May 20, 2009

Many years ago when I was still in university, I first discovered strategy games. I already knew how to play chess, I have known how since around the same time I discovered how to read, which places it before true memory: and so I took to the new discovery like a duck to water.

It took me somewhat longer to discover that my gaming group had a three-person in-group, a few hangers-on (number dependent on the particular night), and me. Over time, it became very clear to me that I would never be part of the in-group. That was a shrug, even then.

More interestingly, I also slowly discovered that I also was not counted among the hangers-on. Unlike them, I had an aptitude with strategy games from the beginning: enough to make me a threat. Again and again and again, the in-group united as a bloc against me. Most players will not take positions that individually leave them open to attack: but when you can be certain your back is covered, you can take risks no individual player can. In games such as Diplomacy and Machiavelli, everything hangs on the alliances you can make, alliances which shift at a moment's notice with self interest. Long before I did, the hangers-on noticed that at least one alliance always quickly formed and never broke: and that I was always the primary target of that alliance, excepting only incidental targets of convenience.

The in-group never noticed. By the time our time together was drawing to an end, a few of the hangers-on decided to bring it into the open. One and all, the in-group was completely surprised and could not believe it. They pointed out that they went after each other in the games with absolutely no holds barred. And so they did: after I was eliminated and no other threats existed. But this was something they would never be able to see.

By the time I really noticed, I was also winning more than half our games. Somewhere along the way, my skills had improved to meet the increased challenge and balance out the bias.

So what is in a game?

Another season of Dancing With The Stars has come to an end. I agree with the judges -- and the studio audience -- that this has easily been the most stunningly jaw-dropping season I have yet seen. Every single participant had gone into the challenge willing to try the new thing to the limits of their ability. Every single participant's ability had increased exponentially as a result. (Yes, even Steve Wozniak's!) When the final three danced their last dances this night, every one of them earned perfect 30s, and deserved them fully. There were no losers in this season of Dancing With The Stars.

Still, people vote, numbers are tabulated, contestants are dropped every week. It is the formula for this kind of show. I am starting to see the particular focus each individual judge brings to this show, to the point where I can see their scoring as objective. I have not their years of trained observation, but I can see what Len Goodman means by footwork, or Carrie Ann Inaba by emotive quality, or Bruno Tonioli by intensity. And because I have learned to see it through their eyes, more often than not I can anticipate each judge's score.

More interestingly, I think I am starting to understand the public's voting patterns.

There were no losers, I wrote and still believe. I would not take anything away from any one of them. And yet this post will: not through my own doing, but by bringing something which usually remains hidden into the open.

It is the surprises which draw what is hidden into the light. The surprise elimination of Lil' Kim in favour of Ty Murray tells us something that has nothing to do with talent, should we wish to see it. The surprise win of Shawn Johnson over Gilles Marini, by less than 1% (all of it from the voting audience), tells us exactly the same thing.

To see it, we must first appreciate the importance of one factor: relative to mainstream America, both Lil' Kim and Gilles are outsiders -- and not just outsiders, but outsiders who happen to be representative of a fear and a threat. Lil' Kim is a rapper who has been to prison. Gilles ... is French. Unabashedly French. Suavely French. Sexily French, in a way that suggests the possibility even though he is already married with a family and should be unavailable.

Both are the kinds of people parents might think twice about before letting their children date them. Both are the kinds of people who would attract those children. And both also happen to be extremely gifted dancers (who are also extremely hard workers, but that element tends to get lost in this equation).

At the same time, both Ty and Shawn are as representative of core American values as it gets. Shawn is the 17-year-old girl next door who has done her country proud, managing to earn Olympic gymnastics gold in spite of everything China could do: another Jesse Owens moment. Ty is all-American gumption and heartland patriotic, the dogged underdog who has never hesitated to display his flag and who has negotiated dance choreography to end with small romantic gestures to his wife Jewel. Neither is a naturally gifted dancer, each struggles with elements of competitive dancing which are alien to their natural gifts, but both understand the value of hard work.

At lower levels, it never shows. The standard deviation around average has a broad base. Some days the coin toss goes to one side of average, some days the other. Against that built-in randomness, who can spot a tiny percentage shift that has other sources?

At the highest levels, it is a different story.

If you are not part of the in-group and you want to remain in competition, you must do it better than adequate, better even than good. You must come as close to perfect as humanly possible, and you must do it again and again and again. Slip even once, as Lil' Kim slipped that one week, and at once you will discover that a crucial percentage of the voting public has no forgiveness for you.

This final of Dancing With The Stars painted it even more starkly. Gilles and Shawn went into the voting absolutely tied in the judge's scores -- but only because Gilles did not fully live up to his potential in the free dance. Such is his talent that the judges have started measuring his performances against a professional yardstick: which gave him a crucial 28/30 in the free dance and brought him closer to Shawn's level, even though he still was the only one of the contestants to score perfect marks in the group paso doble. At the same time, Shawn has been doing better and better in the past three weeks, as she started to understand how what competitive dancing expects is different from what competitive gymnastics expects. At the end of it, she did exceptionally well in her free dance, earning the 30/30 that brought her completely to Gilles' level in raw judges' scores, even though her group paso doble was only 28/30.

Because of the tie, any deviation has to come from the voting public. If they voted parallel to the judges, it would still be a dead tie -- but it was not. By a difference of nearly 1%, the voting public opted for Shawn over Gilles, even though Gilles has repeatedly and consistently been the bettter dancer. The single slip cost him the title.

Go one step further, and consider the four semifinalists before this final vote. Every voter is given a certain number of votes they can enter from telephone and email. While this number can obviously be manipulated, there is no reason to believe that the total numbers from any such manipulation would be particularly greater during the final than throughout most of the show. Whatever the manipulation, the numbers of potential votes are constant. When each candidate is eliminated, those votes are freed up to go elsewhere during the next vote, should the voter wish to cast their ballots anew.

The votes Ty had drawn were freed with his elimination. From one icon of Americana, many of them went straight to the other icon of Americana. Some might have gone to Melissa Rycroft: but Melissa had already had her second chance, that week when the judges' scores had to be lower, scoring her on her dress rehearsal because of her cracked rib. Her, the voting public could forgive for having slipped through a fault entirely not her own, and that voting public was determined to give her a second chance. This time, going into the final vote, Melissa was a crucial two points behind the two leaders.

It might not have mattered, Ty has overcome greater barriers, but Melissa is not strongly symbolic of either extreme. This particular polemic contrasts innocence and patriotism with an exotic foreign sensuality. (In fact, Gilles was scored down by the judges in part because his free dance did not draw on that known strength, instead focusing on the "Wind Beneath My Wings" supporting strength.) Unfortunately for her, Melissa has elements of both. The early sympathy factor was obviously no longer needed, she can dance well on her own merits: but removing the sympathy factor also lays bare all the other things that The Bachelor represents. Call it the third party dilemma in a system accustomed to being given two valid choices, and figure voting pattern accordingly.

Few of Ty's freed votes, if any, would have gone to the Frenchman Gilles. It has nothing to do with talent or ability. After all, those same votes had already brought Ty into the semifinals at the expense of the far better dancer Lil' Kim.

I would not take anything away from any one of the finalists, but a percentage of the voting public already has.

Now that you know, can you ever look again at winning without wondering: did I truly win this entirely on my own merits and my own skills? Did I win this on a level playing field? Could I win this on a level playing field?

Now that you know: will it matter to you? Or will you follow the comfortable road, choosing to dismiss all that I have just written as anti-Americanism, choosing to forget all else against the dazzling light of the winner's trophy?

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