Miranda’s elementary school was a parent participation program, so I spent a couple of hours there every week for several years. And one of the most peculiar aspects of that experience was watching kids learn how to read. I have been reading fluently and obsessively for most of four decades by now, so I am literally incapable of imagining seeing a piece of English text appear in front of my eyes and not taking in its meaning immediately. Which definitely wasn’t the case for these kids (and they were generally smart kids raised in book-friendly households): each letter would be a struggle, and when confronted with a long word, they would try to figure out the first few letters, come up with a plausible sound matching their reading of those letters, and then leap to a word that they knew that matched that sound. Frequently, the result would be correct, frequently it wouldn’t; in the cases where the result wasn’t correct, errors could crop in at any stage in the process. They could identify the letters incorrectly, they could make an incorrect transition from letters to sound, or they could make an incorrect extrapolation from partial sound to full word. The resulting process was one that was completely foreign to me.
Or at least one that was completely foreign to me at the time; shortly thereafter, I got a lot more sympathy (a lot more empathy, really) for what those kids were going through as I started learning Japanese: I made the exact same mistakes as they did. In fact, and I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit this: I still make the exact same mistakes as they did, even though I’ve been studying Japanese for about half a decade by now! Translating from marks on paper to words in my mind requires a lot of mental effort, requires real stamina: far too often, I just don’t have the patience to do that, so I try to short-circuit the process halfway through, with less-than-ideal results. Heck, I sometimes have to stop and think about which of さ or ち is sa or chi, which of シ or ツ is shi or tsu, which of ン or ソ is n or so; it’s the exact same problem those kids were facing every time they saw the letters b or d.
So: the next time you’re watching a Hong Kong action flick or a Japanese anime, take some time to marvel at the words written on screen in the introduction, at the signs you see on buildings, or turn on subtitles. And realize that there are hundreds of millions of people out there who read those words as effortlessly as you read English. Because your reading of English, if it’s like mine, really is effortless: my brain has been rewired to do a significant amount of processing without any conscious thought or apparent exertion of energy: text goes straight from my eyes to chunks of words and meaning.
Alternatively, you could play Super Hexagon. Which is a game that I didn’t expect to be any good at: as any of the VGHVI regulars can attest, my skills at twitch games leave something to be desired. (I don’t think my reflexes were ever particularly wonderful, and I’m sure they haven’t gotten any better as I’ve gotten older.) So a game that requires me to react quickly to oncoming events, basically choosing the single correct response to each of them, didn’t sound like a good match for my skill set.
Fortunately, the game did throw me a few lifelines amidst its frantic demands for response. It didn’t take too long before I realized that, just before you hit the 10 second mark, you’ll see a couple of 180-degree turns. So I knew I didn’t have to think about that; and, as a bonus, I got to practice the move that has you move as far as possible from your previous position. Or, soon after you hit the 20 second mark, it will give you a ring with two gaps in it, 120 degrees apart, with one of those gaps disappearing, and you’ll be confronted with pentagons for a while. Those pentagons were tough (and the 30- to 45-second high score seems to be the first widespread plateau in players’ experience with the game), but at least I knew what I was up against.
And what I was up against wasn’t an unpredictable series of gaps in walls forming a maze that I had to navigate: what I was up against was a set of patterns of shapes that were approaching me. And, as I discovered while trying those pentagons over and over again, not an unbounded set of patterns, or even a particularly large one; we’re talking 10–20 of them, with restrictions on what patterns can appear next to each other. It’s actually a slightly less complicated set of patterns than the Roman alphabet, at it turns out. (And, as a bonus, with some similarities to the challenges that alphabets pose: every time I see a gap that’s 120 degrees away from my current position and I accidentally go left instead of right, I think of those kids and their difficulty reliably telling b’s apart from d’s.)
So: that turns out to be a challenge that I can get much better at. I wasn’t trying to sharpen my reflexes to a finer and finer point, I just had to learn how to not be abysmally bad at recognizing letters in an alphabet. It took me a while, but I did eventually make it through 60 seconds of Hexagon mode, at which point I was awarded an achievement and unlocked Hyper Hexagon mode. Which was a rather rude awakening: most of the patterns were the same, but it’s fast! So now, Super Hexagon really has turned into a game of reflexes, hasn’t it?
As it turns, out: no, it hasn’t. I’d just reached a stage where I had finally made it all the way through reading a paragraph on my own: it’s a lot of work, a real accomplishment, but being asked to do that faster doesn’t require faster reflexes, it requires me to be able to read those patterns more quickly and reliably. In fact, my first real step at competency in Hyper Hexagon mode was purely an attitude shift: I made the mental decision that I was going to read quickly, and lo-and-behold, I could read quickly. At least some of the time; at any rate, the speed no longer terrified me.
What was more interesting was this: when I went back from Hyper Hexagon mode to regular Hexagon mode, the game seemed unimaginably slow. And now, hours and hours later, Hexagon mode seems positively glacial to me: I remember intellectually that I once had a hard time dealing with the speed of Hexagon mode even in the first 20 seconds, but now I have no more direct understanding of that than I do of sounding out the letters in an English-language word. It’s not just a feeling of getting better at the game: my experiences with playing it are rewiring the game in a way that directly affects my perception of time. And I can still see that occasionally even now: when I play Hyper Hexagonest for a while, then Hexagonest feels quite slow, but if I stay with Hexagonest, then after a few minutes, it goes back to feeling reasonably fast, albeit nowhere near as impossibly fast as I seem to recall it once did.
And, of course, there are other modes to experiment with. At any given time (at least until you get most of the achievements), there will be three modes that you’ll learn from pushing on; which actually turns out to be a rather good design choice for asynchronous multiplayer reasons, I think. And those different modes give you different challenges: for example, once you’ve completed Hexagon mode, then you can go on with Hyper Hexagon (the same stuff, just sped up); Hexagoner (more complex patterns but almost as slow as Hexagon); or Hexagonest (which will seem crazily difficult and fast to you).
So you can learn from each of these. Hyper Hexagon mode is really just reading practice: seeing the same patterns over and over, and being comfortable with reading them more quickly as you were before. Hexagoner mode’s additional set of patterns gives you practice in swapping out alphabets; but one of its patterns, the one requiring you to quickly zig-zag 120 degrees at a time while making you stop in the middle instead of going all the way until vertical walls, is much more difficult than any pattern you’ll have seen until then, bringing precision of execution into the mix. And Hexagonest’s crazy fast speeds (or at least they seem crazy fast at that point in your development) make it clear: while this is primarily a game about reading, it will be a long time before reflexes are out of the picture. So really: reading, execution, and reflexes are all part of doing well at the game.
We’ve spent a fair amount of time in the VGHVI podcast this year talking about flow; and I honestly don’t think I understood the concept before playing Super Hexagon. Heck, I probably still don’t understand the concept, but if flow is about responding appropriately to circumstances, then I can’t think of a game that does a better job of making that concept concrete in a remarkably short amount of time. The game is nothing but an infinite sequence of circumstances for you to respond to; and there’s enough just enough meat in your responses (in particular, pulling in just enough complexity to your perception of that situation) to make it feel real. And the game gets you to that point over the course of a few hours, with a completely abstract environment: no extraneous associations here, nothing to get in your way of the perception of that flow channel.
That’s not the only area that the game shines light upon. As I mentioned above, the concreteness with which it alters your perception of time is truly remarkable; all of a sudden, I have something that I can relate to the written experiences of martial arts masters talking about time slowing down in a fight. And, behind this all, there are dice being rolled, both by the game (in its choice of patterns) and in you (in whether you respond quickly and accurately enough). So I also commend the game to anybody who is interested in questions of streaks and hot hands in sports: I only spent a little time gathering data there, but I suspect that there’s a lot more information that can be mined from the game, and mined in a way that has many fewer external variables than, say, basketball or baseball.
On the game goes, each mode givings its new challenges, its new teachings. I already mentioned Hexagonest’s speed above; I also love the way the game screen shakes at around 13 seconds and 23 seconds into that mode, as a reminder that what you’re seeing is only an image of the underlying reality, shadows flickering on the wall of Plato’s cave. (And as a reminder that chaos will end, and that perhaps the best response to chaos is to relax and react on instinct while it’s happening!) The longer spiral sequences that let you pause and reorient yourself to snap back into action as soon as you’ve evaluated what’s coming next. The philosophical premise that the game posits that, at any point in time, the first question you need to answer is: should I go in a diametrically opposite direction from where I’m facing now? The wonderful change in color palette that Hyper Hexagoner mode gives you; I’ve gone back to that mode obsessively over the last week, I find it incredibly soothing. The music, and Jenn Frank‘s amazing voice; the sadness that comes with my realization that I do better with the music turned off (perhaps the music gives me permission to play too slowly?), and there’s no option for having the music off but the voice on.
And then there’s Hyper Hexagonest mode. Which throws away lots of the variations that the earlier levels give you: as far as I can tell, it’s completely homogeneous, with the speed and collection of patterns not changing at all. (Well, maybe not completely homogeneous—the screen occasionally zooms out and back in—but pretty damn close.) And that speed is fast enough to bring reflexes and execution back to the fore, and to make clear the aleatory nature of success in the game: a meditation on chance and free will.
- 23 November, 2012 @ 23:20 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- 23 November, 2012 @ 23:20 by David Carlton