Saturday, September 17, 2005


Back in the old days, when mankind lived in the world and not merely on it, the peoples would throw the bones of birds and animals into the air and ask the unknowable.

Had we been there at that distant moment in our white lab coats, we might have tried to pull a joke on those funny little men. Earlier that day one particularly light-fingered technician might have borrowed the bones, weighed them, determined their centers of gravity, and performed a few quick aerodynamics tests in the miniature wind tunnel hidden in the bushes; meanwhile one of the better-looking lady scientists might have distracted the augurer by egging him on to undertake a few informal strength tests. Hathur, you're a mighty one, aren't you? Can you lift this rock? I see! Well, can you lift this very slightly heavier rock? Fascinating! While all this is going on, a ring of temperature gauges and anemometers are erected around the village like a thin wire Stonehenge, though not so many so as to hinder the natural airflow to the valley (we don't want to actually cheat, you understand).

Then, just at the moment of release, BANG! The strobing cameras placed at strategic angles calculate the velocity, trajectory, and x-, y- and z-axis spin, and everything goes straight into the computer (cleverly disguised as a goat so as not to attract too much attention, patch cables running in under the beard and monitor and tiny keyboard under the tail). The modeling program kicks into high gear: processing, processing, there! We call the throw just before it lands. Now, we can't predict to the tribe whether the trembling little boy fighting back the tears there before us will be village chief or village idiot, but we did at least predict how the bones would fall, and that's the important thing.

Except...well, we got it wrong. It's a somewhat more complex system than we thought, really. There was that gust of wind, you see, and that one techie sneezed right in the middle of it all, and wouldn't you know it but Hathur decided to show off at the last minute with that little flick of the wrist, one of those typical medicine-man grace notes that always plays so well in the sticks.

Bummer! But not surprising. It's all a bit reminiscent of Benoit Mandelbrot and his fractals, the basic idea being that these multidimensional, self-referential, feedbacky systems are a bitch to figure out. As Benny says, even something as relatively straightforward as measurement can be tricky to get a handle on in the real world. Suppose you wanted to know the length of the perimeter of Long Island; certainly you could gauge it from the twenty-mile view and get a rough idea, but what about all those little nooks and crannies? The inlets? The promontories? That big ugly rock just south of Patchogue? If you really wanted to do it right you would get down on your hands and knees and go along the edge with a yardstick, measuring every curve and bend, but then all of the sudden the length of the perimeter is twice what you thought it was, and that's only just a rough estimate, because within each thirty-six inches of shoreline there are twists and bends of an ever dinkier nature adding flagrantly unmeasured centimeters to the real total. Two months later you're somewhere deep in the Hamptons staring at a bit of high-class mud with an electron microscope and just a moment before Steven Spielberg releases the hounds you've decided that the true length of the perimeter of Long Island is either infinite or—thanks to all the erosion and tidewrack and general disinclination of atoms to stay in any one place for too long a time—unknowable.

I see some of you scientists are bouncing up and down in your seats and holding up your hands, and yes, I'm getting to that. Some random and/or complex things are knowable, maybe not on a real-world basis, but mathematically. If you take those marked bones of the shaman and made them all regular-like—let's say a cube for simplicity's sake—and then numbered the faces one to six, you could predict generally—over the very long haul—how often any particular number will come up. You would never know what those cubic bones were going to do on any one throw, but you would be able to say that if you rolled three of them together, perhaps while asking the gods how charismatic the son of the chief would grow up to be, there would be a 0.463% chance of rolling a total of 18, which translates to roughly George Washington-level charisma (for reference, figure that a 14 is John Stamos-level charisma and a 6 Pauly Shore-level charisma). In other words, in a hundred thousand throws (well, we don't want to lose them, so let's just roll them instead), you could expect to end up with three "sixes" somewhere in the vicinity of four hundred and sixty-three times.

Now, as you can see, the journey from the dawn of man to Long Island to our own Modern Times is a long and tortuous one, but here we are, thank God, and now before us is the final goal, the highest peak of cultural evolution, in other words that particular brand of homo sapiens who we shall call homo gamer—a creature as hunched, hairy and smelly as his ancestors, but better educated, and kind of a smart-ass to boot. What is this creature's philosophy as it relates to bone rolling?

What homo gamer will tell you about the little numbered cubes is that they are very, very stupid. Why? Simple: because they're supposed to do something and they never do it. If, for example, one had the requisite savvy and foresight to secure property abutting a region that produced an important resource on a sum of 8 on a 2d6, that person could expect to be a wealthy man over the long haul of a game, earning that resource on roughly one out of every seven rolls; and yet, wouldn't you know it, turn after turn people are rolling every other number you can think of, some numbers you might even have forgotten about, but not one stupid 8. Or how about this: you're in a battle with the enemy and he needs to roll a whopping five sixes on seven dice to make you retreat out of Patchogue once and for all. The very idea is laughable, but what happens? The swine does it. Now you have to spend the winter in Bellport like a chump, and it's all the dice's fault.

Beyond even that, there's the question of whether random elements belong in games at all. How can you prove that you're the smartest player if you can't predict everything that's going to happen?

So anyway, now that we've had our fun reducing everything to meaninglessness—now that the shaman's bones have lost all their marrow—the only thing left is to ask if there is at least remaining to us in the little plastic cubes a metaphor for something larger.

I think there is.

My theory is that, at their best, games present a microcosm of life, or at least some small part of life. Even a game as dull and pointless as "war" simulates a real-life concept, which is that of a winner and a loser; nothing is really won or lost, neither player has actually advanced his position in the workaday world, but the two participants are playing at being winner or loser in the way that a child might play at being a jet pilot or a fairy princess. Nowadays of course the concept of winning or losing at a game is second nature, but imagine a hypothetical moment at some distant point in our cultural evolution when there was no playing but only reality: Neanderthal Adam and Neanderthal Eve grab at the last apple on the tree in the same instant, and Eve is just a hair quicker than the Adam, and Adam goes hungry. Winner and loser. Minutes later Adam and some smooth-talking Cro-Magnon he thought was his best friend both grab at Eve, and now we get to see just how quick Eve really is.

Time goes on, civilization progresses, and soon it's not an apple that's at stake but a whole frigging orchard. Who can take the pressure? How does one even cope with such a devastating event as the loss of apple trees? It's a bitter pill to swallow, and so the little human cubs seeing all this heartache and strife and skirt-chasing going on amongst their elders figure they'd better get a little practice in before things start getting serious with a capital S. And so they still do today: anyone who's ever played a game with wee ones will tell you that there's a certain shock that takes place the first time a child loses a game that he very much wanted to win. The concept takes some getting used to, for sure, and sometimes there is crying, and sometimes the pieces get thrown across the room, and sometimes your wife will tell you that chess is no game to be playing with a three-year-old, but in the end the little monster learns how to deal with it and everyone's happy, more or less. Twenty years later when sweet & lovely Yvette says she just likes him "as a friend," our little exercise will have hopefully granted him the maturity to not burst into tears and drop-kick her purse.

Now, dice simulate something about life as well, but it's something just a little bit deeper than simple winning and losing. One can discover in dice rolls a certain atavistic truth, a residual, instinctual species-concept which, though deeply buried, stills ring like a bell when struck hard enough, as mythological-real as true love and free lunch. The idea is that of luck as a Thing in the World, a substance that ebbs and flows, a viscid fluid that pools and drains, a mystic visitor that inexplicably comes to stay and then disappears in a puff of purple smoke. Deeper, more to the point, it is a metaphor for being anointed, being favored by the gods, to be the Golden One of the cosmos itself.

Even well-educated and crusty gamers can fall under the spell of dice in spite of themselves, and it is a wonder to watch. Haven't you seen them become crestfallen with self-loathing, with each roll just knowing that things will turn out badly, that they are the least loved of God's creations? Poor Caliban! Conversely, when things go their way they will puff up, beam from the inside, become one with the eternal Tao, and know that finally and at last has been confirmed the secret suspicion forever held deep in their hearts that they deserve to win because they are themselves. Soon other archetypal roles weave their way into the net; Underdog and Icarus swoop up and down in a dance, corkscrewing across the sky in a long, graceful double helix. What goes around comes around, and in some rare and bizarre circumstances there will be hallucinations of Karma. In patchoulied college moments I used to play Cosmic Wimpout with a certain group of chums, and it came to be understood that one did not say anything negative when another was about to roll, as such a rash and careless action shattering the harmony like shit hitting a cymbal would only rebound on one's self with double force in the form of crummy, crummy rolls. It was never spoken, this rule, but it was known, and often one would find one's self clacking one's teeth shut in mid-sentence when the dice were about to hit the table.

Those with a more agnostic outlook can still find some resident awe in the rolls of dice even without this hippie dream of a ruling goddess. After all, is there no mystery in the law of averages, the fundamental paradox between pattern and unpredictability? Is it not strange to know that these cubes that clatter crazily this direction and that are in the long run secretly turning with the stolid precision of clockwork, each side facing out in its turn with implacable duty? Or, looking at it from a yet another aspect, is it not the very concept of randomness in this world of law strange, and what if it is somehow necessary, the grimy oil that keeps the entire mechanism moving on its course? Either one of these trains of thought ought to be good for at least a second's pause, depending on whether you view the world as primarily orderly or primarily chaotic.

So now take a pair of dice in your hand, and imagine—just pretend—that for one moment your entire life would lay decided in a single roll, that somehow, by some strange conjugation of forces, this one outcome would dictate your entire fate with no dream of appeal or reprieve. Hooded, red-doubleted guards stand over you holding battle axe and chain, and behind them the icy judge with the tangled white hair, the worn creases in the hollows of his face and the iron gimlet eyes watches in silence. Crouch down on the stony, rat-crossed floor of the donjon, let fear grip your stomach, and roll, and then see if in that play of make-believe you can scratch the paint off a corner of reality and catch one tiny glimpse of the unknowable.


Coldfoot said...

Interesting as well as entertaining.

Now excuse me while I roll a couple bones to see what we're having for supper.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Great post, Joe.

Joe Gola said...

Thanks, everyone.

Between Grog's formatting ADHD, Yehuda's split-personality fiction and my corkscrew writing we're gonna have the hardest-to-read blog in existence. Yeah! Get psyched!