Feb 292008
So, now that we’ve had a little fun with serious science, let’s have a little serious discussion about fun. Gamasutra has two excellent features up about the relationship between games and art, and I think both of them have merit. EA producer Jim Preston’s feature, “The Arty Party” prompted an impassioned response from E. Daniel Arey about “The Art of Games”. Jim Preston has a really good comment on Arey’s piece, and of course Arey’s is a really good response to some of the limitations of Preston’s article. Both pieces have merit, and I highly recommend reading both of them if you have the time.

Preston’s article is primarily an indictment of arguments over whether games are art or not. He points out that often what defines art for people is context: the best violinist in the world playing the best violin music ever written may not be taken for an artist if he is pursuing this activity in a subway station. In this regard, the real criterion by which one can judge whether some object is art is whether people believe it is art. Consequently, Preston doesn’t believe that engaging people like Ebert in a debate over whether games are art is worthwhile. This speaks to my own prejudices; as I have mentioned before, I think the best way for enthusiasts to regard this question is to treat the debate as won and start talking about and judging games as works of art. The earnest and articulate belief in games as art will do more than toppling a dozen Eberts in what Preston terms “essentialist debates”.

Arey’s piece is a response to what he perceives as a sort of self-satisfaction in Preston’s article. He feels that Preston’s attitude reflects a willingness to let games stand still, as it were, with respect to their artistic form. Arey, on the other hand, thinks that developers and publishers should be actively pushing the artistic boundaries of the medium. I’m in agreement on this point as well. While Arey believes there should be some push on the supply side, I’ve already argued that there should be pull on the demand side as well. Arey believes that, regardless of context, the idea of art still matters, and that people in the bright centers of publishing should do all they can to encourage innovation and growth in the artform.

As Preston notes in his comment, these views aren’t really at odds with each other. Gamers ought to treat the debate as won, but both developers and gamers should want to win more, and win better. Talking past the essentialist debate is all well and good, but we shouldn’t be content with that. Even if we’ve won or avoided the fight over whether games are art, we should still strive to bring to market something that can show up an Ebert and expose the argument that games “can never be art” for the vacuous nonsense that it is.

In keeping with my own prescriptions (and Preston’s) I am going to try to finish some in-depth studies of games I’ve been meaning to post (similar to my post on Silent Hill 2). I hope I’ll be able to have the first of these up by Sunday evening. Others will have to wait for refresher play and by the same token, for loaned-out games to return to me.

Feb 282008
Anonymous Coward (self-designated) at Bayblab managed to stir up a pretty little storm in the science blogging community today with a little article about “The State of Science Blogging”. AC apparently believes that the science blogs at ScienceBlogs have too much blog and not enough science. Of course, several of the ScienceBlogs people are up in arms. Some well-reasoned responses can be found at Laelaps, Uncertain Principles, and Greg Laden’s Blog. Dave Munger also has an excellent piece on the subject. You can even read the comment thread at Bayblab if you want, but I wouldn’t advise it. It’s altogether too much effort to catch the gems out from the flying monkey poop. As sole proprietor of a blog that’s occasionally about science and almost never read by actual people, my opinion doesn’t matter to any of the parties involved. However, I like seeing my thoughts in print, so I will share with you that I think that Anonymous Coward’s argument is wrong-headed.

AC seems to think that blogs that self-identify as “Science Blogs” ought to focus primarily or exclusively on science as a topic. His stated reason for this is that people will get a false impression of what science is about, particularly with respect to PZ Myers’ blog. I think, that AC’s concern points to the opposite conclusion, however. Moreover, I believe that irrespective of true or false impressions of science, it is beneficial for those who blog about science on a regular basis to also post on topics that are of more general interest.

One of the problems that scientists face—in America, at least—is an anti-intellectual culture that stereotypes them as socially inept “eggheads” who ramble endlessly about esoteric subjects and cannot relate to normal people. While this may be true of me a few scientists, it’s not true of that group as large. The “false impression” that scientists should be concerned about is the widespread belief that they are some weird breed of alterna-human that lives on tax dollars and has no experience of the “real world”. Scientists who blog on politics, or their personal lives, or that great ham sandwich they had last night perform a valuable service for all of us by making it clear that scientists are just as (ab?)normal as everybody else.

So that justifies the occasional non-science post on a “science blog”. Still, what about blogs that are mostly about non-science topics? Again, I’m not troubled. The simple fact of life is that most people don’t come to the internet looking for good science. In fact, most people close off and actively avoid discussions of science. They visit blogs to hear about politics, or movies, or cookware, or diet tips, etc. and they won’t be reached by blogs that only cover cell biology or rock formations. But if they come to somebody’s blog because of a post about Rambo and there happen across a post that explains a scientific subject in an accessible way, then they might be drawn in. Blogs that cover a diverse set of subjects that includes scientific matters grow the audience for science and increase awareness of research in a way that exclusively scientific blogs won’t. Why? Because the only people who read blogs that are only about science are people who are already interested in science.

Look, if somebody who loves video games comes to this blog because of my Professor Layton review (no representation is made that anyone other than Wlad and myself read that post), and while here sees the appendix post, or some other science post, or my post about science about video games, and becomes interested in and motivated about science, even if only for a couple of hours, does science win or lose by that? The game is worth the candle in my view.

The truth of the matter is that the science blogging community is a very tiny corner of the blogosphere. That little teapot will never turn into anything bigger than what it is if we restrict ourselves to fitting the image that popular imagination tries to stuff us into. Rather than stirring up a wee storm over whether everyone who blogs about science deserves to be called a ‘science blogger’, shouldn’t we be encouraging as many people as possible to write good posts about science, whether that’s one science post a year or one hundred?

POSTSCRIPT: After I had written this, but before I was able to edit it or post, Bayblab “revealed” that their initial post was a puerile, uncontrolled “experiment”. Don’t know if that’s the truth or not. Maybe their second post is the experiment.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT: Coturnix has a really good post up as well. You might also re-check Greg’s Blog and Drugmonkey for some reaction to the “experiment” post. My own feeling is that AC was trolling and got what he wanted.

Feb 262008
I recently read Arieh Ben-Naim’s book Entropy Demystified, a book I feel would have benefitted greatly from being more somewhat more focused on the task of explaining entropy than it actually was. While Ben-Naim, as promised, does a good job of reducing the second law of thermodynamics to “plain common sense”, he makes confusing decisions to include arguments better meant for experts and diatribes that serve nobody. As a result I feel the book, though largely useful, may ill-serve the lay audience for which it is apparently intended, especially as regards the areas where non-scientists are most likely to encounter the concept of entropy.

In my view, the purpose of a popular book on a scientific subject is twofold. First, it should provide readers with enough good science to understand the subject as it appears (if it appears) in their lives. Second, it should provide the lay reader with a framework that allows him to interpret the words of experts. That is, the reader should come away with an understanding of what scientists mean by (in this case) entropy. Thus, popular books on any subject are not a reasonable platform to argue for paradigm shifts. First of all, you’re not talking to your target audience (i.e. experts) when you do this. Second of all, the lay readers that agree with you will now be thinking of the subject in a very different way than most of the scientists they will encounter. So not only do you fail at what you’re intending to do in terms of serving your new paradigm, you also fail at one basic task of the popular science book. The unfortunate thing with Ben-Naim’s book is that it fails at the second task and ends up with mixed results on the first, for no real reason. He could have done just as good a job explaining entropy without introducing the new paradigm at all.

Entropy, despite its importance, is not a topic that lay people encounter very often. The transfer of heat from warmer to cooler bodies is a common example, as is the diffusion of dye in a liquid, or the mixing of two liquids or gases. Ben-Naim does an excellent job of explaining the role of entropy in these processes, building up from relatively simple dice games to complex discussions about temperature and gaseous mixtures. However, he does not do any job at all of explaining the role of entropy in reactions. Consequently, he fails to explain how apparent counteractions to entropy occur. A layman reading this book will understand why a gas expands, but not why it was possible to compress it in the first place. Also, Ben-Naim’s approach and focus on mixtures and the like will also leave the reader utterly unprepared to encounter discussions of entropy in connection to the hydrophobic effect. Could the framework here introduced be extended to explain micelle formation and protein folding? I don’t doubt that this is so, but Ben-Naim doesn’t do it, to the detriment of the book and its readers.

What’s Ben-Naim doing with all this space that he’s not using on talking about the role of entropy in chemical reactions? Well, he’s arguing for a view of entropy based on information, specifically defining entropy in terms of “missing information”. Although this position has some merits, this book is an entirely inappropriate place to make the case for it. Why? The most pervasive popular misuse of the second law of thermodynamics is in creationist canards about the thermodynamic impossibility of evolution. These misinterpretations often rest on ideas related to information (as colloquially used) or distortions of information theory. Although Ben-Naim repeatedly states (correctly) that information has a precise scientific meaning, he never graces his readers with it. I fear this leaves them more vulnerable to creationist distortions than before they started reading. That Ben-Naim says little to emphasize the meaning of “closed system” or the other parts of thermodynamics exacerbates the problem. The discussion of information was not strictly necessary to his overall point—his excellent introduction of probability would have sufficed—and it is easily misread and misused. In my opinion, he should have held his tongue here and allowed his book targeted at the academic audience (A Farewell to Entropy: Statistical Thermodynamics Based on Information) to make the case.

Ben-Naim also devotes pages and pages to complaints about other authors’ (Atkins particularly comes in for criticism) presentations of entropy. These sections contain a few good ideas, but on the whole read like petulant complaints about more popular writers. That these pages serve any real purpose at all is debatable; that they weaken Ben-Naim’s case is certain. No matter how much he disagrees with these authors it would be better for him to disregard them and focus on constructing his own case than deconstructing their books. I agree with him that science writers are too eager to portray entropy as mysterious, but clearing up the mystery is sufficient. His detailed rebuttals of their language are unnecessary.

It’s a pity, because Ben-Naim really does pack in some useful and important concepts. Strip away the unnecessary information theory, and his book does an excellent job of reducing the law of entropy to common sense. Entropy Demystified explains what entropy actually means for certain physical systems, and excels at building this picture up from very simple games that anyone can intuitively understand and model. That said, Ben-Naim does not tie entropy into real processes nearly as well as he could, and his insistence on representing entropy in a way that has not yet gained mainstream acceptance may mitigate his readers’ ability to apprehend what scientists are saying about the subject. Moreover, the fact that this alternative presentation is “entropy as missing information” is more likely to perpetuate misunderstandings about entropy (especially with regard to evolution) among the lay audience than to clear those misunderstandings up. As such, I cannot recommend this book, despite its virtues.

Feb 242008
Virgin Atlantic pulled off an interesting little stunt the other day. They flew a Boeing 747 across the Atlantic. Well, that’s not so interesting. What’s interesting is that one of its four engines was fueled by biodiesel—in this case a mixture of oils from babassu nuts and coconuts. Ultimately, this act barely addresses any of the questions surrounding the future of our transportation system. But even though it’s just a stunt, I don’t disapprove, because I think it’s important to raise people’s awareness of the monumental challenge we are going to face in this century, one that has profound implications for our ongoing prosperity and the global economy.

Like I said, the trip itself accomplished little. As a practical matter it established that at least some biofuel blends remain liquid enough to use as fuel at temperatures and pressures experienced by airplanes. The concern in this case isn’t just that the biofuel will turn into a solid or a gel; it’s also a possibility that a biofuel could remain liquid but become too viscous for efficient jet engine operation. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (the other three engines had conventional jet fuel in case it did).

However, that’s about it. We have no particular reason to believe that the existing tracts of babassu and coconut will provide sufficient fuel to replace the hydrocarbon uses of airplanes. The current batch was produced in such a way that it didn’t interfere with food production, but hey, it only powered a quarter of a single transatlantic flight. Does the world produce enough babassu nuts and coconuts in a year to supply fuel for a single day’s worth of flights? This is a pervasive problem with the biofuels approach. The most optimistic estimates about switchgrass ethanol suggest that it would replace no more than 30% of current petroleum use. That means we are going to have a serious problem.

The increasingly global nature of the economy means that many goods travel a very long way. The raw materials must be shipped, often to a factory in a different country. Once assembled, the manufactured goods must be shipped to the US, often overseas. Once they reach the US, they must be distributed, a process that sometimes involves rail but always involves an 18-wheeler or panel truck at some point. This is a lot of shipping, and the feasibility of biofuels to replace the energy source at any point is completely unproven. I don’t think anyone doubts that biodiesel can power a ship if you have enough, but there’s no evidence that we can produce enough. Even if we manage to produce sufficient yields of biofuels they may be significantly more expensive than the present plentiful oil. Of course, they will eventually become more economical than oil, but this will not be through any virtue of their own.

Supplies of oil will become increasingly tight. In the past, spikes in oil prices were driven by speculation or market interference by OPEC. But within the next few decades we will start to see oil prices rising because of supply scarcity. And because the resource is not renewable, once those prices start going up they will never go down until demand collapses. What this means is endless inflation. Oil permeates our economy. It provides the raw materials for our goods from drugs to sneakers, and the for the plastic in which those goods are encased and protected. It provides the energy and lubrication for the machines that transport those goods to our markets, and for the machines that carry us from our widely distributed homes to those markets and back. Parts of the markets themselves are constructed from materials made from oil and they were built by machines that ran on petroleum. The effective price of goods will be inflated at every single one of those steps.

This will murder the economies of developing countries. The only way to keep prices down at US destinations will be to either re-industrialize America or treat already underpaid workers in foreign countries even more terribly than they already are. Neither bodes well for these developing countries. Stagnant economies will only add to the damage likely to result from global warming, resulting in enormous instability. Stagflation on a global scale will pound the last nail into the coffin of the already-tenuous pax Americana unless we do something.

The Virgin flight is valuable because it emphasizes the need to plan for petroleum scarcity now. Scrambling to replace oil once we’re past peak production is a fool’s game. Biofuels such as those used in this stunt will probably not be the answer, but we cannot even know that without further research. Research money from DoD, USDA, and DoE should be funneled into this field now to establish the most viable means of replacing petroleum and mitigating demand. Otherwise the global economy will run aground when the great oil tide recedes, with all hands lost.

Feb 222008
Yesterday Kotaku put up an article about Barack Obama’s line in which he says people “…are going to have to parent better, and turn off the television sets, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children…” The particular editor at Kotaku clearly overreacted by seeing this as Obama using games a metaphor for underachievment. That’s clearly not the point. But if it were, it would be a largely valid point, and more importantly a point with which most Americans would agree for mostly correct reasons. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week knows I am not saying this because I believe games to be devoid of artistic content. Quite the opposite: I earnestly believe games have the power to convey stimulating stories and emotions in a uniquely powerful way. Unfortunately, most video games, and especially the video games that have the most impact on popular culture, fall far short of this ideal. True video gaming enthusiasts are not the only ones to blame for this problem. However, they are well-placed to do something about it.

The main features supporting Obama’s (and the larger public’s) view are pretty obvious. For the most part, games are not a physical activity, although the Wii is changing that to some extent. They generally do not convey enlightening or even interesting stories. Because they divorce themselves so totally from the science, history, or mythology on which they occasionally claim to be based, the vast majority of games are not even slightly educational. Indeed, in this regard they are usually so far off base they aren’t even wrong. It is at least possible, even likely, that shooters and gory games desensitize their players to violence (though not necessarily uniquely so), especially if those players are young. The majority of television and movies are at least as bad and probably worse. However, video games shouldn’t make a negative case versus competing media; they should try to stand positively on their own. This, at present, they cannot do, particularly not as they are perceived in the larger culture. Given what the average person knows, a parent promoting any alternative activity, be it reading books or playing with sticks, over video games would be acting reasonably. At least the sticks won’t make your kids dumber.

What makes this so upsetting to me is that it need not be so. Many games rely on critical thinking and problem solving skills. Games largely do not possess the “quick cuts” common in commercials and film that are suspected to adversely affect attention span and concentration. In fact, most games reward concentration and careful observation. And despite the generally grim situation, there are many games that include interesting and stimulating narratives. Even the first-person shooter genre, justifiably reviled for its generally awful writing, recently developed entries that featured a genuinely interesting story (BioShock) and an extremely clever and novel mechanic (Portal). Games like these, that favor inventiveness and storytelling over crystal-clear graphics of aliens’ heads getting blown to bits, are rare gems to be celebrated.

But why? Why is BioShock the revelation, instead of being the status quo? Why is Shadow of the Colossus the exception rather than the rule? The reason is that the low (intellectual) quality muzzle-flash-and-gore spectacles sell. They sell spectacularly, and the simple fact is that companies have not just a desire, but an obligation (to their shareholders) to maximize their profits. If cow manure sold like candy bars, you’d never see another Snickers vending machine. The reason gamers don’t get candy is that they’re willing to buy crap.

Why are there great artistic movies, despite the triumphant profits of summer blockbuster pablum? Because there are people that believe in movies as an art form, who support artistic movies, who tell their friends about the emotionally moving films they see and encourage those people to support them. Some of these buffs also enjoy the occasional schlock film, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with schlock films or watching them, as long as you don’t confuse Transformers with Citizen Kane. Look, Halo isn’t art. It’s got art—perhaps even really good art—in it, but hey, Face/Off had some great cinematography and set design. That doesn’t mean Face/Off isn’t schlock—nobody in film confused dual-wielding Nic Cage with Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Halo is great fun, but the perception of the broader culture is that we see Halo and Gears of War as the pinnacle of the gaming artform, while I think the genuine perception of gamers is that these are the easily-discarded summer blockbusters.

Game publishers appear to be content to let the public perception stand. Thus, it falls to the enthusiasts to help elevate the form. We can do that in many ways. The most obvious, and the one most likely to directly impact the choices made by publishers, is to shift our purchasing habits. When you come across a game that makes an artistic statement, buy it; when you want to play a game that doesn’t, rent (or ignore) instead. Stop pre-ordering games—require publishers to demonstrate quality and artistry before you buy. When it becomes favorable to a company’s bottom line to push artistry over flash, they will do so. Why? Because they love money.

In that same vein, reward reviewers (with your traffic) if they focus their greatest attention on the artistic merits of games. I know the initial reaction to this is to say that reviewers should review games for “what they’re trying to be” rather than focusing on the artistic aspects. That’s a bunch of crap. Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and that funny-looking guy from the Today show could all pan the hell out of the next entry in the “Michael Bay Blows Up” series (Michael Bay Blows Up Alcatraz, Michael Bay Blows Up Asteroids, Michael Bay Blows Up Your Childhood, etc.), and it will still make hundreds of millions of dollars. Game publishers and designers, as well as the purchasing public, need to develop a similar attitude towards bad reviews of schlock games, instead of insisting that review scores reflect popularity or ultimate sales. If Halo is bad art, give it an F, even if it’s a good time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as the audience is aware of your angle, as they are with Ebert.

The final thing to do is for enthusiasts ourselves to talk about games as art, and to focus on artistic games when gaming comes up in casual conversation. Enthusiasts must get in the habit of talking (or writing) about games as art, rather than purely entertainment. The earnest, well-articulated, public attitude that games are art will do a great deal to promote this view in others, even if they have no direct experience of artistic games.

Obama was right to say what he did, and the next politician to say it will be right, and the next one after that, up to the day you lose your teeth and your mind. Games will always be a juvenile, inferior medium unappreciated by the public at large unless those who love them most put real pressure on developers, publishers, and reviewers to transform the motivations and attitudes that inform game creation and media response. If dollars support the best art instead of the best gloss, better art will be made and supported by the industry, and if the public at large gets used to seeing games discussed as art, criticized as art, and publicized as art, they will get used to thinking of them as art.