Monthly Archives: October 2019

What is randomness? We tend to imbue the term with more authority than it ought to have, to invoke an ideal of completely unknowable numbers and events that come from nowhere, from nothing, beyond nature, supernatural. However, all of the things that we think of when we talk about randomness are actually quite predictable: Dice, cards, roulette wheels, these tools of chance generate seemingly arbitrary results through a series of individually very simple and straightforward physical interactions. These are still causal. These are still predictable, if one had the depth and clarity of vision and the time for calculation to glean those predictions. Computer random number generation is no different – every computer science text about random number generation goes to pains to establish that the algorithm is not truly random because the outcome can be predicted, but the same is true of basically everything we consider random. Thus, in practice, random doesn’t mean not deterministic, it means undeterminable.

Every reaction has an action. Every effect has a cause.

All this may seem pedantic, but where it becomes important is it shifts the way we tend to think about nominally non-random events. Even games that go to great lengths to strip out elements of chance, such as competitive FPS games, frequently have an element of luck to them. Sure, you could perfectly predict the behavior of all of the opposing members of the enemy team, but unless you have intimate knowledge of their psychology you’re not going to be doing that. You’re going to be playing the odds, judging where your opponents are most likely to make their move based on the state of the game and their habits as best as you know them. A lot of the time this will work out just how you expect it to, but sometimes the outcome will be completely different, and even though there’s nothing we would traditionally consider randomness at play the outcome of what is an overall strong play may turn out to be dramatically different, may lead to a win or a loss, based entirely on circumstances beyond the human capacity of insight.

Randomness is about lack of insight as much as it is about chaos of result. If you fail to understand what factors lead to an outcome, it will seem random. A feeling of a game being unfair is just as often because of a poor understanding of what situation leads to what outcome as it is about the outcome itself being biased. Almost every game hides information from its player – even in Chess or Go, these pure games of open-information causality, you do not know the internal state of your opponent, possibly the most vital information of all for victory.

It all comes back to luck, the thing no one wants to rely upon. The more we come to understand what random is, what we mean when we say random, the more we come to understand where the boundaries of what we know and can predict and what we don’t know and can’t predict lie; the more we can control luck. When we understand what these factors are and how they interact, we can begin to make our own luck.

We’ve invented probability to estimate the likely outcomes of overly complex systems using simplified models, and this is hugely useful and hugely insufficient – not least because very few people have any sort of intuitive understanding of what these numbers mean. During the 2016 election, people were passing around the supposed 10% chance of victory Donald Trump had as an indication that he had somehow lost. 10% isn’t 0%, and a 10% chance is actually pretty likely – hardly much better odds than those offered by Russian Roulette, a pastime few people would willingly indulge in. And, when the estimate rose to a 30% chance, people were still weirdly reassured – and felt betrayed by these numbers, regarded them as failed somehow, after he won, even though the numbers said there was a 1/3rd chance of this happening. Perhaps the mistake was that people conflated the percent chance of each side winning with the percent of the populace projected to vote for each side – in which case 70%-30% would have been an unprecedented and implausible landslide. Either way, there seemed to be a generalized lack of literacy as to what these numbers meant.

All of which brings me to XCOM. In XCOM, you’re tasked with defending (or, in XCOM 2, retaking) Earth, after it is attacked by a multi-species conglomeration of aliens with mysterious motives. You give your elite squad of soldiers orders of where to move and what to shoot, and each shot has a percentage chance of success, and it is a hugely effective tool for imparting the core concept that a 95% chance is not a certainty. Success, then, becomes a matter of ordering and improving these chances, hedging bets, and trying to keep outside factors from interfering while you do so.

Unfortunately, the game undermines this simple and vital lesson in a few ways. There are a number of options which have zero risk of failure – indeed, most of your options tend to trend that direction as you get late-game upgrades to shot accuracy and abilities with no chance for failure, but even early on there are very few problems that can’t be solved by the simple expedient of a deftly placed hand grenade. Or three. So, in the end, rather than hedging all your bets, most of them are just backed by a couple of completely reliable fallback moves, and when well played the enemy units seldom get any real chance to counterattack.

More insidiously, though, the lower difficulty levels also sneakily tweak the odds in your favor. The more you miss your shots the more likely you are to hit subsequent shots – the gambler’s fallacy, codified into game mechanic. The odds of hitting are, as well, far higher than they are represented as, and your odds of getting shot are similarly reduced. All of these strange concessions and tweaks work to make the game feel more ‘fair’ – or, read less charitably, to uphold fallacious views of what probability means that have been elevated to narrative necessity.

Who do these views serve? Does the belief that the world is fundamentally knowable and controllable outside a few supernaturally random events make us vulnerable to believing that we are more in control than we actually are? Vulnerable to believing that those who have lost control, who are downtrodden and oppressed, deserve this treatment for having lost grip of the reins? Or does it make us think that the world we live in now is far more intentionally, carefully, and competently controlled than it sometimes seems, that any attempt to seek change within such a system is impossible?

We only see a tiny, narrow slice of the world in front of us, and anything outside of that view may as well be RNG. It might be time to test our luck.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

When we search for meaning in an uncaring universe, what is it we search for? Meaning isn’t an object that can be found, isn’t an inherent trait of anything, isn’t even a truth that can be discovered – meaning is a trait of categorization. Things begin to mean something when you arrange them in your thoughts, place them in relation to each other, and begin to understand some sort of structure that holds them together.

Meaning is story. Story is meaning.

Thus, when we set out to find meaning, this is an act of construction and creativity as much as it is an act of discovery. It is building a narrative that we can place the facts of existence into – but building that context is still an adventure, an exploration, a search. This is why authoritarians have little regard for the arts – to be creative is to discover and to devise meaning, and to make meaning is to refuse to accept the meaning that has been prescribed for you.

People say the universe has no meaning – as though it ought to. The medium is not, in this case, the message. The paper is not the story. The canvas is not the painting – even the paint is not the painting until it is perceived by the eye and understood by the mind. Meaning is the lemonade we make out of lemons. That is not to say that we need to shape the world in our image – though people are often very enthusiastic to interpret it that way – but just that, when we view wonders, what makes them wondrous is our wonderment. Diamonds are just rocks.

I suspect I have approached the search for meaning from the opposite side that most approach from. Most people, I think, spend much of their life looking only towards an immediate goal, experiencing each moment in relative isolation, and need to seek within later to find some way to bind those moments into a narrative they can be comfortable with. Myself, I always just assumed that the path to meaning and the life I wanted to live lay in art, in its creation and appreciation and understanding, and looked within – but, as I’ve gotten older, and started to gather bits and pieces of a wider understanding, I start to see how tethered our art is to the context in which it was made. There’s beauty in these ties, but they also makes the fields of our view terrifyingly small. So, while others have had experience with no context, and have needed to search inwards, I have had context with no experience, and had to seek outwards – it’s not as simple as all that, of course, but since we tend to most keenly feel our own shortcomings it does often seem to be just that stark, that black and white.

The search for meaning is not one that has a conclusion. What would lie at the ends of such a search? Understanding? The degree to which we know ourselves to have understanding is the degree to which we understand the world to be knowable, and this belief, like belief in Santa Claus, tends to erode over time. Understanding is not attainable except asymptotically, and the closer we get to it the farther away we perceive ourselves to be. Contentment? Contentment is something you can feel in a moment, but content is not something you can be for a lifetime. You’ll still have bad days. You’ll still have regrets. Change will still wash over you, tragedies will still happen, and the weight of tragedies yet to come will demand your attention. How could understanding and contentment possibly cohabitate?

In the end all you have is a story. The story of your life. And you can tell it to someone else, and they can listen, and it will become part of the story of their life. As long as we’re all talking, as long as we’re all listening, our words converge. Together they are our story, and there are no main characters.

Our story is not over.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

To play a game is to perform a series of tasks it asks of you. Most of the time, these tasks are some sort of challenge of dexterity, cognition, perception, or some combination thereof. There are also, though, a number of tasks that games ask of us that aren’t challenging – that are simple, rote, and obvious. The example which first brought this to mind is the act of feeding in Vampire, The Masquerade: Bloodlines – in this, since you play as a vampire, you have to find isolated people to prey upon, either by luring someone away from the crowd or just finding someone who wandered away on their own. This is rarely actually very difficult to do, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that it significantly contributes to the challenge of the game – but should it? As a vampire, you should find this act of supernatural predation easy and natural – and so you do. However, one could easily imagine a designer deciding that there was no point to having so much play time dedicated to something obvious and easy to do and either cutting the gameplay element or tuning it to be more dangerous, to be less trivial – and the game would be the lesser for it.

We have a tendency to think of game mechanics solely in terms of the challenges they pose. When we consider a game’s systems, it is most often to see how they collide to provide an interesting problem for the player to solve – that is, a mechanical element ought only to exist if it interacts interestingly with the challenge of the game, a sort of Chekhov’s Gun of game design, where if a gun exists in the world there must also be a terrifying monster to be killed with it. What we tend to devalue in this mindset are the simpler pleasures of existing and acting and being acted upon. Often what provides the most enjoyable sensation in a game is not solving an especially difficult problem, but of feeling entirely a part of the world of the game and of performing the role assigned to you.

Of course, you don’t need to perform your role – a great deal of enjoyment can be head from playing games ‘badly’, from refusing to perform the tasks it assigns or performing them in an intentionally awkward and absurd way – but intentional subversions of the role still position you as a part of the game’s world, albeit an incongruous one, like the Marx Brothers at an opera. Challenge, while it can be enjoyable and can serve to contribute to the plausibility of existence within a space, is not what makes the game – the tasks are the game, whether they are challenging or not.

However, the difficulty of the tasks is still important. There’s a certain amount of wiggle room – games depict herculean tasks managed by fairly simplistic and easy player input all the time while some games, like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, do the inverse, offering very simple tasks than can only be accomplished by incredibly difficult feats of coordination. There’s a lot of charm to be found in this incongruity at times, but it can also work against the simple joys of partaking in a game’s world – which is why, in general, we are better served by trying to map the systems and challenges of the task reasonably closely to the methods and difficulties such a task would present. This is where a lot of the discourse around challenge in gameplay tends to fall apart – the obstacles in the game begin to be viewed entirely in terms of the difficulties they present, and not in terms of how they express the world of the game and how the difficulty inherent to those obstacles fit into that expression.

Another example of mundane tasks presented to provide a feeling of satisfaction and investment in a space is the house cleaning game in The Beginner’s Guide. This is a fairly small part of a fairly short game: You walk into a house, and someone there, who looks like a generic placeholder dummy, welcomes you as though you’re a friend and starts asking you to do small tasks around the house, picking things up and cleaning them and so forth, and eventually these tasks start to repeat because there’s only a few of them to be done – and, as in life, it’s only so long after the floor has been swept that it must be swept again. Nevertheless it creates a small and intimate atmosphere of participation and care which has interesting implications within the greater narrative of the game. Similarly, many of the interactions in The Walking Dead games from Telltale weren’t challenges so much as they were prompts asking you to participate in the story, in tiny unpleasant chores and in the mechanical necessities of survival. These are tasks which must be done, but which aren’t meant to challenge.

Even when tasks aren’t meant to be challenging, though, they’re still part of the mechanics of gameplay, and can have significant consequences. Though feeding in Bloodlines is usually trivial, under some circumstances it can become much more pressing and far more difficult because you’re already dealing with other problems such as pursuit by police or vampire hunters. Similarly, in Far Cry 2, you occasionally have to contend with short debilitating bouts with malaria, during which you can’t do much of anything. You have medicine you can take to recover, and all in all it only takes a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes for something to go disastrously haywire, a car to run off the road, a barrel to blow up, an ambush to be sprung – so depending on timing this mundane but necessary task can become a huge wrench in the gears.

There are plenty of games that press against the presumption of challenge, but most of these are presented as open-ended, with no particular required tasks but many possible activities. As many options as we have to make games that aren’t based around proving technical skill, that still tends to be our fallback position. The earliest games were entirely about such skills, with paper-thin narratives built up around them to contextualize and justify the simple gameplay – as games got bigger and more complex, as the actions they could offer gained more capacity for nuance and expression, the stories got more complex as well, but stayed largely in the mold of their predecessors, simple stories that justified simple mechanics. The restraints that held us back from envisioning wildly different experiences at the advent of the medium still hold us back today, just because so much of what we understand a game to be is rooted in the simplistic challenges that the technology once held us to.

Perhaps it’s time to make more games that are as much about existing, about being in a world and performing to the expectations of that world, as about solving, discovering, and controlling.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.

Most games are competitive in nature – some might argue that as part of the definition of game, that anything that isn’t competitive is really a puzzle or some other sort of interactive entertainment. What the word ‘competition’ even means in a simulated environment isn’t necessarily obvious, though: Some games have very direct competition between human players – most traditional games and sports fall into this category, alongside multiplayer shooter and real-time strategy games and so forth – but, more recently, video games have created the ability to have simulated competition, other entities which act like competing players but which don’t require a person to provide the input. One could regard these as, since they’re not actually being controlled by a person, being essentially a puzzle to be solved rather than in competition – but they are presented as competition, and provide much of the same sort of satisfaction that we seek from competition.

What many single-player games then boil down to is a sort of competition pornography, a way of simulating an interaction between people in an experience built for just one person. The problems that emerge in these interactions tend to be the same as those that emerge with pornography– the sensations most desirable in the interaction become isolated, then amplified, then exaggerated to grotesque proportion. That which was meant to be intimate becomes raucous, that which was meant to negotiate dictates, and that which was meant to be understanding becomes controlling. This isn’t inherently a problem – it’s fine to enjoy ridiculous exaggerated entertainment as long as we understand it to be entertainment – until it becomes the default, the status quo. When we solely understand conflict and competition through obscene hyper-competition, just as when we understand sex through contrived hyper-sex, we begin to cede the ability to understand how to actually interact with other human beings.

Most of us can figure it out, anyway, but the more artistic license and exaggeration that is taken, the more it feeds into a solipsistic view of human interaction. What separates a game that is grotesquely hyper-competitive from any other competitive game? Is it possible to create a game that simulates the sensation of competing with another person without implicitly boiling human lives and interactions down into insultingly simplified systems? The question of how to portray something meaningful without suggesting that it has only the meaning we assign to it is one that rests at the core of art. How can we reduce something to its appearance, to a set of symbols, to a series of words or interactions or moments, without removing something vital? How can you taxidermy emotion?

The presentation of a game as competition doesn’t rest in any one place within the game. The mechanics contribute by creating opponents with similar capabilities to the player, the presentation contributes by making them look and sound like a person, and the narrative contributes by giving them motives and backgrounds that place them in opposition with the player. Most single-player games function by generating a huge field of completely committed enemies that are categorically opposed to the player and whose only call and only response is lethal violence – which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is also extremely limiting. Even in most games where they are motivated to oppose the player through more robust systems, enemy NPCs rarely prioritize protection, preservation, escape, or survival as tactical goals – they merely flip a switch over to hostile and attempt to fight the player to the death.

What makes this uncomfortable now is how often we see real groups of real people portrayed this same way. There are those, so the rhetoric goes, whose way of life is inherently incompatible with ours; there are invaders; there are gangsters, there are born criminals, there are those whose only understanding of the world is through violence, and to defeat them we must become the same and only understand the world through violence against them. While I love much of what we have achieved artistically within the medium of electronic entertainment, it has become terrifying to see the rhetoric of dehumanization and the necessary evils of simulated competition slowly grow and knit their leaves together until they become so similar.

It is not the violence that is the problem. It is the understanding of violence as an inevitable consequence of an inevitable action, of the world as a zero-sum game, that is the problem. It is coming to no longer see these contrivances and assumptions as assumed or contrived that has become the problem. Of course it’s not the games that are to blame, and it’s not the competition that has made the world a blood sport. The systems these games are made of are just revealing, and reinforcing, the things we have believed all along.

If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Support at any level lets you read new posts one week early and adds your name to the list of supporters on the sidebar.