11 Dec 2006
“MINOTAUR SWINGS AT MATT --PARRIED!”
Apart from a brief stint doing a paper round, the nearest I got to having a job as a kid was taking part in a university psychology experiment when I was 12. Luckily it didn’t involve electrodes, drugs, probing questions or living in a cage. All I had to do was wander over there after dinner and play on a computer for an hour or two.
I played Eamon (various emulators available), a text-based game with dozens of different adventures to go on. It was the standard text adventure stuff I’d encountered on the Spectrum, but with two important additions: you could build your character over time, and get friendly characters to follow you to assist in combat against multiple enemies (you could give weapons to allies, they’d run off if injured/scared, etc.). Essentially, it was a single-player version of the Multi-User Dungeon games I’d encounter several years later.
The experiment seemed to be related to points accumulated in the game, but there was clearly something odd going on. Some of the other participants listed on the wall were getting scores tens of times greater than mine, even though they hadn’t played for long. In the end it turned out that the students were comparing me to a chicken.
Sadly, they hadn’t taught chickens to play Eamon (which surely would’ve been the most awesome experiment ever). Apparently, when a machine gave a food reward to a chicken they tended to pause and look around, doing some kind of self-congratulatory ritual. The swivel chair I sat on was wired up to detect if I moved around when I got an extra point (each participant received them at a different rate, hence the varying scores), and I suppose that was combined with data about how much I was typing. I pointed out that the score board was to one side, so my main reason for chair movement was to occasionally compare my score with others, which might’ve corrupted their data.
The experiment taught me a few things:
- Playing computer games beats lugging around hundreds of newspapers in the rain.
- If a crude illusion of multiple players works fairly well, true multiplayer online gaming must be hugely compelling.
- People really will pay you to do stuff you’d be doing anyway (I’d still build web sites if there was no money in it. Don’t get funny ideas though, clients; I didn’t say I’d still be building your web sites, OK?).