Speaker for the Dead: Card’s Creatures (Part II)

This is the second part of a two-part post. Click here for Part I

Hello again, everyone.

This is the final post in my series on Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead and the last post of my rotation this month. Last week I started explaining how Card’s Piggies demonstrate his advice about writing aliens from his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy .as I’ve previously discussed in my series on writing aliens. This week I’ll finish that up with the last two points: Culture and Environment. This is a really great book and series (I’ve since gotten into Ender’s Shadow and love it so far) so I highly recommend them! As before, a warning:


Culture: The Problem of Monocultures

spock leonard nimoy generation 1 star trek
Star Trek is rife with monocultures. They tried a little harder in later generations.

As I’ve said before, the concepts of Biology, Culture, and Environment that Card focuses on in his advice are interrelated. But the fact that these elements blur only occurs if you are approaching the writing of your aliens correctly according to Card’s method: if you want to make memorable, believable, and unique aliens, you have to think about these elements of biology, culture, and environment related to each other. To do otherwise is carelessness or flawed in concept.

Culture is a construct, as much in the fictional world as in reality. The way we live here on the east coast of the US is different from how they live in the Congo, for example. Much of this has to do with people having to learn how to adapt to their environment, and our biology dictates our needs and desires within that environment. Other elements are dependent on the rational mind: art, science, law, and other marks of civilization go beyond mere survival to creating a distinct culture. You’re well served to think through all of these things, of course, but there’s one big problem you should avoid as much as possible: monocultures. You’ve seen them in Star Trek and other science fiction, and it’s incredibly lazy. An entire world, one giant, homogeneous culture? Even if you’re trying to convince me that your aliens have formed one world government and nation, it is unbelievable that regional differences would not create a varied culture, even if there are some overarching constants. It’s one of the weaselly ways that stories get around the problem of entire worlds needing to be filled.

I give up on finding illustrations of the piggies that aren’t either terrifying or terrible.

That said, the Piggies are, in a way, a monoculture. If the author’s tendency for making monocultures is based in the difficulty of filling an entire world with varied aliens, Card sidesteps the issue quite nicely. The human scientists who encounter the Piggies are not allowed to go out and explore the rest of the planet by order of the International Fleet, for one thing. They can’t verify how the rest of the planet’s Piggies act, so we can’t see if there are significant variations of culture. The Piggies are all stone-age in their technology, so that does limit how much their culture would have differentiated (very low communication technology, for example, restricts the spread of ideas). But the main reason the Piggies make sense as a monoculture is because their lives are tied so closely to their biology. As I mentioned in the last post, the Piggies’ reproduction is tied to the forests they live in. The trees themselves play a role, because in a way the trees are Piggies. I’ll leave the exact mechanism a secret for now (mostly because I can’t think of a way to explain it that makes much sense or doesn’t come off as really weird), but the basics are that Card has come up with a really unique life cycle for his aliens which defines everything they do, from their language, to how they make their tools and weapons, to how they interact with their females. Card’s Piggies are not quite a monoculture, but in this case, Card has shown a narrow exception to his own rule.

Environment: Defining a People’s Limitations

Assuming biology is basically the same across the board, the way your aliens live in different environments should look very different. Think about how humans live on Earth: in the desert, on the tundra, on the coasts and islands… we are very fortunate that Earth’s environment is so beautifully varied. The mistake many SF writers make is that they decide on a particular biome and say “Yeah let’s just make an entire planet like that.” Well, it’s not that easy! First of all, you have to make sure what you’re describing is actually possible. Even if you’ve come up with some contrived reason that the planet makes sense, someone, at some point in your story needs to be curious. It would make sense that the stone-age natives of a cube-shaped planet wouldn’t blink at the revelation of this fact. But it would be silly if no one took issue with this fact and tried to figure out the mystery of it. Barring any crazy, plot-affecting features, if a planet is hospitable for whatever reason, if we are to assume that something can live there, it’s got to be well adapted. If the planet is  fairly hospitable, you would be well served to come up with some reasons why it isn’t basically just Earth 2.0 (unless that’s a plot point).

Piggy acryllic painting
I guess this one is pretty nice, although a little inaccurate.

Card’s Piggie homeworld Lusitania is basically what you’d call a “garden world,” being mostly habitable temperate zones with some small polar icecaps. A majority of the landmass is covered with vegetation, and the Piggies live pretty much everywhere. On the surface, it looks a lot like earth, which might otherwise be inconsequential to the plot (it doesn’t always have to be a big deal). But there’s one major difference that makes Lusitania very strange and un-earthlike: it lacks diversity to an extreme. An otherwise fertile planet that, much to the human visitors’ surprise, has very few species. This becomes extremely important to the plot of Speaker for the Dead as the human scientists unravel the mystery of the planet’s lack of numerous animals and plants, and its connection to the Descolada, a terrible plague that was only narrowly cured. I won’t spoil anymore, except to say that Card’s Lusitania is a great example of his interwoven approach, making each aspect of his world reliant on the other. The effect is unique and memorable.

That’s it for this week, and this series! I did my best not to spoil the best parts of the book, so if you haven’t read Speaker for the Dead, definitely pick it up! I’d also recommend How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to anyone interested in writing in either genre. Card has a lot a great advice, with great examples from his own work.

Science Fiction Problems: The Pros and Cons of Drone Warfare

Hello everyone! I’m finally back with another Science Fiction Problems, where I take an issue that writers of sci-fi tend to struggle with (or with which I myself struggle) and offer handy advice for tackling the issue. This often comes in the form of debunking myths (like “space is cold!”) and attacking cliches that appear in books, movies, and video games that many writers take for granted.

gray eagle drone air force unmanned plane
I've actually always thought these looked kind of creepy

This time around, I’ll be addressing an issue that I haven’t actually read or seen much of in sci-fi recently: drone and robotic warfare. Even if you’re not from the States, I’m sure you are well aware that the American military makes very effective use of remote-operated bombers in the middle east. This is the most well-known form of drone warfare, and has been the center of a lot of contraversy as people consider whether or not such a method is ethical.

Specifically, I Don’t Mean The Terminator

I find this as ironic as I find it disturbing

Now, there have been movies and books about robot soldiers and planes (like that horrible Stealth movie), but there’s an important difference there: drone warfare specifically involves a human controller, not artificial intelligence (that almost always becomes self-aware and goes on rampage). This creates a real ethical problem, because the cold calculation of war is not left up to a computer, but still very much in humanity’s hands. Does this dehumanize the controller? Does it create an ilusion of separation between the decision and the operator that makes it more like a video game than real war? These are some of the many questions that are asked about real life drones.

If you plan on using drones in your sci-fi, even in a limited sense, there are many points to consider. While I’m labeling them Pros and Cons, this more reflects the real-world perspective. Any one of these points could be a “good” point to leverage in an interesting way in your story.


  • Reduced Casualties: proponents of drone warfare be quick to point out an obvious benefit, which is that many (friendly) lives are saved. This is a boon no matter who is using them, whether the military using them cares more about public relations image or the lives of the soldiers themselves.
  • Tactical Superiority: American bomber drones are so effective because they can pop in and out of warzones, do some quick reconnaisance, and perform precision sneak attacks. And that’s just the bomber drones! In Sci-fi, we can have anything from tank drones to submarine drones, and any size or shape that is needed for a job.
  • Retaining Skilled Pilots: in times of war, highly trained personnell are essential. Often, skileld pilots in the field will be killed or captured if their vehicle is destroyed. Not so with drones! If a drone is destroyed, the pilot is fine, and could be piloting another one immediately.


  • Potential Costs: War is always expensive, but the more sophisticate your approach, the more costly is can be. Often, there is a tradeoff between casualties and investment per soldier, but in this case, assuming a large proportion of your fighting force is robotic, then the cost per “soldier” shoots through the roof. If a nation is fielding mostly drone forces, if they start doing badly, the sheer financial burden could accelerate easily out of control (which could turn into a Cold War style ending for a country, if that’s what you’re going for).
  • Dehumanizing Factor: This may or may not be true of real-world drone warfare, but in the case of science fiction, there is a real potential for abuse. In a culture already inundate with violent video games and media, it would be easy for a less-than-ethical government to turn particularly good gamers into ruthless drone pilots, making it more about their score than fighting for your country. Orson Scott Card did this in Ender’s Game (I won’t spoil it for you, though! Go find out how!), and offers an example where the players didn’t even know what they were doing was real. This is the extreme logical end of the ethical problem, and could be a great plot point.
  • Diminishing of the Reality of War: It is already difficult today to feel that war is real, but think how hard it would be if no one in your country even really went to war. Especially if the government of a nation was actively concealing the reality of the war from its people, any sense of preparedness and attitude of prudence would be extremely difficult to maintain. Greece-style riots would likely break out at the first pressure of rationing or rising costs, because the populace would have no connection to the hardship’s necessity. This would be a logical consequence of how the nation handles its war, whether it decieves its people or not.

Well there you have it! That’s quite a lot to think about, and next week I’ll get into some ideas for different kinds of drones you might use! Until then, what are some other pros and cons for drone warfare? Is there anything that I overlooked? Has anyone seen any good books or movies that handles this well? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Problems: Cloaking and Invisibility

Hello all! This week’s a big one on a topic that’s been slowly building in my brain for some time now: cloaking. Whether it’s your run-of-the-mill Klingon Warbird or practically every cyberpunk anime ever created, someone somewhere is going invisible. Is this possible? Is this practical? Does it matter?

Yes. Sometimes. Absolutely! Let me show you how.

Set Ship to “Invisible Mode”

star trek klingon bird of prey
They sure like to get up close an personal, don't they? I suppose invisibility would be useful in that case- as long as no one uses any other methods for tracking ships.

Ok, here’s my first problem: you don’t need to be invisible in space. Chances are, if we ever do get to where we regularly traipse around the galaxy in our very own star cruisers, we won’t be relying on sight to pick out that tiny speck against the black of the infinite vacuum that may or may not be a pirate vessel bent on shivering your timbers and whatnot. It doesn’t matter if the ship’s painted bright neon orange- unless it’s about as big as a small moon, you’re not going to notice it from 1000 miles away in space.

Sure, you could  outfit your ship with hundreds of ultra-powerful telescopic cameras to let your on-board computers pick out suspicious objects in space, but there are other MUCH more effective methods which I’ll likely discuss in a later post. The gist of it is that depending on how space ships move around in your story, they’re going to emit all sorts of waves of radiation, heat, and light that could be used to pinpoint their location, in much the same way we do so with other things in space (planets, stars, asteroids, etc.).

If a ship wanted to be “cloaked”, all it would need to do is contain its heat/radiation/exhaust/whatever so that other ships that rely on detecting those things wouldn’t be able to. If the hidden ship did need to get close, a simple jet-black paint job would get him about as close as he could risk without being detected by other forms of sensors.

Mass Effect Normandy
That long lower section next to the hull is one of the containers that the engines can feed into while in stealth mode.

Some science fiction story worlds have taken this issue into account, one great example of which is seen in the sci-fi RPG video game Mass Effect, by Bioware. The Normandy (seen right), a human vessel designed as an elite stealth frigate, uses such a system to conceal its radiation and heat signature inside its insulated hull, rendering it practically invisible to anyone they might need to sneak up on.

If you really want to, you could come up with some specific instances where your ships would need to be completely invisible, but as you can see, it’s not as generally useful as you might think. Not to say that other things in space wouldn’t find it tactically relevant to make themselves invisible, but it would all have to be in addition to the kind of shielding described above. That way, the rebels can have their ultra-secret home base orbiting a mysterious gas planet- they’re just going to need a little more than a cloaking field.

Where it would in fact be incredibly useful is on the ground- soldiers, elite commandos, buildings, vehicles, you name it! Practically anything not in space would be close enough to its observers to make use of some good ‘ol fashioned invisibility.

It’s Just Magic, OK??

HG wells the invisible man
Wells envisioned it as some sort of chemical treatment rendering a man's molecules inert to light- impossible, but a great story anyway.

If only it was that simple. Sure, fantasy stories have the easy, no-questions-asked solution to the glaring problem of exactly how that particular article of clothing lets it wearer run around unseen, but if a sci-fi author wants anything similar, he has to WORK for it to be believable. Obviously TV and movies again get a bit of a pass here as long as the CGI department does its job, but if you want your invisible soldiers to feel like more than a convenient plot point, you’ll need some kind of tech basis for your cloaking device.

Since sci-fi writers don’t have access to some mystical veil that makes the wearer transparent, we have one of two methods available to us: optical camouflage or metamaterials.

Optical Camouflage

In a certain sense, we already have the technology to render someone invisible. Specially-designed patterns printed on clothing can diffuse the shape of a human into the background, and artificial leaves and other faux foliage woven into a suit can make a man impossible to find. Usually, becoming invisible is only really useful if your opponent is unaware of you- for snipers, it doesn’t make much difference if their gunshot reveals their location if their target is already dead. If you want to move unseen, however, camouflage can only help you so much.

As is the case in many areas of science, however, Nature has already done what we can only dream of. Cephalopods (octopi, cuttlefish, etc.) are capable of what is called Adaptive Camouflage, or camouflage that is able to change based on its background. The octopus is so adept at this that it can almost perfectly replicate the pattern and contrast of his environment:

See what I mean? How does he do it? No one quite knows, but we’ve been trying to do something similar for quite some time. What do we have so far? Well, this:

Kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? The basic means we have at our disposal is by using a camera to take in the image of the environment behind an object, and then projecting that image in front of it by some method. The effect is similar to invisibility, in that the observer can see through to the other side of the object, but of course it’s far from perfect. The folks at the Inami Laboratory break it down into an external projector and a reflective material (which seems like it would be inconvenient), but another way would be to use small screens to display the image being taken in by the camera. By setting up an array of cameras pointing in every direction, each display could then handle every angle, making it so that no matter what perspective an observer has on the user, the effect remains.

One similar idea is being done for BAEs ACTIV technology, but for infrared instead of visible light. Each hexagonal panel can heat or cool itself to match the background and blend in, making the heat signature of the tank indeterminable. If you did the same thing but with individual display screens, you could have something resembling Adaptive Camouflage. While this technology seems pretty basic at the moment, it is rapidly becoming more sophisticated and practical. In either case, there are Pros and Cons to consider:


  • Compatible with armor: screens could be built from nano-scale pixels built into the top layer of armor plating, or placed behind layers of transparent metals, allowing for both protection and camouflage.
  • Light weight and comparatively cheap. While the components of such a system would be tricky to manufacture, they would be comparatively cheaper and less bulky than the Metamaterials described below, and considerably more durable. If the surface was scratched, the image would just have a small blemish instead of just failing completely. What’s more, that small piece could be easily replaced.
  • Not true invisibility: while this method would allow for some pretty convincing camouflage that changes on the fly, it would still be quite possible to detect the user with normal equipment. Microwaves and other detecting light beams would still bounce off of the surfaces of the cloaked object, and with certain conditions (dust, rain, mud, etc.), the user could become easily visible to the naked eye as well.
  • Blur effect: Just as it works better for normal camouflage to be still, so would this optical camouflage work better if the user didn’t move. If he decided he needed to run for it, however, the effect would remain, but there would always be a danger that his movements would be faster than his on-board computer could refresh the screens of the system, creating a flicker or blurring effect. This effect could make it fairly easy to pick out a cloaked figure or vehicle, rendering the device almost useless.
This method for cloaking devices is the easiest for fooling the naked eye, but keep in mind that if you use optical camouflage, you will have to account for the other ways in which the cloak user could be found out. This could be a plot point, but it could also be a big hassle- be careful! There is a big potential for plot holes when you add cloaking devices into the mix.


Since the human eye works by absorbing the light waves bounced off of objects, if you somehow managed to make light bend around something, it would become invisible. An example of this is a mirage- the illusion of pools of shimmering water on the ground at a distance. This occurs when light shining across a surface distant from your vantage point bends over the horizon, obscuring the ground with a reflection of the sky. The ground is essentially being made invisible by the waves of light that are bending around it, so you see the sky where the ground should be.

metamaterials cloaker
The gold-colored metal you see there is etched with over 6000 unique metals and alloys in intricate fractal patterns

Researchers at Duke University managed to replicate this effect using intricately woven structures of exotic metals by generating just the right electromagnetic fields to divert light waves around an object (in this case, a small bump in the surface. The result is that a wide range of light waves (including some not in the visible spectrum) simply move around the bump instead of bouncing off of it, rendering it invisible.

Now that all sounds cool and everything, but the truth is its all on the micro-scale right now. Doing this on a larger, more useful scale is pretty far off at the moment, but they’re working on it, and that’s good enough for us. These devices could potentially be made to work off of one another, passing light waves off to bend around a surface (like a jumpsuit, or the armor of a tank), but it’s all very delicate. Alternately, the device could just be super-sized, but then it would be extremely heavy and not very mobile. There are a number of other Pros and Cons associated with this method:


  • Adaptability: This technology could be used not only to make objects invisible, but to mask them from radio waves, infrared, and any other light waves that could be used to detect it or carry a signal. It could also be used to redirect sound waves, and even seismic waves of energy carried through the ground.
  • This method, if successful, would be an absolute solution. It would not be an illusion, but an actual nullification of light-based senses in any spectrum. On top of that, in contrast to Optical Camouflage, metamaterials could be effective in spite of movement, at any speed slower that the speed of light.
  • Expensive and fragile. The exotic metals and intricate patterns required for this process would require extensive manufacturing with specialized equipment, and once it’s built, you can’t just slap some armor on it. Any sort of plating or traditional armor would disrupt the effect, and the metamaterials are fragile and intricate so that they could not work properly if damaged. You could put armor under the layer of metamaterials, but if the user is exposed because his invisibility field blinked out, that armor probably won’t be enough.
  • Distortion: while this wouldn’t be an issue if your system was just an upsized version of the metamaterials, if its made up of a composite of a bunch of little devices in order for it be mobile, as in the case of a personal suit or small vehicle, there would likely be some distortion as the pieces move and shift. The effect would probably not be a problem unless the wearer is already known and the enemy is actively looking for the tell-tale blur, but it is a consideration (and a potential plot point! Gosh I love those).
Gits katsuragi camouflage
Characters in the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex make constant use of cloaking, which could be explained by either of the two methods described in this post

This method is a bit more like the traditional cloaking that we see everywhere (which kind of makes it even cooler since its a real technology), but it’s also the cleanest. This method is better used in moderation due to the potential plot holes that could arise if this sort of technology is easy to get at, but if you want a way to have invisibility without the problems associated with Optical Camouflage, metamaterials are the way to go.

A Conclusion to Cloaking
As you can see (or not… ha!), there are good and bad ways to handle this, and even if you’re basing your cloaking tech on currently developing technology, you’ll need to be extra careful that it fits with your story and doesn’t break your world. You can keep this in check by determining that this technology, though effective, is exclusive due to prohibitive cost or a shortage of the right materials (especially in the case of exotic Metamaterials) or just the means to make them (both would require complex algorithms and specially designed computer systems). Keep in mind that if the ‘good guys’ are using it, the evil genius shouldn’t bee completely unprepared for such a possibility, etc. Just like with every other aspect to your world building, make sure that the rules for invisibility make sense within the context of the larger world.
I hope this has been as interesting and helpful to you as it has been for me! Next week will be something new, so come back soon. Until then, what would you do if you could be invisible? C’mon, everyone’s daydreamed about that some time, so let’s hear it!

Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (The When’s, Why’s, Do’s, and Don’ts) Part IV

This is the third part of a series. To see Part I, click here. To see Part II, click here. To see Part III, click here.

Hello all, it’s that time of the week again, and I’m here with another installment of Science Fiction Problems. I’ve still got a couple things left to say about video games in Science Fiction, but next week will be the last part of this series. I’ve got some new stuff after that , starting with a review of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. This week, I wanted to highlight another aspect of modern video games that I haven’t seen handled in a way that makes sense.

Mobile Games and the Future of Location-Independent Computing

Premise: Pigs steal eggs. Birds retaliate. Entertainment ensues.

Last week I talked about social games and the Skinner Box trick that’s used in many of them, but there’s another similar genre that most people lump together with Farmville and its ilk: mobile games. Games created specifically to be played on a mobile device such as a smartphone or a tablet PC, devices that otherwise have very limited hardware and are incapable of the sort of AAA games available for higher-end laptops and desktop computers. Angry Birds and other puzzle-type games are some of the most known, but a quick look online will return results for a much broader spectrum of games available, including a large number of surprisingly sophisticated ones, many with 3D graphic s and complicated programming that would have been considered current-generation only 7-10 years ago… now on a device that can fit in the palm of your hand.

While we’ve already discussed the Technological Singularity and how it’s not necessarily reasonable to assume that our current rate of development will continue to increase exponentially, within the span of 2 years, we have achieved a growth in the sophistication of mobile games that it took the rest of the video gaming industry 10 years to accomplish. And, the further we go into developing this technology, the more a particular trend becomes clear- the decreasing need for location-based computing, relying on a cumbersome, stationary system on which to play games or use our work-related programs.

Not only that, but there is currently a push for individual game consoles or computers to be done away with entirely. Listening to the news or browsing the internet, you’ve probably come across the term “cloud computing“, which essentially means using a network of computers as if it were one giant one. This method can be used with wireless internet to connect a smaller device normally incapable of a given task to use the cloud to handle it instead- meaning that a mobile device can use the computing power or data storage capacity of a whole group of computers instead of its own, meager hardware. A common example is the ever-useful (and beloved in our particular group) Google Docs. All that information is stored online, with practically no limits to memory, and can be accessed from a smartphone or any other device, without storing the data on the device itself. Go check it out if you haven’t already, its incredibly useful.

So, what does this mean, exactly? Well, right now there are limitations on how much data can be transmitted wirelessly, but after that’s solved, it could mean being able to play high-end games and use hardware-intensive programs on the go, without having to lug around an expensive laptop. This could mean playing the latest video games on your cellphone, or editing high-resolution images or videos, easily, on a mobile device.

What we’re looking at is a future without a limit on what can be done with a mobile device.

How this figures into Science Fiction

OK, so now that I’m done geeking out about mobile technology, we can get down to actually using this stuff. I think many of you have seen a sci-fi movie where the characters are using some kind of arm-mounted computer (usually with a holographic display), but I’m sure you just assumed that the little unit had all the hardware built into it, and it was cheap enough to be widely used. Well, while that would certainly be possible and plausible, it’s more likely that such a computer would use a network like the one I described above. Obviously, you could have such a device and never go into any detail as to how it works, but if you want to add a layer of world-building that will make your world feel more real, here are a few ways you could utilize this emerging technology:

  • Differences Between Consumer and Professional Devices: If there are very few expensive parts in the actual computers that the general populace of a culture purchase, the devices will be very affordable and inexpensive. There would likely be a service fee to connect the device to the network, but that wouldn’t be necessary. The only downsides would be that the device would not work as well (or at all) without a network connection, and using a wireless connection could open the door for government monitoring of data and possible hacking.  More expensive devices could contain the hardware, not relying on a network and therefore not be as vulnerable to hacking or connection problems. This could be a way to explain why the elite hacker in your group of characters isn’t nabbed by the evil corporation he constantly harasses, or why a group of activists is constantly found out by a government bent on global dictatorship.
  • Saturation of Media and Video Games: With such cheap, powerful devices available, the level of saturation a culture would see of media in all its forms would surpass anything we see today. As I mentioned in the last post, practically anyone could develop games or programs themselves, and depending on the culture, the kinds of media that the populace creates (or are able to create) and consumes would be a great way of characterizing them. With mobile devices, a government could easily censor forms of speech it doesn’t like, but potentially anyone could become an activist in their own right (or, as it were, the protagonist of your story).
As you can see, there are several avenues that have not yet been explored, and several more that can be discovered as we think about what this trend of mobile technology might mean in our future. The fact that such powerful tools could potentially be so widely available means that such a world could be radically different from our own, and the potential dangers and opportunities beg to be written.
Well, that’s all for this week. Next week will be a wrap-up and summation of what we’ve discussed in this series, and a list of questions to ask yourself when building a science fiction world with these ideas in mind. Until then, here’s a great video essay presentation from a small group of video game industry insiders that covers the topic I discussed in a very professional (and amusing) fashion:

Extra Credits: Consoles Are the New Coin-Op

(I tried to embed it, but alas. No youtube links. They’ve done several others, so if you’re at all interested in the video game industry and discussing video games as a medium, they’re all fantastic.)

Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (The When’s, Why’s, Do’s, and Don’ts) Part III

This is the third part of a series. To see Part I, click here. To see part II, click here.

So, last week I gave a long-ish introduction to the history of the idea virtual reality in science fiction, and its relationship to video games. I then listed two things to think about when considering if you should focus on video games in your story, saying that you shouldn’t if they don’t actually add anything, but if you decide it’s important, to use video games as a vehicle for discussion rather than just a neat background. Well, while I still think these are good points to consider, I think I’ll handle this topic  in the same way as I did with my series on writing aliens, all in the hopes that I can help get those creative juices going for anyone who’s interesting in putting video games in their sci-fi story. So, here are some levels of consideration you might not have thought of.

Of Farmville and the Social Gaming Boom

Like REAL farming, but without the BENEFITS!

One phenomenon that I have not yet seen addressed in science fiction is that of social gaming, accounting for the habit-forming, relatively simplistic video games that for some strange reason, average people (typically considered “non-gamers”) go crazy for. When you actually break down what these games have to offer as far as entertainment value, there’s very little to them- very small rewards strewn across an endless series of small, easy goals in an ever-extending period of time. So what makes these games so addicting, if they really aren’t all that fun to play? Well, some of it comes from the simple relaxation of playing an easy game with minimal commitment requirements, but there’s actually a somewhat devious psychological trick being employed here, called the Skinner Box.

The Operant Conditioning Chamber, created by B.F. Skinner (hence: Skinner Box), is essentially a cage outfitted with a button that, when pushed, rewards its occupant with a treat. What Skinner discovered through his methods was that he could not only condition his test animals (and later, humans) to push the button to get a reward, but control how often the action was performed. I won’t get into the minutia of how this worked, but essentially, Skinner’s tests essentially explained certain confusing human behaviors (such as gambling) by demonstrating that random or infrequent, small rewards were more effective in persuading the test subject to perform the desired action more frequently than to simply give the reward each time. This trick is used to make consumers play these games well beyond enjoyment, and with very little effort on the part of the games’ creators.

So, how is this phenomenon important? Here are some ways in which Skinner-box social games could develop in the future (and hence, in your story):

  • A Differentiation Between Cultures: While a consumer-driven market of entrepreneurial game developers will not usually stoop to this cheap trick, a 1984-esque Big Brother type government-funded industry certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about it. Such an inherently manipulative tool as the Skinner Box could very easily be used to create a series of seemingly entertaining video games to lull a dependent social class, making it easier for a dictatorship to keep its power. Alternately, the free people of a country with a more laissez faire government would likely place great importance and renown for the most artistic and creative games, as they would with movies and other forms of media. Keeping this in mind, you could use what kinds of video games are available in certain cultures to characterize and contrast them.
  • The Presence of Gamification: The Skinner Box principle could also be used by employers to (at least attempt to) encourage efficiency. If all of their tasks were “gamified”, turned into mildly entertaining mini-games, then employees would be more likely to stay engaged in their work and perform their allotted tasks on time and with a reasonable degree of enthusiasm. Imagine if bonuses were awarded randomly, with a sort of percentage-based chance that with each repetition of the task, the employee would win paid vacation time, or bonus pay. It would be up to you if this sort of practice represents intentional conditioning or just hyper consumerism, and whether or not there are ethical problems with this practice.

Well, that’s all for this week. Next week I’ll look at a direction I think mobile computing and video games are going, and how you could use that in your story. Let me know if there’s a something you think I missed or should cover, and I’ll try to get to it next time. For now, here’s a hilarious spoof commercial for the most notorious of social games- mild language warning.



Until next week, how many of you have ever gotten hooked on one of the Skinner Box games like I described above? Anyone else sort of resent companies like Zynga for pulling such a cheap trick to get people to waste a bunch of time farming electronic corn? Let me know in the comments below!