How to Play God

In an essay in the June issue, I talked about the artist as God, creating a world for the use of the player. I asked the question, should the artist-creator be a puppeteer or an architect? That is, should the creation be specified in its every detail, or should the artist instead specify the principles under which the universe operates, and then allow those principles to play themselves out?

Rationalism Versus Faith
This question is not new; it was at the core of the collision between rationalism and religion in the nineteenth century. The focal point of that collision was Darwinism. Darwin’s hypothesis that man had evolved from lower life forms according to rationally understandable principles contradicted the literal interpretation of the Bible. At first, many people thought that this required an unpalatable choice between religion and science, between faith and rationalism. However, a later understanding brought science and religion together again: God created evolution. He designed the principles under which the universe would operate, knowing that His design would yield humanity. Thus, God’s sovereignty over His creation remains unchallenged, and scientific understanding is made to fit into a larger framework of religious belief.

This approach to rationalism and faith is now widely accepted in the Christian world, except for a few lunatic Creationists. But it is instructive for us to understand the precise nature of the intellectual transition it represents, for this transition has a great deal to do with the design of artistic universes.

Data and Principle
The key concept of the old view is "literal interpretation". That is, the view that opposed Darwinism took the Bible as absolutely, literally true in all of its details. The Bible, in this view, is revealed truth; it is God speaking directly to man through His authors. Since the Bible is the Word of God, it must be absolutely true in every detail. To question any detail is to deny the Word of God.

There are a great many logical inconsistencies in the Bible. These were explained away as mysteries of faith. Yes, they don’t make sense to mere humans, but these things go beyond the grasp of human intellect.

Perhaps the high-water mark of the literal interpretation was provided by the calculation of an Anglican bishop that God created the world in 4004 BC. He even determined the date and time of this momentous event. In so doing, however, he sowed the seeds of the destruction of the literal interpretation, for even then geology was establishing the great antiquity of the earth. The discovery of fossilized seashells on mountaintops far from the ocean suggested that vast geological changes had taken place, changes that simply could not be contemplated in the 6,000 year life span that the bishop had given the earth.

The core issue is the belief that the Bible represents incontrovertible data. In this "biblical empiricism”, all the scientific and logical laws in the world are nothing next to the data in the Bible. That data is the supreme truth of the universe and all the scientific laws and principles must conform to biblical truth, not vice versa.

The Unity of Data and Principle
The realization that toppled this literal interpretation is that laws and data are not separate entities; laws are highly digested forms of data. For example, let us take the elementary scientific observation that 2 + 2 = 4. Now, that’s about as simple, obvious, and uncontroversial as a theory can be. But this law is not some ethereal hypothesis cooked up in of the fevered mind of an effete academic. Instead, it represents a digestion of a vast amount of data. If I take two apples and put them in a box, and then I add two more apples, when I look in the box, I’ll see four apples. Surprise, surprise! But, if I put two oranges in a box, and then add two oranges, when I look in the box I’ll see four oranges. The same thing happens if I use kumquats, or monkeys, or pencils, or planets. After thousands, nay, millions of such experiences, I have been able to conclude that two things added to two more things yields four things: 2 + 2 = 4. This is not airy-fairy theorizing this is a gigantic mountain of data reduced to a short statement.

The grand realization that doomed the literal interpretation of the Bible was the notion that there is one-ness in the world, that all data are created equal and the best world-view integrates all data. This integration of many disparate bits of data is called a scientific law, or a principle. Thus, the intellectual transition that brought science and religion together was a recognition of the greater value of principle over data, a realization that principle represents a higher form of truth. Principle is still derived from data; empiricism demands as much. Principle is not opposed to data; principle is a highly concentrated, boiled-down expression of data.

Emotional Reluctance
Yet, a century later, we are still crippled by the conflict between principle and data. The conflict is not intrinsic to the nature of principle or data; it exists only in our minds. It springs from our discomfort with principle. The intellectual obstacle we face is our discomfort with the intangible, our preference for the concrete over the conceptual. It is easy to see that two apples in one hand and two apples in the other hand together make four apples. But the equation 2 + 2 = 4 is not as direct, not as comfortable. 2 what? 4 what? There’s nothing for your senses to perceive. No object to curl your fingers around, no image to take in. It is pure mentality, a numerical concept ("2") without a physical expression. Our minds veer away from the concept and steer towards more familiar territory. "Give me an example," you say.

But we rationalists have taken it even further. Next we give you something like this: x + y = z. Wot the hell is THAT supposed to mean?!?! An incorporeal numeral like "2" is bad enough, but now we have imposed an additional layer of indirection: "x" represents an unspecified number. "Give me an example," you say.

The real problem here is that indirection requires mental exertion. It’s easy to see that two apples in one hand plus two apples in the other hand make four apples that’s just a direct observation. It takes additional mental effort to grasp the general principle that 2 + 2 = 4. It takes even more effort to understand something like x + y = z. The higher the level of indirection, the more the mental exertion. Climbing these heights of indirection requires great effort. Yes, the view from the top is glorious; we can take in wide vistas of intellectual territory. But the air is so much thinner, our minds reel with uncertainty. So we stay at the lower elevations, with the more direct and tangible forms. We veer away from higher principles and cling to familiar data.

But God didn’t do it that way. God did not take a data-intensive approach to creating the universe. He did not specify the location of every rock and cloud. He did not plunk every single star in its place, one by one. He did not hand-design every single person, every single animal, every single insect, every single plant. He does not push every little gust of wind, nor does He specifically guide every ray of sunlight, nor does He plot the path of every molecule, atom, and electron as it bounces through space. God doesn’t have to do all those things because He’s too smart to waste His time on such trivia. Instead, God designed the principles, the laws that control His universe. Having designed the clockwork, he wound the clock and let it run. The rains fall according to His design. The flowers bloom and the trees grow at His indirect direction. Humankind evolved by His laws.

So now here we are, designers of interactive entertainment. We create our own little universes for the entertainment of our customers. We are petty gods playing with our dollhouses, arranging the elements to make a pleasing experience. My advice is: if you want to play God, try to learn from how The Big Guy does it.

Thus, the game designer’s task, reduced to its very essence, is the creation of laws for the game-universe he creates. The game designer must be a master lawgiver, a designer of principles. The competent designer takes a process-intensive approach rather than a data-intensive approach. His emphasis is on laws rather than instances, principles rather than cases.

An Example
OK, OK, I see you need an example to flesh out this esoteric material. Here’s an example of what I mean:

The problem:
The human player is about to do something to Computer Character Fred. Perhaps it’s something nasty, perhaps it’s something nice we don’t know in advance because the human player has free will and must be permitted to make his own choice. (Hmm, game design as experimental theology...) Meanwhile, Computer Character Mary is observing the human player’s actions. What will Mary’s reaction be? Let us assume, for purposes of simplicity, that the only variables here are: 1. The niceness or nastiness of the human player’s action; 2. whether Mary likes or dislikes Fred; and 3. whether Mary is pleased or displeased by the human player’s action. This third variable is the one we wish to calculate.

The wrong approach:
Here’s an obvious and common approach to solving the problem, expressed in simple pseudocode:

IF Nice AND Likes THEN Pleased
IF NOT Nice AND Likes THEN Displeased
IF Nice AND NOT Likes THEN Displeased
IF NOT Nice AND NOT Likes THEN Pleased

This approach is wrong because it is instantial in style. It is a case-by-case, nitpicky approach. There is no generality to it, no principle at work. It is, in my own terminology, data-intensive. It is clumsy and inflexible. It is also simplistic.

A Better approach:
Pleased := NOT (Nice EOR Likes);

This boolean equation says exactly the same thing that the earlier set of four equations says, but it is more principled. It is more process-intensive, more general in style.

One might object, what is the difference between this approach and the above approach? After all, the two approaches are functionally identical; they yield identical results.

There are several reasons why the second approach is superior. First, it is more efficient; it consumes less program space and executes faster. Second, it is a clearer statement of the actual principle at work. It gets right to the point. In a single sentence, it defines the principle at work, whereas the first approach requires four sentences to make its point. Thus, this second approach represents a deeper understanding of the principle at work than the first approach. A thousand years ago, sword smiths knew the steps required to make carbon steel, but it wasn’t until this century that we understood why those steps worked. This understanding permitted many improvements on the process. In the same fashion, the second approach points the way to the third and best approach:

The Best Approach
Reaction := Niceness * Affection

In this approach, I have replaced the boolean variables Pleased, Nice, and Likes with the arithmetic variables Reaction, Niceness, and Affection. For example, the variable Affection can range from, say, -100 to +100. Niceness spans a similar range. This equation thus says everything that the earlier approaches says, and much more. For example, if Mary’s Affection for Fred is zero, then it doesn’t matter how nice or nasty the human player’s action is; Mary doesn’t care. The equation also allows a graduated appraisal of Mary’s reaction. She isn’t just a robot who is either pleased or displeased; she can have shades of reaction. In other words, the generality of the solution has increased. The first solution addresses exactly four cases. The third solution addresses 40,000 different cases.

Notice that, as we moved from the first approach to the third approach, the solutions became more difficult to understand. That third equation takes more mental effort to grasp than the first set of IF -THEN statements. This is the reason why so few designers use such methods they are more difficult to understand.

This is one of the fundamental truths of the universe. Our minds are well-equipped to perceive the immediate truths, the direct phenomena around us. We can easily appreciate the individual case, the single example. But as we struggle to find a deeper understanding of the world around us, we must resort to abstractions that integrate a large number of individual cases. Abstractions are more difficult to grasp than examples. And the deepest levels of understanding require the highest levels of abstraction. To repeat a metaphor, truth is like a mountain. At its base is a wide array of single instances, but as we climb the mountain, we reduce those instances by abstraction to ever more general principles. At the peak of this mountain is some single, unknowable, all-embracing truth. But the air grows more rarefied as we climb the mountain, and nobody has ever made it to the top.

If you would play God, climb the mountain.