Monday, February 08, 2010

J. Blow: Games as Instruments for Observing Our Universe

You might be dissuaded from listening to this talk by Jonathan Blow because it's distributed as a PowerPoint presentation and a couple of MP3s, or else because it's nominally about the much-maligned artifacts of human civilization commonly called "video games".

You would be making a mistake.

Jonathan Blow is a minor genius, and this talk is worthy of attention from anyone interested in science or art or really any creative activity. I have previously mocked video game apologists for viewing games as a failed (or at least not-quite-successful-yet) aspirant to "interactive cinema" — the teleological destiny of gaming, by this aesthetic, being the creation of an action movie in which You! Are! The! Hero! — and Blow is perhaps the most articulate proponent of the opposite view.

E. W. Dijkstra famously said that "Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." He was suggesting that there are properties of the universe — viz, certain mathematical truths — that can only be inspected by studying algorithms, which humans can only do through the construction of computing devices. Per Dijkstra, the devices are not the point, or at least not the only point.

In practice, most of computer science amounts to cleverly engineering around messes that humans have created; but sometimes you do glimpse something which appears to be a property of the broader universe. This is a point that is mostly unappreciated by non-computer-scientists, who assume that the essence of computer science is fiddling around with gadgets.

Similarly, the word "game" applies, in the broadest sense, to any system of rules with which one or more agents interact. Blow's basic point is that the generative systems of rules that we call games can be profound devices for exploring truth, just like the generative systems of rules we call algorithms. But that's a pretty inadequate summary of the talk. You should really listen to the talk itself.

(The Q&A is longer and somewhat more inside-baseball w.r.t. the Game Industry as it actually exists today, and therefore less interesting overall, although there are some good bits there too.)

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