70th Birthday

(This post first appeared on Erasmatazz on June 1, 2020. Authored by Chris Crawford. Reprinted with permission.)

Today I am 70 years old; I can’t believe it. I’m an old man! I don’t feel old; I feel pretty much like the same person I was at age 30. True, my body isn’t as healthy as it was back then; I’ve learned to live with a depressing sequence of petty maladies. Skin injuries don’t heal as quickly as they used to; I pulled a muscle and it took two months to heal. I overheat quickly. I don’t have the stamina I once had. I’ve had prostate cancer and recovered, but the treatments had their own side effects. For example, I now have hot flashes in the middle of the night.

My mind isn’t anywhere near as quick as it once was; I can’t write code with the facility of younger days; my mind gums up. Yet I’ve also learned so much, figured out so much, that overall I consider myself much smarter nowadays. In the footrace of thinking, my feet don’t move as quickly, but my stride has lengthened considerably.

My life goal has been clear to me: to help make the computer a medium of artistic expression. To achieve this goal, my primary effort has been the creation of interactive storytelling technology; secondarily, I have attempted to teach my ideas to others through lectures, my website, videos, and books. The results of my efforts fall far short of my hopes.

My work on interactive storytelling has led to a lot of great technology, but in the end it just didn’t work. I abandoned work on Siboot, my last-gasp attempt, nearly two years ago; I was much demoralized by my failure. Having recovered some of my creative juices, I have launched a new attempt, but I have been burned so many times that I refuse to invest hope in the project. I’ll work on it and we’ll see how it comes out.

My greatest disappointment has been my failure to change the industry. I have certainly inspired a great many people to aim higher, but they don’t understand the underlying principles required to go beyond my own work.

At first I thought that all I needed to do was show people how I did it. That didn’t work. I published an entire book explaining in detail exactly how my game Balance of Power worked, and yet, 34 years later, I have yet to encounter a single game with the geopolitical sophistication of Balance of Power. I say this not with pride but with disgust. They should have left me in the dust years ago, and they haven’t even caught up with me yet! When will they learn????

In my career, I have advanced from the alchemy of game design (not really understanding what I was doing, but playing around with pieces and getting interesting results) to chemistry (understanding some of the principles of game design) to atomic physics (delving deeper into underlying principles) to nuclear physics (clearly understanding most of the basic principles). I haven’t figured out the particle physics of game design, and I’m nowhere near a unified theory of game design.

Meanwhile the rest of the industry is still doing alchemy. In the 80s and 90s, I thought that writing articles and giving lectures would help nudge the industry forward. I was wrong. Early in this century, I thought that writing entire books would help nudge the industry forward. I was wrong.

This image summarizes the progress the industry has made:

EvolutionOfGames

We’ve improved the cosmetics immensely, but we’re still playing the same game!

I was a smart kid, but once I boasted to my dad about how smart I was, and he came down hard on me. “Don’t you ever think that you’re smarter than other people!” he snapped. I took that lesson to heart, and all my life I have reined in my assessment of my own intelligence. But of late I have tired of this pose; at seventy years of age, I shouldn’t be posing. Dammit, I’m a genius, and it’s time I admitted it to myself.

That admission has opened up a new realization for me. The reason I have failed to communicate my ideas to other people is that I have a weird and powerful way of thinking about reality, something that does not come naturally to people. It’s the idea of Process Versus Object that I have started teaching people about. I have always thought this way, but only recently have I realized that other people DON’T think this way. Process-intensive thinking always came so naturally to me that I noticed it as little as a fish notices water. The significance of process-oriented thinking may be the most important idea I have ever conceived.

Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper has been striking closer and closer to home. He has been especially active with my dearest friends. First I lost Christa. A few years ago I lose Veronique. Now another close friend, Gemma, is in the final stages of her battle. As old friends die, I feel increasingly isolated in a world of younger and more distant people. Most of it is my own fault, I confess—I don’t readily make friends.

Will Durant wrote:

We suspect that when our fires begin to burn low, we shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. After every idea has had its day with us, and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods; we shall make friends of the animals; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform.

With each passing year, this quote rings more and more loudly inside my soul. But I’m too stubborn to completely give up on humanity; I’ll continue trying to teach process intensity.

In the meantime, I have indeed taken to the woods. I have lived for 25 years now on 40 acres of forest land, and I take my stewardship of the land very seriously. I tend the land: I cut down dead trees because they’re a threat in a wildfire; I thin the thickets so that the remaining trees will grow up healthy; I plant half a hundred seedlings from my tree nursery every year, and then spend hundreds of hours dragging hoses around the acreage to water them in their first two summers. The threat of wildfire grows with increasing temperatures, and I have spent more and more time cutting firebreaks, reducing forest floor fuels, and planning for disaster.

In the process, I have grown closer to the land. I see death every day: dead bugs, dead birds, dead trees. I see new life as well: trees bursting with new leaves, flowers, and baby animals. I now see myself as part of a huge system of life. I am no different from the bugs, the birds, and the trees. I have DNA in common with every living creature on this land. I live, grow, and will die just like every living creature here. A million living voices, small and large, sing the glorious song of life here, and I can feel that song stirring inside me. I strive to listen closely, that I may join that magnificent chorus.

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9 thoughts on “70th Birthday

  1. This read was intense, John. I was struck by many points in this post and there’s several things that come to mind in regard to them, that I’d like to say. Today I will have to deal with some other “vulgar trouble”, as Schopenhauer called some of the mindless “busy-ness” of life, but for now, I just wish you a happy birthday. I think you are a very remarkable person, a modern polymath. I feel small when I compare myself to people like you, but I do not find that to be a negative aspect at all; to the contrary, I find it inspiring and motivating.

  2. Happy Birthday John-May you enjoy many more

    “If you would be Happy, You must be a mistress to Philosophy” Seneca

  3. I appreciate your thoughts. However I’m a mere 65 and this was written by my friend Chris Crawford. I just changed the post to make that clearer.

  4. this was written by my friend Chris Crawford. I’m a mere 65. However, I’m going to address your kind words about me in a future post. I did receive an excellent education in my life and put my heart and soul into learning as much as I could. But we are all beggars when it comes to truth as William James put it. We are all thrown into the world as Heidegger said and we are lost to a large extent. I’m just a kid who grew up, search for the truth as best I could and maybe found a few crumbs of truth along the way. As Russell put it when talking about knowledge “A little of this but not much I’ve achieved.” And that was Bertrand Russell! I write more on this soon.

  5. Hi John, and thanks for this. Seems to me that in a nutshell as we grow older (I am now 82.5) we inevitably deteriorate physical, no two ways about it…but we grow spiritually as we decline physically. I do think no matter how wise I become, I will learn one hell of a lot in the last hour of my life! Best regards, Charley Kempthorne

  6. John,

    in regard to your second comment, yes I remember Russell wrote that. To me it’s like the astronaut who wanted to travel to the end of the universe, but ‘only’ managed to travel around the galaxy in a spaceship. The point is that, after all, if one has been a good philosopher, no man could have done more. There is a beautiful thought by Schopenhauer that I can’t remember word for word, I will try to find it in his writings and post it rather than hack it in my own words, it’s too good for that.

  7. I cannot find it, however I will attempt to remember about it as much as I can :

    “The philosopher is the man who will have to walk through a thorny bush; he will have to go up a hill, which will take him most of his time and energy. But one day his face will be bathed in sunlight, while everything below him will be still shrouded in darkness”.

    I interpret the “everything below him” as basically 85 per cent of the world population.
    Of course, you have to consider mine a third rate version of the original quote.

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