Computers are good at games. Well sort of. Computers are good at following rules and making decisions based on rules that are programmed into them. These rules have to come from somewhere and that somewhere is people. That computers are good at playing games is do in large part to the fact that people are good at studying games. The hard part is really figuring out how a game is played and how a set of rules can be created that will enable someone (or some thing) to win on a regular basis. Once that happens a set of rules can be created to feed into a computer.
People can learn these rules and play well themselves of course. For simple games this is easy. When is the last time you lost a game of tick tac toe for example? OK so I lose occasionally but generally it is because I am careless. People are pretty good a making careless errors, of not noticing something they should notice or forgetting a rule or guideline for effective play. Computers on the other hard are good at NOT making careless errors, of always noticing things, and of never forgetting rules or guidelines. And this lack of human error is the second thing that makes computers good at games.
I recently came across a research study of the game of Connect Four (Thanks to and article in the Washington Post online called Annals of useful computer science research which someone Tweeted a link to). It’s a 90 page masters thesis from 1988. Think about it – 90 pages of game analysis. Probably more detail than you ever wanted to know about Connect Four. There is also a discussion of a computer program, with a small amount of C code shown, that analyses specific possible moves. Not a bad place to start for creating your own program to play the game. Or even to just learn to play the game better.
A couple of questions that come to mind with this sort of study though. Does too much analyses take the fun out of the game? Or does it make the game more interesting? How do you feel about playing an opponent who not only knows the game better than you do but never makes a mistake? Would playing the computer be more fun if there was some random error tossed into the mix? Is it even worth playing when you know for sure that the best you can do is a draw and that if you make the smallest misstep you will lose?How much of game play involves the humanness for you? Just a few random things to ponder on a Tuesday morning.
Most of my childhood is a blur. But the things I do vividly remember are the christmas parties my dad's employer gave us. We got have donuts a rarety around our house. One year I got a boy's game by mistake and it was a game where you played the computer to see who could get to the end of the peg board first. There were several rules which I do not remember but I remember that I could NEVER beat the computer. The only way I could beat it was to cheat. I cried all during the holidays and my dad finally took it back and got me a big life size doll which I never played with. Moral of the story I would never buy a game that I could not beat without cheating. Put in some errors that the computer might make to make the game interesting.
I highly recommend Blondie24. Its a great story about an AI for playing checkers and I used to recommend it to my students as a part of the quarterly reading assignment they had to complete.