Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Spheres of Smartphone Chaos

As you may know, I'm a BIG fan of Spheres of Chaos 2012 (Iain McLeod, 2012) even if I'm totes rubbish at it. (I've talked about it in the articles Entropy and Silver Bullet Cure.) So when I was offered a chance to play around with a test build of an Android version on my phone, I wasn't going to say no.

Touchscreens have a difficult relationship with shooters as your fingers tend to get in the way of the action and Spheres piles on the controls: shoot, thrust, turn, jump. I'm not too sure how it's going to pan out but it's lovely to see those beautiful pyrotechnics look exactly the same on my humble S5. This mega-early build eats battery power for breakfast and lunch, often crashes, does not close properly and the controls take some getting used to. I'm not even sure this will see the commercial light of day.


ANGELINA and the Secret Box


I’ve never really written anything about ANGELINA, Mike Cook’s game generating AI and that’s because I’m not sure what I think about it. My folded-arms-and-raised-eyebrow brain finds the goal of the procedurally-generated game as plausible as the procedurally-generated novel. My thoughtful-and-cautious brain sees it more as an ongoing academic project where the journey is more important than ANGELINA itself, baby steps into uncharted territories.

Lots of great work is being done in procedural generation and there’s a good reason I reserved a special section for Cook’s “The Saturday Papers” when I ran Marginalia. (The Saturday Papers seems to be on indefinite hiatus right now.) I guess deep down I was concerned that ANGELINA, for all its creator’s ambition, would end up as the machine-mother for narrow experiences that would merely appear to prove the point of Jesper Juul’s old paper that rules matter most and the rest is just skin deep.

But Cook together with Gillian Smith, wrote a paper titled “Formalizing Non-Formalism: Breaking the Rules of Automated Game Design” which proposes a game-generating AI which eschews rules and win conditions in favour of experience. I know what you’re thinking, that sounds an AI which makes secret boxes. You would be more than right. Electron Dance is actually cited in the paper! Cook and Smith deploy the term secret box instead of walking simulator.

Here’s the abstract:

Automated game design (AGD) is an exciting new frontier for generative software and games research, one which intersects many areas of AI as well as cutting across the many creative domains involved in developing a game. However, there is a trend throughout existing automated game design work to concentrate primarily on the rules that underpin a game–objectives, obstacles, and the notion of challenge. This paper examines this trend in automated game design, and argues that a broader understanding of games is needed. We examine the history of AGD to date, and consider this work in the context of game design theories and definitions. We discuss the term secret box to describe a class of game that does not fall into the purview of existing AGD approaches, and offer a design sketch of an AGD system we are building, ANGELINA 6, to begin to challenge these ideas.

If you’re interested, a PDF of the paper can be found linked from Smith’s site. Don’t worry, it’s fairly accessible as it does not go into technical detail.

Also, congratulations to Cook and Smith as their paper swiped the Best Paper in the Game Design category at this year’s Foundations of Digital Games conference.

Further Watching

Here's Cook talking about one of ANGELINA's entries to Ludum Dare.

You might also be interested in Mike Cook’s presentation The Lost Art of Dreaming.

Filed under: Short Notes 1 Comment

If you can’t wait for Side by Side…

The second season of Side by Side is coming! It has ten episodes and I'm run off my feet trying to edit them into shape.

If you can't wait, did you know that Gregg and I did a few videos before Side by Side which are pretty similar? This video includes excerpts and links for them. Plus, just to whet your appetite, I've included a bit of raw footage of season 2 at the end...

Watch the video here or direct on YouTube.


How Alphabear Became Unbearable

If you've spent any time on Twitter, you'll know that people love Alphabear (Spry Fox, 2015). It's official, it has won the award for Really Quite Cute Word Game of the Year. Congratulations all.

You know, I also once loved Alphabear, but not any more. This probably makes me sound like some kind of puppy-kicking monster. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a story.

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Discussion: The House of Zero

Here's an open comment thread if you want to discuss something from the July newsletter.


The Organization Geek

"There is no such thing as a clean or dispassionate read and what you think of a text is likely to be as much a product of your bullshit as it is of the inherent qualities of the text itself."

Reading the work of freelance critic Jonathan McCalmont is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Most of the time his writing taunts me to think more deeply about the art I enjoy but sometimes a bullet will emerge from his word gun and make me feel miserable for enjoying something like, say, A Trip to Italy.

I could reel off a long list of my favourite McCalmont essays but, instead, I present to you a recent piece titled "The Organization Geek", cross posted from his blog Ruthless Culture.

I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.

I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.

By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.

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Learning Curve Extended Play


Last year, Polish site AtariOnline.pl wrote about my Learning Curve trilogy on the rise and fall of an 80s game programming childhood. I didn't post about it at the time because it was supposed to be the first of a series; I provided them with copies of all my games as part of an archiving project. It's been a good year now with no sign of followup posts so I might as well post about it! You can visit the Polish original or a Google Translate version, which features the great line: "Persons who ruled Shakespeare speech, I strongly encourage to peek into the aforementioned articles on Electron Dance."

Anyway, I thought I'd throw in a few extra videos to sweeten the deal: a video of "the clone" of The Citadel, a shortened Eulogy and a fragment of a work-in-progress that was never completed.    

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Side by Side: Thoughts on Second Series

Side by Side is a video series on local multiplayer games.

The first series finished a couple of months ago and I thought I'd take a moment to chat about improvements we're going to make in the second series. Spoiler: We considered giving every subscriber lots of money but got cold feet in the end.

Watch the video here or direct on YouTube.


Minecraft Is About Transcending Minecraft

Gregory Avery-Weir is the developer behind titles such as Looming and Ossuary and wrote the following essay about the role of Minecraft mods in defining what Minecraft is. I asked Avery-Weir if I could repost it here as I thought it was an interesting addendum to "The Minecraft Industrial Revolution."


I first played Minecraft in 2009 back when it was an Infiniminer clone being developed on the Tigsource forums. It was immediately clear to a bunch of people that it was something special but no one could have guessed what the game would become in just a few years. It may be the most popular game of all time. It’s definitely the most popular game among kids right now. Odd, then, that most of the Minecraft experience is about not playing Minecraft.

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The Farfield: OXI

The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.

Why do I talk a lot about Greece on Twitter?

  • Save the cheerleaders, save the world. When Greece was on the verge of defaulting a few years ago, instead of letting the creditor banks take the hit, the EU ran in to save them. But it was a broader assault than it might seem: saving Greece was also a way to neutralise a domino effect as Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy had similar problems. Bank exposure to these countries was reportedly around €1 trillion. Recently economist Ken Rogoff declared: “I believe that Ireland would have been far better off today if the Government had not taken over so much of the bank debt, and instead allowed bank creditors to absorb a significant loss.”
  • The Parable of the Lazy Greek. So now private banks were off the hook and Greece had to face the ECB, IMF and EU instead (the “Troika”). The story of reckless lending was gradually replaced with the image of the Lazy Greek who had dined out in style on the backs of others, then refused to pay the money back. The Lazy Greek story has been sold so strongly that the German public, for example, would not support any government that agreed to go easy on Greece.
  • The Parable of Austerity. There’s been a broad push since the financial crisis to rewrite the story of bank recklessness as governments spending beyond their means. This morphed into a political romance with austerity, the idea that governments must spend less right now. There is substantial evidence that inflicting austerity on a troubled economy makes things worse. In a nutshell, if the public feels insecure about the future and stops spending, then the government should fill that spending gap to help the economy recover. Austerity in times of strife is a vicious circle; if a government tries to save money, it damages the economy, which reduces tax receipts, thus undermining the whole exercise. Even the size of “fiscal multipliers” – which measure the impact that changes in government spending has on the economy (GDP) – has become a political football. The previous UK coalition government bolstered the case for austerity with research that showed that large government debt was economically destructive - but the data later turned out to be in error and showed no such thing. Further, the IMF just last week published a report arguing that Greece needs to be cut some slack and a good portion of its debt written off. After six years of austerity, Greece has lost a quarter of its GDP.
  • Austerity victims show little solidarity. There is another reason why Europe does not want to give in to Greece: the political consequences elsewhere in Europe. Because other austerity victims have given in to pressure (such as increasing retirement ages), they want Greece to fall in line rather win a special deal. If Greece does win concessions from Europe, expect serious things to happen in Spain and Italy.
  • Driving up Anti-EU sentiment. The fact that Europe is actively punishing a member state (particularly its poorest citizens) is not going unnoticed. The European Central Bank (ECB) offers support to avert a bank run with a programme called the ELA (Emergency Liquidity Assistance) but the ECB pulled the rug out last week, forcing Greece to close its banks. Last week Paul Mason wrote "The European Central Bank has proved, yet again, that it can crash an economy if it wants to." And today, the ECB turned up the heat some more. This is not the first time we've seen the ECB push buttons in this way, go back and visit Cyprus circa 2013. The contempt the EU has for some of its members is pumping up distrust of the European project. Consider this is happening at a time when the UK is going to hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership in the next couple of years.
  • Russia. Some think if Greece leaves the euro it may seek assistance from Moscow which, considering tensions over interventions in Ukraine, has wider political implications. The US does not want to see Greece leave the Eurozone.
  • Οχι. The referendum result rules out Greece signing up to the latest offer from the Troika. If it remains politically impossible for European governments to give ground, then Greece will likely default and leave the euro. This is why the Sunday referendum was labelled a referendum on euro membership.
  • The euro becomes reversible. The EU has always described euro membership as irreversible and the ECB would “do anything it takes” to save the currency. If Greece leaves the euro – irrespective of the terrible economic damage that would inflict – it would be proof positive that these boasts are untrue. It would undermine the currency and eyes will once again scrutinise Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland which continue to struggle with debt burdens and austerity.
  • A perfect storm. Everyone is talking down “contagion risk” – that Greece blowing up will hit markets hard – but that’s what politicians and central bankers do, they try to talk the market down from the ledge. But some fear that no one got to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 and that the real reckoning is still to come; that particular can was just kicked down the road. Greece leaving the euro at the same time that China is entering its own long-awaited financial crisis may ignite the touchpaper for a new global conflagration.

This is why I can't stop commenting on Greece. It's kind of huge.