Games Engineers Play

by rthieme on November 1, 1996

Islands in the Clickstream

Our societies teach us the skills we need through games. Playing games is how we explore possibilities, identify talents and interests, learn values.

Computer games are exploratory toys for investigating the digital world, but more than that, computers themselves are toys. The games — how they are built, how they change us when we play them — are a catalyst in the evolution of new ways of framing reality.

This summer at DefCon IV, the hackers’ convention, I met a hacker who was twenty years old, an “old man” of hacking who had retired to mentor younger hackers.

He had been programming computers since he was six, when he programmed Pong on a computer that had no long-term memory. He remembers the sense of loss when, after weeks of Pong-playing, he turned it off and lost his beloved binary companion.

That young man is in the vanguard of a new variety of human being. I call them homo sapiens hackii.

Culture is a human simulation of genetic evolution. Our cultural symbols transmit what we learn to new generations. But we are changed by the structures of our cultural forms as well. The structure of our information systems determines how we think, how we frame reality. Our symbolic structures engineer our psyches in their own image and determine how we hold ourselves as possibilities for action in the world.

That hacker and his generation are trained from infancy to understand the world in ways dictated by computers. From one point of view, human beings are transitory forms for organizing and disseminating information, and the form of that organization is determined by our symbiotic relationship with our symbol-manipulating technologies, in this case, computers.

Thirteen years ago I bought an Apple II+ computer. I began playing with LOGO, a child’s version of LISP. I learned about recursion working with LOGO and I learned how to write a program to substitute verbs and pronouns for the ones typed by a user.

Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT had just used LISP to wrote ELIZA. ELIZA is a simple substitution program — a natural language parser — that enabled a computer to simulate the responses of a Rogerian therapist. Such therapists repeat back to the client what they think they have heard, thus returning responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings to the client.

People playing with ELIZA, however, responded as if they were engaged in an intimate conversation with a real person. Weizenbaum was upset and wrote one of the first “dire warning” books about the future of computers. The power of the computer to elicit projections was so strong that he felt we were in danger of losing our souls to the new machine.

Games like ELIZA taught us to project a gestalt or complete personality onto a machine that mimicked the response of a human being. Playing with ELIZA taught us how to relate to GUIs, expert systems, and smart agents. We were learning to relate to our projections as if they were external to us in order to interact easily and effectively with complex computer applications. We were learning a technique for manipulating symbols that tamed the power of the machine and made it manageable. This is analogous to playing word games as we learn to read and think in text.

A natural language parser, exchanging words and seeming to respond intelligently, generated a new genre of interactive fiction. The classic text games of Infocom stand out as the best.

One day my son and I were playing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I had written fiction and taught English literature, so I understood how text worked. Symbolic textual narratives disclose horizons of possibility far into the distance, toward the horizon of the text.

Playing that Infocom game disclosed a different kind of horizon, a different set of possibilities. The structure of the game itself, determined by computer programs using recursion, changed me as I played it. The game created a new way of framing myself. I learned to imagine my psyche — and my life — more as a recursive fractal landscape than a straight line.

Of course, a single game did not do all that at once. But playing computer games and experiences like that did disclose new possibilities for being human. The structure of that game is identical to the structure of the Internet. Networks, like fractals, are self-similar at all levels. Networks of networks look like networks. Interacting with networks changes how we think.

Newer games using movies and 3D-VR do the same for visual space. One of my recent favorites is The Pandora Directive, an interactive mystery. One of the “game spaces” is a virtual board room with beautiful indoor trees. As I watched the screen, my hand rolling the mouse across the pad, I noted the smooth glide of the trees past a large window. I turned and looked back at the green leaves and the gleaming wood of the conference table. Then I rolled out into the hall.

The following week I walked into a boardroom in a bank building that had similar trees, a similar table, a similar window. I felt myself rolling through the real room. The perceptual framework through which I experienced the real room was an image of the virtual world.

These days, reality often imitates a simulation, rather than vice versa. Playing games like The Pandora Directive creates the psychic space through which we subsequently filter our experience. The computer program programs us.

So look to electronic games for signs of what’s coming next. Children play Doom while their parents guide smart bombs to bunkers in Iraq. Adolescents build robots while their parents use remote vehicles and telepresence to explore radioactive “hot spots.”

On ESPNet SportZone, there’s a virtual world of sports. Web surfers use data from the site to create fantasy teams. They channel aggression into fantasy football or baseball, a harmless pastime that helps bleed excess energy from a civilization with too much time on its hands. They do this by substituting images and symbols for the real thing.

But then, what else is civilization, but the weaving of a web of images and symbols which we mistake for reality? The first spoken and written words did the same. The game has not changed, but computers take the game to a higher level.

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