Games have often been thought of as the essence of escapism. We like to be transported to manageable realities, which incidentally, conform to scripts which we often come across in normal life. Much of life seems unpredictable and we can’t really figure out how it is that people will respond to our decisions or how we even make decisions ourselves. Games, however, can’t be progressed without particular decisions, working off of the principle of positive and negative feedback loops. Particular actions (inputs) are rewarded or punished (outputs), i.e: when Mario is attacked by a Goomba, he loses a life. The interesting component of feedback loops is the way in which it deals with cause and effect; since one action causes another, and the effect of this action causes the first action. Today we are going to look at the specific criteria of feedback loops and their prevalence in the world.
There are generally three components to feedback loops in controlling systems:
- A “sensor” that monitors the system state.
- A “comparator” that decides whether to take action based on the value monitored by the sensor.
- An “activator” that modifies the system state when the comparator decides to do so.
A perfect example of this is in thermoregulation (temperature control), where life can only function within very narrow parameters. Our body temperature is being constantly monitored by the hypothalamus (located in the brain), this is the “sensor” in our feedback loop. Our brain is the “comparator” and the “activator” would be blood vessels which constrict when the temperature is too cold and when dilate when the temperature is too warm.
Think back to our loveable Italian-American plumber. The scenery may have changed over the past 30 years, but his actions certainly have not. His behaviour is entirely driven by things that encourage him and things that are trying to kill him, with the latter outweighing the former. The landmark game, Mario Kart, also helps to show this principle. Whenever you get even slightly ahead of your opponents, to keep the game interesting, a negative feedback loop makes it more difficult for you to do that by including power-ups which impede your progress. Interestingly enough, the feedback loop also manifests itself in the way in which we construct theories about the world.
Let us take the scientific model, in its most primitive form, devised by the British philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon. We will see that the scientific model adheres to the principles of feedback loops as described above. First, we start by collecting data about the world, try to construct patterns and generalisations from a specific amount of cases, and then construct a theory. This constitutes the ‘input’ of our feedback loop. We then form an experiment to test this theory and the result of this experiment constitutes the ‘output’ of our feedback loop. If the theory is true, for instance evolution by natural selection, then its proof positively ‘feeds back’ to the theory, where belief in this theory continues to perpetuate itself. If the theory is false, for instance ‘miasma theory’ then it breaks the feedback loop and our belief in this hypothesis/theory. This diagram below shows how the scientific model fits into feedback loops.
The proof or disproof of a hypothesis positively or negatively feedbacks via experimentation to the belief in a hypothesis, perpetuating the feedback loop only if it has been proved. What we have shown is that the feedback loop is present in the way we construct theories, or rather the theory about constructing theories – the scientific model. Stock markets also highly depend on feedback loops. For instance, if people observe that a particular stock is rising in price, speculators will cause the price to rise even more. In the opposite scenario, if a particular stock is declining in price, people will sell their stocks and the price will continue to fall. Both of these are examples of positive feedback loops.
Feedback loops seem to permeate our world. This can be said of financial markets, the scientific model and most of the homeostatic processes to which we can attribute our continued existence. Heading back to our initial discussion point, games are perhaps the only platforms which utilise manageable feedback systems and perhaps this is what makes them so appealing. A marginal amount of control makes up for the lack of control in other aspects of our lives. Even though we weren’t able to name this phenomenon until about the 19th Century, self-regulating systems have played a serious role in shaping our evolution as a species and our ways of gaining knowledge about the world.