# On the (pseudo?)-paradox of “fair” games.

### Fair Games and 50% Win Chances

I’ll take it as an assumption in the rest of this article that a fair game is one where each player has a 50% chance of winning. We also sometimes call such a situation a “good match” or say that the game will be good if we believe such a state of affairs prevails. We also tend to view negatively the opposite condition, wherein one player has a huge advantage over the other and hence where we expect the probability of that player losing is very low (implying the probability of the other player losing is very high).

These considerations aren’t limited to two player competitive games.  If we are playing a single player, digital or otherwise interactive game, we call that game “fair” when we have about a 50% chance of winning. We would call a game where our chance of winning is ~1% unfair or badly designed, and where our chance of winning is ~99% boring or badly designed.

At first glance this seems to imply a contradictory attitude, one illustrated by recalling that we also call a coin flip “fair” if there is a 50% chance of the coin landing on either face. If the purpose of a game is to determine which player is the better player, how can it be that we seem to also want the outcome of the game to be as random as possible (such that for good matches, each player has a 50% chance of winning). It would appear that good games have random outcomes and that seems to contradict their apparent purpose in measuring how well a player plays.

(NB. The account is a little harder to render in the case of single player interactive systems. However, it seems paradoxical that a player would engage with a system with the intent of winning when the outcome could equivalently be determined by the toss of a coin).

### Resolution

I don’t think this is a genuine paradox, of course: when we say a game is fair, what we are saying is that the outcome isn’t random, but that it depends, sensitively, on which player makes the better sequence of moves in response to the other player. Why sensitively? Well, when two players are closely matched the the outcome of the game, if the win probability for either player is 50%, should depend very sensitively on how well each player actually plays. In particular, close matches come down to one or two critical mistakes or strokes of brilliance to tip the scales in one direction.

(This is particularly true because of another property of games (approximate reversibility) which I believe games must also have, but which I don’t discuss here.)

So it isn’t really surprising that we can resolve this merely apparent contradiction about games. But the resolution points us towards another important argument:

Because the outcome of a good game should depend sensitively on the moves of the player, the randomness present in a good game should be minimal or not present at all. Why? Because if the outcome of a game depends sensitively on the moves the player makes, then it also must necessarily depend sensitively on random influences on the game state. Why? For outcomes to depend sensitively on a move implies that each move a player makes is carefully tuned for the game state, which they have correctly appreciated in order to make the right move. But if the game state changes randomly, then a good move might be turned into a bad move by a random change in the game state.

(It is possible to imagine random changes to the game state which don’t change the quality of moves. But if this is the case, then these changes to the game state are _extraneous_ to playing the game and may as well be removed).

### Conclusion

To restate the argument:

1. we believe games should be fair, which is to say that a given player should have a 50% change of winning
2. this is because we want games to be sensitive tests of the quality of play of the given player, where the outcome depends sensitively on moves. We don’t want the game itself to be actually be random in the sense that the outcome is extraneous to the game itself.
3. Random elements (which are necessarily extraneous to the game in their origin) reduce the sensitivity of the win condition on the specific moves made by a player
4. Hence, good games should have minimal random elements.

This argument puts game designers in a difficult position. For designers of multiplayer games, they must make sure that the game’s rules don’t advantage particular players or add the appropriate handicap if they do. This turns out to be difficult. In Chess, for instance, white has a slight win chance, although the precise probability is unknown. Typically, for a new game without a long history of play, it will be very hard to determine whether such a bias exists and what size it might be.

With the rise of computers and single player strategy games a different set of design concerns manifests. The temptation in single player game design is to use random elements to provide variety for a gameplay system which may not have the strategic depth furnished by the presence of a second rational player. It is hard to imagine a deterministic single player game with the same initial conditions each play that can stand up to repeated play.

I think the way forward here is to randomize the initial conditions of any such game subject to the constraint that a given initial condition preserves the win 50% rate (perhaps based on artificial intelligence play or some other way of characterizing win chance) and then to make play from that point forward completely deterministic.

# Yawning

The baby was fussy all morning, and when he finally went to sleep, in the crook of his mother’s arm, after nursing we were scared to leave him alone in case the silence woke him up. I made carbonara downstairs, ate, and then went to lie beside him reading while Shelley took her portion.

As I re-positioned my leg, my knee popped loudly, startling the baby. He stretched his arms above his head and pawed at his face with the backs of his hands. These gestures were familiar to me from my own body. I had seen, too, him sneeze or yawn. I imagined for a moment, that I had given these things to him, but that transposition made a deeper truth clear.

My cat, who slept above us, on a table over the bed we had arranged on the floor, stretched and yawned. He sneezes. When we turn the lights on at night to change Felix’s diaper, he sprawls onto his stomach and covers his eyes with his paws, sulkily. These gestures, taught to us by no one, inherent in us, which you could have observed in my child minutes after he was born, belong to an unimaginably ancient process of which we are merely brief manifestations.

Human beings tie themselves into knots or grind themselves to featureless lumps, struggling to connect with something vast and ancient. We don’t stop to think that each time we yawn we are in contact with something profound and atavistic, something older than history, bigger than the merely human.

# The Ethics of Game Design

In the next week or so, I’ll be on the Dinofarm Games Community Podcast talking about the ethics of game design. My baby is just one week old, though! So I might not have been as coherent there as I wanted to be. As such, I thought I’d collect a few notes here while they were still in my head.

As a preamble: there are lots of ethical implications of games that I don’t discuss here. Particularly social ones: since games often depict social and cultural situations (like novels, plays or television shows) similar ethical concerns operate for games as for those artifacts. Here I’m specifically interested in those special ethical questions associated with games as interactive systems.

The question I’m interested in is: “What are the ethical obligations of a game designer, particularly to the player?” In a way, this is an old question in a new disguise, recognizable as such since the answer tends to dichotomize in a familiar way: is the game designer supposed to give the player what they want or is she supposed to give the player that which is good for them?

Let’s eliminate some low hanging fruit: if we design a game which is addictive, in the literal sense, I think most people will agree that we’ve committed an ethical lapse. There are a few folks out there with unusual or extreme moral views who would argue that even a game with bona fide addictive qualities isn’t morally problematic, but to them I simply say we’re operating with a different set of assumptions. However, the following analysis should hopefully illuminate exactly why we consider addictive games problematic as well as outline a few other areas where games ethical impact is important.

I think the most obvious place to start with this kind of analysis is to ask whether games are leisure activity, recreation or whether they provide a practical value. By leisure activity I mean any activity which we perform purely for pleasure, by recreation, I mean an activity that is performed without an immediate practical goal but which somehow improves or restores our capacity to act on practical goals, and by practical value, I mean something which immediately provides for a concrete requirement of living.

Its a little unclear where games fall into this rubric. It is easiest to imagine that games are purely leisure activities. This fits the blurb provided by the wikipedia article and also dovetails, broadly, with my understanding of games in public rhetoric. Categorizing games as purely leisure activities seems to justify a non-philosophical attitude about them: what is the point of worrying about the implications of that which is, at a fundamental level, merely a toy¹?

Point number one is that even toys, which have no practical purpose but to provide fun, are subject to some broad ethical constraints. It isn’t implausible to imagine that we could implant an electrode directly into a person’s brain such that the application of a small current to that electrode would produce, without any intervening activity, the sensation of fun. We could then give the person a button connected to that electrode and allow them to push it. This is technically an interactive system, perhaps even a highly degenerate game. It is certainly providing the player with the experience of fun, directly. However, its likely that a person so equipped would forego important practical tasks in favor of directly stimulating the experience of fun. If we gradually add elements between button presses and the reward or between the electrodes and the reward circuitry, we can gradually transform this game into any interactive system we could imagine. Clearly, at some point, the game might lose its property that it overwhelms the player’s desire to perform practical tasks. That line is the line between ethical and non-ethical game design.

In other words, game designers subscribing to the leisure theory of games are still obligated, perhaps counter-intuitively, to make their games sufficiently unfun that they don’t interfere with the player’s practical goals.

We have two interpretations of game value: the recreational and the practical interpretations.

Of these, the idea of the game as recreation may be closest to what is often discussed on the Dinofarm Discord channel. Its also frequently the narrative used to justify non-practical games. You’ve likely heard or even used the argument that digital games can improve hand-eye coordination or problem solving skills. This interpretation rests on their existing an operational analogy between the skills required to play a game and those required to perform practical tasks. There is a lot of literature on whether such a link exists and what form or forms it takes.

If no such link exists we can rubbish this entire interpretation of games, so its more interesting to imagine the opposite (as it least seems to sometimes be the case). When a link exists the value proposition for a game is: this game provides, as a side effect of play, a practical benefit. Why the phrase “as a side effect of play?” Because, if the purpose of the game is to provide the practical benefit, then we must always compare our game against some practical activity which might provide more of that same benefit than an equivalent effort directed towards non-game activity.

To choose a particularly morally dubious example, we might find that playing Doom improves firing range scores for soldiers. But shouldn’t we compare that to time spent simply practicing on the firing range? Without some further argumentative viscera, this line of thinking seems to lead directly to the conclusion that if games are recreation, we might always or nearly always find some non-game activity which provides a better “bang” for our buck.

Elaborating on this line of argument reveals what the shape of the missing viscera might be. Why is it plausible that we could find some non-game activity that works as well or better than any given game at meeting a practical end? Because games must devote some of their time and structure to fun and, as such, seem to be less dense in their ability to meet a concrete practical goal. In Doom, for instance, there are a variety of mechanics in the game which make it an exciting experience which don’t have anything to do with the target fixation behavior we are using to justify our game.

But we can make an argument of the following form: a purely practical activity which results the improvement of a skill requires an amount of effort. That effort might be eased by sweetening the activity with some fun elements, converting it to a game, allowing less effort for a similar gain of skill.

On this interpretation the ethical obligation of the game designer is to ensure that whatever skill they purport to hone with their game is developed for less effort than the direct approach. If they fail to meet this criteria, then they fail to provide the justification for their game.

The final interpretation we need to consider is that games themselves provide a direct, practical, benefit. I think this is a degenerate version of the above interpretation. It turns out to be difficult to find examples of this kind of game, but they do exist. Consider Fold.it, a game where player activity helps resolve otherwise computationally expensive protein folding calculations.

In this kind of game the developer has a few ethical obligations. The first is to make sure that the fun the game provides is sufficient compensation for the work the player has done or to otherwise make sure the player’s play is given with informed consent. For instance, if we design a game that gives player’s fun to solve traveling salespeople problems which, for some reason, we are given a cash reward for solving, a good argument can be made that, unless the game is exceptionally fun, we’re exploiting our player base. If the game were really so fun as to justify playing on its own terms, why wouldn’t we simply be playing it ourselves?

Game designers of this sort also need to make sure that there isn’t a more efficient means to the practical end. Since the whole purpose of the game is to reach a particular end, if we discover a more efficient way to get there, the game is no longer useful.

I think there is probably much more to say on this subject but I had a baby a week ago and three hours of sleep last night, so I think I will float this out there in hopes of spurring some discussion.

#### The Dinofarm Community Interpretation

At the end of the podcast we decided on a very specific definition of games (from an ethical standpoint). We (myself and users Hopenager and Redless) decided games could  be described as a kind of leisure whose purpose is to produce the feeling of pleasure associated with learning. Since this is a leisure interpretation, we aren’t concerned directly with practical value, which I think is square with the way we typically think of games. However, as a leisure interpretation we need a theory of how games operate in the context of the player’s larger goals.

Let’s sketch one. What circumstances transpire in a person’s life where they have the desire for the pleasure associated with learning but are unable to pursue that desire in productive terms? One possibility is fatigue: after working on productive activities, a person might have an excess of interest in the experience of learning but a deficit of energy to pursue those productive activities. In that situation, a game can satisfy the specific desire with a lower investment of energy (which could mean here literal energy or just lower stress levels – games, since they aren’t practical, are typically less stressful than similar real world situations).

Once the game is completed, the desire ought to be satisfied but not stimulated, allowing the player to rest and then pursue practical goals again.

Again, there are probably other possible ways of situation ethical games in this interpretation, but I think this is a compelling one: games should satisfy, but not stimulate, the desire to learn, and only in those situations where that desire might not be more productively used, as is in the case of mental exhaustion or the need to avoid stress.

Games shouldn’t have a “loop” which intends to capture the player’s attention permanently. Indeed, I think ethical games should be designed to give up the attention of the player fairly easily, so they don’t distract from practical goals.

And them’s my thoughts on the ethics of game design.

¹: Note that there is a loose correspondence between our rubric and The Forms. Toys, roughly, seem to be objects of leisure, puzzles and contests are arguably recreation, and games are, potentially, at least, objects of real practical value. Maybe this is the interpretation of games is the one underlying “gamification” enthusiasts.

# Accounting for Turtles

When we bought the land, the irrigation pond, formed at the lowest point of the property by an earthen dam now overgrown with pines, cherry trees, and hobbles of tangled honey suckle, had failed. After cutting our way through the tall grass between the pond and the road and wading out into the swamp mud which now marked out the area where water had been, we found it: a four inch, rusted out, galvanized steel pipe down which water fell in a cold, sonorous trickle, despite the heat. Pieces of the rusted pipe, too few and small to form the whole of the missing riser, which otherwise seemed to have almost completely disintegrated, littered the area.

A year later, after we had repaired the riser with a clean new piece of white PVC, an orange bucket and twenty pounds of concrete mixed with muddy water, a storm rolled in over the ridge to the north west and I dreamed that I saw, from the porch, a huge turtle making its slow way through the grassy shallow ditch from the road down to the pond.

In May, and for several months afterwards, turtles, seeking new habitats or mates or following their own silent intuitions, make their way across the rural roads around our home. You see them standing on the side of the road as cars rush past in the morning, as if contemplating making a run for it.

Or you see their bodies, mangled or crushed into chunks of muscle and shell, attracting flies in the afternoon heat which melts the tar between the pebbles of the asphalt. That summer I found a special sympathy developing for those animals. The natural defenses of such animals give them a relaxed, even clumsy, attitude which doesn’t prepare them for the dangers of living among humans. Whenever I saw a turtle furtively planning a trip across a road I would pull over and, using a camouflage work glove with black, spray on, latex grips that I kept in the car for the purpose, move it across the road. Usually, deep into the grass on the other side to discourage a return trip.

A few months after I dreamed of the enormous turtle I took a canoe out onto the water to inspect the new riser. As I got close I saw a pale yellow something sticking out from the top. It was a turtle which had gotten stuck, head first, down the pipe. It was dead, and while its feet and shell had been baked and desiccated by the sunlight, its head was down in the trickling darkness and covered in a film of almost airy mucous that made me think of the ectoplasmic expulsions of spiritualists.

After that day I attached a foot long, perforated, PVC section to the top of the riser so that other animals wouldn’t get sucked in.  I also started to keep a tally of the number of turtles I picked up and moved across the road and the number I saw killed or already dead.

This practice of counting turtles exposes you to suffering.

Once, unable to stop immediately to move a turtle, I watched the truck behind me pass it harmlessly only for its trailer to catch its edge and send it hurtling into the ditch alongside the road. Similar scenes often played out – you see the turtle crushed by the car behind you, or, after managing to find a place to turn around, you find only pieces. On one occasion, a turtle which was sitting at the side of the road, as through ready to cross, had already been hit. It seemed whole, but there were cracks along the seams of its shell. I carefully moved it under a tree. I wondered for some time whether turtles could survive such a thing or of it died of blood loss or dehydration, its essence sublimating off into the summer air.

# State of the Life

Here is where I am in July of 2017.

# Baby Time

My spouse and I are having a baby in a few months. Its hard to know what to say about this since, in addition to being highly personal, it involves, in principle, at least, the interests of at least two other human beings. I will say this. When I got married and began living with my spouse, I felt, ironically, that for the first time in my life, I had to live not just with her, but with myself. By that I mean that my own emotional state inside my home no longer radiated away harmlessly, but was responded to and echoed back at me. Until that moment in my life, I think I’ve always tried to ignore, suppress or dissipate any emotional activity but suddenly it was clear that I could no longer afford to ignore a part of myself which could affect my intimate partner.

Having a kid is like that but times ten. My partner is, at least, an adult, with her own independent existence, ability to ignore my worst qualities and even sympathize with my imperfections. A child, on the other hand, experiences a more unbalanced relationship with their parents, one, furthermore, made more fraught by material dependence and a lack of a frame of reference. I always think, at this point, of Huxley’s The Island, wherein children are raised by groups of people so that they don’t experience unalloyed exposure to the peculiarities of their parents. Contemporary western civilization, so obsessively organized around the patriarchal family unit, seems perverse in comparison. Adding to this sense of pressure is our extremely rural location and hence comparative isolation. Luckily we have some great neighbors upon whom I am (hopefully gently) prevailing to have children.

At any rate, each day I find that I turn more scrutiny upon myself.

# Health

I’m thirty-six.  Sometime in high-school I started doing push ups in the morning. In college I joined a rowing team and in so doing was exposed, perhaps for the first time, to the pleasures of physical conditioning. With a few notable periods in my life since then, I’ve been more or less aggressively fit. Starting at the beginning of this year, though, I’ve finally recovered a fairly aggressive routine of physical fitness which looks something like this:

• Monday: fast mile (currently 6:35s) + weightlifting
• Tuesday: rowing intervals. 24 minutes of rowing (plus warm up and cool down). Three minute intervals consisting of a hard sprint for one minute (split 1:53) and a cool down (split 2:00). Over 24 minutes I average a split of 1:58 or so.
• Wednesday: slow run (4 miles at a 7:30s pace) or a leisurely row for about a half hour.
• Thursday: same as Tuesday
• Friday: Same as monday

I started the year at about an eight minute mile and I am slowly peeling off seconds. I seem to recall having run a sub six-minute mile in high school or college some time. I’m curious whether I can get back down to that time before the baby comes.

Sporadically I am working on my 2k sprint on the rowing machine. I’m doing about a 7:35 these days. I feel like I am close to my maximum without more aggressive cross training. So far I’ve never experienced any significant chest pain so I assume I am not going to die from exercise any time soon.

In other health news I’m drinking too much coffee. I typically cut back in the summer time, but I have an hour long drive to work and its boring. Attempts to drink less coffee have left me a little frightened of the drive.

# Intellectual Life

I’m spread pretty thin. In this category I place game development, generative art work, technical skills related and unrelated to work, philosophy and physics.

#### Games and Game Design

On the practical subject of game design, my game The Death of the Corpse Wizard came out about a month ago – I’ve sold about 40 copies without doing much advertising. More importantly, since I don’t make my living as a game designer or developer, I think I’ve created a game with some substance, not entirely devoid of genuine value. I’m still contemplating to what degree I plan on developing Corpse Wizard forward or whether I want to move on to greener pastures.

On the less practical question of game design theory I’m working on trying to understand whether we can bring quantitative techniques to bear on the question of what constitutes a good strategy game. In particular, I’m trying to nail down exactly what sorts of properties the phase space of a game has, at each decision point, that make games feel fun.

I can give you a sense of what sorts of questions I am trying to think about quantitatively. Its typically understood that a game ought to present a player with about a 50% chance of winning if its to be fun. Its better to state that in the negative: the outcome of a game shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. You can see this at work in two player games, where match making is always employed.

Incidentally, there is a pseudo-paradox here: the point of a two-player game appears to be to determine whether player 1 is better than player 2. Yet, paradoxically, we call only those games where a given player has a 50% chance of winning “fair.” But if each player has a 50% chance of winning, the outcome seems to  be random, which means it cannot teach us which player is better! I leave it as an exercise to the reader to puzzle out what, if any, resolution is possible.

Anyway, suppose we are dutiful game designers. On the first turn of our game, the player’s chance of winning must necessarily be 50%, then. One question I am interested in is: what does that chance of winning look like as a function of time? Is it flat at 50% until the end of the game? This seems unlikely. Why? Because when we play a game we are, at each turn, asking what move raises our chances of winning! If our chance of winning is flat, then the game will feel meaningless,  because no action will change the win rate. On the other hand, other paradoxes seem to manifest: suppose that instead a skilled player almost always chooses a move which increases her chance of winning. If that is the case, then at some point in the game, the chance of winning will be 90%. But at this point, the game’s outcome seems like a foregone conclusion! Why keep playing if almost all possible move sequences from turn N result in a win. In other words, it seems like games become more boring towards their ends, if we define boring as the property that their outcome is easy to predict.

In other words: it seems like the desire to make games non-boring is in tension with the desire to make the game playable. If the game is playable, then at each turn the player can, in principle, increase her chance of winning. If she can always increase her chance of winning, then, at some point, the game will become boring.

All this has to do with the way that individual moves change the win rate. This is, for simple games, anyway, tractable numerically. So I’m working on some experiments to try and suss out some of the structure of games and how it changes as we change the rules.

#### Physics

As mostly a hobby and an attempt to keep all those years of studying physics fresh, I’ve become interested in getting a good grasp of the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. To that end I’ve started planning and produce a series of lectures covering RIG Hughes’ book “The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” The book is very good (I’m about halfway through, in terms of deep understanding). About the only complaint I could make about it is that the introductory chapters do a good job of comparing and contrasting classical and quantum mechanics, whereas I think the more interesting comparison is between classical probabilistic mechanics and quantum mechanics. Both theories operate naturally on Hilbert spaces. Classical probabilistic mechanics seems to me to have an unambiguous interpretation (though see: https://arxiv.org/pdf/physics/0703019.pdf) but obviously there are differences between classical probabilistic physics and quantum mechanics.

Note that the ordinary formulation of QM makes this comparison non-trivial. I think of it this way: suppose we have a classical 1D system with N particles. Each has two degrees of freedom, its position and momentum, so we need 2N numbers to represent the classical state. If we imagine shrinking this system down (or engaging in some sort of metaphysical transition) so that the system becomes quantum mechanical, each particle requires a wave function which, in open space, has an infinite number of values, one for every point in space (for instance). That is, our 2N numbers must become N*∞. It seems like we’ve lost a factor of two. But we haven’t – each of those numbers in the wave function are complex valued, so, apart from the fact that complex numbers have structure which in some ways makes them seem like less than the sum of their (real and imaginary) parts, we’re back to where we start.

Contrast that with thinking about a probabilistic description of the classical system. In that case, we simply take each observable quantity (of which there are 2N) and create a probability distribution, which has an infinite number of values per N. So we have 2*N*∞ numbers to deal with. Rather than N wave functions, which serve as a combined representation of position and momentum, we have 2*N probability distributions, each of which is mapped directly onto a classical observable. ``` ```

Three questions, then:

1. Can we find a representation for Quantum Mechanics which is directly comparable to Classical Mechanics?
2. Can we find a representation for Classical Mechanics which is directly comparable to Quantum Mechanics?
3. In either of the above cases, what precisely accounts for the differences between the classical and quantum mechanical pictures?

Since I’m not smart enough to even pose questions which haven’t been posed before, I think, after enough reading, I can answer these questions.

1. Yes – the Phase Space Formulation of Quantum Mechanics uses the Wigner-Weil transform to map the wave function to position/momentum phase space quasi-probability distribution.
2. Yes – just create N wave functions from 2N probability distributions by adding Q + iP together for each particle.
3. In the first case the critical distinction between the quasi-probability distributions and the classical probability distributions is that the former sometimes take values less than 0. In the second case the quantum mechanical system still admits no dispersion free states, whereas any combination of probability distributions is allowed in the classical case. It would be interesting to work out the mathematics, but the requirement that no state is dispersion free, which has to do with the operators which represent position and momentum and the Born Rule, imposes a constraint on the types of momentum probability distributions which can coexist with each particular position probability distribution.

Anyway, if there were some miraculous surfeit of free time in my future, I’d like to spend some of it working out these ideas in detail. I’m sure it would be educational for me.

#### Generative Artwork

Since Clocks I haven’t undertaken a single large generative art project with a coherent theme. I’m still interested in the themes of that project: minimizing artificial randomness in generative systems in favor of exploring patterns implicit therein.

On the other hand, I have worked on a few interesting little etudes.:

1. Ceatues, a system built on coupled games of life.
2. Spin, a sort of continuous, tune-able version of Langton’s Ant
3. Meat is Mulder, an experiment in piecing together.

And I’ve been lucky enough to lecture a few times at the soon to be defunct Iron Yard:

More and more I see generative artwork and game design as tightly related fields. The difference lies entirely in the the absence of direct player interaction with the generative artwork. But the same quality of of lying just at the edge of predictability, which produces a sense of life in a generative artwork, generates interesting player situations in games.

I suppose I’m more interested in game design than generative art at the moment, but maybe something will strike me. The one big advantage of generative artwork is that it can be easier to work on in small bursts.

# Emotional Health

I suppose that I have left this section for last indicates a bias which characterizes this entire component of my life. That bias is that I tend to not reflect deeply or frequently about whether I am happy nor not and, when I do so reflect, I tend to do so with my prefrontal cortex, so to speak.

I suppose I am happy from that point of view. I have a good relationship with my partner, a child on the way, a beautiful home and a job which is, for the most part, both reasonable and well compensated.

When I reflect deeply on my life, however, I wonder. I wonder first whether happiness really matters and I wonder whether I would or could be happier if I had a career which more accurately reflects both my gifts and my interests (two categories which don’t always overlap).

Impending fatherhood encourages reflection. You can’t help but wonder not how your child will see you, but how your example will affect your child’s conception of the world. Suddenly all your negative qualities, your petty unhappinesses, sloth and unkemptness are in sharp focus. A child ought not be exposed to a passenger seat full of empty coffee cups. What sort of universe is it where your father’s mood sours because his tiny video-game hasn’t won widespread acclaim. It seems so easy to live for the approval of others until you feel the keen but naive eye of childhood bearing down on you.

My big hope is that I’ll rise to this challenge, strip off my pettiness without losing those qualities which make living as myself possible.

# Goals, Anti-Goals and Multi-player Games

In this article I will try to address Keith Burgun‘s assertion that games should have a single goal and his analysis of certain kinds of goals as trivial or pathological. I will try to demonstrate that multi-player games either reduce to single player games or necessitate multiple goals, some of which are necessarily the sorts of goals which Burgun dismisses as trivial. I’ll try to make the case that such goals are useful ideas for game designers as well as being necessary components of non-trivial multi-player games.

(Note: I find Keith Burgun’s game design work very useful. If you are interested in game design and have the money, I suggest subscribing to his Patreon.)

# Notes on Burgun’s Analytical Frame

## The Forms

Keith Burgun is a game design philosopher focused on strategy games, which he calls simply games. He divides the world of interactive systems into four useful forms:

1. toys – an interactive system without goals. Discovery is the primary value of toys.
2. puzzle – bare interactive system plus a goal. Solving is the primary value of the puzzle.
3. contests – a toy plus a goal all meant to measure performance.
4. games – a toy, plus a goal, plus obfuscation of game state. The primary value is in synthesizing decision making heuristics to account for the obfuscation of the game state.

A good, brief, video introduction to the forms is available here. Burgun believes a good way to construct a game is to identify a core mechanism, which is a combination of a core action, a core purpose, and a goal. The action and purpose point together towards the goal. The goal, in turn, gives meaning to the actions the player can take and the states of the interactive system.

## On Goals

More should be said on goals, which appear in many of the above definitions. Burgun has a podcast which serves as a good long form explication of many of his ideas. There is an entire episode on goals here. The discussion of goals begins around the fifteen minute mark.

Here Burgun provides a related definition of games: contests of decision making. Goals are prominent in this discussion: the goal gives meaning to actions in the game state.

Burgun raises a critique of games which feature notions of second place. He groups such goals into a category of non-binary goals and gives us an example to clarify the discussion: goals of the form “get the highest score.”

His analysis of the poorness of this goal is that it seems to imply a few strange things:

1. The player always gets the highest score they are capable of because the universe is deterministic.
2. These goals imply that the game becomes vague after the previous high score is beaten, since the goal is met and yet the game continues.

The first applies to any interactive system at all, so isn’t a very powerful argument, as I understand it. Take a game with the rules of Tetris except that the board is initialized with a set of blocks already on the board. The player receives a deterministic sequence of blocks and must clear the already present blocks, at which point the game ends. This goal is not of the form “find the highest score” or “survive the longest” but the game’s outcome is already determined by the state of the universe at the beginning of the game. From this analysis we can conclude that if (1) constitutes a downside to the construction of a goal, it doesn’t apply uniquely to “high score” style goals.

(2) is more subtle. While it is true that in the form suggested, these rules leave the player without guidelines after the goal is met, I believe that in many cases a simple rephrasing of the goal in question resolves this problem. Take the goal:

`G`: Given the rules of Tetris, play for the highest score.

Since Tetris rewards you for clearing more lines at once and since Tetris ends when a block becomes fixed to the board but touches the top of the screen, we can rephrase this goal as:

`G'`: Do not let the blocks reach the top of the screen.

This goal is augmented by secondary goals which enhance play: certain ways of moving away from the negative goal `G'` are more rewarding than others. Call this secondary goal `g`: clear lines in the largest groups possible. Call `G'` and goals like it “anti-goals.”

This terminology implies the definition.

If a goal is a particular game state towards which the player tries to move, an anti-goal is a particular state which the player is trying to avoid. Usually anti-goals are of the form “Do not allow X to occur” Where X is related to a (potentially open ended) goal.

Goals of the “high score” or “survive” variety are (or may be) anti-goals in disguise. Rephrased properly, they can be conceived of in anti-goal language. Of course there are good anti-goals and bad ones, just as there are good goals and bad goals. However, I would argue that the same criteria applies to both types of goals: a good (anti) goal is just one which gives meaning to the actions a person is presented with over an interactive system.

# Multi-Player Games and Anti-Goals

I believe anti-goals can be useful game design, even in the single player case. In another essay I may try to make the argument that anti-goals must be augmented with mechanics which tend to move the player towards the anti-goal against which players must do all the sorts of complex decision making which produces value for players.

However, there is a more direct way of demonstrating that anti-goals are unavoidable aspects of games, at least when games are multi-player. This argument also demonstrates that games with multiple goals are in a sense inevitable, at least in the case of multi-player games. First let me describe what I conceive of as a multi-player game.

`multi-player game`: A game where players interact via an interactive system in order to reach a goal which can only be attained by a single player.

The critical distinction I want to make is that a multi-player game is not just two or more people engaged in separate contests of decision making. If there are not actions mediating the interaction of players via the game state then what is really going on is many players are playing many distinct games. A true multi-player game must allow players to interact (via actions).

In a multi-player game, players are working towards a win state we can call `G`. However, in the context of the mechanics which allow interaction they are also playing against a (set of) anti-goals `{A}`, one for each player besides themselves. These goals are of the form “Prevent player X from reaching goal `G`“. Hence, anti-goals are critical ingredients to successful multi-player game design and are therefore useful ideas for game designers. Therefore, for a game to really be multi-player then there must be actions associated with each anti-goal `{A}`.

An argument we might make at this point is that if players are playing for `{A}` and not explicitly for `G` then our game is not well designed (for instance, it isn’t elegant or minimal). But I believe any multi-player game where a player can pursue `G` and not concern herself with `{A}`, even in the presence of game actions which allow interaction, is a set of single player games in disguise. If we follow our urge to make `G` the true goal for all players at the expense of `{A}` then we may as well remove the actions which intermediate between players and then we may as well be designing a single player game whose goal is `G`.

So, if we admit that multi-player games are worth designing, then we also admit that at least a family of anti-goals are worth considering. Note that we must explicitly design the actions which allow the pursuit of `{A}` in order to design the game. Ideally these will be related and work in accord with the actions which facilitate `G` but they cannot be identical to those mechanics without our game collapsing to the single player case. We must consider `{A}` actions as a separate (though ideally related) design space.

# Summary

I’ve tried to demonstrate that in multi-player games especially, anti-goals, which are goals of the for “Avoid some game state”, are necessary, distinct goal forms worth considering by game designers. The argument depends on demonstrating that a multi-player game must contain such anti-goals or collapse to a single player game played by multiple people but otherwise disconnected.

In a broader context, the idea here is to get a foot in the door for anti-goals as rules which can still do the work of a goal, which is to give meaning to choices and actions in an interactive system. An open question is whether such anti-goals are useful for single player games, whether they are useful but only in conjunction with game-terminating goals, or whether, though useful, we can always find a related normal goal which is superior from a design point of view. Hopefully, this essay provides a good jumping off point for those discussions.

# Amateur Notes on “Quantum Mechanics as Classical Physics”

I am slow to mature. That is why I squandered myself in graduate school. I could have embraced the opportunity to think critically about the philosophy of physics, in which I was at least up to my knees. I instead glibly dismissed philosophy as secondary to prediction. Quantum Mechanics poses the greatest and most interesting philosophical problems and only now, when graduate school is vanishing on the horizon or, at any rate, eclipsed by towering pragmatics racing towards me (mortgages, careers, children), am I taken, with ever more frequency, by thoughts of the philosophy of physics.

Compensating this lack of remit to study is a comparative freedom of choice about how I study. Reading that would have been deemed frivolous by my graduate adviser I am now free to pursue for pleasure. Hence Charles Sebens’ 2013 paper “Quantum Mechanics as Classical Physics,” which develops a purely classical interpretation of Quantum Mechanics of a novel, Bohmian-flavored variety.

Interested readers should read the version on the Archive. I can’t hope to reproduce anything by a quick and probably inelegant if not misleading summary here, but the basic idea is to create a sort of supererogatory interpretative framework for Quantum Mechanics by adding not a single Bohmian particle, but one for many universes in such a way that the dynamics are preserved and then cleverly realizing that the so-called “Pilot Wave,” which corresponds to the Wave Function in more ordinary interpretations, can be completely removed, replaced instead by a regular Newtonian force between the Bohmian trace particles.

This results in a many-universe interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (with the same predictions as any other interpretation) but without a wave function. I’m interested in what I believe to be one aspect of this interpretation: it seems to be that worldlines never cross in this way of thinking, so that, if we jump up and up and up to slightly absurd questions like “Are there me’s in other universes who have made different decisions than I have?” The answer is “no,” in the following sense: because world lines never cross, there was never a time where two universes (and hence two versions of yourself) shared exactly the same state and then diverged. In other words, in each universe, while there may be many beings who resemble any individual in many respects, none of them share identical pasts. If you resent some decision in the past, as I resent not thinking about philosophy more in graduate school, and torture yourself by imagining some parallel person who made different decisions (with the help of some vague thoughts about the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics) take heart: there is no such moment in the past where you could have chosen differently. You past is fixed and distinct from all those other versions of yourself, none of which were ever identical to you at any point.

At least that seems to be the case when you think about it this way.

# Quick, Probabily Naive Thoughts about Turing Machines and Random Numbers

Here is a fact which is still blowing my mind, albeit quietly, from the horizon.

Turing Machines, the formalism which we use to describe computation, do not, strictly speaking, cover computational processes which have access to random values. When we wish to reason about such machines people typically imagine a Turing Machine with two tapes, one which takes on the typical role and another which contains an infinite string of random numbers which the machine can peel off one at a time.

I know what you are all thinking: can’t I just write a random number generator and put it someplace on my turing machine’s tape, and use that? Sure, but those numbers aren’t really random, particularly in the sense that a dedicated attacker, having access to the output of your turing machine can in principle detect the difference between your machine and one with bona fide random numbers if it has access to your outputs. And, in fact, the question of whether there exists a random number generator which uses only polynomial time and space such that a polynomial time and space algorithm is unable to detect whether the numbers derive from a real random process or an algorithm is still open.

All that is really an aside. What is truly, profoundly surprising to me is this: a machine which has access to random numbers seems to be more powerful than one without random numbers. In what sense? There are algorithms which are not practical on a normal turing machine which become immanently practical on a turing machine with a random tape as long as we are able to accept a vanishingly small probability that the result is wrong. Algorithms about which we can even do delta/epsilon style reasoning: that is, we can make the probability of error as small as we like by the expedient of repeating the computation with new random numbers and (for instance) using the results as votes to determine the “correct answer.” This expedient does not really modify the big O complexity of algorithms.

Buridan’s Ass is a paradox in which a hungry donkey sits between two identical bales of hay and dies of hunger, unable to choose which to eat on account of their equal size. There is a strange sort of analogy here: if the Ass has a source of random numbers he can pick one randomly and survive. It is almost as if deterministic, finitist mathematics, in its crystalline precision, encounters and wastes energy on lots of tiny Ass’ Dilemmas which put certain sorts of results practically out of reach, but if we fuzz it up with random numbers, suddenly it is liberated to find much more truth than it was before. At least that is my paltry intuitive understanding.

# Duckspeak Vs Smalltalk

The Decline of the Xerox PARC Philosophy at Apple Computers

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece, “Creation Myth”, in the New Yorker, about innovation and implementation via Xerox PARC, academia and Apple Computers, tells one interesting story about that surprising time in our modern history. But the story of the tensions and synergies between visionaries and businessmen elides a few interesting details about what was going on, and why, at Xerox PARC at the time. Gladwell’s version of history features a nimble entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, capitalizing on an idea the value of which a monolithic company, Xerox, can’t see. But the story of Apple and Xerox PARC is also that of a design philosophy meant to empower people diverging into one meant to entertain them or to sell them things.

When Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and saw the first mouse, the system he was looking at, the Alto, was running a programming environment and language called Smalltalk. While the details of this system are glossed over in the Gladwell piece, they deserve more careful attention. Although The Alto bears a superficial resemblance to modern computers, it differed in one major area: the relationship between software developers and users.

For most people software is a solid edifice – it presents a few modes of interaction to the user, maybe a special panel of customization options somewhere, but is otherwise as opaque and unmodifiable as a modern car. If users bother to think about software at all, they think of it as a product, constructed somewhere by people called “programmers” and distributed to the user. If that software doesn’t do what the user wants, he might send a hopeful technical support email, or he might just shop around for something else.

Of course, there is consumer software that includes more powerful extension features, so that, in principal, the user can add their own functionality, but these features don’t seem to be popularly used. Firefox is an example of user-extensible software, but the vast majority of users don’t use this capacity except to download what a small percentage of computer literate users write.

In other words, it is reasonably safe to say that most people who use computers have never written software.

Why should this be, and what does it have to do with Xerox PARC, Smalltalk and Steve Jobs? Well, an integral part of the Xerox PARC Philosophy was to dismantle the wall between software developers and computer users, to develop systems so easy to program that doing so would be a natural, simple aspect of computer use.

The early years of computing technology naturally produced a division between users and programmers – programming early computers was a highly technical discipline which required specific knowledge of the way the idiosyncratic hardware systems in those days worked. But while computers rapidly increased in power, the tools that programmers used to program them developed relatively conservatively. It is easy to imagine a world where those tools developed along with the computers, until programming itself became so easy that the average user would feel comfortable doing it. After all, the point of any program is to automate or facilitate tedious work, and in this respect programming itself is no different than a word processor.

That wasn’t exactly how things happened, and the reason why is a fascinating and arguably still unresolved story in and of itself. Part of that story takes place at Xerox PARC.

## The Xerox PARC Philosophy

I mentioned above that the computer Steve Jobs saw on his visit to to Xerox PARC, the Alto, was running something called a Smalltalk System. Smalltalk is still around, and you can even download a self-contained Smalltalk System called Squeak and play around with one yourself. What you’ll see, if you do, is something which is probably very similar to what Steve Jobs saw on that day – a desktop-ish interface, with dragable windows and clickable buttons. And of course, you interact with the mouse.

The Graphical Programming Environment of Pharo Smalltalk.

Both systems also share a fascinating property which “Creation Myth” leaves unmentioned. In Smalltalk, you can, using something called “The Browser,” pull up the “source code” for any object in the system. “Object” in this case means anything in the system whatsoever, including windows, widgets, numbers. “Source code” is the stuff that a compiler translates into machine code so the computer can do something with it. If you want, you can modify that code right there, or copy it and create a new object with user-customized behavior. The entire system is transparent and modifiable.

Most of the programming languages people used in 1979 would have looked very nearly like gibberish to a lay person. Early computers were slow, which meant that compilers took a long time to work unless they were very simple. This meant that most early programming languages were just thin shells on top of the numbers-as-command codes of machine language. Even by 1979, languages hadn’t developed much further in public use – corporate and government users (pretty much the only users before personal computing) were interested in cost-effectiveness and systems their programmers already knew, so language and system design was very conservative. New languages came along, but often they were incremental improvements on previous designs.

The designers of Smalltalk (Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls, and Adele Goldberg principally, and others), given the resources and freedom of Xerox PARC, worked actively to reverse this trend. Whereas a hodgepodge of cultural and technical realities constrained the way most other programming languages looked and felt, both Smalltalk the language and the system were written from the ground up to be so easy that a child could use them (hence the name). It was much more ambitious than just that, however. Kay saw Xerox PARC as being on the vanguard of a real revolution in human/computer interaction. In “The Early History of Smalltalk,” Alan Kay writes of this “Xerox PARC” vision of personal computing:

… the user interface would have to become a learning environment along the lines of Montessori and Bruner; and [the] needs for large scope, reduction in complexity, and end-user literacy would require that data and control structures be done away with in favor of a more biological scheme of protected universal cells interacting only through messages that could mimic desired behavior.
… we were actually trying for a for a qualitative paradigm shift in belief structures — a new Kuhnian paradigm in the same spirit as the invention of the printing press…

It is obvious from the “The Early History of Smalltalk” that Alan Kay has a direct, emotional involvement in his subject matter (he says so in fact). What is equally obvious is that Kay’s retrospective must be bittersweet at best. Smalltalk and the Alto were, at the time, the avatar of “The Xerox PARC Design Philosophy”. The systems Apple went on to produce would imperfectly capture this philosophy, and arguably, later, jettison it altogether.

In one anecdote, Kay relates showing a custom system (built in Smalltalk) meant to facilitate non-expert “programming,” to executives from Xerox PARC. This system was a kind of highly advanced programming language meant to make human-machine interaction at a very high level intuitive for non-expert users. At one point during a demonstration, a vice president, after an hour of working with the system, realized he was programming. What they accomplished, then, was a keystone for a software system which Kay felt bridged the gap between the numbers coursing through a CPU somewhere, and human intuitive reasoning.

Kay viewed programming as a natural aspect of human computer interaction, and he designed his systems to make programming the computer as easy and intuitive as creating a new Word Document or browsing the web is on modern computers. When Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and saw the Alto, he brought more than just the user interface to Apple Computers, he brought an entire philosophy of personal computing.

## HyperCard

The Xerox PARC philosophy can be seen in a variety of technological lineages still discernible in the Apple universe. Objective C, a variant of the Smallktalk language, though without its attendant environment (the SmallTalk system), is still in use. Kay himself is quick to point out HyperCard, an early and still incredibly popular application environment, which encouraged user extension and programmability in a language called “HyperTalk,” which was inspired by Smalltalk and the Alto, was a good realization of the Xeroc PARC philosophy on the Mac.

A screenshot of Hypercard in action. Linked from here.

HyperCard, like much of the work from this period, defies comparison to modern software. Although often described as a kind of hypertexual rolodex, its “cards” could contain more than static information – they could also contain user-created multimedia and interactive components. Users would begin by adding cards for various pieces of information, but then, say as a card representing sales data grew to require a calculator, an interactive component for that purpose could be added. These components were themselves added interactively from within HyperCard.

HyperCard, and the people using it, organically grew many applications which left a permanent mark on computer history. A particularly telling fact is that the original version of the game Myst, a fantasy adventure game, was a HyperCard App. On the other side of the Atlantic, figuratively and literally, Renault, a french car manufacturer, used HyperCard to maintain its business inventory. HyperCard became the program its users needed it to be because it was open, extensible and encouraged user programming and interaction as a fundamental use-case. Even modern extensible software like Firefox tends to separate use from extension development – the average user might have no idea that Firefox supports user extension. In Hypercard, these features were “on the surface” of the design.

HyperCard also illustrates some of the difficulties that might be responsible for the gradual shift away from Xerox PARC-like open models of personal computing. According to rumor, the developer of HyperCard, Bill Atkinson, allegedly1 gave the product to Apple in 1987, with the understanding that it would be distributed for free with each Mac. The program was an immediate success. HyperCard produced a tremendous amount of feedback from the community, but since it was a free product, Apple wasn’t sure how much internal resources should be devoted to handling HyperCard development.

Perhaps seeking a way of turning the HyperCard phenomenon into a revenue stream, Apple eventually transferred HyperCard development to a subsidiary company, which attempted to transform it into a profitable business model. HyperCard was no longer released for free, but a locked down version, capable of playing, but not developing, HyperCard Applications was freely available. The “developer’s edition,” recognizable as just Hypercard, was available for purchase. In an effort to make HyperCard into a business model, Apple inadvertantly had separated users into “developers” and “users.” This, combined with the development of work-alikes with more features, seemed to destroy HyperCard’s momentum, and, despite later attempts at revival at Apple, the system fell out of use2.

## Waiting for the Dynabook

Alan Kay invented the laptop computer – at least he developed a concept computer called The Dynabook which for all intents and purposes was a modern laptop and more. He envisioned that such a system, directed mostly at children (but usable by adults) would run Smalltalk, and while its possible to build the conceptual system Kay imagined in 1968 today, he still believes that the Dynabook doesn’t exist. Although tablet computers resemble the Dynabook superficially, and the One Laptop Per Child project comes close, Kay believes that his essential vision is unfulfilled. Kay points out, when asked about this, that the necessary technologies for a Dynabook device are quite old, but that corporate and cultural practices simply haven’t caught up to using them appropriately.

Sketch of the Dynabook design (from Wikipedia.)

Consider by contrast any one of Apple’s iDevices. The touch screen, networking capability and user friendly design are reminiscent of the Dynabook, but, whereas on a Smalltalk system one could click on any widget and see and modify the source code, an iPad is essentially completely locked down. Not only does Apple require a license to develop and sell software for the iDevices in their “App Store,” but to even develop, for personal use, software for your own device, a separate “Developer’s Kit” (and the Apple Computer to run it on) must be acquired. Whereas Smalltalk was designed from the bottom up to facilitate programming for young and inexperienced users, the iPad targets its development tools, which are arguably byzantine by the standards of Smalltalk, to a relatively small group of developers. On top of that, software is only distributable after passing through an often arbitrary and, in any case, secretive Apple review process.

While the Dynabook was meant to be a device deeply rooted in the ethos of active education and human enhancement, the iDevices are essentially glorified entertainment and social interaction (and tracking) devices, and Apple controlled revenue stream generators for developers. The entire “App Store” model, then works to divide the world into developers and software users, whereas the Xerox PARC philosophy was for there to be a continuum between these two states. The Dynabook’s design was meant to recruit the user into the system as a fully active participant. The iDevice is meant to show you things, and to accept a limited kind of input – useful for 250 character Tweets and Facebook status updates, all without giving you the power to upset Content Creators, upon whom Apple depends for its business model. Smalltalk was created with the education of adolescents in mind – the iPad thinks of this group as a market segment.

HyperCard was, by comparison, much closer to the Dynabook ethos. In a sense, the iPad is the failed “HyperCard Player” brought to corporate fruition, able to run applications but completely unsuited for developing them, both in its basic design (which prioritizes pointing and clicking as the mechanism of interaction), in the conceptual design of its software, and in the social and legal organization of its software distribution system.

It is interesting that at one point, Jobs (who could not be reached for comment) described his vision of computers as “interpersonal computing,” and by that standard, his machines are a success. It is just a shame that in an effort to make interpersonal engagement over computers easy and ubiquitous, the goal of making the computer itself easily engaging has become obscured. In a world where centralized technology like Google can literally give you a good guess at any piece of human knowledge in milliseconds, its a real tragedy that the immense power of cheap, freely available computational systems remains locked behind opaque interfaces, obscure programming languages, and expensive licensing agreements.

The last 30 years have accustomed us to breakneck advancements in the technology we use every day, and yet at the personal level these advancements have been limited almost exclusively to communication and entertainment – so much so that arguably the public lacks even the the vocabulary to express what it is that modern computing could be doing for them or what they could be doing with modern computing. Spreadsheets are the closest most people get to “computing” with their personal computers. The electronic spreadsheet, which is itself an adaptation of an analog technology, was conceptualized in 1961.

If you ask Alan Kay about personal computing now, he is remarkably upbeat. In his view, the rapid development of technology simply outpaces the ability of corporate and educational systems to adapt, and this leads to a “pop culture” of sorts which dominates the culture of computer use. In other words, the divide between users and programmers, or at least between the truly computer literate and the merely casual computer user, isn’t a top down phenomena imposed upon the people by those in control of technology. It is an inevitable result of the rapid pace of development.

I think one of the main consequences of the inventions of personal computing and the world wide Internet is that everyone gets to be a potential participant, and this means that we now have the entire bell curve of humanity trying to be part of the action. This will dilute good design (almost stamp it out) until mass education can help most people get more savvy about what the new medium is all about. (This is not a fast process). What we have now is not dissimilar to the pop music scene vs the developed music culture (the former has almost driven out the latter — and this is only possible where there is too little knowledge and taste to prevent it). Not a pretty sight.

Alan Kay is still pushing for more symbiotic conceptualization of human/computer interaction, although he describes Smalltalk as part of his “distant past”. He presently heads a non-profit organization he co-founded called “Viewpoints Research Institute,” whose purpose is to continue to consider the questions of educational and personal computing. We’d never have gotten the iPhone if it hadn’t been for his influence at Xerox PARC. Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to get the Dynabook.

1 Bill Atkinson is presently a nature photographer and couldn’t be reached for comment.

2 However, HyperCard’s influence is still felt today. Last year, Dale Dougherty, editor of Make Magazine, wrote in wired that the iPad needed a HyperCard-type application. Tilestack, a web based, HyperCard-a-like with a pay-to-distribute model, recently went bust. Squeak Smalltalk includes a “Morph,” a kind of extendable program, which is loosely based on HyperCard. Although from a parallel technological lineage altogether, Emacs, which is still in wide use, and which the author used to write this article, resembles HyperCard in many respects.

# Slices of Mystery Dungeon 1: Rice Balls

Lately a lot of my free time has been dedicated to the development of a game called The Death Of The Corpse Wizard. The Death Of The Corpse Wizard is a coffee break roguelike which draws significant inspiration from one of my favorite games, Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. I’ve also been playing Peculiar Games’ Voyage To Farland, which is, like Corpse Wizard, inspired by the Mystery Dungeon series. So Mystery Dungeon has been on my mind.

In this series of posts I’ll try to unpack exactly what it is about Shiren that makes it a successful game. To keep the analysis focused, each post will focus on a slice of the gameplay mechanics. Today’s slice begins at the beginning:

The sense of adventure that Shiren manages to evoke is a whole other article.

Every game of Shiren begins in The Canyon Hamlet, which is a medieval Japanese village populated with a cast of characters, many of whom are seasoned wanderers themselves. There is a small restaurant which, if you visit, the bar keep of which will give you a Rice Ball. Rice Balls are food, and they will be the item with which we begin our analysis.

# A Digression On Food Clocks

Roguelikes distinguish themselves from other role playing games in their commitment to present the player with mostly meaningful choices. Like traditional RPGs, most roguelikes feature a system of progression whereby the killing of monsters translates into experience points, which themselves translate into improved ability to kill monsters. Numbers, as they say, go up.

However, in most traditional RPGs one is free to wander around indefinitely, killing randomly generated monsters until one’s level is arbitrarily high. Because monsters generally spawn indefinitely, one is free to exchange as much boredom as they can stand now for as much ease as they want later. And because, with each additional level the player gains, all subsequent encounters become easier, this so-called grinding becomes boring very quickly. People play games for all sorts of different reasons, but I advance that “trade boredom for easiness” is not the most compelling of game design principles.

Let’s take it as a given that Roguelikes use RPG-like undermechanics, with statistics mediating encounters, and where leveling up controls those numbers. If the game design is to present interesting choices, then the player must never be far outside of a particular level-range at any given moment; a level range designed to ensure that the player must take care. How does the game designer achieve this balance?

Modern roguelikes are experimenting with a variety of possibilities (The Death Of The Corpse Wizard, for instance, simply doesn’t have levels at all, and the game moves forward whether the player wants it to or not), but Shiren is fairly traditional: it uses what is usually called a “Food Clock,” which just means that Shiren has a timer that slowly ticks down and which, when it reaches zero, kills the player. In order to make the timer go up again, the player must make Shiren eat, which means she must find food, and since items don’t spawn infinitely, or do so with a frequency insufficient to avoid starving to death, she must move Shiren ever forward. By adjusting the food clock, the game designer can change how hard she pushes the player forward, adjusting the difficulty of the game.

So the take away of this digression is that the player needs food. In Shiren, food mostly comes in the form of Rice Balls, almost always either a Small Rice Ball or a Large Rice Ball.

# Jars

When the bar man gives you your free Rice Ball, he gives you some advice about the proper care and maintenance of Rice Balls. There is a trap, you see, in Shiren The Wanderer, which will cause your Rice Balls to go bad. A bad Rice Ball only recovers a small amount of hunger and it also usually causes a negative status effect of some kind.

I want to stop and remark upon this, the most basic of mechanics. It would have been easy for the designers to simply destroy your rice balls on certain traps, but instead they transform them into risky items: they might save you from starving to death, but they might also make you fall asleep, and hence be helpless against monsters. The choice to eat a rotten Rice Ball, then, is pretty interesting. You have to think hard about it.

That point aside, you don’t want your Rice Balls to rot. One way of preventing them from rotting is to eat them right away: like a Fremen in a still suit, the best place for nutrition is, after all, in your body. Here Chunsoft again demonstrates an unusually good design instinct: you can only have a maximum satiation of 100%. Big rice balls give you 100%, so the optimal time to eat them in the absence of traps is when your satiation is at zero, but Small Rice Balls give you 50%, so you can eat them at 50% satiation and maximize their utility. So paradoxically, Small Rice Balls are better than big ones, because you can eat them sooner, and hence they have a lower probability of being spoiled. Large Rice Balls, on the other hand, will either waste their satiating ability or risk going bad.

With just two items, a trap and a single mechanic, Chunsoft has created a rich environment to balance risk and reward. That is good design.

And that doesn’t even include what happens when you add jars into the game. For simplicity, let’s assume that there is just one type of jar, the “Jar of Holding.” As the barkeep says, if you put your Rice Balls inside a jar, they won’t go bad, even if you step on a trap. You can eat Rice Balls directly from the jar, without taking a turn to take them out, so if you have a jar, it makes sense to load it up with any Rice Balls you find.

However, there are monsters which steal items in Shiren, and they will occasionally steal one of your jars. If you have put all of your rice balls in a single jar, then you’ll lose all of them if they get stolen.

Note here that, short of recovering your jar, which is possible, but difficult, you lose the Rice Balls. If they rot, they are still semi-valuable. There is not an exact parity between the consequences of carrying your Rice Balls around and the consequences of stashing them in a jar. This is a good game design: you have to choose between similar, but not exactly identical, risk profiles. If you have a leather shield, for instance, which reduces the rate at which you get hungry, it makes more sense to risk letting the Rice Balls rot, because the 30% satiation that a rotten Rice Ball gives you is actually pretty solid, in exchange for the temporary negative side effect. The detailed breakdown is a bit more complicated, but that is the idea.

# Conclusions

As we look at the design of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer we’ll see that most of the mechanics in the game are balanced against one another in a way similar to the way Rice Ball rotting traps, jars, thieves and hunger are so balanced. In a turn based game design, where things proceed in a fairly deterministic fashion, the whole richness of the game is in these interacting systems.

As I develop The Death Of The Corpse Wizard, I’ll be trying to invent or steal such mechanisms. Hopefully I will succeed.