League of Legends Prodigy

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

ESPN looks at League of Legends prodigy Faker — a young pseudonymous Korean eSports “athlete” who has mastered the popular PC game:

When I ask the group why Faker is regarded as the best player in the world, MonteCristo, who goes by Monte, jumps in: “How would you grade a professional athlete? Like, what makes LeBron great?”

I rattle off a few words: athleticism, skill, decision-making.

“It’s the same. It’s exactly the same,” Susie says.

The League equivalent of athleticism is called mechanics, which refers to a player’s ability to use his mouse and keyboard to make swift movements, like dodging shots. In this respect, Monte says, Faker is peerless. He points me to a video of what is widely seen as the greatest play in League history, clipped from a 2013 game between SK Telecom and the KT Bullets. Faker is dueling another player, Ryu, and they’re both playing the same champion, a ninja named Zed. After a brief skirmish, Faker’s Zed appears about to die, so he darts away. Then, just when Ryu thinks he has the fight sewn up, Faker unleashes a startling set of moves, cutting down his opponent in a blinding flash. The audience goes nuts. “He used six different abilities in the span of two seconds,” Monte says.

Even more impressive, DoA adds, is the breadth of Faker’s champion pool, which makes it easier for him to adapt to new patches to the game — the “meta,” in eSports parlance. Because Riot upgrades League every few weeks, players live in perpetual fear of having their favorite champions’ skills diminished. Imagine if the NFL suddenly announced next year that rushing touchdowns were worth only five points, or if MLB expanded the strike zone for left-handed pitchers. Although the constantly changing meta keeps the game fresh, it can be agonizing for professionals. Some players never recover from an ill-timed patch.

That’s one of the reasons the average eSports career is so short. Professional players typically retire before their mid-20s; like figure skaters, they peak long before then. Older gamers must battle slowing reflexes and fatigue, as well as injuries to their necks and wrists. “As a male teenager, it’s easy to play video games for 16 hours,” Monte says.

Because many Korean players skip college, their career options after retiring are limited. “A lot of pro gamers don’t come from wealthy backgrounds,” Susie says. “A good number of them are doing this because they’re supporting their families.” Increasingly, she says, players realize they have limited time to capitalize on their skills, which is driving some of them to leave the country. Although most professional gamers in Korea earn five-digit salaries and a few elite players make over $100,000 (Monte says Faker probably makes more than twice that; SK Telecom declined to comment on his salary), Chinese teams boast massive war chests. One squad, Invictus Gaming, is owned by the son of Wang Jianlin, the richest man in mainland China. This winter, Invictus added four Korean players to its roster.

Pro players also make money by streaming, allowing fans to watch them practice while advertisements pop up. One retired player in China, Wei “Caomei” Han-Dong, has said he makes more than $800,000 a year streaming. Korean teams have begun to stream a little, but in general, “they think it’s inefficient,” says Lee “CloudTemplar” Hyun-woo, a retired-gamer-turned-caster. “In Korea, to make money you have to put up results.” Demand is out there, though. This February, a minor scandal flared up when a Twitch user started streaming Faker’s practice games without permission.

AlphaGo

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Researchers at DeepMind staged a machine-versus-man Go contest in October, at the company’s offices in London:

The DeepMind system, dubbed AlphaGo, matched its artificial wits against Fan Hui, Europe’s reigning Go champion, and the AI system went undefeated in five games witnessed by an editor from the journal Nature and an arbiter representing the British Go Federation. “It was one of the most exciting moments in my career, both as a researcher and as an editor,” the Nature editor, Dr. Tanguy Chouard, said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

This morning, Nature published a paper describing DeepMind’s system, which makes clever use of, among other techniques, an increasingly important AI technology called deep learning. Using a vast collection of Go moves from expert players — about 30 million moves in total — DeepMind researchers trained their system to play Go on its own. But this was merely a first step. In theory, such training only produces a system as good as the best humans. To beat the best, the researchers then matched their system against itself. This allowed them to generate a new collection of moves they could then use to train a new AI player that could top a grandmaster.

“The most significant aspect of all this…is that AlphaGo isn’t just an expert system, built with handcrafted rules,” says Demis Hassabis, who oversees DeepMind. “Instead, it uses general machine-learning techniques how to win at Go.”

[...]

“Go is implicit. It’s all pattern matching,” says Hassabis. “But that’s what deep learning does very well.”

[...]

At DeepMind and Edinburgh and Facebook, researchers hoped neural networks could master Go by “looking” at board positions, much like a human plays. As Facebook showed in a recent research paper, the technique works quite well. By pairing deep learning and the Monte Carlo Tree method, Facebook beat some human players — though not Crazystone and other top creations.

But DeepMind pushes this idea much further. After training on 30 million human moves, a DeepMind neural net could predict the next human move about 57 percent of the time — an impressive number (the previous record was 44 percent). Then Hassabis and team matched this neural net against slightly different versions of itself through what’s called reinforcement learning. Essentially, as the neural nets play each other, the system tracks which move brings the most reward — the most territory on the board. Over time, it gets better and better at recognizing which moves will work and which won’t.

“AlphaGo learned to discover new strategies for itself, by playing millions of games between its neural networks, against themselves, and gradually improving,” says DeepMind researcher David Silver.

According to Silver, this allowed AlphaGo to top other Go-playing AI systems, including Crazystone. Then the researchers fed the results into a second neural network. Grabbing the moves suggested by the first, it uses many of the same techniques to look ahead to the result of each move. This is similar to what older systems like Deep Blue would do with chess, except that the system is learning as it goes along, as it analyzes more data — not exploring every possible outcome through brute force. In this way, AlphaGo learned to beat not only existing AI programs but a top human as well.

Can Videogames Make You a Better Race-Car Driver?

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

A few years ago Top Gear put an iRacing champion in a real race car and found that he was virtually prepared — but not at all physically prepared.

The Wall Street Journal now reports that videogames can make you a better race-car driver:

The first time that Brendon Blake, a 41-year-old physical therapist from Flowery Branch, Ga., careened around the nearby Road Atlanta racetrack, his instructor was taken aback. Mr. Blake, despite being a total beginner, was fast. That’s because, long before he’d enrolled in the one-day racing class, he’d “driven” the same course hundreds of times. It didn’t matter that he had done so virtually, in the Xbox car-racing game “Forza Motorsport.”

“The instructor sitting in the passenger seat said he was surprised I knew where to place the car on the track,” said Mr. Blake of that maiden drive, about four years ago. “I recognized every single corner and knew where the race line was and where all the apexes were — all from the game.” Since then, Mr. Blake — who plays using a force-feedback steering wheel and mock pedals like those shown below — has taken his 291-horsepower Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution to courses all over the country, from Tennessee’s Nashville Speedway to Talladega in Alabama. He pays about $250 a day for further driving instruction on “track days,” when average Joes can rent time on a course that’s not being used for a race.

The Tangled Cultural Roots of Dungeons & Dragons

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Jon Michaud laments how Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination fails to untangle the roots of Dungeons & Dragons:

We get just a paragraph on Gygax’s unhappy stint in the Marines, for instance; the idea that boot camp might have had some bearing on Gygax’s lifelong effort to re-create combat conditions in tabletop games never seems to cross Witwer’s mind. Likewise, there are only passing mentions of Gygax’s years of work as an insurance underwriter. But one needs only to browse the Advanced D. & D. “Player’s Handbook” or the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” to see how similar the books’ numerous charts are to actuarial tables.

They really do resemble actuarial tables, don’t they?

How a Video Game Helped People Make Better Decisions

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Carey K. Morewedge and his colleagues developed a couple “serious” computer games to help people make better decisions:

Participants who played one of our games, each of which took about 60 minutes to complete, showed a large immediate reduction in their commission of the biases (by more than 31%), and showed a large reduction (by more than 23%) at least two months later.

The games target six well-known cognitive biases. Though these biases were chosen for their relevance to intelligence analysis, they affect all kinds of decisions made by professionals in business, policy, medicine, and education as well. They include:

  • Bias blind spot — seeing yourself as less susceptible to biases than other people
  • Confirmation bias — collecting and evaluating evidence that confirms the theory you are testing
  • Fundamental attribution error — unduly attributing someone’s behavior to enduring aspects of that person’s disposition rather than to the circumstance in which the person was placed
  • Anchoring — relying too heavily on the first piece of information considered when making a judgment
  • Projection — assuming that other people think the same way we do
  • Representativeness — relying on some simple and often misleading rules when estimating the probability of uncertain events

We ran two experiments. In the first experiment, involving 243 adult participants, one group watched a 30-minute video, “Unbiasing Your Biases,” commissioned by the program sponsor, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a U.S. research agency under the Director of National Intelligence. The video first defined heuristics — information-processing shortcuts that produce fast and efficient, though not necessarily accurate, decisions. The video then explained how heuristics can sometimes lead to incorrect inferences. Then, bias blind spot, confirmation bias, and fundamental attribution error were described and strategies to mitigate them were presented.

Another group played a computer game, “Missing: The Pursuit of Terry Hughes,” designed by our research team to elicit and mitigate the same three cognitive biases. Game players make decisions and judgments throughout the game as they search for Terry Hughes — their missing neighbor. At the end of each level of the game, participants received personalized feedback about how biased they were during game play. They were given a chance to practice and they were taught strategies to reduce their propensity to commit each of the biases.

We measured how much each participant committed the three biases before and after the game or the video. In the first experiment, both the game and the video were effective, but the game was more effective than the video. Playing the game reduced the three biases by about 46% immediately and 35% over the long term. Watching the video reduced the three biases by about 19% immediately and 20% over the long term.

In a second experiment, involving 238 adult participants, one group watched the video “Unbiasing Your Biases 2” to address anchoring, projection, and representativeness. Another group played the computer detective game “Missing: The Final Secret,” in which they were to exonerate their employer of a criminal charge and uncover criminal activity of her accusers. Along the way, players made decisions that tested their propensity to commit anchoring, projection, and representativeness. After each level of the game, their commission of those biases was measured and players were provided with personalized feedback, practice, and mitigation strategies.

Again, the game was more effective than the video. Playing the game reduced the three biases by about 32% immediately and 24% over the long term. Watching the video reduced the three biases by about 25% immediately and 19% over the long term.

The games, which were specifically designed to debias intelligence analysts, are being deployed in training academies in the U.S. intelligence services. But because this approach affects the decision maker rather than specific decisions, such games can be effective in many contexts and decisions — and with lasting effect. (A commercial version of the games is in production.)

Confessions of an Anonymous Free-to-Play Producer

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

We own you, an anonymous free-to-play game producer explains:

One of our engineers came up with a rather simple solution that today would seem like a joke. We could have a JSON file online that contained all the level information. Then we could update the file to make a level easier (or harder). This way we could watch user reactions (mostly app store reviews, Twitter was still pretty basic at this time). This worked great, we were able to balance the game in the wild.

During a meeting about the game, the guy who ran our website brought up some interesting information. He started watching the web logs and seeing all the connections to the JSON file. Unbeknownst to him (or our team) he was getting us a DAU. For the engineering and production teams, this was just a neat thing to know, a feel good “look how many people love our game” statistic. The CEO saw something else. Pretty quickly we started getting more requests for what our users were doing. Upper management was disappointed by our lack of answers. I found a new service online called Pinch Media, they were an analytics tracker. I got the team to integrate Pinch into a few products and finally I had answers. Of course then more answers were asked. Around this time, free to play started happening. Suddenly, Marketing and our bosses demanded to know more than ever. In response to the pressure to explain our user base, I ended up building an event matrix. I had no schooling in this, so I was just making it up as I went along. My first matrix was awesome for a game developer. It was full of all those cool stats like “How far has the player run” or “How many bullets has he shot”. But this did not impress my bosses. They wanted to know how we could get the player to buy more stuff, tell his friends to play the game (and thus I learned about cohorts, all I wanted to do was make games).

Time passed, Free to Play became a thing. I went from company to company. Each time, every new project became less and less about how we can do cool things, and more about how we can track and target users to get the most whales possible, boost chart position and retain users to shove as many ads on them as possible.

All of this already seems bad. But along the way, a major thing happened. Facebook. I forget when I did my first Facebook required app, but it was a game changer. Facebook has changed how it has worked over the years. Today you can’t quite get as much information (easily) as you could with the first API, but you still get a lot. We collect as much information about a player as possible, thanks to Facebook we have a ton. Even users who don’t really use Facebook or fill it with “fake” data actually tell us a lot. You might not use Facebook, but your connections give you away. If you play with friends, or you have a significant other who plays, we can see the same IP address, and learn who you are playing with. When we don’t know information, we try to gather it in a game. Have you played a game with different country flags? We use those to not only appeal to your nationalistic pride, but to figure out where you are (or where you identify). Your IP address says you are in America, but you buy virtual items featuring the flag of another country, we can start to figure out if you are on vacation, or immigrated. Perhaps English is not your first language. We use all of this to send you personalized Push Notifications, and show you store specials and items we think you will want.

And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you. I remember we had a whale in one game that loved American Football despite living in Saudi Arabia. We built several custom virtual items in both his favorite team colors and their opponents, just to sell to this one guy. You better believe he bought them. And these are just vanity items. We will flat out adjust a game to make it behave just like it did last time the person bought IAP. Was a level too hard? Well now they are all that same difficulty.

Scrabble Francophone

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The French-language Scrabble world championship just went to a New Zealander — who doesn’t speak French:

The BBC reported that Nigel Richards, originally from Christchurch, defeated a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final in Louvain, Belgium, on Monday.

He had only started studying the French dictionary about eight weeks ago, said a close friend of Mr Richards, Liz Fagerlund.

“He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words. He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”

Mr Richards, now in his late forties, is a previous English Scrabble champion. He is based in Malaysia.

He has won five US National titles and the World Scrabble Championship three times.

Why The Next Sports Empire Will Be Built On eSports

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

So-called eSports tournaments are reaching audiences of tens of millions:

Last year’s League of Legends championship, for example, drew nearly 30 million viewers, putting it in line with the combined viewership of the 2014 MLB and NBA finals, or the series finales of Breaking Bad and Two and a Half Men, plus the Season 4 finale of Game of Thrones. As with most sports, competitive gaming is now firmly entrenched in the US college system. The country’s largest collegiate league counts more than 10,000 active players, some of whom are on full athletic scholarships. Eager to capitalize on growing interest in the sport, Major League Gaming (MLG) opened the first dedicated domestic eSports arena in October 2014, and major brands such as Ford, American Express and Coke have begun forming partnerships with game developers, teams, players, event organizers and video distributors. What’s more, the US Department of State has been issuing athlete visas to competitive gamers since 2013.

[...]

In March 2015, Twitch averaged more than 600,000 simultaneous viewers, reached an audience of 51M worldwide and delivered more than 26B minutes of video entertainment. On a domestic basis, 11B minutes were watched in March – representing roughly 14 hours for each of the 13M American viewers. This consumption is so great that Twitch is already larger than 70% of American television networks, as well as Amazon’s own OTT video service.

However, the value of this consumption isn’t just its magnitude. An estimated 70% of all viewers are under the age of 35, making Twitch’s audience both highly valuable to advertisers and hard to reach via traditional television. Moreover, eSports fans, unlike linear TV viewers, are highly engaged in the content. Major League Gaming, for instance, consistently beats the industry average on key digital ad metrics such as completion rates (90% vs. 72%), click-through rates (4% vs. 2%), and ad viewability (99% vs. 44%). What’s more, Twitch shows little sign of slowing down. Total minutes delivered (both domestic and abroad) have grown by an average of 7% each month for the past three years, while per viewer consumption has doubled over that same period.

[...]

Despite ever-growing consumer interest and potential, eSports are still far from becoming an industry. In 2014, eSports generated less than $200M in revenue worldwide, including sponsorship, advertising, licensing, ticket sales and game-publisher investment according to Newzoo. By comparison, the US-only NFL and MLB gross roughly $10 billion a year each, while the European professional soccer/football leagues generate close to $21 billion.

Even as eSports tournaments have proliferated and audiences have expanded into the millions, the value of these tournaments continues to languish. The average event offers only $18,000 in total prize winnings (a figure almost unchanged from 1998) and 2014’s 1,990 tournaments handed out a relatively unimpressive $35M collectively. The largest prize pool did surge in 2014, from $3M to $11M, but only five players made more than $1M during the year. The remaining 6,200 e-athletes took home an average of $7,000.

Popular Sculpture

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Just as we have popular music and popular cinema, we also have popular sculpture:

Much of it is what we would usually call ornaments. Some of it is minis — i.e., miniatures. Minis are sculpture for the masses in the same way as pop is music for the masses. (If you are trying to explain this to someone suspicious with an arts degree you can call them Kleinplastik, which means almost the same thing but is German and therefore a valid intellectual construct.)

Warhammer 40k Space Marine Minis

Every mini is linked to and feeds back into an overarching fiction, so each mini must encapsulate and even move forward a bit of the story. It has to have continuity with what came before.

In the 40k ’verse older technology is always better — and most of it is lost. R&D is forbidden. To make something better you have to actually find an archive and mine it for already existing designs. This makes sense of the insane tech levels in 40k, especially in human culture. Old and new, recently discovered and long forgotten all mixed together almost incoherently. If game designers want to invent something new they just have something old discovered. This means designers get to invent what they want, so long as it makes artistic sense. It feeds back into the power of the fiction because everything is old and decayed and no-one understands it.

Stories need inherent technology to talk about the future so that we understand it now. Star Trek has post-relativistic speeds, gravity control, matter reorganisation, and AI. A society with those things would look and act like nothing we can recognise. So the tech is used but the implications are ignored.

40k gets around this by inventing an incoherent culture. Its brokenness adds emotional and aesthetic power rather than taking it.One of my favourite things about 40k lore is the backward technology.

If it’s made by a major corporation then it will be affected by what the market wants. Space Marine models outnumber other human models because everyone wants to play Space Marines. The company semi-accidently hit something that jams right in to the adolescent male mind. It does so in an interesting way. It’s like a pop hit of popular sculpture. (If we look back at the fiction constraint, everything developed by the company for this setting needs to live inside a universe that justifies the existence of Space Marines. In the same way, everything developed for the Star Wars universe needs to live inside a universe that can justify Jedi Knights and star fighters.)

It will be affected by what the company thinks it can persuade people to want and by what makes the most money. The company has worked out it has a higher profit margin on very large very expensive kits. Now every army has one. (This means that in the fiction of the game, every imagined culture suddenly has access to unique giant robots that they are assumed to have always had, but that they just didn’t mention until now.)

In terms of sculpture, the Games Workshop mega-kit provides an entirely new aesthetic territory to work on. A small figure of a hero has the main job of persuading you that a very tiny thing can represent a very powerful or potent personality or being. A lot of what very small minis do is shape their form to persuade you that they are larger and have more mass, both more physical and more dramatic weight, than they actually have.

A very large figure is trying to be beautiful or interesting in a different way. It has real size, real mass, and space for enormous amounts of detail. A big part of its job is organising the arrangement of its detail and surfaces in a way that seems both pleasing and correct for its scale. Another job it has it to relate its enormous size to the imagined world whose active participants are usually represented by much smaller things. It must feel as if it can meaningfully interact with these tiny things, as if it represents something made by the same culture and belongs to the same world.

Thomas Middleditch’s GURPS Campaign

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, describes his roleplaying-game campaign to Seth Meyers:

The Morals of Chess

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement, Benjamin Franklin explains, in the opening of The Morals of Chess:

Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it. By playing at chess, then, we may learn:

1. Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action: for it is continually occurring to the player, “If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?

2. Circumspection, which surveys the whole chess-board, or scene of action, the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other; the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or the other piece; and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.

3. Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game, such as, if you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere; if you set it down, you must let it stand. And it is therefore best that these rules should be observed, as the game thereby becomes more the image of human life, and particularly of war; in which, if you have incautiously put yourself into a bad and dangerous position, you cannot obtain your enemy’s leave to withdraw your troops, and place them more securely; but you must abide all the consequences of your rashness.

And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to sudden vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after long contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory by our own skill, or, at least, of giving a stale mate, by the negligence of our adversary. And whoever considers, what in chess he often sees instances of, that particular pieces of success are apt to produce presumption, and its consequent, inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage; while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by the present success of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune, upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

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.”