Reality is a Game

Game thinking from Adam Clare

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I Made a Game About Social Distancing, Apple and Google Didn’t Approve

Last month, when I went out for a walk I noticed that the social distancing put in place to help us hold back the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t being as respected as I had hoped. Groups of people were walking around as if there wasn’t a contagious coronavirus being spread by asymptotic people. I wondered what can I do about this?  So I tried making my first endless runner game in which the player needs to avoid people.

Making a simple game to convince people to stay apart turned into a larger endeavour than I thought it would. Apple and Google wanted to keep their distance from the game with gusto.

Why make a game about social distancing?

The primary motivation stemmed from not seeing people adhere to good social distancing practices. It would be nice if more people stayed physically separated so we can flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Even though nearly ever y country on Earth is experiencing very real consequences from the pandemic there are people who are risking lives by not taking it seriously.

Making my social distance game

The game is divided into two parts: an endless runner and a stay at home option.

Gameplay is predictable for the endless runner since it works well with the theme of keeping away from things. The other part takes place in the home in which the player can look outside or watch TV.

I create rules for myself for fun little side projects like this one; the most important rule is my self-imposed time limit. The time limit is there to keep me in check and, as you will see, is a good way to keep my sanity.

Anyway, I stated by making a prototype using a kit. At first it felt like a match made in heaven and got a quick prototype up and running.

But then the kit and I didn’t get along. I ran into HTML5 build errors I couldn’t fix, Unity collaboration issues (even though I was the only one working on it) and a myriad of tiny annoyances with how the kit was built versus how I build things. I reached my self-imposed time limit of the weekend and decided to pack up the project and put in my archive of failed ideas.

Everything changed when the United Nations asked for help.

To be very clear, they never asked me for help they asked all of us. And they are paying in exposure.

A few days after packing up my failed attempt I the United Nations call out to creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19 got released. I rebuilt my game from scratch the following weekend, thankfully I was able to reuse the home scene and models at least.

You can see on the right screen below a message directly from the UN call for creatives.

Finished and rejected

Keep Your Distance screenshot

Upon completion* of the game I submitted it to Apple and Google and got rejected by both.

I’ve never had a game rejected before, let alone one that gets flagged for “potentially objectionable content, such as nudity, pornography, and profanity.” At first I was shocked, but then I saw their rationale.

Clearly I have a Pollyannaish view of the world and I assumed my playful little game wouldn’t cause a fuss, heck it might even be a moment or relatable levity in a stressed-out world. I should have known better.

Obviously, I don’t think that what I made is offensive or is inappropriate otherwise I wouldn’t post this. It’s important to stop the spread by avoiding contact with other people. Don’t listen to me, listen to these smarter people.

It appears that any submitted app which mentions COVID-19 is rejected unless it is accompanied with evidence that it’s from a reputable source. And that makes sense to me. There is so much misinformation being spread that it’s rational to try and block any non-health app referencing COVID. I do see a problem that there’s no step to figure out what is unethical profiteering or spreading misinformation and what is somebody making a game just to commiserate with others (like mine). Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the reviewers end trying to filter through all the chum tossed at the respective app stores.

Each company reacted differently, with Google being the most severe.

Keep Your Distance logo

Google

Google went one stop short of the ban hammer for our entire account. Stating that even submitting the app was a strike against our developer standing and if we crossed the line again they might disable all of our accounts and related accounts! All hail the monopolistic flexing of Google.

Here’s the boiler plate text they sent:

Please note that additional suspensions of any nature may result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.

I honestly have no idea if hosting gameplay footage on YouTube (owned by Google) will only get me more punished.

Apple

App rejected by Apple

Apple let me resubmit as much as I wanted, so for about a week I got into a routine of getting a daily rejection.

The rejections were vague at first with nothing specific mentioned, leaving me unclear what exactly the problem was. I naively figured using copy suppled by the WHO would be ok.At first, I thought it was overt COVID-19 text flagging the app. For example, linking to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund (even though it’s legit).

As I submitted edited versions to Apple they finally narrowed down that COVID-19 was in the metadata. Fair enough, so for about 15 minutes each day (remember how I mentioned I limited how much time I’d spend on this) I would hunt down what I thought they found, modify it and resubmit. Searching Unity, then Xcode, and double checking all the non-game content for any mention of COVID provided zero results.

Ultimately, I gave up on April 18th when I got bored of the rejection routine and it became abundantly clear Apple won’t accept anything remotely connected to physical distancing. From the last rejection:

[Y]our entertainment or gaming app inappropriately refers to the COVID-19 pandemic in its concept or theme.

At least they didn’t threaten to remove my account and any related accounts.

So what now?

I heeded the objections from Apple and Google and updated the Itch.io page. It now warns people that COVID-19 is mentioned in the game. Play it for yourself and make your own decision about the game.

Removed from game

This was removed from the submitted game.

To be very clear: I’m not a victim in any of this. I just wanted to share this story about my social distance game with the world since I can’t effectively share the game itself. This whole episode also gets me thinking about how much cultural power Apple and Google have. I understand why they reacted to my app they way they did (well Google could’ve been more chill), but we must think about what other instances may exist in which these two American companies filter or censor what gets distributed globally.

*Obviously this can use more work and I would like to make it looks better myself but it’s the end of the semester and things like grading are more important.

tl;dr

Play Keep Your Distance

Artificial Intelligence in Relation to Games

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been said by many to bring us a utopia and, now more frequently, a dystopia. Regardless of where research into AI takes us we’ll be seeing the benefits in games in multiple ways. AIs are not new to games and have been used in games for a long time, what’s more is that a good way to test AIs is to use games.

In the 90s an IBM computer beat a world champion chess player and that was impressive at the time. A chess AI can be programmed relatively easy since there’s a set way to play (basically look at all possible moves of a set and pick the best one).

DeepMind

A Game like go is harder to program for and as a result was deemed to be a triumphant challenge for programmers to create a program that can beat a human (the quantity of what needs to be coded for is huge). Last month, Google’s DeepMind beat a top-tier European go player.

Instead of programming for every possible move like in Deep Blue, Google let their program learn on its own. “AlphaGo was not preprogrammed to play Go: rather, it learned using a general-purpose algorithm that allowed it to interpret the game’s patterns, in a similar way to how a DeepMind program learned to play 49 different arcade games.” This is striking because it’s a leap in how we make AIs that play games. We just toss the AI at the game and hope it learns what to do – just like we do with human players.

To hear more about the future of DeepMind watch this lecture by Demis Cassabas (founder of DeepMind) about the future and capabilities of artificial intelligence.

Challenges for DeepMind’s Artificial Intelligence

Does DeepMind seem too good to be true to you? It’s probably because the annoucnemtn around how it beat the go player is a big claim. Gary Marcus deconstructs the advancement and looks at the challenges AlphaGo (and AI in general) needs to still overcome.

But not so fast. If you read the fine print (or really just the abstract) of DeepMind’s Nature article, AlphaGo isn’t a pure neural net at all — it’s a hybrid, melding deep reinforcement learning with one of the foundational techniques of classical AI — tree-search, invented by Minsky’s colleague Claude Shannon a few years before neural networks were ever invented (albeit in more modern form), and part and parcel of much his students’ early work.

What’s more is that AI still hasn’t reached a level of knowledge and reasoning to deal with questions that require multiple contexts. Indeed, a recent test concluded that present AIs can’t beat an 8th grader.

The Allen Institute’s science test includes more than just trivia. It asks that machines understand basic ideas, serving up not only questions like “Which part of the eye does light hit first?” but more complex questions that revolve around concepts like evolutionary adaptation. “Some types of fish live most of their adult lives in salt water but lay their eggs in freshwater,” one question read. “The ability of these fish to survive in these different environments is an example of [what]?”

These were multiple-choice questions—and the machines still couldn’t pass, despite using state-of-the-art techniques, including deep neural nets. “Natural language processing, reasoning, picking up a science textbook and understanding—this presents a host of more difficult challenges,” Etzioni says. “To get these questions right requires a lot more reasoning.”

It’s only a matter of time until the AI teams get from the 8th grade to high school then to the university level.

How does this relate to games though? With smarter AI comes we will get better bots in games and we’ll see that making NPCs will get easier.

Developing a Unified AI Framework

This month Firas Safadi, Raphael Fonteneau, and Damien Ernst published a paper in the International Journal of Computer Games Technology about how we ought to think about AI in games. They argue that we need a unified framework for dealing with AI development and deployment in games.

Their paper, Artificial Intelligence in Video Games: Towards a Unified Framework, is worth a read and will undoubtedly shape how we think about AI in games for years to come. Think about the possibility that game engines will ship with a suite of default AI behaviours that can be easily modified by non-coders.

Here’s the abstract:

With modern video games frequently featuring sophisticated and realistic environments, the need for smart and comprehensive agents that understand the various aspects of complex environments is pressing. Since video game AI is often specifically designed for each game, video game AI tools currently focus on allowing video game developers to quickly and efficiently create specific AI. One issue with this approach is that it does not efficiently exploit the numerous similarities that exist between video games not only of the same genre, but of different genres too, resulting in a difficulty to handle the many aspects of a complex environment independently for each video game. Inspired by the human ability to detect analogies between games and apply similar behavior on a conceptual level, this paper suggests an approach based on the use of a unified conceptual framework to enable the development of conceptual AI which relies on conceptual views and actions to define basic yet reasonable and robust behavior. The approach is illustrated using two video games, Raven and StarCraft: Brood War.

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