Uncertainty is a hard thing to deal with. Ask a professional gambler, whose livelihood depends on the shuffle of cards or a roll of the dice. Knowing the odds often isn’t comforting enough and, when the chips are down, people almost naturally look for any kind of meaning or pattern, even in random events. When faced with a cold streak, some gamblers will try to find fixes for their luck, like having someone else blow on their dice, or by moving to another table altogether.
Lots of tabletop and board games also heavily use dice, but we the nerdy are above such magical thinking, right? Surely the disciples of Spock are trained to be a bit more logical about these things.
Almost every player I know seems to believe (at least to some extent) that there is some sort of mystical force that influences dice rolls.
So begins one of the most fascinating threads on HC Realms, the premier fan forum for players of the collectible miniature battling game, Heroclix. Heroclix is produced by WizKids, the same company that makes Dice Masters. In contrast to that newer arrival, rolling bones isn’t the primary focus of Heroclix, but dice are used to add to a figure’s attack and defense values during play.
Strangely enough, Dice Masters players don’t see that much mysticism in their outcomes. Maybe that’s because the rules allow for one reroll before you get down to business, so you can better sculpt your force. Heroclix has no such caveats and you’re stuck with what Lady Luck brought you, unless one of your figures has a power to change that. With so much riding on a single toss, it’s easy to understand how Heroclix players can search for the same sort of superstitious solutions as gamblers.
“I’ve seen players constantly swap out and change their dice as soon as they roll one bad roll,” says Realms user tyroclix, through personal message.
A forum member with the screen name Wombatboy ups the ante, describing a player who “used to immediately throw away dice that performed poorly, including one occasion where he stepped out of the store and threw his offending dice across the street.”
Stepping beyond the usual gambler’s fallacies, some Heroclix players even believe the force guiding their dice rolls is an instrument of justice, meting out rewards and punishment much like the eastern concept of karma.
Username Linkor has noticed his luck sours when he does something unpleasant the same day as a game, “such as make a bad joke at somebody else’s expense and then not apologize even though it was rude.” His outcomes turn similarly dismal when he chooses Heroclix over other commitments, like church. “Those things tend to lead to bad dice rolls so far,” says Linkor.
Such observations might be explained by what’s called hindsight bias or postdiction, when someone starts with a random outcome and tries to work backward to find the cause. Business consultant Jim Collins roused Wall Street when, in 2001, he identified the characteristics of 11 highly successful companies, causing many managers to follow their lead.
It’s easy to predict the past, though, and much harder to see what’s coming. Economics professor Gary Smith points out in his book Standard Deviations that, since 2001, six of those 11 companies have underperformed. Most embarrassingly, Fannie Mae had its infamous implosion and Circuit City has filed for bankruptcy.
The statistics of random events like dice rolling are well understood and the limits of probability do in fact allow for highly counterintuitive results. Consider the coin-flipping experiment performed by psychology professor Andrew Bernardin, in which he pitted a nickel against a quarter in a fierce battle to see which could land on heads the most in 100 separate trials.
The final tallies were about what you’d expect, with the quarter “winning” by a score of 56 to 51. During the competition, though, the eventual victor went on both cold and hot streaks, at one point going 0 for 6 before turning it on at the end. Maybe it was nicer to its mother that morning.
Bernardin’s demonstration doesn’t do much to weaken the resolve of “dice karma” believers, though. “Many could argue he let bias get in the way and so karma ruined his luck at allowing the [quarter] to win,” says Linkor. “Don’t try to explain it with experiments because you’ll only drive yourself crazy[;] just let it be,” says user Slayer_Xtreme.
“Most people create and maintain their beliefs because of personal experience,” says Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the scientifically-focused Skeptical Inquirer magazine, through email. “They can look at and read all the scientific literature they want, but they’re not going to believe it applies to them.”
To many, data simply isn’t as persuasive as a good anecdote. That’s not true for everyone, though. But sometimes a little training is all it takes to set a person straight.
“I’m a physicist,” says HC Realms user Time Mage. “Given a big enough sample, all rolls will converge to the expected average, but the road to that can be, and will be, full of clusters of high and low rolls,” he says.
Wombatboy was a college physics major for over three years and has changed his outlook after holding onto a lucky pair of dice for a while. “Now when I’m frustrated at poor luck I just remind myself that changing dice doesn’t really help and that the next roll is just as random,” he says. But as Carl Sagan used to say, even the hardest-hearted skeptic can be shaken when confronted with extraordinary circumstances.
“I know in my head [probability] is true,” Ignatz_Mouse posts to the HC Realms forum. “It doesn’t stop me from swapping dice when they roll bad, though.”
An earlier version of this post first appeared on the pulp press, and is reproduced here with permission.