This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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Let’s talk about donkeyspace.
Donkeyspace is the space of suboptimal play within a game. It’s a way to talk about how to play a game incorrectly — which ironically turns out to be pretty important for anyone who wants to compete and win.
What does “suboptimal” mean? A simple way to think about it is “playing in a way that will not result in winning over long periods of time and many repetitions,” or, if you’re more advanced, “playing in a negative-expected value fashion.”
We’re going to explore the implications of donkeyspace, but for now I want you to internalize this idea: If you want to beat other players who are playing suboptimally, you need to play in a suboptimal way yourself.
It’s counter-intuitive to think about, but bear with me here.
To quote David Sirlin, “a good player should intentionally enter donkeyspace (in other words: play in an exploitable way) in order to exploit opponents who are also playing in donkeyspace.”
A good example of what this means can be found in rock-paper-scissors. This is a game with an “optimal” algorithm that involves an equal distribution of each type of play (which would be 33% for each one). But let’s say you’re playing against someone who only plays scissors.
You come into the game reviewing your game plan, thinking of all the different ways you’ll beat your opponent if he throws rock, paper, or scissors, and this guy is going to play only one of them.
He isn’t trying to mix it up one bit, no 33% strategies for him. Just 100% scissors.
This sounds ridiculous, but there are people who operate this way to one degree or another. The term donkeyspace itself comes from poker, where weak, unskilled players are often called “donkeys” or “donks” (although the more common pejorative now is “fish”).
An opponent who only plays scissors is pretty much the definition of a donkey. He is firmly living in an uncharted region of deep donkeyspace.
Anyway, now you need to ask: how do you beat someone like this? If you continue to play in the so-called “optimal” way, you’ll only beat him about a third of the time (whenever you play rock).
Every other time, he’ll either win or force a draw. So to beat him, you have no choice to but play in a “suboptimal” way — to only play rock.
You have to enter donkeyspace to beat a donkey.
This means you’re playing in a way that, against skilled opponents who know what they’re doing, you’d get crushed. But against a donkey, you have to adapt and “become the donkey” so to speak.
I see this all time in competitive environments, where high-skill players get pissed off because a low-skill player pulls a donkey move and wins. They kick and scream about how a player “isn’t supposed to do that.”
In reality, this is a failure on the part of the more skilled player, because they need to recognize when they’re dealing with a donkey and then make a transition into donkeyspace.
Now, some caveats. First of all, it’s important to remember that everyone is in donkeyspace to one degree or another. Except in solved games, it’s pretty much impossible to play in a perfectly optimal way.
And since nobody can play these games optimally, everyone exists, by default, in some kind of donkeyspace. Competitive games are therefore often just players maneuvering between various levels of donkeyspace.
Secondly, every time you enter a new level of donkeyspace you become more exploitable. This by itself creates all kinds of strategic possibilities.
It’s possible, for example, to trick people into thinking you’re a donkey, which then makes them transition into a lower level of donkeyspace, which gives you an opportunity to exploit them. The hunter becomes the hunted.
High-level players are very good at this kind of multifaceted deception. They faint and make you believe they’re making a mistake, when in reality they’re drawing you into a trap.
What’s the lesson here? It can be summed up as “sometimes it’s correct to play incorrectly.” Whenever you’re competing against other people, think about where everyone is in donkeyspace — including you — and consider how you need to adjust your play.
Do this regularly enough, and you’ll give yourself a substantial edge.
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