Aug 19 2009

Artificial Intelligence, Bandwidth, And Generative Game Design

PC Gamer UK’s latest issue will be on the shelves on the 27th, and should arrive before then for subscribers. You might be interested in the Napoleon Total War cover feature, but there’s also a little feature by me. It looks like this:

And that clicks up to a larger size.

Beyond that dashing first spread is a beautifully arranged feature in which I talk about the futurism of Ray Kurzweil, the science fiction of Charles Stross, and the forward-thinking technical wizardry of Eskil Steenberg. All these people have something to say about the possible future of videogames, and I’ve tried to extract their most interesting implications.

…the future of games is one in which software will have to find solutions for the enormous problems that following the curve of increasing hardware sophistication has presented us with. “The examples of how things that used to be simple have now become hard are numerous. Dwarf Fortress and similar games give a hint to where games would be, if graphics and sounds didn’t stand in our way,” says Steenberg.

It is a futurist’s gaming feature, and something of a blue-sky gaming feature, detached from the normal constraints of worrying about contemporary gaming. It’s the kind of subject I’d love to extrapolate upwards into a book: “the next thirty years of gaming”. Until I do, you should go out and buy the magazine.

In this instance I only look at three future-invoking people, and cover a few subjects related to them: the effect of wireless bandwidth on gaming, the effect of AI on our experience of gaming, and the possibilities for AI and generative systems in the creation of games. There’s a fair bit to be said about that, of course, but it leads elsewhere – off into the strange realms of ubiquitous gaming that tantalises the imagination. A world where games are the dominant form of culture, and the dominant mode of expression. A medium in which human and artificial intelligences meet and play.

I’m rather pleased with how it all came together. And now I realise the subject is due another 50,000 words and a dozen more interviews. Oh, won’t someone commission me?


Aug 9 2009

Keep It Happy

A comment within this Infrastructurist review of Christopher Steiner’s $20 Per Gallon got me thinking.

…we have to say that we kept imagining a conversation involving some combination of the agent, editor and publisher prior to the book being written that really stressed how important it was to make this a positive book–after all, everybody is sick of downers like Jim Kunstler talking about oil crashes. And since negative scary arguments apparently just make people retreat deeper into their cocoons of denial where their only sustenance is crime dramas and celebrity blogs, it’s important to keep. it. happy. We’re serious: HAPPY! Thus sentences like this one in the introduction: “The future will be exhilarating.”

The review of the book is an interesting one – discussing the road to $20 per gallon of fuel, and what changes that will bring in – and the topics covered link to my recent post here – but it was the reviewer’s comments about the positivity of the book that I want to briefly talk about.

I do rather feel that we’re juggling doom with optimism right now, and we keep dropping the optimism: it’s fucking slippery stuff. With proclamations like this one from the Ecological Society Of America, giving us fifteen years at best, we’re facing a huge spectrum of Grim Meathook Future downers. Hell, read through Jared Diamond’s Collapse and you’ll be hoarding tinned food and building a Mad Max battle-wagon in your garage. Look at any of these prediction sets closely, and anxiety will ignite. I even have friends who aren’t planning for the future, and honestly don’t believe the human race will manage another hundred years. You can see why.

But that’s cowardly. It’s almost contemptible. The enforced editorial HAPPY that the Infrastructurist posits is actually much braver, whether or not it’s tied to sales, and whether or not it is, ultimately, cynical. It’s not retreating into denial, or shrugging toward inevitability, it’s saying: there is a future, for better or worse, let’s look at how it might work without predicting apocalypse. Being realistic doesn’t mean being a harbinger of darkness.

And the next few decades are going to bring in massive changes, and we need to grasp that change positively, optimistically, and energetically, or we’ll allow the horrors that usually take hold when people are in a bad place to come to pass. Gritting our teeth, swallowing our fear, side-stepping the emotional man-traps that tell us that the end of our own lives might as well coincide with the end of the world, and then coming up with a plan, is the only way forward. I’d rather be holding an optimists guide to the end of the world, when the time comes, than one written by someone who just assumes we’ll be screwed.

People like Steiner, who are quite pragmatically saying that ecologist-scaring tech like nuclear power *must* be allowed to flourish, might just be people who end up saving the planet. If that’s down to some upward editing on the part of their publishers, then, hey, I’m all for it.

Perhaps the tide is turning. All the metrics of our doom are in, and now it’s down to people to start making the adjustments required to sort out our ecologically damaged, expensive, food-shortaged future of over-population and consumerist collapse. The fact that people are getting on with it, in whatever format, can only be a good thing.

Aug 2 2009

Black Forest Disco: Gas

I’ve spent a large part of this week listening to Gas, an ambient-techno project by German electronic music producer, Wolfgang Voigt. I’ll come to the music in a moment, but I wanted to just point out something from Voight’s wikipedia entry, which is the range of aliases he has worked under when creating music. Here they are:

All, Auftrieb, Brom, C.K. Decker, Centrifugal Force, Crocker, Dextro NRG, Dieter Gorny, Digital, Dom, Doppel, Filter, Freiland, Fuchsbau, Gelb, Grungerman, Love Inc., M:I:5, Mike Ink, Mint, Panthel, Popacid, Riss, RX7, Split Inc., Strass, Studio 1, Tal, Vinyl Countdown, W.V., Wassermann, and X-Lvis.

That seems like an extraordinarily long list. It’s almost as if he were some science fiction universe spy, operating under internet-handle aliases, rather than those of real-world names. And so if you’ve listened to any of these acts, then you have listened to Voight. Gas, meanwhile, is this:

This wash of drones is one of the best Gas tracks, it is not typical. Most of his stuff rolls along on a repeated bass beat, which structures the ambient surge with a machinelike undertone. I couldn’t find a good example of it on YouTube, but you can get a better idea from this excerpt on wikimedia.

The friend who bought me the Gas collection, Nah Und Fern, observed that it was “really easy to imagine people not liking it,” and I think he’s right. Repetitive beat lovers would like be put off by the broad synth drones, which make it relatively boring by the standards of most electronic music. The ambient crowd meanwhile might feel uneasy with the monotony and frequency of the heavy kick drum that runs through it. Perhaps people generally just like particular tracks – which might explain why the beatless ambient turns up more online.

I have to admit that although I like Voight’s citation of LSD and northern European forests for the genesis of this music, I don’t think it’s any less urban than other electronic music. It’s interesting to me that so much ambient seems to have a kind of pastoral inspiration (Aphex Twin on a farm, Brian Eno on a beach), and yet nevertheless seems to fit perfectly into an urban space.

Crucially, however, I think what’s interesting about Gas for me personally, particularly the Zauberberg tracks, is that it makes a near-ideal soundtrack for writing. It’s intense, without being intrusive. It’s instrumental, droning, which seems to allow some degree of beat hypnosis, but doesn’t become soporific, so that I can remain awake and alert.

I’ve said some of this before on here when talking about acts such as Belong – lyrical music seems to distract me from work. Human voices leak into what I’m doing too much, to the point were lyrics end up on the page all the time. And they’re not my words, or even necessarily what I want to say. Further, I want to roll with the upbeat singers, and croon in melancholy with the downbeat. They’re too engaging, too attention-seeking. Music with words works well for relaxation and research, but it always slows production. Gas albums, and similar kinds of electronic music, seem detached from that kind of musical engagement. They allow experience to compile differently, and seem to let my brain to take the lead.

In a music-as-drug-experience way, it reminds me of those rare times when a drug seems to enable focus, attention, and motivation, while enhancing the experience, rather than disorientating, distracting, or otherwise filling my consciousness with noise.

(There needs to be a legal kind of psychedelic caffeine developed, which increases the pleasure of experience and focuses attention, without fogging intellect. Where are all the designer drugs we were promised in the 90s?)