On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.


When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?


A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

On prayer, diversity among deities, and ADHD.

My new favorite computer game begins each round as a real-time strategy game like Starcraft.  You command your little empire to build temples and offer up various sorts of psalms – will you praise your deity’s ever-gathering hands, its watchful vigilance, its fiery vengeance?

After you feel that you’ve done enough to celebrate your deity, you can command your priests to summon it – at which point the gameplay switches to a third-person adventure mode vaguely reminiscent of the old arcade classic Rampage.  You must attempt to destroy opposing civilizations with your deity … but there’s a twist.  The attributes of your deity reflect the way it was prayed to.  With too much emphasis on its “ever-gathering hands,” your god’s hands become massive. Those unwieldy appendages drag behind you as you walk, plowing deep furrows into the ground.

In this phase of the game, the controls can seem laggy and loose.  It turns out that this is intentional; as in the game Octodad, an inability to control your creation is an essential part of the game.  Certain types of prayer might make your deity more powerful but also more difficult to manage.


Presumably you’d avoid this sort of self-destructive excess – like praising wrath to the extent that your god destroys your own kingdom promptly after being summoned – but opposing players can infiltrate your civilization with heretics, and the way they pray will affect your god as well.

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas ends with the idea that “everyone gets the devil he deserves.”  This is the underlying concept of the game, but for gods instead of demons.

First Coming includes elements of both real-time strategy and arcade smash-em-up.  And the idea of human prayer sculpting physically-manifest deities is intriguing.  I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the greatest game, flawed only in that it doesn’t live up to the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.


Bible_primer,_Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools_(1919)_(14595468018)We live in a culture that reveres vengeance.  The majority of the U.S. worships a deity who was praised for his violence.

Sometime around 600 BCE, a kingdom that worshiped a local deity called Yahweh was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer, whose people worshiped the storm god Marduk.  After the surrender, many of the conquered people were deported to Babylon, where they would help make that city the most splendid in the world.

But some of the conquered Hebrews were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, where they still worshiped Yahweh in traditional ways – mostly by ritually killing animals – until they attempted to regain their independence.  Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer sent an army to circle the city.  The people began to starve.  The uprising was crushed.

102.Zedekiah's_Sons_Are_Slaughtered_before_His_EyesThe Hebrew leader was captured.  He was held, struggling, a soldier on either side restraining his arms.  One by one the Babylonian conquerors brought Zedekiah’s children.  The leader surely screamed, begging to die.  The soldiers gripped his arms more tightly.  And (2 Kings 25) they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah.  Those murders were his last sights, lingering in his blinded mind.  His sons bodies spilling blood from their slit necks into the dust.

Many more of the remaining Hebrews were then deported to Babylon, to slave for the greatness of that city.  They carted stones to build monuments to Marduk.  This god’s temples soared into the sky, one some seven stories high.

And the Hebrews saw the ceremonies held to celebrate Marduk.  On the fourth day of the New Year’s festival, priests read from a sacred text, the Enuma Elish, describing the origin of the world.  The old gods had sex; they were murdered by their children; the flesh of their bodies was used to construct heaven and earth.  Other sacred texts included the Atrahasis – which describes the flood that nearly destroyed humanity when we became too noisy and disturbed the gods’ rest – and Gilgamesh which celebrates fraternal love.

The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Adam-and-Eve_Stephen-Greenblatt_coverIn The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblat writes that “These works feature gods – a whole pantheon of them – but Yahweh is nowhere among them, let alone their lord and master.

The Hebrew people were crushed, their god so insignificant that he appeared in none of the victors’ stories.  And so the Hebrews fought back … with words.  They wrote a sacred text of their own, one in which Yahweh reigned supreme and the Babylonian tales were mockingly tweaked.  The glorious temples gave rise to “The Tower of Babel,” symbol of mankind’s unwarranted arrogance.  In the Hebrew flood story, humans were killed because the city people – and none were more urbane than the Babylonians – were corrupt.  Sex did not mark the origin of the world, but rather began after the fall.

And they sang psalms to a deity patiently waiting to enact murderous revenge:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

… and, in answer of their own question, the conquered people begin to sing …

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hath served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

After the siege, Hebrew sons were murdered, daughters were raped, those of able body were made slaves.  They asked of their god revenge.  They prayed to a lord who would kill, and abet their killing, to restore their kingdom.

bible-1623181_640And … several millennia later … our philosophical traditions are rooted in their prayers.  Our nation is embroiled in retributive wars.  Our punitive prisons are overflowing, with those unfortunate enough to land inside often made worse by their time there.


Yahweh was praised for his patient pursuit of vengeance.  And we celebrate those qualities – in school, especially, we praise those able to dispassionately sit for hours, ingesting knowledge.  Those with difficulty sitting still, we drug.

Which is sad – there are many ways of being smart, even if our culture celebrates only one of them.

Indeed, many cultures have told myths with ADHD heros.  In the Apache myth of the origin of fire, Fox joined a flock of geese in flight … but then forgot the rules for staying in the air.  But that was okay – it was only after he tumbled to earth that he had a chance to steal fire from a tribe of fireflies and bring it to mankind.

In many Polynesian myths of the origin of fire, it was brought by Maui … whose impulsiveness would almost surely lead to an ADHD diagnosis in the contemporary United States.  Each time he received a gift of fire from his ancestor in the underworld – she was pulling off burning finger- or toe-nails and giving them to him – he intentionally quenched them in a nearby stream, just to see what she’d do next.  His curiosity was nearly the death of him.  Irked, she lit the world on fire.

In the Norse pantheon, Loki sometimes plans … but more often pursues whatever rebellious notion pops into his head.  The mutant children he sired will destroy the world.  His penchant for vicious barroom taunting (and impromptu murder) angered all other gods and led to his repeated exile from their kingdom.

But his exploits were still celebrated.

lightning.jpgOr there’s Annabeth in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, a daughter of Athena who helps the protagonist recover after a battle with a minotaur:

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.  Your senses are better than a regular mortal’s.  Of course the teachers want you medicated.  Most of them are monsters.  They don’t want you seeing them for what they are.”

On inadvertent racism.

On inadvertent racism.

A few years ago, my little brother got one of those fancy new telephones.  This prompted me to spend hours extolling the virtues of my own phone – it flips open and shut so that I won’t call anybody by mistake, it has big buttons that depress satisfyingly when I dial a new number, the battery stays charged for days, the maximum volume is very loud.

My brother soon grew sick of my paean.  “How much do you think your phone is worth?” he asked me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, I bought it for thirty dollars, but that was a few years ago… twenty, maybe?”

“There it is.”

We were walking through the grocery store at the time. He’d pointed and, sure enough, a display cabinet offered telephones identical to my own for $4.99.

Not that this makes me like my device any less.  It’s amazing that such a splendorous piece of technology can be bought for under five bucks.  But it did startle me enough for my brother to accomplish his intended goal: getting me to shut up about it already.

Anyway, I joined a friend, briefly, while he was playing Pokemon Go.  I flipped open the phone, aimed the camera at a promising spot, then typed an “8.”  It looked something like a decapitated snowman.

“Look!” I shouted.  “I found an Acephalous Frostychu!  That’s a good one, right?”

Gotta catch ’em all?

My friend was unimpressed.  Apparently the game is more fun when played using other people’s telephones.

Unless you’re playing in a minority neighborhood, that is.

Not just because it can be unwise to stroll blithely unaware of your surroundings in some areas.  To play the game, there are apparently various resources you have to obtain.  In some places, especially wealthy neighborhoods, these resources (like the traps you’ll need to enslave new gladiators) are easy to find.  You can play the game for free.  In other places, including many black neighborhoods, those resource centers are sparsely distributed.  The game items you need won’t be found free.  To play the same way in these areas, you’d need to shell out a bunch of money.


This does not mean that Niantic, the company that developed Pokemon Go, had any racist motivation.  There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why game resources were distributed the way they were: they based the new game’s maps off user-generated data from a prior game that was played most in wealthy areas.

The motivation was not based on racial prejudice.  But the outcome was consistent with it.

I’d argue that outcomes, visible to all, matter more than professed motivations.  Not that I think Pokemon Go matters much, but the designers should fix this.  I imagine the correction wouldn’t be very difficult to implement, and inadvertent racism probably hurts almost as much as the maliciously-intentioned real thing.

Plus, if Niantic fixes their game, they’d send an important message to the U.S. Supreme Court: you have to consider the consequences of an action, not just its motivation.

For instance, policing.  Black- and brown-skinned people are far more likely to be incarcerated than white-skinned people who engage in identical behaviors.  In the United States, this disparity seems racially motivated every step of the way; black Americans are treated worse by the police, by prosecutors, by judges, by parole boards, and by future employers whose jobs will be needed to stay out.

But there are always arguments that some of the disparity isn’t racially motivated.  Consider, as an example, the first foray into that long slide: an encounter with the police.  Well, no matter what you might be doing, you’re more likely to run into a police officer in minority neighborhoods.  The rationale is that police officers are more heavily concentrated in areas with “higher crime.”

We’ve assessed which areas are “higher crime” incorrectly, though.  For many years, police officers were distributed based on the number of prior arrests in an area, not the number of crimes that had been committed there.  This issue is discussed in Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:

51P9fNxVlRL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The discouraging figures did not necessarily reflect actual crime on the ground as much as they did the flawed criminal justice data-gathering that accompanied the intensification of federal law enforcement programs.  Arrests were counted as part of the crime rate regardless of whether they produced a conviction, meaning, for example, that if a group of black youth were arrested for robbing a liquor store, all of those youth would be recorded as burglars and counted as part of the crime rate, even if they were subsequently released for lack of evidence.  Since black men under the age of twenty-four had the highest arrest rate in the United States – a result of the targeted law enforcement encouraged by the federal government – they were seen as responsible for the majority of the nation’s crime and skewed reported rates accordingly, even though crime was increasing faster in suburban and rural areas in the mid-1970s.

Racist decisions in the past produced bad data.  If we blithely use that data now, it doesn’t matter whether our motivations are good or evil: the outcome will be unfair.

Of course, many of us, in our day to day lives, do not choose where police officers are deployed.  But I’d argue that most white people make choices that might inadvertently abet our country’s racial injustice.  For instance, while driving: because minority drivers are stopped so much more frequently for minor infractions (at times with nightmarishly awful consequence), it is unfair for white drivers to take advantage of their implicit privilege.  After all, driving fast is more fun than following the speed limit.  You get places faster.  And some people can speed with the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be stopped by the police.

Which would be fine if you were blithely ignorant.  But as soon as you know that others would face serious consequences over the indulgences permitted to you – for speeding, for smoking a jay, for questioning a teacher’s or police officer’s authority – carrying on with your life unchanged is (inadvertently!) racist.  In the words of Reverend Jim Wallis,

Wallis and AOS book, 2“To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.”

On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

CaptureAfter dinner recently, one of K’s former students asked me for my list of the all-time best video games.  I blathered out an answer.  I think I listed Braid, and Cave Story, and Myth 2, and the NYC GTA , and the game Limbo could’ve been.

A reasonable list.  But by evening, after our guests had left and I was in the kitchen stirring wet flour for our next day’s bread, I had a better answer.

There are at least two ways to answer, I feel.  One: which games deliver the most pleasure while you’re playing?  After all, games are designed to be funMyth 2 and GTA from my initial list fall into that category, along with League of Legends, Golden Eye, Smash Brothers, Diablo 2, Hearthstone.  Those games can eat away entire weekends while keeping you continuously entertained.  They’re designed to trigger steady bursts of dopamine release.  And while they aren’t meaningless —Myth 2 and GTA 4 both unspool interesting stories — that’s the sort of game you’d list if you think the purpose of a video game is to reduce human beings to pleasure-wracked zombies.

The other criterion you might keep in mind while ranking video games: which games best use the unique features of their medium to convey an idea?

Under this criterion, games start racking up points if, yes, they are pleasurable (a game is more likely to convey meaning if people want to play it.  No matter how beautiful the message tucked away in the final levels of Super Meat Boy might be, if it’s too frustrating for most people to reach those levels, the message will go unheard), but also if their very game-ness is needed to express an idea.  As in, was the game’s message something that would’ve been difficult to express in a painting, or a piece of music, or literature, or film?

It’s under that latter criterion that the game Limbo could’ve been excels.  The player’s illusion of control (you are free to do whatever you want, but only a small subset of actions allow you to progress through the game) makes the game’s message about moral complicity and the origin of evil much more powerful than it would be in a novel.

Braid, also, conveys an interesting message about mistakes and forgiveness that couldn’t have anywhere near the same impact without it being a game.  This is an idea that anybody whose game-playing peaked in the decade from about 1995 to 2005 has probably thought a lot about.  In early video games, you couldn’t save your progress.  Your game of Asteroid would last only as long as you were willing to camp in front of the machine.  Same with Mario, or Double Dragon.  And in contemporary games the system often saves your progress automatically, and your “saved game” will restart at a pre-designated state.  Like having a bookmark that squirms away if you try to put it midway through a chapter.  If you stop at any moment before you reach chapter seven, you’ll have to restart at the beginning of chapter six.

CaptureBetween ’95 and ’05, though, many games were designed with the capacity for a small number of self-overwriting save files.

That design had serious psychological ramifications.  If you were about to undertake a difficult task inside a game, you could save your progress and then play as riskily as you wanted.  If the first few moments of an encounter went well, you could save your progress midway through a battle.  And then, if you later made a mistake, you’d simply reload your previous file and try again, over and over until everything went perfectly.

I imagine there were lots of awkward gamer types out there who felt frustrated that real life didn’t offer the same opportunity for trial and error.  That you couldn’t save your progress through high school before boldly marching to the popular kid table and asking one of them to prom.  If you heard “Sure,” then good for you!  If you became a laughingstock, you’d just reload your save file and try something else — maybe a more subtle note slipped through the grating of a locker, maybe asking somebody else entirely.

Games without save files — Rogue-likes, for instance, or real life, or even those final GTA 4 missions that’d force you to play for an hour or more without encountering a save point — can easily make someone risk averse.  But that can be it’s own sort of failure.  Better broken arms, or broken hearts, than a paucity of dreams.  The Yes song was wrong.

All of which is conveyed beautifully by Braid.  The game is like Super Mario, but you can’t die.  You can’t fail.  Not permanently.  The world is dangerous, inside the game, but you’re given the ability to travel backward through time.  All your mistakes will be forgiven.

Until the end.  But I don’t want to wreck the story.

Anyway, while I was stirring the thick muck that would become bread, I realized I’d left out some of the best games according to the second criterion: Was a game better at conveying this idea than any other medium could’ve been?  A killer example that I missed is Sid Meier’s Civilization 2.

600full-sid-meier's-civilization-ii-coverIn Civilization, giving the player control over history is an essential part of the message.  I don’t even agree with the central message conveyed by the game — roughly, that history has a purpose, that civilization is steadily getting better as it makes progress toward that goal — but I appreciate how well it’s conveyed.  Very subtly, too.  I played a lot of Civilization when I was growing up without ever thinking that it was ideologically driven.

In part, that’s because children’s history classes in the U.S. convey the same message.  It’s much harder to notice a strange bias if it’s everywhere.  At the same time, the game aspect of Civilization makes a teleologic interpretation seem so natural.  The concept of victory points, with multiple avenues toward success, is a common feature of war games (in Civilization 2, you could win murderously, by subjugating all the earth under your nation’s rule, or technologically, by building a space ship and leaving the world behind, or through something akin to diplomacy — after a while the game gives you a score based on how cultured your civilization seems to be and how long you were at peace).

And the concept of goals, that there is something discreet you’re trying to achieved, is common to almost all games (people love Minecraft because it’s one of the rare exceptions).

The teleologic view of history that Civilization conveys seems so natural for a game, and that same bias is reinforced in almost all high school history classes, but the idea is certainly contestable.  Consider the interpretation of agriculture between Civilization and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.

In Cvilization, your society must learn agriculture in order to advance.  In my beloved Civilization 2, one of the earliest research advancements you can make allows you to build granaries.  Which makes sense, given the progression of our own real-world history.  I wrote more about this in my essay about the parallel between gene duplication and oppression, but a quick summary is that some citizens must produce more food than their own families need for a society to “advance.”  That allows an elite class to syphon off the surplus and devote their time to pottery or literature or engineering or whatnot and not worry about survival.

a7857d64e581b1c2b9d0202ab8ee586eHarari’s contention in Sapiens?  He thinks that, for the actual people living in a society, it makes little difference whether a certain production scheme will allow new technologies to be developed someday.  Far more important is whether the citizens are able to lead fulfilling lives.  Did agriculture help with this?  In Harari’s words,

Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity.  They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power.  Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people.  Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat.  As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

That tale is a fantasy.  There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.  Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.  Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.  The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.  Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.  The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.  The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Similarly, the Civilization games require players to research cooperative strategies like mysticism and monarchy in order to progress.  (This isn’t entirely true.  Theoretically, you could decide not to develop these strategies and attempt to use the military units available to a “primitive” culture to conquer the world.  The games include some number of randomly-appearing barbarians who may be attempting to do just that.  But in practice, with most possible worlds you could inhabit in the game, this plan will fail miserably.  The barbarians rarely win.)

Yuval Harari - 'Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind'
Yuval Harari – ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’

I thought Harari did an impressive job translating concepts like “cooperation” for a non-academic audience.  This is one of the major virtues of his book.  He presents a huge amount of information culled from history, anthropology, biology, economics, philosophy… but does so in language that wouldn’t seem out of place in most magazines.  Anyone could (and should!) read his book.  I’d feel comfortable recommending Sapiens to any enterprising high school student.

Without further ado, here’s Harari’s explanation for what pedantic academic types (hey!  That’s me!) actually mean when they talk about “cooperation”:

Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire.  ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian.  Most human cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.  The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen.  The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat.  Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.

Altogether, Harari’s Sapiens is an impressive work.  I’m thrilled that he makes such a persistent effort to shift our focus away from the “big picture” of history as a record of cultural and technological developments, and instead think about what people’s lives may have been like at any point, and how the changing world affected the quality of life available to its inhabitants.  Which can seem more grim.  If you think that humanity’s “purpose” is to break free of Earth and populate the galaxy, or to develop artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced that it becomes its own life form and continues evolving without us, then we’ve been doing the right thing.  Agriculture and organized religion and prisons really were necessary developments.

But if you deny the teleologic view of history?  If you think there is no overarching purpose that individual humans should care about more than happiness and fulfillment during their own brief lives?  Well, then you could argue that small bands of hunter gatherers led better lives than the vast hordes of modern-day underemployed ill-fed densely crowded urban humans.

And that’s a message you probably couldn’t take away from Civilization 2.  Even if you keep playing so long that your world becomes a sparsely-populated totalitarian nightmare.  The game still doesn’t invite the player to reflect on the idea, “Maybe my people should’ve stopped.”  Especially because, if you do try to create a pacifist wonderland of loosely-connected small settlements, the AI will create a rapacious Western-style empire and exterminate your people.  Just like we did in real life.

On video games, addiction and Infinite Jest: The Movie.

CaptureI tend not to read many novels set in the dystopian future (I’m rather more fond of stories set in our dystopian present), but I was recently lent Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.  And it reminded me of an essay I’d been meaning to write, something with the thesis “Infinite Jest: The Movie seems far less dangerous than Infinite Jest: The Game.”

CaptureBecause it was nice, in Cline’s novel, that the protagonist gave up his games (at least temporarily) once he realized that relationships in the real world are more important.  But that’s hard.  Obviously Cline wasn’t aiming for absolute realism in his work, but his ending did inspire me to comb through some modern research on video game addiction.

Obviously video games aren’t addictive the way heroin is addictive.  The way alcohol is addictive.  You won’t go into physiological withdrawal, you won’t experience delirium tremens.  But video games can be addicting the way marijuana is addicting (are there still people who disagree that marijuana is addicting?  I think the clearest studies indicating that it is are things like this from Volkow et al.  Marijuana boosts dopamine, which makes pleasurable activities more pleasurable.  Habitual use leads results in a compensatory lowering of basal levels, however.  If someone smokes a lot of marijuana, everything feels muted and bland unless they’ve smoked, which engenders a strong compulsion to smoke again.  No, potheads doesn’t have to smoke more — they won’t get sick or die if cut off — but they’ll feel irritable and life will feel pleasureless if they don’t).

CaptureAnd there have been a handful of cases of “death by video game” already, often eerily reminiscent of descriptions given in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (the book).  Which, in case you haven’t read it, the premise is this: imagine a movie so compelling that, once you had seen it, you would never want to do anything except watch that movie again.  As in, wouldn’t want to sleep.  Wouldn’t want to eat.  Wouldn’t want to stand up to use the bathroom.  You would, of course, die; presumably from thrombosis (when you’re immobile too long, your blood can clump — well, blood can clump all the time, but activity helps flush everything through your body so that no one aggregate gets dangerously large.  But prolonged sitting can result in a sizeable clump forming, which can then plug shut a blood vessel.  That’s thrombosis; it isn’t good), but if you’re particularly hardy you might die from dehydration instead.  And, right, that movie was titled Infinite Jest.

There are several neurological explanations for why Infinite Jest: The Game will be even more dangerous than the film.  Active participation in video games enhances the potential pleasure that can be experienced; with a movie, a predetermined outcome will be reached, but a player’s sense of control while gaming allows for dopamine release, i.e. blasts of pleasure, in response to in-game success (I believe Koepp et al.’s 1998 Nature paper was the first to monitor dopamine in gamers, although you could’ve asked any kid in an arcade back in 1978 and learned that, hey, shooting the aliens is fun).

And there’s the idea of replay.  As in, starting another round of that exact same game to play again.  There are some films that people watch over and over again, but usually not multiple times at a single sitting.  Even if you do watch a movie repeatedly, it won’t grow with you; you’ll begin to anticipate each event, which diminishes the flash of pleasure when it comes. Consider this quote from Hull et al.’s review article about the interplay between video game design and its addictive potential: “a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player’s skills, and the player’s sense of time is distorted so that time passes without being noticed.”  I think good films do reward repeated viewings, which in a sense represents the “challenge” of a movie growing in tandem with your understanding of the work, but only up to a point.  I think that it’s possible to reach a point where you’re not going to learn anything new from a film, at which point the challenge disappears.

And I definitely don’t mean to imply that video games have more stored meaning to offer an audience; honestly, I imagine that most players learn little or nothing with each repetition of some of the most addictive games.

teemochineseConsider League of Legends, which was the game being played by one of the individuals profiled in that “video game deaths” article, and which numerous individuals have played for nearly ten-thousand hours.  Each game is approximately forty minutes long, the games are quite similar from one to the next, and, as far as I can tell (and I put in some hundred hours of my own trying to find out, before their system requirements outgrew my duct-taped space-heater of a laptop) reveal little or nothing about the human condition.

But people play.  Over and over again, they play.  Because each game is short, it’s easy to loose track of aggregate time spent playing, and because you’re playing against other humans, paired via a fancy matchmaking system, the game should always approximately match your skill.  Two of the features that Hull et al. remarked as key for addictiveness right there — inability to track time and constant challenge.

And there are a few more features we can add: for instance, when you do something “good” in the context of a game, you’re rewarded right away.  Big flashes of color, satisfying sounds, and, of course, a new flush of dopamine.  That immediacy is important.  If you’re watching a film and have a good idea, that’s gratifying — but part of your gratification is delayed as you have to think through your idea, figure out whether or not it makes any sense, and every moment of delay results in a discounting of your brain’s sense of reward.

Because game playing is active, and players often sit much closer to their computer screens than movie viewers do to their televisions, video games should result in a more significant disruption of sleep cycle; it’s much harder to fall asleep while playing a game than while watching a movie.  And although some people enjoy violent movies, the most addictive video games allow the player to perpetrate acts of violence on other characters; speculating about the evolutionary rationale for this might make this already-long essay too long, but suffice it to say that in many mammals aggressive behavior in itself feels rewarding, i.e., yeah, you guessed it, more dopamine!

And the problem is, once you have an activity in your life that triggers the release of buckets and buckets of dopamine, you’ll be beset by the urge to do that same thing again.  Other activities, if they trigger the release of less dopamine, won’t feel worthwhile.  And, video game design is iterative.  Consider League of Legends again; they’re still making it better.

Anyone designing a new game can draw upon everything we’ve learned from past entertainments to make the next one even more pleasurable than anything that’s come before.  Eventually, who knows, maybe an intrepid designer really will stumble across Infinite Jest: The Game and it’ll be just like those old scare stories about pot: try it once and you’re hooked!

With luck, that game designer will be too enthralled by his creation to ever get around to releasing it to the public.

(I wanted that to be the last sentence of this essay.  But I can’t help but point out: this seems exceedingly unlikely.  A key feature of the world’s most addictive games is human opponents, meaning Infinite Jest: The Game wouldn’t seem that bad until it was in fact released to the public.  Because solitaire games tend to devolve into predictability; like the description given above for movies, a player might reach a point when there was nothing new to experience.  But with a population of gamers all growing in skill together, ostensibly there is always a new challenge.)

On videogames and moral complicity.

NintendoMariostatue-1Given that there are critical theory courses discussing Super Mario Brothers, I assume there’s no need to get into the whole “Can videogames be great art?” argument.  Presumably almost everyone agrees that the medium can be used to make art.

Honestly, I fall into the camp that believes that almost any medium could be used to make art: Twitter?  Why not?  They’re still words.  Drip castles made out of sand?  You’re still making choices, you can still convey meaning.  A beautiful starting arrangement in Conway’s “Game of Life?”  (And, sure, that comes close to being a videogame, but aside from setting the initial conditions you don’t actually get to play, so I think it’s fair to put it in a different category.)  Why wouldn’t that be art?  You can convey deep meaning, someone versed in the form can get a sense of aesthetic appreciation; what else do you want?

But I thought it might still be fun to discuss some types of meaning that videogames are particularly good at conveying.  Specifically, moral complicity.

And, sure, you can do that in literature.  There’s the use of second person: in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Diaz implicates the reader in the whole culture of ignoring the plights of others with lines like “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history…”, where, yeah, he’s not saying it’s your fault, but you too, dear reader, have allowed bad behavior to go unpunished.  Or there’s Jay McInery’s “Bright Lights Big City,” which to me seems to be attempting something even riskier.  I think it’s pretty well exemplified by this passage from the end of the book; yes, the reader becomes complicit, but in that work the pervasive second person risks alienating the reader, pushing them away if they feel too strongly that isn’t me.

Capture“You get down on your knees and tear open the bag.  The smell of warm dough envelops you.  The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag.  You will have to go slowly.  You will have to learn everything all over again.”

I think McInery pulled off his use of second person well enough that not too many people would reject his book for that reason.  Back when I was teaching organic chemistry I used to send passages from literature as “inspiration” to my students, one of which was a long piece from this novel, and none of them complained.  Of course, I’m not sure how many of them actually read the emails I sent them.  Organic chemistry courses at Stanford tend to have a lot of people who want good grades in order to get into medical school, and maybe not so many people who want to read snippets of literature curated by their TA.

Or there’s first person plural, which could potentially implicate the reader.  Not always, of course.  Like there’s Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides,” where the first person plural clearly seems to be a group of now-grown boys sharing their findings with the reader: at the end of a passage describing a photograph of the heroines there are the lines “Please don’t touch.  We’re going to put the picture back into its envelope now.” (Someday I’ll have to find a good way to sneak in a snazzier quote or two from that book into one of my essays — something that Eugenides does extremely well, that I don’t think he’s often given enough credit for, is the way he blends science into his stories).

I this quote from Steven Millhauser, in an interview with failbetter wherein he discussed the use of first person plural in some of his own stories, gives a great description of what I find alluring about Eugenides’s narration… especially the final line: “One interesting fact about ‘we’ is that it’s rarely used.  The mere idea that it isn’t ‘I’ or ‘he’ is wonderfully liberating.  The fictional possibilities are enticing.  ‘We’ is an adventure.” 

But “we” might, instead of being adventurous, signify complicity.  You could argue that the first person plural of Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End” comes close to bundling the reader into the same group as the narrators.  You, dear reader, might have been there.  Perhaps you’d temporarily forgotten.

That said, I think this is something videogames can do better.  Because as close as you can be drawn in by judicious conjugation and pronoun use, it’s not the same as holding controls and being empowered with direct responsibility over whether the protagonist, or any other character onscreen, for that matter, will live or die.  And there are some games out there that do very interesting things with this moral complicity.

CaptureIn the first draft of my novel, I alluded to “Shadow of the Colossus.”   Sadly, I removed that passage — the book is long, and I hate the idea of it being longer than it needs to be.  Referencing that game did add something, but I don’t think it added quite enough relative to how much space it took to describe (three sentences) and how many likely readers would understand the allusion (somewhere between zero and one percent, right?).

But, look, now I’m typing for a website!  Space is infinite!  I’m going to describe the game, by golly.

First off, it’s beautiful, and apparently a lot of fun (I’m not terribly good at videogames, but I do like them.  I didn’t play this game, but I watched my brother play it.  Sometimes that can be even more fun — you get all the excitement of playing a game, none of the stress).

But, specifically as regards the “moral complicity” thing?  You, the player, have to kill gigantic monsters.  As you play, though, you gradually notice that the monsters aren’t actually harmful — they’re hanging out peacefully until you charge up and attack them.  By the end of the game, you, the player, realize you’ve been tricked… you shouldn’t have done that.  It would’ve been better to let the monsters live.  Your protagonist accumulates “The Picture of Dorian Gray”-esque manifestations of sin on his physique.  Everyone is disappointed.  The world is worse.  But, you were playing a game!  Killing gigantic monsters is what people in games do!  How could you know you shouldn’t have done it?  Also, if you didn’t kill them… well, then there would be no game.  In effect, the only choice you have is to do bad or not play.

CaptureIn a way, that’s similar to the “choice” you have in Grand Theft Auto 5.  At one point, you, the player, have to torture a captive in order to proceed.  Again, do bad, or stop playing.  And you, the player, are given this information midway through progress through the storyline.  Presumably the idea is that by this point you, the player, are enjoying the game enough that you’ll want to continue, and there is only one way to continue.

And I think that this teaches a lesson about torture and empathy beyond what you can learn from literature (although, we’ll see.  I’m still waiting in my local library’s queue for Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s “Guantanamo Diary.”  I expect more bleak essays will appear here in the future!).

To wit, why would anyone do those awful things?  Well, you’re told to.  You’re led along, you spend a lot of time learning to follow directions, and each new command issued might be a little more immoral than the one before, but there aren’t huge jumps from one to the next.  By the time you’re told to punch the tied-up man in the face, it’s not that much worse than other things you’ve done before.  And you want to move on!  Keep your job, get promoted, serve your time and get back to your real life.

Honestly, just thinking about it, it sounds ridiculous that someone would justify torture to himself that way.  Which I think is part of the benefit of the game, even though it’s got a lot of awful stuff in it, and maybe was played by a bunch of people who weren’t prepared to think critically about its message — like, right, obviously children shouldn’t be playing things like that — but it does teach players that they are perhaps not as morally pure as they’d thought.

Limbo_Box_ArtBut, okay, my favorite example?  I saved this one for last, even though… well.  Let’s just state this first: Limbo was almost one of the best games of all time.  Potentially the best, in my opinion.  The game has two movements, effectively, and I think that in order for it to be the best game ever, the first movement could go unchanged.  The second let me down, but, who cares?  Coming that close to greatness is pretty impressive.  And, with luck, maybe the developers will rework it in the future and turn it into the best game of all time.

A brief description, in case you haven’t played it: it’s a Mario-like (i.e. sidescrolling, cartoony) puzzle game.  The puzzles include many traps that can only be identified through trial and error.  Mistakes result in the sudden, gristly, controller-vibrating demise of the cute protagonist.

The game is terrifying.  You proceed through the woods, trying to escape.  As you play, you’ll be eaten by spiders.  Crushed by rocks.  Attacked by… wait, what?  Attacked by spider-like contraptions built by other children; those boys run away into the distance when you draw near.

Thing is, the game is so scary that it really sucks you in.  And makes you (if you’re anything like me, that is) feel pretty angry at those other cutely-drawn cartoon boys who’re beleaguering you.  And it’s great.  The whole first movement of the game where you’re proceeding through the woods.

The second half of the game is set in a mechanized wasteland.  It’s mildly interesting, but gameplay is simply more of the same.  And it became less and less scary.  My brother and I had been playing for a while at that point, after each ghastly demise we’d hand over the controller, so that was part of why it was less scary, but also, many previous games feature industrial scariness.  The woodland segment felt special.

CaptureBut, okay, the thing that I think would’ve made Limbo great?  If the second half were replaced by more woodland puzzles that put the player into the role of tormenting other boys who were trying to escape.  As is, in the first half of the game you are tormented but your tormenters simply disappear (or, sometimes, accidentally commit suicide in their zealous efforts to expunge you).  It would’ve been nice if the second half of the game built on the psychological effects it was engendering by forcing you to attack other children in order to solve puzzles.

The controls for the game were quite simple, but I think the developers could’ve done it; as a basic example, you can push blocks around, and it might be horrifying to need a block slightly higher than ground level in order to jump to a platform, and be forced to push it on top of another child in order to escape.  And I think that could’ve added to the game’s message: yes, you can persevere, you can escape, but to do so you might have to become a monster.

Oy, nutters.  Apparently nap time is over now — still, I feel like I typed out most of what I wanted.  Pretty good for just an hour-long nap-written essay, right?  And I can always write another videogame essay later, if N ever falls asleep again.

On evolution and League of Legends.

teemochineseOkay, here’s something that I feel like the Cosmos show did nicely – when they showed a tree representing evolutionary lineage, humans were on a branch jutting out seemingly at random to the side.  Whereas many popular science presentations of evolution depict humans as the pinnacle – we’re here at the top, and if you go back in time, our ancestors looked like chimpanzees, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like goldfish, and if you go back farther in time, our ancestors looked like sea sponges… which obviously isn’t true.  A current chimpanzee, and a current fish, and a current sponge, have gone through just as much evolutionary time as we have.

I think many scientists would feel bothered by phrasings such as “humans are more evolved than bacteria.”  Well, a statement that direct might be hard to come up with a reference for, but quite often humans are described as “higher organisms,” in comparison.  And, yeah, we are multicellular, and have nuclei – gee whiz, nuclei!  But you could quite easily argue that bacteria are more evolved.  Their generational time is shorter, so every minute effectively gives them more time to evolve than it gives us.  And they seem quite well suited for their environment – many can now thwart even directed efforts to expunge them.  I’d like to see some of those “highly evolved” humans shrug off murderous intent with such panache.

And, honestly, that was going to be the end of my essay.  I was planning to root around, find an egregious reference for a statement about how great it is that humans are so evolved, and call it finished.  But would that be cool?  I have to imagine that plenty of high school biology teachers out there have already declaimed similar truths to their students.

So, instead, here is a bonus contrasting thought – a framework in which humans are, in fact, more evolved.

Because, sure, bacteria go through many more generations than humans within any given amount of time.  But additional “rounds” of evolution won’t accomplish much if there aren’t significant options for change.  A wide range of bacteria all look pretty much the same… to me, that is, someone who is not a bacteriologist.  The times I’ve looked at them in microscopes, they just looked like bothersome squirming dots – I was doing mammalian tissue culture, so was displeased to see them, and was using relatively low magnification.  And to someone who actually knows about bacteria, the idea that they’re all the same might sound inane – some polymerize mammalian actin behind them to shoot around like rocket ships!  How is that not cool??

Well, yeah, yeah, actin rockets.

A lot of the problem, in terms of my thinking that various evolutionary descendants of bacteria are cool, is that they function much closer to the thermodynamic limit than other organisms do.  Not so much that I think it’s reasonable to generally assume that they function efficiently – yes, a mathematical model under that assumption reproduced rRNA copy number, but how many other salient features of the genome would be predicted?  – but the energetic constraints on bacteria do seem to be tighter than for many multicellular organisms.  If you are competing for resources based on reproduction rate, and a limiting step is duplication on your genome, there’ll be strong pressure to keep your genome small.  But one major driver of evolutionary divergence is gene duplication events – it’s easier to accrue mutations that might lend a new function if those mutations are in a second copy and do not necessitate the loss of a necessary pre-existing function.

So a multicellular organism, with a big sloppy genome, has a lot more tuning knobs that can be adjusted during evolution.  Which I thought was worth writing about because it would allow me to make a cutesy analogy to the current design goals of the team making League of Legends.  It’s a twitchy online variant of capture the flag that I used to play – I can’t anymore, since they made the game fancier and I’m using a computer from 2006 that needs a lot of duct tape to function.  At the four corners of the base, duct-tape holds stacks of 3 pennies each to give my computer stilts so that there’s room for the fan to exhaust and space for the battery to hang out.  Pennies seemed cheaper than buying pegs or anything to keep it raised.  And, right, the battery – it’s gotten bulgier over time, such that now, if it’s put all the way into the computer, it presses against the underside of the keyboard and makes many letters not work.  But as long as it dangles halfway out all the time, kept in place with duct tape, the computer works fine.

I’m sure a bulging battery doesn’t indicate anything potentially disastrous, right?

Anyway, the League of Legends team recently announced their goals for the new changes, and one they stressed was that they wanted to give themselves more potential variables to tweak in case the game needed balancing in the future.  And I thought, okay, that’s a sense in which you could claim that humans are more evolved – we have so many features that can be tweaked over time, compared to the set of variables available to be modified during bacterial evolution.

But a corollary to that thought is that, since there are so many variables that could change with humans, and since we have a relatively long generational time, there’s no reason to expect that we’ve gotten much right yet.  With a bacterium, you might expect that it will be sufficiently evolved that it’s near optimal for its environment.  With a human, you should have no such expectation.

Which I was writing about in my project as regards transcranial electrical stimulation.  This is a technique where you deliver excess current to certain regions of your brain with the goal of improving cognition – it often seems to work, although there have been only vague explanations why.  And the very fact that something like this might work illustrates that human evolution didn’t get incredibly far.  Much of our reproductive success is due to cognitive ability – that’s how we were able to cover the globe, and begin altering environments to suit us better (locally – globally, we may well be doing the opposite), and contemplate shooting ourselves into space.  So you might imagine that there would be evolutionary pressure on humans to make that cognitive ability as good as it can be.  Which obviously isn’t the case if you could look at a cheesy website and build something out of supplies from Radioshack to make yourself think better.