App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential that lives at the intersection of gaming, research-science, education and society.
By David Krakauer, WID Director and Co-Director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4)
No one knows for certain what games do to the brain. We have little doubt that their influence upon the cerebrum is real. After all, our perceptions and dreams are filled with the hallucinatory legacies of their challenges and constraints. Amongst all that we have contrived to invent in stone, timber, and metal to offset life’s quotidian miseries, Chess along with Go are two of the pinnacles of the ludic arts, and have attracted thoughtful commentary by player, analyst and enthusiast. For the 19th century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, Chess was nothing less than a metaphor for the quest after knowledge:
“The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature and the player on the other side is hidden from us.”
And the physicist Richard Feynman later made use of the same metaphor in his celebrated Lectures on Physics:
“The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics.”
When it comes to games and the mind, Chess has been effectively synonymous with rigorous, combinatorial and strategic thought since the 6th century when Persian Kings learnt battle strategy and actuarial reasoning about life and death on a 64 square grid.
The great Chess historian Harold Murray describes the crucial role of Chess in shaping martial values, “That Chess is a war game is a commonplace of Indian, Muslim and Chinese writers.” The alarming success of Chess computers pitched against the human brain — an organ assumed from time immemorial to be the pinnacle of natural computation – has provided dystopian foreshadows of the world we now occupy, where machine learning and classification outperform humans on too many tasks to contemplate without angst, from crowd sourced protein chemistry to web-based cinematic advice.
When the HAL 9000 explained to Frank Poole in “2001“: “I’m sorry Frank, I think you missed it. Queen to Bishop three, bishop takes Queen, Knight takes Bishop, mate,” this was nothing but a fictional prognostication of the solid-state condescension Kasparov would come to know for a fact in the late 90s. As Kasparov describes it himself, “Though I would have liked my chances in a rematch in 1998 if I were better prepared, it was clear then that computer superiority over humans in Chess had always been just a matter of time.”
The computer game has come of age. The explosion in the number and variety of games, arguably not yet exceeding the strategic richness of Chess and Go, present us with a veritable zoological garden of puzzling specimens for psychological and computational analysis. Whereas Chess leads us to explore the mental correlates of lengthy and meditative bifurcating trees of possible futures, there now are games that span an altogether different mental landscape, one that includes characteristics of geometric obfuscation, eye-hand motor control and rapid tactical response. Indeed a case could be made that the video game has emerged as the tactical counterpart and complement to the strategic depths of the classical games of no chance.
A supreme example of the total tactical game, a characteristic species of the genre in the 21st century, is Super Hexagon. Formerly, this distinction would be held by Tetris, with which Super Hexagon shares many features. Like Tetris, Super Hexagon is from the design point of view of utmost simplicity. The player controls a small triangular cursor that, through clockwise or counterclockwise rotation, must survive a sequence of contracting, nested hexagonal elements by exiting from one or two open faces of the shrinking hexagon. It is a sort of rapidly compacting maze where you escape by moving into positions upon a circle where the wall is absent. But the walls keep on coming at an accelerating pace directed towards a center, forcing the player to rotate at lightning speed, anticipating the advancing walls in the distance, and choosing directions that ensure a viable exit not only from the nearest shrinking hexagon, but establishing a tactical position preemptively that will allow a timely escape from the next.
It is a furious, chaotic, cerebrally impossible game, which through some unfathomable synthesis of eye, hand and brain, we can complete — well, sort of. When playing Super Hexagon, surviving for over 10 seconds of Euclidean assault feels like a triumph of colossal order. These 10 seconds are like entire lives flashing in front of our eyes during the brief interval of death. Ten seconds in Super Hexagon is like a month of SimCity or World of Warcraft. Measured in chronological time, if Elder Scrolls is a marriage, Super Hexagon is the conjugal right.
Whence the ability of this game to compress so much experience into so abbreviated a period of time? What are we learning when we learn to play the game effectively? What role does memory play in our progress and what exactly are we remembering? And does excellence in Super Hexagon make us champions only at Super Hexagon, or might we in some way generalize our skills and find further uses for these Jedi powers in our non-gamer lives? These are the concerns of many good players and also the fundamental questions of experimental design that seek through controlled experiment in meticulous conditions to discern properties and abilities of a more general nature.
“Games are not only for the home or club. They are for the laboratory, and the mad scientists of the future will be mad gamers.”
— David Krakauer
Super Hexagon is a representative example of a thoughtful class of computer games that are also, potentially, controlled experiments aimed at probing cognitive abilities. The Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon, building on prior work by Adriaan de Groot, argued for the value of Chess as a miniature laboratory for conducting experiments on perception, memory and decision making. Throughout the 1970s Simon and William Chase studied Chess novices and experts in order to infer how players grouped together objects in memory when solving complex tasks. Simon and Chase described their approach: “As genetics needs its model organisms, its Drosophila and Neurospora, so psychology needs standard task environments around which knowledge and understanding can cumulate. Chess has proved to be an excellent model environment for this purpose” (from “Skill in Chess,” 1973). Simon and Chase made a number of intriguing observations: (1) Chess players quickly determine highly profitable moves based on constellations of pieces (chunks) on the board. Novices spend a disproportionate time exploring non-profitable local possibilities. (2) On random boards without clear chunks, experts do not outperform novices, suggesting that they have committed key structures to memory based on past experience. (3) Experts can reconstruct a sensible board from memory using chunks whereas novices focusing on individual pieces cannot. Simon and Chase argue that expertise in memory-intensive deductive tasks draws heavily on pattern detection for prediction.
When playing Super Hexagon, some of the observations and conclusions made by Simon and Chase might apply. Progress through the game derives from identifying regular dynamical patterns and then generating an appropriate move combination. The eye takes in two or more nested hexagons at a time and not just the one closest to the cursor. Learning in the game consists in developing a memory for nested structures and binding them to movement. Experts see the larger patterns, while novices fixate on the details.
Simon and Chase’s finding of increased confusion on random boards has a passing resemblance in Super Hexagon to movement on the top half of the screen where left and right control corresponds to counter-clockwise (left) and clockwise motion (right), compared to movement on the bottom half where the reverse applies: a right control moves the cursor left, and left control, right. From the perspective of previous experience this mapping from hand to eye is counterintuitive, and the result is a far higher incidence of error in the lower half of the screen.
Regardless of the exact similarities between the games of Chess and Super Hexagon, which need not be great, the key insight is that rich games allow for expertise to develop through learning, where learning is a process that finds and commits to memory higher levels of structure and then associates these structures with a sequence of outputs. When we put the tasks in these terms, possible relationships to mathematics and sport become apparent. These games provide windows into our neocortex, not just into our limbic system.
Even for Chess we remain ignorant of the potential the game provides for cultivating a general intelligence. Nabokov, in his Chess novel The Luzhin Defense, describes the fairly typical otherwordly behavior of the Chess master, “..If he failed the first time he took his driver’s license test, it was mainly because he started an argument with the examiner in an ill-timed effort to prove that nothing could be more humiliating to a rational creature than being required to encourage the development of a base conditional reflex by stopping at a red light when there was not an earthly soul around, heeled or wheeled. He was more circumspect the next time, and passed: “…It is in other words not self-evident that the extreme and pristine procedural skills rewarded by a game translate well into the nuanced noisiness of everyday life. This is the so-called “accreditation challenge” of any formal topic of education: When does specialized knowledge make the leap to universal application?
That said, the incredible visceral appeal of Super Hexagon lies in its distinction to a game like Chess for which deep skill sets can take years to acquire, corresponding in a fashion to the tectonic time course of a single game. In Super Hexagon learning takes place over the course of hours. Not only is the game difficult and brief, but learning is accelerated and the rewards of expertise are almost instantaneous. For this reason it is time to seriously explore games like these as “model organisms” for cognition and performing experiments at an unprecedented velocity. Games are not only for the home or club. They are for the laboratory, and the mad scientists of the future will be mad gamers.
Feynman Lectures on Physics. Volume 1. Addison Wesley Longman. January 1, 1970.
Simon, Herbert & Chase, William. “Skill in Chess.” American Scientist. 1972.
Thomas Henry Huxley. From A Liberal Education. 1868.