Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Four Challenges That Games Provide

Do kids win by strategic thinking or by pattern recognition? What about adults?

Pattern Recognition

"Pattern recognition". More testimony to William Gibson's genius in using that phrase to capture the essence of so much of life. (The book is now being considered as a movie to be directed by none other than Peter Weir ... yes!)

Pattern recognition is, of course, a well-known field of study within the discipline of Artificial Intelligence. The belief is that an essential prerequisite to being able to make sense of the world comes from being able to process input, divide it into sensible and distinct objects, and identify those objects.

Gibson ascribes pattern recognition as a key element in the ability to "cool-hunt", namely to discern trends, brands, and items that are just on the verge of becoming popular. Nothing really new there, of course; economists, futurists, anthropologists, and marketers have been trying to find these patterns for a long time.

But to reduce it to this phrase is important, because Gibson is saying that essentially, in our confused rapidly changing world, there is really nothing else to go on any more. Unlike previous generations, when you could plan somewhat for the future, in anticipation of previous trends repeating, this does not hold true today. Our grandparents knew what the world would be like when they got old; we don't.
"We have no future because our present is too volatile. ... We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition."
One of the key differences between children and adults is the way that they plan for the future. The theory goes that the older you get, the more you engage in long term planning as opposed to short term rewards. Does this translate into the way that we play games?

The Four Challenges That Games Provide

Any game features up to four types of challenges:

1. You vs yourself
2. You vs your opponent
3. You vs the rules
4. You vs luck

The first challenge is to grow. Grow in concentration, in information juggling, in perseverance, in deduction, and so on. As your synapses tackle certain type of challenges, pathways are strengthened that will make future versions of these same challenges easier.

The second challenge is to outguess and outplay your opponent. Assuming that you have the intellectual tools to master the game on par with your opponent, winning will depend on guessing what sorts of moves your opponent will make, where his weaknesses and strengths are, and what will throw him off his game.

The third challenge is to master the rules of the game. Given a set of pieces and rules, how do you manipulate this into victory. For some games, it may be of middling difficulty to do this. It is not that hard to achieve a victory in Chess simply by using the rules; the challenge is your opponent working to thwart your moves. On the other hand, it is a challenge to achieve victory in some types of puzzle games (including most computer games), and complicated Euro games, such as Princes of Florence.

The fourth challenge is to overcome luck situations. Generally speaking this means preparing to maximize your odds of winning, after which overcoming the challenge means getting lucky. Having no control doesn't mean that it's not a challenge to overcome, it just means that you have no control over whether you will overcome it.

The Container

I've discussed previously the many definitions of strategy and tactics. How much of strategy and tactics is really only pattern recognition?

All of it.

You've seen that this doesn't work, you try something else. You recognize the power of this piece, so you use it better. You map out a path based on pieces of a puzzle that fit together in a certain way. Your opponent tends to do this or that.

For all but the luck element of the game, this recognition represents the basic building blocks of overcoming these challenges. Even if you are new to a particular game and/or opponent, the general patterns fit. Pattern recognition equals experience and intuition, plus the ability to reason, either through deduction or induction.

Children lack experience, of course. And it seems that they lack a highly tuned ability to reason. They don't look ahead as far, and they don't get the patterns just yet.

Through all of their life experiences, and particularly through playing games, children slowly build up this capacity. It's like stretching a container before filling it with liquid. It's not only the amount of liquid you put in, it's working on increasing the capacity of the container. And while you're at it, ensuring that the container is sound, and handing over the keys to the pump.

Adult strategic thinking is no different, really, than children's; it's simply walking in in the middle of the story.

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