Editorial: Of Chess and Calvinball

I never took games seriously until I became a student of philosophy in college.

For those of my readers unfamiliar with my educational pedigree, I hold a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.  One of my professors, Daniel Braybrooke, held an awesome seminar on Utopia and utopian philosophy, comparing visions of the “ideal” society from Plato onward through Thomas More  (who wrote a fictional travelogue of the ideal society of Utopia that is the basis for so many of our modern expressions) and Niccolo Machiavelli, on through modern-day political philosophers like Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, and the various Dworkins of Dwork End in the town of Dworkington in the Dworkshire (something about that name makes one want to restructure society; also, possibly, cast gold rings into molten lava).

One of the philosophers we studied quite in depth was this guy Bernard Suits.  He held the notable distinction of being one of the only philosophers we studied who was not dead.  He also came and spoke to the class on two separate occasions, discussing his work, “The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia.”

It was Suits who showed a young, impressionable Lane that games held relevance to academia beyond the application of game theory, which has about it the stench of mathematics and other forms of wizardry.

Since Suits’ lectures, I look at games not only as interesting diversions, but as windows to my own psyche and even some of the more promising metaphysical puzzles of the universe.  The game is the only activity that a human might be said to engage in for its own sake. Strictly speaking, a game serves no other purpose greater than itself.  It is enjoyment reified.  Even a child’s play is a “game” in the broader sense of the term.  Certainly, such play is not a formal game like a sport or a contest, but play is structured, however loosely, and that structure gives rise to rules and what is and what is not allowed.

Kids with guns
This probably would have shot through someone's "cover" in a neighborhood war.

Like many young boys, I received a bounty of fake weaponry as a child.  Swords, knifes, guns, and clubs were regular participants in neighborhood games as a child, whether epic water gun battles waged in the heat of summer or the decidedly more insidious and universal game of “war” played between roving gangs of neighborhood children turned mercenary.  Even in these simple games, there were “rules” to follow, such as having to “die” when one was “shot.”  Failure to observe these rules could get one labeled a cheater, after all, and then no one would want to play with you any more (the analogy to international war crimes is apt and unsurprising).

The joke is that all philosophers do to engage in philosophy is take an everyday occurrence and ask, “why?” about it.  This joke is funny because it is true.  Suits, like many other before him, and others I hope that come after, looked at this activity of engaging in games, something that is universal to the human condition, and asked, “why do we do it?”

The trite answer, “because it is fun!” is trite only because it is entirely satisfactory as an explanation yet woefully inadequate to express the poetic wonder the philosopher encounters when she considers the phenomenon of games.

Yes, games are fun… but they are also a test of our abilities, a way of establishing hierarchies, methods for sharpening our skills at everything from flight to war to surgery to vocabulary.  Games make like worth living because they impose a consequence on doing something ordinary.  Where else but a game could one find the ability of moving an inflated bladder past an imaginary line on the ground something not only worthwhile but fun and exciting?  It is a ball being moved past a line.

An alien anthropologist encountering such behavior might think us mad… unless, as I suspect, the drive to play games is an outgrowth of sentience itself.  The sentient mind, the consciousness that drives and animates all thinking beings, requires stimulation, exercise, and diversion, the same as the body does.  Games are unique in being able to provide us this kind of mental stimulation so necessary to our enjoyment of life, because they take the everyday, the boring, and the mundane, and transform it into a puzzle for our minds.

Chess Pieces
Of Chess...

The greatest game ever invented is chess, and its many cultural variants.  Chess is, in short, a stand-in for war.  It is an antique, but not antiquated, method of teaching humans how better to beat their rivals.  To play chess is not merely to engage in a session of playing a game, but rather to engage with strategy in its pure form.  Speaking for myself, nothing is more calming and relaxing than studying a chess board and analyzing each move in terms of its strategic advantage.

Within this seemingly simple game of proscribed movements over a regular geometrical surface, endless possibilities arise with every move.  Chess moves, from the opening to the endgame, have been rigorously analyzed for centuries. Probabilities have been calculated, and we have even taught machines to play.  Yet it is still impossible to play “perfectly;” human grandmasters can beat machines, and machines can beat grandmasters.  That is because chess changes with every move made; no piece may move in such a way that does not influence the overall development of the game, from the lowliest pawn left in the back rank to the mighty queen herself.

I recently began tracking my strategic decisions in chess.  I am prone to stick to convention, playing 1. e4… as my white opening and using the Sicilian defense as black.  True to philosophy geek form, I asked myself, “Why?”

Strategy is strategy for a reason; things that work in games tend to usually work because games are creatures of limitation.  Any time a limit is imposed via rules, there will be “better” and “worse” ways of achieving the goal within those rules.  This upsets some players, who feel that their “creativity” is somehow dampened if there is a “cookie-cutter” or “ceteris paribus, best way” to play the game. I liken these people to the eponymous Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes” and his game of Calvinball.  For those philistines out there, Calvinball was a game where a new rule was invented at every turn.  To the unsophisticated, Calvinball hardly seems like a game because the rules keep changing.  However,  to the people who feel constrained by such things as “cookie-cutter strategies,” Calvinball, with its sandbox and open-ended appeal, represents all that is good and right with the world.

What fools we be.

The “rules” of Calvinball are not strictly comparable to the “rules” of chess, which are, Bobby Fischer and chess variants be damned, inviolable.  Rather, the rules of Calvinball are like pieces in chess:  mutable at the will of the single “meta-rule” of Calvinball that a new rule may be adopted on declarative fiat of the players.  The “game” of Calvinball is not to do something with the titular Calvinball, but rather to make up new rules to confound one’s opponent.  The game evolves as new rules are expounded, true, but the basic method of play, the invention of new rules, remains constant.

and Calvinball...

One of the hot topics in the World of Warcraft community of late is whether the game has been ruined by the staggering proliferation of information about boss fights before hand, and the literal megabytes of data that can be collected and processed in the form of add-ons to assist in playing.  In my guild, for instance, no one raids with us who does not have certain add-ons installed.  These add-ons will not “play the game” for you, but they do provide on-screen representation of game mechanics that could just as easily have been hidden.  This got me thinking:  what if such things were hidden?  How would we process strategy if certain information were blocked off from us?

Which leads me back to chess and Calvinball:  in each game, there are hidden mechanics.  I cannot, despite my attempts at mesmerism, divine the thoughts of my chess opponent.  Nor can I predict the new rules that Calvin will adopt and plan accordingly.  In a traditional, tabletop RPG, the goings-on behind the dungeon master’s screen are shut off from my prying eyes.  But not so in World of Warcraft.  Omen proudly displays whether my damage output is so high that I risk drawing the ire of the boss from the tank to myself.  Skada provides real-time feedback on my damage output, so that I know how to adjust my performance.  Deadly Boss Mods provides on-screen visual timers for core fight mechanics, so that my timing is never off.  Raid frames and buff frames let me manage every aspect of my play, from the distance I am from my party members, to the specific moves I need to use and when to maximize my utility.

Until recently, I also used the add-on “Augmented Virtual Reality,” which let me draw directions to fellow raid members on screen and then publish them to the group, providing real-time direction to every player in the raid.  Blizzard eventually nixed this add-on as too much of an interference, a move I understand:  it really did feel like I was having my hand held throughout the entire encounter.

But is it really so different than the host of other mini-programs I have running to display things that, should they so desire, Blizzard could effectively lock me out of?  With regularity in encounters and the ability to see all of these “behind the scenes” mechanics, strategy has become a matter of math and common knowledge.  Not only can I give fellow players a winning strategy for every fight in the game, I can theoretically do so without ever actually playing the game.

AVR in action
AVR -- strategy laid bare

Of course, in the actual execution of this strategy, much is left to be desired.  There is still a large gap between theory and practice, and more often than not, that evil beast known as “human error” kills me.  Still, I wondered if my enjoyment of the game would not be heightened by hiding some of these mechanics.

And that is when it struck me:  the answer to the problem of MMO gaming, the next step in MMO evolution, had to appear like a regression.

Developers need to hide the ball from players more.

If it is possible to tightly control an encounter, where there is no true randomness, then it is possible to create the sorts of rote, mechanical types of execution needed to succeed as a WoW player.  A  few add-on installs later and a handy, how-to-win guide can be on the screen at any time during a boss fight.

If an encounter is too random, however, it is difficult to make it enjoyable, since the difference between success and failure might depend on something entirely out of the players’ control.  Imagine if, for instance, the concept of “threat” was abandoned and a boss could attack whichever party member he felt like (or, since it is a game, the random number generated dictated).  This would mean that players would always have to be on their toes, and no one would be able to settle in to tunnel vision.

Or, better yet, what if we made enemy AI in MMOs much more like the “AI” that plays chess against grand masters.  Instead of having bosses work like clockwork machines throwing out special attacks on regular timers and requiring players to respond, what if we programmed bosses with pre-set tactics and strategies in mind?   One boss might always target the person with the lowest armor value in the game with high-damage attacks, while another might randomly pick on any player with a set of melee-based talents.  Except that these facts would not be disclosed in any way to the players:  no matter what other information could be gleaned from data-mining game mechanics data, some things (the strategy of the computer AI) would always be off-limits to the player.

Now, strategy is not simply a matter of overcoming a set of pre-defined and regular environmental conditions, but rather reacting and responding to an opposing mind (however simplistic and mechanical) and that mind’s strategy.

One encounter in the previous WoW raid, the Trial of the Crusader, actually began down this path.  And I hated it at first.  I am speaking, of course, of the Faction Champions encounter.  I hated it because it felt too much like a player-versus-player fight (which I also enjoy) in the middle of a player-versus-environment setting.  But
the concept was sound; at least before everyone started to outgear the fight and it simply became a matter of “bum rush the healers!” However, is this not a valid strategy?  One type of chess opening is very aggressive and focuses on early development of major pieces. Sure, even a good player will lose a bishop or a rook here and there in such a fast game, but checkmate can also come faster as well because black has to defend against a fast-moving onslaught of white pieces.  It is a gambit, but sometimes it pays off.

What I want to see is that sort of flexibility in game design in the future:  possible to play conservatively and have slow and steady win the race, or to throw caution to the wind and hope the enemy is dead before we are.  Is this sort of game design feasible in the context of computer games?


  1. I think perhaps it’s an interesting idea… It does remove some of the base mechanics that wow was based on- DPS, Tank, Healers… If a boss isn’t attacking a tank at all times then the battle often falls apart since characters in late game are not able to survive the high powered assaults. So I think the idea is wonderful but it does fall apart in the example game of wow… At least for most of the content. I agree that a thinking feeling computer is always an interesting idea- a computer that will intentionally take advantage of your weaknesses is scary yet brilliant and would push us to our limits.

  2. It’s amazing to see what uses philosophy can be put to. Strangely, I’ve never involved myself much in the philosophy of games–my interests are primarily theological.

    As you point out, “We play games because they are fun!” is a generally successful answer, so why ask further? It may not be poetic, but is fun not enough of a motivation for an act? After all, people act on even less motivation than ‘for fun’, and such things may go uncommented upon.

    Games are for fun, one might say, but in addition to their set challenges, they also teach us and improve us as we play them. Thus we might say that another factor is the human drive for self-improvement, which pushes us to better ourselves, even when we don’t notice it.

  3. -I love philosophy, I might make it my minor. let it be known that Lane used Calvin Ball in a serious philosophical article and didn’t look like a fool. he deserves a promotion. someone move his picture above Ginia’s.
    -holy shit, it’s Lee!
    -I would love to see a thinking computer in an action game. I have the most fun in SCIV when my friend changes up his moves to throw me off. if that type of thing happened in God of War, Heavenly Sword, etc the absurd amounts of combos you can do could be justified with necessity as opposed simple variety. I’ve always enjoyed having to use all my skills rather than only having the option to use them and an Artificial Intelligence with actual intelligence could do that.

  4. @Breaka — you’d be surprised how often Calvinball gets used in philosophical articles. Although I maintain my use was superior because I’m not using it like some indie-rock listening douche who only does it because it is ironically cool to like a nerdy comic about a nerdy seven year old and his precocious tiger.

    @Lee — redesign endgame raiding. Some of this is happening in Cataclysm, with health pools being higher and healing redesigned from “OH MY GOD SPAM HOLY LIGHT ON THE TANKS NOW” to something more like a “triage” situation. I think of classic console RPGs — everyone, even the wussy white mages, had high HP levels and could withstand several boss hits. The boss also tended to target people in an inscrutable fashion, such that you had to make strategic decisions — heal your damage dealers, or your healer? Who’s going to get hit next? If, say, the system incorporated a conditional argument like the Faction Champs encounter did (they would tend to focus on the person with the lowest armor rating + highest health differential), then you get something interesting: the boss picks on the weak and players had to use lots of different abilities, from stuns to taunts to roots to slows to polymorphs, to take care of certain bosses. It meant that you had to have a unique strategy in every raid, and while it was terribly frustrating because it was PVP-themed, the concept is solid.

    The problem with AI though, is that AI is really stupid. Like Aggie levels of stupidity. It is very easy to outsmart it one-on-one… but ten or twenty-five on one? Large groups tend to be as smart as the lowest common denominator, and Wrath’s raiding style of “see if stupid people can avoid environmental damage” is frustratingly simple. Of the most epic fights in the game, e.g., Sindragosa and the Lich King, they are easy if one simply pays attention to mechanics. Whereas fights with more “random ways to die” that are still much easier like Rotface or Festergut provide many more wipes just because people are too stupid to press more than 2-3 buttons a fight.

    @Ethos: If we start requiring me to post tl;dr versions now, well, I won’t go into it with my customary verbal onslaught, but suffice it to say it would be like dividing by zero.

  5. All of Lane’s tl;dr: suck it peons.

    Hiding the ball from the player is becoming obsolete as developers discover the delight of gimmicks. Think about the previously stated business plans of Nintebdo, Microsoft, and Sony: “we want the welcome the casual gamer.” Which, of course, means they welcome the money of both cheerleaders, guido-bros, and grandma. If you hide the ball from the average MTV or Lifetime viewer, they won’t “get it,” and will dismiss it as a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of money. People like you and me that like actually thinking about strategy are left holding our asses, wondering why every new game we buy is either beaten or simply boring within hours.

  6. @Lane — I have seen some of the new data of Cata- and I’ve fought the champs too… both very interesting. I just can’t see a true Raid-Killer based on what I would call vindictive programing. At least not one that you could get a group up for. Being a regular member of PUGs I find myself annoyed with people who quit on a single wipe… Can you imagine a boss that annihilation is guaranteed at least 3 or more times? It could be the death of PUGs altogether.

    @Jenifer — I Praise your words and agree entirely. I have been convinced for now that it’s just a slow season for games right now… but something feels just…. ‘off’. Games feel like 90% crap and recycled ideas/titles. Not to mention all the game show and Hollywood movie games which are the bane of my existence. (Since I have YET to play a game based on some movie or TV show that I felt was worth my time. I still shudder at the 4 hours of my life I gave away to Home Alone. I still haven’t forgiven my mother.)

    I remember when there were 5 awesome games every year you could count on… now…. maybe one.

  7. Game design has died. Devs are only allowed to rehash past successes. Expect this to continue for as long as gamers allow it to (read: get comfortable with the status quo).