My latest talking-squid video-essay is about humans who fail the Turing test!
In The Elf vs The Dwarf Homer the minotaur watches the mysterious dwarven champion beat an elf at a board-game, claiming land on the border of the two races. This is actually the first time we’ve seen land trade hands because of a table-war, but supposedly this happens pretty often. Table-war makes battle abstract, so nations have no reason to avoid conflict. I hope this reflects the futility of war in general and war in the age of computers in particular.
When I started writing what would become The Minotaur’s Board-Game I thought I’d make the minotaur play chess. I gave up because anyone who actually enjoyed chess would see I was talking out my butt. Chess has strategies and a history I couldn’t do justice without loads of research, and research is hard. Plus, even if including chess made the story popular among chess-fans, it would simultaneously limit the audience to mostly chess-fans.
For the same reasons, I wouldn’t include any real game. If I used Poker I’d have to study up or else skilled readers would think “that’s a dumb move” with every play.
One of my inspirations for this story is the anime YuGiOh, in which teens play children’s card-games to save the world. I can appreciate the cheesiness of a card-game ballooning to such high stakes. Unfortunately, while the card-game actually exists in the real world—we call it YuGiOh—the anime TV-show doesn’t follow the real rules. Rules are ignored or invented on the spot to increase tension and let the hero win. The anime invented its own game and still can’t get it quite right.
My solution to these problems is to make a game without stated rules. Table-war is supposed to be a perfectly accurate replacement for war, and war doesn’t have ‘rules’ beyond the laws of physics, so I can put war on a table and it’ll turn out okay.
The good news is I can still make up rules whenever it’s convenient for me. Do I need Homer to look clever? Let him paint his figurines; no rule against that. Do I need Aria to accidentally screw herself over? She can—by adding new rules for one match. I can always retrace my steps and fiddle with rules as I go.
The really good news—for me, not for my characters—is that dwarfs can use the war-simulation to their advantage. In a real war, dwarfs could be outsmarted; the dwarfs called upon demons to win their last war, and it didn’t even work. In table-war the dwarven robot is indomitable, and without real war, there’s nothing any other nation can do about it.
The bad news is that war isn’t always interesting. So far, most table-wars have been won before the match even started: commanders imagine how their opponents will play, and whoever thinks farther ahead wins. A game of chess can flow back and forth; a game of poker can have a twist; most of my table-wars are one-sided. Sometimes table-wars can showcase counter-play, but still, I hope my one-turn matches can be compelling. Two characters go in, the reader is on-edge because of the stakes, and the better commander wins.
At the same time, the “one-turn war” isn’t necessarily unrealistic. War, like life, can be nasty, brutish, and short. Said Dwight D. Eiserhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” So wars and plans for wars must be indispensable for the point of my story.
Computers can beat humans at chess. In the long run, I’ll bet computers can beat humans at Poker. If computers haven’t already taken war, it’s just a matter of time. The dwarven champion—a bunch of gnome-brains wired together—is a war-computer. When Homer eventually fights the machine, he’ll need to prove humanity (and elves, and seafolk, and monsters, and life in general) is more important than pure mechanical efficiency.
I figure table-war is the best place to prove that. If Homer won a game of chess, he’d just prove he’s better at chess. If Homer won a game of Poker, he’d just prove he’s lucky and steel-eyed. When Homer wins table-war, he’ll prove life has value.
Why is Homer the minotaur going to stop the dwarfs? The elvish queen seemed to think elves deserved the honor because elves and dwarfs are enemies, but I think a minotaur is the perfect symbol for life’s value in the face of machinery. Minotaurs are classically trapped in labyrinths; like an allegory for all sentient beings, they wake in the dark and stumble through an unhelpful world. Maybe minotaurs could be replaced with robots that walk aimlessly through mazes, but “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” and one must imagine minotaurs explore mazes with intent. Homer’s endless trials, in and out of his labyrinth, have shaped him and made him more than a maze-walker. He’ll never be free, because the outside world is a political labyrinth with no exit, but minotaurs can handle labyrinths.
In myth, Ariadne helped Theseus navigate the minotaur’s maze with a roll of thread. In The Minotaur’s Board-Game, Aria Twine ignores possible pupils like Thaddeus to lead her minotaur by the nose. Then, Aria realizes she herself has been led by the nose by Queen Anthrapas. In my next commentary maybe I’ll talk more about Twine’s role in the story, but so far I’m happy with how I’ve repurposed mythical figures.