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The Achievement of Animals: An Ethology of AI in Video Games

Part of the Neue Perspektiven der Medienästhetik book series (NPM)


Amidst the excitement, predictions, investment and fear that have attended the development and application of artificial intelligence in recent decades, an important factor has been largely overlooked. Since the late 1970s, popular media culture and its lived experience have brought AI into the everyday spaces of commercial and domestic leisure. Software agents, figured as monsters, aliens and racing cars have tracked A* algorithmic paths across arcade screens, finite state machines sensing and responding to their players’ movements and actions. And, with less graphical flair, conversational agents played out a million ludic Turing tests, parsing simple commands in the navigation of text-based adventures, tracking through dialogue trees, and conducting talking therapy as simulated psychotherapists.

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  1. 1.

    I’m using the term ‘postnatural’ in a way analogous to the ‘posthuman’ of critical posthumanism. That is, it does not assume the end of the biosphere, rather it signals an emerging environment of biotechnology, climate change and (as in this chapter) prevalent artificial systems and entities that are natural-like in their affectual and experiential dimensions and that fundamentally challenge established distinctions between the natural and the artificial. On the other hand it acknowledges that human existence has always been predicated on the technical manipulation of the natural environment and, for at least 28,500 years, on the domestication, and hence transformation of animals. We have never—to coin a phrase—been natural.

  2. 2.

    See Boden 2018 for a clear, skeptical take on these assumptions.

  3. 3.

    Currently, the ways in which computers can outperform the human brain lie within a very narrow band of mathematical calculation, high-volume and high-speed data handling and analysis, and the calculation and prediction of moves in abstract board games. Full AGI, it is generally assumed, is predicated on symbolic processing, a phenomenon that has proved stubbornly resistant to simulation regardless of exponential increases in computer speeds and neural net complexity since it was first mooted in the 1960s.

  4. 4.

    Although the world is also populated with monsters that combine animality with human physical and cognitive abilities.

  5. 5.

    This achievement of dynamic and ludically balanced complexity from the interplay of game antagonists coded with very simple but complementary behaviors bears a marked similarity with some of the earliest game AI, notably the ghosts of Pac-Man (Namco 1980). The experience of being hunted by the ghosts feels dynamic and responsive in the flow of play, yet their collective behavior is the product of very simple individual actions: one chases Pac-Man directly, one is directed to a point immediately in front of Pac-Man, one moves at random, and so on (Mateas 2003).

  6. 6.

    For Deleuze and Guattari, drawing on Spinoza, this mode of description is ethological. I have applied this to the behavior of software agents in everyday environments (Giddings 2009, 2014, and see also Parikka 2010b). In this chapter I am playing with the mainstream notion of ethology as the study of animal behavior and character in particular.

  7. 7.

    I would resist any straightforward mapping of virtual/ludic behavior onto actual world behavior and ethics. Games are profoundly ambiguous and topsy-turvy: playful combat can be a hilarious and socially-enriching experience, cooperation can be rigid and hierarchical (see Giddings 2014, pp. 145–157).


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Giddings, S. (2020). The Achievement of Animals: An Ethology of AI in Video Games. In: Spöhrer, M., Waldrich, H. (eds) Einspielungen. Neue Perspektiven der Medienästhetik. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

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