Turing Machines, Determinism, and Games

by Darius Kazemi on April 19, 2005

in Uncategorized

The most obvious technological prerequisite for video games is the existence of computer technology; that is, a machine able to perform a deterministic simulation. While video games may contain an element of randomness, they are almost all deterministic simulations of one sort or another. Before the advent of the computer, creating a simulation game anything like a modern video game would have been next to impossible[1]. This is not to say such feats have never been done; one telling example is Ace of Aces, a three-dimensional simulation of a World War I dogfight, which takes place entirely between two players in small handbooks. Each page of the book is a screen representing a three-dimensional view from the player’s cockpit. The game plays out like a massively complex branching story: if the player turns left, she flips the book to page 185. To turn right, flip to page 33. Each page updates what the player sees.

And yet while this game is a flight simulator that does not use a computer, it is of critical importance to note that the game was developed in 1980, well after the advent of the computer. The game borrows critical concepts from the computer, without which it could not exist. Not only does the action take place on a paper ‘screen,’ but the game uses “a complex formal system to represent the speed, maneuverability, visibility, weapons fire, and other aspects of two-plane air combat” (Salen 425). The type of formal system used to create the simulation of this game is a finite state machine, devised in 1936 by Alan Turing, whose idea gave birth to the modern field of computer science. Ace of Aces takes place entirely within a book: in terms of physical materials, the game certainly could have existed before the development of the computer. Yet the concepts it uses are so bound to the abstract concepts that govern the computer, and there is no way that this game would have existed before World War II, when the use of formal systems to model aviation was pioneered. What the example of Ace of Aces shows is that the idea of a simulation game, and therefore the basic structure of the video game, is inextricably bound to computer technology.

[1] Hunting, when taken as a ‘sport,’ is of course remarkably similar to modern first-person shooter video games. But it is important to remember that hunting is not a simulation; it is the real thing. The video game is what simulates the act of hunting.

Works Cited

Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.


Jeremiah Chaplin April 19, 2005 at 11:00 pm

One of the most interesting aspects about simulating any kind of activity is working around the limitations of the fact that the player is not actually undergoing that activity. How do you simulate the act of stalking prey, building an empire, or executing complicated flight manuevers? This kind of abstract thought is the basis of the game and what I believe is called the aesthic of the game (from the Aesthic/Mechanic/Dynamic definition). This leads to all kinds of interesting choices in terms of mechanics or dynamics that properly express the aesthics of the experience you are trying to convey. Darius, I believe you were the one who really looked into this topic, I think you could better clarify what I’m trying to say, assuming I’m not completely off my rocker.

Craig Perko April 20, 2005 at 5:21 pm

No, you pretty much said it right. Aesthetic also includes some of the emotional impact of the situation, though – not just the audiovisual representation.

Darius Kazemi April 20, 2005 at 7:02 pm

Actually, aesthetic encompasses all of the emotional impact of the situation–or at least all the designed emotional impact (since if it’s not designed, it’s not MDA).

Craig Perko April 20, 2005 at 8:27 pm

Yes, I was including undesigned emotional impact.

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