same amount of lights on, but the DKE prevents them from seeing clearly. Monkeys in this area are content to turn around and watch the monkeys behind them catch up, and that’s it. Those who look back condemn themselves to mediocrity. They stop moving forward and they don’t continue turning lights on.

All this happens while the monkeys looking toward them are closing in. This is the laziness that creeps in after a big win, this is what happens once an invite is earned, this is the dead time in between Nationals and Worlds. Turning back to gawk has only ever stifled progress.

Monkeys with the smallest semblance of intelligence will keep facing frontwards and they won’t forget that there are still monkeys far ahead that they have to catch. It’s the external factors that are the real killers though. Nothing can consume a career as fast as a World or National win. It’s not the win that’s dangerous, it’s keeping your head on straight after the fact.

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This illusion is never stronger than right after a big win. National and World Champions tend to turn around when they take the title, and that’s a terrible mistake that champs make literally all the time. That title, let me tell you, is a horrible drug. It clouds your focus and you stop noticing the lights. Monkeys hate the darkness, so when they can’t see any light ahead of them, they turn around. When a person starts to believe they’re on top, the only place there is to go is down.

Some of them stay turned around until another monkey overtakes them. Then it’s too late. They turn around to find that they were blinded, and that many other monkeys have already passed by. Some vow to never turn back again, but others are humbled to their breaking points. In fact, I’d be interested to know what percent of champions still play the game after defending their titles in the season after their wins.

The pressure and expectations of feeling on top can be back-breaking, when in reality, that feeling is all in a person’s head. A world champ is nothing more than a person who won a world championship.

Consider this when you only look forward into darkness: there are always lights out there, far ahead, and the dark cloud you see in front of you is all an illusion. However, the fog is paradoxical in nature. The fog is a factor of a person’s mental clarity. An unclear mind cannot distinguish between normalcy and the fog. This is the exact opposite of “tilt,” a term used when someone makes poor decisions after something sets the person on edge. A common misconception is that people can realize they’re on tilt and calm down. In reality, if a person can think clearly enough to realize they’re on tilt, it is not truly “tilt” at all.

The opposite is no different, really. What I’m talking about here is “victory tilt,” for lack of a better term. People who suffer from this are blinded by feeling victorious and truly fail to see their own inadequacy.

In 2008 I was a fifth-year Senior who was fresh off a Worlds win. I INSISTED on playing Leafeon LV.X decks in every event I played in for most of the year. I was convinced Leafeon would make a good deck, even though it was tier two at best. My disillusioned self decided that Gengar decks would be a decent matchup if I teched for it. When I found myself playing 3 Unown G GE in my decks, I realized I was doing something wrong. By Worlds I finally decided to play a good deck, Dialga G/Palkia G, ending my season with a top 32 finish in San Diego. Moral of the story is it’s easy to think you can win with something as bad as Leafeon when you’re on top of the world.

Maybe it’s understandable. Inadequacy and success are hard to juxtapose, but doing so is key to overcoming the DKE at high levels of play.

The Dunning-Kruger effect affects all people at all skill levels, especially winners. It’s especially difficult to see errors while doing well, but while the macro goal of the game is to win, even subconsciously learning a little every time you deal the cards will undoubtedly get you there faster. It’s just a matter of keeping a wide open mind.

Everyone has blamed a loss on luck, right? Sometimes with the deck in your hand, there are just no outs to play to and it’s inevitable that you will lose the game. You can’t make optimal plays with a Drifloon and 6 G Energy. What I’m saying is that an adequate player will examine a game that went wrong (and games that go right), see misplays right after they were made, and blame his or herself for failure. The monkey in the tunnel will point to bad luck or its opponent’s “unusual choices” when complaining to its friends about a rough loss.

What do I mean by “unusual choices?” I see players stoking their own egos all the time after making terrible choices in a game that was won. “So what?” you respond. “I won the game, didn’t I?” Winning is great, strictly better than losing in fact. But realize that poor play doesn’t necessarily lose games alone. There are plenty of bad players out there that still win games. Because Pokémon is a game with great relative variance, winning a game doesn’t always correlate with playing better than the loser. I think it’s a little sad when I see somebody Juniper away his win condition, only to realize his misplay and end up drawing yet another copy of the card. I can’t help but think the universe is a little too kind to people who fail so epically. The point is, the person making optimal plays doesn’t always get the win. Victorious play is not always quality play.

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When variance is at play, the true winners and losers are not so apparent.

The luck element is what sets Pokémon apart from these other games. This is obviously what allows a lesser player to best an old pro. It might be hard to relate if you’ve only ever played Pokémon, but let me tell you, in MTG and League of Legends, some pro players are better than others.

In League, top-tier Korean players are significantly more technically skilled than players from North America. It’s a well-known fact among League players that the Samsung Galaxy teams had the highest skill concentration in the world for a time. Both Samsung Galaxy White and Samsung Galaxy Blue were predicted to do well in the World Championships, finishing 1st and 3rd respectively.

This type of prediction tends to be more accurate for games with lower variance—League, chess, and to a degree, games like Magic and Pokémon. In Pokémon, the correlation between victory and skill is a little bit weaker. The point is, in games with little to no variance, it’s quite easy to identify skill. Pokémon, of course, is not one of those games.

Winning a tournament is a simple testament to the the luck a player was blessed with on that particular day. I’d like to think that luck isn’t the paramount factor when the game’s best sit down to play. I’m of the opinion that the greatest victories happen in the night before. In hotel rooms, on the venue floor, and by the midnight oil. By far, the the greatest victories in Pokémon TCG come from deck choice.

Turning in a strong decklist is the first and most important decision a person makes in a tournament. Deck choice alone can define how a day will go.

The DKE has been discussed a great deal lately. Cornell University’s own Daniel Dunning recently authored an AMA (ask me anything!) post on Reddit, giving a great deal of insight into how he gave a name to the phenomenon of human ignorance.

So how do you avoid making mistakes, considering the magnitude of your ignorance?

“The best way to avoid errors that you are unaware of (the Dunning-Kruger effect) is not to catch those errors (you won’t see them anyway), but to avoid making them in the first place. Or, if you are bound to make them, to mitigate their effect. How to do that? Get competent. Always be learning.”

–Dr. David Dunning

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