Thursday, October 2, 2008

Going Out of my Head

Earlier this week Mike Abbott wrote about how unconsciousness was his key to victory in Mega Man 9, and it reminded me of Lumines Live!.

My girlfriend has a dynamite Lumines Live! game. She slaughters me on a regular basis. It's a result of our differing play styles. Me, I'm planner-- I spend a lot of time in the early game laying out careful rows of blocks that will be easy to clear out. But she looks on my neat little rows with contempt. She's more a damn-the-torpedoes type. She works quickly-- she'll spend the first part of the game just dropping blocks pell-mell, as fast as she can. By the time I've got anything going, block-clearing wise, she'll have built up a lead by chipping into that initial heap and I'll be up against the wall. Give her some space to work she is nearly unstoppable, because I can't match her speed. I can't switch the planning-section of my brain off long enough to keep up with her.

Basically, she doesn't have to think about the game at all when she's playing, and this confers a huge competitive advantage over a thinker. She can beat me on total cruise control. While I'm feverishly scouring the block-pile for landing spots she can be daydreaming about kittens. She'll still win. I know what this mindset is like, because I'm totally capable of playing Guitar Hero without directing any conscious attention at all towards the wave of oncoming gems. I'll be off in some unrelated head-space and Strutter will leap, unbidden, from my hands.

There is that way that habituation causes us to internalize extremely ornate forms of reasoning, to the point that we are hardly able to make these inferences explicit. When we're apprehending a new rule-system we have to think about the rules in order to follow them. (“So, if I make a square of four blocks, then they will disappear when the time-line sweeps by” or, “If I press this button and strum with correct timing, then it'll play this note.”) But once you've trained yourself into practice of note-strumming and block-dropping all these explicit rules fall by the wayside, replaced by this kind of thoughtless mastery. That's why we call certain transcendent performances unconscious, or say that C.C. Sabathia was pitching out of his mind last Sunday.

Interesting philosophical problems arise from this kind of phenomenon. When we're pressed to justify ourselves, when we get to talking about things like knowledge and right action, we usually fall back on the idea that our beliefs and behavior stem from sound principles. We talk about how our conclusions follow from sound rules of evidence and logically sound reasoning. Philosophers tend to be caught up in the idea that there is an explicit set of rules that guides our reasoning in certain areas, and that our ability to state and justify these rules is the soul of wisdom. But experience shows that we can be pretty reliable performers (we can come out with correct performances-- expert block-dropping and peerless plastic-guitar-tapping) without ever being able to explicitly cite the rules that produced those performances. (Like, I know there's some sort of complicated algorithm being processed in the lizard-part of my brain, which is telling me when I shift my hand around on the neck of the guitar, but I'll be damned if I can tell you how or when I make that decision.) There is even this way that thinking about what you're doing ruins your capabilities-- when you start thinking about what you're attempting and it all goes to shit.

Even though we can often work backwards towards the guiding thread of reasoning if we think about it long enough, there are these more extreme cases where we cannot frame an explicit rule at all. American neopragmatist philosopher Robert Brandom uses the example of chicken-sexing in his book Articulating Reasons: “Industrial chicken-sexers can, I am told, reliably sort hatchlings into males and females by inspecting them, without having the least idea of how they do it. With enough training, they just catch on. In fact, as I hear the story, it has been established that although these experts uniformly believe that they make the discrimination visually, research has shown that the cues that their determinations actually depend on are olfactory... [they] are quite unable to offer reasons... for believing a particular chick to be male.” (102-3)

Brandom thinks cases of this sort provide an foundational insight into the nature of reasoning. For Brandom, the idea of a game gives a pretty apt metaphor for the the kind of practice reasoning is-- what the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would call a language-game. A game is a system of rules, which designate correct and incorrect performances-- valid and invalid moves within the game. But unlike a video game, whose rules are exhaustively thematizable (someone had to write those lines of code), ethical and theoretical reasoning might not be the sort of thing that is reducible to an explicit set of rules, consciously followed. Reasoning and inferring are moves in an evolving practice that we engage in with each other, guided by our implicit sense of how-the-game-is-played, more than by a set of explicit principles. (we gather evidence and draw conclusions and act without having to think about it; we've been schooled since birth in this game's ins-and-outs by other human beings.) For Brandom, philosophy is about reflecting on the game's practices and trying to make the rules that guide our practices explicit.

One of the reasons that games are interesting is that they serve as great metaphors of the kind of practices that guide the rest of our cognitive lives. When it comes to making judgments about the world, we have instincts and gut feelings that often serve us better than our attempts at conscious reasoning, because they are promptings of our unconscious mastery of how the game is played -- you can find examples aplenty of this kind of thing in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. And as Wittgenstein's philosophy shows, focusing on the simple and well-worn examples of reasoning (like block-dropping) can overturn our most basic conceptions about the nature of rule-following and inference. Games are about the wonder of learning rules, and using them to master the world and dominate our enemies. I wish I was better at not thinking about them.


Anonymous said...

The cyclical nature of human ideas never ceases to amaze me. Laozi was talking about this phenomenon two and a half millennia ago, and Zen Buddhists made it a centerpiece of their philosophy (or is it more of an anti-philosophy?) in the 7th century.

Thanks for the tip that the haphazard approach is workable in Lumines. I've been over-planning in that game too. I think it's a holdover from playing too much Tetris. That game is all about planning and waiting for the precise moment to strike.

Brian O'Blivion said...

I remember playing Tetris on the NES one night back in college. I was probably pretty high, and I just found the zone. Everything except those blocks just seemed to shrink away and I ended up with over 150 lines, a feat which I have never been able to repeat. I have also experienced this phenomenon with Guitar Hero, and even making a huge line of drinks at the espresso bar.
You may not be thinking, just feeling, but I am sure that it's not everyone who can get into the zone like that. I think you have to start off with a good amount of intelligence, to the point where you can internalize the rules and make your execution automatic, but you also need, like you said, to be able to shut off the planning part of your brain and just use the force.

Not being much of a scholar, I'm not sure I can make this assertion, but it seems to me that this phenomenon is the essence of Zen: you're not thinking, really, or feeling, you're just being and doing, at one with the gems or blocks. It's a lot like meditation, in fact. Haven't you ever turned on GH and mulled over some personal problem while playing "Radium Eyes" or "Strutter"?

Kylie said...

A particularly great example is what happens when you return to a game you've internalized after a long absence. I was in the middle of playing MGS4 when I had to travel for the summer. For some reason I was trying to describe the controls to someone after a few weeks but couldn't remember what button did what. But once I was able to boot up the game again it all came back to me unconsciously. I couldn't tell you how I was aiming and ducking and rolling in the abstract - I just knew how to do it (despite the initial frustration of having to learn all of those moves).

Maybe this is one of the real inherent goods that gaming can have on people. The activity of learning a new system of rules (about anything) and practicing them to the point where it is all internalized and done unthinkingly is relatively rare outside of gaming. In fact, gamers are probably one of the few groups of people who are willing to engage in new rule learning on a regular basis. Most folks need a pretty compelling reason to spend that kind of time learning something (e.g. the reluctance to change to new operating systems, web browsers, etc.).

This could be the thread that gives some sort of unification to gamers despite the disparate games they play. In fact it's because we play such disparate games that prepares us to learn and internalize rules very quickly. When I teach about the notion of Zen or internalized embodiment and control of artifacts I'm constantly strapped for examples - usually sports, musical instruments, or driving a car come to mine. Unfortunately these examples are often muddled by time - I don't really remember what it was like learning to drive a car and having to think about every movement, it was too long ago. Similarly for my students, unless one of them happens to have learned something new relatively recently they might have to struggle to find a meaningful relationship to the concept. Perhaps in the future I'll call out the gamers in the class ^_^

Dave said...

There is one very serious consequence to playing a game without thinking about it: When you turn the game off, you will not be able to *stop* thinking about it.

Almost every game player has experienced those waking dreams of Tetris or Bejeweled (for me the worst was Dr. Mario) playing incessantly somewhere in the back of our consciousness for days at a stretch. In my experience, there is an almost perfect correlation between "games that are best played by your unconscious brain" and "games that your unconscious brain won't shut the hell up about for the rest of the day!".

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@julian: I have consulted with my lady friend and she says there is nothing "haphazard" about her strategy. I dunno if this is true, but if it is it just means that she is significantly better at on-the-fly thinking than I. My feeling is that you can get further by just making a pile quickly, because then you can get some large clears pretty quick and get a jump on your apponent. I know that she whup me without putting much conscious effort into it.

@toaster: I'm sure that all that separates me from conquering "Jordan" on expert is some advanced level of brain impairment. Ah well. And it's true that I'll often drift off in the middle of Strutter and mull over some personal issue that bothers me. Maybe it's a benefit of these games that they kind of put your mind is this frame of contemplation.

@Kylie: I have similar experiences with a lot of puzzle-type games, where I bang my head against them again and again without success, and then when I pick them back up the next day all the difficulties suddenly fall away. My basic policy with "Braid" a while back was to sleep on it, and it totally worked. (this also works with crossword puzzles. strange, no?)

Steve Amodio said...

So I'm late to the party here but after doing a post on the scientific explanation behind the therapeutic feeling of Tetris this post had my mind cranking, didn't get to put anything together until today, though.

I won't call it a response, but a sort of scientific tangent is here. Essentially I go off of the thoughtless expertise that you got after in regards to Lumines. Obviously I take it in the direction of Tetris, but I think the conclusion could apply to more or less any game that can be automated.