As I have mentioned earlier, what excites me most about gaming – and computers in general – is the capability for simulation. If we create a system that obeys the same rules as reality, we can use that system to better understand reality. Not only that, it allows us to test out new theories and ask “what would happen if things were a little different?”
The complexity of the thing you simulate doesn’t have to be much either. The term “computer simulation” often evokes imagery of simulating enormous and complex systems – weather patterns or the turbulence flow from a large-scale atomic detonation – but simulation can be useful on a more modest scale too. In University, a friend of mine threw together a blackjack simulation. He wanted to see the patterns of how well a virtual player does when it follows hard-and-fast rules – refusing cards over a total of 16, 18 and so on.* The first programmable computer, the Z3, ran at a staggering 10 Hertz – roughly one billionth of the speed of a modern computer. Even at that speed, though, it brought the science of aviation forward by a decade through simulating wing flutter at rates of execution that were previously impossible to reach.
The example I often use to explain my fascination with simulation is this: Imagine a child’s sand-pail at a beach. Imagine the light dusting of sand it gets from a long day of use. The smoothness at the joints, the build-up inside any detailing and under the lip. Now imagine taking the bucket away and leaving the sand – the suggestion of form but not the form itself. Next to impossible in reality, but in a simulation, once you have the base action down, setting things to on or off is the easiest thing in the world.
I’ve been using this example of the sand and the bucket for years now, and recently I decided to actually do something about it – make a sand simulation that can show you what I mean, rather than just telling people about it. Here it is! Just move the mouse around on the play field to shift the sand. If you want extra options for playing with the sand fall or changing the pen size, open the options panel. Many thanks to Aidan of Shade and Prime for the fantastic elevation visualizer.
iPhone app, anyone?
* While it might seem like this is a less-than-useful endeavour to use computers for, I’m sure we can all agree that it is better to test a virtual player losing virtual money than trying it at your local casino. In fact, after finding that there is no foolproof approach to blackjack, he gave up on it altogether and started putting his money in the stock market… you win some, you lose some.