The Witness and the importance of perspective

I am not much of a gamer, but I do occasionally have my binges, the latest one being when I discovered and then became obsessed with 'The Witness' by Jonathan Blow. Now the fact that Mr Blow (don't laugh) made the game is somewhat important in providing context. Blow is a legend in the videogame industry, a creative pioneer that has pushed the medium in provocative directions. Videogames is actually not an apt term to describe what Blow has created, just as 'sports' is an unhelpful term to describe the plethora of physical activities. As philosopher and academic superstar, Sam Harris, have pointed on several occasions some sports are synomounous with intense physical effort (Ultrarunning comes to mind) while others are revered as the pinnacle of relaxation (such as golf). Sports does not tell you much about the activity; likewise 'video games' does not convey much information about the experience you might have. In the same way, the witness will most likely be different from any other game you have ever heard off. 


The game starts immediately mysterious. No title screen, no selecting anything - you have no idea where you are and where you are going. The only option is to walk through a dark tunnel, and as you reach the end, you are presented with a grid. As you click on it, you discover the cursor draws a line on the grid, and you trace it from the beginning to the end, and that's it. A door opens, and you have just completed your first puzzle. Your objective is to trace a line from one end of the grid to other, but soon the rules of these grids will be modified altered and expanded upon, while the game is never explicitly telling you what to do. You will have to learn the language of these puzzles to proceed, and as you do, you set the foundations for not just solving the specific puzzle, but every puzzle. 


Soon the game will present a problem that is far more complex than anything you have seen so far. You can brute force the solution, but the ideas are to make you give you up. So you walk around a bit and view the puzzle from a new angle — something suddenly occurs to you. The sun weirdly reflects in the panel, so you trace the highlighted path and solve the puzzle. Progress in this game comes in a few subtle ways, and it is not as if you are becoming smarter as you play, rather you train yourself to expand your notion on what constitutes relevant information. As your frame of reference expands, so does your ability to solve the puzzles. 


In the beginning, most players will only view the information displayed on the grid as relevant. But slowly, you learn to pay attention to light and shadow, the surroundings, the sounds, branches. The experience of continually expanding on how you look at the virtual reality is really magnificent. A common experience is that you become so adept at seeing patterns, that you start seeing them in real life. The floorboards look different, the sky, the grass, the walls – everywhere there is patterns. The game has successfully changed the way you look at the world.


The experience of dedicating so much time to an activity that it changes how you interpret information is known as the 'Tetris effect', discovered by psychologists when people engaged in the game started seeing the tetromino pattern in their thoughts, mental images, and dreams. The effects are laughable until you consider that interaction with visual information quite literally shapes our perception of intelligence.  A study, conducted by Lynn Okagaki and Peter Frensch in 1994, showed that participants who played Tetris for twelve 30-minute sessions (with no previous experience of the game) did much better than the control group in both the paper-pencil test version of spatial skills as well as the digital version. Spatial intelligence, by the way, is one of the main features of I.Q. 


If we can improve people’s I.Q. score just by changing the perspective of visual information, that inevitably changes how we should view of intelligence. David Krakuaer, founder of the Santa Fe Institute refers to these changes in perceptions as ‘mental constructs’. (I have linked the relevant podcast episode and it should be listened to in its enterity). Krakuaer's relays the story of master abacus users. When the user becomes sufficiently acquainted with the abacus, they can visualize the movements without the aid of an actual physical abacus. As a result, they appear to do complex calculations with lightning speed, but actually, they are just moving mental marbles in their minds. 


In some sense our entire education system is based on these changes of internalized perspectives. They are rarely as tangible as mental constructs, but I would suggest the more potent changes is often manifested much more subtly. With any given college education, development comes in two forms. There is the obvious, tip of the iceberg, layer of knowledge accessible in concrete facts, but below that, there is a much deeper and softer knowledge represented in a new outlook. In the legal profession, this second layer is often referenced as 'the skull of lawyer’ after a famous line in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. The idea being that lawyers think fundamentally different the doctors, mechanics or psychologist. People changes according to the knowledge absorbed.


Warren Buffet often is quoted by saying that “knowledge compounds” but the real compounding happens when the territory of familiarity is ever expanding. Hermeneutics is a double-edged sword, that on one side it makes us able to interpret the world, but on the other also limits our perception. Hence the perfect place to be situated is with one foot in the known and one in the unknown,  constantly integrating more and more information into your conception of relevant. The beauty of the Witness is that it conveys this experience so fluently. Sometimes the problem is not one of effort sometimes it just a matter of perspective. Most people struggle with at least one subject in University and it can seem dauting and confusing. But knowledge as assimilated suddenly something will crystalize, that is beyond what you already know. It is a new outlook. 


This the argument for intense and frequent reading. In this sense you cannot judge a book by its cover. You cannot even judge it by its content. You should judge on how it helps you to organize other ideas and change your perspective. The right perspective on a problem, is equivalent to taking the shortest path up a mountain. You can get there with alternate routes, but it will take longer than it has to. The longer path is signified by pursuing wrong ideas and bad information, it is a symptom of not knowing what you are looking for. In such a case attempt to change your perspective, talk it out until you feel it, the change and refinement of the should that is characteristic of the new understanding.