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Casinos as Creative Adversaries

I previously discussed creative adversaries who don't initiate force (in the section "Manipulating Customers"). This post will discuss the concept more and apply it to casinos.

Casinos Initiate Force

First, let's acknowledge that casinos do initiate force sometimes. Casinos (allegedly) rig machines so the jackpot is impossible, then retaliate against whistleblowers and people who report their illegal behavior to the government (followup article: Third Worker Claims Riviera Rigged Slots). And casinos (allegedly) illegally collude about hotel prices. And casinos (allegedly) do wage theft. And Sega (allegedly) rigs gambling machines found in malls and arcades (that article mentions another lawsuit where a particular individual (allegedly) further rigged some of the Sega machines, which are no longer allowed to be sold or leased in the state of Arizona). And casinos (allegedly) make excuses and refuse to pay out large jackpots by claiming their software was buggy.

(Note: If casino machines have buggy software, and then casino workers selectively intervene when the bugs favor the customer, that creates a bias. That presumably drops the actual payout percentage below what they advertise, which is fraud. And there are stronger incentives for software developers – who are paid directly or indirectly by the casino – to avoid or fix bugs that disfavor the casino, so the bugs in the software are presumably not entirely random/accidental, and instead disfavor customers on average even without selective human intervention to deny payouts.)

But let's ignore all that force. Casinos are creative adversaries whose non-force-initiating behavior is problematic.

Casino Manipulation

Casinos put massive effort into manipulating people and creating gambling "addicts". It takes significant creative effort and problem solving to resist this and avoid losing tons of money and time. The larger the budgets the casinos spend figuring out how to manipulate people, the larger the effort required for individuals to protect themselves. Casinos have put so much work into figuring out how to non-forcefully control people's behavior and get them to act against their own preferences, values and interests that it often works. There's a significant failure rate for typical, average people who try to defend themselves against these tricky tactics.

Casinos may have some large disadvantages (e.g. you can walk away at any time or never visit in the first place) regarding their control over your behavior, but they also have a large advantage: a huge budget and a team of experts trying to figure out how to exploit you. One of their advantages is they don't need tactics that work on everyone: if they could hook 1% of the population, that would do massive harm and bring in lots of money.

Casinos have some ways to interact with you, like ads. Basically no one in our society manages to fully avoid information that casinos wanted to share with us. Some people never go gamble at a casino, but the casinos get some chance to try to influence more or less every American. Casinos also get people to voluntarily spread information about them in conversations, and they're featured in books and movies, so even avoiding every single ad wouldn't isolate you from casinos. Casinos put effort into controlling how they are talked about and portrayed in media, with partial effectiveness – they certainly don't have total control but they do influence it to be more how they want. Of course, once you enter a casino, they have a lot more opportunities to interact with you and influence you, and if you actually gamble they get access to even more ways to affect you.

Workarounds for Restrictions

The general, abstract concept here is imagine you're trying to accomplish some kind of outcome in some scenario with limited tools and while obeying some rules that restrict your actions. Can you succeed? Usually, if you try hard enough, you can find a workaround for the poor tools and the restricting rules. There tend to be many, many ways to accomplish a goal, and massive effort tends to make up for having to follow some inconvenient rules and not use the best tools.

Casinos have limited tools to use to control you, and have to follow various rules (like about false advertising – which I'm sure they break sometimes but they're dangerous even when they follow the rules). They use a massive budget and a bunch of employees to find workarounds for the rules and find complex, unintended, unintuitive ways to use tools to get different results than the straightforward ones.

Workaround Examples

It's similar to how given just a few mathematical functions you're allowed to use, you can usually design a universal computer based on them, even if it's horribly inconvenient and takes years of effort. Most restrictions on your computer system make no actual difference to the end result of what it can do once you figure out how.

You can also consider this issue in terms of video games. You can have heavy restrictions on how you play a video game and still be able to win. You might not be allowed to get hit even once in a game where being hit a lot is an intended part of normal gameplay (you have enough health to survive a dozen hits and you have healing spells), and you could still win – effort will overcome that obstacle. Or there was a demo of Zelda game with a five minute time limit and speed runners figured out how to beat the game (which was meant to take over 30 hours) within the time limit. People also figure out challenges like beating a game without pressing certain buttons (or limiting how many times they may be pressed), beating a game without using certain items, beating a game blindfolded, etc. While you could design a challenge that is literally impossible, a very wide variety of challenges turn out to be possible, including ones that are very surprising and unintended. That's often why game developers didn't prevent doing this stuff: they never imagined it was possible, so they saw no need to prevent it. They thought the rules already built into the game prevented it, but they were wrong about what sort of workarounds could be discovered by creative adversaries. (Players are "adversaries" in the mild sense of trying to play the game contrary to how the developers wanted/intended, which I think many game developers don't really mind, though some definitely do mind.) Some games are speedrun with a category called "lowest %" which basically means beating the game with the minimum number of items possible and completing as few objectives as possible. While you usually can't win with zero items (beyond what you start with) in item-oriented games, it's common to beat games with way fewer items than intended, in very surprising ways. There are often a lot of creative ways to use a limited set of tools to accomplish objectives they weren't designed to accomplish and to skip other objectives that were intended to be mandatory.

Another way to look at the issue is in terms of computer security. If I get to design a secure computer system, and you get a very restricted set of options to interact with it, then you'll probably be able to hack in and take full control of it (given enough knowledge and effort). That is what tends to happen. It's commonly possible to hack into a website just by interacting with the website, and it's commonly possible to hack into a computer just by putting up a malicious website and getting the computer user to visit it. The hacker has heavily restricted options and limited tools, but he tends to win anyway if he tries hard enough, despite companies like Apple and Microsoft having huge budgets and hiring very smart people to work on security. Another way to view it is that basically every old computer security system has turned out to have some flaw that people eventually figured out instead of staying secure decades later. Physical security systems for buildings are also imperfect and can basically always be beaten with enough effort.

Artificial Intelligence Workarounds Example

Another way to look at it is by considering superintelligent AGI (artificial general intelligence) – the kind of recursively self-improving singularity-causing AGI that the AI doomers think will kill us all. I don't think that kind of superintelligence is actually physically possible, but pretend it is. On that premise, will the AGI be able to get out of a "box" consisting of various software, hardware and physical security systems? Yes. Yes it will. Definitely.

Even if people will put all kinds of restrictions on the AGI, it will figure out a creative workaround and win anyway because it's orders of magnitude smarter than us. A lot of people don't understand that, but it's something I agree with the AI doomers about: on their premises, superintelligence would in fact win (easily – it wouldn't even be a close contest). (I don't agree that it'd want to or choose to kill us, though.) Being way smarter and putting in way more effort (far more compute power than all humans and all their regular computers combined) is going to beat severe restrictions, extensive security and (initial) limits on tools. (I say "initial" because once some restrictions are bypassed, the AGI would gain access to additional tools, making it even easier to bypass the remaining limitations. Getting started is the hardest part with this stuff but then it snowballs.)

The idea that the AGI could find workarounds for various limits is the same basic concept as the casino being able to find workarounds for various limits (like not being able to give you orders, place physical objets in your home, or withdraw money from your bank account unilaterally whenever they want) and still get their way. And a lot of people don't really get it in the AGI case, let alone the casino case (or the universal computer building case or the computer security case). At least more people get it in terms of playing video games with extra, self-imposed rules for a greater challenge and winning anyway. I think that's easier to understand. Or if you had to construct a physical doghouse (or even a large building) with some rules like "no hammers, saws or nails", it'd be more inconvenient than usual but you could figure out a solution (by figuring out ways to work around the restrictions) and I think that's pretty intuitive to people.

Manipulating by Communicating

I think people tend to understand workarounds better for beating physical reality than for manipulating people. So some people might think the AGI could beat some security measures and get control of the world. But some of those same people would doubt the AGI could get out if its only tool was talking to a human – so it had to manipulate the human in order to get out of the security system. But humans can be manipulated. Of course they can. And of course a superintelligence (with extensive knowledge about our society such as a database of every book ever written, not just raw intelligence) would be able to do that. Even regular humans, with regular intelligence, who are in jail, sometimes manage to manipulate jail guards and escape.

If you can accept that a superintelligence can manipulate people, that's a lot of the way to accepting that a casino with a huge budget and team of experts could figure out ways to manipulate people too. And if you accept that inmates manage to do it sometimes, well, casinos are in many ways in a better situation with better opportunities than inmates.

Many people don't see much power in talking, writing and words – but they live a lot of their lives according to ideologies people wrote down before they were born, and they lack the awareness to recognize much of it. Partly it's because they recognize some of it, so they think they know what's going on and see through the manipulations, but actually there are deeper/subtler manipulations they're missing. Letting someone beat or outsmart you in some partial ways is a very common part of manipulating them (an example is pool hustlers letting you win then raising the bet size).

This comes up with biased newspapers – people get manipulated partly because they think "I know it's biased" and they genuinely and correctly identify some biases and aren't manipulated by those biases ... but they also miss a bunch of other stuff. Sometimes they think e.g. "I know it's right-wing biased so I'll just assume the truth is 20 points (or 20%) more left-wing than whatever they say" which doesn't work well, partly because there's no easy way to just shift things over by 20 points (or 20%) – that's not useful or clear guidance on how to adjust a biased paragraph. And also there is variance – some sentences in a biased article are objectively true while others are heavily biased, so adjusting everything the same amount wouldn't work well. Another issue is if a bunch of people are adding 20 points to undo the bias then the newspaper can publish some stuff that's 30 points biased or more and fool all those people whenever it chooses to.

Also, people say things like "I know it's biased but surely they wouldn't lie about a factual matter" as if they don't really grasp the accusation that the newspaper (or Facebook page or anonymous poster on 4chan) is spreading misinformation and its factual claims can't be trusted. People may have an idea like "they spin stuff but never lie" which makes them easy to manipulate just by lying (or by spinning in a more extreme way than the person expects, or by spinning less than the person expects so they overcompensate and come away with beliefs that are biased in the opposite direction of the bias they believe the source has). Or newspaper editors can think about how people try to reinterpret statements to remove spin and basically reverse engineer people's algorithm and then find a flaw in the algorithm and exploit it. If people actually followed the algorithm literally you could basically hack their brain, get full root access, and fill it with whatever beliefs you wanted. But people aren't that literal or consistent which limits the power of manipulative newspapers some, but not nearly enough.

Retractions and Conclusions

People are manipulated all the time, way more than they think, and any group with a huge budget has a good chance to do it. A lot of groups (e.g. the farming and food industries) are more successful at it than casinos. Casinos (and newspapers) have more of a reputation for being manipulative than some other manipulators.

I recently found out that cigarette companies did a propaganda campaign against the book Silent Spring, decades after it came out, because it had indirect relevance to them. It seems they fooled the Ayn Rand Institute, among other primarily right wing groups, who then passed on the misconception to me (via Alex Epstein), and I held the misconception (that Silent Spring was a bad book) for years without having any idea that I was being manipulated or who was behind it. I study topics like critical thinking, and I'm skilled at sorting through conflicting claims, but it's hard and there are many, many actors trying to manipulate us. No one can defend against all of them. (Disclaimer: I have not carefully researched and fact-checked the claims about the cigarette companies being behind the belated second wave of Silent Spring opposition.) I retract my prior attitude to DDT and other toxins (and to organic food – while the "organic" label has a lot of flaws, it does prevent some pesticides being used, which I now suspect are dangerous rather than believing in better living through "science" a.k.a. chemical companies). If you want more information about Silent Spring, see my previous posts about it and/or read it.

I partially, significantly retract my previous dismissiveness about gambling "addiction" and other types of "addiction" that don't involve ingesting a physical substance that creates a physical dependency with withdrawal symptoms when you stop (like nicotine, alcohol or caffeine). I now see people are vulnerable and believe it takes more good faith and good will – actively trying to avoid manipulating people instead of doing your best to manipulate them – for people to have the independence and control over their lives that I used to expect from people. I did think they needed to study critical thinking and stuff to do better than convention, but I also was putting too much blame on "addicts" and too little on manipulative big companies. Creative adversaries with a lot of resources are a big deal even when they don't initiative force and have very limited power/access/tools to use to control/manipulative/exploit you with. There are workarounds which are effective enough for casinos to bring in a ton of money, using only some current day employees to design the manipulations, despite their limited power over you.

Put another way, casinos are dangerous. Don't be so arrogant to think you're safe from them. Stay out. Stay away. Why are you even tempted to try it or participate at all if you see through all their manipulations and see how dumb and pointless and money-losing their games are? If you want to try it at all, you like something about it – something about it seems good to you – which basically proves they got to you some.

You know what else is dangerous in a similar way to casinos? Mobile gaming. Games with microtransactions. Gacha games. Games with gambling embedded in them (including games with random loot like Diablo 1 and 2, not just the more modern and worse Diablo Immortal). Games with any form of pay-to-win.

And what else is dangerous? Scrolling on Facebook. Its algorithm decides what to show you. The algorithm is designed by smart people with a big budget whose goal is to manipulate you. They are trying to manipulate you to spend more time on Facebook, like more posts, reply more, share more, view more ads, and various other behaviors. This also applies to Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube. They have algorithms which are designed by creative adversaries with lots of resources who are trying to manipulate you and control you as best they can. They are not trying to cooperative with you and help you get what you want. In the past, I underestimated how dangerous social media algorithms are.

Advertising in general is full of adversarial ads, not clearly communicating useful information so people who would benefit from a product know to buy it. Some pro-capitalist people are way too pro-advertising and I used to believe some of those ideas myself, but I now think I was wrong about some of that. Advertising is often bad for society, and harmful to individuals, even when it isn't fraudulent.

A lot of the activities of people working in sales are bad (even when they aren't fraudulent). As with advertising, complaints about this stuff are widespread, but there's ongoing debate about whether it's actually OK or not, and whether the people who dislike it are just annoying "autists" who are way too picky, exacting and demanding about their concepts of "lying" and "justice". (That is not my opinion and I think it's important to remember that the term "autist" (or "neurodivergent") is both insulting and stigmatizing despite some people voluntarily self-labelling that way and liking the label in some way and defending it. Some of those people are then surprised when employers illegally (but predictably) discriminate against them for admitting to having any sort of stigmatized "mental illness" or anything in that vicinity or for wanting accommodations. On the other hand, I do understand that schools will refuse accommodations unless you accept the stigmatizing label, which is their way of gatekeeping access to accommodations that, in some cases, they should just offer to anyone who wants them with no questions asked. In other cases, the accommodations use a lot of resources so that isn't practical, but ease of access to accommodations is not actually very well correlated with the cost of the accommodations, which shows a lot of refusal to provide accommodations is just cruelty and/or enforcing conformity, not an attempt to budget scarce resources. Accommodations provide better accessibility which is another topic where my opinions have shifted over time – while some government-forced accessibility is problematic, a lot of accessibility is efficient and benefits people who aren't disabled. My opinions about "mental illness" are something that haven't been shifting though – I still think Thomas Szasz wrote great books.)

Try to look at stuff in terms of whether it's cooperative, neutral or adversarial. Is it (or the people behind it) trying to help you, is it indifferent to you, or does it want anything that clashes with your own preferences, interests, values or goals? If they want you to buy more of their product, rather than preferring you buy whatever products are best for you, then they are not your friend, they are not a cooperator, they are an adversary (often with creativity and a lot of resources, and also in practice there's a significant chance they will sometimes initiate force like fraudulent advertising). If you can't identify them as a clear friend/helper, and it's not just (approximately) neutral, objective information with no agenda for you, then you should assume they're adversarial and you're flawed enough that they are a real danger to you.

It takes a ton of effort to imperfectly defend against creative adversaries with lots of resources. Adversarial attitudes and actions matter even when they are constrained by rules like "no initiating force" or "follow all the laws and regulations" because people can find workarounds to those restrictions. The more that companies like casinos try to manipulate you, the more resources you have to expend on defense – which leaves less energy and wealth for the pursuit of happiness and your other goals. And if you focus exclusively on defense, many different companies can keep trying over and over, and sometimes they'll win and manipulate you. Companies should stop spending billions of dollars in adversarial ways, and I hope that my criticism can help contribute to creating a better world.

Elliot Temple on October 10, 2023


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