49A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

The Reality Game 

January 2, 2009

 Every once in a while we like to stop in at the local video gaming shop to see what’s new in the buzzy-whiz-bang world of home entertainment.  People with children under the age of twenty already have a good idea of what’s happening with interactive gaming.  Game controllers and input devices now let you play tennis, bowling, basketball and even dance, all from the movement of your own body.  The big hit for the past couple years has been “Guitar Hero” which delivers a sorta-real guitar into the player’s hands to become a virtual rock star.   Role play games like “Fallout,” “World of Warcraft” and “Grand Theft Auto”  focus on you, the player.  You adopt and enhance your character by exploring worlds and overcoming obstacles.   If you do nothing, the game does nothing.   RPGs, video-based entertainment, and virtual simulations all utilize aspects of  artificial intelligence.  By monitoring the state of the art in electronic gaming, we get a pretty good idea of where AI is going or has already been.  And that’s what gives us pause.

In the pursuit of ever-more realistic gaming experiences video games and virtual reality entertainments have dramatically improved sound, music and graphics capability.  We played a bowling game not too long ago and came away thinking we might never have to go to a bowling alley again.  The hand held controller on the Wii box was so sensitive it read the torque on our wrist, resulting in a frustrating right hook.  The graphics, while not 3D, convincingly placed us in a bowling alley - except that we were actually standing in the aisle of a Circuit City store.  But with the computer’s leap forward in reading human input - there is a disconcerting trend that forewarns of problems in AI design.  One such problem can be called “virtual expectation.” 

Virtual expectation is a kind of idle state for reality engines and game controllers.  That is, the hardware and software depend on a game player and his or her action to trigger the next experience.  If there is no one punching buttons or swinging the controller - there is nothing for the computer to react to.  Current AI and virtual reality designs reflect this particular view of life.  Life is action.  Your action.  And action has consequences.  A life without action is irrelevant.  Passivity is tantamount to apathy.  So AI programs sit idling, like a car engine, expecting an action they can create a consequence for.  While this is okay for simple RPGs, it is not effective in virtual reality.

As we enter into virtual worlds like “Second Life” and “Sim City”  this element of expectation becomes a design liability.  Because in any reality-simulation virtual or otherwise,  actions must not arrive from single players alone.  Actions must come from the entire cast of characters.  Each must be empowered to function with some element of autonomy.  Each character then has the ability to influence the choices of the main characters - which is how human life actually happens.  A functional community sees individual needs and opportunities and acts on them.  Without this, we create characters whose worlds are defined only by their own actions.  And this breeds a kind of solipsism, narrowing experience and opportunity for all.

We found a curious example of this problem in the explosion of department store gift cards.  The holiday season brings with it the anxiety of gift selection for our special “someones.”  The solution is to give our special someone a gift card.  The reason is to let our someone choose a gift of their own liking.  Thus offloading the heart of the giving ethic to a piece of plastic.  This raises a twofold problem.  The gift giver avoids having to choose an appropriate, thoughtful gift.  The recipient misses opportunity to expand their world beyond their own narrow interests.   Their cumulative lives have narrowed by limiting external influences.

Present day virtual reality programming follows RPG design by relying on player initiated action.  However, game designers miss interesting opportunities with this route.  In organic, human  life, we live perfectly well without taking dramatic actions.  We expect other people to take up some burden.  While not as fascinating as action-filled entertainment, millions of serene, peace-loving individuals lead simple lives from day to day.  They choose to experience life as it flows around them, like a river.  They allow that life to come to them bringing with it opportunity they would not have found or initiated on their own.  And living on the river gives them chance to observe the natural rhythms of their community, their planet and its emergence into the cosmos. 

Building a virtual river metaphor demands action from other characters.  Some of those characters must be whole human beings, capable of the entire panoply of human emotions.  They are the ones who bring gifts to our main character - giving to each new opportunities and experiences.  In this model of life no one person is expected to initiate every action.  It is initiated by several characters who have bonded and built relationships with each other.  All too often even in the more sophisticated virtual worlds, programmed characters are emotionally crippled, cutoff from basic human compassion.  And this is what spells trouble for the artificial intelligence community.  Because they have lost touch with how real human beings behave.  In fact some of these “virtual ” environments are so far removed from terrestrial reality, their communities and residents appear to be dysfunctional. 

There are a few lights on the horizon.  There is an RPG called “Persona” now in its fourth edition.  “Persona” attempts to create characters that act somewhat realistically.  It’s still a dungeon crawling game with dating, school, multiple levels, and your heroic persona caught in a murder mystery.  But players rave about its cast of characters and claim to engage in serious relationships with them.   Other RPGs like wildly popular “World of Warcraft” excel in art direction, animation and sound design while remaining rooted in the explore, gather and battle model.  “Sim City” and “Second Life” are avatar driven virtual worlds created by their Residents.  They attempt to recreate “real” life by supporting virtual Creations and Marketplaces.  They even have their own economy that you buy into. 

The exponential growth in hard and software computing power guarantees the expansion of electronic gaming and virtual reality programming.  But the implementation, still the domain of the engineer/programmer, is not keeping up with the technology.  The problem is essentially one of aesthetics, and human creativity.  For RPGs and virtual worlds to break out of the confines of gaming communities they need to create more human value.  We cannot excel in a world where characters - friends and relationships, are not autonomous.  We cannot excel if characters’ overriding code is to answer to the tightly constrained direction of their software programmers.  Such characters can never create successful human relationships.  They are too mechanical.  Too artificial.  It is too much like trying to relate to a robot.  Robots can talk and think fast, but they have no heart.  Neither did the Tin Man.  And that is at the heart of the matter.