Play, Evolution, and the Unspeakable
Steen and Owens ground play in human evolution. Now sociologist Robert Bellah makes play not just any element of human evolution but a core element of it. From play, he believes, springs almost all culture, including the topic I steadfastly refuse to bring up on this blog because of the anger it generates among TN readers; therefore I will not raise it here. It is the topic that Tolkien also believed was intimately bound up with fantasy and subcreation.
Recently in First Things, a scholarly magazine about the unspeakable topic I am not discussing, scholarly experts on that topic discuss Bellah's work and spend quite a bit of time on play. Huizenga is mentioned approvingly on several occasions. Interesting to see play given such weight by this brand of intellectual.
Also, I owe to this edition of the magazine a quote I will savor for many years: "The only time I ever saw Richard Dawkins reduced to stuttering silence was when an Irish philosopher repeatedly asked him about human freedom." Professor Dawkins, as you may know, though a biologist by trade, has positioned himself as a rather indomitable expert on the fantasies of certain ancient goat-herders. I have long wanted to ask him whether he is free and if so, how that could be. According to Professor Bellah, being free, and free to play, implicates a host of other assumptions all of which are closer to the goat herders' way of thinking than Professor Dawkins would likely accept.
Microsoft Points Go Away
Microsoft announced that it is retiring its virtual currency, Microsoft Points. This follows Facebook abandoning Facebook credits. Companies are trying to figure when and where it makes sense to have your own currency. The thing about a rewards-type currency, such as Microsoft Points, is that it adds a click to the buying process. Put in your credit card, buy Points, buy games (or movies or whatever). MS is saying, why not have it be just: Put in your credit card, buy games. What after all is the point of having the virtual currency in there?
Perhaps we are laready moving beyond virtual currencies to the next innovation, for which I conjured the name "digital value transfer." The technology FB has developed allows it to instantly and costlessly translate value from one app to another. Currently FB funnels any such transaction through dollars (so it can take its 30% cut). But it doesn't have to.
Games like Path of Exile have many things called currencies and a back-end system for translating the player's holdings of X, Y, and Z into different things of value.
The thing that makes Bitcoin valuable isn't Bitcoin, its the DVT that allows you to exchange Bitcoins for other things.
An economy backed by DVTs doesn't make any distinctions between the virtual entities it is tossing around. They may be currencies, or assets, or resources, or even virtual goods such as movies. Files. The DVT just knows how much of one thing is needed to exchange with another. Imagine a vast traingular matrix listing every good in the world. Each cell says how much one good is worth in terms of the other.
Save the Whales! And exploit them I guess.
A report just out from the fine folks at Playnomics confirms that much of the money spent in digital economies is spent by a fairly small share of the players. Vegas calls them "whales." Playnomics says that fewer than 1 percent of players spend any money at all in games, on average. Most of us free ride on the top 1% of spenders who contribute a third of the money.
I still like the game Lord of the Rings Online. It's free to play. When I look around in there, I see a very cool version of Middle Earth. It is interesting to know that one-third of everything I see there has been built because of the support of just one person out of 100 that I meet. And, if the power law holds throughout, I can fairly say that just about everything in that place exists because of the ten percent or so who love it enough to pay for it.
Here's the rub, the political economy problem. Given the above, what rights do I have as a player to express opinions about the environment? Suppose the entire thing is run for the benefit of those 10 percent. Does my voice count? Should it?
Diablo III Hyperinflation
Diablo III's real-money auction house had some potential to be a major innovation in virtual economies. Instead, it looks like the designers failed to grasp lessons of virtual money management that are now more than a decade old. Namely, make sure you have enough sinks.
There's a wonderful, well-informed, economically expert write-up over at Mises.Org, by Peter C. Earle. Mr. Earle knows his econ and he knows the game as well. It's some of the best virtual economy analysis I ahve seen in a long while.
Thanks to Waiyen Tang for the heads-up!
The Clausewitz Engine: A Major Scientific Advance
Wittingly or no, the folks over at Paradox Development are making an amazing scientific instrument. It's called the Clausewitz Engine. I know almost nothing about it, other than having been its victim over and over again.
The Clausewitz Engine is apparently a gigantic autonomous agent model. Tens of thousands of agents act according to a sophisticated set of instructions. These instructions are apparently very flexible. In Hearts of Iron, they drive divisions, armies, and countries to war against one another, whereas in Crusader Kings, the instructions drive men and women to seek marriage partners. The information on which the agents act is incredible. The agents respond to grand strategic considerations, political concerns, territory control, economic resources, personality traits, and past actions of other agents. Yes, they have memory. They also have variable goals and strategies. Not everyone is offended that you executed your brother's children. Some generals want to capture ground, others want to avoid looking bad.
In playing against these teeming worlds of code-people, I find myself feeling immersed in a genuine society. The whole thing responds in a way that feels right; my reputation and prospects rise and fall in a very natural way.
One interesting aspect of the Engine is that it allows you to take the place of almost any of these actors. You can be Stalin, or a commander of a single division outside Stalingrad. You can be the Holy Roman Emperor, or the Earl of Argyll. It doesn't matter who you choose, because every other agent in the game is handled by an AI. If you want to play as America but don't want to bother with politics, the AI that would handle American political actors if you had chosen Germany just takes over. Of course, if you do that, you might end up working for President Lindburgh, fighting for the Master Race. But you can do it if you want.
Why is this scientifically relevant? The brilliant mathemetician Stephen Wolfram has written about the need for a revolution in scientific practice, away from experiment and toward computational modeling. Do I know if he's right? Not a chance. I have no idea whether the natural sciences are moving in this direction or not. I do know that the social sciences are not doing much with this idea.
Yet over in games, we find a computational model of human society that is orders of magnitude more advanced than anything I have seen done on campus. The Clausewitz Engine could be modded to study how norms propagate through society, how political factions rise and fall, how crowds try to get out of disasters, how diseases spread, how religions influence shopping. I say that, not knowing anything about the guts of it. I have only been smacked around again and again by the darn thing. But my sense of it, as a machine of the human world, is that it is vast, flexible, accurate, comprehensive, and infinitely malleable.
What does the Clausewitz Engine reveal about us? I do not know. Much, I imagine. I suspect that the devs could have made all agents independent of one another, little islands, self-reliant. I wonder what would happen to total economic product then? What happens if all agents slavishly follow the commands of superior agents? What if resources are redistributed equally across the agent population, what happens to economic growth? Wow.
To Paradox Development: Bravo!
Hector Postigo's: The Digital Rights Movement
The latest Social Change Technology podcast is out. Burcu Bakioglu interviews long time friend of the show Hector Postigo about his latest book: The Digital Rights Movement. Those that have been around a while with know Hector's foundational work on modding.
You can listen to the show here: http://www.virtualpolicy.net/sct013.html
New Survey - Please ParticipateI'm conducting a survey on creative play within video games. If you have 15 minutes to spare, please consider letting us know about how your creativity intersects with your gaming:
Did you know? GDP ignores digital valueReal world experts are starting to think about all the economic value stored up in digital currencies. Here's a blog post about it by Joel McKendrick, pointed out to me by Robert Gehorsam. Thanks Robert!
GDC Expo Floor
A few things I noticed wandering the expo floor.
I was surprised to hear some people say that this is a fairly decent year for hiring. I thought it was a down time for the industry, but perhaps in interactive entertainment, down just means, not growing as fast. Or, we get this impression from the problems hitting consoles and AAA companies, but perhaps they are as big a source of new employment as they had been.
The level of physical fidelity continues to surprise. Trees with leaves blowing gently in the wind, canvas straps that look so real you can almost feel the rough cloth, surround environments with wind and lighting and sound, faces ..... Human faces. No. Superhuman faces. Beyond the human. Angels and devils maybe. Spirits. I don't know.
The use of the body as a controller is still clunky. Many companies are trying and there were a few apparent successes. A smallish head mounted display that really works. But there were more things that still seemed too clunky for home use. It's getting there, however.
The Indie games were more impressive than ever. We are seeing a clear impact of the democratization of tools. Indie projects just look, sound, and feel so good. They are creative as before, but they are developing such a compelling attractiveness too.
Are you ready for movies that think
Slant Six Games will deploy a procedural cinematic engine in Microsofts Galactic Reign. The segments of film are available to the engine and it creates a linear visual narrative that depends on player actions and the game state.
When I was a wee lad, the turnaround time for a piece of research was 5-6 years. From the first idea to the day it appeared in a journal. We now see functional models in game analytics that address practical social science problems in a couple months. Seems fast! But isn't fast enough. Game builders are making decisions hourly as their player bases shift and roil.
I wonder if we are on the wrong track in game analytics. We are using big data sociology, economics, and public policy as our models. Maybe the right model is meteorology. The weather is a vast complex system whose properties we need to interrogate on an hourly basis. Game companies are just the first to confront the problems of providing governance on an hourly basis. Also on an individualized basis. For a whole society, whose membership constantly shifts. It is a mind boggling problem and It seems that every time analytics catches up , the time scale has shifted down an order of magnitude.
Action and Virtue
Robert George in the April edition of the magazine First Things makes a case for limited government that relies on an Aristotelian view of human flourishing. For Aristotle, he says, "flourishing consists in doing things, not just in getting things, or having desirable or pleasant experiences, or having things done for you." You have to act to be well. Active entertainment is better for people than passive entertainment.
To do things in games would probably not be accorded the same respect by Aristotle as to do them in real life, I suppose. Not at first glance anyway. On the other hand, with real life as systematized as it is, and so loaded with powerful incentives, can we truly say that the average person has significant scope of action there? Whereas game designers as I heard today are planning entire worlds that respond organically to what we do. Moreover, the most significant actions we take are and always have been social and local: spouses and children and friends.
We flourish better playing games than watching TV. But real life is better than both, because it has touch. Of course, some day the games on computers will become the game of daily life; we will one day be playing games with touch. I hope this development helps people flourish better than they do now.
Next steps for AI
Games will become more reactive to us. The industry is beginning to build systems to produce environments that react in novel ways to the user. A World
Manager that directs your experience. Entities that analyze statistics before making choices. Game objects that dynamically acquire new properties. Props that think. Even small scale developers can build these things. The tools are making it possible.
Game education is scaling rapidly
Just saw a report from RIT, UCSC, and Northeastern about their efforts to build game programs. The meta data here is astounding. Ten years ago, nobody had anything. They launched little programs over significant opposition. The demand for places however vastly exceeded supply. The programs grew and now, top level support is creating huge cross campus centers to serve playable, interactive, game media.
If you've never been to this conference or E3, the first thing that impresses you is the scale. Gigantic and global. I still have trouble grasping how big the business of designing play has become.
This talk is by the CEO of Kongregate. It's about retaining players for the long run. She reminds us that games like EverQuest are still making money after a decade. Time scales are bigger than you realize too.
Let's all go back to 2007 when blogs were proto-tweets. This week I'll be sending stuff from the Game Developers Conference. My iPad doesn't support Typepad's nice text editing features so its just going to be plain text, no cutesy images and all that. Links? No, I can't do that either without writing <a href etc. etc. and the iPad of course buries HTML braces in its third keyboard. If youre interested in following up n something, Just Google it and you'll find it I guess. And this mode doesn't autocorrect either. Typos and bad grammar on the way.
Stop being so negative, you ninny! It's GDC, the funniest conference ever! So many arrogant old guys who never got a degree and make more money than anyone. They know what works and what won't work with players. They can tell stories, they know where the industry's bodies are buried. Then there are the hordes of indie boys and enterprenoors, with their carefully-chosen scruff, hoping against hope that their artistic talent and genius will finally be discovered. The women - both of them - are either wearing way too little and getting good money for that, or wearing a semi permanent look of disgust at being once again, fifty percent object / fifty percent person to those around them. Then there are people like me, outsider wannabes, lined up to get tshirts, lined up to get 30 seconds with that one guy from Blizzard, lined up to get a seat at the restaurant everyone goes to. O, the tag scanning that goes on! The name dropping! The project puffing!
But this happens at ever major conference. You should see the American Economic Association. Actually, no, you shouldn't. You're not ready. But the same stuff goes on, I am smarter than you, that guy looks important what does his tag say, rare girls, who is going to what restaurant with whom. It's what people do at conventions.
But the subject of an economics conference is economics fer cryin out loud, an area of thought that wandered into a cave and remains there, doing nothing. The talks - how boring! The dinners - how dry! The atmosphere - how chalky!
Not so at the GDC. It's actually pretty exciting. The social conventions of conventions, for all their soul-crushing effects, recede into the background as you experience yet another year of amazing innovation in games. Ok, so the industry is having a down year. Big deal! Is having a down year because the same changes that are killing profits in music and movies are having their inevitable effect on games. So what! Technology continues to distribute the capability to make stuff. Entertainment keeps getting better.
I'm just finishing up a book and I finally sensed a theme for it, maybe it applies here too. We are living in a time when technology is making our imagination ever more concrete. I'll try to carry that around and see how it fits at the conference.
Sent from my iPad
Conferences are boring, I want to play games
I know everyone has been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to spend money to get one of my papers. The wait is over!!!
It's this paper where I say "Instead of having talks at conferences, can we have games?" I don't know, I find talks so boring. I just get antsy. And it seems to me that the real work at conferences gets done outside the context of the talks anyway. So I had this idea that you could get rid of the talks and replace them with board games. During a board game, Player A is thinking while Players B, C, and D chat. That's where the work gets done. To publicize the work, and make it common knowledge, this conference would have a cheesy idea market and a pecha kucha at the end.
Now if someone organized a conference like this I would probably want to come. No matter the topic, you know? Hey it's a conference on abdominal secretions in mollusks, but you get to play biology-themed Eurogames for a day. Dominant Species, Evo, Pandemic. Cool! I would totally go to that.
Valve Economist on EconTalk
Economist Russ Roberts runs EconTalk, a rather cool series of podcasts on edgy topics in economics. These are the guys who brought you the Keynesian-Monetarist rap debate. What's not to love? Well, they've got a great interview with Valve's economist Yanis Varoufakis.
It's important for non-specialists to be aware that Econ is having problems right now. Different people point to different issues, and they point in different ways forward. From my brief interactions with Dr. Varoufakis, I'm convinced that he's pointing in a good direction and is very much worth listening to. Perhaps the most exciting thing about him is his career choice. At Valve, he can do economic science however he wishes. I can almost guarantee that good stuff will result.
Now, how to get Valve to tell the rest of us about it....?
Fun with mapping
Holy smokes, but someone did a real Mapping test using SimCity and his hometown's traffic. It's not exactly rigid science, but this is the sort of application I've been hoping to see since writing this thing.
Virtual sports offer better betting
As you may know, football (soccer, not handegg) is broken. The game as designed is strategically light (not enough scoring, too much luck - from a Euro game? How odd) and it has fallen victim to two unrelated forms of corruption, the unelected-international-body corruption that plagues the Olympics and the UN, and the big-money corruption that plagues US college sport and politics. Football would have doping scandals too, but FIFA is only just now getting around to it.
Who in their right mind would wager money on professional football? It's like betting on the outcome of a novel.
No matter. If real sports are broken, virtual sports can be pure. Head on over to Ladbroke's to bet on Virtual World Cup 2010. It runs anew every 20 minutes. Don't wait years, only to experience such execrable moments as this and this. You can encounter the beautiful game right now, in a way that somewhat lives up to its name - if only in virtual form.