Pac-Man and Crickets: Unpredictability in Games

Scholarly Critique to Eck, W. and Lamers, M. 2006. Animal Controlled Computer Games: Playing Pac-Man Against Real Crickets. Entertainment Computing.

Scholarly Critique #6

I was interested in this particular article because it examines relationships between real-life scenarios and one of my most favorite video games of all times – Pac-Man. When I was introduced to Pac-Man, the game cost was equivalent of 10 cents(or 20 stotinki in BG currency). however, as insignificant of a sum that may sound to one, 20 stotinki was a respectable sum of money to have in your pocket, especially when you are a third grader. Another dimension of playing Pac-Man in those days in a by the beach town, was dictated by the constraints of the social setting. Pac-Man was only available in one arcade place, opened only on the weekend. getting there required taking a public bus, which enforced another expense by itself. And than the crowd. Everyone wanted to play Pac-Man! Needless to less, it was a child’s biggest adventure and mission-almost-impossible.

In Animal Controlled Computer Games: Playing Pac-Man Against Real Crickets the authors ask the questions if it is possible to take the unpredictability of an animal, embed it in a computer game by replacing the computer code with the behavior of an animal. Can one play a computer game against an animal? Such questions derived from the nature of video games and the predictability of patterns that players experience during game play. Some may argue that complex algorithms, developed for the latest video games contain a certain dose of unpredictability, or that there are so many outcomes depending on the input of the players makes the game virtually unpredictable. But at the end, the game will do what it is programmed to do. So the goal of this particular study was to examine the possibility of replacing behavior-generating computer code by animal behavior by replacing the “artificial intelligence” part of a game by “animal intelligence”.

Pac-Man game mechanics consist of a player controlled character trapped in a maze of small dots. Hand-eye coordination skills are important for the control of the character in a way that all the dots are eaten in order to progress within the game. during the play, other characters are also introduced, such as Ghosts. Ghost are game diminishers – upon touch, the player looses one of the lives awarded. Another important element of the game are the power items. The player gains superpowers when such item is eaten. The superpower only last for so long so another game objective prompts the player to focus on the Ghosts distraction as a play within the play.

The core mechanics of the animal controlled version of Pac-Man consisted of a contracted maze for crickets, reacting to outside stimuli. Usually such stimuli are sound, vibration, temperature, pheromones, light, electricity and smell. considering the behavior of crickets and certain constrains (such as using electricity as stimulant for instance), for this study, vibration was used to stimulate the crickets in the game. The maze had six controls which made possible for the vibrations to occur throughout the maze. When the crickets should chase Pac-Man, they fled in his direction when the motors were activated. When the game started, the crickets reacted as expected, they walked away from the vibrations . However, the interesting part is the unexpected behavior of the crickets triggered by adaptation. After a few minutes, the crickets stopped reacting to the vibrations and learned that they do not pose a threat anymore. The new system also included a color tracking element for controlling the crickets behavior. During the game one of the crickets was shedding its skin so it was left untracked and thus could freely walk around the maze undetected by the system. such unexpected behavior take the game into a different direction.

Some of the questions that the article prompts are whether we can design a game with unpredictable outcomes and patterns and how such games will influence psycho-motor or cognitive skills and knowledge of the player. Can we design an artificial intelligence that adapts to the players stimuli in a way that is outside the programmed algorithm?