Who owns Nissan.com?

Bridge-building game

Dig this crazy game Pontifex! You build suspension bridges, try to get ‘em to stay up, and marvel at the wickedly-cool physics of cars going over them.

I’m still not terribly good at this, but I love it. There’s something really old-school about my taste in video games, I’ve decided. I like the ones that foreground the idea of “playing with physics.” Back in 1989, the American Museum of the Moving Image ran an exhibit on video games — part of which is online now — that talked about how early games were almost pure expressions of physics. The chips were so primitive, that’s really all they could do: Basic collision detection, rebound angles, and the like. So games like Asteroids or Pong had this very strong sense of playing inside the headspace of a computer chip. The joke that occurred to me, when I thought about this, is that “video games are what computers think about when we’re not around.”

This is what intrigues me so much about physics-style simulation games like this bridge game — and to a certain extent, space-based flying games. I like the idea of playing with physics, partly because it’s actually possible to render them with precision. Games like The Sims or SimCity slightly freak me out because the modelling is that of human life — and human life is so complex that inevitably, the sim relies on some rather sketchy and suspicious assumptions about people. The first edition of the Sims, for example (and am I on a Sims rant here or what?), explicitly notes that the two ways to make your Sim happy is a) to have lots of good human relationships, and b) to have lots of stuff.

Well, the former I agree with, but I can think of tons of examples where b) simply isn’t true. For personal or political or even spiritual reasons, some people are made miserable by having lots of stuff, and some people take great joy in not only not having stuff, but hacking or tweaking or even outright wrecking other people’s stuff. Like those creepy Sim suburbs I ranted about a few days ago, the political assumption that stuff = good is not really a “sim” of human behavior. It’s a fiction of consensus — an attempt to reduce human behavior into something simple enough for a game to deal with. And you know, geopolitics being the way it is right now, one would think it would be patently obvious to us that people frequently have massively different visions of what constitutes The Good Life. So why are our games so reductive in their view of society?

Sure, I realize this is insanely didactic and super-nerdy and weird of me. But this is why I prefer physics-style sims. You can lie about people — but not about Newton’s laws.

(A tip of the hat to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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