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💫 The Magic Circle
AI is a game we are the NPCs lol
Hey everyone — just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly dislike paywalls. Horrific/Terrific has a few of them up but as of today those babies are coming DOWN.
I don’t think that anything I write here should be restricted from anyone. I do think that a weekly newsletter is enough work on its own to warrant compensation though. Writing Horrific/Terrific takes at least a day of my time every week; tbh I want to be able to spend even more time on it — I don’t want to just churn out some news and go ‘well gosh isn’t this bad??’ every Friday. I’d much rather actually have ideas and be analytical. I’ve been trying to go more in that direction in recent weeks. If you like my writing, and if you can afford it, consider donating so I can keep going (and keep making it better!)
It’s £4 a month, and if you pay for a whole year up front you get two months free. I honestly cannot stress enough that I am not here to ‘do marketing’ — I am just here to write. I simply do not possess the knowledge or energy to silo my posts into ‘free’ and ‘paid’ in a way that makes sense from a business perspective. I’m just a person who likes to write; if you decide to start donating I’ll very likely be able to write more. Think of it that way!
Right, enough of that; time for the good stuff. This week felt like a professional wine sommelier was challenging me to a duel — and I have an embarrassingly rudimentary palette. But, anyway:
The Microsoft Activision acquisition has been approved by EU regulators — prepare for your favourite games to become exclusive to the Xbox
Google has announced a big update to search — prepare to become an NPC in the magic circle (keep reading to understand what that means…)
Oh and Twitter has a new CEO but I’m kind of struggling to care
🎰 Restricting playtime
Microsoft have pursuing an Activision Blizzard acquisition for a while now, and this has been ‘blocked’ by major regulatory bodies in the US, the UK, and also the EU. Except… the EU are now saying the acquisition can go ahead.
Some context: Activision Blizzard make extremely popular games, such as Call of Duty and Overwatch. Right now you can play these games on most consoles (including PC). If Microsoft absorb Activision Blizzard, there will be nothing to stop them from jacking the prices up and making them exclusive to the Xbox or Windows. Currently, Call of Duty is mostly played on either the PS4 or PS5, and it’s clear that Microsoft’s goal is to make that not be a thing anymore. The EU have approved this deal because Microsoft say they will allow cloud gaming platforms to license Call of Duty and Overwatch for ten years — this is not a good deal. This is literally putting a limit on something that before would continue without question.
Every single article I’ve read on this acquisition deal has failed to raise the most obvious point: discussions about licensing deals wouldn’t be happening if Microsoft didn’t already own a console and other gaming ecosystems. Activision, who make Call of Duty, would never have to think about limiting availability to their own game. Why would they? They surely want everyone to play their game, because that’s how they make money.
When you’re as large as Microsoft, you don’t make money from widening access channels to your content and products — you make money from doing the exact opposite. This is why paying to entertain yourself makes no sense (I mean… I don’t think paying for ANYTHING makes sense but that’s a whole other article). Gamers don’t want to manage subscriptions and buy yet another console just to play the games that make them happy. They just want to play the games.
🐰 Generative AI puts everyone in the magic circle
What about playing a game against your will? Without even noticing?? A couple of weeks ago I talked about how the AI hype guys on Twitter are obsessed with using AI to transform play into work. Then, the other day I read this piece about professional Go players who have lost to AlphaGo, an AI trained to play Go (FYI Go is an ancient Chinese board game) . All of this has kind of prompted me to think about the ‘game’ of AI, and how nowadays we struggle to leave its magic circle.
In case you’re not familiar with the concept, the magic circle is the kind of ‘playground’ you enter when you decide to play a game. It’s a space (either physical, virtual, or even just in your head) where you temporarily forget about reality outside of the circle, and submit to the rules of the game. So, if you’re playing football, and you simply do not care about scoring goals, you have not entered the magic circle, and you aren’t really playing the game — because a key part of football is caring about the score. Football players who cry because they win/lose matches are very much in the circle.
Think about Call of Duty: this is basically a ‘realistic’ war game. People do more than simply enjoy it; they care about it. For instance, the guns in the game are serious business. Communities discuss at length how they can customise and optimise their loadouts for maximum damage and efficiency. The guns look like this:
So in this sense, for many, Call of Duty has a huge magic circle. When players discuss loadouts and tactics outside of the game, they are still in the circle. Let’s quickly look at another game which is also broadly about running around and shooting things: Lovely Planet. In this game though, your gun is a wand, you can’t customise it (or anything else), and the ‘enemies’ are cartoonish and ridiculous.
So, this game has a teeny tiny magic circle, because you leave it pretty much as soon as you stop playing. It’s fun and silly, but obviously not the most complex thing in the world; you can’t necessarily get ‘really into it’ beyond just playing for a few minutes and then laughing. (Just FYI I love this game and have no interest in Call of Duty. In case that was unclear.)
I think this demonstrates the different ways in which people play. Some people really like to revel in complexity, and spend time working things out. Some people just like to dive in and make funny noises. And obviously there’s a lot of stuff in between, and these preferences depend on what you’re in the mood for.
Frank Lantz, the writer of the piece about AlphaGo, described professional Go players as engaging in “the most advanced form of creative and intellectual labor”. With the introduction of AI, we have the ability to both trivialise and instrumentalise the creativity and complex thinking that comes with playing a game like Go to a high standard: all of the human thinking and problem-solving can now be absorbed by machines, and be used to bolster our collective productivity.
Ever since Google’s announcement about the new Search at their I/O conference, commentators have been lamenting over the generative AI’s potential to replace even complex high-paid jobs. In case you missed this announcement, the new Search will spit out a generated AI answer to your query, right above the usual list of results. What this does is simplify and flatten out the entire process of searching for something online. It’s a clear next step to the ‘single interface’ internet; you will no longer have to trawl through results and subject yourself to clickbait, you’ll just get a neat and tidy answer to your question and move on. This is assuming the answers are accurate… which they aren’t, of course.
This flattening truncates any extra thinking you may have to do to find something, or to work something out. If outsourced to machines, ‘high thinking’ might just become something that we do for pleasure — e.g. in games. But the thing is, under capitalism, when the systems employs automation to do things traditionally done by humans, the humans don’t get respite from labour — actually, the opposite happens. If, suddenly, complex brain-heavy work becomes ‘easy’ with the addition of AI, the expectation is that human output should increase. So no, high-paying ‘difficult’ jobs won’t be replaced, they will just become very boring, repetitive, and not high-paying anymore.
Back to the magic circle: at first I thought that the increasing ubiquity of AI would eliminate all the magic circles in our lives, but instead I think what’s happened is that we’ve been plopped into one single circle. And this magic circle has grown so large, with such blurry boundaries, that we can’t even tell when we’re in it. We engage in this magic circle not as players, but as non-player characters, just kind of bumping into the different features and constraints introduced by the true players of the game: the select few people who get to create and maintain the systems (AI and others) we use in our lives every day.
Anyway, that’s enough of me trying to sound smart. Once again, if you can, please donate so I can keep writing this newsletter to a high(ish) standard. Thank you!