Gaming: Humanity’s Future

I believe that games will empower humanity in inconceivable ways.

I’ll explain. Human motivators (beyond the basics of food, shelter, etc.) can be classified into 6 fundamental needs:

  • Certainty: predictability, knowable outcomes, and sense of control
  • Variety: exposure to a diverse range of experiences
  • Significance: the desire to be known and respected
  • Connection: social ties to, and interaction with, fellow human beings
  • Growth: feeling a sense of progress and improvement over time
  • Contribution: knowing that actions have an impact on the wider world

Different people have different ways of prioritizing these needs, but we all must satisfy these needs to some degree to become properly fulfilled. It has been shown that a person’s behavior, whether positive or negative, can become a habit if it satisfies just 2-3 of these needs.

Great games can satisfy all 6. No wonder we get addicted to them. For instance, games satisfy the fundamental needs in the following ways, respectively:

  • Understandable and predictable game mechanics
  • Varied challenges, bosses, items, stages, maps, etc.
  • Gaming worlds are directly influenced by the player’s actions
  • Multiplayer, social components, or even just interacting with in-game characters
  • Leveling up, increasing stats, new equipment, collectible achievements, etc.
  • Being a hero, helping your team members, filling a party’s role

Farmville, World of Warcraft, Halo, Words With Friends, and many others have all of these needs covered. It’s scary how intensely motivated people get with games. Players of these games dive into them full-tilt in a way that would never happen in their normal lives.

I’ll repeat: I believe that the future of human activity, enabled by technology, will be ruled by games. Augmented reality glasses — the next evolution of our current smartphones — will constantly display the “in-game” stats and improved environmental renderings relevant to your current “game.” Artificial intelligence will be on the alert for gamifying actions beneficial to our lives. Projects will be completed and rewarded like quests, including everything from home renovation to building Mars colonies. Education will be modeled after MMORPGs. Farms will literally become like Farmville. Every aspect of life, from charities to politics, will be gamified. Games are simply too strong a motivator to be ignored by economics and social forces.

The power of gamification is mighty, so we must make sure that it becomes a force for good. Indeed, gamification can be be the most significant way of unlocking human potential. Imagine if personal fulfillment is the most addictive activity in your life — that’s world-changing.

It’s already happening. In Food Force, an educational game published by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in 2005, players take on missions to distribute food in a famine-affected country and to help it to recover and become self-sufficient again. Games For Change (G4C) fosters social impact games in humanitarian and educational efforts. Jane McGonigal, who wrote her PhD thesis on games, is a huge champion of gaming for social good, and has written books on the subject (Reality Is Broken, SuperBetter) and is the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future.

There’s still a long way to go, but it’s already clear that the possibilities are endless. I can’t wait.

In fact, I’m working on something to hasten the arrival of our gamified future, so stay tuned.

Thoughts On Self-Control And Procrastination

Our brains contain both the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions and basic desires. When we’re craving dessert or get addicted to TV and games, that’s the limbic system at work. The cerebral cortex contains all of our ability for higher reasoning and planning. This is the part of us that knows about how effort in the short term results in future rewards.

In other words, the limbic system makes you dread starting that important project, and the cerebral cortex knows that you’ll regret it if you procrastinate. And yes, since the limbic system came earlier in human brains’ evolutionary history, its pull can be powerful. The limbic system helped our ancestors survive tens of thousands of years ago, but in our modern world, letting it have free rein can be dangerous.

Discipline, on the other hand, is simply your cerebral cortex’s ability to override the limbic system when it’s in your best interest. The cerebral cortex is the sensible part of the brain — when scientists refer to “higher brain function,” they’re referring to the cortex.

The limbic system and cerebral cortex are constantly battling each other for control, and way too often we allow the limbic system to win. And the more it wins, the stronger it gets, and the harder it is to resist — to our detriment.

Fortunately, our brains are like muscles — we can exercise it and develop it. The more you use your cerebral cortex to keep your limbic system at bay, the easier it will become. If you feel like you don’t have discipline (or that being disciplined is just so hard and painful to do), take baby steps. Always look for small ways to stretch yourself and grow your discipline.

Can you hold your breath through to the end of a freeway tunnel? Are you able to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, and hang on until the very end? Treat your discipline like a skill, and level up.


So how can we get things done even when we don’t feel like it?

“Not feeling like it” is an illusion. A powerful one, but an illusion nonetheless.

“Not feeling like starting” is a bit closer to the truth, but that’s not quite right either.

“Feeling like not feeling like starting” — ah, we’re finally getting somewhere.

Humans are hard-wired to perceive starting anything as much harder than it really is. It prevented our ancestors from expending valuable energy on anything not immediately vital to their survival.

On the other hand, we’re also hard-wired to experience flow once we get started, because our ancestors’ survival depended on successfully completing the important tasks they do choose to take on.

That’s the secret to beating procrastination: the hardest part of any dreaded task is just starting. Throw all your discipline into just taking the first step, and you’ll find that the rest just takes care of itself.

Our motivation is therefore like a heavy ball stuck behind a speed bump at the top of a hill — it takes some effort to get over the initial bump, but we tend to be fine with continuing once we get into our flow state.

Addicted to a game on your phone? Try leaving the app for a minute. Can’t bring yourself to start an important writing assignment? Just congratulate yourself when you simply open a new Word document and type something — anything — in.

Try this the next time you get stuck: commit to start something and keep it up for just 5 minutes. It’s all right if you want to stop; you have my permission.

But I’m willing to bet that you’re able to keep going. Not only that, but the next 15 minutes will feel hilariously easier than the first 5.

Reasons For Hope Under Trump

A few days after the November election, I wrote on Quora the following reason for why I am hopeful, even under the Trump administration. And today, on Inauguration Day, I still believe it’s true.


Should Donald Trump be trusted?

No, he cannot be trusted.

But that might be a good thing. I say this as a Clinton voter.

Here’s what I mean:

Trump can’t be trusted to be firm on any political position. He has claimed countless conflicting stances in the past, encompassing the entire political spectrum (for/against Iraq, for/against reproductive rights, etc.).

Having such an unpredictable President means that we, the American people, will feel compelled to stay vigilant in politics. We’ve already seen that this is a significant motivator for political engagement. Just take a look at the past couple of days — we’ve seen much more political engagement in the days following the election than ever before, especially among young people.

And that’s precisely why Trump’s untrustworthiness is a great gift for American citizens who commit to an active role in shaping their country — their efforts, whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise, will actually make an impact.

That’s right. You can be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native, immigrant, LBGTQ, Muslim, Catholic, rich, or poor — and you can actually make an impact.

The downside, of course, is that if Americans let their collective guards down over the next 4 years, the result will be utterly unpredictable.

You see, Presidents never truly rule the United States.

The American people do. And it’s time we realize that.

In a way, President Trump may have been what the Founding Fathers intended.

(I will say that a lot of Trump’s past behavior is difficult to explain to kids. And my heart goes out to those of you that have personally faced bigotry in your lives both before and after the election. However, if public engagement since the election is any indication, I’m hopeful for a more active and informed American people.)

Glitches In The Matrix

If the universe is a simulation, then these would be what I consider the glitches.

  • How bicycles stay upright is a mystery [1]
  • Boiling water freezes faster than cold water in some cases [2]
  • Negative temperature is somehow infinitely hot [3]
  • There’s a lot more matter than antimatter in the universe [4]
  • Dark matter [5] and dark energy [6]
  • The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and recently discovered to be even faster than previously expected [7]
  • Almost anything to do with magnetic materials (ferromagnetism, superconductors, etc.) [8]
  • Quantum entanglement (affect one entangled subatomic particle, and observe instantaneous effects on its entangled twin many miles away) [9]
  • Quantum tunneling (subatomic particle has nonzero chance of suddenly being on other side of “impenetrable” barrier) [10]
  • Saturn’s hexagonal polar storm [11]
  • Space, time, matter, and energy may all be quantized, like pixels [12]

Sources:

[1] A Bicycle Can Be Self-Stable Without Gyroscopic or Caster Effects

[2] Mpemba effect

[3] Atoms at negative absolute temperature: The hottest systems in the world

[4] Baryon asymmetry

[5] Dark matter

[6] Dark energy

[7] Hubble Finds Universe Expanding Faster Than Expected

[8] Superconductivity

[9] Quantum entanglement

[10] Quantum tunnelling

[11] This weird hexagon on Saturn has puzzled scientists for decades

[12] Is time quantized? In other words, is there a fundamental unit of time that could not be divided into a briefer unit?

Reflecting on Pokémon Go: Part 2

If you’re just joining us now, take a look at part 1.


If you had asked any Pokémon fan what Niantic should prioritize after first releasing the Pokémon Go app, they would probably telly you something like the following list:

  1. App and server stability improvements
  2. Gradual introduction and testing of essential social features (it’s a mobile platform, after all):
    • Trading with friends
    • Battling with friends
    • Sharing on social media
  3. Gradual global roll-out of app availability
  4. Host an in-game special event
  5. Introduce new Pokémon

Instead, the timeline of app updates (excluding minor fixes) were as follows. This was taken from Niantic’s own site:

  • (7/2016) Aggressive global roll-out of app availability
  • (8/3/2016) Removal of “3-step” Pokémon locator
  • (8/8/2016) Refinements to catch rates
  • (8/18/2016) Crackdown on cheating
  • (8/22/2016) Appraisals from Red/Blue/Yellow Team Leaders
  • (8/29/2016) Un-banning of select user accounts
  • (9/2/2016) Buddy Pokémon
  • (9/16/2016) Pokémon Go Plus accessory finally lands in limited quantities
  • (10/10/2016) Gym training modifications

Up through mid-October, there did not seem to be a clear hierarchy of priorities. Many would agree that the global roll-out did not happen without issues. Also, many of these improvements were not only small, but they also were not anything close to what Pokémon fans were requesting from the app. And finally, the odd focus on eliminating cheating (which did result in the accidental banning of some legitimate accounts) did not endear any Pokémon fans, and may in fact have resulted in a worse user experience (recall the outcries during Niantic’s takedown of PokeVision).

However there is hope that Niantic is turning around.

Recently, Pokémon Go had a surprisingly successful Halloween event, which included increased appearance of certain Pokémon, faster Buddy Pokémon candy generation, increased transfer candy rewards, and significant XP boosts.

During the Halloween event, the app got a huge earnings boost; in fact, it was so successful that, understandably, Niantic decided to extend the event.

This means that, 4 months out, Niantic has the following left to do:

  1. App and server stability improvements
  2. Gradual introduction and testing of essential social features (it’s a mobile platform, after all):
    • Trading with friends
    • Battling with friends
    • Sharing on social media
  3. Gradual global roll-out of app availability
  4. Host an in-game special event
  5. Introduce new Pokémon

Hopefully Niantic’s analytics team is paying attention to what’s happening, and are now carefully studying the past 4 months. They must know now that Pokémon Go was not in an inevitable decline, that they’re still sitting on a massive golden mine, and that they still have the power to boost the app to new heights.

I am cautiously hopeful for the future of Pokémon Go. Come on, Niantic, give us what we want; it isn’t that hard to make Pokémon fans happy.

Reflecting on Pokémon Go: Part 1

TL;DR: Niantic lucked out in a huge way, but they may have squandered Pokémon Go’s enormous potential. Here I explain my feelings and thoughts on the matter.


For almost an entire year before July 2016, Pokémon fans around the world eagerly awaited the arrival of Niantic’s Pokémon Go. We fondly recalled the Nintendo games and TV shows of our youth, and were beyond excited to experience the same joy again on our now-ubiquitous mobile phones.

I remember watching the original trailer for Pokémon Go in 2015 and feeling a lump in my throat — the kind that immediately precedes tears of joy. It was the most amazing video game ad I’ve ever seen, and it spoke to all of my most treasured experiences and associated childhood feelings. I watched the trailer at least 5 times in a row.

This was true for a lot of other people too. You see, Pokémon was more than a Nintendo franchise for us — it was a familiar face, a childhood friend, and a stable constant for our former younger selves. We loved Pokémon like we loved Disney. It was special in a way that Pac-Man never was, even to those of you who spent their formative years in the ’80s. Firing up a Pokémon game was like coming home.

(Side note: In middle school, I was active on multiple Pokémon message boards. To this day, I still know how to type an accented “é” using ALT+130 on the keyboard numpad.)

We had no idea what to expect before Pokémon Go’s release. All we knew was that it was going to be some subset of the things we loved already from the franchise, which included:

  • Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex (721 species were in the franchise by mid-2016)
  • Earning badges and/or achievements
  • Getting items
  • Growing, leveling, and evolving Pokémon
  • Incorporating some real-world VR/AR element
  • Battling and trading with in-game trainers
  • Battling and trading with our friends
  • Mini games

After Niantic’s trailer, we waited month after agonizing month for the launch of Pokémon Go.

Finally, Pokémon Go arrived on July 6th, 2016. I downloaded it immediately.


To be honest, we probably should have been disappointed as soon as we opened the slow app, experienced the constant network issues, and explored the sparse feature set. The actual feature list ended up being the following:

  • Collecting Pokémon and filling our Pokédex for only the original 151 species
  • Earning achievements
  • Getting items
  • CP-ing (?), and evolving Pokémon using…candies
  • Rudimentary AR (that we switch off anyways)
  • Battling in-game static representations of other trainers
  • Battling and trading with our friends
  • Mini games

Guess what? We didn’t even care. Our childhood friend returned — in 3D! We couldn’t wait to greet them with open arms, regardless of trivial matters like “gameplay.”

It’s easy to say this now in retrospect, but Niantic was truly sitting on the holy grail of initial customer engagement. We cared zero about the current state of the product — not the weird CP and candies system, not the lack of features, and not even the stuttering server issues. We had total faith that in perhaps the next month or two, Niantic (backed by none other than freaking Google) will help Pokémon Go grow into the beautiful Butterfree that we knew it was always Go-ing to be.

“It’ll be amazing. All 700+ published Pokémon species will eventually be rolled out. We will finally start trading and battling Pokémon with our friends. Right? Right…?”

Our disappointment is (only slightly) humorously expressed by 3 words:

“Minor text fixes.”


Here we are, almost 4 months later, and analysts are already calling it — Pokémon Go is dying.

Some of these analysts attribute the sharp decline of user engagement to simply the natural progression of mobile game fads. I don’t buy it; I believe that Niantic failed to execute on an enormous market opportunity.

I’ll discuss it more in Part 2.

Thoughts On Onboarding

When new members are introduced to an organization aimed towards a common goal, the early period is critical; it sets the stage for the rest of the members’ relationship with the organization.

It is critical to have the new members engaged in back-and-forth communication, and that absolutely cannot happen without a sense of belonging. This also takes some effort on the part of incumbent members and the leaders of the organization. This is because there tends to be some psychological barriers to treating a newcomer exactly the same as one would treat a long-time comrade. The incumbents must realize that all of this is purely mental, and it may even be useful for the leaders to remind the incumbents of the importance of inclusion.

How can “setting the stage” be formally defined? The latest in psychological literature asserts that when an individual encounters a new situation, new neural patterns are created. These new patterns start off weak and diffuse, with great potential for change, since the patterns have not yet been entrenched in the individual’s brain. Over time, however, as the situation is encountered more often, these neural patterns are traversed again and again, and these previously diffuse patterns grow stronger. The neural connections peripheral to these patterns receive less stimulation; this makes the neural pattern more efficient, but less susceptible to change.

One can make the following analogy of rain shaping and transforming its incident landscape. Rain landing on a flat sloping hill will travel down the hill in numerous small streams that readily shift and change, and initially each individual stream will not obviously be any larger than any other stream. However, as the hill repeatedly experiences rain, some small amount of dirt and silt will be carried away via these streams, deepening channels under these waterways. The amount of earth carried away varies from stream to stream, such that certain channels will become deeper — furthermore, the deeper the channel, the larger the stream during the next rain. Eventually, a much smaller number of significantly larger streams — ones so entrenched in the that they are likely to never change direction — will be carrying the bulk of the rainwater. A very similar process occurs during the formation of new neural patterns.

The importance of setting the stage early for new members of an organization is now clear. The new members must realize the neural patterns of inclusion, communication, and confidence in a group setting, and the neural patterns must be reinforced often to make sure that it is set for all future cooperative efforts in the organization. This positive habit has tremendous value — cooperation now is not only natural, but it also comes at absolutely no extra mental expense to the new individual. The individual’s mental resources are therefore completely free for applying to the important tasks at hand, all while painlessly reaping the fruits of collaborative resources. Without active and focused efforts by the organization’s leadership, there is far too much risk of alternate detrimental mental patterns forming (such as isolation, low esteem, etc.). The leaders must therefore be diligent and not relax standards for communication and inclusion as the organization grows.

Glitches In The Universe

Below is one of my more fun answers on Quora. Most of the things I mentioned are fully explained by science, but in the spirit of the question, it’s more entertaining to call them glitches.


If, as Elon Musk suggested, we’re all part of an alien video game, can you identify any potential “glitches” they’ve made?

Below are just a few glitches I can think of:

  • How bicycles stay upright is a mystery [1]
  • Boiling water freezes faster than cold water in some cases [2]
  • Negative temperature is somehow infinitely hot [3]
  • There’s a lot more matter than antimatter in the universe [4]
  • Dark matter [5] and dark energy [6]
  • The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and recently discovered to be even faster than previously expected [7]
  • Almost anything to do with magnetic materials (ferromagnetism, superconductors, etc.) [8]
  • Quantum entanglement (affect one entangled subatomic particle, and observe instantaneous effects on its entangled twin many miles away) [9]
  • Quantum tunneling (subatomic particle has nonzero chance of suddenly being on other side of “impenetrable” barrier) [10]
  • Saturn’s hexagonal polar storm [11]
  • Space, time, matter, and energy may all be quantized, like pixels [12]

Footnotes

[1] A Bicycle Can Be Self-Stable Without Gyroscopic or Caster Effects

[2] Mpemba effect

[3] Atoms at negative absolute temperature: The hottest systems in the world

[4] Baryon asymmetry

[5] Dark matter

[6] Dark energy

[7] Hubble Finds Universe Expanding Faster Than Expected

[8] Superconductivity

[9] Quantum entanglement

[10] Quantum tunnelling

[11] This weird hexagon on Saturn has puzzled scientists for decades

[12] Is time quantized? In other words, is there a fundamental unit of time that could not be divided into a briefer unit?

Finishing Projects

You have probably heard of Jerry Seinfeld, an enormously successful, consistent, and productive television comedian. One night after a stand-up comedy set in the 1990’s, he told amateur comedian Brad Isaac that the secret to success was to show up and produce every day: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.” Jerry made no mention of quality, quantity, length of time, or any of the traditional metrics of progress. His only requirement was showing up and producing, no matter what.

We can take Jerry’s philosophy and apply it to any project. The key to a relatively stress-free project completion is to simply start and contribute to them, no matter what, and no matter how insignificantly, every single day. I suggest that you start it as soon as possible – today, in fact, if you can.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to write a book. No matter what, you’re required to make progress. It could be just a couple of lines, or a formatting edit, or even deleting material – just make sure you open and change the files every day. If you are stuck on writing content this week, work on your acknowledgements. If you’re attending to a personal emergency, remove a couple of redundant words from a chapter. If you come across a brilliant article relevant to your work, pop the citation into your references.

For example, on day one, give yourself the minimum requirement of starting the document. Save something like a “book.docx” file and make sure it lives in a backed up location. I highly recommend Dropbox; in fact, for my own personal book project, I synchronized my computer’s desktop with my Dropbox so that my book file is not only perfectly recoverable from any save point, but I can also have a reminder every day to open the file. After that, if you’re up for it, start applying your book’s margins, fonts, spacing, etc. (Or you can push it to the next day; after all, you have already fulfilled your first painless daily requirement.)

Let this strategy be a liberation for you. When you feel particularly motivated to add to your projects, go ahead. If not, simply make a positive change in some small way. No matter what you change that day, be satisfied that you have moved forward in a tangible way and pat yourself on the back.

Some days you’ll be on a roll and work for hours – on other days you’ll only have enough motivation to make small edits here and there.

But whatever you do, don’t break the chain.

Learning (Part 2)

In the previous post, I showed you all a Quora answer I gave about learning based primarily on learning facts. Below is another question I answered that focused on learning concepts and developing a correct intuition. It’s arguably more powerful.


What is the best way to learn and remember information?

The ultimate goal of learning is to take information that exists outside of your mind, and create a robust, recallable, and useable representation of it inside your mind.

Everyone is certainly aware of the “inside your mind” component. But how often do we consider “robust,” “recallable,” and “useable” when we try to learn? When I was a university teaching assistant, I saw that most students barely gave any thought to these.

If a student’s learning strategy consists only of memorizing whole passages of books and lecture notes via repetition, would they do well?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west…

Perhaps…at first. But what happens when the material grows in size and complexity? Over time, this strategy is doomed.

Let’s return to the main goal of learning; we are not satisfied just with any mental representation. We need a great one. Our goal is to fix it in your brain so well that it becomes as real and readily accessible to you as any physical tool in your hand.

Breaking it down:

  • For your learning to be robust, it needs to be connected to your world view. The concept needs to be real beyond all doubt, no matter how you look at it.

Sunrises and sunsets are determined by the motion of the earth. People wake up in New York before they wake up in Los Angeles. Sundials are oriented northward, and their shadows’ movement inspired the design of clocks (clockwise). This all only makes sense if the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

  • To make your learning recallable,  you need to have the ability to pull it from your memory without any external cues to the answer. Be honest with yourself and consciously avoid illusions of competence.

I just heard the above sunrise/sunset explanation from a friend, and it makes sense. I should see if I can reproduce my friend’s explanation after lunch. If I can’t honestly do it at that point, I’ll review and try again after dinner.

For your learning to be useable, you need to apply it to problems. Furthermore, you must monitor how easily you were able to employ that concept and arrive at the correct conclusion. An example problem: which direction (east or west) should you direct a rocket that is deploying a satellite in orbit around the earth?

A satellite needs to go at high speeds to maintain orbit. The earth is already rotating in a particular direction, so that is an automatic boost in speed; if the rocket goes in the same direction, it can use far less fuel, so the rocket can be much smaller and cheaper. Since we know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the earth must be rotating eastward. Therefore, the rocket should be directed east.

This is how you learn.

A final word on learning — your mind works just like a muscle, and therefore it needs to be exercised. Space out your learning and use it often.

Now go and be unstoppable.