Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A game is a brain is a forest

I just read this article about how plants are intelligent. It's a classic philosophical problem. Is a brain in a jar any different from a plant, and what exactly is intelligence or consciousness? Recent articles about how "plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus" are in vogue with recent thinking that corporations are dystopian artificial intelligences that have enslaved human society, or that we have to generally decentralize human-ness in human thought. The argument here is that self-sustaining complexity, usually in a network structure that resembles a brain (not that mere human brains are so great or whatever) must produce similar effects, so a brain is at least as complex as the internet or a forest or global capitalism.

Once something becomes boring, it is no longer complex because you have reduced it to boredom. So maybe another word for self-sustainingly complex is "interesting"... and, well, I think good games are interesting. Maybe a game is like an internet, or a brain, or a forest, or some shit?

Much of the popular formalist language about game structures reduces some games to "linear" or "non-linear" or "branching." This makes sense when you're a developer who has to script these interactions, usually programming in binary if( ) statements that are TRUE or FALSE, 0 or 1, etc. and your job is to keep these branching logic structures at a manageable complexity.

But when we play / perform in games, we make thousands of choices a second -- where to look, when to move, your pacing, your tone, your projection of how the game was meant to be played and how sincerely you keep to that projection, etc. This is why YouTube and Twitch and competitive gaming and speedrunning have emerged as significant forces in game culture... when someone plays a game in an interesting way, we feel compelled to watch and engage. These players are finding new ways to play games, or maybe even finding new games inside these games.

Thinking of a game as a set of "Interesting Choices" suddenly seems so ridiculous and reductionist; a choice is interesting or boring based on whether the player can play it as interesting or boring, and a choice exists only if players understand it as a choice.

Skate 3 (2010) was a derivative open world skating game somehow salvaged by players who understood the surreal beauty of its glitchy flopping ragdoll physics. They transformed Skate 3 from a rote sequel into a ballet that predicted the future popularity of other ragdoll games like The Amazing Frog or Goat Simulator. The best videos combine the strangeness of bodies with awkward cinematography, first filming a dude's head vibrating in a wall and then zooming in on a billboard advertising a mayonnaise substitute. And if you actually play Skate 3, you realize that it is not easy to do this stuff, it takes finesse and skill and comedic timing to be funny and interesting in Skate 3.

But is that game the same game as Skate 3? Well, it's the game they found inside Skate 3, beneath the writhing rubble and tone-deaf product placement. They found new "choices", new ways to play and perform Skate 3 that magically made it interesting. In this way, we could say these players are some of the best Skate 3 players in the entire world.

So here's where I'm going with this:
  • If we have to define a game in terms of choices, then we make countless choices when playing games. Every gesture of the mouse, every millisecond you hold down [W], every sound you mutter, every word you write on your blog about it, is an expressive choice in performing the game.
  • Skilled performers understand how to play off these possibilities in an interesting way, all while discovering new possibilities and new methods of expression and new ways for the game to mean things. They even find new games inside the game.
  • Much like how biologists and philosophers are re-defining intelligence as complexity, and psychologists are developing a theory of "emotional intelligence", we should re-define player intelligence or "skill": player skill is the ability to make a game seem interesting. If you are "good" at a game, you are good at thinking about the game and expressing that thought about the game somehow. Let's Players are game critics are skilled athletes -- what's important is the richness and novelty of their performances.

When players talk about how they played a lot of Tekken 3 because they found it really erotic, that means they are good at Tekken because now fighting games are suddenly interesting to me as a form of sex. This makes a lot of sense, since EVO is basically the biggest most intensely sexual nerd orgy ever. I can now understand every competitive tourney as a raging circle jerk -- it is like Michael Jordan's fadeaway, a gesture that brings new beauty to a game.

But if you can't make Proteus interesting for yourself, then maybe that means you are bad at playing Proteus. That's OK, just acknowledge that you suck at Proteus instead of complaining that it's a bad walking simulator -- of course it'll seem bad to you, that's because you're a sore fucking loser, you terrible fake newb bullshit gamer?

"Summer Days" from Proteus, by Matt Glanville
By this, we can finally understand Dear Esther as a game that's just as difficult as an XCOM or a Rocket League. But you may have noticed there's no Michael Jordan of Dear Esther?

If games are brains, then they also suffer from many of the same problems as brains or corporations: they intimidate and harass other brains, and prevent other brains from developing.

There's a lot of talk about "making diverse games" and recruiting "diverse game developers"... but for all that to happen and work, we also need "diverse players" playing games in many different ways. There's no Michael Jordan of Dear Esther because games culture actively discourages such player cultures from forming.

Maybe a game is more like a forest. Expressive players help turn leaves toward sunlight, or nudge roots toward water. Research has also shown that trees help other trees:
"Simard now believes large trees help out small, younger ones using the fungal internet. Without this help, she thinks many seedlings wouldn't survive. In the 1997 study, seedlings in the shade – which are likely to be short of food - got more carbon from donor trees."
It's almost as if trees know something we don't.