The Madness of Mission 6

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

The Madness of Mission 6, by Travis Pitts, explains a classic video game:

Madness of Mission 6

Scrabble Expertise

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Scrabble expertise follows the usual pattern — it depends on both practice and talent:

In one study, using official Scrabble rating as an objective measure of skill, researchers found that groups of “elite” and “average” Scrabble players differed in the amount of time they had devoted to things like studying word lists, analyzing previous Scrabble games, and anagramming—and not by a little. Overall, the elite group had spent an average of over 5,000 hours on Scrabble study, compared to only about 1,300 hours for the average group. Another study found that competitive Scrabble players devoted an average of nearly 5 hours a week to memorizing words from the Scrabble dictionary.

Clearly, expert Scrabble players are to some degree “made.” But there is evidence that basic cognitive abilities play a role, too. In a study recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Michael Toma and his colleagues found that elite Scrabble players outperformed college students from a highly selective university on tests of two cognitive abilities: working memory and visuospatial reasoning. Working memory is the ability to hold in mind information while using it to solve a problem, as when iterating through possible moves in a Scrabble game. Visuospatial reasoning is the ability to visualize things and to detect patterns, as when imagining how tiles on a Scrabble board would intersect after a certain play. Both abilities are influenced by genetic factors.

Further evidence pointing to a role of these abilities in Scrabble expertise comes from a recent brain imaging study by Andrea Protzner and her colleagues at the University of Calgary. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), these researchers recorded the brain activity of Scrabble players and control subjects as they performed a task in which they were shown groups of letters and judged whether they formed words. (fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow within different regions of the brain.) The major finding of this study was that competitive Scrabble players recruited brain regions associated with working memory and visual perception to perform this task to a greater degree than the control subjects did.

What might explain Scrabble experts’ superiority in working memory and visuospatial reasoning? One possibility is that playing Scrabble improves these cognitive abilities, like a work-out at the gym makes you stronger. However, this seems unlikely based on over a century of research on the issue of “transfer” of training. When people train on a task, they sometimes get better on similar tasks, but they usually do not get better on other tasks. They show “near” transfer, but not “far” transfer. (Practice Scrabble and you’ll get better at Scrabble, and maybe Boggle, but don’t count on it making you smarter.) For the same basic reason that basketball players tend to be tall, a more likely explanation is that people high in working memory and visuospatial reasoning abilities are people who tend to get into, and persist at, playing Scrabble: because it gives them an advantage in the game. This explanation fits with what behavioral geneticists call gene-environment correlation, which is the idea that our genetic makeup influences our experiences.

The Hidden Politics of Video Games

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

If you’re going to discuss the hidden politics of video games, perhaps a long list of explicitly political simulations isn’t the way to go:

Games can be criticized for being too violent, or a brain-dead waste of time. But they are not usually criticized for being political. Games are entertainment, not politics, right?

However, consider the popular computer game Sim City, which first debuted in 1989. In Sim City, you design your metropolis from scratch, deciding everything from where to build roads and police stations to which neighborhoods should be zoned residential or commercial. More than a founder or a mayor, you are practically a municipal god who can shape an urban area with an ease that real mayors can only envy.

But real mayors will have the last laugh as you discover that running a city is a lot harder than building one. As the game progresses and your small town bulges into a megalopolis, crime will soar, traffic jams will clog and digital citizens will demand more services from their leaders. Those services don’t come free. One of the key decisions in the game is setting the municipal tax rate. There are different rates for residential, commercial and industrial payers, as well as for the poor, middle-class and wealthy.

Sim City lets you indulge your wildest fiscal fantasies. Banish the IRS and set taxes to zero in Teapartyville, or hike them to 99 percent on the filthy rich in the People’s Republic of Sims. Either way, you will discover that the game’s economic model is based on the famous Laffer Curve, the theoretical darling of conservative politicians and supply-side economists. The Laffer Curve postulates that raising taxes will increase revenue until the tax rate reaches a certain point, above which revenue decrease as people lose incentive to work.

Finding that magic tax point is like catnip for hard-core Sim City players. One Web site has calculated that according to the economic model in Sim City, the optimum tax rate to win the game should be 12 percent for the poor, 11 percent for the middle class and 10 percent for the rich.

In other words, playing Sim City well requires not only embracing supply-side economics, but taxing the poor more than the rich. One can almost see a mob of progressive gamers marching on City Hall to stick Mayor McSim’s head on a pike.

Sim City is only a game, yet it is notable how many people involved in economics say it gave them their first exposure to the field. “Like many people of my generation, my first experience of economics wasn’t in a textbook or a classroom, or even in the news: it was in a computer game,” said one prominent financial journalist. Or the gamer who wrote, “SimCity has taught me supply-side economics even before I studied commerce and economics at the University of Toronto.”

Other games also let you tinker with politics and economics. Democracy 3 allows you to configure the government of your choice. The ultra-cynical Tropico is the game where the player—who is El Presidente of a kleptocratic Latin American government—can win by stashing enough loot in his Swiss bank account. In Godsfire, a 1976 boardgame of galactic conquest, players roll dice each turn to see what kind of government rules their empire. Extremist governments only build warships to attack their neighbors, Moderates spend less on defense and more on economic growth and Reactionaries will only spend money on planetary defenses (which also double as domestic riot suppression systems for keeping the citizenry in line).

However, the best example of politics and games is the legendary Civilization, an empire-builder and bestseller since it debuted in 1991.


Admittedly, some Civ political depictions are debatable. Communism in Civ 4 increases food and factory production and reduces waste from corruption? Someone should have told this to the Soviets in 1989, or China’s rulers today. Authoritarian regimes can’t create new technologies? Cheery news for Londoners who watched their city destroyed by Nazi V-2 rockets in 1944. Democracies embrace science? In Civ 3, the first nation to discover Darwin’s Theory of Evolution gets a science bonus, a game feature that some Kansas school boards would disapprove of.

What is most remarkable about the politics of Civ is how unremarkable all this seems to an American like myself.

A Stimpack for Gamers

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

I’m still surprised that so-called eSports — spectator video games — have taken off, but I’m not surprised that competitors have resorted to performance-enhancing drugs. It is rather cyberpunk though:

Hours before Steven* was due to compete in his second professional eSports tournament, another team-member offered him a pill. “I had taken Adderall for a while when I was younger to treat my ADHD,” he says. “So I knew from prior experience that it helps with stress and concentration.” Steven, who was 16 at the time and who is now a third year university student in Kentucky, didn’t hesitate. “I took it,” he says. “I shouldn’t have. But it was amazing — like a kind of legal speed. Before, I’d suffered from nerves when competing in front of an audience. The atmosphere got to me. But when I played on Adderall and I was only focused on what was in front of me. It made me a far better player.”


But Adderall is peculiarly well suited to the medium, where victory depends on a competitor’s alertness, ability to concentrate and hand-to-eye-coordination. As one StarCraft player wrote in 2011 on the game’s official forums: “Adderall is basically a stimpack for gamers.”

Two Types of Machine Learning

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Games are to AI researchers what fruit flies are to biology. A new AI has mastered many classic video games by combining two types of machine learning:

The first, called deep learning, uses a brain-inspired architecture in which connections between layers of simulated neurons are strengthened on the basis of experience. Deep-learning systems can then draw complex information from reams of unstructured data (see Nature 505, 146–148; 2014). Google, of Mountain View, California, uses such algorithms to automatically classify photographs and aims to use them for machine translation.

The second is reinforcement learning, a decision-making system inspired by the neuro­transmitter dopamine reward system in the animal brain. Using only the screen’s pixels and game score as input, the algorithm learnedby trial and error which actions — such as go left, go right or fire — to take at any given time to bring the greatest rewards. After spending several hours on each game, it mastered a range of arcade classics, including car racing, boxing and Space Invaders.

Only games with a simple and timely relationship between actions and score were amenable to reinforcement learning.

Designing The Best Board Game On The Planet

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Twilight Struggle is the best board game on the planet — at least according to BoardGameGeek:

Twilight Struggle traces its roots to the early 2000s and a board gaming club at George Washington University. That’s where Gupta and co-designer Jason Matthews met. Not GW students themselves, they were friends with some, and would go to the school to play and also to bemoan the increasing complexity of historical games — a genre especially dear to them. The rulebooks were overlong, the game mechanics baroque.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

They originally intended to do a game about the Spanish Civil War but realized they’d been scooped by a guy in Spain. “We’re probably not going to do a better job than he is,” Gupta joked. They eventually settled on the Cold War. Most games on the topic had focused on when the Cold War got hot. But thermonuclear war is depressing. Gupta and Matthews instead designed a game about the geopolitics, rather than a hypothetical military conflict.

Matthews, of Alexandria, Virginia, is an American history expert and was the legislative director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Gupta, a history buff, was doing policy work at a think tank, then was in school for computer science, before dropping out after he landed his first job in the video-game industry. The two would discuss key aspects of the Cold War — the domino theory, the arms race, the space race — and these would make their way into the game.

But publishers balked. “The Cold War? Why would anyone want to play a game about the Cold War?” Gupta recalled being asked.

Salvation came in the form of the company GMT Games, and its Project 500 — a kind of Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. Interested gamers would pledge money, and GMT would print the game if enough capital was raised. Even then, it took a grinding 18 months for Twilight Struggle to generate enough pledges to warrant a printing.

That first printing sold out in 20 minutes. It has gone on to amass 17,781 ratings on BoardGameGeek, as I write, with an average rating of 8.33.


Twilight Struggle is emblematic of a sea change from older, magisterial games with titles like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, War in Europe and The Civil War. (The Civil War’s listed playing time is 1,200 minutes.) The redistribution of game information from massive rulebooks onto game cards was a revolution that can be traced to Mark Herman’s We the People, a game about the American Revolution, and Paths of Glory, a World War I game by Ted Raicer.

“What that meant was the game was a lot easier to learn,” Gupta said. “That started a renaissance in historical gaming.”

The Packers of Catan

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Apparently the Green Bay Packers are obsessed with Settlers of Catan.

I suppose they’ll move on to The Cones of Dunshire:

The Checkered Game of Life

Friday, December 26th, 2014

The Checkered Game of Life, released in 1860 by Milton Bradley, evolved into the very different modern-day game of Life:

Instead of becoming hair stylists or police officers and poking plastic peg-shaped children into candy-colored SUVs, players of the original game landed on spaces marked with “virtues” and “vices.”

Spaces like “honesty” and “truth” sprung you forward; spaces like “gambling” and “disgrace” slowed your progress.

“I think religion really affected how games were made,” Keren-Detar says. “In Europe, there were more excuses to play, whereas in the US, we didn’t have an established aristocracy. So the idea of playing was very negative, or thought of as lazy and idle and sinful. These games had morphed themselves into being entertaining, but also educational, so you wouldn’t get in trouble for playing a game on a Sunday if it’s based on how to become a better Christian.”

Checkered Game of Life

The pre-Civil War game Mansion of Happiness was even more righteous, Keren-Detar says. Some of its illustrated squares showed characters suffering for their sins with consequences like whipping posts or pillories.

Neither Mansion of Happiness nor The Checkered Game of Life featured dice, probably because dice were still strongly associated with gambling and sin. Checkered Game of Life used a spinning number wheel instead, a feature that survives to this day.

The shift in the narrative of Life over the centuries, Keren-Detar says, suggests a shift in American values.

“The narrative wasn’t dying and going to heaven—it was trying to go to college and be productive and get money,” Keren-Detar says of the version of Life we’re most familiar with. “A lot of games that came out around that time changed from being religious to being industrious.”

Denigration of the Great Revolution

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

The latest Assassin’s Creed video game takes place in Paris during the French Revolution, and French leftists are appalled that the heroes of the People are depicted as bloodthirsty savages:

The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro (link in French). The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog (link in French):

To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.

Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied (link in French) that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).

Greek Hold ‘Em

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Existential Comics turns its philosophical eye toward poker — Greek Hold ‘Em:

Existential Comics Greek Hold Em 2

Creator of “Choose Your Own Adventure” Dies

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

R.A. Montgomery, co-author and publisher of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, has passed away.

Choose Your Own Adventure 001f Cave of Time

His partner, Edward Packard, was considered the better writer, but Montgomery had his strengths:

Montgomery, on the other hand, often eschewed internal consistency in favor of big ideas, and his books have their own bizarre charm. While Packard was writing the standard sword-and-sorcery story The Forbidden Castle about dragons, knights, and princesses, Montgomery unleashed the berserk House of Danger which involved super-intelligent monkeys plotting to destabilize the world economy via counterfeiting, psychic detectives, Civil War ghosts, alien abduction, holograms, age regression, cannibalism, secret environmental conspiracies, and one ending that has the reader turned into Genghis Khan.

Dogs Playing Dungeons & Dragons

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Dogs Playing Poker is fine, but Dogs Playing Dungeons & Dragons is better:

Dogs Playing D&D

The Philosophy of the Science of Poker

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Existential Comics illustrates the philosophy of the science of poker:

Existential Comics Philosophy of Science of Poker

(Read the whole thing.)

Sports are Broken

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Most sports were invented years ago, Scott Adams(Dilbert) notes, and much has changed since then:

Equipment technology has improved. We have far more knowledge of health risks. Our attention spans have shrunk, and our options for leisure activities have increased. If you were to invent the rules of sports today, from a blank slate, you would do a lot of things differently.

For example, when tennis was invented, serving was just a way to start the rally. One player bunted the ball into the service box and it was on.

Fast-forward to 2014.

Now the pros are 6’8″, their rackets and strings are made from exotic materials, and they are trained to serve at 140 miles per hour. As you might imagine, that creates a lot of double-faults and aces. Both are boring.

To fix tennis, eliminate the serve. That is already happening where I live. A group of folks in my town already play without the serve. Under the no-serve rules either player can start the rally and the point is live on the third hit. You play to 21, win by two, so no more funky tennis scoring with the 15-30-40 ridiculousness. This version of tennis is about twice as fun as playing serve-and-miss while wishing you were getting some exercise.

In 2014 we know a lot about the dangers of concussions. Football wouldn’t be allowed as a youth sport if it were invented today. Soccer players wouldn’t be allowed to head the ball for the same reason. So let’s get rid of football entirely, at least for kids, and make it a penalty to head a soccer ball.

Speaking of soccer, if we invented that game today the goals would be 50% wider to create more scoring and there would be TV timeouts built into the game design so the major networks could more easily monetize with commercials. And the off-side rule has to go; that is just boring. And while we are at it, let’s put up a glass wall around the field so the ball stays in play.

Baseball could be interesting if it were slow-pitch and any ball hit out of the park were ruled an out. I might add another player to the outfield, but the idea is to have lots of hits and lots of defense. In the age of smartphones, no one has the patience to watch nine guys standing around in the grass wondering when something might happen.

Volleyball has one of the most ridiculous rules in sports. The players need to rotate positions after every point. The well-coached teams do a quick, synchronized rotation as soon as the serve is hit to get into the positions they prefer instead of the positions the game rules require. Let’s just lose the player rotation rule.

Golf also needs to be fixed. The main problem is that 18 holes is far too much time commitment and 9 holes seem too little. I hear that 12-hole courses are being built for exactly that reason. That makes sense in 2014.

Another thing that golf needs to lose is the annoying foursome behind you that makes you feel rushed and guilty. I don’t know how to fix that in an economically way, but it sure would improve the game if someone did.

World Of PeaceCraft

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

“You’ve fought terrorists in Call of Duty and alien hordes in Gears of War. Well, now get ready for the opposite of that“:

(From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)