Rereadability

Having just read three novels, I’ve come up with a theory about the quality of books. Namely, if a book withstands rereading at least once, it’s probably good. Additionally, if a book that reads well initially does not lend itself to rereading, it may not be as good as your initial impressions gave it.

I say this because the rereadability of the three novels I bought (Metaplanetary, Flashforward and The Light of Other Days) correlates very well with their actual quality. I found all three relatively entertaining while I read them, although Metaplanetary held my attention the best, followed by Flashforward. However, I discovered that I physically could not reread Flashforward. I had no favorite sections, and it struck me that for a large portion of the novel, nothing actually happened.

I could reread sections of The Light of Other Days, but it wore off after a while due to the blandness of the setting. Two weeks after I bought Metaplanetary, I still reread passages every so often; true, it’s perhaps 50% longer than the other two books, but my time spent rereading it doesn’t scale. Not only does a lot happen in it, but it’s also interesting. My past experience with good books agrees with all of this – the books I reread tend to be of a decent quality.

Of course, this doesn’t always apply. I can think of a few great books which I simply don’t feel like rereading, and I can think of a few average books which, for whatever reason, I continually reread.

Work

Things at work are proceeding along fairly smoothly. I’ve been running the first set of subjects on my pilot experiment during the last couple of days and processing the results (too early to tell whether they’re ‘good’ or not).

Probably the most exciting thing that’s happened around here was a BBC crew interviewing the head of the lab, Prof. Ramachandran, for a series about the neural mechanisms of dance, to be aired in September on BBC 2. It was quite fun to chat with the crew and see their bizarre clothing. Anyway, they left this morning to go and cover a wedding in New York (something to do with the human posture, I’m told).

A Blog Too Far

The Guardian has just launched a competition for the ‘Best British Blog’. As far as I know, it’s the most lucrative competition of its type ever, with a £1500 prize fund. I, like many others, believe that this isn’t a good idea. It fosters an uncomfortable kind of competition in an area that doesn’t need it, and isn’t even suitable for it – how exactly do you judge what the best weblog is?

I find it similar to the type of competition ABC is trying to create with its seven figure Push, Nevada prize for the mmoe/ARG community, in other words, mildly distasteful and ultimately unproductive. If the Guardian wants to promote the visibility of weblogs and what they are, there are far better ways to do it than this.

Synaesthesia

People might be wondering what it is that I’m doing in San Diego, beyond my rather nebulous description of ‘research’. Right now I’m working in the research labs of V. S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego Center for Human Information Processing on an experiment to investigate an interesting condition called synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is basically what happens when your senses get mixed up and interconnected in strange ways. For example, when some synaesthetes read letters or digits, they’ll see them coloured (even when they don’t originally have colours). Others will associate sounds, music, shapes or even people with colours or smells. Essentially, any combination of the senses is possible, although grapheme-colour synaesthesia (a grapheme is a character) is the most common.

Estimates of the prevalence of synaesthesia vary from 1 in 200 to 1 in 20,000. The people in the lab I’m working at tend towards the former number. If that’s the case, chances are that you know someone personally who has synaesthesia – the only problem is that synaesthetes are either embarrassed about talking about their experiences, or they simply think that everyone is like them. One day the graduate student I’m working with was talking to a friend about a synaesthete who, when listening to speech, would see the words scroll along the bottom field of his vision, like subtitles. The friend said, “But doesn’t everyone have that?”

It’s generally thought that synaesthesia has a significant genetic component, and because it tends to be passed along the female line, it probably resides in the X chromosome. For a long time it was believed this couldn’t be true because Vladimir Nabokov had synaesthesia and so did his son Dmitri – so this meant that it couldn’t be in the X chromosome (sons inherit only the Y chromosome from their fathers). Of course, it turned out that Nabokov’s wife was also a synaesthete.

Why is synaethesia a big deal all of a sudden? Synaesthesia was ignored for a long time by psychologists due to the long-lasting age of behaviourism (‘don’t listen to what the subject says, just measure him’), and in any case many people simply thought synaesthetes were speaking metaphorically, e.g. “This cheese has a pretty sharp taste.” A series of pioneering experiments conducted over the last ten and twenty years have completely reversed this, showing that not only is synaesthesia a genuine phenomenon, but it’s also a perceptual one. By this, I mean that synaesthetes really see (say) colours when they see numbers. It’s not that they have an eidetic memory and can learn the sensory associations, they really experience them.

This has resulted in some interesting findings. Synaesthetes appear to have superior memory, and their ability to associate senses makes for good artists and writers. One of the things we’ll be doing in the lab is to talk to a trilingual synaesthete who experiences colours when she hears words – will the same word in the different languages elicit the same colour? Or will the phonological properties of the word – the sound of the word – matter more than the semantic meaning?

The point behind all of this is not merely to have a look at an interesting new condition. Synaesthesia also promises to shed light on some of the more profound questions about attention, perception, information processing in the brain, and consciousness. As such, it’s a very ‘sexy’ new topic and researchers are flocking towards it. It’s already been featured in a computer game, Rez (which is also very fun) and the other day I saw a mention of it in a Stephen Baxter SF novel. The main thing I’m working on here is a metacontrast experiment that’s aiming to find out exactly when the experience of colour occurs in the processing of visual information in synaesthetes. It’s a useful experience for me, especially given that many key findings about synaesthesia were made by people in the lab I’m in now.

A Push Too Far

“How far away is Push, Nevada?”

Push, Nevada is quickly shaping up to be the second major commercial TV-mmoe, after the BBC’s Spooks. Developed by ABC in conjunction with Liveplanet, an ‘integrated media’ company started by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck among others, Push is attracting a great deal of attention for offering a seven figure cash prize to a ‘winner’.

Rather than provoking joy in the mmoe/ARG player community, the seven figure sum is worrying many. It’s a widely held belief in the mmoe community that co-operation, not competition, is one of the most distinctive and enjoyable features of the genre. The scope and difficulty of the AI game, for example, would have made it practically impossible for any one person to ‘solve’ the game – not that it was something that could be solved. As a result, co-operation was key for the player community to get the most out of the game, by sharing ideas, speculation and puzzle solutions.

When a seven figure prize enters the equation, everything is changed. While there are already laudable efforts to form player groups to attempt to win Push and donate the prize to charity, I suspect that this will be the exception to the rule of players fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on the million dollars. We’ve all seen what people will do for a million dollars, not only on TV, but also in countless stories in everyday life. More often than not, a lot of people get hurt. It’s likely that the same will happen with Push. Why would you exchange clues and information with someone else, if it meant that they might win the money instead of you? Why should you trust anyone? I am not suggesting that the mmoe player community is comprised of a group of bloodthirsty backstabbing sharks (although others may differ) but a million dollars can do a lot to make someone’s morals disappear temporarily.

As a result of all of this, the game will suffer. Competition, not co-operation, will be paramount and the online community will fracture into dozens or hundreds of small groups, intensely suspicious of spies. The game will have to become much less subtle so that the puzzles will be solvable by smaller groups, and undoubtedly the producers will want to keep everyone on a level playing field until the end – and so they’ll artificially slow down gameplay so that everyone can catch up.

The Million Dollar Question

Literally, how will the producers decide upon who gets the prize? Unless they decide to track the ‘score’ of everyone playing the game (a difficult and unreliable task, to say the least), they will probably offer a final puzzle at the end of the TV series. Either the first player to solve it will win the prize, or they’ll do a prize draw of everyone who successfully solved the puzzle within a given time frame. The former situation will result in a mad rush to enter the solution first, and additionally mean that you don’t actually have to play the game to win – you just have to answer the last question. The latter solution will most likely have a simple puzzle which everyone can solve. And there’s nothing that mmoe players hate more than a simple puzzle.

But of course… exactly how many mmoe players are there, in comparison to the masses that ABC and Liveplanet want to attract with Push, Nevada? The vast majority of people watching Push will not have time to follow the game on the Internet or to solve intricate puzzles in foreign languages. They’ll want to be able to sit back and take it easy, and I don’t think ABC is going to argue about that. Consequently it’s no surprise that Pepsi is interested in becoming a major sponsor of Push. Viewers of Push, we’re told, will “go out to their local fast-food outlet or look under soda pop bottle caps” for clues. Pepsi is not interested in a few thousand or tens of thousands of people buying their cans, they will want millions. Let’s face it, in order to make a game that appeals to millions, there’s inevitably going to be some dumbing down.

I might be wrong. I can think of a few scenarios where Push could successfully dissociate the million dollar prize from the game, meaning that co-operation could be preserved. This would of course be quite an altruistic act for the producers, since what would be the point of producing a game which most of the viewers don’t actually play? And what would be the point of a game which has little, if any, connection to the final million dollar question which is after all what 90+% of your audience only care about? Certainly I hope I’m wrong about the money and that there’s only a seven figure prize fund, not a seven figure prize, meaning that there would be a lot of smaller prizes and slightly less competition.

Push, Nevada is set to air on September 12th. The Internet portion has already started; the first website called Push Times is now online. I don’t think everything about Push is terrible – I like the fact that there’s a TV-mmoe being released, and that some of my ideas for interactive product placement are being used. Having arcs for the show is a great idea. A seven figure prize is definitely not – at least, not for the present ARG/mmoe player community. For all its claims of being similar to Microsoft’s AI game, Push is aimed at a completely different audience. If you’re reading this, chances are that you aren’t in that audience.
Continue reading “A Push Too Far”

DX2

I recently wrote a post in ARGN about the question of interactivity in mmoe-type games. Basically, I say that interactivity with respect to altering the story is overrated.

Warren Spector, the designer of Thief and Deus Ex, both groundbreaking games when it comes to player interactivity, said in Edge that he wanted Deus Ex 2 to exhibit emergent behaviour with its non-player character AI. No more scripted events, he said, we want the game environment set up so that interesting and varied things just happen. And this makes perfect sense to me, to have increased player freedom within levels.

But once the level is over, the interactivity stops. The game doesn’t ask the player, ‘So, where should our hero go now?’ and I think this is so for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to design in this sort of interactivity beyond the level stage. Secondly, I don’t think it makes for a good story. It makes for a choose-your-own-adventure, and not withstanding the fact that I don’t think many people like that sort of thing (people still go to the non-interactive movies, after all), I stand firm on my belief that pre-written stories tend to be best. Yes, of course you can have a certain amount of flexibility within the story if you’re doing it in real time and trying to respond to players (e.g. RPGs, mmoes) but the overall story should be planned out right from the start.

I was re-reading Microserfs by Douglas Coupland the other day, and it was set during 1993/4. In one section, the group of programmers go to a conference about the different types of games that are being developed. They mention interactive stories, and say something interesting – people want to be entertained, they don’t want to have to choose what happens next in the story. Every time some new genre gets developed, the whole argument about story interactivity is rehashed.

Food

There’s an interesting thing about food in America. I was expecting food to be quite a bit cheaper here than in the UK. Instead, the prices are essentially the same, but you end up getting an incredible amount more, maybe double the portions in the UK. So this means you end up with the somewhat unusual and sometimes unsatisfactory result of not saving any money, but just eating more (or perhaps leaving more uneaten food).

Of course, consumer goods and electronics are still a lot cheaper over here.

San Diego

So I’ve finally arrived in San Diego. The flight over from Manchester to Washington Dulles was surprisingly pleasant, perhaps because they had these incredibly nifty touchscreen LCDs in the back of every seat, which were playing about 20 video channels and countless Gameboy games. I was even more impressed when LCD screens started to fold down magically from the ceiling during movies. Unfortunately the plane arrived a little late and my mild worry about making my connecting flight to San Diego gradually grew large as the immigration lines crawled along. As soon as I got past the queue, I shot off to pick up my baggage and dump it on the transfer belt.

Now, while I’ll concede that in my (understandable) haste I might have missed a small sign, I don’t remember seeing anything that pointed me to where I should put my baggage for a connecting flight. As a result I had to recheck-in my baggage and endure more queues. Anyway, the upshot of the story is that had the plane taken off on time, I’d have missed it. Luckily (for me) it left the gate about an hour late, and then unluckily (for everyone) it spent another hour dawdling around outside due to thunderstorms.

No jet lag yet. First impressions of San Diego are: great weather. Big city. Still does that annoying thing where some places don’t include sales tax on their advertised prices.

mmoe

Israeli media article on mmoes (PDF translation). I recently found out that there’s an article online at some kind of Israeli website (feel free to read it if you can understand Hebrew) all about the Cloudmakers, AI, Lockjaw and mmoes. I was quite happy about the way it linked to all the appropriate websites and was a good introduction to the topic. I then thought – hold on a second, as far as I know, I’m the person who coined the term mmoe. So why don’t I get a credit?

Of course, I conceded, it’s possible that someone else thought of mmoe before I did, so I did a Google search on it. As it turns out, there is one instance of someone else using mmoe before I’d thought of it, in February on a messageboard (see the fourth post). This means that I can’t claim to have invented the acronym, although I can take some consolation in the fact that I was the first person to use it in terms of AI-like games. And of course I still should’ve been credited by that article (I find it highly unlikely that the author got mmoe from a single messageboard post). Oh well.