Rationality and Video Games

by Alexei2 min read18th Sep 201173 comments

6

Personal Blog

There are two points which I want to cover here. First is about my own game, and second is about raising the sanity waterline through games.

 

Point one: "Girl with a Heart of"

It's been over a year since I found LW community, and as soon as I finished the Sequences I realized I want to dedicate my life to making games that raise the sanity waterline. I've started working on a game to do just that in January 2011. The game is called "Girl with a Heart of", and it's very close to being done. In this game I wanted to present the idea of recursive self-improvement in a way that's intuitively accessible to an average person. I don't think I've succeeded, but I'll leave the discussion of reasons behind that for postmortem. Suffice to say, presenting ideas in text, even if they are part of a game, doesn't make them more intuitive. In fact, the player might as well just read the original article/post.

You can see screenshots of the game here: http://bentspoongames.imgur.com/girl_with_a_heart_of

For the most part, the game is just a choose-your-own adventure game. There is a lot of dialog. There are many various ideas, which I took from LW posts, and you'll probably recognize most of them when you play the game.

I've also started a Kickstarter project to help me finish the game: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bentspoongames/girl-with-a-heart-of

This is a nice way to preorder the game if you are interested. However, no money will be charged unless the fund goal is met. (If people object to this link, I can remove it.)

I am not asking you for donations, since most people on LW donate to causes that are a lot more important, but I will ask for support. If you have friends that like adventure games, or you have friends that like reading, then let them know about this game. Follow the game - and myself - on Facebook and Twitter. That's where I'll be posting updates about the next game I'll be working on.

 

Point two: Using games to raise the sanity waterline.

My first game was/will be a bust in terms of this, but the idea itself is not without merit, but I don't want to start discussing game design in this post. What I am looking for are people who are interested in making this happen, whether by doing art, programming, design, PR, or contributing resources: connections, expertise, and/or funding. For me, this will be a full time job (if I can get funding/money) and my primary goal for the near - and I hope far - future.

I'll be moving to the Bay Area in the next month, so I would love to meet up with anyone who is sincerely interested in working on this. And even if you don't live in the area, let me know either way, and we can work together remotely.

Not everyone likes reading, and not everyone can learn the ideas from the way they are presented in the Sequences. I want to take those very basic ideas, and present them in a different format, which I hope will be more accessible, fun, and, in the end, more fruitful. Think HP:MoR, but in game form. My goal is to build a community of people who are interested in building games that leave the player with tangible, useful knowledge and skills. My goal is to create lots of games that people can play for fun, while receiving measurable benefits (in my case: rationality training). These games might even be used for training basic skills in rationality camps. During this year's mini-camp a lot of people, including myself, praised poker for its lessons in rationality, but we can easily create a game that focuses a lot more on those skills.

I am very curious to hear your thoughts on this, whatever they might be.

Personal Blog

6

71 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:43 AM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

To stay with the metaphor, I think the ocean is really big and raising the waterline is a waste of time relative to making fountains in key places.

4Alexei9yThat's an interesting point. How do you think games could help create "fountains"? Edit: Actually, a more relevant question is "Why fountains?" And "What exactly do you mean by them?"
0EStokes9yFountains for raising the sanity waterline in specific places where there'll be a greater impact.
1Alexei9yThat makes sense, but I don't know where the specific places are. I could make a guess or two. Either way, I love making games, so this is the path I'm taking, but I'll agree that if you want to maximize rationality, a wide-spread approach might not be the best thing (more research needed).
3Alex_Altair9yWhat is your evaluation of the effect or worthiness of HPMoR?
6steven04619yI think it's done a lot more good by drawing people to LessWrong (albeit at the cost of some degree of Harry Potter fanfic readerification), than by raising the waterline in the general population.
5Eugine_Nier9yAlso related: Memetic Hazards in Videogames [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2pe/memetic_hazards_in_videogames/].

One rationality related message that I've long wanted to see incorporated into video games...

While it's important to look for creative solutions to dilemmas, sometimes you really just have to shut up and multiply. I mostly follow RPGs, and both Eastern and Western types tend to reward idealism; whenever you're given the option to refuse to make a sacrifice, or to accept anything less than perfect achievement of all your goals, the refusal leaves your characters better off, no matter how risky a plan it requires them to enact. Your characters are never puni... (read more)

3Nornagest9yI think it's a little more complicated than that: RPGs tend to reward tactical but not strategic optimization. Local cleverness and tradeoff management is always useful and often necessary, but past the immediate future (a specific battle, or at most a unit of time convenient for inventory management) strategy becomes dominated by idealism in scripted decisions (if a choice is given at all) and exploration of the game's unscripted components. Its roots seem partly accidental and partly didactic, but in practice I wouldn't be surprised to find that this reward system caters to a certain cognitive style. In terms of Bartle type [http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm], at any rate, it's straightforwardly going to attract exploratory/acquisitional players (spades or diamonds); Bartle was working with fairly restricted gameplay possibilities, though, so his typology might easily miss some important options. Perhaps conventional game design has missed a demographic it might exploit by encouraging more strategic thinkers?
1Desrtopa9yI think my own play style would tend to fall towards the exploratory even in a game framework that allowed a greater emphasis on strategic elements, but I suspect you can reward pragmatism without alienating (most of) the exploratory and acquisitional demographic. I haven't played it yet, but the premise of Radiant Historia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiant_Historia] seems like a good setup to allow players to explore the consequences of different actions throughout the course of a story, and reinforce a pragmatic approach through constant feedback.
1Alexei9yYeah, I like that message too. It'll take a lot of skill to implement it while keeping the game fun and not frustrating, since you'll be going very heavily against the grain. Easiest way to do graphics is to find a freelancer. DeviantArt website is perfect for that.
[-][anonymous]9y 4

deleted

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
2Peter_de_Blanc9yI don't understand. You're applying a sigmoid function to probabilities... what are you doing with the resulting numbers?
2Jonathan_Graehl9yHopefully normalizing them so they sum to 1 again and using them to draw an outcome :) I assume the intent was to say that in normal games, if the goal is to choose the "smartest" action (highest EV, or whatever the objective fn is) under uncertainty, and the player makes the optimal choice, they should always on average be noticeably higher rewarded (not just slightly more rewarded). It's fine (maybe more addictive?) for right decisions to sometimes not result in a win, so long as there enough chances for a masterful player to recover from bad luck.
1Peter_de_Blanc9yI still don't see why you would want to transform probabilities using a sigmoidal function. It seems unnatural to apply a sigmoidal function to something in the domain [0, 1] rather than the domain R. You would be reducing the range of possible values. The first sigmoidal function I think of is the logistic function. If you used that, then 0 would be transformed into 1/2. I have no idea how something like this could be a standard "game design" thing to do, so I think we must not be understanding Chimera correctly.
0Jonathan_Graehl9yYes, no fixed sigmoidal would have the effect I assumed was his intent. You could set a very steep sigmoidal filter that just catches the modal region of the pdf, but that's clunky, and you have to have exactly the right filter for the particular distribution. A simpler way to achieve "sharpening" a non-uniform probability distribution (making the modal region even more likely to pay off) is to raise it to some power >1, then renormalize.
1Alexei9yYes, this is very much in line with my own thinking, and the kind of game idea you outlined is something I am strongly considering for my next game. Very good point. This is where play testing comes in. I did not understand your "second thoughts" paragraph. Can you provide a specific example.
[-][anonymous]9y 4

Point two: Using games to raise the sanity waterline.

My first game was/will be a bust in terms of this, but the idea itself is not without merit, but I don't want to start discussing game design in this post. What I am looking for are people who are interested in making this happen, whether by doing art, programming, design, PR, or contributing resources: connections, expertise, and/or funding.

I have:

  • a brain
  • advanced math skills
  • an ability to do physics and teaching for food
  • basic programming skills (C, Pascal, Python)
  • a strong interest in the nasce
... (read more)
2Alexei9ySounds good! Free brains are neat indeed. If you are interested in doing game programing, you'll have to learn C# (in context of Unity3D engine). If you want to become more familiar with game design, I would suggest reading A Book of Lenses [http://www.amazon.com/Art-Game-Design-book-lenses/dp/0123694965/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316382341&sr=8-1] . I'll keep your name in mind, and I'll let you know when the next game starts. Thanks! Edit: From Luke's interview, I gather that people who are good at math can help with FAI research. Something to consider. Also, while I was replying to AlexMennen, I realized I am looking for people who are already interested in game design / programming. People who can pull their own weight and more, since that's very important in the start-up world, which is what this will feel like in the beginning.
0Emile9yGood alternatives to Unity3D: making web games in Flash, or in Ruby/Python (for text-heavy "static" games); or make Android games in java, or iPhone/iPad games in Objective C.
2Alexei9yUnity3D can create executables for Android and iPhone/iPad, so you code once and it's pretty much automatically ported to all platforms (including Flash in very near future). You just can't top that.

My first game was/will be a bust in terms of this

Do you mind explaining why you think that was the case?

4Alexei9yTo put it concisely, I've tried to explain the rationality ideas (like recursive self-improvement, expected value, probability, etc...) in text. The characters just talk about these ideas in context of the story, but it doesn't feel any different than, say, reading the Sequences. It's not engaging any different parts of the brain. To create a really good game that increases rationality, these ideas will have to be deeply embedded in the gameplay itself. Once I am completely done with the game, I'll write up a postmortem where I'll go into more details about this.

Nice-looking graphics, looks like it took a lot of work, congrats! It's not my favorite genre of games, but it looks nice.

I've jotted down a dozen rationality-teaching game concepts, and may implement some if time allows - someday, maybe (It's not very high priority at the moment, and I still need to flesh out some stuff and figure out some snags). I'm much more interested in using game mechanics to teach specific thinking skills (I agree poker is a good example).

1Alexei9yPrecisely. That's what my game failed at, and that's what I am going to address in the next game. I would be happy to discuss your ideas with you.
0Emile9yI'll have to type them in then, most of 'em are in various notebooks I have around :) If you set up a mailing list or something I'd be interested, otherwise I'll just make a discussion post about 'em, asking for other suggestions.
0Alexei9yI don't know enough people to justify creating an emailing list, so a post sounds like a good idea.
0Alexei9yI just realized that I already had your name marked down as someone who is interested in games. Are you interested in doing it professionally?
1Emile9yI've been doing it professionally for the past six years or so :) (I started as a designer but have mostly been working as a programmer)
2handoflixue9yI'm curious what games you've worked on, and whether any of them had a particular foous on rationality lessons :)
0Emile9yI've worked on a few games that were cancelled or performed poorly, as well as on this one [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_Dance_%28video_game%29] that was a relative success. No particular focus on rationality, though I did get to do a fair amount of statistics and machine learning.

I am officially trained in computer animation. I've put in at least 10,000 hours of self-motivated practice in board games/card games/role-playing games. Eventually I met Dave Arneson (co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons) and asked him what he thought about designing RPGs as a career choice. And he said "heh, kid, make video games."

This... was sad. But basically matched up with a nagging doubt I had had for a while (pen-and-paper games is a grossly saturated market and hard to economically get lots of playtesters for). So I started working on com... (read more)

0Alexei9yCool, it's nice to see an artist on LW. By the way, the Windows download link doesn't work on this page [http://www.psycosmworlds.com/met_download.html] And this part of the gallery [http://www.psycosmworlds.com/gallery5.html] seems to be broken. I'm glad you do 3D art, since my next game will most likely be 3D. I'll let you know when it happens!

Well, what a coincidence, I'm making a game to promote rationality as well: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/7ow/gameplay_art/

also an older post: http://lesswrong.com/lw/55z/a_gameplay_exploration_of_yudkowskys_twelve/

We are taking an "expression through gameplay" approach to ensure that the game remains fun. There won't be any text whatsoever outside of maybe titling the level when you enter it. It's a puzzle game, so it's going to ask the player to think in a variety of different ways. Thinking about how to solve problems is an important... (read more)

2Alexei9yOh, cool, I just posted a comment to your new article, not realizing you had a comment here. Puzzle games are everywhere, but they only make you better at solving those exact puzzles (or very similar ones). The player doesn't carry that knowledge out of the game and into the world. I want to make games that teach skills that the player can apply to the real world. I'll keep in touch, and let you know what my next project will be. May be we can pull our resources together and make it happen.
1ac3raven9yOn a previous article I posted here, a user asked me if it was going to be an educational game or just one that promotes rationality. For your reason above, we are designing the game mostly to promote the concept of rationality, rather than teach it. Johnathan Blow had this to say about puzzles: "A good puzzle to me is one that when you understand it, you not only understand the solution to the puzzle, but that also illuminates something else that you hadn't thought about that is some other part of the larger world." This is essentially what we are trying to do with our virtue puzzles. I think our Perfectionism puzzle illustrates this beautifully, but I don't want to spoil that. PM me your email address and we can talk about the prospects of working together in the future.

It would take a lot of prodding to get me to play a game with such unprofessional graphics. What I'm saying is that if you want this game to be taken seriously at all, it needs better art. Maybe have more retro pixely stuff as an option, it might cut down the workload a bit for whatever artist you decide to hire.

5handoflixue9yHeh. Funny, I just sent a link to a friend going "ooh, I love the graphical style of this game." I find it gives a very interesting tone to the game (although I'm not sure if the game itself matches that tone; I could easily see a game that doesn't work with that artistic style)
0EStokes9yWhether the tone/style works or not, the skill behind it isn't up to professional standards. The title screen looks alright (except for the ui) but the backgrounds really aren't that great. Though I don't like the style either, it seems very generic.
2Alexei9yThis is an indie game created, for the most part, by amateurs. I am an amateur game designer, and the person who did the character art and animation is still in school. Funny enough, the person who did the backgrounds is probably the most "professional" out of the whole team. :)
0EStokes9yI don't know what the gameplay is like. I guess if this is just a game you're making for funsies, sure, I guess I'd just gotten the impression that this game was supposed to do something. Also it doesn't make a difference to me how "professional" the different people are, because I'm confident enough in this that saying they're the most professional doesn't sway me. I do some art, myself.
0Alexei9yOh, I wasn't trying to sway you, just found it funny that the one thing you pointed out was, in my opinion, the most well done aspect of the game. Care to link to your portfolio? Would you be interested in working on a game at some point?
1EStokes9yI'm curious about if everything is supposed to look like it's glowing because I don't think it's working too well. Perhaps the artist could get some critique on it somewhere. I also forgot Cave Story when mentioning retro-style games that look great. It conveys the atmosphere very well. I think pixel art might help with the somewhat muddy feel of the graphics imo. And as seen here [http://screenshots.en.softonic.com/en/scrn/94000/94726/cave-story-4.png] there can be little character portraits that convey a lot and are probably faster to do than realism.
0EStokes9yI don't have a portfolio, but I could upload some things. Here [http://imgur.com/a/fsnlu#STKon] are three somewhat recent images. I'm not a professional by any means and it shows (strong focus on portraits, first of all :P). Can't in good conscience work on a game, I haven't even tried drawing a background in ages. I'd try to prove to you somehow that you're overestimating the quality of the art but I'm not sure how.
2handoflixue9yMy evaluation is mostly based on a web comic I read with a similar graphic style; a few people absolutely hated it, a few more people loved it, and most people were neutral. I suspect you fall in to that first category and are making the mistake of assuming everyone else thinks like you. It's not the type of art I would expect to see in a big-name release, sure, but I think you're over estimating how many Indie game purchasers would mind this art style. On the other hand, I've never done art or video games professionally, so my confidence on all of this is low. If you're right, I wouldn't be terribly surprised. I just wanted to explain my thinking :)
0EStokes9yI'm an indie game purchaser that minds the art style... I don't see why I should have lower expectations for indie games. Perhaps I'm being overly critical and other people aren't bothered as much. Though it's the skill behind the style that matters, though I don't think the style feels very cohesive (I mean the setting, not the artist's style).
3handoflixue9yAn Indie game has a vastly smaller art budget. That means you're going to get less art, lower quality art, or simpler art (i.e. old school 2D sprites instead of complex 3D models). For most Indie games, I see a mix of less and simpler, but I also very rarely see any sort of truly stunning high-quality artwork in Indie games.
1EStokes9yWell obviously there's less money, but that doesn't mean they have to look worse. Limbo, Bit Trip Beat, Amnesia, Audiosurf, Bastion, Cave Story, Minecraft, Recettear, Terraria are all example of good-looking indie games. Most indie games I know look good. Good graphics means picking something and doing it well, and if you're on a lower budget you pick something that takes less time to look good. Less is more.
2handoflixue9yInteresting choice of examples. I consider the graphics in Minecraft awful; it's on par with Mario 64, which is 15 years old! (I actually consider Mario 64 to be significantly better, but that's because Minecraft is heavily based on a block structure instead of more free form objects). I suppose it just illustrates that different people have different tastes :)
0EStokes9yI argue that it does look good. Yes, the graphics aren't modern, but it can look very scenic and create a sense of wonder. It could look bad if the grass was just bright green and flat-looking and everything else looked that bad too. I have a hard time imagining people even bothering to play it. Minecraft's art does exactly what it's supposed to do. Here's [http://imgur.com/a/GqGgG] an example of something very atmospheric created with minecraft blocks. Some might dislike the style anyhow but that's a more arbitrary (though not invalid) preference not related to how well-done the minecraft graphics are.
3CronoDAS9yPersonally, I thought the screenshots looked very nice...
0EStokes9yMaybe people do think it looks nice. I can't say how discerning most people are.
3Alexei9yYou know, I'll actually agree with your overall sentiment. Yes, graphics could be better. This would mean, as you suggested, that I would have to go 8-bit style (or other simplistic style), or make them higher quality, which unfortunately means the game would be more expensive. Personally, I am tired of all the 8-bit looking games, and they don't create a serious atmosphere, which I absolutely needed for this game. Bottom line, though: I didn't spend enough time thinking about how the background and character art will go together. There is a stylistic mismatch between them, and I feel it too.
2EStokes9yEver played Every Day the Same Dream [http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html] or One Chance [http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/555181]?
1Alexei9yPlayed both, liked both. Every time I load One Chance, I see the guy sitting alone on a bench, dead, while it's quietly snowing around him. If this is to show that simplistic styles can be used to create a serious atmosphere, then consider my statement revoked. :)
1curiousepic9yThere's a huge variety of styles that are very effective without being time consuming, and are very under-utilized in games. Of course it does take some time and skill to make everything work together. Regarding the current style (which of course you should stick to to finish the game, but might consider this in the future), I personally dislike the "inverted" color scheme - it is often (over)used to evoke a sense of shock, other-worldliness, or outright inversion (light world/dark world), but to many people it only evokes the thought that the artist simply used a single photoshop filter to try to make it look interesting.
1Alexei9yIf you look closely, though, it's not a simple inversion, since the hue is preserved. It's not something that can be done automatically, because white shouldn't always translate to black. Edit: there is actually a whole system of reasoning why the colors look the way they do, so it's, again, not just a simple inversion. :)

I'll be moving to the Bay Area in the next month, so I would love to meet up with anyone who is sincerely interested in working on this.

I'd be interested in this, although I'm not sure whether I will have time or how useful I would be. I'm good at math, and adept at programming algorithms (novice on Project Euler), but I have almost no game or software design experience.

2Alexei9yFrom Luke's interview, I gather that people who are good at math can help with FAI research. It's your call, of course. Like I told Konkvistador, you can learn C# (in context of Unity3D engine) to do game programming. If you want to become more familiar with game design, I would suggest reading A Book of Lenses. But only do this if you are willing to commit yourself to the programming / game-design field. Right now I'm looking for people who are already interested in this, and who can pull their own weight and more. However, I'll keep your name in mind and let you know when I start the next game. And, of course, I'll be looking for feedback from LW community when I start brainstorming for my next game, so if that's all you want to do, then there is no need to do anything extra.

I have one suggestion. I would change the name to simply, "Girl with a Heart" or something similar. Having the syntactically incomplete phrase "Girl with a Heart of" is really awkward for me to read and handle, as my brain is looking for it to be completed, in an annoying way. I get that it's part of the gameplay, but having a name like that is very uncommon, and could cause problem with the game spreading. For example, if someone says to their friend, "Hey, I just found this game called 'Girl with a Heart of' ", then the list... (read more)

5CronoDAS9yMe, I keep wanting to add a "..." to the end of that phrase.
5EStokes9yI personally think that "Girl with a Heart of" sounds intriguing because I assume it has story relevance and it sounds like it might be an interesting story.
3fubarobfusco9yTo me, it sounds as if the game is going to be about determining whether the phrase ends with "gold", or with "stone" or "ice" or something.
1Alexei9yYou got 2 of them right. :)
4Raemon9yI like the weirdness of it.
2Alexei9yI see your point, but I think that's exactly the kind of thing that makes a game stand out, even if it's a little annoying. I think it should. I'll PM you a link that you can try out.
2Alex_Altair9yI report that the game does work on OSX with PPC processor. Thanks!
0Jonathan_Graehl9y"... Heart of" is nice, assuming it has some literary significance.

Have you considered making a game about HPMoR? I think this would get a few hundred plays, no matter how good it was. You couldn't sell it, but it would help raise the waterline. Maybe people could donate?

9Alicorn9yI think this would anger The Powers That Own.