Cockroach-driven robot A.I.

“Tag” — the simplest video game in the world

I love minimalist video games, since they prove that incredibly fun play doesn’t require elaborate 3D visuals — and, indeed, can result from very stripped-down symbolic systems. Last night I saw a terrific example of this: “Tag”, a game created by Rob Seward, a student in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Tag is played by three people, each of whom has a tiny 5-by-7 grid of LEDs and a joystick (pictured above). Each player controls a differently-colored dot on the screen, and the goal is to play a game of tag: If you’re “it”, your dot blinks, and you have to try and chase after and touch one of the other players; then they start blinking and they’re “it”.

For such a crazily simple idea, it’s surprisingly fun. I wonder how many differently-sized grids Seward experimented with before he found that 5-by-7 was the perfect size: Not so small that it was impossible to run and hide, but not so big that it was impossible to catch someone else and tag them? You can play against the computer in a demo version of it online here, but the real fun is playing live against other people. As Hertz suggests:

The devices will be very cheap and small enough to integrate into the arm of a chair. I imagine these objects as a small diversion in a waiting room, inviting casual human-human interaction in a space where it would not otherwise exist.

Seward has also designed another video game that is, amazingly, even simpler. It’s called “Boo”, and here each player — at disparate locations, connected by the Net — has a physical button and a light. Your opponent hits his button, which triggers your light to go on; once you see it light up, your goal is to whack your button as fast as possible. Then you reverse the propositions. You play five rounds and whoever has the overall fastest reaction times wins. The strategy here would be hilariously nerve-racking: You could spend minutes (or even hours) anxiously monitoring your light, waiting for your opponent to pick his moment and light it up; then you’d have an opportunity to torture him or her with the same waiting game. Brilliant! And insane.

To my mind, “Boo” contains freaky allusions — though possibly unintentional ones — to the Cold War, when heads of state carried around nuclear buttons, waiting and watching anxiously for the other guy to attack.

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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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