Playing games can be a chore, and design has become so rote that robots — literally — can do it. So why shouldn’t we let them?

Simon Parkin
Dec 15, 2014 · 8 min read

By Simon Parkin
Illustrations by Robert G. Fresson

Given the right kind of incentive, a computer can get me to do pretty much anything. The right kind of incentive seems to be, desolately, nothing more than a clutch of virtual points, a tally I’ve been amassing for nine years.

Microsoft’s Xbox Achievements system, first introduced in 2005, is a kind of performance-related pay for video game players. (Sony now has its own version.) Each time you begin a game you’re presented with a fresh to-do list. Complete the tasks and you’re rewarded with some points. Most games have a thousand points to collect. These are divvied up across a range of requests from the straightforward, such as “Complete chapter one,” to the truly demanding stuff that’s only for the committed, like Sniper Elite 3’s request that you kill a man from 100 meters by sniping him through the testicle(s?).

My achievements list is a report of endless virtual misdemeanor and majestic time-wasting. I once killed an enemy with a toilet (5 points: Half-Life 2). Another time I felled a thousand trees using nothing more than a hunting knife and a rocket launcher (15 points: Battlefield: Bad Company). I successfully doled out 50 wedgies to unsuspecting pupils (25 points: Bully) and I kicked a chicken a notable distance (5 points: Fable II). One time I punched a horse so hard it died (100 points: Darkest of Days).

Nobody cares much about the tally. It can’t be converted into goods or services, like loyalty card points. Perhaps, at the end of a life spent gathering achievement points, this figure will be something to regret. No more will your family look on with understanding eyes as you parrot the cliché, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at the office.” They’ll simply brandish your “achievement” list sarcastically.

Ostensibly pointless, Xbox Achievements make plain one of the reasons we play video games: The chemical jolt that comes with virtual progress is almost as satisfying as the real thing. In some ways, it’s more satisfying. In offline reality, success is never reported so straightforwardly. Virtual attainment is an illusion we willingly serve, sometimes at the cost of genuine personal, professional, financial, social, or spiritual progress — or as a dependable stand-in for when those things prove elusive.

Video games offer an easy route to feelings of accomplishment, in the same way that we feel the throb of victory when we wipe the other property developers from the board in Monopoly, or solve a knotted murder in Clue. Anyone who plays a great many video games will be familiar with those feelings and, if they are honest, with the murmur of guilt that lies beneath. Some of this guilt derives from a long-prevailing view of video games as a wasteful pursuit. It’s an understandable position. Look upon the player, sitting there on the couch, motionless apart from the steady twitch of the hands, the unblinking eyes, and the occasional grimace.

This is not the lung-expanding, cheek-coloring variety of play we find on the playground or the football field. It’s not obviously wholesome. No, the scene is impoverished, suggesting a depraved form of play, onanistic or, worse still, infantile, as the controller’s umbilical-like cord links the human and the television screen.

Video games destroy time. So too, of course, does a particularly engrossing TV drama. But unlike television or film, video games demand not only our full attention but also our full participation. Without us they sit dormant. And unlike literature or cinema, video games are fundamentally task-based. When we complete their missions, we feel an honest sense of accomplishment. They feel like toil, with the thick chaser of satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

Their detractors see them as nothing more than an antisocial distraction from reality and all the truly important stuff of life. Certainly no lives are saved, no babies delivered, no crops harvested, no cities built, no sicknesses cured, no fires extinguished, no seamen rescued, no wars won, and no laws passed through the act of play. In the project of survival and propagation of the human species, video games seemingly contribute little.

Play can, of course, educate and prepare us for usefulness in the world. But video game play often seems more like an escape from, rather than a rehearsal for, the roles and responsibilities of life on this side of the screen.

For those of us who write about video games, the accusation that this accomplishment is vacuous is easily dodged. This kind of play is, after all, involved in our work (had I not shot a man—in my case, a virtual Hitler—in the genitals, I might not have arrived at this article, so the writer’s guilt-assuaging logic goes). I wonder how many people start making games or writing about them as a way to turn a hobby into a vocation, and make all that virtual toil pay. It can feel like a kind of dark alchemy, creating value from valueless tasks, cashing checks off the back of fictional deeds.

But maybe the guilt is misplaced for amateur players, too. Video games might be the latest step toward an automated future in which machines carry out the majority of humanity’s work (the robots that fell trees, the machines that turn the trees into furniture, the drones that deliver the furniture to the consumer’s door) and humans are content with virtual toil. Long after we stopped hiding in caves to escape the terrors of the night, a generation of children satisfy the primal urges of survival and creation in Minecraft.

As video game worlds continue to grow, a new problem looms. At some point the scale of these world exceeds the abilities of human designers to produce tasks for the player: the hidden trinkets, repetitive side missions, fetch and delivery errands, all the stuff on your expansive virtual to-do list. Some researchers argue that this kind of work could be more cheaply and efficiently designed by an algorithm than a human. If games like Minecraft, Spelunky and No Man’s Sky can pass responsibility for world creation over to algorithms, which automatically generate their hills, mountains, caves and spiders, could artificial intelligence not do the same for quests?

Enter the robot game designer. One of the most straightforward ways for an AI to dream up work for a video game player is through the use of a so-called Chinese menu, whereby the computer fills in a template designed by a human. “For example, the AI will randomly choose a character in the world such as the town mayor,” says Mark Riedl, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech who has built just such a program. “Then it randomly selects a problem such as ‘needs 10 wolf pelts.’ ” Finally, he explains, the AI will select a location in which the problem can be solved.

Riedl’s approach efficiently replicates the kind of quests seen in many video games and elegantly solves the problem of how to fill a world with things to do — even if those things aren’t particularly interesting.

It’s telling that an algorithm can so easily replicate the human-designed side missions we find in so many contemporary games. Not only is this school of game design wearying, it’s also simplistic. A few years ago, Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, even said this kind of design was unethical because it tricks players into believing that boring, repetitive tasks are worthwhile through the use of artificial rewards (virtual points and items), rather than natural rewards (the sort that come with learning or perfecting a skill).

“I do think there’s an ethical dimension,” says Michael Cook, a researcher at Imperial College London who has designed his own game-making A.I. These new robot designers, Cook says, “should value the player’s time in terms of not making them grind through endless monotony.” He adds: “After all, human designers have been doing that for a decade now. It’s time to move on.”

Maybe it is time to move on. Not from video games, these troubling, mesmerizing “cathedrals of fire,” as the writer Steven Poole put it, but from the medium’s narrow definition of achievement and the tedious, to-do list approach to game design it’s propagated.

Inventing an algorithmic game designer is important, perhaps even virtuous, if the machines can liberate human designers from some of the tedium of their work. Alas, the major game publishers are more likely to use these AI designers to create mere, and ever more, expanse.

It’s not too late to plot a different course. Nobody plays games to tick items off a to-do list, not really. We may engage in mindless drudgery in return for a virtual pat on the back, but in truth, we come in search of other, more enduring things. Sometimes I play to feel victorious, like I am in control, for a brief moment, of both the world and my destiny. At other times I play simply to enjoy the basic, toddler-like rush of throwing things around, driving the wrong way down a road, or shooting my commanding officer just to see how the game will deal with my gross insubordination.

I’ve enjoyed the honest thrill of learning to tap out complicated rhythms with my feet in Dance Dance Revolution, or how and when to hurl a fireball in Street Fighter. Video games have taught me about town planning in Sim City, about medieval strategy in Total War, about the different ways that time could work in Blow’s own Braid. At their best, games have provided me a sanctuary while grieving, or a way to parse the injustices of the world’s systems. They’ve taught me what it’s like to live on the poverty line in America in Cart Life, and have generated empathy for the men and women who must balance compassion and bureaucracy as border control agents in Papers, Please.

There are no points attached to these endeavors, and yet they are to my mind the most valuable of all. Maybe the robot designers will free us, rather than enslave us, by exposing the mundane filler with which so many current games have been fattened. They may challenge human designers to do something more creative than merely scattering virtual worlds with trinkets to scavenge and monotonous side missions to complete. In this way, just maybe, video games will bring us more lasting achievements.

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Thanks to Edwin Rios, Bobbie Johnson, and Lawrence Levi

Simon Parkin

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Writer and Journalist.



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