Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net STEVEN POOLE

Steven Poole on the plea­sure of get­ting stuck into game prob­lems

The mind is a ma­chine for re­duc­ing un­cer­tainty. At least, so goes one in­trigu­ing the­ory in mod­ern cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy. Hu­man per­cep­tion is not a pas­sive busi­ness of re­ceiv­ing sense data from the eyes, ears and so forth. In­stead, there is a storm of noisy, am­bigu­ous, un­cer­tain sig­nals, from which the brain’s un­con­scious pro­cess­ing must work very hard to in­fer even the ex­is­tence of a ta­ble in front of me.

The hu­man brain, on this the­ory, is con­stantly per­form­ing an un­con­scious form of log­i­cal rea­son­ing called “ab­duc­tion”. Ab­duc­tion rea­sons back­wards, from am­bigu­ous ev­i­dence to a hy­poth­e­sised cause. I un­con­sciously rea­son that the noisy data of my vis­ual field is the kind of pat­tern that would be caused if a ta­ble were in front of me. There­fore I de­cide that I am per­ceiv­ing a ta­ble. Ab­duc­tion is a kind of spec­u­la­tive re­verse engi­neer­ing. It is the kind of rea­son­ing we con­sciously use when, as Lara Croft, we hy­poth­e­sise that this mech­a­nism must be driven by that cog, which in turn must be ac­ti­vated by that switch over there.

The trou­ble is that ab­duc­tion is highly un­re­li­able. The cause I hy­poth­e­sise for my sen­so­rium might just be wrong. (That cog might be a red her­ring.) And this, on the the­ory, is what goes wrong when peo­ple have hal­lu­ci­na­tions, see­ing or hear­ing things that aren’t there. It’s not that some­thing has gone wrong with their or­di­nary per­cep­tion; the sys­tem is work­ing as it nor­mally does, only more so – try­ing too hard to make sense of the data, and making mis­takes in its ab­duc­tion. But th­ese mis­takes at least re­duce un­cer­tainty about what is out there. Even psy­chotic delu­sions, such as that the TV is talk­ing to you per­son­ally, can be thought of in the same way. Un­cer­tainty in ev­ery­day life can be ter­ri­bly stress­ful. A delu­sion re­solves un­cer­tainty and can thus be of tremen­dous com­fort to the per­son who holds it – in just the same way as a re­li­gious faith can.

Per­haps, then, videogames are a vir­tual al­le­gory of our minds’ stum­bling progress through the world. The game­world is re­al­ity; the player is mind. The videogame recre­ates and ex­er­cises the cog­ni­tive sys­tems of ab­duc­tion-from-data in a more plea­sur­ably man­age­able way. It re­places the real world with a sim­u­lated world in which the rhythms of un­cer­tainty and sat­is­fac­tion are more re­spon­sive to the player’s agency. And when un­cer­tainty is re­solved, the player can know she is ob­jec­tively cor­rect, as she rarely can in the real world, be­cause of the ping of a tro­phy, the dis­cov­ery of a de­sired ob­ject, the open­ing of a new vista. Hal­lu­ci­na­tions and delu­sions are im­pos­si­ble – or, rather, the videogame is a sort of be­nign, al­len­com­pass­ing delu­sion it­self.

If a videogame is about cre­at­ing un­cer­tainty and giv­ing the player the tools to re­solve it, then it would fol­low that it fails when there is ei­ther too lit­tle un­cer­tainty or too much, or when the un­cer­tainty is in the wrong place al­to­gether. This is one way of think­ing, for ex­am­ple, about the mod­ern fash­ion for ex­ces­sive hand­hold­ing and ob­tru­sive hint­ing in videogames, lest the player get stuck. Be­ing stuck – in a state of un­cer­tainty that one is at­tempt­ing to re­solve – is a nec­es­sary part of the game’s plea­sure, as long as the player trusts the sys­tem to fur­nish a way out. If you are never stuck, you can never have an “Aha!” mo­ment, which is one of the great joys of the medium.

Mis­placed un­cer­tainty, mean­while, has marred my re­cent co-op playthroughs of

Lit­tleBigPlanet 3 and Lara Croft: The Tem­ple Of Osiris. My gam­ing part­ner and I are not the stu­pid­est guys on the planet, but we must have spent nearly as many hours in those games won­der­ing where the hell to go next as we did ac­tu­ally play­ing the lev­els. Both LBP3 and Lara have big hub lev­els where you are forced into mys­ti­fy­ing and con­fus­ing ex­plo­ration just to dis­cover the next playable area. That’s the kind of un­cer­tainty that ejects the player from the com­fort­ing delu­sion of liv­ing in a ra­tio­nal uni­verse.

Still, we had fun, as we al­ways do. In­deed, the model I am here propos­ing – of videogames as al­le­gories of mind ver­sus re­al­ity – of­fers a way to think about the joy of co­op­er­a­tive play as well. In this pic­ture, play­ing co-op im­plies a sec­ond per­son­al­ity in­side one’s head, but this delu­sion (as it is not in schizophre­nia or psy­chosis) is be­nign and pro­duc­tive. Play­ing co­op­er­a­tively so­cialises the process of log­i­cal ab­duc­tion, and dou­bles the sat­is­fac­tion of re­solv­ing un­cer­tainty. In art as in love, two peo­ple be­come one mind against the sys­tem.

If you are never stuck, you can never have an “Aha!” mo­ment, which is one of the great joys of the medium

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