Category: Games

“One third of the invertebrates and some of the fishes found during the expedition are completely new to science.” They’ve discovered that Cook pine trees always lean in the direction of the equator — the ones in the Northern hemisphere lean towards the south, and the Southern hemisphere ones lean towards the north. (If you want to read the actual face-sound scientific paper, it’s here.) Behold the many religious-themed handheld LCD games of the 80s and 90s. Does the sound of your name match the shape of your face?   This neural net produces some unsettlingly realistic faces. “Nothing much, just painting a Renaissance manuscript with dissolved fish bladder, you?” An interesting hypothesis about how and why whales got so insanely huge.


Awesomely nerdy dice

"NYC Cuisine Dice" by Eric Harshbarger

The other day on Twitter, Benjamin Edwards posted a picture of some gorgeous milled-aluminum dice a friend made for him. In response, Eric Berlin pointed us to the work of his friend Eric Harshbarger, who designs insanely cool custom dice.

Above is one of Harshbarger’s creations: A set of dice for New Yorkers who are heading out to eat dinner but are paralyzed by the paradox of choice. The dice are labeled:

Die 1: West Village, Chelsea, EV/Nolita, LES, Soho, Roller’s Choice

Die 2: Italian, Roller’s Choice, Sushi, Mexican, Asian, Ethnic

Heh. Below, an even nerdier concept: Binary dice. I’m going to order a pair of these for my son to bring to his middle-school math class …

Binary dice by Eric Harshbarger

Here’s some deep meta — a die of polyhedral shapes:

Polyhedral die by Eric Harshbarger

And here are some DNA/nucleotide dice — useful for synthetic biologists want to add some randomness when they’re inadvertently creating unstoppable superbugs!

DNA/Nucleotide dice by Eric Harshbarger

Below are perhaps my favorite — a pair of dice Harshbarger created after he posed himself a puzzle: “What is the greatest number of dots that can be removed from a die and it still be determinable what is rolled?”

Behold …

Two-pip dice by Eric Harshbarger

His fuller explanation of how to read these:

  • If the ‘center-side’ pip is face up, then a “6” was rolled, because that is the only number with a dot in that position.
  • If the center-side pip is not visible anywhere on the die, then it must be face-down. Meaning you rolled a “1”.
  • Otherwise, the center-side is on one of the four side faces. In this case, look for the ‘center-center’ pip (which, given its position relative to the center-side pip, must be the “5” face). If that center-center dot is face-up, you’ve rolled a “5”. If it is not visible, you’ve rolled a “2”. If it is also on one of the side faces, then you need to know that the 4-5-6 values are placed counterclockwise about their shared vertex (on Bicycle Dice); with that knowledge you can determine whether a “3” or “4” is face up.

This guy’s a genius. Check out the rest of the dice on his page; the ones here are only the tip of the iceberg.

What I love about Harshbarger’s work is how it leverages humanity’s longstanding fascination with randomness — a force that has long tweaked and teased society’s ideas about logic, reason, the will of God, the arc of life. Over at Aeon, Michael Schulson wrote a terrific essay on the situations where a random choice can be better than a reasoned one, and he opens by noting the peculiar allure of the random:

As moderns, we take it for granted that the best decisions stem from a process of empirical analysis and informed choice, with a clear goal in mind. That kind of decision-making, at least in theory, undergirds the ways that we choose political leaders, play the stock market, and select candidates for schools and jobs. It also shapes the way in which we critique the rituals and superstitions of others. But … [snip]

… As any blackjack dealer or tarot reader might tell you, we have a love for the flip of the card. Why shouldn’t we? Chance has some special properties. It is a swift, consistent, and (unless your chickens all die) relatively cheap decider. Devoid of any guiding mind, it is subject to neither blame nor regret. Inhuman, it can act as a blank surface on which to descry the churning of fate or the work of divine hands. Chance distributes resources and judges disputes with perfect equanimity.


The joy of grinding, or, Why young men would rather play video games than get a job

Danny Izquierdo playing a video game in front of a TV

This is Danny Izquierdo, “a 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md.”, as the Chicago Tribune reports (their photo, too). Izquierdo, the Tribune writes, is part of a trend: Young men who are opting out of the job market because it’s more emotionally fulfilling to play video games. It’s not that they couldn’t find a job. It’s that they don’t want to. Games are a better mode of living.

Can this trend possibly be true?

University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst says so. He’s been studying the workplace fates of young men who haven’t completed a four-year degree. In the 2000s, their employment rates took a nosedive. What were they doing with all those newly free hours? They weren’t going to back to school. Mostly, all the hours they used to work are now leisure — and fully 75% of that leisure is one activity:

Playing video games.

It’s practically a full-time job for them. And they’re pretty happy about it! As Hurst puts it:

The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% – almost one quarter – of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.

So, why exactly would games be more appealing than a job? In one way, the answer is screamingly obvious: A game is designed to be fun, to immerse you in teasingly intriguing goals, and there are few real-world consequences if you screw it up. Of course it’s more pleasant than the sorts of crappy service-sector jobs guys like Izquierdo have been getting.

Ah, but it’s worth looking a little more closely at a point that Izquierdo himself makes in the Chicago Tribune piece. He mentions playing Pokemon Go, Fifa 16 and Rocket League, and then adds:

“When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,” he said. “With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.”

Ah, now this, I find fascinating. And familiar!

He’s talking about the joy of grinding.

Back in 2008 for Wired, I wrote about this phenomenon. In many modern video games, there’s a mechanic of “leveling up”. You begin the game playing a character that’s relatively weak, but after you complete a few simple quests or tasks or nail a few early victories, you get more powerful: You go from level one to level two. And at level two, hey — suddenly you’re noticeably a bit more powerful! All that work was worth it! So, duly encouraged, you set about playing some more, because you know that pretty soon you’ll hit level three, and sure enough: Boom, another level up, and you’re more powerful yet.

People will spend hours and days and weeks doing this, going around and tackling every tiny sidequest in a game just so they can get a teensy bit closer to the next level. It can get kind of monotonous; that’s why it’s called “grinding”. But the reward — that jolt of satisfaction when your character erupts in a halo and emerges more powerful yet — is so catalytic, you can’t stop.

That’s the joy of grinding. And as I argued in Wired, grinding is in a certain sense the American Dream. If I just do the work, dutifully and over and over again, I’ll be rewarded. 

As I wrote back then, while talking specifically about playing World of Warcraft (WoW) …

… there’s something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you’ll level up. It doesn’t require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you’ll do better; play 50, you’ll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.

The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this. Many are precisely the opposite, in fact. When you go to your job at the office, there’s little or no linkage between effort and achievement: You slave like a madman all year long, only to watch the glad-handing frat guy hired two months ago get promoted above you. And if you’re a really serious nerd, the logic that governs interpersonal relationships — marriage, kids, your parents — is even more abstruse: Things can actually get worse the more time and effort you put into them.

But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can’t believe what a totally awesome deal we’re getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.

So maybe it’s not just that these men are avoiding work because they’re lazy or immature or short-sighted (though these things may certainly also be true). Maybe it’s partly also that they’re craving work that feels like it’s progressing somewhere — that isn’t just punching the same entropic card every day. Which is what too many of those go-nowhere service jobs are like, frankly; they’re dispiriting even to someone who approaches them with the chirpiness of a Dale Carnegie. If the economy offered better jobs, maybe the competition from games wouldn’t be quite so stiff.

Mind you, another factor here is that today’s games are fine-tuned to provoke compulsive, nonstop playing. Young guys get sucked into playing all day long because — well, that’s sort of what the games are intended to do. It’s in the design spec, a feature and not a bug. I can attest to this compulsive power, because as a lifelong gamer, I wrestle with it all the time!

In fact, I’m currently getting sucked into Trove, a new game that’s a mashup of Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Oooo, it’s grindalicious. I spent three hours grinding last night, and plan to do the same long march tonight. And frankly, these binges of play inevitably interfere with my actual work. Unlike the twentysomethings in that Chicago Times, I actually enjoy my job as a journalist; even so, games are an amazing mental respite, because they’re a relief from the sheer complexity of reporting. When I’m working on a book, the way forward is often foggy; I often struggle with the question of, what should I be doing today? Next hour? Right now?

In contrast, grinding gives you a neat list of tasks to check off. Put your butt in the chair, play for an hour, and you’ll level up. Working on my book is confusing, a tramp through a fen. Trove gives me goals that are militarily clear.

I can't stop playing Trove, help

I can’t stop playing Trove, help

This siren call of games has become a subject of regular conversation between me and my kids, as I try to impart what I’ve learned about the need for moderation. I tell them, more or less, that a lifetime of gaming has taught me that a) video games are a total joy and proof the universe wants us to be happy, but b) their talons wrap tightly around your immortal soul and do not easily let go. It is the samurai work of a lifetime to keep games in harmony with a balanced life. I’ve done it (I hope!) But whoa, it takes self-awareness.

But, back to the young male gamers who are avoiding the workplace. In the short run, they’re happy. But they’re almost certain to develop massive problems down the road, as Hurst points out: “The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience.”

One more thought about games as a radical alternative to daily life: This reminds me of a passage from Jane McGonigal’s terrific book Reality is Broken. Early on she quotes Herodotus’ tale of an ancient king who used games to conquer the pain of hard times:

When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians devised a strange remedy for their problem, The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food … and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball, and all the games which are common.

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing out the Chicago Tribune story to me!)


Beautiful failure

I’ve recently become addicted to the new iPhone game INKS — because it lets you fail beautifully.

Je explain. INKS is a pinball game where you have to complete each level by hitting all the colored targets on the pinball board. Lose a ball? No biggie, there’s an infinite supply. But the goal is to complete the level on a single ball. The fewer balls you use per level, the higher your score. Fun, yes?

Yes! But what makes this pinball so distinctive is … the ink.

Each time you hit a colored target, it splatters a big glob of ink onto the game board. Whenever your ball passes through that sploosh, it leaves a trail behind. As your ball crisscrosses the board, it keeps on running through inksplot after inksplot, leaving splats upon splats and trails upon trails, with the ink mixing and reflowing until you’ve got an gorgeous little inadvertent work of art.

It’s easier to appreciate this when you see it — so, a wee video:

As it turns out, this ink-splattering creates a really interesting experience of failure.

As the game progresses, you fail more. The levels get harder, requiring you to bankshot the ball into some lunatic-inaccessible nook of the board. So I’d try and fail and try and fail — which means I’d begin leaving crazed, fingerpaint-style trails of ink all over the place. I’d also start losing balls, and as you lose balls they change color; by the time you get to your fourth ball, the ball is black, and it leaves a trail of that dark ink. So now my accidental art creations were spiderwebbed with black too.

Behold some screenshots of what I’m talking about. These are several games, showing the levels getting harder and my increasing fail-itude:

The worse I play, the more crazy the designs become; they’re a record of my flailing. But the designs are also quite charming and thought-provoking. You see loops of physics written in ink, the iterated attempts and collisions turning into visual poetry. This is a game that turns your failure into art. 

Better yet, it lets you study your failure, because you can see the common patterns in what you’ve been doing wrong. I can’t say I necessarily learned anything from regarding the flight-paths of my errant pinballs, but when I really screwed things up, it was kind of impressive to behold.

I dig this game-design concept: Making your failure interesting. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite racing games, Burnout 3: Takedown, which took the normal fail-state — crashing your car — and turned into something new. Whenever you crashed, you could flip into a bullet-time slo-mo where you’d view your car slowly tumbling through the air. You could very slightly control the direction of the tumble, and if you could successfully smash your car into one of your opponent’s cars, you’d gain points and “boost” for you car. It was insanely fun and transgressive, and tweaked the game’s emotional import in a really curious fashion, because after a while you’d start looking forward to the next time you crashed.

Thinking about INKS and failure made me go to the shelf and rebrowse one of my favorite books about games — Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games.


Juul is fascinated by the fact that failure is an absolutely central part of playing a video-game; indeed, as he points out, failing inside a game is so common an experience that we could regard it as the central point of playing a game.

Juul opens his book by talking about playing two games, one that was incredibly hard and frustrating, and one that was the opposite — too easy. It turns he found the latter game more annoying. I quoted him on this three years ago in a different blog post, but it’s worth quoting here:

I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.

The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.

Or, as he sums it up:

Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

When I pulled out the book again, a couple of other passages struck my eye. More below if you’re interested …

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