Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flavorful mechanics

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.

--Robert Louis Stevenson, "On some technical elements of style in literature".
Some would contend that Stevenson's observations pertain not just to art, but to any object of wonder or delight or even diversion. I have a friend who, like me, has a tendency towards animism. He remembers being fascinated by a little plastic Yoda toy when he was young. One day it forcibly struck home to him that the thing was not alive, was not a little green Jedi master, but was a lump of plastic with paint. "I would swear," he told me, "that after I realized this, its eyes looked dead."

Compare the starker rhetoric of Thomas Ligotti:
Life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would have us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. (Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p. 29)
Or again, Ligotti glossing the work of Carlo Michelstaedter:
To Michelstaedter, nothing in this world can be anything but a puppet. And a puppet is only a plaything, a thing of parts brought together as a simulacrum of real presence. It is nothing in itself. It is not whole and individual but exists only relative to other playthings, some of them human playthings that support one another’s illusion of being real. However, by suppressing thoughts of suffering and death they give themselves away as beings of paradox – prevaricators who must hide from themselves the flagrantly joyless possibilities of their lives if they are to go on living. (ibid., p. 32-33)
The "silent, staring void," a process without mind, behind mind, an emptiness not rich with potentia like the radiant spaciousness of the Buddhist sunyata but blank, accidental, and joyless, an endless spinning of gears and pulleys--this is, we are assured, what the willing dupes called average human beings must conceal from themselves, in order to enjoy this confidence trick called life. But one may espouse a nihilism far less patently abject than this, and still insist, or indeed assume, that life reduces to a play of interacting mechanical processes. I want to investigate (and, implicitly, challenge) this assumption here with reference to games, and I'm going to start with a couple of examples.

Mille Bornes is a game in which players pretend to be driving a 1,000-mile (hence the name) race. It's played with cards marked either with numbers of miles (25, 50, 75, 100, 200), with certain hazards or frustrations one might encounter in a road race (stop signs and speed limits, flat tires, accidents, running out of gas), or with remedies to said obstacles (green lights, spare tires, filling up, repairs). There are special cards which grant immunity to a given obstacle: Right-of-way, Puncture-Proof, Driving Ace, and Spare Tank. One plays miles-cards (or remedies) on oneself, trying to attain (but not exceed) 1,000; one plays obstacle cards on one's opponent.

The cards are adorned with signs that are suggestive of their function: various animals with different cliche speeds (from snail to swallow), traffic signs, and so forth. In playing Mille Bornes, at least with 10-to-12-year-olds (my own significant sample), one does sometimes feel a certain frustration or excitement, similar to being stuck in traffic or zooming ahead with a "so-long-suckahs!" laugh, and one does sometimes provide oneself a little narrative: "Damn! Another flat tire!?" All of this suggested merely by the pictures and the theme of the game, of course; for strictly speaking, there is nothing at all about the structure of the game that has anything to do with a road-race.

Mechanically, Mille Bornes is a play of variables. Numbers and functions and rules interact and are operated by players. Any connotation of miles, roads, speed or slowness, is provided by the players themselves spurred on by the theme of the game. Similarly, a game of Clue unfolds by way of an algorithm of process-of-elimination and a degree of random-number generation (two dice being rolled most turns); but these could operate without any props like rope and revolver or settings like ballrooms and libraries, all of which are, strictly speaking, extraneous.

The murder-theme of Clue, or the race-theme of Mille Bornes, are what one calls the flavor of the game. The rules, mathematics, and so on constitute the game's mechanics. The mechanics of a well-structured game are balanced and give no obvious advantage to any one player. They keep a game both challenging and rewarding. A game's flavor lends a kind of thematic or narrative coherence to it.

My thoughts about the relation between mechanics and flavor were originally occasioned by watching many, many rounds of Magic: the Gathering (MTG, or just Magic, for short), a game which showcases both of these aspects in a small package. A round of Magic is an imaginary duel between mages who cast spells, summon creatures, and employ fantastic objects to defeat their opponents; players (the "mages" in question) make these moves by playing various cards in their deck (the spells, creatures, and so on). Every such move requires tapping a source of magical power called, in the game, "mana." In extremely oversimplified terms, one may say that the more potent the move, the greater the mana cost. Mana comes in one of five colors, and each color has tendencies to align with or oppose other colors. Every Magic card shows, in abbreviated form, the costs and benefits associated with it; the rules show what sorts of targets it can be directed against, what circumstances prevent it being deployed, and so on. Additionally, each card displays artwork that shows the object, creature, or spell it stands for. Many feature in addition a short passage of "flavor text": a sentence or two meant to summon up an atmosphere suggestive of the role of the card's subject in an imaginary narrative.
"Wrath is no vice when inflicted upon the deserving."

"Its diet consists of fruits, plants, small woodland animals, large woodland animals, woodlands, fruit groves, fruit farmers, and small cities."

"He ensures not only whether but also when and where the lightning strikes twice."

"The land promises nothing and keeps its promise."
And so on.

This little snippets of flavor text are both completely superfluous, and absolutely essential to the game in some way. My informal research among enthusiasts of MTG indicates that few if any give themselves a narrative of events as they play, along the lines of "Now I'll cast this spell... Oh no! She's summoned an army of undead soldiers! They destroyed my giant spider!" They are thinking, rather, in terms of scores and rules: "Shoot, I'm down to 7 life." But of course the very term life in this context is a bit of flavor text. Indeed, it's admitted, the game would be no fun at all without the flavor. And, of course; no fun, no game. I even know players who acknowledge that their best decks--the ones that give them the best odds of winning--are not the decks they prefer to play with; they'd rather play with a deck that has a coherent flavorful theme--say, all one color of mana, or lots of flying creatures, or an special types of spells. The flavor is not just why to play, it is in some measure constitutive of the game itself. One could certainly run a fairly simple algorithm with functions and quantities that would be completely isomorphic with a round of MTG, but it would not be playing a game.

Now I am aware that some games are far more "mechanical," in the sense I am using the word, than others. One could argue that a game like Go, or MasterMind, is almost purely a matter of mechanics. But even this would not be completely true, because there is an element of flavor in the tension of a contest between two players, in the challenge of trying to beat one's own record, in the very experience of playing. And indeed, I suspect that in experience itself we find the best analogue to flavor. It is very telling that the word "flavor" itself refers to a subjective experience while the word "mechanics" pertains to the objective aspects of a game. (I would suggest that the mechanical is the meta-level, but in fact this does not get it quite right, for it is of the essence of the meta- that it is about its object, whereas the mechanical in a certain sense has no object at all--it could all happen automatically, without any intentionality whatsoever. It is the flavorful that has an object and in that sense is closer to the meta-level. This is a significant detail but I won't explore it here.)

One may note that my argument here bears a certain resemblance to Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment: imagine yourself in a room with detailed instructions in English for deciding what Chinese script to put in an out-box depending upon what Chinese comes into the in-box. Searle's argument is that one could become so good at following the instructions that from the outsider's perspective, nothing could distinguish you from a native Chinese speaker, even though one may understand not a word. Searle takes this to be a refutation to the claims of adherents of Strong AI; in essence, passing the Turing Test is not a criteria for understanding, for despite my having outputs and inputs that are exactly those of a speaker of Chinese, the characters do not mean anything to me.

What I am calling, in game-terms, "flavor," is here analogous to Searle's "understanding." One of Searle's points is that understanding can be separated from the rules that generate apparent competence: or, more succinctly, semantics does not reduce to syntax. The Chinese room argument does not directly address the question of the origin of semantics, which is a separate issue; it simply underscores the distinction.

One might also compare certain arguments of David Deutsch regarding virtual reality. Deutsch contends that Turing's arguments about universal machines can be extended to the question of simulated realities. The details of Deutsch's argument are beyond the scope of this post, but one theme of his account is that while a virtual simulation can generate any number of physically impossible scenarios, these impossibilities are by definition not actually, physically existing; what exists are physically possible states of affairs, which we then interpret as different (and sometimes impossible) states of affairs.

This, in turn, is just what stage magic (not, of course, to be confused with MTG) is: a set of procedures that results in an simulation of an impossible situation. The object of the magic, however, is not the impossible situation; and it is certainly not the rendering of the impossible event into the possible explanation. Or so argues one of the great theorists of modern stage magic, Eugene Burger, when he writes:
The magical experience is not the experience of a puzzle.... [it] is...in part, the experience of mystery. Mystery operates in magic in two ways. There is, first, experiencing the mystery that [for example,] a human body is here, alive and before my eyes, floating in space. The mere "thatness" of the magical effect--that it is happening at all--is the first level at which mystery operates or is present in magic.
There is however another way...This appears when we confront mystery as something to solve or figure out--as for example in a mystery novel or film where we attempt to outguess the detective and solve the mystery for ourselves. To do this we must transform the mystery into a puzzle to be solved. And to do that is to destroy the mystery! For once the mystery is solved, the mystery is no more.
The magical experience prompts us to ask whether all mysteries are really puzzles waiting to be solved. Is there, in other words, an irreducible presence of mystery in the world that can't be turned into puzzles and, therefore, remains Mystery forever and ever? The magical worldview suggests that there is....
Conjuring, at its best, functions to awaken us to another realm of experience: the magical dimension that points us towards the mystery that lies behind and beyond all experience.
(Eugene Burger and Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning, pp 13, 22-24)
This is coming from a respected and acclaimed conjurer, remember, who knows very well that any number of astounding effects can be produced by strings and pulleys. What is at stake here is not the impossibility per se, but the wonder at the impossibility. It is precisely the flavor of "the magical experience," which Burger insists cannot be boiled down to the mechanics of the trick, even though these mechanics are indispensable for occasioning it.

The difference between the experience of flavor (or vice-versa) and the infrastructure of such mechanics can lend plausibility to two different conclusions: either that everything is reducible to mechanics, and there is, really, no flavor at all ("flavor" is just a [mechanical] label used by one part of the mechanics for another part); or that there is some aspect of things that is irreducible to mechanics, precisely that aspect which is the recognition of the difference between mechanics and flavor--not the difference between explanans and explanandum, but between both of these on the one hand, and understanding of the relationship, on the other.

When my friend realized Yoda was just plastic and paint--where did the "Yoda"-ness go? Where, indeed, had it come from? To say it came from my friend is to beg the question. Where did he get it?

One last, Platonist, speculation: my suspicion is that this issue of mechanics and flavor is isomorphic with the question of the relation between Being and the Good.


  1. It appears that we are kindred spirits not merely in our philosophical interests, but also in being total geeks. :)

    The distinction between mechanics and flavour is huge in LARPing. Is the game mostly about character number-crunching and combat, or is it about character personalities and costumes and plot? Very often, when there's a game that some players love and others hate, it's because it emphasizes one at the expense of the other. I love Seven Virtues, the game I wrote about before, because it involves such compelling characters and interactions between them; but every boffer LARP gets a lot of people who just want to hit things with foam sticks, and they mostly got bored there.

    Flavour's always been important to me, though. I got deeply into MtG as an undergrad; I did enjoy the combinatorics of gameplay, but what was still more exciting to me was the flavour text and the art. This is also why I loved Civilization I and II and hated Civilization III; the latter was designed purely for mechanical players, as a tough game to beat, with few of the bells and whistles that made you feel like you were really building a civilization.

    I'm not sure how well the analogy of mechanics and flavour holds when talking about subjective understanding versus the world's scientific operations, but it's an interesting speculation. I do tend to have had more interest in the aspects of the world you think of as flavour - that's why I'm a philosopher and not a scientist - and have been more interested in the Good than in Being.

  2. Amod,

    I had a notion you might chime with this. ;)

    I am unsure how far I want to press the strict analogy between gaming and the world, but I think it could be spun quite a way if we insert the term experience. My point, in part, is that one can imagine a bunch of decision-trees clicking through automatically, nanosecond-by-nanosecond, on a computer, but that does not equal a game, and we mis-speak if we say that the computer is "playing." Likewise, one can imagine a simulation of the world on computer -- some of course speculate that the world is a simulation -- but in order for it to be a world, there must be experiencers of it (="players"). So we have a choice. Put very tendentiously (and I am sure I would need to work quite hard to tighten this up) the analogy goes: either experience / playing is reducible to algorithms and on-off switches (n.b. this need not be deterministic), and there is no world (game); or there is a world, and it is not reducible to "programming."

    Flavor is also closely akin to what I was elsewhere calling theme.

    Doubtless this is all less than fully baked. But the philosophy of play has been a theme since Heraclitus, and as a teacher/fellow-student I cannot overstate the importance of mimesis (=, roughly, "make-believe"). As usual, I start with Plato on this one.

  3. Keep going guys! These exchanges between you two are a delight for the Gods!
    Now, why do I keep thinking of Leibniz's principle of the identity of Indiscernibles?
    (Is it the wine I am drinking?)

  4. Rama, it sounds like you were drinking Rum, TLP's favorite drink! LOL