Tic-tac-toe, rubber ducks and the process of discovery 



I was playing tic-tac-toe with a friend the other day. Even saying that sounds weird. Tic-tac-toe is an objectively bad game that is solved. Given perfect play, both players will tie without fail. There is nothing interesting; the experience is the same every time. It’s a bad game. 

And yet, we played it. My friend insisted that there was an optimal way to play, and it involved the first player going in the corner for some reason. Again, of course, this isn’t true. Tic-tac-toe is a solved game. Eventually, we figured the reason he was under this impression was because he was using some weird model in which both players were somewhat colluding, or at least the second player wasn’t playing optimally.  

I had a bit of déjà vu at this encounter. I’m pretty sure I’ve had the exact same conversation with my younger cousin before. So why did I let myself get reinvested in the experiment just to reach the same conclusion? 

Tic-tac-toe is a solved game, and it is shallow enough that you can see how it is solved in your head (Hint: Go in the middle first). However, it can still be fun to go through the motions of working it out, even if it feels obvious. In this way, it isn’t really about the end result, finding a winner and loser. It’s about the process of discovery, of combing through your own brain and picking out misconceptions. In the case of my friend, it was definitional: His model was something very odd indeed, and explaining it out was helpful in revealing that. 

There is a related phenomenon in software engineering called rubber ducking. There is a famous story in which a programmer brought a rubber duck everywhere. When debugging, they would explain their code line by line to the duck. In this way, they had to read every line carefully, spotting any issues in their work. Although it’s just a silly story, the concept is something many can relate to: Having to perform for someone (or something) can give you a more meticulous eye. 

So even in the case where you think you know something, it can be both enlightening and entertaining to go through the motions of relearning it. For the same reason, there is still something to be gained by rewatching a movie or rereading a book, something beyond just retreading old ground.  

Maybe this was obvious to some people. Something something, the real treasure was the friends we made along the way. But it’s not something we think about actively. Oftentimes, we judge time spent by the tangible outcome of it. When we must be productive at all times, it can be frustrating to put in effort and not produce anything.  

As just shown, though, there is something intrinsically useful about these diversions. It’s enjoyable in and of itself. Furthermore, it can make our brains sharper, making us think differently than before. Surely, this is useful, even if there will never be any sort of test or challenge involving tic tac toe. 

There is a constant pressure to have and demonstrate the best of yourself at all times. Experiences are boiled down to lines on a resume, and time is best spent on projects that will make you stand out. But your portfolio isn’t what is really important, even if it is treated as such. In reality, it should be a sense of fulfillment and novelty and joy that we look towards. These concepts are more abstract and thus harder to easily file and categorize, but we crave those senses. And why go about this in such a roundabout way of delayed satisfaction all the time when we could just directly seek happiness? So “waste” some time learning a useless skill or playing tic-tac-toe with friends — you will thank yourself for it. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Andre Moura from Pexels.com

Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu

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