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Playing Everything

“Loving [a thing] should make you a snob, not a cheerleader. And proper snobs are full of hate about what they love.”

-Eric Zimmerman



After this post, I’m going to start writing much shorter and more sporadic posts, I think. I’ll reduce the time from writing to posting so that I can talk about stuff I am actually currently doing. I am writing this on September 9th (I have my posts automatically scheduled), so I am entitling myself to a short vacation between now and publication of this post on the 19th. I’ll still have something for next Tuesday, anyway.

I’m glad I was able to push myself into getting so much text down. I wasn’t sure I was going to find the time and energy, but thanks to a little pushing by some of my “editors” and a little discipline I’ve been able to write consistently. It never really felt like a waste of time- writing is a great way to think through ideas (and obviously a good way to share them and get feedback, too).

This tenth post is a loose constellation of ideas on games, how I think about them, and how I got here.


Simon’s Ant

When you watch an ant follow a tortuous path across a beach, you might say, “How complicated!” Well, the ant is just trying to go home, and it’s got to climb over little sand dunes and around twigs. Its path is generally pointed toward its goal, and its maneuvers are simple, local responses to its environment. To simulate an ant, you don’t have to simulate that wiggly path, just the way it responds to obstacles.

Say you want to program a computer to simulate a person playing the piano. Sure, a Bach fugue or Mozart sonata is complicated. When people play them you see their fingers doing all these complicated things. But you can predict every motion if you know what the notes are. The complexity is in the notes. The fingers just do the few things that fingers can.

-Herbert Simon

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The Weird and the Banal

I’m sure this exists in some Umberto Eco book or something somewhere-

But imagine a man who is supernaturally bestowed with the power to truthfully answer any question someone else poses to him, but only on the terms that the question was posed. Our poor supergenius, call him Bert, cannot add new vocabulary that the asker doesn’t already use. He can’t draw or move to better convey his answers to others’ questions visually. Poorly posed questions about elan vital or phlogiston or angels on pinheads get warped answers, instead of denials of the premises (perhaps because if Bert had to deny all false or vague premises, he’d never be able to answer anyone’s questions at all). Even well-designed questions with direct answers might suffer from an “Up-Goer Five” effect, where Bert has to constrain the absolute truth to terms and ideas that already exist, leaving him frequently tongue-tied or unintelligible. There are clean-cut and simple answers that he cannot give especially well because of his inability to expand vocabulary or introduce new concepts. There are simple questions that he wished someone would ask but if never occurs to anyone to ask in the right way, most of the time. Many of what people bring to him as Big Questions are instead just very confused nonsense that he can only answer with his own tortured nonsense response.

We are not equipped to understand Bert.

Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste.

Why, then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark “Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think” surprise you?

Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts.

-Richard Hamming, Bell Labs


An affordance is a possibility for action, latent in the designed artifact itself but recognizable and actionable to the user. Knobs and wheels afford turning. Buttons afford pressing. The possibility for the action is clear just by looking at it- at least, for someone who has already mapped the mechanics of an artifact to an experience they recognize.

One could  imagine an alien species with strange appendages and sensory organs, creating tools that seem very natural to them because of their history and what their bodies allow, tools that for humans are worse than unusable- they’re practically unfathomable.

I want to take a stab at thinking about what is and isn’t “fathomable”.

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Originally, this blog was a sort of challenge to write continuously for a little while. I’ve sort of got the hang of it, but I wanted to focus some effort on other things, so I am reducing my output after next week’s pretty sizable posts. I figured it wasn’t cheating by my own lights, since I only committed myself originally to one post per week, anyway.

Next week I’m back at more sprawling, loosely connected posts- about analogical reasoning, “unthinkable thoughts”, weird fiction, and finally a bit about videogames and game development.

This post is about some simple ideas that were missing (as formal ideas, anyway) from my toolkit until relatively recently.


I attended a lecture by Jon Kolko ~3 years ago. It was called “Right Time, Right Place: Applying the discipline of design to the emerging problems facing society“, and it re-framed the role of design as I saw it at the time. Kolko is interested in social entrepreneurship and using the lens of design to think rigorously about how to approach “wicked problems”. His presentations are accessible on his site, and his latest book is available to read online.

Kolko’s definition of design is “the creation of a representational dialogue between people and products, services and systems encountered in everyday human experience.” [Note: As I see it, “representational dialogue” is a superset of “procedural rhetoric.”] Design is an abductive problem-solving process that (usually) has a formal manifestation. This is a story about a party that I’ve been very late to.

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Reducing to Numbers

This post is a little on the short side. I was excited about next week’s posts (just finished next Tuesday’s post), and hopefully I’m still excited about them when they’re posted. This Thursday, I’m posting a semi-autobiographical post about abductive reasoning that sets the stage a bit. After next week, after two pretty sizable posts, I might rethink my blog and whether I want to switch to shorter, more sporadic posts now that I’m becoming satisfied with how I’ve grounded my outlook a little (and it only took about 15,000 words to reach that level of security!) I might move to one post per week, and my posts might shift from vague generalities to things I’m currently working on.

This post is partially adapted from old notes on two books: Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone and Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.


In my previous post, I argued that markets existed in some capacity as long as humans have, but that Markets as a philosophical object, a mature and manipulable thing, is much much newer (only centuries old). Being able to talk about “The Market” in the abstract, and use names and numbers to describe it and its actions as though it has agency all on its own, changes our behaviors regarding it. In the TIMN story, The Market concept rose out of necessity, to give a name to a solution to a problem with institutional form.

Likewise, the concept of zero was invented (or maybe discovered, if you’re into that) out of necessity, independently at several different points in history. There was a “base level” symbol in ancient Egyptian construction that may not be zero per se. Mesopotamians created a sort of placeholder for zero in large numbers, although they never used it alone or even at the end of numbers (you had to discern 16 from 160 by context). Zero as a complete concept and as a symbol likely first developed in India.

Naming and numbering often creates the first semblance of control over a thing. Counting is often a political act. Numbers are frequently rhetorical devices. When you count, you make value judgments about categorizing (what to include/exclude). When counting or measuring humans, counting creates political communities out of the counted.

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Developing Organizations

Note: I am writing every Tuesday and Thursday now. I noticed much more Thursday traffic than Tuesday traffic this week…


I am currently barely starting A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (had a turbulent few weeks- my reading time took a serious hit). I’ve encountered attempts at historical accounts at a different perspective than human agency, but never one that has succeeded at going so long, with so much detail, without ever using the vocabulary of human interaction as a crutch. I’m too scared to write about the book yet, I’ll probably wait until I finish at least a part of it.

This post is about the evolution of artificial things over time.


Forced Moves and Good Tricks

I first read Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” the same summer I read Herbert Simon’s “Sciences of the Artificial”, maybe six years ago. I generally see those two books as the starting point of my interest that informed my choices of college and majors and prospective career. The vocabulary of cranes and skyhooks and design space and satisficing and bounded rationality are permanently cached away as basic metaphors for understanding how I think about a bizarrely wide array of things. The fact that I haven’t mentioned them, several thousand words into subjects where they would’ve been appropriate, was entirely accidental.

Anyway, I’m starting with Dennett today.

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The Simulation Gap

I’ve got a few backlog posts, so I can say that for the time-being, I expect to post every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ve sorta impressed myself with how easily I’ve been able to write without killing myself with work or my other projects (so far). This is my Tuesday post.

Below is a bastardization abridged version of an older essay I once wrote. I wanted to introduce these ideas so I can call them up later with a link and a hand-wave. This post is about an idea called the Simulation Gap. The example I provide (Nuclear Power in SimCity 3000) was originally a much longer section from an essay I wrote about games as rhetoric in college, and also the basis of the presentation I made for our winning entry for Microsoft’s National “Imagine Cup” in 2012, which I’ll probably come back to in this blog sometime.



For those uninterested in justification or citation, here are the key points.

  • All simulations are simplifications, and what they prioritize to precisely emulate or roughly approximate or even include in the simulation can make an argument and affect an experience.
  • The “Simulation Gap” is the “gap between rule-based representation and player subjectivity.”
  • The difference between the simulation’s “view” and the player’s subjective understanding of the “model” is where rhetorical power in a game [or other artifacts] lies.
  • Procedural literacy is the ability to read and write procedural rhetorics, or as Bogost claims, “to craft and understand arguments mounted through unit operations represented in code”.
  • One good framework to use to explore the interaction between a game and a player is “MDA” or “Mechanic-Dynamic-Aesthetic“: A game’s rules (mechanics) regarding the players fuel emergent game behaviors (dynamics) that  in turn generate emergent game experiences (aesthetics).

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An artifact is a human-designed thing. When I use this word, I can refer to an mobile phone interface or a post office or a church or a law or a car. Artifacts have an intended purpose, even if it’s decorative or the result of a process that was the creator’s actual motivation. Artifacts may also have an incidental purpose dictated by the user and unanticipated by the creator. Usability refers to how seamlessly an artifact allows a user to interact with it, towards the user’s intended goal. Some artifacts are designed to be usable by more than one different type of user, or multiple user groups trying to accomplish different goals. And many artifacts are not designed with general usability in mind at all.

This post is mostly about how things that are patched together can become corrosive and dangerous.


Introducing Kludge

The definition of kludge:

The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes.

Kludge can happen largely for two reasons: because an environment is difficult or because the agents responsible don’t give a damn.

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Molding Behavior


All systems that humans interact with feature affordances or constraints that can nudge users into certain behavior patterns (example).

At the end of my last post, I started to entertain ways that a story can be transferred (ex. orally or on palm-leaf manuscripts) and how these media can influence the kinds of stories that are best able to be communicated. Consider Upworthy’s model, and how they attempt to optimize clicks by testing different headings and pictures for the same content on social networking sites. Their A/B testing model allows them to see what versions of the story best “click” with audiences. (edit: I didn’t even mean to use a pun there. I’m so, so sorry.)

All stories are constrained by social expectations and harder limitations of their medium. Probably, most timeless classics are better described as well-timed, succeeding for whatever reason the environment they’re consumed in has dictated.

In this post, I’ll riff about technology-driven large-scale social change.

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Unpainted Statues

I will try to assign Thursday as my release days.


When I saw the 2009 Star Trek reboot, I was conflicted. 

Yes, the reboot did revitalize the franchise. Yes, it was decent on its own terms as an action film. Yes, it did feature the familiar symbols and characters. But it was weirdly distant from Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. It had many of the artifacts but almost none of the themes. The benevolent bureaucracy, the pacifism, the Prime Directive, the centrality of the fictional technologies and their workings to the plot, all gone. Instead, I got lens flare, epic space battles, gigantic starships being built in Iowa for storytelling purposes- thoughtless, albeit very enjoyable action.

This post is about something like that. 


Last week, I tried to introduce several threads at once. Alongside the idea of a path-dependent, uncertain, impermanent technology tree, I also talked about how we tell stories around these mysterious artifacts that we find hanging around. I spent a few sentences defending the Rapa Nui people as being people and not lesser primates without agency.

This week, I want to stress that although biologically these ancient people are like us, that doesn’t mean that the ways that they saw the world are grokkable to us. We can’t actually understand them as “thinking like us”.

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Decay on the Technology Tree

I’m going to start throwing down thoughts on this site, preferably at a rate of one per week. Hopefully it’s coherent enough to follow.

This week, I’m re-appropriating the idea of a technology tree. It’s not what I thought I’d start writing, but it’s what came out.

Also, the red squigglies are hyperlinks, not spelling errors. Maybe I’ll do something about that sometime.



Technology Trees

This is a technology tree from Civilization.

Click to zoom




Rhetorically, it makes enough sense. As you progress in the game, you can strategically invest in technological breakthroughs that can help you to accomplish your goals. The past and its technologies are still reproducible, and the technological future is predictable and universal. Knowledge loss from the past doesn’t happen, all breakthroughs towards the future are coordinated, and the buildings you constructed in the early game aren’t viewed with suspicion from your late game units as the possible work of Ancient Aliens.
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