Still clashing


Apparently it is twenty years ago that a certain Canadian gentleman called Sid Meier released what eventually became the first episode of the Civilization series — one of the most successful and iconic computer games in history. I have personally spent untold hours of my student days back in Tartu University playing it, trying to beat those pesky saracens in the race to acquire gunpowder or outrace mongols in rolling out the continental railway network.

Twenty years is a long time, and it is an eternity as far as computer games go. I have a hard time recalling another game from early 90-s that would still be going strong and coming out in ever new releases and this means that Civilization packs some amazing staying power. It is certainly a game that reformed, if not created, the strategy game genre on a computer, but perhaps one of the reasons for its enduring popularity can be found somewhere else. For those 20 years, Civilization has been, at the level of popular culture, both relying as well as reproducing the view of the world as a clash of civilizations — that incidentally found its most famous contemporary formulation by Samuel P. Huntington in 1992. The world of Civilization is that of clearly demarcated and fixed societies, determined by certain cultural traits built around distinctive religions. It also pays tribute to the age-old “Great Man view of history”, tracing back to Thomas Carlyle.

I must admit that I haven’t played Civ for at least 15 years, likely longer, so I am certainly not up to speed in terms of its current gameplay and content. It would, however, be intriguing to see if and when will Civilization adjust to the present world. After all, Huntington is dead for more than 2 years and perhaps it would be time to give his greatest idea a rest too.


God moves in mysterious ways

War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.
— Ambrose Bierce

In addition to employing anthropologists in order to understand their Middle-Eastern nemesis, the US Army has now embraced adventure game genre to train their soldiers and prepare them for encounters with strange denizens of distant lands.

In BoingBoing, Michael Shaughnessy reports, not without some pride, that the most powerful military in the world has taken a big step forward: instead of relying on old school plastic coated flash cards with some stock clip-art on them, they have now gone high tech and revamped the Cultural Training Program for their new recruits to include a kind of computer game that relies on “virtual engagement with locals”.

The article makes a comparison with FPS (first-person shooter) but this is a definite misnomer. First of all, it is not a “shooter”, as pulling one’s gun is apparently not an option at any point. But perhaps even more importantly, neither is it “first-person”. In many ways this is a fundamental difference in terms of player’s perception of and interaction with the game-world — which I am not going to get into right now.

For what I can tell from looking at the couple of screenshots, it clearly appears to be an adventure game akin to Leisure Suit Larry — or better still, the legendary Monkey Island series by LucasArts, where the famous 19-year-old wannabe swashbuckler Guybrush Ulysses Threepwood has to make his way through cannibals, pirates, voodoo magic and thieving monkeys, in his quest for hidden treasure, never-dying love and ultimate piratehood. For anyone who has played the Curse of Monkey Island, the interface looks immediately familiar — from the choices of dialogue to the checkboxes for wearing and removing hat and glasses (one would hope that the mosque part of the game also has an option of removing boots).

There was another interesting link in the post – a pre-deployment reading list for soldiers assigned to Afghanistan. The list is separated into three distinct parts, according to the expected level of responsibility and ability — evidenced by differing expectations on the nominal reading speed, starting from 75pp per week for cannon fodder and going up to 200pp per week for top brass. I was somewhat surprised to find Khaled Hosseini’s both bestsellers featured there alongside with lots of tactical directives and field guides of clearly military origin.

It is, however, important not to lose track of what we are talking about here. It is not simply an adventure game or a list of literature — it is a war, which nowadays seems to be teaching Americans quite a few things in addition to geography.

Happy birthday, Mr. Pacman

Exactly 30 years ago today, an arcade game was released in Japan that became perhaps the most iconic instance of video gaming and electronic entertainment in general — and which subsequently spawned a whole category of maze-games which, along with Rogue and Nethack, became a distant forefathers to the current generation of synthetic worlds, such as World of Warcraft or EVE Online. The game in question is of course Pac-man.

Pac-man’s original name — パックマン or Pakkuman — comes from Japanese onomatopoeic phrase paku-paku (パクパク), which is used in conjunction with the verb taberu (to eat). In english it would be akin to “yum-yum”. The game initially failed to achieve a breakthrough in Japan and only took off properly once it was licensed to the US under the initial name of Puck Man (which was changed to its present form in order to avoid tempting people replacing “P” with “F” on the public machines). The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, Pac-Man has generated countless (both authorized and otherwise) sequels, ports, spin-offs, bootlegs, clones and cross-overs to all kinds of different platforms, ranging from iPhone to the island of Manhattan. In 80’s Pac-man was turned into a TV-series and apparently there’s even a film in the works — titled Pac-Man: The Movie. Pac-man is by far the most recognizable video game character of all times and will probably remain so, even if the new generation of gamers spend their time slaying monsters in WoW rather than trying to outrun Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

Beauty of a lost world

chess-1.jpegThere is a long and thoughtful essay (that is masquerading as a book review) by Garry Kasparov in NYRB, where the former world champion takes a winding personal detour discussing the meteoritic rise of computer chess between 1994 and 2004 from its humble origins to the present state. He makes several very intriguing and interesting points along the way that have much broader ramifications than simply chess. I am not going to recap them here and will instead suggest that you go and read the entire thing.

By a strange coincidence, I have lately picked up an old hobby of mine that I had sorely neglected for several years, mostly in favor of playing poker. I have been fumbling my way around playing the game of go again, and it has been a lot of fun despite of my being incredibly rusty. When Kasparov lost to Deep Blue and the final triumph of computers in chess was imminent, it was go that was often brought as an example of a game that couldn’t be crushed by brute computing power the way chess had been. Enthusiasts of go, probably even more so than chess players, have always been very susceptible to making a great deal out of the game’s inherent beauty, an aesthetic dimension that computers simply cannot grasp. This elegiac tone is also present in Kasparov’s article. One thing that caught my attention was his gloom over the failed promised of computer chess, which has approach-wise stagnated to brute force search of billions positions plus some game-tree pruning algorithms and opening/endgame databases for standard situations. Kasparov laments that the makers of computer chess programs are content with their creations playing better than their strongest human opponents simply by overpowering any strategic advantage that a man may have by superior tactic ability; and is clearly implying that the true challenge would be to make a computer play chess the way we humans do—and that subsequently, humans are increasingly playing like computers. However, what if “the human way” is simply a reflection of our inherent limitations? What if “strategy” really is just a shorthand for our limited tactical horizon? In this case, writing a program that would play chess like human would make as little sense as trying to create a car that walks on two legs.

The article also reminded me of a book—Yasunari Kawabata’s Meijin (“The Master of Go”)—that is a similar elegy for the beauty of the lost world. It talks about a game of go that was played in Japan in 1938 between the old master and a young contender, which Kawabata actually did report on for a newspaper at the time. The novel casts the game as a metaphor for the transition that the very Japanese society was going through and refers in a very subtle way to some of the rather neglected consequences of Japan’s drive to modernize.

“From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled”, says Kawabata. “Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system”.

Kawabata himself considered Meijin his best work. It was first published one year before Alan Turing conceived an idea of a machine that would play chess, and yet the issue at the heart of the book is very much the same that Kasparov was faced with in 1997 when he was forced to resign to the “$10 million alarm clock” designed by a team of engineers at IBM. Both Master’s loss to a challenger in Meijin and Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue marked the beginning of a new era, and an end of an old.

In this sense, Kasparov’s piece can be read as an elegy for the beautiful world of human thought. Of course, humans will go on thinking, and probably thinking better in the instrumental sense of the word than they have been ever before. However, it may be that precisely because of our limitations, the human mind has been forced to create shortcuts, devise strategies, and, for the lack of more precise criteria, judge them on an aesthetic basis. And removing those limits would then render obsolete something that not only has been held as deeply beautiful, but also something that has made us truly human.

Bring ’em back!

As it’s Saturday I decided to have a library-free day, which in practice simply meant that I read outside rather than indoors. I have reached the Middle Ages with my research reading which is somewhat closer to the present day than what I read at Emory but still pretty far out in terms of everyday relevance – so it was refreshing to read some essays and articles from (and about) this century for a change.

jurassic-parkOne of the first things that caught my attention was this piece from National Geographic, which tells how scientists are getting close to cloning extinct species – trying to construct a mammoth out of an elephant DNA and such. This all evokes a lot of Jurassic Park themes, but the idea what struck me was that once something like this is possible why would anyone feel limited to simply recreating extinct species? Why not start from scratch? This way we could end up in places a lot more interesting and, in many ways scarier, than Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. In addition to a short-lived Tamagochi craze, there have been computer games around for years that allow players to breed their own pets, at the level of rather simple crossing of virtual cats in Petz to tinkering with the DNA of “norns” in the cult game Creatures and seeing what comes out of it. Think of a lego set for grown men in white coats with the medieval bestiary was an inspirational manual. Or indeed, as the NG article also concludes – where do you draw the line, given that the difference between human and chimpanzee DNA is less than 1%? If you approach the DNA piecemeal, what can you use and what exactly remains off limits, as something surely has to unless we will want to end up with people bringing back their extinct grandmothers.

New Bookforum is out and there’s an article on Africa’s new literary boom – a topic that has interested me for a while. There seems to be a great deal of worthwile reading coming out of the continent in the wake of what would count as already “established authors” such as Achebe, Soyinka, Okri and Gordimer. This reminds me that today I also finished reading a book called Bazaar of the Idiots by Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal which was great fun along the lines of his famous fellow Columbian writer – and goes to further prove the point that it actually pays to dig a bit deeper than the front line of acclaimed writers of any given country or period. I will probably did write about it some lines in Varrak’s book blog.

Then, in terms of at least somewhat local news, it turns out that May is a National Masturbation Month in the United States – a tradition (a month, not masturbation) that apparently began in 1995 in San Fransisco. America doesn’t seem to cease amazing me.

GTA goes marxist

gtaThere is an interesting review of GTA (that’s Grand Theft Auto for those of you who use computers for working) IV on Open Letters Monthly website. GTA has long been one of the most successful video game franchises and has made headlines with both its innovative way of mixing different game genres as well as its violence and adult themes – which has made it hugely popular among adults as well as adolescents and children. It is probably also as close as you can get to a true crossover phenomenon – in addition to what seems to be pretty solid scripting, GTA features names such as Michael Madsen, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, Kyle MacLachlan, Ray Liotta and many others in its cast of voice actors.

The article above, however, is first and foremost concerned the social commentary that the fourth installment of the game provides. It seems to play on similar kind of alienation and paranoia that was evident in latest Batman movie or Watchmen and features several interesting choices – such as casting its protagonist as an immigrant and therefore providing an outsider’s view of the game’s playground: USA. And in doing this, it doesn’t offer any easy and clear-cut choices between good and evil.

This all makes me actually want to try it out (I have a very limited experience with GTA from several years ago). The only thing I’m really worried about is that since many characters seem to be of Russian origin this would probably mean having to endure hours and hours of less-than-subtle dialogues in fake russian accents.

Just pick any

what is the question?Randomness, a very basic and simple concept to grasp on abstract terms, has long proven very elusive and difficult to nail down in practice. Although the practical difficulties rose to prominence with problems related to first attempts to produce random numbers on computers, the issue itself has been known already for millennia. Aristotle referred to this as the situation when a choice is to be made which has no logical component by which to determine or make the choice – which later developed into a parable of a donkey and two haystacks. At first glance it is all very simple – if asked to pick a random number it wouldn’t strike any of us as such a difficult task at all. However, as soon as you ask a question “how”, the whole issue suddenly becomes a very thorny one. And – as all the computer scientists know too well – “just pick any” is a lot easier said than actually done.

Randomness by definition lacks structure and meaning and therefore also cannot be created by application of any kind of algorithm or procedure. Anyone even considering this would, in famous words of John von Neumann, be in a state of sin. We humans seem to be extremely good in spotting all kinds of patterns and structures – indeed, this seems to be the way how we make sense of the world  – to the point that we appear to be quite incapable of being random even if we truly wanted to.

If you still think that “just picking any” is an easy thing then read on. Most of us, if not all, have played rock-paper-scissors (also known as roshambo) in our childhoods. Although the game itself is deceptively easy, it is not hard at all to get soundly beaten in it by an experienced opponent. You can take a look at a page of simple pointers to winning in roshambo at the World RPS society website. So, given all this, how does one avoid being beaten?

It doesn’t take much mathematical sophistication to figure out an optimal way to play the game – as there are only three choices available, and both opponents making the same choice results in a draw, the answer is that it doesn’t matter what you do as long it is random. Just pick any: rock, paper or scissors. However, therein lies the catch: if you DON’T pick “any”, if you don’t play randomly, you’re no more playing optimally, and are therefore open to being exploited in ways that were described in the link above.

And as it turns out, humans are remarkably poor in making deliberately random picks – even if we earnestly try, our choices are influenced by the choices we made in the past, in addition to symbolic biases (such as marked preference to pick “rock” as an opening choice and significant underweight of “scissors” in all choices). In a recent study 241 participants played 100 games each against the computer following their biases and adjusting its strategy accordingly (you can find the details in the article “Winning at Rock-Paper-Scissors” by Derek Eyler, Zach Shalla, Andrew Doumaux, and Tim McDevitt, The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, March 2009, pp. 125-128). In the end, computer ended up winning 42.1%, losing 27.7% and tying 30.2% of individual games, which is significantly better result than playing random. If you think you’ve got what it takes (after all, you only need to “pick any”), give it a shot.

And, if getting beaten by a silly program starts getting on your nerves, challenge a friend or a colleague and teach them a lesson! Or you can try this to play a round of roshambo with me.