Symbols are vessels of meaning. Nature produces some few intentional symbols – like flowers that attract bees with certain colours or shapes, or the vivid cautionary hues of poisonous frogs. But only humans can learn and create symbols arbitrarily, and in fact need to do so. Mankind produces and utilises a volume of symbols that vastly exceeds that of nature.
A little while ago I read Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?”, and found it quite compelling. I had read a few reviews beforehand, which were critical of the religious element, and this lowered my expectations somewhat. However, upon reading it, I found that Tolstoy’s conception of religion is very different to most, and is compatible with a materialist and determinist worldview. It seems to me that perhaps the real reason some people did not respond positively to this essay was its uncompromising moral consistency, which could perhaps be mistaken for religious zealotry.
In my previous article “Systemic Information in Games”, I put forward the idea that the key feature of games is that they are systems and that they therefore provide opportunities for systemic learning. Systemic learning refers to the acquisition of information about a system, and the use of this information in creating mental models with predictive power, upon which we can base decisions. Our decisions within a game are simply predictions about which actions are most likely to lead to victory. This is true regardless of our level of certainty and the method we have used to arrive at that decision. All non-random systems are perfectly predictable in theory, but the properties of a given system will affect how predictable it is in practice and which kinds of methods are best suited to predicting it.
Our goal as players is to understand a game so well that it ceases to be fun or surprising. The goal of the game is to resist our thoughts in such a way that this does not happen, while also not being completely incomprehensible.
Surprise comes from that which we did not predict, the perfect player has no such lapses in predictive power. The player seeks ever more predictive power, he builds ever more nuanced models of the game in his mind and refines them through his experience.
There are two conflicting views of the world, one that I will call egocentric and another that I will call narcissistic. Both of these views have associated urges – deep-rooted reasons related to the functioning of our minds that might drive us to instinctively adopt one view or the other. These views seem to me to have some explanatory power in the realm of politics, as they affect how we view the world. Everyone engages with both of these views to some degree, but I think each end of the political spectrum favours one over the other.
Just as with neurology, where impairments due to injury can tell us a lot about the structural layout of the brain, dysfunction in games can tell us something about their properties. One such dysfunctional state occurs when a game is solved, or mastered, or “dead”. When we have mastered a game completely it ceases to hold our interest, and so for the master it ceases to serve any function. From this we can determine that there are two vital elements in games, at least one of which must be a source of pleasure and a motivator; the sensation of improving or gaining mastery, and the acquisition of new information – learning.
In this essay I use the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘mental state’ interchangeably. I think they are largely the same thing, the commonly recognised emotions are simply the clearest and most consistent mental states people experience.
I have recently become interested in the idea of exerting control over my mental state. Most people live their lives entirely responding to outside stimuli, having their emotions and behaviours dictated by the events they are subjected to. But it has become clear to me that we have a lot more control over the state of our own minds than we think, and that this concept is rarely mentioned in our society.
It seems only natural that we respond emotionally to the things that happen to us, but thinking about emotions and their Darwinian origins have made me realise that they serve a few basic functions.