SFTW Thinking Machines 4

Each week Iain Simons selects a game for you to while away hours. Read about it, play it but don't l

Often the most fascinating parts of the game aren’t the outcome, but the decisions that lead one there.

Hearing a great commentator discussing a sport about which you know little can be one of the most exciting and illuminating of experiences.

That sensation of being rapidly inducted into strategies which were apparent, but not wholly understandable never fails to intoxicate.

I often feel this when hearing developers talking about videogames. In particular, some of the best demonstrations I’ve seen have seldom been about breathtaking new graphical capabilities, but artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Whilst new rendering technologies providing near photo-real graphics are usually touted as the enablers to making worlds which we can truly believe in, the truth is that the algorithms which determine the behaviour of in-game elements are far more persuasive.

The pursuit of convincing A.I. is a fascinating subject. To understand and create persuasive A.I.

Behaviour, one has to understand at least a little of what it is to be human. Fascinating though it is however, there’s always a slight feeling of discomfort that someone, somewhere is attempting to distill that slight feeling of discomfort into something that can be algorithmically reproduced.

Thinking Machines 4 is a more palatable version of that man-machine relationship, moreover - it’s also beautiful. Taking a rudimentary Chess program, with each turn it exposes the potential moves the computer is considering through a gracefully sketched diagram overlaid onto the board. The experience reveals its real depth only in the play of a full game. As the machine gradually refines and rejects strategies, the narrative of the game thinking before you becomes more and more compelling. The developer has posted an example gallery which demonstrates this well, although this is well worth a few minutes of your quiet attention to actually play.

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Thinking Machines 4

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.