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December 2005
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February 2006

The Root of All Evil?

A short car journey gave me a chance to overhear a radio debate on BBC Radio 2. Some crackpot was arguing his viewpoint that religion was the root of all evil. I patiently listened to his views, and only rolled my eyes a few times. At the end of the segment I discovered it was Professor Richard Dawkins and instantly felt better about the whole thing. I made my peace with Dawkins when I wrote Dreamtime (which I've just this very second discovered is out of print): brilliant scientist, inept philosopher.

In terms of Temperment Theory, Kiersey suggests that those for whom the Rational temperament is primary find self-confidence in unwavering resolution. I find this idea quite useful in understanding the behaviour of people like Dawkins. I'd like to think that Dawkins genuinally believes he is doing some good by leading a witch-hunt against religion in this way... but I'd also like to suggest that if you want to do good in the world you should do good deeds, rather than publically attacking other people's belief systems - religious or scientific.

Call me a dreamer!


Entertaible_2Well, we all knew it was coming, but we didn't know it would have such a terrible name: Phillip's Entertaible.  It's a dynamic boardgame platform using a 30" LCD touchscreen table. I wonder what the price point will be... I also wonder if it will be host to anything other than Monotony and its kin.  I'd love to work on hobbygames for it, but I'm sceptical of the market value of doing so!

With thanks to Dan for pointing it out to me!

GBA Advice

I need a GBA game to act as a time sink on the way to and from India (I won't be getting a DS until March or so - I'm seldom an early adopter!). Apparently, it's now impossible to get Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance in Europe or the US (the only GBA Castlevania I haven't played), so I guess it'll have to be a cRPG. I'm swaying towards a Pokemon game - I haven't played one since Silver.

Furret_2My question is, should I get Leaf Green or Emerald? I haven't played any of the GBA Pokemon, so Emerald will be a whole new experience, but on the other hand Leaf Green is a remake of the original games which might, therefore, be easier to put down (since I've already played both Red and Yellow). I display terribly addictive behaviour with cRPGs, so my concern with Emerald is that I will have to commit the full 40+ hours to see it through once I get started. Also, I believe there's no Furret in Emerald, and it's just so cute!

Alternatively, any other GBA suggestions that I can still easily find on sale in the shops, and that will absorb a minimum of 20 hours of flight time? I could go for a good turn-based strategy game in the Front Mission mould if anyone knows of one for the GBA.

Reptile Play

Design Synthesis' Johnny Pi asks:

I was thinking about a turtle I once had.  I don't recall ever seeing it engage in play-behavior. None of my experiences with reptiles/amphibians ever yielded any strong impression of behavior that even appeared to be play... Perhaps some human apprehension toward reptiles/amphibians stems from lack of recognizable patterns. Maybe they do play, but the behaviors are so distant from our own experience that we don't recognize them.  Anybody have any knowledge on this topic?

The post includes some rough explanations, which I'd like to comment upon:

1. Cold-blooded animals must conserve energy more than mammals/birds. They cannot afford to engage in seemingly-superfluous behaviors.

I tend to concur that the need to conserve energy is a factor here, but I suspect that if cold blooded animals do play it may be harder to spot because of their method(s) of thermoregulation. For instance, a turtle might enjoy riding a strong ocean current (a low energy expenditure activity), but how would we know if they were choosing to do so for play?

2. Reptiles/Amphibians do not commonly form social structures or engage in nurture behavior. The ones that do (alligators, I believe, may spend time with their young) often nest in isolated areas only now being monitored by researchers.

Crocodiles and alligators have been observed in great detail by, for instance, Steve and Terri Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) in environments which should be sufficiently similar to their wild habitats that if there was play to be reported, I believe we would have heard about it. (Although see the counterargument below).

Also, why would social structures and nurture behaviour be prerequisites for play? Whilst many theories of play provide social benefits to play, there are plenty (including play as learning) which do not.

3. Brain structure?  Not geared toward pattern-recognition or memory.

Every multicellular creature has brains geared towards pattern-recognition - that's the one thing we can be confident the brain does. However, I do think that brain structure might be a key factor.

The notorious sceptic Carl Sagan observed that there is a section of our brain, which is morphologically and functionally similar to a reptile brain, embedded in our brain stem, called the "Reptilian Complex". In his view, mammal brains are a next generation of cerebral hardware - an upgrade to the reptile brain, if you will. The reptile brain is a basic cerebral processor - it behaves instinctively on the signals it receives. But it is relatively simple in its construction compared to our brains.

The mammal brain is Brain 2.0 - it adds neurotransmitters and hormones that add the complete emotional layer to life. It's my broad contention that much of what we call play is associated with the hardware of the mammal brain. Play thrives on being entertaining - without such emotions, there is no enjoyment, per se.

Sagan believed that the human brain was Brain 3.0, its neo-cortex allowing for objective processing of data and experience. I do not concur. I have spent considerable time observing mammals and birds, and I'm not greatly convinced that the human brain is a step up at all. Were it not for language (and the related capacity to store data extrogenously) I'm not convinced there would be any significant difference between humans and many other mammals, including dolphins, apes and elephants. For all that science successfully dismantled humanocentric thinking in such areas as the structure of our solar system, there are still too many scientists who want to place humans in a different class to other life - a convenient means of dissipating cognitive dissonance caused by our cruelty to animals, perhaps...

That aside, I suspect that brain structure is a primary factor in why we don't observe play in reptiles. The reptile brain is a powerful tool - but it's basically a signal processor, with none of the sophisticated emotional programming of the mammal brain. I suspect that emotion is a requirement for play - although we might be premature in suggesting that reptiles do not have some emotions.

4. Aforementioned unrecognizable play structures.

This brings me to the other side of the coin. Wittgenstein said: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him" (Philosophical Investigations II, xi, p. 223). What the philosopher was getting at was that even if we could understand the referents of a lion's words (that "roar" means "zebra", and "rar rar roar" means "Make mine a zebra burger") we would still have no basis for understanding lion ethics, politics, humour, religion, aesthetics and so forth, because true understanding requires empathy bourne of similarity of experience. It is questionable how well we achieve this with other human beings much of the time, let alone with another species.

The lesson here is that even if turtles do play, we might have no way of recognising it as such. They stack themselves in piles for basking, but we have no way of knowing if participating in a turtle stack is fun. If emotion is related to the limbic system (which is a commonly espoused view), then fish, reptiles and amphibians may have emotions, albeit different emotions to those of the animals with neurotransmitters and hormones.

Like so much of science (and despite the strenuous objections of scientific fundamentalists), there is a boundary of belief: science does not uncover big-t Truth, but merely reports the results of observations, experimental or logical. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide what they believe. No-one believes the results of every scientific experiment - half of them contradict the other half, after all! We decide which results we permit into our belief system. It's part of what makes each of us an individual.

Do turtles play? What do you believe?

What I Did On My Holidays

Well, I'm back to work and back to blogging... I'm not going to have a great deal of time to blog this week, and next week I'm in India giving a keynote at the NASSCOM conference in Hyderabad and furthering my business connections in the country, so who knows if there will be any bloggery pokery then. There are various interesting things waiting in my blognebula, and a few slightly insane ones; they will emerge in due time I'm sure.

Over the Winter Festivals I have had nothing to do with games whatsoever (apart from completing the flight school in San Andreas for a friend who was stuck on one task and dearly wanted the attack helicopter). However, I spent my birthday (January 1st, which has the benefit of always being a holiday) creating the hexes for my Black Sun boardgame. This was a marvellous way to spend the day, and the finished result is leaps and bounds more attractive than any boardgame I've made before.

Blacksun2Here's a picture of the hexes in action, along with the Fimo playing pieces I crafted a few weeks back for the game. The hexes were spray painted black with a plastic-based paint, flecked with white paint to create a starfield effect and then handpainted by myself, my wife and my friends with the planetary and other bodies necessary. Finally, the hexes were varnished to help protect them from wear and tear.

The game itself is unusual and deserves some brief mention. Each player is assigned one of six different faction cards, which assigns them a fleet of ships, varying from nine ships in the case of the Alliance General (blue), to a single ship in the case of the Lone Smuggler Captain (purple). Each faction varies in its scoring mechanics, and each ship has different properties, but these are the only traits which define the game.

In essence, Need and Crisis tokens appear on the board at certain planets according to a die roll (akin to the resource roll in Settlers of Catan). Needs represent economic opportunities - factions such as the Smuggler Captain, the Gang of Brigands and the Syndics of the Merchants Guild score points for going to planets with Needs and removing the token. Crisis tokens represent political instability - factions such as the Alliance and the Rebels have a vested interest in control of planets undergoing a crisis, while the Medics Guild scores for removing Crises. Most factions also have additional scoring conditions - the Brigands score for raiding Transports, for instance.

Because the factions are different in each game, and the board is different for each game, the tensions and play of each game are radically different - for instance, the role of the Alliance varies according to whether or not there is a Rebel faction as well. And even if no-one starts playing the Rebel Commander, players can change their faction during the game by adopting one of four different faction cards as their 'new' alignment - Allied, Rebel, Rogue and Hunted. These faction cards are essential because of the dynamicism of the core play: players can find that their scoring conditions are slower than the pace of the game, but strategic switching of factions allows the player to acquire new scoring methods.

Another unusual element is that some of the ships are 'indestructible'. For instance, the Lone Smuggler Captain gets only one ship (the Black Sun of the games' title), but this plucky freighter cannot be destroyed. Instead, after a lost battle it is captured, causing the player to miss a turn. This causes this faction to play in a radically different manner to, say, the Rebels - whose eight ships are fragile, and once destroyed remain gone forever. I haven't played the Smuggler yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Blacksun1_1I'm thrilled with the way the game plays. It has a hint of the complexity of decisions inherent to a hobbygame, but is coupled with an accessible storytelling element which allows players to enjoy the natural play of the game if they prefer. The extreme asymetry of the pieces creates unusual and dynamic play, and best of all the game takes only 30-90 minutes to play.

It is a secret truth of boardgame design that the shorter the play time, the more likely the game is to be played. The world is littered with the bones of boardgames which take more than two hours to play - I really enjoyed the Dune CCG (which I bought wholesale for peanuts as it didn't sell very well), but it took eight or more hours to play a game - who but a student has the time! The phenomenal success of Magic the Gathering is rooted in the fact the game can be played in less than 30 minutes (although this is not the only factor, of course).

Anyway, you'll never actually get to play Black Sun, because there's only one set in existence, and I'm probably too wed to the videogames business to try and go back to boardgames now, but still, I'm sure you read about all sorts of games that you'll never actually play... I know I do.

There's no doubt in my mind that my game design skills have continued to improve over the years. Looking back at my older boardgames there is much of value (and I know some of my friends miss the highly agonistic play I used to focus upon), but there were also numerous problems which I did not see as such at the time. I might at some point write a brief history of my unreleased boardgames; I'm not sure if this would actually interest people or not, but it would be nice to have a record of them before my neurons go soft and I forget everything.

Brief thanks to Snarkmarket and Nongames for trackingback to the Paidia post. I'm delighted that  the latter site exists (all hail diversity of play!) and the former site has the most beautiful blog design I've ever seen - it makes me feel guilty for reading the artless RSS feed!

I wonder if I have time for a quick trackback of my own before I have to get to work...