Live versus Dead Players

post by Samo Burja · 2018-03-14T17:20:00.840Z · score: 33 (19 votes) · LW · GW · 9 comments


  Live Players
    Some Necessary Attributes of Live Players
    Signs of Live Players
    Note on Classification
  Dead Players

[Crossposted from my Medium blog]

When looking out into the world, it’s useful to distinguish between live versus dead players. A live player is a person or a tightly coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before. A dead player is a person or a group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.


This distinction matters because it tells you how to act, offensively and defensively. Offensively, if you figure out whether a player is alive or dead, you can predict how they will respond to things and what that means you can do. If you find out that a player is dead, then you know that you can attack them in ways that are not known to them, and they will not be able to fight back. On the other hand, if you fail to figure out that a player has died, you might not realize that you can get away with replacing them. Defensively, paying attention to live players allows you to anticipate and prevent the grabbing of power, for instance.

The distinction between live and dead players also matters if you are trying to predict the future of society. If you pay attention to the landscape of live versus dead players in a society, you can predict what will happen in that society. Societies with few live players will stagnate; societies with many live players will develop and adapt.

Below we’ll describe the characteristics of live versus dead players in greater detail, which will help in distinguishing between them.

Live Players

Let’s review and explain the definition of live players. A live player is a person or a tightly coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before.

Some Necessary Attributes of Live Players

Tight Coordination

A group must be tightly coordinated in order to be flexible and responsive enough to do things they have not done before. This allows them to take moves outside of the formal structure of the group, go off script, modify themselves, continue acting even if the outer form dies (i.e. imagine a team of people being able to continue working together even if the company formally blows up), and so forth.

A Tradition of Knowledge

The generation of new tactics, strategies, coordination mechanisms, and so on entails the production of new, useful knowledge. Thus, a live player must have a living tradition of knowledge. For the tradition of knowledge to be living, it must have at least one theorist, among other things.

Signs of Live Players

What are signs that a player is alive? One strong sign is a player doing things outside of their domain, which indicates that they can figure things out. Take Steve Jobs. Not too long ago, we saw Apple fighting against compliance with government backdoors. This means that Jobs had previously found a way around compliance, which means that Jobs was able to figure out ways to deal with the intelligence world. This was outside of his core domain of building companies. This is a strong sign that Apple, at least while piloted by Steve Jobs, was a live player. Another sign of a live player is exceptional individuals gravitating towards them. Such individuals tend to be good at assessing others, and will tend to seek out others who are also exceptional. If they cluster around a person or group, there is something exceptional about that person or group. Successfully reverse-engineering an attack is another, albeit weak, sign of a live player. Those who can make novel moves will also tend be able to reverse-engineer moves, but those who can reverse-engineer moves often lack the ability to create novel ones.


Live players frequently conceal themselves to avoid opposition from other live players or otherwise incite attacks. By concealing themselves, they delay other people’s responses to them. For example, Amazon branded itself as a book-selling company long after it stopped being merely a book-selling company. This helped it avoid having Walmart think of it as a competitor.

Note on Classification

Whether a player is alive or dead is always relative to themselves. Thus, a live player is not necessarily exceptional in its skill, although this is usually the case. So if a player has already done X, doing X again does not make them a live player, even if other players can’t do X yet or X is an impressive move. The player would have to make a move that is new for them in order to be a live player.

For example, Putin is a live player. The Russian state is doing things they haven’t done in a long time, things that were unthinkable a few years ago. They annexed Crimea, for example, and such a thing hasn’t been done in Europe for decades. They also completed a military operation in Syria, notable in part because Syria is outside of Russia’s sphere of influence (i.e. the post-Soviet sphere), where they achieved their foreign policy objective of stabilizing Assad. They didn’t have much time to develop the plan for Syria — perhaps three years — which means they had to pull things together quickly. And so this is a very strong indicator that Russia can figure things out, and quickly at that. However, one country having this kind of influence over another country is nothing new — it’s merely new for modern-day Russia, which is why we would deem Russia a live player. This same action taken by France in Mali would not indicate that France is a live player, for example, because France has routinely intervened in West Africa. A bureaucratized action, even if it is an impressive action, is not a sign that the player is alive.

Dead Players

We defined a dead player as a person or a group of people that is working off a script, incapable of doing new things.


What can cause a player to die? A player will die if their intellectual tradition dies and they are unable to replace their thinkers or theorists. Even if tight coordination remains, the player is dead. They will compete in old areas, but have a hard time expanding into new areas.

A player will also die if their tight coordination is replaced by formal structures, which can happen as members of an organization change. If you’re stuck in formal structures, you have to follow the script, and this won’t be adaptive enough. Remember, however, that tight coordination can be achieved by just one exceptional person.


How can you revive a dead player? It only takes one great person to revive a dead player. That said, reviving a dead player is challenging — more challenging than reviving a dead tradition of knowledge. In order to revive a dead player, you have to displace an existing power structure. It is frequently easier to do this by conquering the existing power structure with outside, owned power, than by trying to transform the player from dead to alive from the inside. This is because a dead player, if it is an organization, may contain mechanisms that preclude insiders from gaining enough power to restructure it into a live player.


Apple is a dead player. It became much less interesting and powerful after Steve Jobs’ death. Under him, it was a cultural and commercial force that was able to interface effectively with the US government. Now, it is a bureaucracy imitating his taste. It is incapable of adapting, building beautiful new things, and acquiring power.


It’s much easier to detect live players than it is to detect dead players. This is because seemingly dead players might actually be alive (and playing dead).


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gjm · 2018-03-14T18:04:54.954Z · score: 40 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I dislike the framing here in a number of ways.

1. You're talking about the world as a whole but using the terminology of games. That's fair enough, I suppose, but I worry that it leads to treating the world as game-like in ways that it really isn't. And I think this has actually happened -- e.g., when you describe how live-ness is helpful under the two categories of "offensive" and "defensive"; I claim that outside artificially-purely-competitive games much -- perhaps most -- of what we do is neither of those things.

2. "Live" and "dead" seem like language too extreme for the distinction you're making. Someone who is merely "working off a script" can still have considerable impact on the world, after all.

3. It seems to me that what-you-call-live-ness is actually a spectrum; some people (and other agents) are more original than others. Live/dead suggests something binary, or at least bimodal, and I'm unconvinced that that matches reality.

Much of the rest seems doubtful at best. Some examples:

4. What you say about "traditions of knowledge" seems like an equivocation. First of all you say that a "live player" is producing new things and therefore by definition must have (or, I suggest, be) a "living tradition of knowledge". But then you say that a l.t.o.k. must have "at least one theorist", which unless you're defining "theorist" super-broadly seems like it's only a reasonable conclusion if you define l.t.o.k. in a more specific way that doesn't let you go straight from "produces new things" to "has a living tradition of knowledge".

5. You say that a group "must be tightly coordinated" in order to do new things, but don't offer any actual evidence for that. I'm not at all sure it's true, and guess that it probably isn't. (What might be true is that when a group that isn't tightly coordinated does new things, those are usually better thought of as originality by the group's members rather than the group as a whole. But that isn't a reason to prefer tight coordination; what matters is how much originality the group produces, not whether it's credited to the group or its individual members.)

6. All the stuff about Steve Jobs and the intelligence community seems like overconfident guesswork. Perhaps Apple just hadn't been faced with onerous compliance demands before. Perhaps Apple had previously been willing to comply and what changed was that they became less willing. Perhaps they did indeed have good ways to deal with "the intelligence world" but it was other people within Apple rather than Steve Jobs himself that had that expertise.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2018-03-14T19:08:04.099Z · score: 34 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I roughly agree, though also have complicated thoughts on all of these. For example, I think there is a good case to be made for live/dead to be binary, or at least to have a pretty sharp transition between the two (in general impact on various scales appears to be heavy-tail distributed, which suggests that you often have increasing marginal returns in competence). I think in general coding things as binary variables is a reasonable first thing to do, and is usually surprisingly accurate (i.e. categorizing charitable interventions as "plausible effective" and "ineffective" gets you 90% of the variance or so, because the best interventions we can identify are very likely many orders of magnitudes better than the average one, meaning you should basically just ignore the average one). I also remember some research on linear classifiers that were limited to just coding weights as +1 or -1 and them almost achieving the same performance as general linear classifiers (while being much much simpler).

My general thoughts on the post is that I am excited about the model it is proposing, but would prefer a bit more explicitness about the degree to which the model is a toy model, and the degree to which it serves as an intuition pump vs. a comprehensive model, and more analysis on how it compares to other models. But if I have to trade off between those and getting more of the model written up at all, I would probably prefer to get more of the model written up.

comment by gjm · 2018-03-15T04:12:02.118Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough! My own reaction is different, as you'll have guessed: my intuition/prejudices don't make me optimistic about the model being proposed, and there are enough things in the presentation that just seem wrong-headed (and little enough that feels like it's providing valuable insight) that I don't feel any particular appetite for more.

But, of course, criticism is easier, and a less scarce resource, than original thought -- and my gut reactions could very easily be badly wrong. (So, in particular, my comments aren't intended to persuade the OP not to post more.)

I take your point about heavy-tailed distributions, but remark that in so far as that's an accurate description we need to draw the live/dead boundary between *the very most original agents* and *everyone else*, which I don't think is the OP's intent -- at any rate, I find that hard to square with judging Russia "live" merely because they did something that plenty of other countries do and "is merely new for modern-day Russia", or with putting the boundary between Jobs-era Apple and Cook-era Apple.

comment by Elo · 2018-03-15T04:26:51.323Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A note: too many live players becomes chaotic and unpredictable and dangerous and is not a equilibrium state. In various ways it will become "unsafe" and systems will be put in place (like regulations) to protect people.

comment by Samo Burja · 2018-03-15T17:46:17.573Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I expect there to be large differences in power and skill among the live players so I don't actually expect much instability.

You are correct that there are systems put in place sometimes to limit such strategic actors, however the actors either bypass the systems or the systems are themselves maintained and modified in an adaptive way by other live players.

Then one has to examine the motivation of the live players maintaining the systems. Arguably the most common one is to use them as vehicles of personal power against other live players.

comment by norswap · 2018-03-15T16:21:51.282Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Like others, I'm not too fond of this.

It feels like signalling the superiority of people who are striving / trying to improve over people who are comfortably striving.

That's maybe something a lot of people may agree with, but for me there are a lot of things to be said for comfortable **mindful** striving as opposed to running in circle / running nowhere.

My main issue is that using people I know, I wouldn't really put the "living" people as better off than the "dead" people, at least in terms of their own life satisfaction and how much I would seek their companionship -- admiration is more of a tie, but I'm afraid I tend to over-admire people with masochistic tendencies and not much to show for it.

comment by Samo Burja · 2018-03-15T17:47:59.965Z · score: 16 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't make claim being a strategic player being a desirable or happy state of life. But I can see the connotation you note. It isn't intentional. The purpose of the model is to help with making predictions as to what happens in the world and in particular to help with decision making and evaluation in adversarial contexts.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-15T09:10:02.920Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW
They also completed a military operation in Syria, notable in part because Syria is outside of Russia’s sphere of influence (i.e. the post-Soviet sphere), where they achieved their foreign policy objective of stabilizing Assad.

Given that Russia has naval base in Syria since 1971 I don't think it makes much sense to see it as outside of their traditional sphere of influence.

comment by Samo Burja · 2018-03-15T17:45:46.354Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The realistic extent of Russia's sphere of influence after 1991 was merely the Post-Soviet republics. The wider sphere that the Soviets held in Eastern Europe, East Africa, the Middle East and Asia effectively implodes then. A demonstration of this is Russia's policy being essentially irrelevant to the Balkan conflicts.