Monthly Archives: March 2011

On Simulation, Science, and Love

This is of course, about love, but it is also about science. Both things highly relevant in a Digital Romance Lab.

Last week, I went to an excellent lecture entitled “The Limits of Science” at the Royal Institute, delivered by famous scientist Professor Peter Atkins. He concluded that indeed, science has no limits; that everything in the universe is within the realms of scientific interrogation.

This includes ourselves; our human experience. While there were clearly those in the audience who balked at the very secular nature of Professor Atkin’s talk (and made it painfully apparent during the Q&A), I am always keen to underscore, as Atkins himself did, that this doesn’t, in any way, reduce the magnificence of existence. Science is, quite literally, awesome. A wonderful, secular kind of awe, which both humbles us and inspires us. That we understand so much of it, and yet so little, is also amazing; we humans are truly marvellous beings.

And so, we too are open to examination by science. Our human experience is open to examination. Indeed, Atkins stated that “consciousness is open to elucidation by simulation.” Of course, Atkins was talking about building artificial, machine-based models of the brain, in order to explore the notion of consciousness as its emergent property. I’d like to extrapolate from this however, to explore how else simulation can help us to understand consciousness, though perhaps not in the way that Atkins meant.

After all, simulations are, essentially, an embodied model of our understanding of something. Our simulations of the brain are models of our scientific understanding of it.

In this way, simulations are also expressions of the way we see the world; or, at least, of how we want to represent it. During the Q&A, Atkins conceded to one art-advocating audience member the idea of examining Pride and Prejudice, for instance, in order to learn something of Jane Austen. This is very true. If we consider Pride and Prejudice to be a kind of simulation of Austen’s understanding of gentry society in 19th century England, this teaches us a great deal about how she saw the world; indeed, of how she saw romance.

Simulations are not objective, and videogames especially are interesting in this respect. As noted by Harvey Smith, “it’s through the interactive systems–as related to the player’s agency–that we see the artistry in video games”. Indeed, this is how games create meaning through the gap between its rule-based procedures, and the player’s subjective response. This is what Ian Bogost calls the simulation gap. Therefore, in playing video games, we are able to critically reflect; to learn something about not just the game’s creator, but about ourselves.

Videogames are, then, excellent tools by which we can explore what it means to be human; to help us to explore, and unravel our subjective selves.

In this way, games can help us to explore a crucial part of the human experience: Love. The questions of how we do this are what we are exploring here at Digital Romance Lab, and I am absolutely thrilled to join this exploration.

I began this inaugural post promising to speak more of love, so having defined the important ways in which simulation can help us to elucidate the human experience, I will go on to to that. But, with a warning that it is a love which is also heavily intertwined with science, again. But it is also beautifully romantic.

Romance. I wanted to share one of my favourite stories on the subject. It relates (as most of my favourite things do, to those that know me) to the late Carl Sagan. More specifically, to Carl Sagan, and Annie Druyan, and to billions and billions.

This story comes from RadioLab, both on the episodes titled ‘Space’ and ‘This is Your Brain on Love’.

In 1977, Carl Sagan was tasked with putting together a “Golden Record” which would go on the Voyager spacecraft. Essentially, this was to be a “mixtape of the human experience”; all the sounds that make up what it means to be a human being living on Earth, and this was to be sent off to be hopefully discovered, one day, by whoever else is out there in the depths of the Cosmos. Annie Druyan, who was a friend and collaborator of Carl Sagan, was made creative director of this endeavour. She described the awesome significance of the task, and her memories of that time:

“We felt, first of all, that this was a kind of sacred trust; that here we were, half a dozen very flawed human beings, with huge holes in our knowledge of all of these subjects, building a cultural Noah’s Ark. It was a chance to tell something of what life on Earth was like, to beings of perhaps a thousand, million years from now. Because the Voyager engineers were saying this record will have a shelf-life of a billion years.

It was also the season that Carl Sagan and I fell so madly in love with each other.”

She goes on to tell the story of how this happened:

“On June 1 1977, I had been looking for some time for that piece of Chinese music that we could put on the Voyager record and not feel like idiots for having done so. I was very excited because I’d finally found an ethnomusicologist, a composer at Columbia University, who told me without a moment’s hesitation that this piece ‘Blowing Streams’, which was represented to me as one of the oldest pieces of Chinese music, 2500 years old, was the piece we should put on the record.

So I called Carl, who was traveling. He was in Tuscon, Arizona, giving a talk. And we had been alone many times during the making of the record, and, as friends, for three years. And neither of us had ever said anything to the other; we were both involved with other people, we’d had these wonderful, soaring conversations, but, we had both been completely professional about everything, and as friends.

And he wasn’t there. I left a message. An hour later, the phone rings. I pick up the phone, and I hear this wonderful voice. And he says, “I get back to my hotel room, and I find this message, and it says, ‘Annie called’. And I say to myself, ‘Why didn’t you leave me this message ten years ago?’

And my heart completely skipped a beat. I can still remember it so perfectly, and I said “For keeps?” and he said, “You mean, get married?” and I said “Yes!”. We had never kissed, we’d never even had any kind of personal discussion before. We both hung up the phone, and I just screamed out loud, I remember it so well, because there was this great Eureka moment. It was just like, scientific discovery.

And then the phone rang… And it was Carl, and he was like “I just wanna make sure, that really happened. We’re getting married, right?” and I said “yeah, we’re getting married!”, and he said “Okay! I just wanted to make sure.” And the spacecraft lifted off on August 20th, and on August 22nd, we told everyone involved, and we were together from that moment until his death in 1996 in December.”

What a wonderful, beautifully romantic story. (I’ve always enjoyed the dedication to Ann Druyan in Cosmos: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”) But, the story of their getting together gets even better still! It also relates back, more explicitly, to science, and to Professor Atkins’ musings on consciousness as emergent from our material brains.

Two days after she and Carl declared their love for one another, Annie had a thought. She wondered if it might be possible to compress the impulses in one’s brain and nervous system into sound, and put that sound on the record, in hopes that the extraterrestrials of the future might be able to reconstitute that data into thought. She asked Carl what he thought of this, who told her “A thousand million years is a long time. Why don’t you go do it, because who knows? Who knows what is possible in a thousand million years.” So, then, Annie recorded her brain waves, and every little impulse given off by her body, at the Bellevue Hospital in NYC.

“This was two days after Carl and I declared our love for each other, and so, what I often think is that maybe in a hundred million years from now, if somebody flags that record down, because part of what I was thinking in that meditation was about the wonder of love, and of being in love. And to know it’s on those two spacecraft. Even now, whenever I’m down, I’m thinking “and still they move. Thirty-five thousand miles an hour. Leaving our solar system for the great wide open sea of interstellar space.”

I can never get over how beautiful this is: the thought of Anne Druyan’s meditations on being in love with Carl Sagan, speeding into the infinite depths of space. Annie Druyan and Carl Sagan’s love will exist, literally on record, long after our species has ceased to exist. What an absolutely incredible, beautiful part of the human experience for future extraterrestrials to find, a billion years from now.

In the same way that those theoretical future beings may find Annie Druyan’s impulses, and translate them into thought, how can we, at Digital Romance Lab, provide players with the appropriate procedures, the appropriate simulation, so that they too, may translate from it, an understanding of this beautiful human experience – of what it feels like to love. This is what we hope to explore.


Filed under carl sagan, digital romance lab, real relationships, science, simulation

Games that Woo


Chris Tottier has posted her GDC talk, Designing games for the 43-year-old woman, and it’s worth looking at. It’s about respecting what she calls the “accidental gamer” – the non-captive audience who has stumbled into games but is not the “gamer” most of us usually target with game products. She talks about how game designers have to compete for the accidental gamer’s time, and should be “easy to love”: “Pour her a proverbial glass of wine.”

I love this idea, that a game woos its player gently by charming her and drawing her into its world, rather than by challenging her to compete. Yes, we should have more games like this! Who doesn’t want to be wooed? 🙂


Filed under Uncategorized

Little Text People, Part 1 of 3


Here’s the first of a couple of articles I have in mind stemming from GDC last week. While at GDC I had the pleasure of attending many talks, one in particular stands out for myself and for Dirolab. This is the talk by Emily, Andrew and Richard showcasing their new game, Little Text People. No hyperbole, this was the most interesting game of the show for me. I’m splitting this post up into three parts to make it less epic, so without further ado, part one begins…

The Team

Little Text People is being made by three notable people who haven’t, to my knowledge, worked together before.

Emily Short of Galatea fame, creator of many other progressive interactive fiction works, key contributor to Inform 7 itself, and ever present on our little sidebar – please cast your eyes to the right. Emily is interested in narrative, and everything that might mean in games. Her longstanding work in writing, programming and designing interactive fiction is no doubt paying dividends with Little Text People even though it definitely can not be categorized as a text adventure.

Andrew Stern was one of the two creators of Façade. Made together with Michael Mateas (now Associate Professor at University of California, Santa Cruz) and released in 2005, Façade is surely the subject of a future Dirolab post but is still worth a digression here. It is extremely ambitious, highly innovative and correspondingly achieves many firsts. From the point of view of an experimenter in games or a student of digital romance, Façade lights a path with its many important successes and its many educational mistakes or cautions. In the game you play a house guest at dinner trying to repair the marriage of two friends. The married couple are both simulated characters and you interact through a free-form text interface. Rendering is 3d and non-photorealistic, with skinned animated characters and the camera is first-person. Façade’s story might not be romantic, admittedly, perhaps it is even antiromantic, but the game is concerned with the simulation of feelings, relationships, interpersonal dynamics and it is a game where you nurture loving feelings – all areas of interest to us at Dirolab.

Those familiar with both games will sense that there is a connection between Emily’s Galatea and Andrew and Michael’s Façade, which has born fruit in this collaboration.

Richard Evans comes from EA/Maxis, formerly Lead AI Programmer on The Sims 3. Here the connection to Neil Young, Alan Yu and ngmoco presumably began. Reading between the lines ngmoco is financing Little Text People and will publish, and all credit to them for their farsightedness in funding a decidedly more researchy project. Richard’s background is AI, possibly NLP and he has an academic strand to his approach.

The Talk, Part I

My recollection of the talk is imperfect. Drinking 7 nights in a row can do that, not to mention the jetlag. The life of an international playboy game designer is indeed a difficult one. And GDC Vault isn’t up yet. But enough of my problems, here goes anyway.

Entitled “People in Your Pocket: High-Quality AI on Mobile Devices” the talk was part of the AI Track, but happily was heavy on high level game design, or game architecture as I call it.

Richard began by talking about design elements of interactive fiction: pre-written dialogue with a free-form text interface and parser. One major problem with IF is that the parser often confuses the player with its limitations, and the vocabulary set always leads to the guess-what-the-designer-wanted game. The affordances are too many and too obscure, being implicit. But text-only games have a major advantage: they are highly makeable, can include many verbs, nouns, adverbs, etc, and thereby include a great many features, settings and characters, as well as a great deal of artistic expression. This is especially true when combined with parameterization, commonly of nouns, but also verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and so on. More on combinatorial parameterization – getting big bang for your buck – later. So, Richard asked, What If… someone made a game which included limited explicit affordances in a text-only game? Or a nearly text-only game? His point was this is a new area of design space. The pastures look very green in my opinion, and I am no great fan of IF or pure text.

To be continued…

Don’t miss next week’s exciting installment of Little Text People, with more on the game design, philosophy, design goals, wherein we meet The Shy Man


Filed under ai, Andrew Stern, Emily Short, interactive fiction, Little Text People, relationships, Richard Evans, simulation