In the history of algorithm evolution, why do games play an important role?

“With the continuous advancement of early research on the history of computing, the role of games in digital innovation around the world has become increasingly prominent. Through games, many early developers have understood the black box in the physical sense of computers and ran through the first in their lives. algorithm.”

Opening the “black box” of the algorithm and presenting its mystery to the public is the ardent expectation of all sectors of society.

However, just like the previous article reviewing the history of intelligent algorithms, “What topics were discussed at the “Artificial Intelligence Conference half a century ago”? “It said: On the one hand, today’s principles already existed half a century ago; on the other hand, looking at today, the implementation of the principles is also unsatisfactory.

At present, it is still difficult to explain the algorithm.

We might as well look back at history again. Today’s algorithmic interpretation method is more one-dimensional “indoctrination”: constantly requesting disclosure and notification, and vainly competing for the user’s little attention. However, half a century ago, the “interpretation” faced by users who had just met computers and algorithms was more difficult but much more interesting. Through games, people begin to understand algorithms. Computers have also entered thousands of households.

Games are the best explanation for algorithms. This is not whimsical.

In this article, we try to review the development and current situation of algorithm interpretation; then, based on the recent results of many scholars, discuss the important role of games in the early global computing history; finally, explain the trust and good governance expected by algorithm interpretation , You can refer to the way of using the game.

Meaningful logic,
Still an interesting game?

The origins of algorithm interpretation are quite diverse. On the whole, as time goes by, the content gradually shrinks.

In 1995, the European Union’s “Digital Privacy Directive” was issued and earlier required users to be informed that “algorithms determine the’internal logic'”. Later, similar expressions were generally used: clear logic, meaningful logic, and then to partially or completely open source, or to disclose the variables or parameters of the algorithm, and so on.

But this command is assumed to be a one-dimensional transmission: for the application of the algorithm, the user just listens.

This is not difficult to understand: Since the algorithm is called a “black box” and requires special study, there are quite a few thresholds, and users are naturally at a disadvantage, and may even be under “algorithmic tyranny.” Therefore, algorithm users are required to carefully simplify and fully disclose to make up for differences in status.

Naturally, there are many doubts about this idea. For example, until today, the “reading number” of the privacy agreement clearly shows no signs of increase. The algorithm is probably not simpler than privacy, and similar solutions have little probability of breakthrough. A third party may be able to take on the important task of understanding the algorithm. But it only turns the problem of trust in algorithm users into a problem of trust in third parties.

The more important point is that when the word “algorithm” was still “young”, we didn’t understand algorithms that way.

The long-term development of human-computer interaction has buried a lot of history under “convenience”. Unlike today, half a century ago, graphical user interfaces were not yet popular. In the face of computers, people more or less have to master a little algorithm before they can start using it. In other words, facing the unfamiliar and realistic “black box”, users need to understand the “intrinsic logic” by themselves.

Until the emergence of the game, this situation has slightly changed. In the user’s early exploration of computers and algorithms, games are like a shadow. For example, when a cumbersome supercomputer was just delivered, games became a frontier topic for researchers; learning computers often started with writing small games; the initial computer education also took games as an important part.

Yes, the early dissemination of computers around the world has a lot of shadows of games. Games, let this machine called “computer” truly belong to the individual.

Personal computer:
“Except for games, nothing is useful”

In 1951, Cambridge University.

As soon as a supercomputer similar to “Egnac” arrived, the doctoral student Douglas selected human-computer interaction as the topic of his doctoral dissertation. The main body of the thesis is the “OX game” that is still often used to kill time today.

On a screen full of pixels, the man-machine alternately drops an “O” or “X” pattern in the “3*3” grid. First connect three of the same tricks into a straight line to win the game. This is also one of the earliest attempts to port classic games to computers.

“Egnac” supercomputer

Is it common to use games as the beginning of exposure to computers and learning algorithms? The progress of the two perspectives confirms this observation.

The first perspective is derived from Melanie Swalwell’s observation of early computer users: homemade games are the beginning of “daily digitality”.

Whether it’s the “quaint” machine code or the easier-to-use BASIC, Swalwell’s conclusions based on a large number of files and interviews point out that the use of computers usually begins with “learning simple programming, especially games.”

An early developer recalled this:

……You only need to boot up, basically you have to program. In fact, you can only do this. At that time, if you don’t know how to program, computers are useless. You can only do stupid, very basic things.

At that time, everyone bought and played games, but the most common thing was to write a game yourself. If you don’t do this, the computer is useless.

Of course, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a large number of programming teaching books on the European and American markets. Learning programming is still a process of “trial and error-based”: beginners copy or crack the code, try carefully, modify slightly, gradually expand, and finally Just form your own new program.Most of these programs are small games.

From the second perspective, games are also indispensable in computer and programming education, which is more purposeful than spontaneous exploration.

For example, at the Dartmouth campus in the 1960s, one of the earliest computer time-sharing systems was the embryonic form of today’s Internet. Joy Rankin (a research scholar at New York University and the “AI Now” Institute) quoted:

Dartmouth has become a school fanatical about computers…

What do students do with computers? Indeed, there are some trendy mathematics professors who use “writing a mathematical program” as the (perhaps annoying) assessment content of the course. However, the most common application is undoubtedly the game.

Brainstorm and brainstorm. Avid professors and students are both consumers and producers. Soon, starting from the transplantation of “scissors-rock-cloth”, chess and other chess, basketball, rugby and other ball sports, to attempts similar to the early “MUD” games, all swept the computing center. Various games have also become the main players in the campus “programming tournament”.

For computers that have just entered their personal lives, gaming is the “most fascinating” and “most urgent” demand. The leader of computing projects eagerly recognizes the importance of games to education:

Many of the most interesting and complex projects completed by students are games…

Human-computer interaction in the 1960s and 1970s also had high hopes for games. According to Matthew Wells (a postdoctoral researcher at Ryerson University and a lecturer at the University of Toronto) quoted on the history of Cold War games, people have already noticed that in an ideal interaction mode, individuals should have a deeper understanding of the “system with which they interact” Understand, or have stronger control. Here, if the system is refined into an algorithm, the contemporary eagerly expect it, that is, it will be directly involved half a century ago.

Swim to set the road. Still classified according to Wells: At that time, there were “rigid games”-the rules were fixed and complete, and users only needed to learn, instead of deep understanding of the game’s internal algorithms. The classic “Pac-Man” is a typical example; correspondingly, there are also “non-rigid games”: users are allowed and encouraged to view and modify the game’s source code (“MOD”). Many early MUDs adopted this model.

On this basis, Wells advocated:

Games that uphold the aforementioned spirit should become one of the cores of today’s programming education. Only in this way, the user can keep the already lost subjectivity in front of the black box.

Pac-Man game

Whether it is Swalwell, Rankins or Wells, most of their perspectives focus on developed countries in Europe and America. Nonetheless, there is an amazing agreement across the world in terms of “games opening the door to a new world.”

The case on the other side of the Iron Curtain may be the most relevant argument here.

According to Jaroslav Švelch’s in-depth study of former Czechoslovakia:

For those who have not been exposed to digital interactive media, they have a unique nostalgia for early computer games…

Here, the most vivid one is still the interview with the nostalgic:

One day, my dad’s friend called us and said,’Children, you have to come over.’ We drove over right away, and there was a ZX Specturm there…We played the five games that came with it…Colorful, moving, so unreal. We stayed there till midnight… The impression was so deep that I will never forget it.

ZX spectura

Once again, the local youth group organization at the time used games as the key to programming learning: “The organization pays close attention to hobbies in the computing field, including the use of digital integrated circuits to install machines, and the development of calculation programs and games on programmable calculators and microcomputers. Procedures…to guide the growth of the number of young technicians and contribute to the national economy and national defense security.”

As above, when the first people face the black box in the physical sense and “do not ask the east”, the game constitutes the “first impression” of the technology. With the continuous deepening of global computing history research, games are more like the “right way” towards new technologies. Therefore, we might as well end the world comparison that is still moving forward with a witty remark from one of the pioneers of the game industry:

Personal computers always claim that they can do everything, but in fact, they can’t do anything. With the red and white machines, we first admit that our computers can do nothing except to play games.

About the future:
Starts from the game, becomes the “good governance”

Games played a significant role in the spread of early “systems”, including the spread of computers, programming, and algorithms. So, today, when everyone wants to open the “black box” of algorithms, we might as well imagine: In the face of algorithms that are already “ubiquitous”, can games also play a role in explaining algorithms?

On the one hand, this is based on historical expectations; on the other hand, without the game, it may be difficult to explain fully.

Let me talk about expectations first. Still returning to Swalwell’s research on early programming: “Compared with today’s computing, programming on early microcomputers is much more difficult to grasp.”

However, it is the joy of playing and writing games that at least partly explains why computers “out of the circle” in the 1980s and why computer culture began to prevail outside the narrow circle of experts. In the face of much easier programming and algorithms, it is reasonable to expect games to become a bridge for ordinary users to understand algorithms.

Let’s talk about it fully. There is a proverb in the computer field: “Talk is cheap, show me the code.”

Without getting started, it is difficult to talk about understanding. Therefore, just let the general public rely on Rongchang’s cumbersome (algorithm) “policy” to understand the algorithm, the difficulty can be imagined. Whether it can form a “clear” or “meaningful” explanation in any sense is questionable.

Let us return to Wells’ discussion of interaction theory: What is user subjectivity? Why (especially “non-rigid”) games are so important to the user’s subjectivity?

The reason is: Early games allowed users to look at the source code, to MOD, and to expand. This “really puts users and developers on the same level.”[对系统的]On the control level”.

In other words, if we really care about user autonomy and take user autonomy as part of the vision for good, then for those “black boxes” that significantly affect the lives of individuals, bringing users and developers to a similar level should be more long-term. The goal. The trust established in this way is also the most reliable-no matter how much you tell, it is hard to compare with personal participation.

Therefore, games can not only become a form of landing and popularization of algorithm interpretation, but also a sign of algorithm interpretation vision. On this basis, starting from the explanation of the game boost algorithm, at least three levels can be conceived-

First of all, on the specific algorithm, on the algorithm explanation.For those algorithms that are common in life scenes, without compromising safety, using game ideas, users can roughly understand the key input of the algorithm and understand how the key input affects the output. For example, users can try tasks such as “parameter adjustment” of the corresponding model under highly simplified settings (a few insensitive variables, simple model settings, plus a gamified interface, etc.).

Secondly, starting from the game industry, we will provide necessary convenience for individuals who are willing to try game development.The first step here may be to pick up long-lasting memories: to feel the role of the game in opening up a new digital era, and not to repeat the cliche that all denounce the game. The update of the overall thinking will clear the way for the game to play the role of leading algorithm for good governance.

Finally, games can also play an important role in improving the digital literacy of the whole people.Inheriting the development since the 1960s, there are currently many fascinating game-style teaching for beginners. The future may be expected: corresponding games will become part of the standardized education system. With the improvement of national literacy, algorithmic interpretation will gradually deviate from one-way “indoctrination” and truly approach “ideal interaction”.

As above, this may be a necessary condition for fully trusting the algorithm.

Conclusion and outlook

With the continuous advancement of early research on the history of computing, the role of games in digital innovation around the world has become increasingly prominent. Through games, many early developers understood the “black box” in the physical sense of computers and ran through the first algorithm in their lives.

Today, in the face of the equally disturbing but implied future algorithmic “black box”, the game can play its role again. At the same time, the game contains the most adequate “explanation”, “independence” and “trust”. Here, whether it is the explanation of a specific algorithm, the development environment of the game, or the digital literacy of the society as a whole, you can expect something.image


Rankin, Joy Lisi. A people’s history of computing inthe United States. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Swalwell, Melanie. “The Early Micro User: Gameswriting, hardware hacking, and the will to mod.” Proceedings of DiGRANordic 2012 conference: local and global–games in culture and society. Tampere,Finland: DiGRA, 2012.

Swalwell, Melanie. “1980s Home coding: The art ofamateur programming.”
New Zealand Digital Arts New Media Reader (2008): 192-201.

Swalwell, Melanie. Homebrew gaming and the beginningsof vernacular digitality. MIT Press. forthcoming.

Švelch, Jaroslav. Gaming the ironcurtain: How teenagers and amateurs in communist Czechoslovakia claimed themedium of computer games. MIT Press, 2018.

Wells, Matthew Jason. Cold war games: operationalgaming and interactive programming in historical and contemporary contexts.Diss. 2017.

Author: Zhu, doctor of law at Washington University in St. Louis (JD) candidate
Source: Tengyun


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