jml's notebook


I've been playing Slay the Spire a bit recently.

Someone directed me to Jorbs's YouTube channel. In one of the videos, Jorbs walks the viewer through his thought processes about why he makes certain choices. His approach is really thoughtful and rational and pragmatic. You should watch it!

In the video, some rando is impressed by this and asks Jorbs whether Slay the Spire should be taught in schools. Jorbs answers that decision making should be taught in schools.

I think this is fascinating.

The decision making Jorbs is referring to is about being able to quantify your situation along a number of useful dimensions, to guess how likely you are to achieve your objective based on that, and then to evaluate how both of these will change for each of a closed set of options, choosing the one that's going to make you most likely to succeed. As I said, thoughtful, rational, and pragmatic.

The world probably would be a better place if more people had some sort of training in this. Certainly throughout history, lots of people have thought that playing games seriously might translate into improved real-world effectiveness.

But is this all there is to making decisions?

I can think of a few other categories that are not amenable to this approach.


I think that if you only had the decision making tools make Jorbs so amazingly good at Slay the Spire, you would never be able to make Slay the Spire.

In What Software is Made Of, Siderea points out that software is made of decisions. She then goes on to say that the process of making decisions to build something is called "design".

You can't really apply Jorbs's toolset to designing something. The numbers are just too hard to get. Nothing will really tell you if you get it right. You are very often choosing not from a small set of options but from a myriad. You can add iteration to the process, but it's not the same as a Rogue-like. You can draft and draft and revise and revise, but you only publish once.

The felt process of designing is less about choosing based on a higher quantity, but about choosing what fits best. It's about finding and maintaining cohesion. It's about exploration and experimentation and dead ends and serendipity.

All of that is rather subjective, of course. Perhaps others have different experiences. Perhaps a newspaper columnist might see their approach to writing as being more like Jorbs's approach to gaming.


If you went back a billion years and asked a bunch of university professor plesiosaurs about decision making and the young, the conversation might go like this:

"I think we should teach decision making in schools", says I.

"Ah yes, the classic question, 'What should I do?'", the professors reply, "You must be thinking of ethics."

The gulf between decisions-as-game-theory and decisions-as-ethics is so vast I hardly know where to begin, and every time I try, I bump into truisms.

If you're going to teach people how to make decisions, you probably want to teach them how to make good decisions. And to do that, you need to give them tools to figure out what "good" is.

For example, an ethics class would teach you that your decisions in Slay the Spire are inherently consequentialist. I was going to say 'utilitarian', but you're not trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, you're in it for yourself. Maybe that's OK, maybe it's not. In an ethics class, you could find out!


Riffing on that, the decisions in Slay the Spire are decisions that you make by yourself for yourself. Not a lot in life is like that.

Lots of the toughest decisions are collective. This isn't me advocating socialism, it's just how it is. Couples decide where to go to dinner, households decide who does the cleaning, families decide where to go on holidays, communities decide what norms to enforce, cities decide where it's okay to park, countries decide how much to spend on defence.

Even in companies, it's extremely rare that a single person at the top makes a decision and everyone jumps to make it happen. Even bosses need to keep people on side.

Decision making here involves aggregating preferences, and it also involves listening, negotiating, persuading, listening again, and compromising. It involves many conversations about that seemingly inconsequential details that are deeply, deeply important to stakeholders. Sometimes it involves overriding people's concerns and then making do without their wholehearted support.


And even if a decision is a decision that you make by and for yourself, it's not that simple. You contain multitudes.

The choice to get out of a nice, warm bed to exercise in the cold is a very different sort of choice to whether to pick Defragment instead of Echo Form. Plenty of people decide to play Slay the Spire less and somehow find themselves days later doing Ascension 16 speed runs.

Willpower and self-control aren't everything here, of course. There are frameworks and systems that make this kind of change easier. But they aren't nothing either.


Is a claim factual? Can you trust this source? Is this chair robust enough for me to sit on? Is it safe to leave my children with this person?

How do you decide?


Jorbs wasn't outlining a rigorous curriculum for teaching decision-making in secondary schools, he was teaching people how to think about Slay the Spire. The crack about teaching decision-making was an off-the-cuff comment based on a silly question in a Twitch stream. Although I've used occasionally placed him in the opposite corner to help prop this piece up, I'm not at all tut-tutting him. I think the idea of teaching decision-making is a fascinating one.

What I wanted to show here is that it's big. So big, that I don't think one class really could fit them all.

In The Management Myth, Matthew Stewart suggests that management is—or at least, ought to be—a branch of applied ethics. I think if you were going to try to develop a formal programme of teaching decision making, this would be the place to start.

I'm going to have to read Sources of Power aren't I?