A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


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The Role of Genre in Game Interpretation

This essay is a bit late. I wrote it about three months ago, so it rehashes tons of things from the past months of posts as if they never occurred. Still, I think the example is nice. We’ve been thinking about genre and interpretation of literature. But if we take seriously the idea that games can be art, then the same methods of interpretation still apply.


Game critics jump at the opportunity to place games in the nice neat box of its genre. Still, there has been a growing trend to shrug off genre as useless due to the diversity of modern games that push boundaries. We will examine the idea that the utility of genre identification is not in its descriptive power, but its use for artistic interpretation.

It is true that no label will ever perfectly fit any given game. But if this were a viable argument to forgo genre as useless, then it would have caught hold in the world of literary criticism by now. Instead, we find that genre is still a useful means to understand literature. The idea is ancient and can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics, but the (post-Derrida) resurgence can be traced back to at least Gérard Genette’s famous 1979 essay The Architext: An Introduction.

Roughly, Genette defines poetics as the art and science of interpreting a text by situating it in the proper context of similar texts. The similarities come from stylistic and thematic concerns among other things. This group of similar texts is what we call a genre. Some narratologists, such as Genette, argue that one must establish the context to obtain a proper understanding and interpretation. In other words, if we want to interpret a work of art, then identifying its genre is not only useful, but necessary.

This might sound shocking to most people, because (American) high schools teach that great works of art stand on their own. There is no right or wrong way to interpret. I can read The Catcher in the Rye, be moved by it, and formulate my own opinions without ever considering the genre in which it resides. Great art should be universal and not dependent on surrounding works.

This viewpoint is valid, but limited in scope. Consider the following thought experiment. You read a book on Abraham Lincoln. You are not told the genre or author. I now reveal that the book was a collection of journal entries by a friend of Abraham Lincoln. This exposes a set of ways to interpret the book. If I told you it was a biography released by a reputable academic press last year, then I open a different set of interpretations. For example, both are trying to convey factual information, but we should be more skeptical of stories found in one person’s journal.

Now, if I told you it was a work of historical fiction, then a new set of possibilities arises. Major people, places, and events form a factual framework for the story, but the bulk of the plot will be fiction. We might expect to find other literary devices such as symbols and themes which put a particular spin on the events. Identifying the genre was enough to open and close various ways to interpret the book, because we are familiar with the genre’s conventions.

This example also shows us that the author’s intent is important, because we want to know whether we are reading true statements. Art isn’t always as egotistical as we want to believe: I felt this; I think it means that. David Foster Wallace often referred to experiencing great literature as building a relationship between author and reader. Art fails if one side tries to be selfish.

Communication is vital for a successful relationship. Understanding only comes if the reader is familiar with the genre in the same way that cultural context can change the meaning of oral communication. Familiarity with conventions and tropes allows the reader to see the manner in which it deviates. According to Genette, these deviations will have significance for interpretation. Only by putting a work in the context of its genre can we hear what the artist is saying.

By now you’ve guessed how this relates to games. Games serving as an artistic medium is a recent development. Sophisticated dialogue on interpreting games is in its infancy, and attempting to port established literary theory to the discussion is almost non-existent. The point is not that genre theory or poetics is the “right” way to frame these conversations, but that it gives us one established lens of interpretation from a multitude of literary theories.

It is futile to produce a full-scale analysis here (Genette took several books to analyze Proust), but let’s consider one familiar example: Braid. In this case, we have an unambiguous genre. Braid is a puzzle platformer in the sense that the player jumps between platforms and solves puzzles. The most significant innovation is that getting to platforms and solving puzzles requires time manipulation.

If we want to interpret the game, poetics tells us that we should give time special status. You might think at this point, “Duh! The game is about time manipulation, and we didn’t need to know the genre to come to that conclusion.” But you would be wrong, because you are biased and know that time manipulation is not a characteristic of the genre. If the genre typically used this mechanic, then we’d have no reason to give special status to time in our analysis. So identifying and understanding the genre gave us information to bring to our interpretation of the game.

We should not be hasty in our attempts to render genre useless merely because many recent games defy clean classification. Genette (and Hirsch) allowed for the definition of genres to change and grow over time. New ones can be constructed where no old ones fit. The Braid example may not have convinced you, but genre analysis can be a useful tool for interpretation of games in more subtle and abstract settings. We should move past the simplistic notion that genre is purely descriptive. It can also be interpretive.


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Thoughts on In the Beginning was the Command Line

I’ve been meaning to read Neal Stepheneson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line for quite some time. It pops up here and there, and I’ve never been able to tell what was in it from these brief encounters. Somehow (OK, I was searching for NetHack stuff) I ran into Garote’s page (Garrett Birkel). He is a programmer and in 2004 wrote some comments in with the full original 1999 essay here. This gave a nice 5 year update to Stephenson’s original. It has been 10 years since that update. I don’t plan on doing much commentary, but I did want to record thoughts I had as they came up.

In the first half of the essay there is a long diatribe on American culture. My first large scale thought is that this should be removed. There are some really nice clarifying analogies throughout the essay, but this is not one. It adds probably 1000 words and layers of unnecessary confusion. A good analogy is the Morlock and Eloi from The Time Machine as the types of people using computers. It doesn’t take long to describe and illustrates the point. Having a huge political discussion about TV ruining people’s brains and being easily distracted by shiny objects is an essay in and of itself and not a useful discussion for the main points.

Speaking of main points, I should probably try to distill them. One is that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as opposed to the original command line prompt were created for the wrong reason. This led to a lot of bad. It is unclear to me from the essay whether or not this is supposedly inherent in the GUI concept or just because of the original circumstances under which they were made. Another main idea is the history of Linux. It is well-done, but you can find this type of thing in a lot of places. The more interesting historical description was of BeOS, because this is far less known. The last main argument is about the monopoly that proprietary OSes have in the market. We’ll get to that later.

Notes (I don’t distinguish whether the quotes are of Garote or Stephenson, sorry):

“All this hoopla over GUI elements has led some people to predict the death of the keyboard. Then came the Tablet PC from Microsoft — and people have been complaining ever since, because most things that you would use a computer for, still involve letters and numbers.”

This was without question the right thing to say in 2004. Ten years later our move to tablets and phones as our primary computers is so close to being a majority that Microsoft revamped Windows as if no one uses a laptop or desktop anymore. It was widely criticized as a mistake, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come since 2004. It may not have been a mistake if they waited 2 more years.

“Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs.”

It is interesting to me to see how much emphasis is put on “losing files” throughout this essay. It seems a point that the 2004 comments still agrees with. I certainly remember those days as well. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but “cloud computing” (which I now just call “using a computer”) is so pervasive that no one should lose work anymore. I could format my hard drive and not lose anything important because my work is stored all over the world on various servers. It would take a major, organized terrorist-level catastrophe to lose work if you take reasonable precautions. I have a 2 TB external storage device to do regular back-ups on, but it just feels a waste now.

“Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.”

It is interesting that even back in 1999 this was clear. The proprietary OSes had to keep up appearances that they were better than the free alternatives. Despite the marketing that you were actually buying quality, the OSes you paid for were bigger, slower, had fragmentation issues, were more likely to crash, and got viruses. The Windows bloat is so big now (over 20 GB!) that older laptops will waste half their space just for the OS. In effect, the OS you paid for was worse than Linux in every way except for the intuitive GUI and a few select professional-grade programs.

In 2014, the GUI issue is fixed. The switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu is less jarring and more intuitive than the switch from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I claim even the most computer illiterate could handle some of the modern Linux distributions. Now you basically pay for the ability to pay for a few high quality programs. There are certain professions where this is worth it (mostly in the arts, but certainly use Linux for work in STEM areas), but for the average person it is not. Now that WINE is better, you can even run those specialized Windows programs easily in Linux.

The next section is an anecdote about how difficult it was to fix a bug in the Windows NT install on one of Neal Stephenson’s computers versus the simplicity of getting help with Debian. This whole section is basically making the argument that a for-profit software or OS must maintain the illusion of superiority to get people to buy it. This means they hide their bugs which in turn makes it hard to fix. Open source encourages bugs to get posted all over the internet. Thousands of people see the bug and have an opportunity to try to fix it (as opposed to the one, possibly incompetent customer service rep you tell). The solution, when found, usually very quickly, will be posted for all to see and will be incorporated into the next release.

I’m not sure if the cause/effect that is proposed is really the reason for this (he admits later that there are now bug reports for Microsoft and Apple, but they are very difficult to find/use), but it matches my own experiences as well. I only note this here, because I often hear that you are “paying for customer service” or “support” when you choose Windows over Linux. For the above reasons I just don’t believe it. If the Linux community somehow stopped being so darn helpful so quickly, then maybe this would be a point in favor of proprietary software. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The last part of the essay on the monopoly might be a little outdated. When I buy a computer and Windows comes as part of the package, I feel a little cheated because the first thing I do is delete it. Why did I just pay for something that I was going to immediately delete? The reason this is outdated is because in 2014 you can find “Linux boxes” that come with Linux installed in place of Windows. They are harder to find, so you don’t have as many choices, but this is a big improvement from 2004 where 100% of Dell (or whatever) computers came with Windows.


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Blogging Birthday

This is just a quick post to celebrate my blog’s fifth birthday (aka blogiversary).

I thought this image was appropriate (to avoid getting sued, if you like it or are in the market for other birthday cards I found it under the greeting cards section at Cafepress). Let this be a warning to any potential new bloggers out there. If you stick it out for five years, then you’ll be embarrassed by your earlier posts. I’m sure in five more years I’ll be embarrassed by my current posts. This is good. If you go five years and aren’t embarrassed, then what have you been doing for those five years? It’s OK, but be warned.

Quick statistics: I’ve had 137,185 views and 561 comments. Far and away my most common post is still the one on analyzing Lost in the Funhouse by Barth. I feel bad for literature professors across the country that have to keep reading rehashes of my post on this every time they assign the book or story (some of these students even comment that this is what they are doing).


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One small part of my research process

I don’t usually do this, but I’ll piggy back off a question from another blog since it is kind of fun and definitely useful to see how other people approach things. The question came from the AMS Grad Student Blog. Here’s a glimpse into my research process:

This was also an experiment to see if I could publish directly from a document created in Google Drive (which you can!). What’s your research process like?


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The Myth of a Close Election

Before presenting the argument for why the current US presidential race is not as close as it seems, let’s first get out of the way some of the major reasons why it seems close. First, there is the bias of the media. What is more exciting: watching a photo finish win of .01 seconds or watching someone take the lead early and never give up ground?

All of our news sources have a vested financial interest in portraying the presidential race as close. It keeps people coming to their webpages or turning on the news to see how things have changed. The myth was created because it sells. But this is far, far from the only reason someone would want to keep this myth alive.

If your candidate is the one that has the bad odds, then you will want to portray the race as close to keep up hope. No one wants to admit (or even believe) that they are going to lose. This is about as old and established a cognitive bias as you can find. What about if your candidate is the one that is ahead? Well, there is very good reason to portray the race as close in this case as well. If all the people that are going to vote think it is an easy win, the turnout may go down causing a sudden upset that shouldn’t have happened.

This gives good reason for even non-news sources to keep up the impression that it is a close race. In fact, I can’t think of any reason someone would not have some interest in skewing the numbers to make the race seem closer than it is. In our weird system of the electoral college, it is actually quite easy to keep this myth up. You just give standard national polling data. All of a sudden it looks like a dead even match. One day one candidate is up, the next day the other. Back and forth it goes. How exciting!

It turns out that the most careful analysis out there, Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight, has as of yesterday a 79% chance of Obama winning and a 21% chance of Romney winning. Before discussing what this means, I’ll first point out that this is a true professional statistical analysis. He uses tons of polls in all of the states (sometimes 10 for a single state!) and not just one that suits his purpose. He takes into account noise and how historically accurate the polls have been at different times leading up to the election. It is a fully developed statistically model (as opposed to places like Real Clear Politics which takes straight from polls without filtering through a model).

He has used his methods in predicting sports and elections in the past and has an impeccable track record for accuracy. Now that that is out of the way, what do the numbers mean? Well, they mean what they say. A better tactic is to point out what they don’t mean. A 79% chance of a win is not a sure thing. In fact, people go to Vegas and play odds much, much (much, much) worse than 21% and win! Does this mean they had better odds than predicted? No. It means sometimes you win when you have .0001% chance at winning.

This is statistics we’re talking about, so there is never any sort of guarantee. If Romney wins, will Nate Silver be wrong? No! And that is the crucial point. If every time Silver gave 79/21 odds, the person with the 79% chance of winning won, then that would definitively prove Nate’s model incorrect. In order for the model to make accurate predictions it turns out that 21% of the time that he makes this 79/21 prediction, the person with the 21% chance of winning has to win.

You can go to his blog and check out his methods for yourself, but his track record should give us a bit of confidence that he knows what he’s doing. Now back to the original question: Is the US presidential race close? Armed with these stats, the answer is subjective and you can decide for yourself. To me it would be a lie to say that it is some sort of blowout, but under no stretch of the imagination is 4-1 odds close. I’m not a betting man, but I’d easily take the occasional 4-1 odds, and that says to me that it isn’t a very close race.

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