When will ATI make social physics engines?

Jaroslav Ć velch laments the decline and fall, and perhaps re-emergence, of text-based narrative in the modern video game. The analysis is worth reading; I’ve personally felt that this decline has, for some time now, limited our ability to imagine broadly and deeply. (It’s interesting, too, that many of the most innovative games of the past few years have succeeded despite, or perhaps because of, lower-fidelity graphics, the entire Wii platform among them). I wonder if cell phone games have any hope of bringing back text-based genres, whether Zork, MUDs, or IF?

What I find especially interesting are Jaroslav’s various schema: strategies for visually representing virtual worlds (illusionism vs. illustrationism) and tricks for making worlds seem more complete than they are (clever editing, including synecdoche; and hybridized code). I’m curious the degree to which these strategies for visual representation might also apply to social representation.

To me, there is nothing worse than playing a game that is lushly realized visually but with only the most rudimentary characterization and social dynamics in place. It’s an extension of the “uncanny valley” : the hyper-real graphics only contrast all the more strongly with the crudeness of the story or people.

But it’s even less possible to model human behavior with accuracy than to model rippling water. (Unless, of course, we really are just posthuman computer simulations). So the same tricks that apply to visual representation may also work (or fail) for behavioral modeling.

The very menu-driven dialogue trees that have become standard for RPGs are, perhaps, a very crude “illustration” of actual human interaction. You get snapshots of your conversation with the NPC, sometimes simplified to where you don’t even know the exact words you’re using (e.g. Oblivion’s 4-pie wheel of talking). On the side of illusionism there games like Nintendogs and Black & White, in which the artificial life is the thing it’s representing. Interestingly, the only example of a “hybrid” model that I can think of, Black & White 2 (in which you get very detailed feedback about what your pet is learning or not), drastically undercuts the illusion of life by exposing the Creature as nothing more than an easily-programmed robot.

Underlying the graphics that Jaroslav describes are increasingly powerful graphics engines, but I’m not sure that we’re developing increasingly powerful social physics engines to keep up. To some extent we solve the problem through multi-player games: why simulate human behavior when you can play with real people? But the appeal of games like Nintendogs and Black & White, not to mention Tamagotchi and its Pleo ilk, show that simpler beings have their own appeal. Before you run, you must learn to walk: if we can’t get human behavior right, can’t we at least attempt animal behavior?

– Gene Koo

3 thoughts on “When will ATI make social physics engines?

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