We imagine that there are hunchbacks inhabiting our machines all the time-- many people will swear that their iPod shuffles designedly, calculating its mix in order to pump them up during their workouts. Valve Software's recent zombocalypse shooter, Left 4 Dead, has a feature called the “AI Director,” an algorithm of some kind that dynamically alters the quantity and distribution of zombie attacks in the level based on your performance. When I was playing through L4D last week, my fellow survivors and I quickly fell to speculating about whether the AI director was capable of pity, whether our collective suffering would be sufficient to propitiate his reptile heart. The answer was no, though he can be swayed by turning the difficulty to “easy.”
Evolutionary psychologists have this theory about human consciousness, which holds that the human mind has a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Pithily, HADD) At some point in our emergence from the grasslands we acquired a propensity to perceive the world in terms of agency-- we see the world as if it were guided by an intelligence, as if every change in our environment was caused by an agent of some kind. By keeping us minutely keyed to the environment, the HADD may have helped the first homo sapiens avoid predators. Some philosophers of religion speculate that this evolutionary spandrel may be responsible for the belief in ghosts and spirits. Follow the misfires of our HADD long enough and you can explain why humans came to offering up goats to the big AI director in the sky.
I'm even more dubious of this theory than I am about the marriage of historical materialism to lurianic Kabbalah. However, to bring it back to games, we don't need any barely-empirical brain science to explain our dogged feeling that games put us in contact with a human mind. As Michael Abbott recently noted, the pleasure we get from gaming-- interacting with systems of rules-- is that playing a game is a kind of communication between the designers and the player. Games are an expressive medium because their rules are structured towards an end, because they have certain designs on the player. The reason the AI director seems like a merciless sonovabitch is because some brilliant people at Valve wanted to scare the bejeezus out of us, and keep us playing the same levels over again, and they created a set of rules fit to that end. It's their minds that are hunched inside the base of the robot.