Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2006 March 31 -- Fantasy Magazine(s)

For a long time I have been saying of TIME magazine that "it reads like a novel -- with all the credibility thereof." Their interview of E.L.Doctorow a few weeks ago confirmed that impression, He said "People know that novelists are liars. And that's why we can be trusted to tell the truth." The editors and writers at TIME are novelists, and they think people will trust them.

TIME has a new baby brother to compete with for fiction. WIRED magazine now openly admits to being a "technology-and-culture magazine." Yes, hyphenated like that. I wonder how long before they reverse the order on the two parts to accurately reflect what their advertizers already know.

The current issue -- perhaps as an April Fool joke, but I doubt it -- ran a couple of back-to-back fiction-as-fact stories. The first expresses the hopeful wishes of some biologist/computerist who thinks he has invented a way to work backward from the genomes of living species to their presumed common ancestor. He tested his software by starting with a specified sequence of DNA codes, then after applying what he supposes to be mutations the same as evolution, his program recovered the original sequence. What he doesn't tell you (and WIRED authors are generally to credulous to ask) is how he knows that his test sample matches evolution, which nobody has ever observed in real life. All he did was contrive out of his own head some rule for randomizing bits, and then applied the same rule forwards and backwards, to get the original data. Big whoop-de-doo! Well, I wish him all the fun with his new toy. Ten years from now -- perhaps sooner -- somebody else will show how his results are deeply flawed, and his work will be as discredited as Korean clones. Evolution-driven "science" is like that. Oh, did I mention? This guy is at Santa Cruz. I got a degree there; I know what a nuthouse that place is.

Immediately following is a wishful fantasy by game guru Will Wright. His lead paragraph describes children "in imaginary worlds, substituting toys and make-believe for the real surroundings that we are just beginning to explore and understand." And then, in his progression, "We add rules and goals." He doesn't emphasize it here, but the emphasis is clear later on, we (as children) add these rules; it is creativity in the child. Two paragraphs later he has morphed into a paean on video games (what else? He writes them) where "they [the children] are learning in a totally new way -- [which] means they'll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption." Let's see if I understand this correctly. The children give up the creativity they add to their own make-believe (before video games came on the scene), and learn something totally different from that (no disagreement there), which is somehow now creative. No, the creative part is what they gave up.

Games, Wright tells us, "start in a well-defined state, ... and end when a specific state is reached." No room for creativity there. He goes on to say that in modern videogames "we're invited to create and interact with elaborately simulated worlds... they actually amplify our powers of imagination." Well, not really. The game software invites you to interact with the world the game developer invented, which operates by the rules he invented, and not any rules the player brings to the game. I know, I have written games too. Wright's own game lets the players add minor customizations, and he tells us the trend is in that direction, but don't be fooled: 99% of the world in a video game was designed by the developer and cannot be changed except as the developer chose in advance. Sort of like evolution, I think: completely designed by the Designer with the appearance of change over time, but nothing really significant.

Will Wright does offer one insight, which I can personally confirm. "Just watch a kid with a new videogame," he tells us. "They pick up the controller and start mashing buttons to see what happens. ... it's the essence of the scientific method." Kids have always done that, even as babies. They throw food to see what kind of sound and blob it makes on the floor or mommy's nice dress. They stick things in their mouth to see what this colorful shape tastes like. But because kids do this, new software no longer bothers with instruction manuals. Not just games, adult productivity tools must be learned the same way. Or else they create an aftermarket for "Photoshop for Dummies" books. I paid over $1000 for a software development tool that I have to learn the way a kid learns a game, by mashing buttons until something works.

There is an adult way to learn things that somebody else already knows. My father used to tell me, "Experience is a hard school, but the fool learneth in none other." He was right. The important things in life are too numerous and too complicated to learn by trial and error. That's why we send kids to school -- and increasingly, to college -- because they cannot self-teach that kind of knowledge in their lifetime. Even game programmers build their games on a lot of physics and sociology and other sciences that the programmers learned in school or by reading books, not by trial and error.

Games follow a fairly narrow paradigm of specific rules. Kids learn those rules pretty quickly, and if a game does not play by those rules, it's deemed unplayable. I know. If all their learning is in this restricted universe, then kids will have a pretty restricted skill set when they reach adulthood, nevermind what Will Wright wants to believe about his occupation.

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