Saturday, March 28, 2009

Video games VS Real-world games: The limitations of the machine

There has always been a sort of disconnect between video games and real-world games (such as tabletop role playing games, board games, etc), regardless of the fact that real-world games gave birth to the video games we all know and love today. In a real-world game, regardless of multiplayer aspects or not, the game consists primarily of humans interacting with a set of rules. In a video game, not only are humans interacting with the rule set, but a computer is as well. Some may argue that the computer and the rule set are more or less the same thing, but in this writing, they will be referred to as separate entities. This distinction, while seemingly arbitrary at first, is very important in determining what exactly players can do in games. Specifically, the presence of the “computer” greatly limits what the player can do in current video games when compared to real-world games.

The very nature of video games themselves – namely that they are played on computers, regardless of whether said computer is a PC, cell phone, or console – limits the scope of what a player can do in a video game. A player can only do what the rules enforced by the computer dictate. This contrasts greatly with what a player can do in a real-world game. The human element of real-world games allows for ambiguity, imagination, and creativity. A player can think of something completely novel, present the idea to other players (or to themselves if it is a single-player game), and a decision can be made on whether to allow the idea within the rules or not. Those who are strict with real-world game rules will cite this as blasphemy, but for a large number of real-world gamers, modifying a game on the fly is not only part of playing itself, but entirely possible as the ultimate choice is made by people. Examples of this can range from the decision on whether a goal was made or not in a sport to how exactly to tackle a hairy situation in a tabletop RPG. In a real-world game, the sky is seemingly the limit.

When we examine video games in this light, however, we see the opposite. As previously stated, the computer limits what players can do. It must adhere to the rules that it is presented with, and it does not have imagination or creativity with which to modify a game on a fly. Even if a video game presented the player with tools that would allow them to modify the game as they played, the tools themselves would be limited by merely another set of rules that cannot be broken. The player in a video game cannot barter or effectively communicate with the computer to allow for real creativity as the computer is a machine. This greatly hampers not only the player’s interactions, then, but also what video game experiences are even possible to create.

At present, not much can be done to alleviate this. However, there is a hypothetical way that this video game “computer problem” could be overcome. Granted, it probably would not happen in our lifetimes, but the possibility is there. The solution I am referring to is strong artificial intelligence.

By strong artificial intelligence (AI), it should be established that I am not referring to artificial intelligence as it currently is in video games. By strong AI, I mean a computer that could think. This may be in the realm of fantasy for some, and for those, this could still be an interesting thought experiment. But for those who are confident in strong AI being created eventually (like myself), this could be a solution.

If strong AI, after its conception, was put into a video game, it would essentially replace the “computer” aspect of the video games we see today. It would act as a virtual game master of sorts that would manage the game world and rules. This would be similar to how the computer used to handle things in a video game previously, but the difference would be that the strong AI system would be able to be creative. The player could thus communicate to the AI interesting and novel ways to tackle a situation in a video game, and the AI could thus modify the game on the fly to accommodate the interesting idea (ideally, being very similar to a holodeck from Star Trek). Granted, this would require a vast amount of memory and processing power, but that’s why this scenario is hypothetical. In a toned down version of this scenario, the AI could merely act as a way to communicate realistically with NPCs and the like instead of having video game players navigate trees of pre-scripted dialogue.

Also, in any conception, strong AI in a video game would result in a slew of social and ethical problems, but that’s something to tackle in possibly another post.

As stated previously, the AI “solution” is quite a complicated and far-off way to solve the problem of the computer’s “stubbornness” in a video game. From where I sit, however, it is the only solution I see to the problem. AI would be the only way, in my mind, to allow video games to be as flexible as real-world games. Some may claim that it is not necessary for video games to have the flexibility of real-world games, but it is my opinion that players would only benefit from said flexibility. Until we solve this problem, video games and the players themselves will be limited by the machines the games are played on instead of their own imaginations, no matter how cleverly the games hide the limitations. Games do not need to extremely flexible to be worthwhile, but I can only imagine the vast amounts of fun available in a system not limited by the machine.

A man can dream…

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