Computing in virtual worlds
I’ve mentioned Dwarf Fortress here before, and will have occasion to do so at much greater length in the future, if only in pursuit of balance; there exists a faction represented by such people as Roger Ebert who believe that one may refer to one’s self as cultured while knowing almost nothing about the state of gaming despite the fact that of all mediums, it is gaming and only gaming that has evolved in such a way as to not only keep pace with but also to take advantage of the technologies for which our current age has rightfully been named. Meanwhile, the fact that those of us who were born in the Reagan era are the first Americans whose iconography and cultural thematics stem in large part from outside this nation’s own cultural origins, and specifically from those of Japan, does not seem to have warranted much interest from those institutions that are supposed to be looking into such things, and would if they did not involve something so allegedly unserious as the game.
Minecraft is a sort of spiritual nephew of Dwarf Fortress in which the player finds himself on a procedurally-generated island and, just as in real life, must decide for himself how to spend his time. Invariably one begins by punching trees in order to knock them down for wood, which reminds me that when I was in high school, the landlord of the duplex in which I lived with my mom had put his drug-addled 30-something son in the garage apartment out back, and one day this fellow demonstrated to me the abilities conferred by practice upon such people as him who had trained in some particular form of martial arts, and he demonstrated all of this by punching a tree. He was honestly surprised when his knuckles began to bleed. At any rate, the player must punch these trees to get wood in order to make a pick with which to gather minerals or create shelter or what have you, and as one builds new tools one’s sphere of potential action increases until one is in the position to pursue grander goals.
In one extreme case, a fellow who was home sick for a few days decided to build a working CPU by way of a series of torches connected by a particular sort of metal that conducts electricity. A few weeks back, he unveiled the finished product to his fellow Dwarf Fortress/Minecraft enthusiasts:
Soon afterwards, our virtual pioneer demonstrated his CPU in action and announced that a particular language could be used to provide additional functionality:
Aside from being universally and objectively neat, such creations as this, along with the sandbox games that make them possible, serve the purpose of teaching those of us who are unfamiliar with the basics of computing a bit more about a technology that remains relevant not simply because of computing’s dramatic and unpredicted rush to ubiquity, but because of the manner in which computing is in many ways the perfected version of our own imperfect thought process. For instance, what if publishers engaged in a sort of heuristic such as this:
IF pundit has been hilariously wrong
AND IF accuracy of pundit’s predictions < predictions of the American people in general
THEN don’t hire him to write a column for The New York Times or Time, even if his dad was Irving Kristol
… but there I go again, engaging in techno-utopianism.
Later, we’ll look at similar developments within the context of Dwarf Fortress, which provides for a much more robust system for the building of computing systems – including an ingenious implementation of Conway’s Game of Life.