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November 2011

The Ethical Gulf from the Car to the Human

Pedestrian The moment we get behind the wheel of a car, we become something different, a new form of life we are so familiar with it doesn't even register as strange on any level. Yet the cyborg we become when we are augmented by the car is no longer solely human, and is so distanced from the human as to possess an entirely different ethical perspective.

When we think of ethics in the context of cars we might be inclined to talk of the way one driver behaves towards another, or the moral dimensions of building these environmentally damaging devices. I don't wish to deny the relevance of these ethical scenarios, but what I am trying to draw attention to is subtler and more pervasive.

Imagine a visitor to your town from a remote hill tribe who has never seen a car before. What must they learn just to avoid injury or death? You must teach them to stay out of the way of the cars on the road, to cross only at designated areas on the major roads, and also that there's a risk of death for not behaving in these ways. How do they understand such instruction? Might it not seem to them that the car (or the driver of the car) has higher status and must be paid deference, and possibly also that the penalty for transgressing this custom is death?

We treat our strange dependence on motorised vehicles as natural because we have lived with it our whole lives and see the trade off between pedestrian and driver as symmetric: we are all drivers sometimes, pedestrians other times, and so this arrangement seems equitable. But this story obscures the way that the car driver is afforded additional powers and privileges that come at the expense of the pedestrian.

Ivan Illich made the point that the driver of the car is complicit in a theft of time from those around them. By blocking access on foot, humans must walk further to reach destinations; they must wait for permission to cross roads, and are flatly denied access to large tracts of land where cars rule supreme. The faster vehicles always have higher status - cars wait for trains, for instance. There is a hierarchy of traffic and the human possesses the lowest rung on the ladder. Illich made the point that motorised transport has a radical monopoly: there is no possibility of questioning its use, so communities become committed to infrastructures that make the car necessary. The car is not inherently essential – but the way we lay out our settlements makes the car unavoidable. This is the radical monopoly.

We thus live in cultures where despite our commitment to ideals of fairness and equality, we are neither fair nor equitable when the car encounters the human. The human is inherently lesser in this encounter, an inequity we stomach simply because we expect that soon our roles will be reversed. The individual committed to foot travel is a second class citizen, the person who cannot afford a car is a mere peasant next to the driver. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States where the pedestrian can be physically denied access to even adjacent plots of public land, and arrested for jaywalking if they cross between them on foot. If they do not have a license to drive a car on their person they can further be charged with vagrancy. The drivers license becomes an essential component in a person's status as a legitimate citizen, and the car a required cost of true citizenship since without one much of the nation is literally forbidden to them.

In the ethical gulf between the driver and the pedestrian, we value the cyborg above the human, and in the process place a high hidden cost on equal status, thus undermining any claim to equality. The driver is not equal to the pedestrian in our societies, but a lesser form of life who must obey the dictates of the wheeled cyborgs or risk disapproval, incarceration or even death. The cars are our masters, and our only choice is between collaboration and submission.

The Constraint Histories of Digital Games

Over on ihobo today, a consideration of whether histories of constraints would be the best way to consider the temporal element in game designs. Here’s an extract:

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history. An alternative approach can begin by considering the historical constraints that acted on any given title, grouping games by common constraints into related clusters.

You can read The Constraint Histories of Digital Games over on ihobo.

The Robot Gatekeepers

robophone Can you talk to anyone in a large company without first getting passed their robot gatekeepers?

It has become standard practice for large organisations to erect a virtual barrier at the edge of their operations such that the first contact anyone outside has with it occurs with a robot. The classic instance is the automated phone system, a simplistic robot programmed to operate a number-keyed maze blocking access to any of the organisations human members while simultaneously lying to the caller insisting that their call “is very important” to the very institution that chose a robot gatekeeper to deal with it. (Calls which are genuinely important are not dealt with by robots).

The phone mazebot is by no means the only robot defending institutional borders. Many companies only accept contact by email if it is submitted by an online form robot that sorts and files text for later review by human eyes. Even if an open email address is offered, a spambot must analyse messages, permitting only some to pass unhindered. A letter is one of the few ways to circumvent an institutions robot gatekeepers, but even these are sorted by a postbot at some point in delivery. And while going in person to an organisation's premises will likely put you in contact with a human – the security guard or front desk secretary – you are still likely to be blocked from entering by a lockbot until permission is granted for you to enter.

This ubiquitous yet largely unnoticed automation of institutional borders continues to expand as robot technology improves. The BBC, in a recent recruitment drive for their new offices at Media City, Salford, had all candidates initially assessed by a robot before considering anyone for an interview. The job-bot takes information about skills, administers a workplace assessment, an IQ test and a personality instrument and presumably sorts applicants prior to any human intervention. Although job interviews are far from a perfect method for judging potential employees, I find the robot alternative to be a somewhat chilling indicator of the direction all large organisations are moving in terms of deploying robots as gatekeepers.

Drop7 and Volatility in Puzzle Games

Over on ihobo today, some musings about Drop7 and the notion of volatilty in puzzle games. Here's an extract:

The essential play of Drop7 draws from the well established tile-stacking genre that flowers fromTetris. Whereas Pajitov’s classic relies on the simplicity of it's mechanics for its appeal (anyone can work out how to stack tetronimos), later tile-stackers such as Dr. MarioSuper Puzzle FighterBaku Baku Animal and Puyo Pop focus on combos to drive interest. The player learns to stack tiles in such a way that, when correctly prepared and then triggered, a giant chain reaction occurs. This reaction is the core of Drop7’s appeal as well, but unlike earlier stacking games Drop7 has a secret weapon in its rules. Failure in tile stacking games occurs when the board becomes stable, which results from a configuration where the reactive combinations of tiles cannot be made to come into contact e.g. in Super Puzzle Fighter, tiles of the same colour don't touch. Conversely, it is possible to stack tiles chaotically in such a way that a small landslide will trigger large (accidental) chain reactions. This quality, volatility plays almost no role in Tetris but has been core to all other tile-stackers since.

You can read the complete Drop7 and Volatility in Puzzle Games over at

Grey Wethers

Grey WethersDuring my time on holiday in Devon with my family, my wife and I hiked up into the mists of Dartmoor, our trusty dog beside us and our baby strapped into a harness like Yoda to Luke. Our destination was a pair of prehistoric stone circles high in the moors known as Grey Wethers, and after one failed attempt we did eventually make it there.

I’ve noticed recently that some enthusiastic positivists tend to make grand narratives about such early astronomical constructions – to wax lyrical about the crude understanding of the world that the makers of these circles must have had (often specifically in terms of their “supernatural” beliefs) and to exude a certain smugness about just how much we know about astrophysics and astronomy today. I find this kind of attitude somewhere between repugnant and hilarious.

In the first place, we know very little about the culture of the men and women who built and used Grey Wethers. We can only guess at their beliefs, but we certainly don’t need to patronise their early astronomical skills – they were mapping the heavens using just stone tools, often with considerable accuracy. The sites were almost certainly ceremonial, but why should we look down on calendar festivals? It’s not like we don’t continue to celebrate the seasons… I rather suspect the winter festival that took place at Grey Wethers was something truly memorable, which most of us cannot claim of our last Christmas et al.

There is still something of the condescending attitude that the British and other Empires held towards “primitive” cultures behind the dismissal of prehistoric monuments. I find them more impressive than the glass and steel monstrosities we build today, and have great respect for the people who built them, whatever their beliefs. We are no more separated from these early settlers than we are from remote tribes today, and there are few if any reasons to believe our contemporary cultures are inherently superior to these other forms of human life.

Bionic Game Student Begins Blog

I met Slaton White at Casual Connect this year – he’s a game design student with a lot of drive and energy who will either do great things or have his spirits crushed by the true horror of the games industry (possibly both!).

Anyway, Slaton has started his own blog, and kicked off with a piece entitled The Future of Games: Can Games Impact your Life? Check it out!

Cross-posted from

Player Typology in Theory and Practice

Here’s a link to the paper I presented at DiGRA this year entitled Player Typology in Theory and Practice, and the abstract:

Player satisfaction modeling depends in part upon quantitative or qualitative typologies of playing preferences,  although such approaches require scrutiny. Examination of psychometric typologies reveal that type theories have—except in rare cases—proven inadequate and have made way for alternative trait theories. This suggests any future player typology that will be sufficiently robust will need foundations in the form of a trait theory of playing preferences. This paper tracks the development of a sequence of player typologies developing from psychometric  type theory roots towards an independently validated trait theory of play, albeit one yet to be fully developed. Statistical analysis of the results of  one survey in this lineage is presented, along with a discussion of theoretical and practical ways in which the surveys and their implied typological instruments have evolved.

Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation and the boardgames panel! It was a great shame to only be able to attend one day of the conference.

Cross-posted from