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On Randomness: Games and The Universe

I have another edition of my column out over at GameSetWatch (the title of the column, “Gambrian Explosion”, being a terrible pun based on Will Wright’s assertion of games as undergoing its own Cambrian Explosion of sorts.) This time, in a piece entitled “Games, Randomness, and The Problem With Being Human”, it’s a set of musings about randomness: our perception of it (spoiler: we think about it incorrectly), and the way in which games may exploit and/or educate us using randomness. Thanks very much to Martin Hollis and Luke Dicken for their thoughts and input on the topic.

At GSW: Gambrian Explosion: Games, Randomness, and The Problem With Being Human.


I took this picture of some of my dice collection myself for the piece! I'm really enjoying getting into photography as of late. In fact, you can see the rest of my noob photography on my Flickr (also viewable on this blog's sidebar.)

Since writing the piece I feel like I’ve been followed around by articles/other facts about our brains and randomness. That very fact is an interesting result of my pattern-seeking brain, of course, but regardless, I thought it might be nice to offload some of my additional recent fascination with stochasticity (the fancy word for randomness) here.

There’s an interesting set of articles on randomness in a recent issue of BBC Focus Magazine. One such article on the mathematical constant Pi and randomness was particularly fascinating; the way in which, when we look into randomness, there are all sorts of interesting connections with Pi. For instance, when dropping a needle onto a wooden floor, the chances that the needle will bridge the gaps between the floorboards depends on Pi.

The relative positions of stars in the night sky, even, was shown by Italian mathematician Ernesto Cesaro to lead to a value of Pi of 3.12772 – within 0.5 per cent of the true value.

Stars - whose relative position is related to Pi, apparently! Unlike the first photo, I didn't take this one, alas, but I wish I did! This was by the wonderful George Kokoris.

One of the additional interesting quirks of randomness is the way in which it causes clustering. While I talk about this a bit in the Gambrian Explosion piece, it has potentially significant wider-ranging effects too, as this (admittedly grim) example shows:

“Imagine a city that has an average of 12 murders a year, an average of one murder a month. If there’s a spate of three murders in a month – triple the expected rate – it would be easy to believe there’s a serial murderer about. Yet the laws of randomness show that such clustering is very likely. In fact, one should expect a rate of just one murder a month to occur only every 19,000 years. The clustering of random events is behind a whole host of scare stories, from spates of mysterious suicides, to claims of ‘cancer hotspots’. ”

Quite simply, our brain loves to seek out patterns, and additionally, seek out reasons for there being patterns. No doubt this exists for some evolutionary purpose, because we learned to recognise patterns which may lead to danger, or to food. However, our very human tendency to see patterns in randomness where there simply are none (and overdoing it) is known as apophenia. As I discuss in Gambrian Explosion, this sort of thing leads to a mistrust of actual randomness, but also, for instance, leads us to seeing pictures of Jesus in toast:

Jesus in toast? Yeah, I definitely did not take this one. Incidentally, though, I am working on a side-project connected to this sort of thing. No, not Jesus. Or toast, for that matter.

Overall, I find randomness absolutely fascinating, and a wonderful reminder of how unmagically magical are the actual workings of the universe. So too our are beautifully fallible human brains. It is awesome too, to imagine how video games might harness this, and seek to help us better understand ourselves, and the universe. One more link? Here we go.

2 responses to “On Randomness: Games and The Universe”

  1. Neil Dansey says:

    Regarding the Apophenia theme, here are some links discussing its potential implications on pervasive games design:

    (Be gentle, as the first link was pretty much my first stab at a short paper!)

    The problem I found was that according to my understanding of the definition of apophenia, one must notice a connection unmotivated. For example, if I say ‘look at this piece of toast with Jesus on it!’ everyone will see it, but (in my opinion) the fact they were prompted means they have not *really* expericened apophenia. If you are not allowed to prompt players to perceive things in a certain way, how can you control the apophenia in games? Even if you add non-essential apophenic content into your game without prompting, I think it is still too contrived (i.e. you have added an expectation that they should be interpreting the game content in a certain way). Also, what if they fail to see it? This means that you cannot have critical-path apophenia in your game.

    This is why I moved onto ambiguity for my research, and don’t even get me started on the problems with that ;)


    • Mitu says:

      Yes, in the interview I recorded with Martin Hollis to go along with the GSW piece (which I’ll be turning into a podcast soon), we discussed the same thing – only with regards to ‘serendipity’ instead of apophenia (which I guess, are very related concepts); at least, one could regard experiencing apophenia as a serendipitous event.

      Anyway, yes, we touched upon the same point you’re aptly making: If you want a player to have feelings of ‘Wow, I stumbled upon this happy accident’, then of course it needs to feel like a non-authored sort of experience. So, yes, critical path apophenia/serendipity almost begins to seem contradictory, I agree – or, at the very least, is a very difficult problem to crack.

      So yes, being such, perhaps serendipitous feelings are confined only to procedurally generated – or otherwise emergent – sorts of games; but even then, I wonder if there is more we can do to harness/encourage these sorts of experiences without, as you say, making the experience seem contrived.

      Thanks for the comment!

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