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Uncertainty in Games

by Greg Costikyan
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
136 pp. Trade $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01896-8.

Reviewed by Cecilia Wong
Independent writer, Los Angeles


Uncertainty is uncertain, and human behavior is unpredictable. That’s because biology is not physics, where Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can be stated in an equation. So, to write a book on the subject is ambitious and admirable. But by staying strictly within the province of gaming, the author succeeds, admirably. The writing is direct, clear, and elegant, a result of Costikyan’s emphatic eschewing of “obscurantism (deliberate vagueness). The venerable game designer elucidates first gaming’s genesis in human culture as simple play (unbound by rules) and the necessity of uncertainty. He analyzes various games (bound by rules) and where their uncertainty lies. This is followed by his categorization of the different types of uncertainty.

The author’s first order of business is, of course, explaining what he means by uncertainty. It is simple: if your older brother always beats you in a footrace, you will quickly lose interest in playing with him. He also quotes academic studies on the subject of play and uncertainty. With laser intelligence, he systematically cuts through obscurantism with delicacy and delight, teasing out the strands of uncertainty in each case. For example, he criticizes the cultural anthropologist Thomas Malaby’s description of uncertainty as contingency: Contingency merely implies that one thing depends on another, and it “obscures rather than reveals”.  He does, however, agree with Malaby’s broader thesis that games are a way for us to deal with the essential uncertainties of everyday life in a non-threatening manner.

He further defines games by these characteristics: interactivity and outcome, in addition to contingency and uncertainty. Not all interactive events are games―turning on a light switch or Googling the internet are interactive, but they are not games. And not all games have outcomes, i.e. win or lose.

As he writes, “Puzzles are full of contingencies; the solution to one clue in the crossword is contingent on the letters revealed by a cross… The only uncertainty involved is in the solver’s ability to sort through the contingencies…a puzzle is static. It is not a state machine. It does not respond to input. It is not uncertain; and it is not interactive.”

Video games are (finite) state machines a device that can be in one of a set number
of stable conditions depending on its previous condition and on the present values of its inputs―and clicking an icon changes the condition. It is in this Man vs Machine scenario that most interesting uncertainties can arise―a point that the book amply implies.

What makes these games challenging and fun for the player is, I believe, that human beings are not finite state machines. Alan Turing (British, 1912-1952), father of computer science, had contemplated artificial intelligence more than half a century ago. He called humans continuous-state machines, a sort of open system. In this sense, we  humans provide the ultimate uncertainty, i.e. our imagination and creativity.

Costikyan, from his analysis of 15 games, including Super Mario Bros., City Ville, Tic-Tac-Toe, Rock-Paper-Scissors, Poker and Chess names 11 types of uncertainties. I see that they are either human or artificial. The players’ skills can be pure physical, as in performative uncertainty, or highly mental, as in analytic complexity, of which chess is an ultimate example. Somewhere in between are the various types of player behaviors and interactions: solver’s uncertainty and player unpredictability. Predicting your opponents’ hand is a highlight of poker: who is bluffing?

The other uncertainties are artificial: randomness, as in throwing of a dice, or hidden information, when certain facts are withheld by the game designer, and so on. But two more uncertainties refocus on the human: How he perceives: can he find certain items in a very complex scene (uncertainty of perception)? Or what Costikyan calls “Malaby’s Semiotic Contingency”―how gamers ascribe meaning to the outcomes. Since we know that our brain’s processing power with scenes and faces, etc., are limited at any given instant (only so many neurons do a certain job), one would wonder if gameplay can extend that power. This final duo of uncertainties has placed gaming in the much wider context of culture and science.

This book, part of MIT Press’s Playful Thinking Series, does not pretend to be inclusive or definitive. It is one game designer’s well-reasoned viewpoint and a good read for all, even non-gamers―including this reviewer. For avid gamers, the book includes a comprehensive index, notes, and a ludography (games cited).

The artist Jeff Wall, who often photographs ambiguous scenes, says, “The uncertainty of story gives viewers a chance to conjecture and become authors”. Then the beauty of uncertainty is that it opens the door to possibilities, whereas certainty shuts it.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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