I recently managed to get my hands on a lot of old recordings of the BBC Radio 4 show Just a Minute. It’s a fun gameshow where contestants (mainly comedians) are challenged to speak without repetition, deviation or hesitation for one minute on a subject assigned to them by the chairman.
It’s a good listen just for the fun of it, but I particularly like listening to it these days, because I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics for my NaNoWriMo project this year. Now what does ethics have to do with gameshows you may ask?
Well gameshows are games and Just a Minute is a beautiful example of game-theory in action. Game Theory in the context of ethics, for those who don’t know it, is an attempt to explain ethics as a result of equilibrium. Basically reciprocal punishment and reward throughout the game create a set of “de facto” ethical rules on top of the written rules.
In Just a Minute the repetition rule is a particularly good example of this. The only words exempt from this rule are those “on the card”, that is to say the words in the subject the player has been given. But even so it’s rare to hear a challenge for, more or less, unavoidable words like “I”, or “it”, or “a”. Unless of course a player uses them amazingly frequently. (You won’t get buzzed for two “it”s, but you might well be for five in close succession).
This unwritten rule is partially reinforced by the audience, which will boo loudly at an overly pedantic challenge. But it’s also reinforced by reciprocation. If you buzz another contestant for two “a”s, don’t be surprised when one of the others buzzes you for two “it”s.
After such a retribution challenge things will generally settle down again, unless of course there is another overzealous challenge to start things off again.
Now don’t get me wrong, Just a Minute is certainly worth listening to even if you’re not into game theory. It’s just a lot of fun. But with all the reading (and thinking) I’ve been doing on ethics lately I found it an interesting example of how game theory works in the wild.