Mar 29, 2007

Rehearsing the Future

Posted by in category: futurism

Never underestimate the power of a “do-over.”

Video gamers know exactly what I’m talking about: the ability to face a challenge over and over again, in most cases with a “reset” of the environment to the initial conditions of the fight (or trap, or puzzle, etc.). With a consistent situation and setting, the player is able to experiment with different strategies. Typically, the player will find the approach that works, succeed, then move on to the next challenge; occasionally, the player will try different winning strategies in order to find the one with the best results, putting the player in a better position to meet the next obstacle.

Real life, of course, doesn’t have do-overs. But one of the fascinating results of the increasing sophistication of virtual world and game environments is their ability to serve as proxies for the real world, allowing users to practice tasks and ideas in a sufficiently realistic setting that the results provide useful real life lessons. This capability is based upon virtual worlds being interactive systems, where one’s actions have consequences; these consequences, in turn, require new choices. The utility of the virtual world as a rehearsal system is dependent upon the plausibility of the underlying model of reality, but even simplified systems can elicit new insights.

The classic example of this is Sim City (which I’ve written about at length before), but with the so-called “serious games” movement, we’re seeing the overlap of gaming and rehearsal become increasingly common.

The latest example is particularly interesting to me. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction group has teamed up with the UK game design studio Playerthree to create the Flash-based “Stop Disasters” game. The goal of the game is to reduce the harmful results of catastrophic natural events — the disaster that gets stopped isn’t the event itself, but its impact on human life.

The game mechanisms are fairly straightforward. The player chooses what kind of disaster is to be faced (earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, wildfire or flood), then has a limited amount of time to prepare for the inevitable. The player can build new buildings, retrofit or demolish old ones, install appropriate defensive infrastructure (such as mangroves along tsunami-prone shorelines or firebreaks around water towers), institute preparedness training, install sirens and evacuation signs, and so forth — all with a limited budget, and with ancillary goals that must be met for success, such as building schools and hospitals for community development, or bringing in hotels for local economic support.

Once the money is spent (or the time runs out), the preordained disaster strikes, and the player gets to see whether his or her choices were the right ones. At the easy level, there’s generally enough money to protect the small map and limited population; at the harder levels, the player must make difficult choices about who and what to save. The overall complexity reminds me of the very first version of Sim City, but don’t take that as a criticism: the first Sim City arguably offered the clearest demonstration of urban complexity of the four versions, in large measure because of its spartan interface and simplicity.

Stop Disasters is billed as a children’s game, and it’s true that the folks at Architecture for Humanity aren’t going to use it for planning purposes. That’s not the goal, of course. This isn’t a rehearsal tool for the people who have to plan for disasters, but for the people who have to live with that planning — and those people who will choose to help their communities during large-scale emergencies.

I suspect that there would be an audience for a more complex version of Stop Disasters, one which puts more demands on the player to accommodate citizen needs. It’s a bit too easy to simply demolish old buildings rather than retrofit them in the UN/ISDR game, for example, and I would love to see more economic tools. I’d also like to see a wider array of disasters, beyond the short, sharp, shock events of quakes and storms. What would a Stop Disaster global warming scenario look like, for example — not trying to prevent climate change, but to deal with its consequences?

If we really want to get our hands dirty, we’d need to build up Stop Disasters scenarios for the advent of molecular manufacturing, self-aware artificial intelligence, global pandemic, peak oil and asteroid strikes.

Not because such games would tell us what we should do, but because they’d help us see how our choices could play out — and, more importantly, they’d remind us that our choices matter.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Ehtisham R Khan on March 31, 2007 8:22 pm

    The text is inspired from Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is near’. I think that the theory I am about to propose will strongly help in providing strength to evolutionary theory, or otherwise! Well, it will at least be helpful in finding my answer to the age old question. Does a God exist? I am not an evolutionary biologist, just a plain nerdy Oracle geek. To minimize the grey area I will qualify certain ideas along the way. The sequence is how this theory makes sense to me. Feel free to explore beyond the limits of my imagination.
    I propose an experiment to validate evolutionary theory. Your response will at least help me either stop wasting my time trying to solve this riddle, or stay in my present state i.e. Lack of enough evidence to light a candle inside! better take the safer route of keeping my faith. The picture of hell isn’t exactly Hawaii at sunset, in any religion! The purpose of this proposed theory is a casual debate and no offence to any religion. It will be awesome to get a response though; be it of ANY nature.
    I want to test the theory that every kid born to a couple is smarter than the previous one. I am thinking that the human intelligence can potentially grow every second. All experiences gained with each passing second add to human intellect by lighting up a new neural connection in the human brain. Of course there might be an element of randomness being at work in the background here as well. I am thinking that when parents transfer the neuron map of the brain to their offspring, there are 3 outcomes; the offspring gets this neural connection from either the father, the mother or randomly. I am interested in the binary nature of the connection being transferred, not the physical connection itself. The order isn’t important. We somehow establish that there is a certain percentage associated to all three forces, say 40, 40 20. Again the percentages are not important. So basically we get a lit or un-lit neural connection in the offspring based on these percentages. My association is that the more lit neural connections you have in your brain, the smarter you are. That is, you have more lit connections available at your disposal whenever you use your brain. Once this image map of the brain has been transferred to the offspring the chances of further neural connections lightening up might depend on experiences with the passage of time. You come across a new experience, you either register it or you don’t, based on some random force at work. Of course, I am suggesting an association of human intellect with available lit connections in the brain. Talking about a human brain like an Intel processor feels really weird. That said we now determine whether this theory really holds up. The time interval between births might correlate to a higher number of lit neural connections for both parents every time they make their own offspring, which effectively can reflect in each offspring and suggest a trend in favor or otherwise of this theory. All we need are sample stats for IQ from all around the world for siblings still living in the same household (same house hold sort of ensures commonality of the environments for all siblings that is equal opportunity to everyone was available to light up their neural connections). With established constants for rates of growth of lit neural connection based on the samples collected we might be able to establish the proposed trend or otherwise. Questioning the validity of the associative trends based on sample stats is a different debate.
    I will prefer an answer in the following format if the readers find it worthwhile to respond;
    An answer that highlights an inherent flaw in the theory itself
    An answer that highlights an inherent flaw in the concept to test the theory
    An answer which inspires someone to test a better, more refined version of my theory

    P.S: I want my privacy protected till I declare otherwise.

    Ehtisham R Khan

  • sherjeel bedaar on April 1, 2007 11:00 am

    Shami this is inspired by my game theory…
    none of this is true..