sunnuntai 12. syyskuuta 2010

Sharing knowledge of board games

To satisfy criteria of a good game is not enough to get the game survive decades in active play. I find immensely important how well the game can attract a community around itself by the qualities of the game alone. For abstract strategy games, one crucial condition is how to share knowledge of how to play in ever deepening levels. If variety of study material is complex, there's potential even for infrastructure that generates jobs for (part-time) teachers and even pro gamers. If amount of players rises high enough, new players that seek long term relationship with a game, can rely that there's enough opponents for next decades. This makes a feedback loop. Some people focus lots of energy to study the game to get to the top. Many fail, since the tip of the iceberg is kind steep and slippery. But since there's already been huge amount of commitment, they keep playing and helping to maintain healthy level of strength variance between players.

Thus it is clear that how well the game supports sharing knowledge affects the community, both quantitatively and qualitatively, especially when the game is deep and has been studied for a long time: to evolve as a player to current standards is tough even with help.

Hopefully, the game has game dynamics that makes possible to abstract tactical situations into a vocabulary, so that higher level discussion can be build upon them. Anyone who knows go, surely sees this is true. One can discuss the game in a very abstracted manner: locally situated stones are groups, which can be attributed to have some quality, e.g. strength, influence, aji (potential). Style of play can be discussed, e.g. he likes to build moyos (loose framework) and let opponent invade challenging life and death skills if opponent is not willing to play sakabi (lightly). [not exact translations for the terms]

Concepts are important for teaching but also for live commentary of spectators. It's fun to chat with others when you don't necessarily have to calculate many moves. Just a quick look at the board can tell experienced player that something uniquely interesting is happening, and it is easy to to ask others why it is so. You don't have to even name any particular move, e.g. why is the white player not cutting opponent's group [into two weak ones]?

One example where this holds true is live broadcast of top player events since the games are long and of high quality. Spectators have time to digest the situation and have lively discussion. Warm fuzzy feeling of belonging to a community might emerge.

One classical way to teach others is to write books. This has been proved to be a fine way. But one must notice that discussion via a book has certain properties. A book contains static, usually written information. But board games typically have emphasis on change and visuals. This fundamentally makes it harder to get the message concisely to the reader. Some games' dynamics are more suited for books. In go, discussed situations are mostly [depends on the subject a lot] accumulative piece-moving-wise, so one can show one board filled with moves that have numbers on them specifying the turn they were played. This creates opportunity for problem books with similar feel to crosswords or sudoku. And learning one aspect of a game in this way has some impact on the overall understanding but the benefit is you can concentrate fully on your problematic area.

So, what alternatives are there for books? Wiki as near realtime collaborative tool can has advantages in some respects. It's not nearly enough, though. We need a interactive visual tool that makes possible to view the game in many a different light. With automatons, getting statistical information of selected games can be made to show some aspect of the game, e.g. temperature maps of how much time certain pieces have spent time on what positions, or how different people have played a situation where such and such strategy is applied to position. And since social aspect is important, a way to discuss game positions in real time with others crowns the cake. Particularly thanks to existence of internet, it's possible to have teaching sessions globally at one point of time. If the tool is user-friendly and innovative, the suggestions and questions make a fascinating flow of shared ideas.

Specifically, I hope that Arimaa would get this kind of a tool. So, I initiated a project to address this. The software is in its early days, and currently doesn't support much. It's first goal is to support viewing games and making variations with comments and board marks. It's an improvement to current situation where most discussion is text based, and spread across the forum, chat and book(s). My wish is to get the friendly community to have a focused way of inventing Arimaa concepts. Since its game dynamics are quite sharp, visual tool helps the user to swap back and forth from strategic overview to tactical details.

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