Persistence is Futile

We have some new developers at the day job learning a new-to-them Rich Internet Application platform (which shall remain nameless on this blog). Our resident RIAPWSRNOTB guru on the team suggested that they write a Tic-Tac-Toe game as practice.

“I think you should do Global Thermonuclear War instead,” I suggested.

I would have written this post earlier, but you see, I’ve gotten mildly addicted to a new game on my phone. I was originally going to link to it, but now I’ve reconsidered for two reasons: (1) I believe that not getting my friends addicted to games is an act of kindness, and (2) despite my current obsession with it, I’m not entirely sure if it’s fun or not.

It’s a pretty simple match-3 puzzle game. The mechanics are elegant and take good advantage of the iPhone’s touch interface. It feels like a cross between Tetris and Bejeweled with a dash of old-school Rubik’s Cube in the way you manipulate the game elements. So far so good. The problem is in the game balance. Like many games, it has three tiers of difficulty: Casual, Normal, and Hard. I’m an incorrigible completist, so I started at the beginning. The Casual tier is aptly named; it’s nigh impossible to fail a level. The early stages of Normal weren’t much more challenging, either, but in the middle few levels of Normal it started to get interesting. Beating a level wasn’t a sure thing, though it was eminently doable after a couple tries.

After a couple of comfortably challenging levels, though, my progress slowed down considerably. I should explain that each level that you beat unlocks the next, and that you can start at any unlocked level you choose (by default, it’s the highest level you’ve unlocked for that tier), so you’re acutely aware of how long it’s taking you to beat a particular level. It may have taken me weeks before I got past level 8 in Tetris on my old Mac, but it probably didn’t bother me as much since it just felt like playing the game, rather than dueling with that specific level. I don’t claim to be rational.

Because this kind of game requires good reflexes, manual dexterity, and pattern recognition but not a lot of complex analytical thinking, I had plenty of opportunity to ponder whether I was actually having fun or not. I was decidedly unimpressed with it in the early stages (apart from the clever interface) but kept going to see if it would get better. I warmed up to it partway through Normal, when I hit a level that I couldn’t beat right away. It was then that I had an upsight: Failure is fun.

* * *

One of the cutest hacks I’ve ever seen was when I was in college, and someone edited the “smiling Mac” screen on one of the computers in the lab to say “Greetings, Professor Falken” instead of “Welcome to MacIntosh.” The thought of that still makes me smile.

In WarGames, hacker teen David Lightman turns down a nice game of chess in favor of Global Thermonuclear War, on the basis that it’ll be more fun, a truth evident to any teenager watching the film. Chess is a bizarre set of arbitrary constraints based on antiquated metaphors. With Global Thermonuclear War, well, what’s not to like? Space-age technology, the fate of the world at stake, really big explosions! Of course, it turns out to be a little less fun when it’s not a game. And the thesis that the film ultimately puts forward is that the only functional difference between GTW and Tic-Tac-Toe is that with the former, it takes longer to fail.

As I was playing this game (now stuck on about halfway through the Hard tier), something occurred to me that has no doubt occurred to smarter or more observant people before me: that there’s a whole class of games that are built around failure. There’s no goal other than to survive; you play them until you die, or develop repetitive stress injury. On the surface this sounds profoundly unsatisfying, but the truth is these games can be incredibly addictive. One reason that I can surmise is that despite the recurring failure, it feels like you’re improving. You’re learning something, even if the skill you’re acquiring — like determining the optimal placement of tetrominoes within a fraction of a second — is of dubious value at best. Or maybe it’s a highly abstract way of conceptualizing the challenges of life as, for example, arbitrary geometric shapes falling from the sky, and asserting some kind of control over them. “An ‘L’? You think you can get me with that? Ha! Bring it on!

If it took Joshua, a.k.a. WOPR, years to learn the lesson of futility, then given the popularity of Tetris and its ilk, you might say that humans never learn. I was complaining earlier that the game starts too easy and then too quickly gets hard. In real life, of course, the difficulty curve is often more like a step function than a smooth line. You’re either in a rut doing the same thing day after day, or suddenly thrust into something new that you may or may not be prepared to handle. No life-designer is out there making sure that the challenges are scaled appropriately for your progress. Perhaps it’s games of failure that train our fake-it-till-you-make-it instincts and encourage us to press onward in the face of things constantly falling out of the sky. Using Tetris as a metaphor for life, and treating life like a game of Tetris, maybe it’s a good thing that we’re too stubborn to give up.

* * *

It is probably unsurprising that other people have become obsessed by this class of simple perpetual puzzle games. Some of them have even been scientists, driven (perhaps nudged by the touch of cognitive dissonance) to investigate through experiments, rather than idle speculation, whether Tetris is good for you and, if so, how.

It turns out that you really are learning something when you play Tetris, or rather, your brain is training itself to learn more efficiently. There’s evidence that as you get better at the game, your brain requires less energy to take in the situation and decide what to do. Another study found that regular practice can increase the amount of grey matter in a player’s brain.

It’s also been shown that Tetris can reduce the occurrence of traumatic flashbacks. Here’s the theory:

1) Cognitive science suggests that the brain has selective resources with limited capacity; 2) The neurobiology of memory suggests a 6-hr window to disrupt memory consolidation. The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuospatial mental images. Visuospatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuospatial computer game (e.g. “Tetris”) will interfere with flashbacks. Visuospatial tasks post-trauma, performed within the time window for memory consolidation, will reduce subsequent flashbacks.

That makes me wonder how many of my fellow commuters, playing Tetris on their iPods on the train home, are really self-medicating away a bad day at the office, trading work-anxiety dreams for the the comforting visions of shapes floating in space when they lie down to sleep.

Personally, I find I have some of my best ideas when I’m not thinking. Moving around tends to work well — walking, or staring out the window of the train, casually taking in the world around me but not trying to solve a particular problem. Maybe watching colored shapes on a screen does the same thing for my brain, giving it something superficial to focus on while my subconscious mind quietly hums along, eventually producing something that bubbles up to the surface, like this blog post: the ticker-tape readout of that background process.

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  1. Adam says:

    In a sense, and not trying to channel Enoch Powell, all games of Tetris end in failure. Never really occured to me before.

    Though this formulation appeals to me, inevitable-failure games usually come wrapped in another game … usually beating your record, as in Tetris. But consider the bastman in cricket. Eventually you are going to get out. In the rare event it is not this match, then next match. However the inevitable failure of the individual is wrapped in a team game where there is a defined outcome, even if it is a draw or tie.

  2. Adam says:

    Argh. Batsman.

  3. Helen says:

    Yes, it was the “all games end in failure” realization that struck me after years of playing them. It really cast all the hours I’ve spent on such things during my life in a new light.

    I must confess as an ignorant American that you lost me somewhat with the “consider … cricket” bit,* but it’s true that often these games are wrapped up in meta-games. Though a game like Tetris (as opposed to cricket) marries the inevitable failure with inherent open-endedness. So you can beat your record, and in a sense, “win” that one iteration of the game, but you can never beat it definitively for all time. I suppose that unless you purposefully stop playing the game forever after beating a longstanding record, there may come a time when you’ll never know if you’ve already beaten your goal for the last time.

    The open-ended nature of the game itself is interesting in its parallels to other tasks. One thing about the structure of this particular game, where you can start a new game at the level that defeated you, is that it’s also recognized as a good way to learn other things, like vocabulary — you focus on learning the words right at the limit of your current knowledge. (One might argue that there is a finite number of words in the world, but at the rate that any individual can learn them they are practically boundless.)

    One more anecdote: Some time ago a colleague passed around a link to, which puts that philosophy of language learning into action (coupled with a food donation programme) in a similarly open-ended exercise (which incidentally calibrates itself quite well to your level of knowledge). The first time I visited the site I racked up what felt like a respectable bowl of rice, then bookmarked it for later (it comes in handy while watching progress bars). Another colleague also followed the link and, after a while, asked me, “Does it ever end?” I told her no, it just keeps going for as long as you play it. “Oh,” she said, somewhat exasperated, and clicked the X in the browser window.

    * Although “Bastman” set my mind to imagining some kind of cat-worshipping superhero, possessed by the soul of an Ancient Egyptian, perhaps …

  4. Adam says:

    Well the point about the batsman in cricket is that, unlike the batter in baseball, he doesn’t leave the field when he scores a run. Two batsmen are always on the field while play is happening. You either get out, or the rest of your team get out. But this is semi-independent of whether your team win or lose or tie or draw.

    It’s true you can always play another game of Tetris; you can always play another game of cricket too. There is a whole somewhat forced and tedious literature relating cricket as a metaphor for life, or the English summer, or so on. I think I like Tetris-as-life better. Perhaps an anosognosic Tetris-life, to follow from a recent tweet.

    Anyway. To the Bastchariot!

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