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Steve Crow: Thirty Years in Games

Over on ihobo today, my interview with the legendary 8-bit programmer-game designer, Steve Crow! Here's an extract: 

CB: Do you miss the way the videogames were back in its 'infancy'?

SC: Looking back I consider myself so fortunate to be in the industry at a time when one individual could be the author of an entire game. By the late 80's games started to be created by small teams of people as the programming, music and graphics became more complex and people began specializing in particular aspects of game creation. Since the mid 80's I have been involved in many very successful games so I don't consider the mid 80's as a 'golden' era of my career but it was a very exciting time to be involved in video games!

You can read the entirety of Steve Crow: Thirty Years in Games over at What are you waiting for!

Sounders of the Depths

Lead and LineWhat is the role of the philosopher? Discovering the truth? Forming theories? Conceptual plumbing? Or perhaps something more subtle, more humble. Perhaps the philosopher is the sounder of the depths.

I’m reading Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers’ Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell at the moment, about which there will be more anon, but right from the outset it presents an interesting alternative perspective on the role of philosophy. They compare what they are attempting to do in this book with the role of those who used to travel upon sailing ships with a plumb line, checking the depths of the waters and avoiding the risks of wrecking upon unseen reefs. Stengers is a philosopher with an acute sensitivity to the power of words, and uses them with care. Writing with fellow chemist, Pignarre, she offers this warning:

Sounders of the depths should not invent words that are to be understood as beyond division, as if they were authorised by a transcendence in the presence of which everyone must kneel: that is the role of the prophet, or his substitute today, the theorist. The words to be created ought rather to serve as antidotes to what transforms divergences into oppositions, what makes us dream of a homogeneous unanimity, of a judgement that will at last confer on history the power to recognise those who had seen correctly.

There is in this paragraph a rejection of the vision of philosophy offered by Plato, of the philosopher as the one who travels outside of the ordinary world to discover the truth and then return with it – and suffer the consequences of doing so. Stengers (if I may, by supposition, separate her from her co-author) is here aligning with her ally and friend Bruno Latour, in rejecting the legacy of Plato, suggesting that this makes the philosopher into prophet. Against this could be contrasted Mary Midgley’s suggestion that philosophy can be understood as a kind of ‘conceptual plumbing’, a view to which I am strongly drawn.

Intriguingly, Stengers and Pignarre also align the prophet with the theorist, and in so doing offer an additional rejection of the view of philosophy offered by Kendall Walton as ‘theorising after all the facts are in’. I have a great deal of sympathy for Walton’s view here, and it is important to recognise that the kind of philosophical theories that Walton deals in, such as the make-believe theory of representation, or the strange yet compelling idea that we ‘see through’ photographs, are not theories that result in action. There is a distinction, not often noticed, between those theories that give us new ways of seeing the worlds we live in, and those that enact or demand ways of changing those worlds. Here, we may see a distinction between philosophical theories (whether or not they are created by philosophers), technical theories (that may bankroll new kinds of technology), and political theories (which may initiate action, and all the dangers therein that Hannah Arendt warned of).

It is worth noting that a scientist can create both of the first kinds of theory – philosophical and technical – but not legitimately the third, and also that technical theories can have all of the impact and risks of political theories yet are typically treated as morally neutral. It is in this capacity that I strived, in Chaos Ethics, to offer a warning. I was, although I had not thought about in these terms, trying to be a sounder of the depths – but I fear that I fell too easily into stridency, into polemic. Although I was trying to resist offering a specific political theory, I perhaps did not sufficiently distance myself from the role of prophet. Perhaps I still managed to be a sounder of the depths… it is sometimes hard to be sure of the meaning of one’s own work.

What Stengers, Pignarre and I have in common is a sensitivity to the needs of the moment in which we are living. But where they succeed, and where I fear I have failed, is in resisting the easier rhetorics. They write:

Some people place their confidence in urgency, that of an Earth whose ravaging would force us to understand each other under pain of being destroyed. Others evoke opposition to a common enemy as sufficient to found the necessary understanding. We fear the confidence in the pedagogical power of catastrophes a great deal and the power given to the common enemy to unite us leaves us more than doubtful. That is why we feel ourselves bound to the position of ‘Sounders of the depths’, attentive to the danger of the traps that menace us: that of thinking that tolerance with regard to divergences ought to be enough; that of thinking that we can take shortcuts with regard to the practices that may tum these divergences into a force.

I find in this image of the sounder of the depths a renewed hope in the power of philosophy to make a difference in our worlds. But this capacity is a danger when it is not bound to the humility of one who must stand on the outside of the ship, and focus upon the risks, with no possibility of ever determining the course that will be set.

The Aesthetic Motives of Play

Sunrise, sunset… one paper falls as another rises. My piece The Aesthetic Motives of Play will appear later this year in Springer’s Emotion in Games: Theory and Praxis, edited by Dr Kostas Karpouzis and an old colleague of mine, Professor Georgios Yannakakis. Here’s my abstract:

Why do people enjoy playing games? The answer, in its most general form, is that there are aesthetic pleasures offered by games and other play experiences that meet powerful and profound human and animal needs. As such, we can identify specific aesthetic motives of play, and one of the clearest ways of characterizing these motives is in terms of the emotional experiences associated with them.

This was a super-easy paper for me to write as I’m only summarising work I’ve already done, but it is an excellent précis of where I’m up to and I hope will complement the other chapters in this collection.

The Sting of Rejection

Seems the British Journal of Aesthetics rejected my recent submission, "Can a Rollercoaster Be Art?", and for quite bad reasons this time. There's no sign of the high quality peer review I received last time, indeed, no sign of any engagement with my argument at all. It's a shame as it's a great paper, and I don't have another home for it. It's strange to be told "I just don't think that this author is familiar with the BJA or the work that tends to be published in the journal" in a paper that cites the British Journal of Aesthetics no fewer than eight times. I'm afraid I am forced to conclude two things: that the reviewer did not understand my argument of the connection between 'game' and 'art' as aesthetic concepts, and that all the discussion of 'game' was therefore lost to them because it did not seem relevant. That smarts. But it's also a reminder that we have in no way won the battle over the artistic status of games: we just satisfied ourselves with the arguments we had.

How Many Real Worlds Are There?

Build Better Human Beings.Elijah BurgherA premise of modern thought is that there is only one real world. Against this are various forms of relativism that would claim that there are no worlds that could justifiably be called real. But there is a third option between the two: there could be many real worlds.

I need to be clear that these many real worlds are not the ones that physicists call a multiverse, having borrowed the term from novelist Michael Moorcock. In the physicist’s multiverse there is one real world and many possible worlds. What I’m talking about here is what William James called a multiverse, half a century before Moorcock: that rather than a universe, our existence is better understood as comprised of many real worlds.

Immediately we hit an impasse, because our very notion of ‘real’ gives us reasons to expect one and only one real world. We are, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, held captive by a picture. In particular, if what we think of as ‘the real world’ is a gigantic, universe-sized box full of vacuum and atoms, it can be hard to see how there could be more than one real world. But even if there were only one real world, it could not possibly be like this image of space and matter; the physicists of the early twentieth century showed that extension was not absolute, but relative, and that existence was about which possibilities occur. Relativity and quantum mechanics call for a new understanding of the physical universe, since our current model descends from the era of Newton and begins to seem implausible. We must look again at what we mean by ‘real’.

Consider, as a stepping point, what happens if we replace the idea of a box of matter as the basis for what exists with the idea of a set of events and their relations. This is a concept that comes from Alfred North Whitehead’s wrestling with the philosophical consequences of early twentieth century physics. What immediately comes into play is a capacity to distinguish relationships between specific events from relationships that will apply to all events of a particular kind. To say what happens when we burn wood (the general claim) is different from talking about a particular tree that burns after a lightning strike (a specific claim). Our sense here is still of regularities: the general claims constrain the specific claims; the relationships between events behave in an orderly fashion. We can see immediately that we do not need the box of matter idea to conduct empirical research. The web of events can serve the same role.

Now imagine a confrontation between two alien races who have different images for existence along these lines. The Boxers look at the universe as a vast container of atoms, while the Eventers see it as a network of events. Both species find that their equivalent to scientists can, all other matters being equal, make accurate predictions wherever their theoretical models are strong – yet the actual models might be quite different in their concepts and terms. We would still expect that, where a mathematical model could be produced, that the numbers would come out the same for both species, but the kind of things either is thinking about would still be radically different.

The conventional way of explaining this situation is that the subjective worlds of the Boxers and Eventers ‘track the truth’ of the objective world. The objective world here is essentially a superset, within which all subjective worlds are nested (as dependent upon the objective world for their existence). This objective world is a comfortable concept for the Boxers, because it equates to there only being one ‘true’ configuration of the atoms in the universe. You could focus on some smaller region in space and time, but the Laws of the box would remain the same.

However, what is the objective world to the Eventers? The superset of all events is not a single object like the universe-box, because each event is in itself a cluster of events, as encountered by anything else according to its own unique conditions for its existence. There are, in fact, many different ways of understanding the sets of events, and hence many true configurations of events. Indeed, it is possible to ‘stitch together’ a completely consistent tapestry of events that includes all the space and time within the Boxer’s universe and still have a vast reserve of consistent event-sets ‘left over’. Eventers are not so likely to talk about ‘an objective world’ at all: they are far more likely to recognise that there are ‘objective worlds’ for every conceivable kind of entity.

This shows just one way of understanding the idea of multiple real worlds. The key point is that what makes one singular real world seem plausible is the image of a box to be filled in; of knowledge as a jigsaw to be completed, piece by piece. The image of a network of events instead suggests different possible ‘stitches’ between sets of events, and patterns between events that depend upon the particular focus in each case. The view attributed here to the Boxers is how we talk about the work of the sciences, but the view attributed to the Eventers better describes what scientists actually do. This is a point made, in different ways, by Whitehead, Bruno Latour, and Isabelle Stengers, and its implications take some pondering.

What the Boxer-view gives us is a reason for faith in the processes of the sciences being capable of rendering reliable witnesses out of the different entities we encounter, to use a turn of phrase Latour suggests for what scientific researchers do (i.e. allow inanimate objects to ‘bear witness’). It reflects the truth of the idea that what happened could be definitively settled once it has occurred. There is a way to put everything together coherently – but we always have to bear in mind that we don’t ever actually have a grasp of this coherent totality, and could never know we had even if we did!

What the Eventer-view gives us is a better understanding of why scientists are able to produce reliable witnesses – it brings into focus the tremendous work of not only establishing what to examine, but devising methods of translating the observed events such that they can secure this reliability in the eyes of anyone who cares to join the investigation. As Stengers notes, when we talk about what is ‘objective’, we are referring to the questions that can be answered reliably by a certain experimental apparatus, which then open up new questions. Understood this way, there is no need to invoke an ‘objective world’ to explain the work of the sciences. 

However, the Eventer-view also hints that scientists might not possess the only skills capable of producing reliable witnesses. In many cases – electrons, distant galaxies, DNA – scientists and their tools have the best chances of producing an adequate translation. But when it comes to, say, living in the Amazon rainforest, methods of observation must share the stage with the practices of living, which can bear upon a real world without that world having to be that of the Boxer-view – nor necessarily contradicting the state of perfect knowledge that image implies. Even a monkey who lives in the rainforest knows more of the relationships between its events than can reasonably be dismissed as ‘not real’, even though their knowledge in that regard might be limited.

The picture that holds us captive becomes visible when we imagine what is real and comprehend it as a single consistent arrangement of matter, and a single consistent set of propositions that accord with it. But relativity and quantum mechanics don’t suggest this kind of configuration for the physical elements of existence, and perhaps more importantly our intense focus on real distract us from the fact that this singular real world is imagined. It is precisely because it is imagined that a plurality of worlds need not contradict the inviolability of events: once we see that worlds are situated in their conditions, and cannot easily be totalised (and certainly not by imagining matter as a basis for doing so), it makes less sense to be talking about a singular world as the locus of the real. The real always exceeds us, no matter who or what we are, a point made in a rather different fashion by Alain Badiou.

If there was only one real world, we would have to conclude that no-one could know it, although they might be inspired by the possibility of something eventually knowing it. If there was no real world, even the possibility of knowing would be extinguished. But from a perspective grounded upon events or processes, everyone (everything!) can know something of the real without anyone ever possessing the whole of it. This is why we will find multiple real worlds if we look closely at what actually happens rather than focussing on the question of how all witnesses can be made to tally with a hypothetical ideal universe of knowledge. Of course, from any one single perspective, it can still be tricky to ascertain which aspects of your world are real and which are otherwise without seeking reliable witnesses, of any kind. But this ambiguity doesn’t detract from the reality of each world, nor should it. There is no universe, and never was. The fact of our living together in our different worlds should have made it clear that it was always a multiverse.

The opening image is Build Better Human Beings by Elijah Burgher, which I found at As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.

Open Like Software

Over on Google+, Jacek Wesołowski posted such a wonderful comment on my previous post, Open Minded? that I had to share it here.

Could we define open mindedness as a form of disciplined reasoning that acknowledges and accounts for one’s inherent and learned biases, i.e. non-evident tendencies and assumptions? That would make one's mind open in the same sense software can be “open”, that is: open to scrutiny. An open minded practice would then be one that actively seeks out assumptions and tendencies in one's own reasoning and revises them.

Another trait of open software is that it’s open to modification that wasn’t in the original specification. An open mind in this sense would assert the right to deviate from ideological tropes, for instance you could be for women's rights and against abortion-on-demand.

In practice, when I’m occasionally having the thought that “someone’s not being open minded”, it's usually because one of my adversaries has said something that can be understood in more than one way, and then one of my friends has jumped on it and interpreted it in the most discrediting manner they could think of. In this scenario, the friend is failing to be open minded, because they’re refusing to consider other, less convenient interpretations. Meanwhile, the adversary is merely failing to be clear.

An example from our field would be that one time when some Ubisoft exec said that adding a female character to a particular game would be difficult due to specific schedule considerations of that project, but the left-leaning public quickly morphed that statement into “women [in general] are too hard to animate”.

Open mindedness seems like one of those things where you cannot examine yourself, only others. The mistakes and failures in my own reasoning are either invisible to me, or something I won't or can't admit to. Otherwise, I would have already corrected them, or at least marked them for future consideration.

Open Minded?

Open Minded Neon SignI’m starting to doubt the logic of the phrase ‘open minded’. Who is it supposed to apply to?

Some folks out in the bustle of the internet tell me that being open minded is being willing to revise your beliefs in the light of new evidence. But whomever this sense of ‘open minded’ applies to has already declared the conceptual territory they are willing to be open to, and presumably the acceptable methods for determining what counts as evidence too. That doesn’t sound one jot like being open minded to me – it sounds more like being a cheerleader for the sciences. What’s more, it seems that most scientists do not easily adjust their beliefs in the light of new evidence, but rather expressly doubt evidence that does not accord with their beliefs – which not coincidentally aligns with what psychologists say about humans in general.

On the other hand, there are the strange and wonderful folks you can meet at various New Age bazaars to whom being open minded seems to mean uncritically accepting every wild practice anyone is pursuing earnestly. Except of course such people are only open minded towards those particular kinds of practices, and are generally dismissive of scientific evidence dismissing the efficacy of all such methods. (I might note, such ‘discreditings’ are usually in comparison to placebo – which would be another way of saying that they all work as well as each other, and just as well as a fair chunk of medical practices too.)

Then there is that liberal open mindedness that tolerates other cultures. As Isabelle Stengers warns, this tolerance is a curse, one that immediately prevents any understanding from taking place between us. Indeed, as I have accused in Chaos Ethics, liberal open mindedness largely means forcing everyone to accept a previously prescribed catalogue of acceptable identities, and acting punitively towards those who do not. Alain Badiou observes that this kind of ‘open mindedness’ is characterised by being instantly horrified by African tribal rituals, Chinese politics, and pretty much everything else even remotely different from the allegedly open minded person. Once again, the proclamation of ‘open mindedness’ is a cover for a demand, a requirement, outside of which everything else is to be denounced.

Perhaps ‘open minded’ simply means ‘I will not openly denounce what I can merely politely dismiss’, at least if we ignore the firebrands and malcontents. If so, it is not so much about being open to difference as it is a mode of politeness, of tolerance. But again, I stand with Stengers here: tolerance is a curse that prevents understanding. Everyone who declares themselves open minded is presupposing what it is we should be open to – whether it be the positivistic methods attributed to the sciences, the transformative potential of peculiar rituals, or the political identities that are opposed to conservatism.

If being open minded is genuinely a virtue, we seem to have lost sight of what it is supposed to be about. Ask a liberal to be open minded about gun ownership, or an atheist to be open minded about God, or a faith healer to be open minded about pharmaceuticals. We are all calling ‘open minded’ just those people who are open to our own ways of thinking. That’s no kind of open mindedness at all.

Yee Rides Again

Great to see Nick Yee getting back into player modelling over at Quantic Foundry. However, it seems he hasn’t looked into the similar work International Hobo was doing with BrainHex five years ago. In a recent post, Gaming Motivations Align with Personality Traits, he states:

Action-Social isn’t hinted at in any Existing Model: When we first saw the Action-Social cluster emerge, we were a little stumped. This grouping is unintuitive and hasn’t been proposed by any existing model or taxonomy.

That’s not true! In fact, if you look at the subclass distribution for BrainHex you’ll see that the third most popular is Conqueror-Socialiser (6.1% of sample), which is what maps most closely onto Yee’s Action-Social.

To be fair, I haven’t written much about BrainHex recently because my primary take away from that research effort was that this isn’t how we should be proceeding in this area if we want to get to anything like a science of player modelling. To see why, check out my 2011 DiGRA paper with Lennart Nacke and Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Player Typology in Theory and Practice.

Looking forward to seeing what else Nick turns up in his current round of research.

Cross-posted from