The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Frank Lantz. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Our guest today is Frank Lantz. Frank is a game designer with a focus on exploring emerging technologies and creating new kinds of gameplay. He’s the founding chair of the New York University Game Center. And he’s also the co-founder of everybody’s house games and the creator of the game, Universal Paper Clips, which for us AI guys is kind of a scary title, I’m sure by design, right? Frank previously appeared in Currents 097, where he talked about my mobile game, Network Wars. And Frank, as it turns out, is a virtuoso player of Network Wars. So anyway, welcome back, Frank.
Frank: Thank you, Jim. It’s great to be back.
Jim: Today we’re going to talk about Frank’s new book called The Beauty of Games. As always, you can find a link to the book on the episode page at JimRuttShow.com. And I’m sure it’s available on Amazon and all your usual bookish outlets.
Frank: It sure is.
Jim: That’s cool. So Frank lays out a really interesting theory about games, but I’m not going to start there because he does something interesting in the book, which I’ve decided we’re going to actually roll with, which is he gives a quite detailed and impassioned take on one of his favorite games. I’m going to let him just start with that.
Frank: Sure. So I opened the book with an analysis of a game that I love, which is a game called Serpentes by Benjamin Soule, and it’s an arcade game. It’s very bright and colorful. It’s a version of the game Snake. So the famous game Snake that we’ve all played. But it’s kind of a deconstruction of Snake because, you know, in Snake, you’re going around, you’re piloting this little snake and you’re trying to pick up fruit.
And as you do, you get longer and it becomes harder to navigate without bumping into yourself and dying. And so that’s the core of the game. But what he’s done in Serpentes is he’s opened that up and made it a lot more interesting by having the meaning of the fruit that you pick up be different. There’s a bunch of different types of fruit and each type of fruit has a bunch of different effects. So it might make your snake longer, might make it shorter, it might give you a bunch of points or fewer points.
Sometimes it does something bad like adding obstacles to the screen. And so each fruit has a specific meaning. And the thing that’s the heart of the game is that the meaning of each fruit changes every time you play. So he is randomizing the effects of each one of these fruits every time you launch the game. So you have to relearn what they mean while you play. You know, one of the main points of my book is that the meaning of games is available to everyone just with self-reflection.
Like this is not something that, you know, is some arcane thing that you’re going to read a book and like learn a theory that’s going to explain, you know, how to understand games and their effect. You have access to that just by reflecting on your own experience. Like most people play games, but most of us do so in a kind of, you know, we just do it, just integrate it into our lives and we do it and we get something out of it and then we go on.
But what I’m proposing in the book is that just by thinking deeply and truthfully and kind of honestly about your own experience, you have access to a huge and like fascinating set of the qualities and the features of games that are normally kind of not apparent to us, right? And so in the case of this game, Serpentes, I was like doing that, you know, for myself and thinking, what is it? I’m just enjoying this and playing this game.
You know, I’m trying to get a high score. You know, it’s this kind of like great action arcade kind of game that’s just sometimes games like that just kind of hypnotize you. They just pull you in and give you access to what I call the kind of shark brain where you’re just moving forward and you’re like a predator trying to like, you know, effectively move through your environment. And so I’m having this experience.
But then at the same time, I’m aware of this other thing that’s happening, which is the necessity of constantly remapping the semantics of each of these game objects. So normally when you get good at a game, you get pulled into a game and you’re getting, you’re playing it over and over again, you’re getting better and better. What you’re doing is internalizing the meanings of these game objects and figuring out how they fit together and becoming more and more fluid at your understanding of this environment.
What Suley has done in this game is kind of break that apart. Like he’s stuck a wrench in that process because every time you play, you have to start from scratch and like remap what these game objects mean. And so it’s fascinating. It’s almost like once you start to reflect on that, you kind of meditate on what this game is doing to your brain. You realize that there’s this kind of combination of cognitive modes happening at the same time. It’s like two flavors being combined, right?
It’s like oil and vinegar or chocolate and peanut butter, but they’re not flavors. Right. They’re mental modes. They’re like ways of thinking. Like in playing the action game, you kind of want to relax into a state where you’re just intuitively responding to the environment and you’re kind of like, you’re not really consciously thinking about the way that you’re sending signals to your thumbs.
You’re just trying to kind of get into the flow. But then at the same time, you’re kind of managing this data, right? This data which is being scrambled and you have this like spreadsheet of information and you’re trying to understand. So that’s a kind of more conscious kind of deliberate mode. And these things are happening and they’re affecting each other. And I would say the final thing that occurred to me while I was doing this process of reflecting on why I’m enjoying this game and what I’m getting out of it was this sense of like, okay, as I start to enjoy this game more and more, I’m like giving over to that feeling itself.
Like there was also in the process of enjoying a work of culture. Sometimes you pass a threshold where you’re like, I am a fan of this now. I’m letting this thing into my heart. And I’m now going to consciously be enjoying this in a deliberate way. We think of taste as something that happens to us. Oh, I like martinis or I like, you know, Marvel movies or I like bowling, you know. But taste is also something that we consciously participate in. And at a certain point you can kind of, again, if you pay attention, if you self reflect, you can kind of catch yourself deciding, oh, I’m going to be an opera guy now.
Right. And I’m going to start enjoying opera. And it’s a conscious, deliberate choice. So that was also part of the mix of what was happening to me in this video game. And as a result, it started to like reveal even more things that I liked and sort of like become richer and more meaningful and complex. So all of those things I think are examples of, to me, what’s beautiful and meaningful about games, right, is that they have in particular this process of making your own mental processes apparent to you in a way that they’re normally invisible.
We’re cognitive creatures, but we don’t really pay that much attention to our cognitive processes. And I think games are the art form in which we do, in which we have this kind of meta cognitive, you know, process of being made aware of what it means to move our bodies, to catch a ball, to make a choice, to have a goal and pursue it, to perceive the world and not miss the obvious things, right? To keep our eye on the ball, those kinds of things. So that’s a big theme of the book as well.
Jim: Yeah, I was reading that. I was trying to get my head around, I actually paid my $2.50 download, it played one game, got a sense of how it worked. And I had the aha, about what you were talking about, that it’s really a metagame in the sense that, as you said, your typical game, you just get more and more refined into the zen of the physics and psychology of this imaginary world. But in this particular example, the author had this great idea of, let’s make the physics and psychology variable. Trying to think through it to myself. It’d be kind of like playing asteroids where the laws of gravity, the parameters of gravity are different every play, and they don’t tell you what the parameters are, you got to figure it out.
Jim: So that the game is first and foremost about figuring out the parameters and then adjusting your gameplay in real time as you discover more and more of these parameters.
Frank: And also being aware of your own attention as a resource.
Jim: Yeah, that’s how I was going to say it to your point, that it allows you to introspect in an interesting way, because the normal thing that we do when we play in the games, you get better and better and better in this physics, essentially, drive these car driving games are classic, right? It has some sort of pseudo physics. And as you get better and better and better at that game, you really understand how adhesion works and friction and gravity and all this stuff. But in this case, you’re doing two things simultaneously. One is you’re learning to deal with a given set of physics. While you’re also discovering the physics and watching yourself do that is what you achieved, obviously, is quite interesting.
Frank: And there’s a sense in which even in regular games, this moment happens, even like I say, a driving game. Let’s say you’re trying to play Gran Turismo or something. And at first, you’re just trying to get into the groove. Like you’re trying to relax and like let the thing happen and not tense up and not overthink it. But then at a certain point, you pull back and you say, well, what am I doing wrong? You’re trying to like be immersed in the game and enter the flow state. But then at some points, you want to kind of pull back, pull yourself out of that flow.
Jim: After you crashed about 10 times in the first lap, you go, what the fuck? I’m not getting it exactly. Right.
Frank: Yeah. What am I not getting here? And then you’re sort of like self consciously thinking about, well, look, I’m paying too much attention to this or I’m reacting too early to that. And this happens in sports, obviously, too. You know, in sports, they’re like these two famous ways you can screw up. You can panic or you can choke. Right. When you panic, you lose the ability to kind of just relax and do things on instinct.
When you choke, you lose the ability to kind of stop and consciously think about what you should be doing in a deliberate way, just like following step by step, you know, the things you should do. Right. Like one of the things that I find amazing about games is like, no matter how simple they are, if you take them seriously, you find that they kind of open up into endlessly complicated philosophical areas, you know, they’re like little corners of the world, right? That you try to like understand thoroughly and like figure out.
But in doing so, you definitely realize that each grain of sand contains the universe, you know, no matter how much you isolate it, like, look, we’re just going to discover this one simple set of rules, you know, like chess or whatever it is, like how simple could it be? So clean. It’s so simple. We’re just going to isolate it. But even there, it just kind of like opens up into really complicated and interesting layers of meaning. If you take it seriously.
Jim: And of course, that’s the you talk about in the book that one of the most, at least for a person like myself, that experience of realizing that there’s levels upon levels of understanding, even in the simplest game is actually one of the great attractions. I still very vividly recall my wife and I starting to play Othello. She was my girlfriend at the time. So it must have been 45 years ago. That’s a scary thought. We started playing Othello game that had recently come out. And we both had no fucking clue what we were doing. All right, we’re just flipping around.
But then very quickly, we each started to move up a strategy space of higher and higher abstractions of extracting the, you know, the pattern from the Othello board. And I’d be ahead of her for a couple of days. She’d get pissed off. And then she’d think hard. Then she’d be ahead of me for a couple of days. And to this very day, we, you know, maybe once a year, we pull out the Othello board and we are able to recapture much of our learning, but not all of it probably, but then we can feel ourselves.
Recoalescing all these learnings from 40 years ago. And even though it’s an extraordinarily simple mechanic, again, in fact, I subsequently started using it for AI experiments because it’s closed end and it’s super simple in terms of its mechanics. But it is really very open in this pattern. And essentially every good game has that attribute to it.
Frank: Yeah. I mean, there are three things that occur to me from that story. One is the way in which games like a Othello board games or traditional games like non video games get so much of their meeting from the context in which we played them. The meanings of Othello as an abstract system, like what is and isn’t true. You can make proofs about it and you can like figure out like what the actual kind of like optimal strategies and something, but like the meanings of having a kind of a regular game that you play with a particular person and the rates at which you’re learning and the rates at which they’re learning and the way that you’re learning together and the kind of back and forth.
The fact that it’s a pretend conflict, like in some ways it’s a conflict, but it’s not really, it’s a collaboration on one level. It’s a conflict and it’s the zero something only one of you can win. But on another level, it’s this thing that you’re doing together and you’re constructing puzzles for the other person in real time. And so it gets so much juice from this social context. And then when we make the shift to video games, like so much of that is lost.
Right. Now, all of a sudden we’re in the arcade and we’re having a relationship to a machine where it is just like the rule system that we’re engaged with. And as a result, like we lose all of this, these layers of context and meaning that add so much. And then we replace them with a little fictional princess. You know, we have a little fictional plumber and a princess and a monster. And it’s like, that’s like a version.
It’s like a fictionalized version of this rich social context that got stripped away. And the other thing that occurred to me is that just real quick, there’s Othello variant called ATTAX. It’s an old arcade game or an old PC strategy game, ATTAX, which I think is due for a comeback. Your choice is you can either move a piece one square, in which case it reproduces, you’re just adding an extra piece to the board.
It’s a great game because it’s kind of like you can only do it on a computer. Like it’s not a, it would not work on a board. So you can either move a piece one square and it just reproduces by creating a new piece, or you can jump over a square and land, in which case you’re not reproducing. But if you do that, when you land, you flip all of the pieces next to the square where you land.
Frank: It’s a very, very good mechanic, very clever, really interesting and due for a comeback.
Jim: I’ll take a look at it. It sounds like it could be fun.
Frank: Then the last thing I want to say is, do you play Hanabi? I don’t know about Hanabi. Okay. So I just want to recommend Hanabi as a great couples game. If you still play a game with your partner.
Jim: We currently are playing Hive.
Frank: Yeah. Hive is great. Hanabi is a very simple game. It’s a collaborative game. And it’s a game where you basically the idea is you play with the cards in your hand or facing out. So you can’t see the cards in your hand, but everyone else can.
Jim: I love it.
Frank: And you’re just trying to place the cards down together in order. And a turn consists of you can clue your partner about certain things about their hand. You can say this card is blue or these cards are blue. This card is a three. You’re solving this kind of deductive logic puzzle collaboratively together. It’s a beautiful game. I think maybe my favorite game. And it’s a good game for like just two people to get deep into. If it appeals to you, some people don’t like it, but some people do. And if it does, and you play it over and over again, you’ll find that you’re building up a set of shared skills.
I imagine it’s a little bit like what good bridge players feel. I’m fascinated by bridge, but I’m not any good at it. And my wife and I have tried to learn it and it’s so hard, but there’s something so nice about these kind of partnership games where they really are about exploring the kind of mind meld that happens, which humans are good at. Like let’s admit it. Like this is what we’re good at. This is our thing, right? It is like learning collaboratively, acting collectively. So Hanabi is a beautiful game about that.
Jim: Oh, I appreciate that. We’ll definitely check it out. So now, you know, you’ve heard us talk and you probably figured, hey, this guy, Frank, he takes his games pretty serious, right? And he does. And in fact, the rest of the book is him laying out with a straight face most of the time, a pretty serious theory about the nature of games and where they fit in our culture. In fact, he starts off by saying that when he turns to the meat of the book, the games are an aesthetic form. And then he goes one step further and says games are the defining art form of the 21st century. That’s a direct quote. So let’s start by, what do you mean by aesthetics?
Frank: Yeah. So the first step in the book is getting people to like just all on the same page about what kind of things games are. And to refer to them as an aesthetic form is just to say, look, they’re the kind of thing that music is like music, literature, film, dance, poetry, you know, they’re that kind of thing. They’re a thing that we do for their own sake, like not for some other purpose. They’re not directed at some external purpose or thing we do in order to do it, you know, and they have these qualities of being, of combining both kind of deeply subjective things like what is my emotional, my personal, sensual, emotional response to this thing.
And at the same time, they’re collective. Like you don’t do art on your own. You always do it within some larger context, some larger community where you’re trying to like form a collective understanding of the thing. And you’re arguing about whether it’s good or not, or whether you like it or not, what’s good about it or not. The values in aesthetics are ones that we construct together by talking about them and talking them through. And they’re kind of always social in that way. Right. You they’re not just like these pure isolated experience machines.
Jim: Well, mostly I’m giving a counter example. Emily Dickinson, right? She wrote those poems and nobody read them until she was dead. And they were some of the greatest American poetry of all time.
Frank: I think it does matter that we read them now. I think there’s interesting paradox about, yeah, can there be great artworks that no one has seen? Even if you imagine that as a thought experiment, you’re like, well, obviously there could be. And then when I asked you to say, how would we know? Then the process of like proving that this is the case is a process of like shared experience.
Jim: And now that there’s a hundred PhD thesis on the poetry of Emily Dickinson and people give it away as high school graduation presents, means that it’s very current in our culture, even though she’s long gone.
Frank: Or just you yourself in an attic discovering brilliant poetry written by your aunt who never published it. Even that moment, it’s you and her. You see what I’m saying?
Frank: When it’s just her, then I think it’s in this strange kind of like unresolved state, but as soon as you discover it and it does something to you, that’s when we know, okay, this might be an example of one of these things.
Frank: In any event, the reason I use the term aesthetics instead of art, Jim, is that I just think that art is a meme. The word art is a meme. Our games art is a meme. It’s a thing that is a trope that people have already kind of like gone through and they have their own kind of like hangups about it.
Jim: It’s kind of overloaded.
Frank: It’s way overloaded. It’s overdetermined. We use art to mean like visual art and painting. First of all, that’s like when you say art, you think of a painting, right? So that’s confusing and distracting. We also use it. It’s deeply embedded in certain status hierarchies. You know, like art on the one hand is just descriptive of a kind of cultural product and a kind of experience in the world. Justin Bieber is an artist. You know, Lana Del Rey is an artist. Music, we use the term like in this very straightforward as a descriptive term. But then at the same time, it’s used as a kind of superlative.
Like, oh, art is a thing that has really high, some kind of like really good qualities and values that’s beyond some threshold. And so it’s it’s just confusing and it’s overloaded. So I tried to pick a term that is a little drier, you know, and kind of people are less hung up about, but it’s, you know, basically the same thing, right? It’s meant to indicate this is the cultural category into which these things exist.
And the reason that I kind of want to start with that is I honestly think it’s confusing. I think a lot of people aren’t aware of this or don’t think of games in this way. I think a lot of people still think of games. I don’t know. They’re like hedonic appliances, like a video game is like a refrigerator for fun, right? A refrigerator keeps your food cold and a game console entertains you, right? You plug it in and you pretend to be a fireman or and then you turn it off.
And that’s its function. I think it’s important to say, no, no, it’s something more like these things are more like music or they’re more like albums, you know, songs and and it’s more like dancing, you know what I mean? Get people out of the headspace of thinking about them as technology, as kind of utilitarian device that is meant to produce pleasure or fun or entertainment.
And instead think of them as, you know, they’re one of these things that we do when our work is done and we’re relaxing and we’re hanging out or we get obsessed with that they’re slightly outside of ordinary life. And for many people asking what they’re good for doesn’t even make sense. It’s like, well, no, what is everything else good for? You know, I mean, we’re on this planet to sing, you know, to enjoy like to experience beauty and everything else is for that, like is to create the moments where we can have these kinds of experiences of beauty and pleasure and and shared experience that artwork creates for us and games or something like that. So that’s step one in the argument is kind of getting people on that page.
Jim: I like your statement that one of the things that leads us to believe that there’s at least an aesthetic like quality to games is that like other high end cognitive experiences of that sort, we do them for their own sake. I think that’s actually very deep and very Very important. On the other hand, you do allude to this, is that games do have a dual nature, right? Sometimes they are just an entertainment appliance, right?
In the same way that, say, when I’m programming, I will pick some music to play on my sound system that will be at the right level of non-intrusiveness and interestingness to be just right for writing code. I’m not experiencing this in an art form, I’m experiencing it as sonic wallpaper, right? And so a lot of these attributes of the aesthetic and artistic realm have both utilitarian, okay, it’s going to calm me down after nine hours of slinging coffee at Starbucks or sonic wallpaper while I’m programming. But at the other hand, there are times when you really get into your art or when you can be self-aware of these cognitive states around gameplay. So maybe talk about that a little bit, the dual nature.
Frank: Sure. I mean, to say that an aesthetic form is somehow separate from the ordinary world and doesn’t ultimately cash out in the same criteria that we apply to utilitarian things or to normal ordinary things. Like what is this good for? What is its purpose? Why am I doing it? What does it get me? It’s not to say that they are completely separated from life or that they’re embedded in life.
So even though that I think fundamentally they have this quality of not being reducible to utilitarian criteria, that doesn’t mean that they’re not completely entangled. We watch movies because we want to see a car crash. We read a book because we want to fit into our social crowd and we want to discuss it with people and show them how smart and clever we are. We go to the opera in order to demonstrate that we have good taste and to be seen by other people in our community and maybe get a promotion because my boss goes to the opera. The thing to avoid is then thinking, okay, now I’ve explained opera.
Now I’ve explained movies just because you can have a story of Darwinian natural selection that leads us to having certain kinds of behaviors doesn’t mean that you’ve explained why we like poetry. Clearly they’re embedded in the ordinary world and have all of these things. They’re shot through with all of these more pragmatic or utilitarian functions and reasons and explanations. They still fundamentally have something that eludes that net.
Jim: I think another example, which you actually do call out, is that like the other more traditionally considered aesthetic realms, there’s no doubt that people have varying tastes about the games that they find attractive or not. I’ll say, for instance, I will confess to have never gotten sucked into the modern game console games. The last console I actually played a lot was the Atari 5200 from like 1983 where we had Missile Command and things like that on there. I did play a few snowboarding games when my daughter was like nine. I don’t even remember what it was. It was the very first Microsoft one.
Frank: I’m not sure. I’m a SSX tricky man myself. I don’t know if you were SSX tricky. There’s a video game for you. Oh boy, that’s a good one.
Jim: For whatever reason, I’ve looked at numerous games, not numerous, but a few on these fancy consoles. Here’s even more scary though. I bought every one of the generations of consoles. I’ve got whatever the top of the line PlayStation is now sitting next to my TV. I have never turned it on. I think I turned it on once.
Frank: Oh my gosh.
Jim: But I do like some computer based games. Yeah. But it’s a matter of taste. The twitchiness of the console games just in general don’t appeal to.
Frank: That’s a great example of that’s one of the ways you know you’re in an aesthetic realm. Exactly. That was my point. Because this is not true of bridges. Right? Like I don’t really care about your opinion about bridges. Like I care about the bridge not collapsing. Right? And that’s just an objective fact. Like the rate at which this bridge collapses or not. Now, the way a bridge looks is a matter of where your opinion counts.
It’s not the only thing that counts. Like I actually think that there is an objective sense in which the kind of overlap of our collective shared opinions does create a kind of objective fact about consensus. You know, like the consensus about Shakespeare, the consensus about the Beatles. These aren’t proof that Shakespeare and the Beatles are good. I think the Beatles are overrated.
I think whether Shakespeare is overrated is a really interesting question. But the point is that it is an objective fact that there is certain kind of like consensus about aesthetic values. But at the end of the day, there is this like pretty clear difference between those two kinds of features. And that really matters a lot.
Jim: Yeah. So now let’s stipulate we’ve established that games are an aesthetic domain. And then the book does a great job of that. Now, what kind of aesthetic domain is it?
Frank: The next step is sort of thinking about, yeah, like what type of aesthetic works are these? And I think about this analogy, which has to do with when you look at a painting, right, you look at visual art, in a sense, you’re experiencing, you’re diving deep into the experience of looking. So looking is the thing we do all the time. We’re constantly looking around. We’re using our sight and our vision to maneuver through the world.
It’s full of layers of like complicated judgment and the way it works is really interesting. But when we stand in front of a painting, we’re kind of like we’re looking for its own sake and we’re kind of diving deep into the experience of looking. We’re letting the process of looking kind of like unfold and take us over and just over whelma, just the process of diving into the process of looking and experiencing color and shape and texture and form. And at the same time, we’re kind of pulling back and we’re made aware of looking for the first time.
So we disappear into it, but we also kind of draw back and are aware of it. We’re also thinking, wow, why does this painting work on me this way? What is it about the colors or the shapes?
Why what is this symbol mean? Like, how is that affecting me? Like, why do I like this so much?
Or why is it turning me off? You know, so we’re also kind of like aware of this thing that’s normally invisible to us. Looking, we’re aware of it. We dive into it and experience it directly, but we also kind of like frame it and understand it, which analyze it.
So we have both of these things happening. And the same thing in music, that is true of listening. You know, music, we do the same thing for hearing, for listening, for sound, right?
And so what is the equivalent of that for games? And my claim is that it is thinking and doing. The process of being a cognitive agent in the world that perceives the world, makes a model of the world, has a goal that it is pursuing, comes up with a plan to like achieve that goal, executes that plan, learns that process, which again, we are embedded in. Like, we are that process. It’s not even correct to say that we’re in that, but we just simply are a version of that process. We’re a strand of that process happening.
In games, we dive into that process. We get a little toy version of it. We get a version of it, which allows us to kind of experience it in a pure way for its own sake and just like indulge in the experience of being a cognitive agent in the world, perceiving, desiring, fearing, pursuing, accomplishing, learning, right? And we dive into that and it just allow it to just become this experience, this overwhelming experience. And then we also have an opportunity to pull back and become aware of it, this thing that is invisible to us, right? That we can never, like in games, you’re able to kind of like turn your head fast enough that you could catch a glimpse of yourself being a thing in the world, being a conscious entity, being an agent, doing and thinking, basically. That’s the second step of the argument is that this is the kind of fundamental quality that games are exploring as an aesthetic form.
Jim: Yeah, it is interesting. I would also maybe extend the idea a little bit, which is when you say it’s a aesthetic form of thinking and doing, I suppose we should be careful to say thinking is broader than doing math proofs or, you know, calculating the derivative of a ball and flight.
We can think of something more like Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. You’re thinking with how your body would act in this pseudo physics, right? And you’re almost certainly using huge amounts of analogic reasoning from your body, probably. Think back to car racing, you almost feel the centripetal forces when you’re on the snowboarding apps, when you’re doing them enough, you’re immersed in a bodily type experience, which is very interesting.
And then to your other point, your metacognition is a lot easier. I still remember in this snowboarding app, and again, this was 30, 25 years ago. I think you could hit the some button, I forget which one and pause, right? And so you’d be in midair in the middle of trying to do a 450 degree flip turn. And you could just stop and say, I think it’s a go. And then you can watch it again from a metacognitive perspective, which if you try doing that, when you’re actually doing a flip in the air, you die, probably.
Frank: Yeah, I often think about this. Like, you know, we sometimes think of games as being escapist fantasies, being kind of wish fulfillment fantasies. And in a sense, I think the fundamental wish that they’re fulfilling is the desire to be a coherent agent in the world, right? Because we actually aren’t. Because in reality, experience is very strange. Like it’s chopped up. It’s asymmetric. It isn’t it isn’t this fluid, like coherent thing. It comes in spurts and like sometimes we’re aware and sometimes we’re not.
And but when you’re playing Super Mario World, you just are a little coherent body, a little agent in the world. When you go right, you go right. When you go left, you go left. You jump, you jump.
There are obstacles and you know what they are and you’re going through them. And it’s like, that’s the fundamental fantasy. Like even before you get to fantasies of being powerful or successful, there’s just this pleasure in a cartoon version of this thing that we experience. When we do experience is discontinuous and noisy and chaotic and complicated. And but when you play a game, you’re getting an idealized, simplified, a kind of refined version of that. And there’s something deeply pleasurable about that.
Jim: It’s not very different from what my 11th grade English teacher described. Good literary fiction as is the willing suspension of disbelief. Right. You actually are a little character jumping from platform to platform. At least if the game is good, right? For a while.
Frank: Yeah, I think the equivalent in games to the suspension of disbelief is the performance of desire. I think that’s one of the first things you learn in a game. Like you sit down to play Candyland as a little kid. You know that that candy cane at the end of the Candyland track is cardboard. You know, you’re not going to actually eat it. It’s not going to be sweet. It’s not real candy. But pretending that you want it is what makes the game go in the same way that when you open a book, you know that there’s no person there. There’s no Madame Bovary.
There’s just squiggles of ink on a page. You know that. But pretending that there’s a real person there is what makes the book go. And so I think the same thing happens in games when we take on the utility function of the game as if it were our genuine desire.
Jim: Exactly. So I like that a lot, actually. So the parallel to the willing suspension of disbelief and literary fiction is taking on the fitness function if we want to be fancy about it of the game.
So next step in your argument and your story, I should say, is all right. If game, aesthetics are in the form of thinking and doing in almost every case, one can think of games as systems in which we are thinking and doing. So talk about games as systems.
Frank: Yeah. So games, one of the things that makes them challenging to analyze and think about in this context of being aesthetic works is that their features are hard to see. They’re not the obvious things. I mean, games have graphics, you know, video games have graphics and sounds and things that we can look at and understand in this kind of direct way.
But the really important features of a game is the possibility space that a game creates. And that’s not directly visible to us, right? That’s something that we. Explore over time, understand, build a model of. And that’s what we’re doing when we’re playing a game. What are the ramifications of these rules?
What is the space of possible actions? I’m trying to pursue this goal. How am I going to get there? What’s the best way? What’s the shortest way? What’s the most efficient way? But like, what also what’s possible?
What can I do? You know, what does this button do? You know, one of the things that I think video game players all kind of share is this understanding of this. Is this just art in the sense of like, is this a prop? Is this part of the setting of the game?
In which case it’s it’s kind of cosmetic. Or is this one of the elements of the dynamic system that I’m going to interact with in order to make something happen, right? Make things happen in the game.
Jim: Right. Can I break the door with this sphere or something? Yeah.
Frank: Like most doors in most video games are just art, right? They’re not actually one of the elements of the game that matters. And to experience a game and appreciate it and analyze it and understand it is to be aware of its behavior over time and the behavior of the entire system, including me, the player, right? So it’s the behavior of the materials of the game, the rules that establish how those materials interact, the code, if it’s a video game, the code that determines, you know, how the software is going to respond to your inputs.
And, you know, the specific goals, like the parameters that the designer has created that determine what is allowed and what is the explicit goal, you know, the kind of arbitrary fitness function that they put in is the thing that you’re trying to pursue, which kind of just orients the game. It gives you a sense like of direction. Like this is now we now have an up and a down and it’s allowing us to now understand the behavior of the system in a deeper way, because we have a kind of, in a sense, what the goal does is give you a Cartesian grid on which to understand the behavior. So it’s not just like looking at all of the possible behavior. It’s like understanding it within the context of, Oh, is this particular thing possible?
How can I pursue this particular thing? And that’s a kind of systems thinking, right? It’s a way of understanding the world, not just in terms of the story of what happened, the causal explanation of how did we get here, but like the ongoing story of like, what’s happening, what can happen, whatever the relationships between the important elements in this situation that determine what is likely to happen, what is possible to happen. I think this is a form of like awareness and thinking and problem solving that is newer for humans. I think this is a kind of literacy that we are still in the process of figuring out and developing. I think it has to do with the conceptual tools of like logic and mathematics and the idea of building models of the world. So that becomes, I think, a big centerpiece of the book, this new way of thinking, systemic literacy and the ways in which I think it’s still this unfolding project for humans.
Jim: Yeah, when I was reading that section, I had a thought. I thought I was going to toss it out to you, see what you think, particularly for the kinds of games that you can play multiple times. They may not be identical with every play, but they’re similar.
And some of these puzzle games are literally identical, right? Maybe the artifact is the trajectory through the system and then that there is a broader experience of the ensemble of trajectories. This is one of the things I often do when I’m talking about the difference between complicated systems and complex systems. In complicated systems, you can enumerate all the trajectories.
There’s a bunch of them. In complex systems, you can’t, right? All you can talk about is the statistics of the ensemble. So if we think about ourselves confronting a game, we play it through once. We have one trajectory, but we play it multiple times. We have multiple trajectories. And from that, there is this experience and that this is fundamentally different from how we live in the world.
One of the most annoying things about the world is you only get one run through, right? Should I have asked Diane out when I was 13? I could have, but I didn’t.
How would my life have been different if I had done that? In the video game version of Jim’s life, I can try it both ways, right? And so I think that that is an interesting kind of higher dimensional aspect of the aesthetic experience. The idea of being able to run many trajectories in a choice making ecosystem where you can try different things.
Frank: I think this idea of trajectories and ensembles of trajectories is spot on. And it makes me think of, I think a lot about the difference between heuristics and search. So you have, you have on the one hand, raw search. Raw search is where you just lay out all of the possible outcomes. Like you look at all of your choices, right? Every possible action you could do and you look at what is the outcome of each of those actions. And heuristics are when we’re in a situation where we can’t do that because there’s too many parts to count. It’s impossible practically, pragmatically.
It’s not tractable to do that kind of raw search. So instead we have bundles, we kind of bundle, we kind of compress that into these rules of thumb that say, look, you should be developing your pieces in the early game. Look, you should be controlling the center in general.
Like all things being equal, you should prefer exchanges where you come out ahead in material. These are heuristics that we use because we can’t search. And what these heuristics are, they are like ensembles of trajectories. Because we’re mapping out the possibility space. And we see that there are certain grooves that in general, most of the winning paths go through this thing.
Where you control the center, most of them, but not all of them. And this is really interesting, this tension, because my rule of thumb is this. It’s not even a rule of thumb.
I think this is maybe even something I could prove is this. When you can search, you should. If you’re at the end game in chess and you only have like seven possible moves, you should just look at all seven of them and pick the one that wins the game.
Jim: It’s certainly true in Othello. You can get late in the game. You can definitely just crunch it, right? And you should.
Frank: At a certain point, if you can, you should. And there’s no way in which you should be like, well, look, this move wins the game. But this other move is actually controls the center better.
It’s like, wait, what? That’s a total misunderstanding of how heuristics work. So if you can search, you should.
And so in a weird way, search Trump’s heuristics, like raw search. And yet really, there’s something about that that we don’t like, right? In a weird way, we want the world to be made of like mysterious, wise things. When in reality, it’s just made up of ordinary things. You should just when you when you can win, you should win, right?
Jim: You’re actually hitting on something regular listeners know I talk about a lot, which is heuristics, right? In fact, I’ve talked with one of the world’s leading artificial general intelligence researchers, Ben Gertzel, two days ago, we talked about.
Oh, yeah. My favorite topic, heuristics. And I’ve continued to argue that human style, AGI is mostly about inducing heuristics, heuristic induction, and then relevance realization, which I stole from John Vervaeke of what heuristics should I apply in this situation?
And we actually talked about this in our last conversation. When after I had written network wars and played it a few hundred times, I sat down and wrote 50 heuristics, which I believe to be true about the game. And I still have those that I’ve always said I’m going to write an AI based on them. I haven’t done it yet.
Frank: I would love to see them when you get a chance, send them to me and I’ll see if I have any others to add.
Jim: Okay. Yeah, that’d be fun. I’m sure you can add to it. I haven’t revisited those in years, but I then also realized that there’s large amount of degeneracy. Most game situations, multiple of the heuristics could apply. So you then need a relevance realization or some scoring mechanism to say of these heuristics, is there some rank order?
It’s probably not a strict hierarchy. It’s some bizarre multi-dimensional signal that says, all right, choose this heuristic. And I actually even came up with a semi neural net way to do it. We use the neural net to select the heuristic and that’s all as an example of using a neural net as a simple pattern matcher and then just train it on a bunch of autoplay games and doesn’t actually try to tell you the move. It just tells you what heuristic to use. And then the heuristics, I wrote them down in a way that they could be written as computer codes. They weren’t deterministic that if the situation is X, then you do Y, but many of them could be true simultaneously. And the real art form is to choose what heuristic to use in this exact situation. That has multiple signals coming at it.
Frank: You want to find the right path through heuristic space. Now you’re like three levels high, three levels of abstraction by
Jim: the point of this is that this is what we actually do in our real lives all the time. And everything we do is based on heuristics. There’s almost nothing that is solvable and close form in real life.
Frank: Exactly. And one of the cool things about games is they demonstrate that even when you consciously create a super simplified, abstracted, tiny, idealized version of the world that only has a few elements in it and none of the rich, chaotic, complicated, messy, material ambiguity of the actual world, it’s like, no, we’re just going to look at these few pieces, right? Two kinds of stones, black and white, one grid, right?
One rule about like how they interact, right? Even then, you get something that is almost intractable, right? We just already, even in this simplified version, you’re getting these like rich, complicated, like levels of problem solving that spin out into like meta problems about what you should be studying, what you should be thinking. Even in the AI solutions for Go, for example, just recently, we had this kind of wonderful news story where they discovered embedded in AlphaGo was this flaw that no one had discovered, right? This adversarial technique that you could use to beat the kind of modern day versions of the engine that was in AlphaGo.
Jim: No surprise, it’s kind of like the GANs that could trick visual identification things.
Frank: You’ve seen these adversarial techniques in image models where you’d have an orange and it’s like right apple on it or whatever.
Jim: The cool ones where you could give it a screen of static and it would regularly say it’s an elephant, right? You just found the flaw.
Frank: Yeah, or you could take two photos that to us look identical, but you can change a few pixels, a tiny amount, and the engine now thinks it’s a gazelle instead of an elephant. Well, there’s something equivalent happening in they used this Go AI called Kotago, but it’s basically the same engine as AlphaGo. And I think AlphaGo, I don’t know if anyone’s tested this, but I think it’s vulnerable to the same adversarial technique where just an amateur player can beat AlphaGo using this one weird trick.
Jim: It reminds me when I was in my late 20s and the first really good chess program that came out for the Apple II, Hayden was the name of the company. It was pretty good.
It was like a brother and a sister had like a three person software company. And you know, I could whip my ass, except I found a series of goofy moves where you move your rookponds out first. And it just did not know how to deal with that. And I could beat it even at the highest level with a totally asinine series of moves because it just didn’t anticipate anybody could do anything that stupid.
Frank: And it doesn’t see that it’s being beaten by a kid using a trick. And it doesn’t realize that it’s losing over and over and over again, because it doesn’t have that like, that larger context. That is the messiness of the world that we’re wrangling with. I think we’re living in this incredible, I’m so happy to be alive during this weird moment in history where AI is doing whatever it is it’s doing. And all of these like deep problems are becoming like engineering problems in a way that makes them, you know, kind of more interesting, because people can just kind of like work on them, instead of sitting around thinking about, you know, it’s amazing.
Jim: Yeah, it’s gotten me off the couch.
Frank: And I think games have something important to contribute to this moment. I really do. I’m not exactly sure what it is. But I do think that games like gaining insight into these kinds of questions is something that I think games can do for us and should be doing for us. Indeed.
Jim: I’ve long used my game thinking not only to think about AI, but also people ask me, oh, how are you so successful in your business career? I said, because I started playing Avalon Hill games when I was 10. That’s why. And there was a shitload of things I learned from playing Avalon Hill games with these little war games with hex boards, you know, two foot by two foot little, a half inch pieces, dice, man, you learned some shit that you could apply on the battlefield of business. Let me tell you, this is one of my little favorite weird topics.
The guy like you, I’m sure you have a view on this. You know, I’ve probably specialized more than anything else in military games over the years from my Avalon Hill games, playing tactics too. When I was nine years old up to actually helped a company that’s a very sophisticated game, military hex type game on a PC, improve their AI.
I just love this stuff. But I have extracted a meta meta rule for all military games. I don’t know if it’s not true for all, but almost all, which is the easiest way to beat them is they all are over aggressive when they attack. So find good defensive positions in whatever the game is and rope a dope. It’s amazingly how that is a master strategy in military games that when you’re first learning this game that I helped the AI a little bit, amazingly, it kicked my ass up one side and down the other. The first five times I played it where it was just, whoa, this thing is high dimensional.
The game is extremely lot, huge search space. You know, you have to develop your heuristics or you’re just dead meat. But by game seven, I developed a rope a dope strategy where you find, okay, here’s, this is what a good defensive position looks like. Just sit there and let him punch himself out counter attack at optimal times and eventually they lost ratio will be in your favor and then you’ll be able to sweep him off the board. And so my first victory was in game seven. Now I play a much more aggressive game in that particular game, but I’ve seen it in military game after game after game that the attacking side is more aggressive than optimal.
Frank: Let me ask you a question, Jim. Do you think this is true of the history of actual military battles? Do you think this is also true in the real world?
Jim: I can tell you one case where it’s absolutely true. And I actually started writing a novel about this. I did all the research, American Civil War. In the American Civil War, if you actually carefully analyzed the battles, the side that was on the tactical defense won 90% of the time.
And this was famously punctuated by Lee’s attack picket’s charge at Gettysburg. And again and again and again, these smart guys, they all went to West Point, right? They all had 20 years of military experience at top generals, and they kept making this mistake. It was only one general in the whole Civil War that figured this out.
And whether it was by intellect or intuition based on his other lack of intellectual achievements, I’m going to say it’s probably intuition, was James Longstreet. And famously at Gettysburg, he counseled Lee not to fight day two and day three with frontal assaults on Meade’s position, but to pivot to the south and to the east and get between Meade and Washington and dig in and let Meade break his sword on Lee’s and Trent’s line and then counterattack as they had done at every one of their winning battles, First Manassas, Second Manassas, Shanzlersville, Fredericksburg, etc. And so there’s an example in real world where because of the correlation of forces, defense had an unbelievable advantage. And the Confederates in the east that had developed the strategy was sort of by necessity because they were outnumbered of getting into good defensive situations, let the other guy break his sword and then counterattacking. And that’s what Lee should have done at Gettysburg, but didn’t. Interesting.
Frank: It would surprise me a little bit if this were true because normally, I mean, there’s something like the efficient market hypothesis applies to the world, right? Applies to presumably something like there’s not a lot of low hanging fruit because the incentives are so strong to win. Like if there was like this easier way to win, people would figure it out.
Jim: It’s interesting. They did not in the American Civil War and nor did they in World War One. I think about the slaughter. It was another case where the correlation of technology and this is something that’s also very interesting in the real world is that it all depends on where you are in the technological evolution. In Napoleon’s day, the attack actually had the advantage and Napoleon was a super aggressive attacker.
That’s why he won. And here’s why the standard military musket of 1805 had an effective range of no more than 75 yards and 50 yards is more like it by the Civil War. Not that long later, the mini ball and the rifle musket was now able to start inflicting casualties at 200 yards.
So a charge across an open field from half a mile away, typically where they started pickets charge was almost a mile. Once you got within a few hundred yards, body started dropping. And by the time you got to the other guy’s defensive line, you didn’t have much left.
When they couldn’t really start taking you out until 50 or 75 yards, then the math actually doesn’t give them enough time to stop you before you overrun their line. So that one simple technological change switched from an offensive favoring regime during the Napoleonic times to a moderately defensive favoring regime at the Civil War. And then by World War I, the machine gun and barbed wire had switched it to overwhelming advantage to the defense.
Frank: I can easily imagine one explanation if there was a kind of mistake that people were making over and over again of undervaluing defense that one possible explanation would be that, look, I’m trying to win the war, but mostly I’m trying to be a good general, right?
Status point. Being a good general is being aggressive. Yeah, that’s that. Like mostly, you know, like there are a lot of incentives for me to like demonstrate that I’m aggressive, that I’m not afraid, that I’m not a coward, you know what I mean?
Like these are things that that are admired and respected. And so I have a bunch of heuristics, right, that are encouraging me because even if like it’s only a 52 or 54% advantage to be on the defense, I’m paying a huge cost because I’m looking like a coward, right? I’m looking like I’m ineffective. So there’s a kind of do something bias. Yeah.
Jim: Games, I suspect it’s similar that the game designers say exactly that it’s more fun when it attacks.
Frank: In games that gets even further like ossified by the fact that in games we’re designing experience for players. And yes, we want it to not have, you know, optimal strategies that are exploitable or, you know, whatever. But also we need to like, you know, accommodate the kind of natural behavior that players are expected to do. We have the different incentives we want to encourage aggression. And there are other kinds of things where we have to deal with the players psychology. And you’re trying to like create a system of rules that rewards players, you know, in the right way for their actions.
And therefore you might end up with a situation like that. There’s a version of your heuristic, which I always do, which is the dumbest looking power up is probably the most overpowered, right? If you’re choosing characters in a loadout screen, the one that looks terrible is probably great. Because, you know, if it was terrible and it looked terrible, then they would have fixed it in game design, right?
You know what I mean? Like, can’t obviously be as bad as it looks because players weren’t choosing it because it looks bad, or it looks boring, or, you know, it’s not exciting and dramatic and seductive, then they probably had to keep making it better and better. So it’s probably actually the best one. Yeah.
Jim: Though I will say there’s a contrary one in games like Civilization and all those tech tree ones always go for the gunpowder.
Frank: And you will win. The designer of Civilization Sid Meyer is a famous game designer, one of the handful of game designers that people know the name of.
Jim: And by the way, he also has got a really good Gettysburg game also. Yes.
Frank: And a great golf game. He has SimGolf as a Sid Meyer joint, believe it or not, and actually quite good. Yeah. But he famously said of games that a game is a series of interesting decisions. So that’s one of the kind of ways of defining games that’s floating out there that people have heard of. And that was one of the things I was thinking about, because to me, that leaves out so much. Like, I think there’s an important thing that he’s pointing to that that is about this way in which games are about certain kinds of cognitive behavior. But I do think it misses out on that whole universe of games that aren’t about self consciously, strategic, deliberate choices, but that are just about the actions and reactions that we do, the thinking that we do with our bodies and with our emotions. And so it leaves out, for example, all of like basketball and fencing and sport, you know what I mean? And those those are games too. And they’re not just about kind of the deliberate decision of do I take gunpowder or not. They’re also about the rhythm at which I move my body, the kind of gardener, multiple intelligence, right?
Jim: Exactly. And so that’s a certain class of games. And those are the civilization fits that to a T. I have played every one of the civilization games from one through six. And I’ve always said, they could be better.
They’re not bad, but they could be better. Go for the gunpowder on any of those tech tree games. And in a tactical or operational level military game, if you’re struggling at least next time, try finding a good defensive position, dig in, wait for the guy to break his sword and then counterattack, just like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee at Second Manassas. All right, let’s move on to the next big topic, which is you talk about there’s another big thing about games, which is they cause brain states.
Frank: Yeah, I think of games as being, I refer to it as a kind of homebrew neuroscience, right? Like, we are doing psychological experiments on ourselves when we play a game, you know? And in a sense, they’re like drugs or they’re psychotechnology, as John Vervaeke would say, right? Games are kind of psychotechnology that are similar in a way to meditation, to intoxication, to like intentionally entering these forms of altered states.
And I think that is a, yeah, there’s a great part of their power. I think a lot of people, the kind of experience that they’re seeking out in games is a type of intoxication often, not always, but often. Often it can be a kind of comfort, right? That that’s one of the main things that people turn to games for is kind of self medication, right? And when your brain is like full of chattering voices that are like, just repeating, like weird, anxious thoughts, you can often turn to a game and it kind of fills your mind with something that isn’t that, you know? It fills your mind with a set of interlocking elements that you’re trying to figure out, because you’re using a lot of your cognitive machinery to actually model the possibility space itself. It kind of like replaces this anxious chatter, kind of fills your head with this other thing, which in a way is like, I mean, it’s a form of self destruction in a way, right? Those chattering voices are yourself arguing about what you should do next. And it’s often, you know, being held hostage by one truculent voice that is just trying to dominate the conversation. Cool.
Jim: All right, one call out I got to have for my listeners. If you’re interested in soccer hooliganism, this is one of the most interesting nonfiction books of all time. It’s Euford, who for seven years hung out with the UK, the most bad football hooligans he could find one particular crew.
At the same time, he was an American in London as the editor in chief of a snooty literary magazine. It’s hilarious. This book is so deep of a dive into an alternate mindset that this guy lived for seven years. If you’re at all interested in football hooliganism, read Among the Thugs. It’s unbelievable.
Frank: 100% agree. I love that book.
Jim: I actually gave it as a gift to my dear friend Cormac McCarthy, the famous novelist, and he also said it was now one of his very favorite nonfiction books. So Cormac, one of the greatest writers of the 20th and 21st century like that, you know, it’s a good book. All right, well, one thing before we move on from, I’m glad you read that, that’s cool, about brain states, I did a search on the book and I did not find a phrase which I thought maybe you would use very relevant to brain states around games and that’s flow states.
Frank: Oh yeah, and maybe do I never use the term flow?
Jim: You never use the term. I tried multiple searches. I even tried searching for Mahaley, whatever the hell his name is, the Hungarian dude with the unpronounceable last name.
Frank: Chick sent me highly flow states, famous and important psychological concept. I think perhaps overused a little bit in discussions and analysis of games. Maybe I over corrected by not mentioning it all. Yeah, I tend to think that people maybe over index a little bit on the flow state. The flow state idea is true, very true, as far as it goes, which is that there are certain kinds of mental states where that are pitched just right in terms of challenge, that they’re not so hard that they become frustrating and not so easy that they become boring. And when you get in one of these states, you’re doing a task that has that quality where it’s really absorbing a lot of your attention and requiring a lot of your effort to do correctly, but never really becomes super route or repetitive.
So you’re always kind of like, that’s just a lovely, delicious, wonderful thing. And it is something that in general, games are often trying to get the player into. For some people, I think Chick sent me highly becomes the skeleton key. And they’re like, okay, but this explains everything. This is exactly what games are trying to do. And I think that falls a little bit prey to this idea that games are, hedonic appliances, that they’re really what they’re trying to do is give you this jolt of pleasure, this kind of like experience that you plug them in, and you’re getting this good quality emotional thing that you’re enjoying. When in reality, that’s kind of just one ingredient, so much of the games are just so much more complicated than that. They often are boring. Do you know what I mean? They’re not always this kind of ideal, perfect, pleasant experience. They’re often kind of like
Jim: a famous world of Warcraft, you know, mining rocks and polishing swords and stuff, you know, all this tedious shit, what is part of the experience. But it is interesting that there are certainly people like John Vervaeke and Jamie Wheal, who’s been on the show a few times, who both argue that having more flow states is actually really good for your mental equilibrium and your mental balance and your mental development even. And so anyway, let’s move on a little bit. We’re going to skip several things, unfortunately, like the weirdness of games, one of my favorite topics, which is let’s do a short exploration into two games that you really get into deeply in the book, Go and Poker.
Frank: These are my case studies, my big case studies, just because I wanted games that I’ve played a lot, and Go and Poker are two games that I played very deeply, you know, spent a lot of time thinking about. And I kind of like explore both of them within the context of why I find them beautiful. You know, just trying to explain like, what is it about it that I find beautiful about these games? What is it that I find meaningful about them? Because I think it’s easy to look at an abstract game and think, well, it’s not about anything, it’s just about itself, right? It’s just something you plug into and it gives you this emotional experience.
And then you unplug and nothing about the world has changed, you haven’t learned anything and you haven’t like, I think that’s a mistake. I think both of those games are rich in meaning. They’re elusive, right? They’re a little bit harder to understand because they’re not stories that we can tell, they’re not pictures that we can point to. They are examples of certain kinds of experiences that tell us something about the world, that tell us something about ourselves, about other people, about the world, but not in a practical way, but in a deep way. Maybe it’s just one example in Go. I talk about this quality of emergence.
Let’s talk about that one. Yeah, this important idea of, well, there’s certain features of the world that exist at a macro level and heuristics are an example of this, right? Maybe at the micro level, we have raw search, right? Each decision has certain consequences, but there’s too many of them to go through one at a time and figure them out. And so we do bundle them and as a result, we have these kind of rules of thumbs and these heuristics which help us understand the shape of the possibility space, the terrain, right? It has a topology. It isn’t flat. It isn’t evenly distributed.
It actually has features, features which emerge at this higher level. So Go, just these incredibly simple rules, right? There’s just the rule.
You take turns placing a stone and then there’s a rule of capture when you surround a stone and that’s basically it, right? It’s a super simple thing, but at the higher level when you’re trying to play it well, it has all of these surprising and interesting and complex features and that is emergence, right? That’s the situation we’re in when we’re trying to like make sense of the world, right? We’re looking at features at all these different levels. Sometimes we’re looking at the micro level, trying to understand it, drilling down and seeing how these elements are behaving on a one-to-one basis. Sometimes we’re looking at these larger Shapes this topology of the overall possibility space.
And it’s counterintuitive that the simple thing, the simple rules can have all these complicated and surprising emergent effects. And in Go, it’s not just that you’re experiencing that. You get to actually trace it out in your mind. Because sometimes you’re looking at the one by one, kind of like, I’m going to go there, you go there, I go there, you go there. You’re reading out a position in a very deliberate way. That’s one at a time. And then sometimes you’re in this space of feeling, I’m playing in a way that’s too greedy, or I’m playing in a way that’s too passive, or I’ve got too much territories, I should worry now about tactics. Or I’m too secure, I should be reaching more here. You know what I mean? These kind of general things.
Jim: These are classic heuristics. Yeah, classic heuristics.
Frank: It’s not just that you get to experience that. It’s like the process of playing Go is that, you know, is getting good. The process of getting good at Go is balancing these things.
Jim: I’m not going to make the following conjecture. I’ve only played Go a few three or four times. Just enough to understand the mechanics. I’m going to guess that for an intermediate player, what you say is true, but that for a great player, there’s a whole nother domain of things.
Frank: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Right. As you’re getting better, you’re like going up the ladder of heuristics. Because at first, you’re doing everything very deliberately. You’re like, what am I supposed to do again? You’re applying the rules in a very deliberate way. And you can, you’re aware of them operating and like helping you perceive the board state and figure it out. Then as you get better, that stuff gets chunked. It gets internalized. It’s not even a heuristic.
It’s invisible to you. You just know how the stones just flow. It’s as if they have their own behavior.
It is as if there are physics, which determine how a position unfolds as the two players make the obvious correct moves. And you can start to see it. You’re constructing that. So we’re born with certain modules in our hardware that help us understand physics. But when you play a game, you’re in the position of constructing those modules. But at a certain point, they do become modules.
They’re invisible to you and they’re just operating. Now you’re at a higher level and now you’re explicitly thinking about other things. I go, okay, now should I be aggressive or should I be, which opening should I use here?
Which Joseki am I in? That kind of thing. But then at a certain point, that also becomes invisible. That also becomes embedded as you make it part of your machinery. And so you’re on this ladder and it’s like, how amazing that we have artworks that are about that.
Do you know that humans made things that are like a poem or like a dance or like a song or like a painting, but they’re that process and there’s millions of them. Red Go is just one and a Go is great. But it’s also just like, it’s just one. And there’s so many of these things out there and each one does it differently.
Jim: It’s underlined your point that, you know, this is a really serious domain of aesthetics, that there’s just so much and they’re so different, you know, from you can’t get any more austere than Go, or at least not at a game anywhere near that size. And then on the other extreme, you can have these games that have just ridiculous, like the one game I wrote the AI for, I calculated it had approximately 10 to the 60th options at each turn.
Frank: The same thing happens in League of Legends, right? The same thing that’s happening in Go where you’re on the ladder of heuristics and you’re, you become responsible for your own cognitive functionality in a way, in a game.
Like all of a sudden you’re aware of it and you’re like thinking about it and you’re trying to. And that same process is happening in soccer. It’s happening in League of Legends. It’s happening in tennis.
It’s happening in Angry Birds. Like it’s just a different versions of that kind of thing. Each one has its own flavor. Each one has its own complicated set of features. And obviously poker was the other kind of big case study.
Jim: One point before we move on to poker is this idea that we were not born with the ability to play chess, checkers, you know, tic-tac-toe or anything else. Just like we’re not born with the ability to read and write. We are probably born with the ability to speak.
It’s not been proven, but that’s the leading hypothesis. But literacy is almost certainly an exaptation of other capabilities. It’s kind of like burning new firmware into your computer to program yourself with these heuristics.
Probably more like an FPGA for you real nerds out there where you can reprogram the hardware. And that’s switched then to poker. You know, I have played poker a whole lot since I was very young. And there’s a whole bunch of these levels of heuristics in poker as well.
And as you say, some of them become invisible. For instance, when I play Texas Holdems, I don’t have to calculate pot odds. You know, I just know the pot odds. But for years, you had to actually run the traps and calculate pot odds. And poker has, you know, many of these attributes. But of course, poker is very, very different than Go.
It’s almost the other extreme, you know, where Go is 100 percent intelligence. You see everything. There’s no hidden things. There’s no secret stratagems. There’s you can’t lie and go. Right. Poker is the other extreme. So take us through your take on poker.
Frank: One of the things that’s fascinating about it is how much of a psychological exercise it is, like the real.
Jim: All it is. That’s what you got good at it.
Frank: And this is what made it so fascinating to John Von Neumann. Right. So when John Von Neumann, the inventor of game theory.
Jim: And probably the smartest guy of the 20th century.
Frank: Maybe the smartest guy of the 20th century. But he was interested when he invented game theory. Poker was the game he was thinking of. So he played poker. He played a lot of games. Got to like the party. Got to like to play games.
Jim: And chase women too, as it turns out.
Frank: Yeah. And he was like, oh, no, chess isn’t a game. Chess is just a math problem. Right. There’s clearly a solution to chess. It’s like a hard solution, but it’s just like you’re working out some like math. No, the kind of games I’m interested in are games like poker, where it’s all about where the outcome of your decision depends on the decisions that are made by other people. It’s this simultaneous decision making. It’s really the overlap between how you perceive the world and your plans and how I perceive the world and my plans. It’s the interference pattern between those two things.
It’s the interference pattern between our brains that matters. That’s the terrain in which poker takes place. The real thing I’m doing in poker is that, yes, of course, I want to make the optimal move. But really what I’m trying to do is figure out what your strategy is based on your behavior. I want to understand each of the players at the table so that, yes, of course, I want to play optimally and playing optimally is its own like deep problem that we’re just now figuring out like this, this style of optimal play that has to do with, you know, a mixed strategy of how often you do different kinds of actions and different kinds of situations. But really what’s going on is that while you’re doing that, your opponents are also modeling you and your ability to do that in order to exploit.
Jim: Good ones do. But you made a great point, which I try to make to people when they’re first learning poker. Yeah, you can play optimally and you will win OK at a predictable rate. However, you’re leaving shitloads of money on the table against bad players. And then to the point you make even more interesting, which makes me why poker is the greatest, which is, OK, the person appears to be a bad player.
Are they just setting me up? And I can tell you a personal story. This has actually gotten in the business literature somehow or other through a guy who’s a well known writer. They have to tell the story at an event one time about when I was about 11 years old, my he wasn’t really my uncle, but he’s a World War Two buddy of my father’s. We called Uncle Wally. He was a professional gambler. But of course, he also drove a taxi cab.
So sometimes his luck broke bad, right? And he’d come over a lot. We play a lot of poker. He taught me a shitload about poker and, you know, bankroll management or anything else. When I was 12, he said, Jim, you’re a mighty good poker player. You should stop wasting your time becoming a better poker player.
You should spend your time looking for weak games. And to this day, when I go to a casino, which is very often once a few years, I can still tell you a story when we went out for my mother’s 80th birthday. She dearly loved casinos.
She was otherwise an intelligent person, but she loves slobber seeds. Don’t ask me why. So I did my usual thing, which is to sleep in the early evening, go down at 3 a.m. with a cup of coffee, no booze, and walked around the card room and did my quick analysis of strong players, weak players. And I said, all right, went to the floor manager and all right, signed me up for table seven, which was clearly the weakest table. And he laughed and said, that’d be about an hour and 45 minute wait.
Frank: It’s funny because, yeah, I know guys that emphasize game selection, right? And they’re like, yeah, the real secret of poker is picking the softest table. By far, by far. But then I also know guys who are like, no, the real secret of poker is picking the hardest players, is playing against the best players, because that’s how you learn and improve. That’s true, too. That is true.
So there’s even a higher level, right? Because at that point, you’re not maximizing for your revenue. You’re maximizing for your rate of learning, which then is going to pay off at revenue at some point.
But honestly, even if it doesn’t ever pay off in terms of win rate, it’s paying off in terms of something else, which is the the pleasure and satisfaction of improving at a hard problem.
Jim: It’s funny you mentioned that because that same trip to Vegas the next night, I went down, I eventually find a soft table and won some money. But then next night, I said, I’m going down now, I’m just going to play for fun. And I sat down at a higher stakes table than I normally would. I think it was a 1020 Texas Holden player take game. And it was the weekend of the top World Series of Poker. And so some of the guys that had washed out, there were nonetheless good guys.
One of them at the table I’d seen on TV, put it that way, right? And I got my ass dusted by a level of play that I didn’t even under fucking stand. I think I lost $1,800 in an hour, which for me is a fair bit for a poker game. But just as you said, you know, I went and my brothers and my cousins, they’re all fucking out there and I was just laughing. I go, I got my ass whipped. I got the floor mopped and it cost me $1,800. I said, you know, what do you think about that? And I said, I believe that’s the best $1,800 I’ve ever spent my life. I learned more about how to play position from that one exercise than anything else ever. And no matter how many books I read, I never understood how to play position until watching this true World Series star just bust everybody’s ass with great position play.
Frank: Now, try modeling that in a payoff matrix. That’s the way in which games are like, they’re always slipping the net of our attempts to like analyze them. Like, well, let’s put it, now this is how to explain it. It’s like, no, no, no, they’re always like a slightly beyond our ability to kind of capture them and explain them. Yeah, it’s a beautiful example.
Jim: It’s hilarious. So let’s move on to a last topic or so many. I’m skipping, unfortunately, I wish we had two more hours, but we don’t. And that is so many interesting things in this book. That’s why I’m going to start recommending this shit out of it to people. So, oh, good. Thank you. Listeners out here, get this book.
This is a Jim Rutt personal endorsement at this so much. 165 pages. That’s short. You know, it’s easy. It’s easy.
It goes down easy. It’s like a three hour read, right? By that book.
God damn it. But anyway, the late in the book, you go into a really quite serious point is that, you know, one of the reasons I’ve been involved the Santa Fe Institute for the last 22 years is that they are the home of complexity science. And most of the problems of our world that are possibly going to sink the human race are problems of complexity, not complicated problems, but complex problems that there is no searchable closed end answer.
Right. This is learning how to deal with what Donna Meadows called systems literacy, right, as a huge requirement to be a 21st century. I think she actually wrote it late 20th century person and that properly thought of games may be the Plato’s Academy for systems thinking and then even for the higher version of that. And this is other people I deal with the meta modernists and some others believe to be the top of human cognition currently, which is meta rationality to understand. Why don’t you tell those two stories? How games can be the gateway to systems literacy and then eventually to meta rationality?
Frank: I’m a big fan of David Chapman’s thinking on this topic, the meaningness website and meta rationality as a project. But all of these, I think are related. Yeah. There’s a sense in which games are an art form for nerds. Let’s just admit it. It’s true.
It’s not something we should be embarrassed about, right? It doesn’t mean that’s all they are, but it’s like part of their identity is that they really do appeal to kind of draw on and work with a kind of mental mode that does encourage and incentivize and reward analytical thinking, instrumental reason, this ability to understand deeply complex systems and develop these new forms of literacy that build on logic and math. These are the tools that kind of go into systems literacy. They are an important part of the overall identity of games and how they work and how they make beauty and how they make meaning.
And I think there is a sense in which they can participate and contribute to this larger process of as a species getting better at understanding dynamic systems, at understanding complex systems, at understanding computers and software and seeing the world in terms of data, probability and information and things like that. Probability as a science has its roots in that scale, for instance, right?
Jim: He was a gambler, right?
Frank: Yeah, exactly. And they were looking at actual gambling games and actual card games and trying to answer questions about specific games in developing this science of statistical and probability theory. Games are already contributing in a deep way to this idea of models and data and statistics and systems. But at the same time, they are an opportunity to go beyond that because they also, like each game creates a little model, a little toy universe, a little world made up of rules in which you can use these tools to understand and get better at them and understand them more deeply and explore them.
You move between games, right? And in that sense, they are a powerful model for the way that rationality is one conceptual mode among many. There’s a sense in which I’m a big fan of the Enlightenment project and I think the role of rationality within how we deal with the world. I think it’s an incredibly valuable conceptual tool. Like it’s a way of understanding the world and solving problems and thinking problems that we need, right? We’re going to desperately need rationality as a way of understanding the world to solve the problems that we’re facing right now. But it doesn’t work as a universal global framework from which you can judge everything else. Like it is one mode among many. In order to do rationality on the world, you have to kind of prepare the world in a certain way to apply the tools of rationality to solve these problems.
The world doesn’t come naturally like that, divided up into measurable, quantitative units upon which you can use the tools of mathematical logic to kind of analyze them and see them operating as a complex system. You kind of have to do that. And when and where to do that is itself a hard problem, which itself can’t be solved by rationality, right?
Like for obvious reasons. And so that I think is kind of the framework of meta rationality and in some sense the framework of metamodernism. In some ways, it’s what postmodernism was kind of about as well. Getting to the point where we can use these new tools of systemic literacy and an instrumental reason and rationality, but we can use them and we can wield them in a way where they don’t fail by us trying to adopt them as a full on replacement for like religion or, you know what I mean, for these kind of global frameworks that we used to have, these big meta narratives that explained everything.
Jim: Yeah, that was the good move from postmodernism was meta narratives be suspicious. The big mistake was, well, let’s replace it with nihilism. Not such a good.
Frank: That’s exactly right. Yeah. The problem is that once you become aware of the fact that every kind of systemic framework is its own separate thing that is sustained by its own ideology and none of them are self justifying in a global sense, right? That there’s no one system from which you can look at all the other systems and judge them and understand which one’s best. The dangers that you slip into nihilism.
Jim: In reality, I’m very excited by the fact that seems to me the right move is to a radical form of pluralism. Right. Where we all find our own in groups of people and cultures, our own ways to find what we think of as our own upregulator, our own human well being, right?
Frank: But without falling into the mistake on the other end of the spectrum, which is relativism, right, which is like, look, you do your truth, I’ll do my truth. There’s no such thing as the actual truth. You know what I mean? We’re all just in our own worlds. That’s not good either.
Jim: If you don’t plant your wheat in the spring, I guarantee you’re going to starve. Right. Again, that’s the other thing you got to keep in mind. You’re always bound as my good friend, Jordan Hall, has a great saying, which is, reality is the checksum on your beliefs.
Frank: Right. Whose reality, though, is there is a reality there?
Jim: I believe there is a base.
Frank: Real and there’s a sense in which, yeah, that plain old reality is an ingredient of games in a way that it isn’t like it’s also an ingredient of movies. It’s also an ingredient of paintings. You know, it’s like that, that truth.
It’s an ingredient of poetry. But in games, you really feel it because there is a sense in which games, like you’re searching for the truth, the real objective truth. When I make a move that’s a winning move in our game, that’s just a fact and you have to deal with it. Like it’s not an opinion.
Like it’s an absolute fact. The paradoxical thing about games is that on the one hand, they are the art form of instrumental reason. They are the art form in which this kind of like stubborn truth of objective reality is one of the ingredients. But they’re also an art form. So even though they have that kind of thing in them, what they are is this thing, this kind of experience that doesn’t ever reduce to it to an objective fact that doesn’t ever is never subject to explicit proofs of, you know, or things that are just like, look, this is not up for debate.
They’re always up for debate. They’re always including these ineffable, kind of irreducible qualities of what makes something beautiful, what makes it interesting, what makes it compelling, what makes it corny, what makes it cringe, what makes it, you know, boring and predictable. Like these are not things that you can point to and show that they’re one way or the other. We have to construct them collaboratively by arguing about what we do and don’t love about snowboarding or football or League of Legends or Go. We like collectively are working out what we think.
And so that is that tension. Like that’s what makes them such a good example of metamodernism, metarationality, postmodernism. The postmodernist loved games, right? They really, many of the great postmodernists referred to games to lose in guattari loved Go. You know, they have this wonderful thing about the exteriority of the war machine and they use Go as an example. So there is a sense in which I think games do that.
They are the art form in which we both have this kind of instrumental reason and we step back from it and observe it and understand it. And it doesn’t become a religion. It doesn’t overwhelm us. We don’t try to turn it into a global universal thing. That’s the way in which they kind of like, I think, demonstrate that for us.
Jim: Well, isn’t that cool? This was one of the best Jim Rutt show episodes in a long damn while. I love this. This is great. And so all you people, you go out there and you buy Frank’s book, The Beauty of Games. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.
Frank: Thank you so much, Jim. I really, really love talking to you.
Jim: I’ve never said that on the show. I’ve, I’ve titled a few books.
Frank: Wow. I want to put that on the cover. If I had known you could blur it so well. It’s a thrill talking to you, man. I really, really enjoyed it.
Jim: Yes this has been a hell of a good conversation. I’ll remember this one for a while.