The Problem of Problems

The other day I was talking to a software programmer who mostly does outsourcing work for game developers. He told me that video games are the only place where there are interesting problems to be solved in computer science; everything else is either an engineering exercise (networking, multimedia software) or completely out of our reach (artificial intelligence). This explains why somebody like John Carmack, who doesn’t seem to really care about games and spends his spare time building space rockets, would give a crap about our stupid hobby: it’s one of the few games in town for really advanced problem solving that uses his skillsets.

We may not understand most of what he says, but John Carmack's genius is exciting and engaging.

This got me thinking about game design as well. It seems as though that is the one area of media that we are still learning about as well. Sure, as individuals people need to keep relearning filmmaking techniques or music theory, but we as a society understand these things completely. In fact, we can now science our way into making an extremely popular song or movie (let’s disregard personal taste here, because that isn’t always just impacted by the media itself). Even if you don’t care for the music written by a computer, it’s likely that you listen to a great deal of older music that is still just as powerful now as the day that it was released. Video games are different, because there are no hard and fast rules defining how to make one that people really like. You can’t really teach somebody game design, all we really have are some rules of thumb about what usually works and what doesn’t. There is also a measure of success that doesn’t exist in other mediums, because simply making a game that people can/want to finish is an additional challenge that we have to deal with.

These concerns aren't new: Wells predicted that complacency would literally devolve us, while Orwell suggested that a never-ending war (a false problem) could be used to control the masses. The power of problems in our society is well understood.

I actually don’t want to just talk about video games though, I want to talk about us, our species. For our entire reign on earth we have faced problems. Wars, famine, development of new technology that grants us freedom...those were all exciting problems that everybody in the world could get involved in. We chose to go to the moon in that decade and do the other things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Even the people who weren’t directly solving these problems were interested in them, and we all derived a great sense of satisfaction seeing just what we were capable of.

We don’t seem to have any of these problems now though. Well, ok, we HAVE many problems. Third world hunger, overpopulation, global warming...these are definitely big problems that need solving. But we don’t seem to have the energy to tackle them anymore. Talented individuals work very hard to deal with them, but the full weight of society just isn’t behind the multitude of issues that we face. Many people have claimed that this is due to our relevant comfort, and I think that’s part of it but not the whole story. I think that there is a deeper driving force within both the collective and typical individuals that is missing in tackling these problems. Maybe we need a charismatic leader, maybe we need something to happen close to home that will wake us up, maybe we need some good propaganda...I don’t know.

Where is our feverish excitement for the hydrogen powered car?

We certainly have a drive to solve problems: that’s what a video game is, it’s a set of problems. But now instead of solving the real problems around us we’re busily making game problems for each other. This can be really healthy, because it grants us new insights, viewpoints and skills that we wouldn’t get from regular, every day interaction. But if we never learn to deal with the real world through these exercises, then we’re satisfying only the most basic part of our need for problems, and not putting that drive to good use. That drive...it’s what got us where we are. We should not squander something so great. If video games are the only area of puzzle solving that we have any interest in working on, then we’ve essentially given up on the outside world and fallen upon self-engineering, which is something that has been predicted in the past (technology as the next form of human evolution). And what are we left with when we have engineered ourselves into happiness? Can you design human satisfaction? Do we really want to?

It seems to be busy working on the latest League of Legends patch.

What am I trying to say? I don’t pretend to fully understand myself. On some level, I guess I’m trying to come to terms with the general lack of depth and meaning that I feel in my life, and see in others. If I’m right about this on a broader level, then game enthusiasts are at the focal point of a really big problem that we aren’t going to be able to handle. Given that I’ve been wanting to make video games for my whole life, I am faced with a special quandary: is that even the right thing to be doing? Can I make games that push people to be excited about real world problems? Will anyone help me to do so?

Maybe we’re at the point where we’ve %100 completed the game of human interest. When that happens in a game, we usually spend some more time playing around with all of our new toys, but that gets boring fast. When you S-rank a game there are only really two options:

Move on to a new game...

Or start over.

6 Comments
7 Comments
Posted by nintendoeats

The other day I was talking to a software programmer who mostly does outsourcing work for game developers. He told me that video games are the only place where there are interesting problems to be solved in computer science; everything else is either an engineering exercise (networking, multimedia software) or completely out of our reach (artificial intelligence). This explains why somebody like John Carmack, who doesn’t seem to really care about games and spends his spare time building space rockets, would give a crap about our stupid hobby: it’s one of the few games in town for really advanced problem solving that uses his skillsets.

We may not understand most of what he says, but John Carmack's genius is exciting and engaging.

This got me thinking about game design as well. It seems as though that is the one area of media that we are still learning about as well. Sure, as individuals people need to keep relearning filmmaking techniques or music theory, but we as a society understand these things completely. In fact, we can now science our way into making an extremely popular song or movie (let’s disregard personal taste here, because that isn’t always just impacted by the media itself). Even if you don’t care for the music written by a computer, it’s likely that you listen to a great deal of older music that is still just as powerful now as the day that it was released. Video games are different, because there are no hard and fast rules defining how to make one that people really like. You can’t really teach somebody game design, all we really have are some rules of thumb about what usually works and what doesn’t. There is also a measure of success that doesn’t exist in other mediums, because simply making a game that people can/want to finish is an additional challenge that we have to deal with.

These concerns aren't new: Wells predicted that complacency would literally devolve us, while Orwell suggested that a never-ending war (a false problem) could be used to control the masses. The power of problems in our society is well understood.

I actually don’t want to just talk about video games though, I want to talk about us, our species. For our entire reign on earth we have faced problems. Wars, famine, development of new technology that grants us freedom...those were all exciting problems that everybody in the world could get involved in. We chose to go to the moon in that decade and do the other things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Even the people who weren’t directly solving these problems were interested in them, and we all derived a great sense of satisfaction seeing just what we were capable of.

We don’t seem to have any of these problems now though. Well, ok, we HAVE many problems. Third world hunger, overpopulation, global warming...these are definitely big problems that need solving. But we don’t seem to have the energy to tackle them anymore. Talented individuals work very hard to deal with them, but the full weight of society just isn’t behind the multitude of issues that we face. Many people have claimed that this is due to our relevant comfort, and I think that’s part of it but not the whole story. I think that there is a deeper driving force within both the collective and typical individuals that is missing in tackling these problems. Maybe we need a charismatic leader, maybe we need something to happen close to home that will wake us up, maybe we need some good propaganda...I don’t know.

Where is our feverish excitement for the hydrogen powered car?

We certainly have a drive to solve problems: that’s what a video game is, it’s a set of problems. But now instead of solving the real problems around us we’re busily making game problems for each other. This can be really healthy, because it grants us new insights, viewpoints and skills that we wouldn’t get from regular, every day interaction. But if we never learn to deal with the real world through these exercises, then we’re satisfying only the most basic part of our need for problems, and not putting that drive to good use. That drive...it’s what got us where we are. We should not squander something so great. If video games are the only area of puzzle solving that we have any interest in working on, then we’ve essentially given up on the outside world and fallen upon self-engineering, which is something that has been predicted in the past (technology as the next form of human evolution). And what are we left with when we have engineered ourselves into happiness? Can you design human satisfaction? Do we really want to?

It seems to be busy working on the latest League of Legends patch.

What am I trying to say? I don’t pretend to fully understand myself. On some level, I guess I’m trying to come to terms with the general lack of depth and meaning that I feel in my life, and see in others. If I’m right about this on a broader level, then game enthusiasts are at the focal point of a really big problem that we aren’t going to be able to handle. Given that I’ve been wanting to make video games for my whole life, I am faced with a special quandary: is that even the right thing to be doing? Can I make games that push people to be excited about real world problems? Will anyone help me to do so?

Maybe we’re at the point where we’ve %100 completed the game of human interest. When that happens in a game, we usually spend some more time playing around with all of our new toys, but that gets boring fast. When you S-rank a game there are only really two options:

Move on to a new game...

Or start over.

Posted by Akrid

Try putting a little faith in fate. It's fateful that your upbringing conspired to make you have such an appreciation in games. It's probably not your path to go jump around on Mars or invent a new type of spoon. Leave the "important" stuff to those who are destined for it, who have genuine passion for it. You have a genuine passion for games - it's best to roll with it.

Don't feel bad that you're not a master yet, or that you don't know how to be a master. You'll find everything else you could possibly do is equally esoteric when you hit a certain level of depth in the subject. You say there's a book that tells you how to make a great song? Fuck that book. I hate those songs. You hate those songs. They are not perfect, nothing is. Eventually there will be a book for games. You and I will both know that book is shit.

Take solace in the fact that your experience is not unique. It's the opposite. It's mandatory. There's a time in every sentient things life where it questions if anything is actually worth doing. Guess what? It is. It is absolutely worth doing.

Art is the education of the species. Games and movies and books, they've taught me so much about things that aren't expressed elsewhere. Art can convey concepts that are more subtle, more mundane, or more personal then a person could divulge themselves. Reading a well-written sentence can make you understand something that nobody could possibly hope to show you. Seeing a beautiful painting can do the same. Games, really, are all these things combined with the obvious cherry on top. And it's brand new and nobody has really done anything with it yet. You have a grand appreciation in this aspect of life. Don't waste it thinking you should be appreciating something else.

Posted by nintendoeats

@Akrid:Akird, I think your a really nice guy. But we're not on the same page. In fact, I'm pretty confident that we're in different books.

Posted by Akrid

@nintendoeats said:

@Akrid:Akird, I think your a really nice guy. But we're not on the same page. In fact, I'm pretty confident that we're in different books.

Are we? Huh. I could've sworn I had it right this time! Seems like every time, I end up missing your point completely. Ah well. In my defense, I always end up writing this stuff at like 4am.

Reading it again in a slightly less sleep-deprived state, I think I get your real point. And to that I say, I don't get your point. For one, in the case of games, we're creating our own problems to solve bigger ones. Like, I need to pay the bills, and I'd like to have fun doing it. Or, I'm really stressed from work and I'd like to relax and entertain myself. These aren't huge in the grand scheme of things, but it's an important lubricant to society.

Besides that, for every 50 people who want to entertain or labour or just get by, there is a scientist, environmentalist, or activist that are hoping and striving to improve mankind. And not just making a better ketchup bottle, real shit like cancer. That ratio has never been better, because we live in a world where those who try are lauded. And these people do accomplish things. The world gets better every day because of it. There is definitely an inexorable march of progress on the important fronts, and I don't for-see geniuses the world over suddenly deciding that directing movies is where the glory be.

We're never going to 100% human interest because it's infinite. We'll keep trying to improve until we're all dead. Things always could be better for us, even if we're talking a lovely wonderland where nothing bad will ever happen again, no wars or starvation. and from where I'm sitting, it seems like we're just now entering the future that we've been dreaming about since the 50's, and I guarantee you there'll be a new suite of dreams that we think up when we get there.

We've been in this uncertain transitional phase before, in the early 1900s. The U.S. patent office was considering shutting down because clearly everything that could be invented had been! We obviously proved that prediction false. As a species, we're never going to lose ambition.

In summary, I think the premise of WALL-E is thin at best.

Also, whoever says music is over because it's too predictable is a damned fool. Music is driven by events, not trends. Nobody can predict events.

Posted by RagingLion

So, I read and re-rerad this and it's taken doing that for me to maybe grasp the single thread that's running through these thoughts since otherwise there's lots of different issues that you mention here.

When you say "But if we never learn to deal with the real world through these exercises, then we’re satisfying only the most basic part of our need for problems, and not putting that drive to good use. That drive...it’s what got us where we are. We should not squander something so great." I think the drive for solving problems that you are referring to being squandered is the ones that lies in the greater populace? Is that right? Because the first times I read that I thought you were referring to the squandering being on the part of game designers who have chosen to design games rather solving other bigger problems. But instead you're saying that game designers are creating problems that are holding the attention of the people who play them rather than those people choosing to tackle the bigger problems of life. And therefore games are acting as a distraction and often don't have any content that's really worthwhile in enabling people to deal better with the world around them? Tell me if I'm getting that wrong.

What thoughts do I have on that? Hmm...

I do think btw that those big problems that you admit are present in the world will probably have ever more empahasis put on them out of necessity. For example, management of limited resources and energy generation. It's really hard to know how our society now and it's attitude to the big problems of the day or desire more technological progress compares to any other. Did the large swathes of the working class in Victorian England have any concept of what a great engineer like Isambard Kingdom Brunel was up to and were cheering him on in his engineering feats as it were? I could easily see that most of them were just focussed on the steady grind of life. It's just so hard to know what the mindset of other people was from other times.

What are the problems you think that normal people should be striving towards and caring about anyway and which there is a danger that they might be ignoring? If you don't have a certain profession that enables you to materially make a difference to cutting edge things or aren't in a place of influence then what can be done. What is there to do? To impact? What you end up in terms of problems to solve around us are surely just the simple (and yet really not simple) social things of loving those around us and managing our relationships well. Caring for those in need and just generally being a blessing.

Games can have meaning and try to get things across, whether those are mesasges that you can see might have a direct short-term influence on the way you act, or are more indirect in just feeding your imagination and providing a new way of thinking about things which stimulates your mind, but which might allow you to later better undestand something and can have a positive influence further down the road. Of course, very very few games go for having a message currently that have a positive impact, a few more like Bioshock which I recently played have that thing which which can stimulate your imagination - in it's case the very existence of an underwater city or Rapture and maybe the type of society that was present in that game. Games aren't alone in often not providing stimulating material of course - lots of other media is the same.

Those are some thoughts - maybe some of those don't hit on exactly what you were trying to think about, especially if I still managed to misinterpet you. You've raised interesting points in what you wrote in any case.

When it comes to my own meaning in life, well, I want to provide a useful contribution through my job; think through the ideas of life and then pass on any useful flashes of inspiration to more people; find a special person to share life with, but ultimately I feel content because of a relationship with God - I'm a Jesus-lover/follower. That's how it breaks down for me.

Posted by Ravenlight
We chose to go to the moon in that decade and do the other things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard.

Way to go, JFK.

Also, fuck third-world hunger. IMO, first-world hunger is a more important issue.

Posted by MarkWahlberg

We didn't go to the moon because it was hard, we went to the moon because we thought it would be cool. People have always been like this: we won't address big problems until they're directly affecting us - 'cross that bridge when we come to it' mentality - but we'll devote years of our lives to random shit because we find it more interesting. Should those monks in Europe have been helping peasants have better living conditions, instead of making all those illuminated manuscripts? Should the guys who designed the pyramids have just let those farmers do their thing instead of forcing them to build it? The only difference now is that it's having a much bigger impact because there's several billion more of us than there used to be, and that attitude doesn't go away no matter how advanced our civilization becomes. And it's easy to convince one guy to do something; much harder to convince millions. Complacency is inevitable when you're dealing with large groups of people - social inertia is a recognized concept. What's more, with things like designing games, there's a clear problem to deal with, and to solve it you have to play according to the rules of game programming. Complicated, sure but at least you know you have to bang away at your keyboard until it does what you want it to. Hunger, Poverty - those are obvious problems, but we've been trying to deal with them for centuries, have no clear plan as to what we should do, and usually fail at implementing whatever new plan we come up with. If there was a well run organization that said 'We know exactly what to do, here's our plan, come help us do it' and everyone believed it would work, you'd have thousands of volunteers. But even when you don't have that, you do still have thousands of volunteers working in different organizations across the country - hundreds of thousands across the globe. It's not that nobody cares - we just don't know what to do, and in the mean time most people have got their own problems to deal with. That's just how people work, for good or ill.