The Logic in Paul’s Gamble

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The Logic in Paul’s Gamble

Sam Hill

21st March 2012

Yesterday we released the third instalment of Paul’s Gamble. The web series is to be released in 12 weekly parts and explores the contentious nature of gambling.

(warning – spoilers below)

The General Idea

Paul McNicholl is a mate of PAN and our eponymous hero. He recently decided to quit smoking though not for the first time – he’s tried existing products and services to help, but hasn’t had that much success. Before starting this project Paul was typically smoking the equivalent of one pack/ 20 cigarettes a day, which works out as about seven or eight quid every 24 hours/ £250 a month. It’s this cost (being far more tangible than the health issues) that has really started to get to him.

When Paul said he was thinking of gambling his money rather than spending it on cigarettes, we got really excited and suggested the format. Paul liked the idea, probably because our involvement would give him a bit more motivation. Between us we decided to start during the difficult “third week” – when the cravings are supposed to be strongest.

Attitudes to Gambling

‘Gambling’ is a pretty divisive concept – frowned upon about as much as it’s practised. But despite criticisms of the gambling industry, the over-all idea of risk-taking is a critical part of life – both in daily decisions and the greater biological scheme of things.

As a pastime it’s about 40,000 years old and a textbook ‘meme’ in Richard Dawkins’ original sense – a concept that continues to abide even if it doesn’t necessarily benefit those that prescribe to it.

The reasons for cynicism towards gambling or ‘gaming’ can be unwrapped as follows:

  1. If the odds are always stacked against the player (“the house always wins”) then choosing to gamble is illogical. A gambler could easily be accused of poor judgement.
  2. Gambling provides the chance for an individual to profit purely through luck, and requires neither skill nor labour. In doing so it subverts our model of society – where the individual and the whole have a reciprocal relationship. It’s therefore often unpopular with the state, or ruling class and is portrayed (perhaps fairly) as corrupting – encouraging both greed and slothfulness. To be fair, this condemnation seems to go out of the window when it comes to state lotteries.
  3. The psychological (if not financial) rewards of gambling can lead to addictive behaviour. Ludomania (problem gambling) is sometime compared with substance abuse disorders.

The Point of this Experiment

The rewards of taking a risk go beyond the potential prize. Win or lose, there is a guaranteed return on investment in the form of a rich experience. The learning aspect might sometimes be a tad weak-sauce (the roulette wheel finished on red… so therefore we know that sometimes the wheel will finish on red) but the emotional experience can be very strong – thrill, apprehension, shame, glory . The intensity of these feelings is proportional to the stake invested and the potential prize – not as fixed amounts, but as a fraction of the individuals resources (a millionaire and someone living below the poverty line would not feel the same about a £1000 game of Blackjack). The emotional journey is an example of a trajectory we previously described as Intervention Type #1 in a previous post, i.e. something with a beginning, middle and end – the decision, the anticipation and the result.

We believe that it doesn’t particularly matter experientially whether the individual wins or loses, so long as the outcome has an intensity. Paul is gambling instead of smoking – will his life be more enriched as a consequence? I don’t mean because of the health benefits either – but because of the relative intensity of emotion.

This is the moment when Paul realises that 1) His team have won the match, and 2) He has just won £200. Look at his face! That is a face expressing raw, powerful emotion. I envy Paul enormously for that moment in time. He has the fortune now of replaying this second in his mind (and on film) for the rest of his life.

In Summary

We got Paul trying a different activity in each episode because the richness of experience is dependent on novelty; returns diminish over time. If we were to organise ten days of roulette then by the end he would be no better off than he was smoking (again, health effects to one side).

Risk assessment is a naturally evolved process. All living things need to carefully manage their energy resources and so end up developing heuristic or instinctive systems to survive. Yes it’s true that if any creature adopts a behaviour that invests too much into risks with poor odds or low yields then it will perish. However, at the same time a risk-averse creature will fail to flourish – especially in a competitive environment. By stripping the extremes from the gene pool natural selection moderates risk-taking to an apt degree.

Seeing as risks are essentially ‘commitments to actions where the outcomes are uncertain’, and that ‘certainty’ is a fairly abstract idea, we can gather that risk-taking is also practically ubiquitous, even if the risks are marginal (quantum, even).

We’re not going to directly condone gambling – elements of it are cynical and exploitative. But when considered primarily as a form of entertainment, rather than an economic strategy, then it makes a lot more sense. If the stake is always considered to be a ticket – a variable price for an experience that scales to whatever the participant can afford – then there’s no reason why in the long-term any loss should be resented, or regretted.

The Gadget Show – FPS Simulator

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The Gadget Show – FPS Simulator

Sam Hill

25th October 2011

Earlier in the year I mentioned the potential of computer gaming and digital interaction in the future. Recently Channel 5’s The Gadget Show combined several state-of-the-art technologies to produce one particular vision of what this future might be. The build took 6 weeks, an unreleased copy of Battlefield 3 (a nice little PR coup there) and £500,000. The end result went on to be a bit of a prolific meme, and temporarily shot C5’s armchair-consumer review staple into the tech world’s periphery.

The package included:

  • A 9m wide 360° (X-Z plane) geodesic dome with 5 HD projectors
  • A roller-driven omni-directional treadmill (one of a kind, produced by MSE Weibull)
  • 10 infra-red tracking cameras, synchronised with the players orientation by APS Events and Media
  • An (Illegally modified VCRA – Sec 36.1.b) “appBlaster” gun
  • A PC, with the platform copy of Battlefield 3
  • 12 paintball guns (which were allegedly triggered by pixel mapping software reading areas of red/ blood on the screen) automated by Robo Challenge
  • ambient lighting for peripheral vision (supplied by Extra Dimensional Technologies)
  • X-box kinect with infrared motion tracking, hacked by Running In The Halls for detecting player crouching and jumping

It looks like there might be some issue with looking and moving in the y-axis as the top of the geodesic dome is not projected onto. No doubt also there were many other issues that were deliberately overlooked, such as switching weapons, reloading, climbing ladders, etc. but it’s still a very convincing proof of concept model.


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Sam Hill

8th August 2011

Playmakers is a film on immersive gaming – a collaborative project between Hide & Seek, NESTA and ThinkPublic.

It features a good range of speakers from the sector and contains some interesting insights. It also demonstrates (in a surprisingly frank way) the ad hoc and experimental nature of immersive game development, illustrating why it’s important to remember the KISS principle when orchestrating events that are designed to be engaging and fun.

Some of the other difficulties and objectives of experiential events are outlined – the need to avoid esoterism, the importance of having objectives and narrative seamlessly work together and the psychology of keeping players immersed. Interesting parallels are drawn throughout to other social activities that “share DNA” – protests, carnivals, parkour and theatre. Obviously, theatre is a biggy. Computer games are slightly conspicuous in their exclusion.

An interesting idea is presented near the beginning of the film [01:50] by Hide & Seek’s Alex Fleetwood. He appears to be describing the four quadrants of their interest. Here it is visualised:

It’s a really nice territory for enquiry. What’s more, Alex’s criteria reveal a robust set of parameters when extrapolated:

Immersive gaming incorporates a dedicated core of researchers and creative thinkers. The industry seems to be gaining plenty of momentum and makes an excellent case study for the development of a broader experience culture. A lot can be learned from a decade of keenly analysed experiential events and the potential within the sector remains huge and continuously changing.

Terror in gaming: Amnesia – The Dark Descent

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Terror in gaming: Amnesia – The Dark Descent

Sam Hill

4th August 2011

Recently I wrote about how the active consumption of computer games makes them far more immersive than other creative mediums. Amnesia (2010) illustrates this point really nicely.

The game is a “horror survival adventure” created by indie developer Frictional Games and has been critically well received as well as being commercially successful – which is impressive for an independent title.

Viewed in the first-person, the player must solve logic puzzles in the labyrinthine passages of a Prussian castle. Deformed, humanoid monsters haunt the corridors and, in a move that defies convention for the genre, the protagonist is completely unarmed. The only way to survive in the game is to outrun the creatures and hide in the shadows whilst they search for you.

The overall experience is incredibly dark – the encounters are partly random which coupled with the gnawing suspense and powerlessness keep the player constantly on edge.

This is how immersive the gaming experience can be:

It really demonstrates the power of interactive media. With a horror film you can always look away during the gory bits, or shout “don’t go through THAT door” at the protagonist; there are many learned coping strategies for divorcing yourself emotionally from the action. But an interactive title will wait patiently until you walk through that door, and anyone closing their eyes during the action isn’t going to get very far.

The strangest thing about this video, I think, is that this guy keeps on playing even though he seems petrified. I have to be honest, after playing the game for about fifteen minutes, alone, in the dark, I had to pack it in because of wracked nerves. Why is it then, that I decided the best thing to do was to stop, when this guy just powered on? What distinguishes us? Am I more cowardly? Only, I wasn’t screaming or whimpering when I played. There’s something driving him and I’ve missed it. Maybe it’s a greater need to complete the objective, or maybe though he expresses fear more readily, this guy actually has a higher threshold for it.

As for other titles,  Alone in the Dark, the 1992 version, is the first brown-trouser title I remember playing. It was necessary to push a wardrobe in front of a window within the first few minutes to avoid being eaten by werewolves. As a child, that shook me up for weeks.

The Dead ‘Event Horizon’ Space titles are often cited as being pretty scary. I found them even more demoralising because on the PC you can’t cheat your way through the fear with F9-F5 quicksave hopping, which really ramps up the jeopardy. The Resident Evil series, Doom 3 and to an extent Bioshock also come to mind as games that really bring the heart into the throat when the ammunition starts to dwindle.

The mind boggles at what terrors the gaming industry might launch in the future.

The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

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The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

Sam Hill

21st June 2011

It’s difficult to describe precisely how excited I am about the upcoming Bethesda game Skyrim, which is due to be released in November this year.

Specifically, I’m looking forward to fighting dragons. In my day-to-day life I’m unable to fight dragons, you see, so the prospect is quite exciting.

This is an important consideration when evaluating contemporary computer games. Their status, somewhere between the legacy of Pong (1972) and the potential to be Nozick’s theoretical Experience Machine implies a complex question:

How much experiential value do they really impart?

The case against computer games

  1. Computer games are synthetic experiences. They are approximations of situations built from rendering software, conversation trees, scripts and flags. They are built by finitely sized teams of people. Ultimately, they are limited by the comprehension of the human mind – a condition from which reality does not suffer. They are as incomparable from that which they simulate as a train crash is from a mathematical collision model; as a fruit salad is from a fruit salad.
  2. They are played through a bottleneck of sensation. We input though fingertips – or more recently through gesture. Feedback is received as light and sound. Occasionally primitive haptic feedback devices like “rumble-packs” are involved but generally most of the human range of sensation remains unstimulated.
  3. Computer gaming is a time-consuming activity. Hours can disappear when playing. It is entirely foreseeable that whole childhoods, and adulthoods too, can be lost to a digital interface. This time could be spent doing many, many other things in ‘the real world’ – outdoor activities like running, building, swimming and climbing might be missed out on. The smell of grass, the feeling of the sun on skin, or breathlessness from activity cannot be emulated by a computer.
  4. The long-term rewards of gaming are debatable (though not entirely deniable). Time spent gaming might otherwise be invested in developing skills and knowledge, or pursuing other hobbies, interests and activities. Missing out on these knowledge-experiences can have a cumulative effect in denying future opportunities to learn.
  5. It’s possible for excessive gaming to be described as an addictive behaviour. This can impede social interaction from friends, family and other people, restricting socio-cultural development, and the enrichment this provides experientially.

The case for computer games

  1. “Gaming” is a misleading term. Though most platforms will have puzzles, goals or skill-based challenges, things have changed a great deal since the arcade era of Tetris and Asteroids. It might be more accurate to state that products like L.A. Noire, for example, are simulators, interactive narratives or synthetic experiences. Here, the potential for what might be simulated is bounded only by the imagination of developers. This might sound contradictory to the first argument against games – but it’s not the case; merely the the other side of the coin. As stated before, we cannot actually go out and fight dragons on mountain tops, nor tackle crime in nineteen-forties’ America. But through synthetic experiences we may save the world countless times. We can explore space and solve mysteries and battled demons. We can be gangsters, tycoons and blue hedgehogs. Reality could not deliver these situations, but here we are having lived them -to a very limited extent, yes, but the difference between these simulacra and nothing is huge.
  2. Skilled developers at companies such as Valve and Bethesda absolutely understand what is required to make exciting, fun and memorable titles. Games are consumed actively, not passively. Their immersive nature is virtually unparalleled amongst other creative mediums – being far more interactive than literature, more dynamic than film, more bespoke than most theatre. Though rarely considered a cultural medium, they are annihilating competing products in terms of both intensity and duration of experience. Imperfect though they are, games probably represent the absolute pinnacle of human-engineered experience.
  3. Games are a pragmatic, utilitarian solution for the service and consumption of experience. They are easily replicable and relatively cheap to produce (compared to, say, holidays, leisure activities, or Hollywood blockbusters). Games can exist entirely digitally, so they are a very sustainable form of experience consumption. They also offer good value for money as a medium, with successful titles providing many more hours of immersive entertainment per pound than other forms of consumption.


It’s important to remember: the richest experiences possible are not necessarily man-made at all, and even when this is the case they may not be easily replicable or sustainable. These salient circumstances and events – valuable, definable moment in time – should not be undermined by the inferior, if ubiquitous industry of gaming.

However, games certainly have their place, and in moderation can augment an already experientially rich life with an immersive level of fantasy and escapism. It is also foreseeable that advances in technology, changes in culture and expansion of platforms will help reduce some of their current limitations.