Guest-blogging on Learning

I am guest-blogging about learning over at Here is my introductory post, and posts so far:
#1 Learning makes itself invisible.
#2 Learning Should be Fun
#3 The Straight Dope on Learning Styles


Decline and Fall

‘Decline and Fall’ is the latest computer game from DO Arts. It’s a sim/civilisation game, but with a twist.

The game is half massively multiplayer on-line role playing game, half resource management, sim-city/Civilisation empire-building. Teams of players manage their way through the running of virtual civilisations, choosing to cooperate or compete as they so desire. They found colonies, invent new technologies, build monuments and foster communities as they balance the demands of their population’s desires with the threats and opportunities of contact with their neighbours.

The twist comes after approximately 10 hours of game play-time, when the resources of the virtual world begin to run out, and all the player’s civilisations face extinction.

Warnings of the radical shift in the game’s parameters are built into the game, but many players choose not to heed them, preferring to continue to expand and compete according to the boundless growth model that the start of the game seems to accord to. Typical game-world scenarios move through a depressing sequence of ignorance -> denial -> resource-wars -> massive population decline. Players recriminate each other, report dissatisfaction with the design of the game-world and the inherant unfairness of the game’s parameters.

But ‘Decline and Fall’ was never designed to be fair. It was produced in Italy, a collaboration between award-winning game designers DO Arts and Edwardo Gibbone, a social-psychologist at the University of Bologna. Gibbone’s team are now studying the game outcomes as teams of players sign up from around the world.

“We wanted to investigate how the players managed the collective impact of enforced energy-use restriction. To do this we had to get them hooked on one way of managing their societies, and then see how they reacted to a change in this environment.” says Gibbone

“We designed the game-play to be open enough to afford multiple different strategies in response to shortages in fossil fuels, clean air and water, and food simultaneously with catastrophic climate change and a population explosion large enough to tax environmental carrying capacity even without the other pressures. In doing so we hope to study the psychology of groups in crisis.”

Existing research on the psychology of trust has been restricted to relatively unrealistic experimental situations on the one hand, and non-repeatable real-life observation on the other. The ‘Decline and Fall’ project aims to established exactly what conditions or behaviours are required to allow groups of people facing individual threats to cooperate.

Specific theories to be tested by Gibbone’s research include the importance of trade links, democratic political organisation, free media, cultural exchange and technological development.

“The dynamics of the game are designed so as that painless transition to low-energy use societies is possible at all points of the game, even the final hours. Winning strategies aren’t hard to identify, in theory there are multiple routes to success — but the level of coordination required stops most groups of players from achieving it”

The project is due to complete in 2012, when an estimated 400,000 players from around the world will have played ‘Decline and Fall’. Gibbone is due to make a presentation of the results and the implications for real world civilisation at the World Climate Change Conference in Geneva that year.

Early reports from teams playing the game have been unpromising. When asked how successful teams of players have faced down their global crisis Gibbone just says “We’ll let you know when it happens”.


links for january 09


books read in 2005

As requested by Cat, the books I read in 2005. Strong recommendations in bold.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire. Arundhati Roy (2004). Jan
A Thousand Years of Non-linear history. Manuel de Landa (1997). Feb
(presumably I read some other books Feb-May but I’ve lost the list)
The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley (1994) 18 June
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003) 20 June
Beyond the Ballot: 57 Democratic Innovations From Around the World, Graham Smith (2005) 29 June
The Great Divorce, CS Lewis (1946) 30 June
The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman (2000) 3 July
Iron in the Soul, J.P. Sartre (1949) 21 July
Fountain at the Centre of the World, Rob Newman (2003) 4 August
Things Can Only Get Better, John O’Farrell (1999) 5 August
Fierce Dancing, CJ Stone (1996) 7 August
It’s a Lot Like Dancing: Aikido Journey, Terry Dobson, Riki Moss, and Jan E. Watso (1994) 8 August
Broke Through Britain, Peter Montimer (1999) 20 August
The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger (1998) 26 August
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933) 2 Sept
The No-nonsense guide to the arms trade, Gideon Burrows (2002) 2 Sept
The Corporation, Joel Baklan (2005)
Toxic Sludge is Good for You, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (2004)
We Know What You Want, Martin Howard (2005)
The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard (1959)
The Thought Gang, Tibor Fischer (1994) 8 Nov
Diary, Chuck Palahniuk (2003) 9 Nov
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997) 17 Nov
The Next Fifty Year, John Brokman (ed, 2003) 29 Nov
Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting (2004)
Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis (1990)
Cassini Division, Ken McLeod (1998) 23 Dec
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz (2004)
Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, Richard Heinberg (2005)

List for 2008 here. Top three from 2005: The Corporation, Paradox of Choice, A Thousand Years of Non-linear History.


books read in 2008

Following Matt, and after being asked by Tom, here is the list of books I read in 2008. The ones I strongly recommend are in bold.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871) 17 Jan
The Improvisation Game, Chris Johnston (2005) 26 Jan
Prisoner’s Dilemma, William Poundstone (1992) 2 Feb
Secrets of Creation: Vol 1: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers, Matthew Watkins (2008, proofs) 5 Feb
Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor (2004) 7 Feb
The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein (2007) 17 Feb
Breakdown of Will, George Ainslie (2001) 12 March
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (180) March
Kluge, Gary Marcus (2008) 8 April
V, Thomas Pynchon (1963) April
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif (2000) 23 May
Permutation City, Greg Egan (1994) 10 June
Meaning Medicine and the “Placebo Effect”, Daniel Moerman (2002) 8 June
Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman (2006) 15 June
Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon (1995) 21 June
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande (2007) 28 June
My Uncle Oswald, Roald Dahl (1979) 28 June
Sin City: Hell and Back, Frank Miller (2005) 6 July
Divided Kingdom, Rupert Thomson (2005) 18 July
Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, Thomas Schelling (1978) 15 July
Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter (1984) 25 July
Standloper, Alan Garner (1996) 17 August
Impro for Storytellers, Kieth Johnstone (1994/99) 18 August
Sight Unseen, Goodale & Milner (2004) 24 August
The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fannon (1963) 23 August
Neither Victims Nor Executioners, Albert Camus (1946) 24 August, r.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1965) 30 August
The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Ed. Angela Carter (1990) 31 August
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1994) 7 September, r.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktore E. Frankl (1945/1959) 8 September
The Science of Self-Control, Howard Rachlin (2000) 18 September
Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, John Grey (2003) 5 October
A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick (1977) 16 October, r.
Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Ian Rowland (2002), 20 October
The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe (2007), 25 October
Moominvalley in November, Tove Jansson (1971), 30 October
Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree, Kate Wheeler (ed., 2004), Nov
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCathy (1992), 11 December
Active Vision, Findlay & Gilchrist (2003), 28 December

39 is a lot less that Matt’s 104, but I reckon my commute is about fifty minutes less than his, and its hard to read while cycling ­čÖé

It’s about 50-50 fiction/non-fiction, but I reckon I spent most of the time on non-fiction since it is slower going. My top two would be ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and ‘Sight-Unseen’. A top three is too hard.