Why Humans (and Machines) Play Games

Seven Games book cover

Author Oliver Roeder in his book Seven Games uses those seven games (checkers, chess, go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble, and bridge) to explore both the human history of games in general as well as how the approach to creating artificial intelligence (AI) has changed as it has been applied to games. At first those developing AI tried to develop machines that think like humans do. But that direction was unfruitful due to the depth of the games. There was simply too much to these games to simply use brute force calculations. New approaches were attempted and the results were a completely different way to think about games, a machine way.

The book also highlights the best players of each of these games and how AI has affected them and game play in general. The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of playing games and their importance to human development. And he takes what could be a very dry topic (AI) and makes it extremely relatable. For anyone interested in games in general or the development of AI, I highly recommend this book.

Make Room for Fun!

The cover of the book The Power of Fun by author Catherine Price side by side with an author photo

I found the book The Power of Fun by Catherine Price eye-opening. It revealed to me the importance of making room for fun in my life as a well as the fact that I haven’t done that as much as I thought. The author defines True Fun as a combination of playfulness, connection, and flow. While any of these three is welcome and enjoyable, only when all three are present do we reap the rejuvenating benefits of True Fun.

The book is also a lighthearted manual for how to invite more True Fun into your life. And invite is the right work. You can’t “make” True Fun happen. In fact, if you try to force it, you drive it away. Kind of like happiness, it is the by product of other activities. She even cautions the reader not to make fun into work and tells the reader to be kind to yourself.

Once you learn about your fun factors and fun magnets, she uses the acronym SPARK to put into action what you learn about yourself.

  • Make Space
  • Pursue Passions
  • Attract Fun
  • Rebel
  • Keep at It

I’m not usually one who is eager to put into action the steps outlined in a book. I am more likely to catalog the information as something learned. But in this case, I am looking forward to my fun audit and keeping my fun times journal. I even expect it to be fun!

A Fun Series

The Murderbot diaries by Martha Wells is just flat out fun. It is about a cybernetic robot who gains consciousness and just wants to be let alone to watch his “stories”. But the universe and its humans have other ideas. Murderbot is snarky and despite avoiding humans comes to care about a few of them.

I’ve just started reading the sixth in the series, Fugitive Telemetry. Each book in the series is a short quick read. They are a combination of mystery and thriller. I thoroughly enjoy them and highly recommend them to others.

A Remedy for Loneliness

I continue to read The Power of Fun by Catherine Price. The book is about how to have fun more in our lives, showing how to do this. Before doing so, the author starts a little dark discussing in part how we all need to face our own mortality. Then she goes on to review the science behind how True Fun is actually a health benefit. One of the study results that she reviews is the devastating health consequences of loneliness. Some scientists compare the effects of loneliness to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! And since True Fun is defined by the author as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow, having more True Fun is an effective remedy for loneliness.

I’ve now finished the first part (Fun, Seriously) and am moving on to part two (How to Have Fun). I am looking forward to learning that. And since the book came out this year, I am hoping it will take into account the greater restrictions we have all felt to connecting brought on by the pandemic.

Meaning and Mortality

View of the Smoky Moutains in NC

I am noticing a recurring theme in the books I am reading and even some of the shows I stream. All of these explore very directly our human mortality. In other words, they all deal with the fact that we will all die. Not a cheery topic and one most of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid. But oddly, all of these authors have managed to turn this morbid focus into something that is actually uplifting.

In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman uses our mortality as a basis for time management. Instead of pretending like we can get everything done in our lives, we should use the finite nature of our existence to give ourselves permission to bring some sanity to our task lists. Since we only have about four thousand weeks in our lives, we should be much more discerning about how we spend them and what we do. And somehow this is very freeing. I no longer feel that I need to “do it all”. In fact, I know I can’t. So instead of trying, I focus on the things that are most meaningful to me.

I am currently reading The Power of Fun by Catherine Price. For a book about how to learn to have more fun, it starts off in a somewhat dark manner. She also points out that we are all going to die. And because of that fact, we all need to learn to prioritize adding to our lives some True Fun. The author defines True Fun as the confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow. Rather than spending all our time on serious pursuits and putting off fun until later, we need to mix it up and find a place for True Fun in our lives while we still can.

The third and final season of After Life came out on Netflix this month. The series stars Ricky Gervais (who also wrote it) as a man who is struggling to find a reason to live after losing his wife to cancer. Doesn’t sound very funny, though it is a comedy and quite funny. The main character feels like his life is meaningless without the love of his life and in season one he seeks to end it. By the end of season three (spoiler alert!), he decides to live despite the fact that life has no meaning. But he finds that uplifting as it means he is free to give his life any meaning he chooses.

So due to each of these exposures, I am finding myself happy to consider my own mortality and the fact that life has no inherent meaning. And I no longer find these thoughts morbid or depressing. Rather, I find them freeing. I get to choose my own meaning and what I will do with the precious little time I have, that we all have.

Snow (Reading) Day!

It is currently snowing, and we have a winter storm warning active where I live until early Monday morning. We are expected to get up to a foot of snow mixed with ice and rain. Yuck! But it reminds me of a snow day when I was going to school. It makes me want to curl up on the couch with some hot tea or cocoa and read a book. In fact, I think I’ll go do that now.

A Short Review

Cover of book Archenemies

I finished reading Archenemies, and I loved it! It reminded me of how I felt when I watched The Empire Strikes Back. The story was full of action and twists. I was at the edge of my seat in anticipation; I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. The end was a cliff hanger that left me wanting the next in the series right away. Fortunately, the next book has already been published so I don’t have to wait three year for the sequel like I did with Star Wars.

 

A Fantastic Read

Recently I was texting with my son. We were sharing what we like to read. He asked me if I was familiar with Brandon Sanderson. I told him the name sounded familiar but that I had never read anything by him. For the most part, he is an author of fantasy. Until recently, I haven’t cared much for fantasy. My son knows that, so he mentioned there is a logic to the magic in his books. But more than anything, he writes good characters. I was sold. For me, great characters almost make the story. It is hard to write people the reader cares about without putting them in a good story.

So I asked my son to recommend a good starting place to read some Brandon Sanderson. He recommended a fantasy story but then remembered a science fiction novel that he had written, the first of a series. I am a big sci fi fan, not mindless pulp, but the kind that explores ideas and people struggling with those ideas. My son recommended Skyward. I looked it up on Goodreads, read the description, and immediately got the ebook from my library and started reading. I just finished it. Wow!

When I started reading it, I texted by son to say that it felt like Top Gun in space. The story is about a young girl who wants to be a pilot but has all sorts of obstacles in her way. And the characters! I loved them. Even the ones I didn’t like were real enough that I cared about them. I wanted to know more about these people. Like all great fiction, I felt like I had found new friends. And for a week, I kept coming back to those friends as much as I could.

Whenever I am reading a book, I often find areas that fall flat to me, places where I need to reread a passage to understand what it said. That never happened in this book. In fact, I couldn’t find anything that I didn’t like about this book. And now that I have finished it, I can’t wait to start reading the sequel — Starsight. In fact, I think I’ll go start now. Happy reading!

Intuitive and Logical Thinking

This week, as I always do, I listened to the latest podcast episode of On Being. I like to describe it as an interview program that explores where spirituality and religion touch everyday life. I find it both practical and inspiring. Each week, the host (Krista Tippett) interviews a different guest. This week’s interviewee was Daniel Kahneman, the bestselling author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. While I haven’t yet read the book (it is on my electronic “pile” of books to read on my ereader), I am fascinated by his concept of System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking which he discusses in this interview.

He describes System 1 thinking as the kind of thinking that happens when someone asks you what the answer is to two plus two. You don’t think about it or do any calculating. The answer comes effortlessly because it is already there in your consciousness. System 2 thinking is more linear and deliberate. It’s what happens when someone asks you to solve seventeen times twenty-four. You have to go step by step through the process of multiplying to arrive at the answer. He goes into how these two systems work together and how what starts out as System 2 thinking can often become automatic System 1 thinking (like driving a car or riding a bike).

In addition to each interview produced for the hour-long program and podcast, On Being also publishes each complete and unedited interview on Soundcloud. I don’t listen to these each week, but I was so fascinated by the produced interview and how it relates to much of what I have been reading and thinking about technology, boredom, and deep work that I decided to listen to it. I am so glad I did! At about 1:25:30 into the interview, he is in the midst of talking about artificial intelligence when he mentions my favorite game — the ancient board game of go. He talks about how he is fascinated by the fact that a computer program has finally beaten professional humans at a game that is based largely on System 1 thinking, or intuition.

I like to think about System 1 and System 2 thinking as intuition and logic, respectively. One of the many reasons why go is my favorite game is that it combines both of these kinds of thinking. In order to play well consistently, you need to be able to think both logically and intuitively.

Playing the game also helps players learn to balance big picture thinking (strategy) with what to do in specific situations (tactics). The game is most popular in east Asia (China, Japan, and Korea in particular). Playing go into their advanced years has been credited with keeping people mentally sharp while business men and women use it as a model for competing in business.

The social aspects of the game are fascinating as well. Each game is started by wishing your opponent a good game and at the end players thank each other for the game and often review together in a friendly way where things went well or took a bad turn. The combination of cognitive and social aspects of the game, I find deeply intriguing; I simply love this game! And the fact that a reference to it showed up in one of the podcasts I regularly listen to was a wonderful moment of serendipity.

If you are interested in learning more about the game of go, here is an excellent article recently published in Chicagoly magazine. You can also learn how and where to play in your local area (US only) at usgo.org.

Take a Tech Break!

Yesterday I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down at my computer… at all. I schedule Sunday afternoons to write for this blog. But yesterday, I just couldn’t do it. I love technology, but sometimes I have had enough. Especially on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. So, I took a tech break!

I went to a local wildlife sanctuary and just walked through the woods for about an hour and a half by myself. The paths were beautiful. I saw a young deer and four turkeys. I thought about taking pictures. I even pulled my phone from my pocket to take one. But then I realized… I’m taking a tech break! I wanted to experience the woods and the wildlife, not view it from the screen of my phone.

I continued through the woods until I reached the river on the edge of the sanctuary. As I walked along the river bank it started to lightly rain. I stayed mostly dry as I walked due to the canopy of leaves overhead, and I enjoyed the sound of the rain on those leaves as I continued down the path. On my return to the entrance I passed many waterfalls and listened to the birds sing across the marshy pond.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Our modern world is filled with gadgets and screens, but sometimes I need to leave them home or in my pocket and just get out there and connect with the real world. I encourage you to do the same. I’m glad I did!