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The 5 most intelligent video games and why you should play them
Some games are just for fun, others are for thought provoking statements on life, the universe, and everything.
- Video games are often dismissed as fun distractions, but some of them dive into deep issues.
- Through their interactive play elements, these games approach big issues intelligently and leave you both entertained and enlightened.
- These five games are certainly not the only games that cover these topics or do so well, but are a great starting point for somebody who wants to play something thought provoking.
Are video games art? Some people think so and make excellent arguments supporting their position. Others, such as the late great Roger Ebert, thought not and had equally well argued essays explaining why. While the debate is far from settled, video games have long dealt with big issues in brilliant ways rivaling any novel, film, or painting.
Here, we have five examples of games that intelligently deal with these concepts, how they treat their topics of choice, and why you should play them.
An actor dressed as east German border police officer mans a mock border checkpoint for guests attending a 'Socialist revival live cinema event' in Berlin.
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Explores: Immigration policy, individual choice, and totalitarianism
The concept of a fun game about paperwork shouldn't even be possible, yet Papers, Please works. It makes the enormous issues of immigration, national security, and collaboration with dictatorships accessible and fun. It was designed by Lucas Pope.
You play as a customs and immigration officer in a fictitious communist country tasked with reviewing the paperwork of would be immigrants, tourists, and the like. Your job is to make sure that all of their paperwork checks out and to alert the authorities if it doesn't. You do have the ability to let people in who otherwise would be detained, but is the woman claiming she just wants to see her husband again telling the truth or a carefully crafted lie? Is the old man with a misspelled name on his visa senile or a terrorist trying to sneak into the country?
You are paid for how many people you process correctly and can accept bribes from people who you let slide despite their incorrect paperwork. At the end of each day, the game makes you buy food, housing, and utilities for your family with the money you earned. If you frequently defy the authorities in the name of making a more moral choice or mess up too many times at your job, your family goes hungry or homeless.
The game also features a newspaper that shows you the results of your choices, showing how even a seemingly minor moral choice can have consequences that don't disappear with the end of the workday. The game manages to show how even when you know a system is unfair you might not be in any position to fix it or even rebel meaningfully.
It also manages to humanize the seemingly villainous character of a bureaucrat in a dictatorship, a feat few other works pull off.
The Stanley Parable
Explores: The nature of game design and the ability of games to explore big ideas.
This Indie game by Davey Wreden is a walking simulator that examines how difficult it is for game designers to give you meaningful options while also telling a coherent story. It also sends up other games that pose moral dilemmas by looking directly at the mechanics needed to do it well.
The game is a walking simulator that features a godlike narrator who comments on what option he wants you to take almost every time you are presented with a choice. You don't have to listen to him, however, and can choose to do something else. In one instance, you can select to go through a door on the right rather than on the left, forcing him to come up with a new story to account for your choices. Eventually, this route leads you to a room that was unfinished by the developers and he comments on how nobody thought you would ever choose to go into that particular room and there is nothing to do there.
While the game offers a ton of endings which can be influenced by your choices, in other instances, the narrator stresses the meaningfulness and importance of pointless actions you take or the gravity of illusionary choices. By doing so, the game highlights how every aspect of a game, even one with "choices" was pre-written or otherwise planned out even though you are lead to believe that you are in control while you play.
The game is also notable for making fun of how other games will nearly force you to take a particular set of actions and then shame you for making them in an attempt at having the illusion of moral choices. In this case by railroading you into trying to save a cardboard image of a baby for four hours and then berating you for failing or giving up.
It is also hilarious, and you ought to play it for the humor alone.
The Bioshock Series
Bioshock creators Greg Gobbi and Ken Levine pose with a "Big Daddy" from the first game of the series.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Explores: The practical elements of an ideological utopia and the concept of free will
No list like this can be complete without mentioning at least one of the Bioshock games. The spiritual successors to System Shock, the games explore the fantastic cities of Rapture and Columbia and what happens when utopian social philosophy meets reality.
The original Bioshock deconstructs the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and even named the villain after her. The city of Rapture is based on Rand's Utopian Galt's Gulch and shows what happens when you put a lot of greedy people in one place with limited resources. In this world of unchecked individualism, the game also finds time to ask questions about free will and personal autonomy that, when combined with the nature of the game, make for one of the more memorable twists in video game history.
Bioshock 2 is famously the unloved middle child of the series but is still quite fun to play. In contrast the first game, it explores collectivist extremism rather than individualist extremism. Like the first, it also has a multiple endings that can be unlocked by the morality of the player's choices.
Bioshock Infinite dives into the ideas of American exceptionalism, the steampunk genre, and the romantic image of left-wing revolutions. Ditching the underwater city of Rapture for the flying city of Columbia, the player is given a beautiful image of everything a certain kind of person living in 1910 could ever want society to be. It is only over time, as the player explores the world, that the disturbing elements that keep the society up are exposed. Like its predecessors, it also dives into the question of free will but does it by asking both grand questions about metaphysics and practical questions of if it even matters that we have it.
Explores: The moral choices in a Nuclear war
Sometimes the simplest things in the world are the most meaningful. Missile Command is a 1980 arcade game published by Atari, and it was designed to be as meaningful as possible for a game that came out on 8-bit.
The game is simple; you play the commander of three missile bases who has to defend six cities from nuclear attack. You have a limited number of rockets to shoot down countless incoming missiles which can hit your cities or rocket sites. You lose when all your cities are destroyed. Despite the simplicity of the design, missile command explores issues of nuclear war better than many other games through its mechanics alone.
The issues that started the war are deemed irrelevant, as are what specific cities you're defending. All you know is that you have to protect these cities from the onslaught. However, over the course of a long game, you will be forced to decide which cities will be saved and who will be allowed to die in order to conserve ammunition. The choice between saving your missile bases and saving the citizens of the cities eventually comes up, as losing a base also has consequences. Who should live, who will die? The game makes you choose again and again.
Most brilliantly, like most 80's arcade games, you can't win; the just game gets harder, and you keep going until you lose. The game also, famously, doesn't have a game over screen. It has only the words "The End" ominously shown after your cities are obliterated.The game's designer, Dave Theurer admitted that making the game gave him nightmares of dying in a nuclear war. When's the last time you heard of an eight-bit game doing that?
Queen Victoria, after whom the game is named, as she appeared after 60 years of rule.
Public Domain, photograph by W&D Downey and available on Wikicommons
A 4-X game by Paradox interactive which could use a sequel, it has a legion of dedicated fans and brilliant mechanics for examining how the idea of progress might not have been all it was cracked up to be.
To start, you select a country that existed in 1836 and guide it to 1936. Points are earned for having prestige, industry, and a large army and lost for losing face in diplomacy, falling behind economically, and disarmament. The game also features detailed explanations of social and scientific advances that pop up as your country makes them.
As the game goes on your country grows, your scientists discover amazing new things and put them to use, and your diplomats use the balance of power system to keep crises from spinning out of control. You have to take sides during crises to keep the peace, join the scramble for Africa in order to not fall behind your rivals, and manage social issues in your country brought on by the rapid changes needed to modernize and raise your score.
This continues until, inevitably, everything goes to hell. The balance of power fails and a world war or three breaks out. The advances in science you made all game gives you weapons that allow you to kill millions and an industrial base that keeps wars going for years. The happy, optimistic explanations of all the advances your scientists made slowly decay into confessions that the new advances now mean the world makes less sense than before. Fascist and communist dictatorships crop up all over the globe as liberal democracy fails to solve the problems dominating the world it used to oversee.
It leaves you asking if any progress was made over the one hundred years of game play, or if it was even possible to make any.
- Win a luxury arcade gaming system by donating to charity - Big Think ›
- Win a luxury arcade gaming system by donating to charity - Big Think ›
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
- The history of AI shows boom periods (AI summers) followed by busts (AI winters).
- The cyclical nature of AI funding is due to hype and promises not fulfilling expectations.
- This time, we might enter something resembling an AI autumn rather than an AI winter, but fundamental questions remain if true AI is even possible.
The dream of building a machine that can think like a human stretches back to the origins of electronic computers. But ever since research into artificial intelligence (AI) began in earnest after World War II, the field has gone through a series of boom and bust cycles called "AI summers" and "AI winters."
Each cycle begins with optimistic claims that a fully, generally intelligent machine is just a decade or so away. Funding pours in and progress seems swift. Then, a decade or so later, progress stalls and funding dries up. Over the last ten years, we've clearly been in an AI summer as vast improvements in computing power and new techniques like deep learning have led to remarkable advances. But now, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, some who follow AI feel the cold winds at their back leading them to ask, "Is Winter Coming?" If so, what went wrong this time?
How to build an A.I. brain that can conceive of itself | Joscha Bach | Big Think www.youtube.com
A brief history of AI
To see if the winds of winter are really coming for AI, it is useful to look at the field's history. The first real summer can be pegged to 1956 and the famous Dartmouth University Workshop where one of the field's pioneers, John McCarthy, coined the term "artificial intelligence." The conference was attended by scientists like Marvin Minsky and H. A. Simon, whose names would go on to become synonymous with the field. For those researchers, the task ahead was clear: capture the processes of human reasoning through the manipulation of symbolic systems (i.e., computer programs).
Unless we are talking about very specific tasks, any 6-year-old is infinitely more flexible and general in his or her intelligence than the "smartest" Amazon robot.
Throughout the 1960s, progress seemed to come swiftly as researchers developed computer systems that could play chess, deduce mathematical theorems, and even engage in simple discussions with a person. Government funding flowed generously. Optimism was so high that, in 1970, Minsky famously proclaimed, "In three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of a human being."
By the mid 1970s, however, it was clear that Minsky's optimism was unwarranted. Progress stalled as many of the innovations of the previous decade proved too narrow in their applicability, seeming more like toys than steps toward a general version of artificial intelligence. Funding dried up so completely that researchers soon took pains not to refer to their work as AI, as the term carried a stink that killed proposals.
The cycle repeated itself in the 1980s with the rise of expert systems and the renewed interest in what we now call neural networks (i.e., programs based on connectivity architectures that mimic neurons in the brain). Once again, there was wild optimism and big increases in funding. What was novel in this cycle was the addition of significant private funding as more companies began to rely on computers as essential components of their business. But, once again, the big promises were never realized, and funding dried up again.
AI: Hype vs. reality
The AI summer we're currently experiencing began sometime in the first decade of the new millennium. Vast increases in both computing speed and storage ushered in the era of deep learning and big data. Deep learning methods use stacked layers of neural networks that pass information to each other to solve complex problems like facial recognition. Big data provides these systems with vast oceans of examples (like images of faces) to train on. The applications of this progress are all around us: Google Maps give you near-perfect directions; you can talk with Siri anytime you want; IBM's Deep Think computer beat Jeopardy's greatest human champions.
In response, the hype rose again. True AI, we were told, must be just around the corner. In 2015, for example, The Guardian reported that self-driving cars, the killer app of modern AI, was close at hand. Readers were told, "By 2020 you will become a permanent backseat driver." And just two years ago, Elon Musk claimed that by 2020 "we'd have over a million cars with full self-driving software."
The general intelligence — i.e., the understanding — we humans exhibit may be inseparable from our experiencing. If that's true, then our physical embodiment, enmeshed in a context-rich world, may be difficult if not impossible to capture in symbolic processing systems.
By now, it's obvious that a world of fully self-driving cars is still years away. Likewise, in spite of the remarkable progress we've made in machine learning, we're still far from creating systems that possess general intelligence. The emphasis is on the term general because that's what AI really has been promising all these years: a machine that's flexible in dealing with any situation as it comes up. Instead, what researchers have found is that, despite all their remarkable progress, the systems they've built remain brittle, which is a technical term meaning "they do very wrong things when given unexpected inputs." Try asking Siri to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." You won't like the results.
Unless we are talking about very specific tasks, any 6-year-old is infinitely more flexible and general in his or her intelligence than the "smartest" Amazon robot.
Even more important is the sense that, as remarkable as they are, none of the systems we've built understand anything about what they are doing. As philosopher Alva Noe said of Deep Think's famous Jeopardy! victory, "Watson answered no questions. It participated in no competition. It didn't do anything. All the doing was on our side. We played Jeapordy! with Watson." Considering this fact, some researchers claim that the general intelligence — i.e., the understanding — we humans exhibit may be inseparable from our experiencing. If that's true, then our physical embodiment, enmeshed in a context-rich world, may be difficult if not impossible to capture in symbolic processing systems.
Not the (AI) winter of our discontent
Thus, talk a of a new AI winter is popping up again. Given the importance of deep learning and big data in technology, it's hard to imagine funding for these domains drying up any time soon. What we may be seeing, however, is a kind of AI autumn when researchers wisely recalibrate their expectations and perhaps rethink their perspectives.
A new study explores how investors' behavior is affected by participating in online communities, like Reddit's WallStreetBets.
- The study found evidence that "hype" over assets is psychologically contagious among investors in online communities.
- This hype is self-perpetuating: A small group of investors hypes an asset, bringing in new investors, until growth becomes unsteady and a price crash ensues.
- The researchers suggested that these new kinds of self-organized, social media-driven investment behaviors are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Social media has reshaped human behavior in ways we're only starting to understand. The proliferation of online communities has helped spawn novel strategies for promoting political causes, conducting business, finding sex and love, and transforming culture.
Could online communities also transform behavior in the financial world?
That's one of the key questions explored in a new study published on the preprint server arXiv. Titled "Reddit's self-organised bull runs: Social contagion and asset prices," the study used discussion data from the subreddit WallStreetBets to analyze relationships between the price of stocks and "hype" among online retail investors.
Hype is nothing new in the investing world. But the researchers noted that there seems to be something novel about the short squeeze of GameStop's stock in January, when the price of the stock rose tenfold, thanks largely to self-organized retail investors from WallStreetBets.
"As academics and regulators alike grapple with the implications, many wonder whether large-scale coordination among retail investors is the new 'modus operandi,' or a one-off fluke," the researchers wrote. "We argue that this is a new manifestation of a well-established global phenomenon."
To better understand how online hype is associated with stock prices, the researchers focused on two social components of hype: contagion and consensus. Contagion refers to investors spreading interest in an asset among each other, while consensus refers to their ability to agree on whether to buy or sell an asset.
The analysis found empirical evidence that both contagion and consensus emerge in online communities like WallStreetBets. In other words, investors spread sentiments about future stock performance to other investors, and then they cohere around investment strategies.
Popularity over fundamentals
The findings suggest that an asset's popularity, not its fundamentals, is paramount to many investors.
"Our results consistently show that investors become interested in discussing an asset, not because of fundamentals, but because other users discuss it," the researchers wrote. "Subsequently, this paper tests whether an individual's sentiment about future asset performance [is] affected by those of others. We find that this is the case: people look to their peers to form an opinion about an asset's potential."
To find evidence for social contagion among online investors, the researchers compiled a large dataset of posts and comments submitted to WallStreetBets. The goal was to analyze whether investors' past comments or posts about a given stock, such as Tesla, had a predictable effect on future discussions of that asset within WallStreetBets.
After conducting a regression analysis, the results suggest that hype is socially contagious and cyclical. The cycle usually plays out like this: A small group of investors hypes an asset. This attracts a larger group of investors who join the discussions.
But eventually, too many investors have joined the discussion, and fewer new investors are buying into the hype. As investors lose interest, they spend less time discussing (or "spreading") the asset on the forum, and they turn to new opportunities. The process is similar to a virus: As enough people become infected, they reach herd immunity, and the virus (hype) dies out.
So, does this process affect the stock price, and if so, how? The researchers said it was difficult to establish causality between hype and actual market activity. After all, they didn't have access to the trading records of subscribers to WallStreetBets.
But their model did show that activity on WallStreetBets was able to explain "significant variance" in trading volumes for the most-discussed assets on the forum. This suggests that when social contagion is strong for a given asset, consensus is strong too.
On the stock chart, consensus may start off bullish (or positively): As hype spreads, there's a slow, steady run-up in price. But the growth eventually becomes unstable and is followed by a crash and a period of volatility.
"The price crash stems from panic selling, as investors turn nervous in the face of volatility," the researchers wrote.
Bad news spreads faster than good news
Interestingly, the analysis found that bearish (or negative) sentiments were significantly more contagious on WallStreetBets.
"The data demonstrates that authors who previously commented on a bearish post are 47.7% more likely to express bearish over neutral sentiments, and 18.1% less likely to express bullish sentiments over neutral sentiments. Similarly, but less markedly, authors who previously commented on at least one bullish submission are 9.4% more likely to write a bullish submission, yet 11.3% less likely to write a bearish one."
The researchers said that the changing investing climate and widely available online data offers "promising opportunities for future research."
"As social media galvanizes a larger pool of retail investors with the potential for exciting stock market gambles, it is crucial to understand how social dynamics can impact asset prices," the researchers wrote. "With the first publicly acclaimed victory of Main Street over Wall Street, in the form of the GameStop short squeeze, it is unlikely that socially-driven asset volatility will simply disappear."
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.