EA's press conference for E3 2010 last Monday afternoon brought all the usual splashy graphics and loud noises, but on one of the games they took an interesting tack. Instead of just showing a bunch of supposedly exciting footage of all the stuff you could do with the newest rendition of the Sims franchise, the presenter gave us a couple minutes of pseudo-philosophical discussion about complex and emergent systems.
I had a complex reaction to the presentation: a frisson of geeky delight that someone would go THERE in the middle of the game industry's giddiest Dionysian hype-fest; old Jeff Goldblum quotes running through my head; flashbacks of a message-board conversation several years ago that ranged all over Jean Baudrillard, John Conway's Game of Life and Cervantes' Don Quixote.
I do complexity, both at work and at home. In real life, my ducks don't ever get in a row. Rather, with all the stuff I've got going on, they're usually arranged in a 3D representation of a Julia set fractal, perturbed by an algorithm derived from the song Henry the Eighth played backwards by four 3rd graders on kazoos. As a software developer, this stuff is my bread and butter.
Thinking it through led me to an inescapable conclusion that at the base, his assertions that The Sims 3 is something new and different in that realm don't really hold water. The emergent behavior in the system doesn't come from the computer; it comes from the player.
Trying to explain why this heavy geeking was cool, they brought up an example. He showed some video footage of a Sim-town full of 30 copies of himself. They just set it up and let it run. All sorts of interesting and different things happened. Two of his guys even fell in love with each other. Each of them going their own way had somehow gone and done something so complicated that the designers couldn't even track it. They tried, but they couldn't predict what would happen from a given setup. I'm with him so far; that's the definition of a type of emergent system. Cool.
But then he kind of let the cat out of the bag. They found that while they couldn't by themselves predict what would happen at any given step, if they started another instance from the exact same place and ran the code just a bit faster, they could see what would happen. That sounds cool, until you think about it.
Oh. Whoops. The system played out exactly the same way every time. That may be complex, but it's not emergent. They haven't turned your new Sim into some sort of artificial life form. Each Sim is still just a direct expression of the system, like a chess piece.
Taken in its simplest terms, a Sim has always been a Langton's Ant with fancier rules. This new version hasn't changed that. Start more than one of them running on the same field with different rule sets, and you get what he was seeing.
It didn't shock me that they couldn't predict what the system would become from the starting parameters. We can't describe even the simplest of chaotic systems precisely. Figure and figure all you want, stacking up numbers like cord-wood, and at some point you always end up floating within the tolerance band of the numbers and the phenomenon you're describing. The figures blur into a fractal cloud of probability, like Schrödinger's cat, and your guess literally becomes as good as anyone else's. You're a prophet, not a predictor.
His cherry-picking that research about voluntary muscle movement to imply that a Sim has more free will than we do was pure slight-of-hand, worthy of the best of marketing mountebanks. The human mind is an emergent system in and of itself, with a level of complexity that can't be described even with big charts and an easel. The fact that one part of a human brain works before or after another doesn't have anything to do with how real-world actions work. We don't even know how many different parts are actually part of that process, much less which ones do what thing to what other things. And anyone who says they can tell you what it all means in the end from just one piece in the chain is trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.
That whole discussion is a red herring worthy of Dashiell Hammett anyways. Whether you are on the side of free will or you buy into the notion of deterministic systems, we can all agree that we humans are adept at throwing a monkey-wrench into the works and doing things no one would expect. I submit that even in the lowest-tech game, there has always been an element of surprise, and even room for pure, blind luck.
The first gaming convention I ever attended was in 1987. It was for tabletop gaming (board games, role-playing, that sort of thing). I won my first tournament there—a board game called Talisman. Through a series of lucky circumstances that probably burnt my karma for months after, my Monk fought his way to the center square and held on to the Crown of Command long enough to win the game with only the slimmest margins of life and equipment. If my closest opponent had owned one more life-chit, he would have bopped me on the head like a field mouse and won.
Anyone who knows me could tell you how completely outside my usual nature that was. I'm way too cautious to ever just scream-and-leap like that. I don't work to maximize the possibilities of probability; I work towards certainty. Or, to use a programming metaphor, I want robust code in lieu of elegance. Those are my parameters.
I have no idea how many monkeys would have had to be typing and for how long before they produced a variant of my normal self that would have taken the decisive step that would start the charge to the center. There was no way for me to have known at that time how everyone else's moves would play out and make success possible. Nor could I calculate the nearly Vulcan odds it would take to describe the series of dice rolls, movements, and card plays by myself and my opponents that would be required to duplicate it. To this day, I am mystified. I've played the game hundreds of times since then and never come up with an endgame solution that was even close.
But it's not out of line with the human system. It's our nature to dare greatly at times. The reason quarterbacks will throw a Hail Mary is because, sometimes, the prayer is answered. We do many things that don't bear up under the weight of logic or probability. We make intuitive leaps. We fail to see possibilities until too late. We make wrong choices for stupid and not-so-stupid reasons.
We haven't found a way to really write those into an equation. We can write code that says, "If no one interacts with you for X amount of time, run the Lonely43 engram." We can perturb it by adding secondary clauses that mean something along the lines of "Each time you start a Lonely engram, you get a gradually increasing random chance of Melancholy and then run the (Ben&Jerry's + pajamas - shower) variant for X days." You can even say that after a certain number of cycles of that, you get a randomly increasing chance of the GoneCrazy engram.
Problem is, if you stack enough of that up to even approximate a real human's range of possible reactions, you're back floating around in the tolerance band again. Current modes of logic can only take so much of that before they can't get to the bottom of the decision tree and get a straight answer. Your Sim is stuck staring at the wall where the door used to be.
When discussing complexity in the context of computers, any given equation or system can be classified as either "P" or "NP." "P" in both those terms stands for polynomial, and is referring to the amount of time it would take a computer to calculate or verify the results of the equation or system. P is something a computer can do in a reasonable amount of time. NP is something we can do—often fairly easily—but it would take a computer a very long time to do it, if at all.
It doesn't take a complex problem to run into one of those situations. It doesn't even have to be all that hard. Back in 2000, an English mathematician named Richard Kaye proved that the old time-waster Minesweeper was classified as NP complete. I'm sure if someone did the math on The Sims 3, they would find a set of starting values that would render an NP verdict pretty quickly.
But that just means the computer has problems with it, not that people do. My mom kicks my backside at Minesweeper and she barely passed algebra forty-five years ago. But there's something wired in the meat somewhere that makes it work.
As marketing goes, his comments were a nice break between those vague suits and that one blonde woman who kept swearing as an attempt to make Bulletstorm seem edgy. I'm not saying The Sims 3 isn't going to be cool; I'm saying that unless you add the human element of the player, the game is not nearly as revolutionary and cool. Because the code doesn't make things complicated; we do.