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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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For the past month, I’ve been working on my entry to the Idle Thumbs community game jam, Wizard Jam X. This is the final Wizard Jam, due to the Idle Thumbs podcast going into a long-term hiatus from which it may never awake. I really wanted to make something special for this one. I think I achieved about half of what I’d hoped to do, but I am reasonably satisfied with the result.

Without further context or explanation, I present Eight Seconds: Manipulated Through Time.

The concept of Wizard Jam is to take the title of one of the Idle Thumbs podcasts – or one of their several associated podcasts – and to make a game with the same title, which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with its source material. Later Wizard Jams have diverged from this formula somewhat in order to keep things fresh, but I’ve always been a fan of this approach so I stuck with it. In this case, I chose the title “Manipulated Through Time”. I always find it interesting imagining to what degree we might be capable of representing time travel in video games – We have tremendous control of allowing the player to revisit everything prior to the current moment in the game, since we can freely record and play back those previous game states – but can we make it possible for them to interact with the future in a meaningful way?

Well, that’s still an interesting idea, but I wasn’t really able to robustly pursue it here because it turns out my hands were quite full with allowing the player to interact with the past – though the idea of these two interactions being equivalent is also presented. It was important to me to make it so the player interacted with that past in a meaningful way – not just as a static recording, but as something more tangible – and, in so doing, that also means that you are directly affecting your future self with the actions you’re taking now.

This is always true, just revealed a bit more explicitly here.

My original concept of the game was that every minute, time would be reversed. For each minute, you would interact with your shadow self, which was doing everything you just did but in reverse, and by so doing you would navigate puzzles and so forth. While thinking about this, I realized that in that first minute, before there was any shadow to interact with, the player would have no idea what was going on – and that even once the idea of the time reflection began to make sense, controlling your inputs precisely, with reversal in mind, for an entire minute would still be nearly impossible. The obvious solution was to shorten this feedback loop to a shorter period of time so it was more feasible to observe the results of your actions. I waffled for a while considering different time values and eventually settled on eight seconds as an appropriate length for the time loop. I also eventually ended up making variants on this time reflection idea – you’d have reflections that reversed the flow of time, or echoes that moved the same temporal direction as you but with an eight-second delay, or reflections that had an echo of their own, and so forth. This undermined the original idea of a time loop where you were interacting with yourself directly, but by the time I got to this point I’d forgotten that was the original idea – and only remembered just now, when describing it here. I included the duration into the title to make it a little bit clearer what was happening (the tutorial for a game can begin with the title!) and also had some slight visual changes with each tick and each “reversal” to add to that clarity.

Because the concept was so innately difficult to wrap one’s brain around, I tried to make the game’s other elements as simple as possible. I had some idea of physics puzzles, of raising platforms with your reflection in order to traverse them, of tossing items to yourself – and, while these aspects are not entirely absent, they’re all done within the incredible simple framework of doors, switches that open doors, and boxes that can go on switches. However, because the player can be duplicated, and because whatever the player is holding when they’re duplicated can also be duplicated, even the simplest of these can become remarkably complex in practice.

What I came to realize over the course of the project is that there’s two somewhat contradictory sets of goals at play: That which builds interesting and thought-provoking puzzles using the mechanics, and that which builds an interesting moment-to-moment experience using the mechanics. These aren’t entirely contradictory of course: The idea of a fraught cooperation with your past selves implies challenges to be surmounted, so developing the theme requires challenge and developing challenge requires use of the theme, but there are points where these impulses push me in opposite directions. For instance, a huge amount of clarity could have been added to the puzzle solving if I locked the camera into a top-down perspective and made the movement turn-based – but this would also reduce the sense of the self being reflected, and reduce your interaction to a player and a pawn rather than a player with an avatar representing that player. In this case, I made the decision to present the game in first-person early on in production before realizing these ramifications – so, in the end, it becomes more of an experience than a proper puzzle game, with most puzzles being solved by fiddling with the scenario until an answer emerges rather than actually being thought through.

When it came to the appearance of the game, I wanted something highly detailed but not necessarily realistic. I was imagining the hyper-detailed surreal scenes of Twin Peaks or the minimalist stop motion of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated short Balance, something that felt very physical and real but without any grounding in the physical limitations of reality. I ended up leaning heavily on a free (deprecated) 3d tileset called Simple Corridors – because it was free and had PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, which is a fancy name for including a standard set of rendering textures that approximate the appearance of real materials. I originally planned on having a few separate environments, but since I didn’t have the time or skillset to make this type of asset on my own and didn’t want to break the bank buying professional assets I ended up making every area of the game a variant on the first tutorial zone I created – which, honestly, was probably all for the better, since it added to the thematic idea of being suspended in time.

For the music, I wanted to integrate both reversed and unreversed instruments, and have it be at times unclear which was which – it was also, since timing was such a huge part of the game, an opportunity to convey the eight seconds conceit through another information channel. I could have, and perhaps should have, executed this as a static music track, but instead I created a simple adaptive music system using several separate music stems for each instrument, each being 8 or 16 seconds long and each with an assigned intensity value. Trigger volumes set the music intensity as the player progresses through the level, which randomly plays a random sample of the appropriate intensity at timed intervals – many of which are reversed versions of other samples. The basic idea of this worked really well, creating something that sounded more or less intentional and built over time – but, because Unity’s support for playing arbitrary sound samples is much less robust than it is for creating a dedicated sound emitter, I had a number of issues with controlling these sounds, from slight desyncs caused by frame timing to large variations created by the game being paused for the settings menu. Also, as I built the musical components out more the administrative overhead of managing even this relatively simple song structure became significant. It was a worthwhile experience, but I’ll likely try to integrate one of the existing middlewares for adaptive music next time I want to do something like this, just to have a proper editor at my disposal. All in all, I’m pleased but not entirely satisfied with how the musical component turned out – it sounds interesting some of the time, and seldom degrades into true cacophony, but it does sound like a slipshod implementation of the idea it represents – which it is. I decided that sound effects would just detract from the surreal experience, though, and didn’t bother with them.

Other technical difficulties emerged through the time reversal system itself, which should be a surprise to no one. Recording and playing back a character’s history is fairly trivial, but recording and playing back a history in a way that still acts on the world, and that can be acted on, is a more significant challenge. All values must be relative instead of absolute – and movement values must be relative both to the world and to the facing of the character. Partway through the project I decided to vary the levels by mirroring them and scaling them, and I hadn’t considered earlier on what effects this might have on game entities which existed within these worlds. The reflection of the player was modified by the transformation of the world it was placed in, which is thematically interesting but absolutely not my desired result. Suddenly whenever they were supposed to turn right they’d turn left, entirely because right and left had traded places in the world they were now put in. Other issues came in when I added the ability for the player and the reflections to grab and throw each other, which then created rotational feedback loops where, when the rotation of the character was recorded for the next playback, it would record both the player and the reflection’s rotation summed together. Some of these issues may still exist, though I tried to stomp out as many as I could – but even aside from the technical challenge of implementing a solution, figuring out what a solution even ought to look like was frequently a non-trivial design challenge. What does it mean to pick up or drop an item in reverse, and what effect should these actions have on the world? What degree of physical interaction between the player and their reflection enabled interesting outcomes, and what was unfeasible to implement? What was likely to break the game? I had to answer each of these, and though I ended up approaching most of these conservatively it was still an unpredictable game and prone to weird breaks which I had to take a few extra days to debug.

I’m happy with how the project turned out, but I don’t think my methodology was very good. I dropped everything to work on this, and I think the end result of that was unhealthier work habits and hours, a lack of focus, and a bunch of extra stress I probably didn’t need to deal with. Though this is the last Wizard Jam (for now?), I will likely participate in some other game jams in the future – and these tough lessons are ones I think I’d better keep in mind when I do.

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In August of 1993, Magic: The Gathering was released. I was 10 at the time, and it was a year or so later that I was introduced to the game, I believe somewhere in between the release of the Antiquities and Legends expansion sets. Magic was obviously a huge hit, though it didn’t reach its peak of popularity until a while later. The experience of a kid discovering it then, though, when it was relatively niche, was rather different I suspect from how most people encounter it now.

Magic is a complex game – and was in some ways even more so at the time, since they’ve found a few ways to streamline the rules in the meanwhile. Every box of cards came with a tiny dense little instruction booklet, and while it was fine for understanding the basic flow of play and most common interactions, edge cases and peculiarities were resolved by vigorous debate about what made the most sense. At times it was difficult to sort out the differences between what cards did and what they seemed they ought to do – it takes quite a while for a child to wholly internalize the idea that even though the Frozen Shade is clearly flying in its illustration, it still doesn’t have the flying ability.

There was, then, a sense of magic – so to speak. A feeling of imagination and wonder imbued the cards, and the illustrations, which were often crude by the standards of more recent cards, still spoke tantalizingly of an exciting fantasy narrative behind the game. In the decades since, they’ve released novels and reams of lore fleshing out this fantasy narrative, which I guess is fine too. It probably would have excited me at the time, but isn’t interesting to me now. As well, in the decades since, the mechanics have been thoroughly explored, dissected, and optimized. There’s general consensus now what the good cards and bad cards are, how to best use them, how to construct a deck, how to win. This is great, it’s fun to see a game I once loved have such a long and varied life, but it is completely different now from the game that I once played.

Magic is a game of seemingly infinite possibilities. The cards are so many and so intricate that it seems that you can build anything, build fantastic impractical contraptions or lean hard tournament-winning decks, can go wherever your imagination can take you – if you have the money. Every card has to be bought, and the more useful it is the more it will cost you. It’s a pay-to-win game in a very literal sense, and people probably would dismiss it as such if it were released now in the same format. However, at the time it was the first of its kind, and in so being it paved the way for the modern mobile game as well as every other title that sells itself in bits and pieces, components of a satisfying experience instead of a creation unto itself. Even the biggest AAA titles now have elements of Magic in their DNA.

It is a legacy one hesitates to admire, but the mark has been made.

Computer game versions of Magic have since been released, along with competing games like Hearthstone. Hearthstone has much simpler rules, but more importantly those rules are all formalized by the programming of the game. There is no room for debate, there’s no opportunity to call in judges, the game works in the way the game is made – which, again, probably removes some of the mystique, but makes it far more approachable for beginners.

All of this brings me to Slay the Spire, which I’ve gained renewed enthusiasm for after taking a long hiatus from playing. This is, first of all, not a perfect comparison – Slay the Spire is a dedicated single-player experience instead of a head-to-head dueling game, and the rules are substantially simpler, though the interactions can become extremely complex. While Magic aspires to a sort of free-market egalitarianism, Slay the Spire is overtly unfair. In Magic, it’s impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because the rules constrain it from being possible – in Slay the Spire, it’s (nearly) impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because you don’t know what you’re going to be given to build it. Some Slay the Spire runs are cake walks; some are walking on thin ice. Because you’re improvising with what you find, though, there’s an opportunity to discover weird edge case interactions you never would have found if you were building something with specific intent – and, indeed, there must certainly some wild and undiscovered interactions between the vast library of Magic cards released, over 10,000 separate cards, that will remain unfound indefinitely because no one ever has cause to use most of those cards.

A similar work-with-what-you-find ethic can be found in some special draft formats of Magic, where players break up a box of new cards and take turns pulling the cards they want and try to build the best deck they can out of what they get – and though this is an expensive way to play in its own right this at least helps eliminate the pay-to-win factor. When money is eliminated as a factor, the playing field is relatively level, and the game is deemed fair once more.

What interests me about the relationship between a card game released in the 90s and a card game released now, though, is how our perception of fairness has changed over time. With the popularity of Slay the Spire specifically and roguelikes, a genre where vast swathes of the gameplay experience is left to brutal chance, in general – and the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre, a genre where circumstances as much as skill determine your chances of success – it appears that the modern understanding of fairness is shifting. The belief that underpin Magic as a game is that every player should be equal in the eyes of the rules – if not necessarily economically equal. It’s a meritocracy, as long as we assume merit to equal money… And that’s usually what we mean when we say meritocracy. There’s random chance, but it usually gets ironed out for the most part by keen strategizing and the law of large numbers. However, modern games are much more willing to cede that not everyone starts on a level playing field, that some people are born dead, screwed from the start, and pose the challenge of how to do the best that you can under the worst possible circumstances.

I would hesitate to infer too much from this shift. These axioms could come from a belief that the world is unjust and that the human struggle is one of creating justice. These axioms could just as easily come from a belief that anyone can succeed no matter where they come from, the old American Dream – as opposed to the new one, where anyone might not merely succeed but become wildly wealthy. It is a fascinating shift in the way we talk about and think about games, though: Fairness is, as a tenet of game design, becoming rather passe.

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Last week I wrote about how no two people walk away from a piece of art with the same conception of what they just saw. I mostly couched that in terms of older media like visual art and film, but this idea applies to games in an especially interesting way. If we regard a film as a set of visual moments set to narrative that creates an experience in the viewer, a game is sort of like a set of systems that generate those visual and narrative moments – a sort of movie machine. This is not an especially popular perspective, since most games that try to directly reproduce the experience of seeing a movie tend to be hamhanded and tedious, but it’s a useful analogy for understanding some of the ways games can be interesting.

Sometimes, as in the case of a strategy or classic arcade game, the point of interest is meant to lie within the systems and learning how to understand and exploit them, with the visuals and narrative working to express the system state – sometimes, instead, as with RPGs or visual novels, the point of interest is in the narrative, with the systems working to vary the expression of that narrative. The art of games becomes a kind of meta-art – so, just as our perception of the experience of the game varies from person to person and context to context, so does our perception of the systems of the game that created this experience. Most people, in effect, never end up playing the game itself, but playing their perception of the game – they don’t follow the rules that are coded in, they just follow their understanding of the rules. They don’t engage with the systems that exist, they engage with the systems that they find useful and interesting. The game which they experience is, in the end, just a sub-game made of a larger whole.

All this is very abstract, but one doesn’t have to look very far to see instances of this dynamic. An obvious example of this is in skill trees, which many RPGs such as the Diablo series have and which only allow you to pick a small subset of the existing abilities to use. A somewhat less obvious example are the huge variety of spells and weapons in Dark Souls, of which most people have only used a few. A perhaps even less obvious example is when games provide some tactical option that many players simply choose not to use – such as the cover system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I personally largely ignored after about 15 minutes of play. In each of these, the game that you actually end up playing is a smaller subset of the game as it exists, comprised of those systems which you find interesting or believe to be useful.

What do we mean when we say that a game allows the player a large degree of choice? To a significant degree, what we are saying is that we allow the player to choose what parts of the game to ignore, to allow them the freedom to create the sub-game within the game that most appeals to them. Puzzle games offer very little choice, because you’re forced to fully engage with and understand the systems in order to solve them – since, in most cases, the puzzles have but one solution. Strategy games provide a vast field of solutions to various interlaced dilemmas, many of which you can ignore in order to implement your chosen approach.

This understanding of choice through systemic engagement is of particular interest when considered in the discussion of difficulty and accessibility. While it’s often possible in RPGs to hammer through challenges through sheer skill or cleverness, the systems other players might ignore frequently become ways to progress to those who can’t manage the straightforward solutions. Helpful tools such as turrets, which might be useless to a player who has no issue with aiming, could be fundamental to a player who does not have that capability. If the game is designed to be expansive, and to encompass many approaches that are applicable to different capabilities, then the sub-game the player ends up creating might end up feeling more complete and satisfying – potentially more so than if you simply offer difficulty or accessibility settings to achieve the same purpose.

However, this comes with a drawback. If the player is creating their sub-game out of the systems you have provided, there’s nothing that guarantees whatever system-combination they devise will actually generate a satisfying experience. Many games are actually designed in such a way that this outcome becomes likely – such as, for instance, having a mechanic that’s de-emphasized for much of the game only to become useful, or even necessary, at the end – long after the player’s forgotten about it. Or, as in many cases, the method of play that the player identifies as most effective are actually the most tedious ways to play the game, so the player quickly gets bored of the experience, a problem which I’ve discussed in the past.

This all adds up to be a lot to keep in mind while designing your game. How necessary are the different mechanics? What capabilities and aptitudes do they open windows for? Are there combinations of these systems that will create a bland and uninteresting experience? What will the scope of created experiences look like? It seems, at times, impossible to account for all of these permutations and their significance. Just like the player, you may never fully grasp your game. All you can do is seek to shape it into something which ends up interesting and appealing, no matter how you slice it.

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If we are alone, and we are dissatisfied, we can change the scene – either by traveling or adapting the world to suit ourselves. If we are with a few other people, it is usually still possible to convince them to enact some sort of change to relieve the pressure – but, as the number of people increases and increases and increases, the world comes to seem more static, less mutable. Systems of management are devised and implemented, and as the number of people involved in creating these systems increase and their responsibilities diverge these systems, as well, come to seem distant and immutable

Nothing is actually any more permanent than before – actually, probably less so, since we have a tendency to affect fairly rapid change on our environment – but our perception of our ability to intentionally effect these changes fades. Like we’re all trying to push a large rock, none of us really feel like we’re affecting any change – and yet the rock moves. Even those with undeniable power seem to buy into the illusion – to our collective ruin, since rapacious consumption becomes that much easier to justify when one can internally believe the environment to be immutable. You cannot destroy a world that cannot be changed.

It’s a kind of incentivized reasoning. If the world can be changed, then that means we might be making it worse. If the world can be changed, then we have an obligation to make it better. If the world can be changed, but we have no actual capacity to change it ourselves, then we are imprisoned. None of these notions are pleasant to think about.

So we don’t.

We proceed on the assumption that the world is constant, that any changes we make are superficial. We know this to not be true, now, based on our effects on the climate, but the basic belief still lingers: We might, we reason, be able to change the world if we had control, but we don’t have control, our societal structures do – then we feel powerless to change those, in turn, achieving the same basic effect.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The implied burden of of this power for change is too much for any single person, and so movements must be built around it. The American spirit of rugged individualism tends to work against this necessity. This is probably not an accident.

When we make game worlds to live in for entertainment, they are also mostly static, with some notable exceptions. Even for those games where we can readily change our environment, though, such as Minecraft, we seldom have any significant effect on the underlying systems of these environments. You can carve away chunks of the world, replant it with greenery, open up dimensional portals, but you can’t really change how anything lives or dies, moves or acts. This is fine: Implementing a truly adaptable system like this would be a massive technical and artistic undertaking, but it’s telling how few games even try, or see this as a gap.

One notable exception to this trend I can think of is Dwarf Fortress, a game which is notorious for systematizing everything to an extent that becomes baffling and overwhelming. A careless decision can lead to a base getting flooded with lava or invaded by hippopotamuses. Other useful comparison points are the classic MUD (Multi User Dungeon) games, which allowed players to create their own regions with their own rules, and Second Life, a 3d successor to these primarily notorious for providing a playground for virtual sexual exploits.

Dynamic world games are still rarely respected by “hard core gamers,” though – either treated as impenetrable novelties like Dwarf Fortress, childish playgrounds like Minecraft, or both, as is the case with Second Life. No matter how popular these games may be, they’re always understood to be outside the mainstream of what games are and what gamers want.

What we want, what we are meant to want, is to take what we are given and enjoy it, and to strenuously avoid thinking about the possibilities of change and what they might imply.

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Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be.

What do we want virtual reality to be? We want the complete experience of being someone or something else. We want to be able to do what they can do, see the world from where they see it, understand their life as they understand it. Sometimes we want to be ourselves but in some sort of more exciting scenario, but that’s still more or less the same thing – inhabiting some alternate version of the self that lives in more exciting and fulfilling circumstances is still basically playing a character. There is something greedy, something invasive about it. The sort of greed, not for money or power but for unique perspectives and experiences, that motivated the villains in Get Out, who solve the virtual reality conundrum by essentially hollowing out other peoples’ minds and physically occupying them, living in their reality, colonizing it.

However, say we want to create a simulation of what it might mean to occupy another body, one that does no direct harm to someone. Right now, the gap between virtual reality and actual reality is obvious. Aside from any issues with graphical verisimilitude that we can assume will be addressed to some degree over time with better rendering and artistic technique, there’s a big difference between the experience of seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through their ears, controlling approximately where their hands are and what they’re doing, and the experience of being that person. It is, perhaps, satisfactory for a simulation of being a robot locked in place, with sensory and interactive apparatus, but even then the virtual entity cannot be wholly inhabited because you still have awareness of your own body, your own place. You cannot escape yourself so easily.

In order to experience what it is to be another person, you’d have to occupy more senses – the senses of taste and smell, the senses of balance and of proprioception, the sense of touch, and while we occasionally make minor forays into some of these with tilting rooms and packaged scents, it is still far from a complete transformation.

That’s still a problem that can probably be solved. We can regard it as something like the issue of graphical fidelity, a problem that is challenging but that we can take concrete steps to approach, bit by bit. There’s a bigger issue. Say we figure all that out, and we create a perfectly convincing all-encompassing simulation of being a star football player winning the Superbowl. I don’t know anything about football, but say you undergo the simulation and experience the entirety of the winning play, from the first pitch through dunking the shuttlecock into the wicket: Who actually did this brilliant, effortlessly physically perfect play? Who ran? Who dodged? Who threw? Who pumped the legs, found the point of balance, who carefully threaded the defenders and perfectly understood the field of play? It wasn’t you, because you didn’t have the lifetime of experience and training necessary to do those things – a person’s unique capabilities stem indelibly from their personal history and understanding of the world. How can you say you’ve had that experience, then, if you didn’t really do any of it?

Thus there needs to be some degree of abstraction. If you’re to control someone who has capabilities you do not, you need to be able to boil those complex micro-decisions down into more digestible macro-decisions. Instead of the tiny piece-by-piece decisions of position and balance, you’re fed the bigger and more understandable decisions of where to run, when to throw, who to pass to, and so forth.

It doesn’t really sound like virtual reality any more, does it? It doesn’t really sound like becoming another person temporarily any more. It sounds like a video game.

If the idea of being able to inhabit one of the characters you play in games sounds appealing, that’s because games are made to only show the appealing sides of their characters. This isn’t some nitpicking realism-critique about characters never needing to use the bathroom, but a lot of character designs, a lot of character animations, a lot if characters are simply not made to be functional. They would be unable to actually draw their weapons, or they would keep falling over, or they would be unable to see past their own clothing if they were a living creature – which is, perhaps, not the experience people have in mind when they imagine what it would be to live as this character.

The point is, art isn’t consistent. Art doesn’t always completely make sense, or create a livable reality. Art is not coherent. That is what makes it interesting, because anywhere there’s a gap in a story or inconsistency in a character or a lack of detail is a place where we are invited to interpret. There’s no bone or tendon to it, no connectivity, merely a series of moments, and in that way art is like dreams, all memory and no substance.

Okay, then. What about lucid dreaming? What about a virtual reality comprised of extremely specific dreams, of remembered moments orphaned from the specific experiences that created them, implanting a perfectly formed recollection of a finely crafted or curated lived experience? This is more or less the plot to Total Recall (and the short story it was based on, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale). Memory implantation is probably the most actually plausible form of a true “virtual reality” – of course, you’d have no actual ability to affect the outcome, but you would remember all of the choices you supposedly made and would rationalize the reasons you made those decisions. That’s pretty much how we live our lives anyway, placing yesterday’s decisions into narratives that make sense based on who we believe we are, since the self of yesterday is essentially a stranger to us. If we’re making fake memories, we can make them perfectly plausible: In John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, a character finding themselves in an implausible tropical paradise lifts up a handful of sand and finds it to be too perfectly detailed for it to possibly be a simulation. However, as the computer running the simulation points out afterwards, the entire beach of sand doesn’t need to be simulated, only the moment of staring at a handful of perfectly detailed sand and of deciding that this couldn’t possibly be a simulation.

We cannot know what it is to be someone else – that experience is forever alien to us. Even more tragically, we cannot really know what it was to be ourselves ten years ago, ten days ago, ten minutes ago – we are severed from our past mind, with only the flimsy bridge of memory and the cataclysmic tower of consequences to tie us to our history.

Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be, and you’ll never be quite sure what actual reality even is.

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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.

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