From the archives: Video games

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Suggested reading, resuscitative edition

Thursday, 30 September 2010 — 4:44pm | Assorted links, J.R.R. Tolkien, Journalism, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

This space has suffered the longest drought of real and substantial content in its brief history, and I find it encouraging that several of my readers have seen fit to remind me of the fact. I could lay the blame upon the drain on my verbal facilities known as my masters dissertation, or perhaps my summertime adventures sans ordinateur, but the truth is a far more familiar one: the articles I’ve sketched out in my head are too big to write down. They will show up someday, if only in unfinished fragments pretending to stand alone; so keep an eye on the RSS feed and when they arrive, we may promptly rejoice together.

Link-dumping has never been an adequate stand-in for commentary of my own, and if you want to read what I read you are better off checking Twitter (the only circumstance where that is ever the case). Nevertheless, here is a slice of the pileup.

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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The greedy strategeme, pt. 1

Thursday, 15 April 2010 — 1:37pm | Board games, Science, Video games

Civilization veteran Soren Johnson, one of the foremost designers of strategy games and AI today and certainly one of the best writers on the subject, often remarks that the theme of a game is not to be confused with its meaning (slides here). Diplomacy may cast its players as the great powers of pre-1914 Europe, but it’s about simultaneity. StarCraft may put you in charge of Heinlein-esque space marines and alien civilizations, but it’s about asymmetry. If the theme and mechanics harmoniously cohere, then the mechanics can shed light on the theme in the way that art sheds light on the world. Pre-war Europe is an intriguing setting for Diplomacy because in all their backroom double-dealing, the empires didn’t take turns. Aliens are a good fit for StarCraft because you can map anything onto aliens, be it the collectivist swarm-by-numbers ethos of the Zerg or the judicious high-tech investment of the Protoss.

I am partial to this view, predominantly for reasons of aesthetics. If we are to conceive of game design as an art form, it does not suffice to decompose games into the artistry of constituent parts—the music, the models and sprites, the cinematic sequences, on rare occasion the writing. The aesthetics have to come from the specific properties that make something a game, whether it is played with a board and dice, a deck of cards, or a mouse and keyboard—and those properties come from the mechanics.

But that’s neither here nor there; I won’t elaborate today. Instead I want to turn to my favourite of Johnson’s examples: the evolution game. For your fill of Darwinian game mechanics, look not to Spore (which Johnson worked on), a game that is nominally about evolution from microbe to intergalactic juggernaut, but is actually about special creation. Back when I first played it, I wrote, perhaps a tad generously:

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: by placing creature design into the player’s hands instead of leaving it up to random mutation, Spore inherently owes a lot to intelligent design. There’s still room for a real game about evolution in the Darwinian sense, where you set certain environmental constraints and preconditions, let a species run loose, and see if it survives in an ecosystem full of other models—kind of like how some engineers pit robots in mortal battle, but with adaptation.

Spore is a lot more creationistic than I gave it credit for; consider that the functional components of your custom-made species—the mouths, the horns, the flagella—are interchangeable parts from a specified, modular set, which is precisely what we would expect from a designing agent but not at all what we would expect from natural selection. But never mind all that. The evolution game exists, says Johnson, and it’s called World of Warcraft.

I would contend, however, that the Darwinian features Johnson ascribes to WoW are equally prevalent in most games with competitive and highly interactive player populations, provided there is sufficient strategic depth worth talking about. WoW is an evolution game because its core mechanic is community. Where there is a community of players and a developed metagame of optimal practices, strategic decisions are memes that compete for survival. Let’s call them strategemes.

Strategemes include everything from chess openings to Scrabble vocabulary: they are transmissible units of knowledge that players learn, study, and adopt—and crucially, copy. Copying them is not seen as unfair, but as an advantageous and often essential behaviour. They leave room for mutation, and we can perceive a frequency distribution of variations over a population of players and games.

But where does natural selection come into play? Let’s look at the exemplar we get from Johnson: the WoW talent tree.

Continued »

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Suggested reading, jet-lagged edition

Monday, 29 March 2010 — 9:45pm | Assorted links, Film, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I haven’t read the Internet in almost two weeks, thanks to my various globetrotting commitments. But never fear—these selections from early March are here.

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. SPACE.com has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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Suggested reading, goddam phony edition

Monday, 1 February 2010 — 11:32pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Music, Video games

In a way, the media frenzy over the death of J.D. Salinger can be understood as a kind of cathartic relief—i.e. now that he’s croaked, we can finally talk about him without feeling like we’re intruding on something. It has, at least, made for some very good reading about one of literature’s most enigmatic figures. Rather than collect the obituaries myself—I haven’t had time to read them all—I’ll link to the links at Bookninja here and here.

Serious aficionados should take a look at this 1957 letter by Salinger explaining why he saw The Catcher in the Rye as unfilmable. Really dedicated junkies of all things Salinger may even go as far as perusing Joyce Maynard’s 1972 article, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”, which led her to drop out of Yale and live with the author for a year. (I personally find it nigh on unreadable, but it’s evidence that the cliché anxiety about settling down with 2.2 kids has been around for nearly four decades at least.)

And now for something completely different:

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