88 Names: A Theory of Mind

I wrote the following essay for the trade paperback “P.S. edition” of 88 Names:

I grew up an only child in New York City in the 1970s. I was what they called a latchkey kid: My parents both worked, so from what would today be considered a scandalously young age, I made my own way to school and fended for myself in the evenings until my folks got home. An introvert as well, I spent much of my free time alone, reading, writing, watching television, and playing board games.

The thing about solitaire play is that you always know what your imaginary playmates are going to do. Partly for this reason, I developed an early fascination with wargames. Whether they concerned the clash of vast armies or a desperate struggle between small groups of soldiers, the fun in playing them came as much from creating a story as from determining a winner. Which is not to say I didn’t care about winning.

The late ‘70s was a lucky time to be a wargamer in New York; the city was home to Simulations Publications, Inc., a wargame company that held weekly open playtest sessions. At the age of twelve, I became a regular. Every Friday evening, I’d head to lower Manhattan and spend hours playing and critiquing whatever prototype the company was working on. SPI was best known for historically accurate games with names like Terrible Swift Sword and NATO Division Commander, but they also did sci-fi and fantasy titles. The first game I ever worked on, The Creature That Ate Sheboygan, simulated a fight between a giant monster and the Wisconsin National Guard.

Playtesting is important because real players, unlike imaginary ones, are perversely unpredictable. You may think you’ve designed a game about Godzilla slugging it out with tanks and howitzers, but then a precocious twelve-year-old comes along and says, “Wait a minute. If I fight the tanks, I might lose. But I see here in Section 14 of the rules that I get victory points for property destruction. So what I’m going to do is give my monster the Fire Breathing special ability, and then I’m going to run away from the tanks and scoot around the board, setting fire to all the buildings. I’m also going to give my monster the Jumping ability, so if the National Guard does manage to corner me, I can just leap over the burning buildings and escape. I’ll be unstoppable!”

Strategies like this one can break an otherwise fine game. While the designer’s first impulse might be to say, “You can’t do that,” a better solution is to tweak the rules—rewarding fewer points per building destroyed or increasing the effectiveness of firefighting units—until the strategy becomes fair. In the published version of The Creature That Ate Sheboygan, you can still be a high-jumping arsonist if you want, but it’s no longer a guaranteed win. The National Guard player gets to enjoy the game, too.

My time at SPI was a formative experience in many ways. SPI president Jim Dunnigan introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons—the ultimate storytelling game. He also let me screw around on the company’s computers, sparking a lifelong addiction to computer games. That could have proved disastrous, but fortunately for my nascent writing career, personal computers were very expensive back then, and it would be decades before I could comfortably afford state-of-the-art equipment. This became particularly important in the late 1990s, when a new generation of game designers figured out how to put Dungeons & Dragons on the internet. Like John Chu’s father, I would happily have frittered my productivity away on MMORPGs, but you needed a fast internet connection to play, and I was still using dial-up well into the 2000s.

Since I couldn’t play the games, I read about them instead, which is how I discovered the phenomenon of gold farming. That people were making real money selling virtual loot was intriguing in its own right, but what really caught my interest was the dilemma this created for the game companies. Even if they were willing to overlook gold farmers profiting off their intellectual property, the practice caused headaches for customer service. Players who couldn’t afford to buy gold resented those who could. And when someone got cheated out of the money they’d paid for a magic sword, guess who they called to complain?

But unless you are willing to completely eliminate the in-game economy—which will make all of the players unhappy—shutting down the black market is just as difficult as it would be in the real world. More difficult, in fact, because you can’t threaten gold farmers with prison. And just like griefers, they are remarkably adept at finding and exploiting loopholes in rules meant to curb their behavior.

I sensed a novel here. Very quickly I came up with a plot skeleton for what would eventually be 88 Names. But my instinct told me that this was one of those ideas that would benefit from more time and thought. Gamers would eat this story up, I knew, but I wanted to find a way to appeal to non-gamers as well, and bring in themes and subjects from outside my little niche hobby. So I put 88 Names on the shelf in my back brain where I keep novels that aren’t done baking yet and turned my attention to other matters.

A decade passed. The internet, once the domain of nerds and fringe enthusiasts, became more and more central to public life. Every so often I’d take 88 Names off its shelf and have another look at it. The creative tipping point came during the 2016 presidential election, when it dawned on me that everyone in America had become trapped in an online role-playing game—one in which the stranger you were arguing with on Twitter might well be a Russian bot. Or a precocious twelve-year-old.

The internet makes it easy to pretend to be someone you’re not, but a bigger problem is that it encourages you to treat other people like imaginary playmates. It’s not that we take strangers at face value online, it’s that we assign roles to them—Hero, Villain, Fool, Whipping Boy—and naively expect them to stay in character. When they act unpredictably—by putting a reality show host in the White House, for example—we’re dumbfounded and enraged.

Understanding people whose worldviews differ from our own has always been a challenge. The internet ramps up the difficulty level, even as it makes the effort more vital. The screen in front of me connects me to billions of other human beings. It also strips away context, rewards glibness, shatters focus and shortens attention spans, and provides a wealth of new tools for distraction and harassment. It turns minor differences of opinion into blood feuds, while making genuine atrocities seem no more consequential than cutscenes in a video game.

Writing 88 Names offered a means of working through my feelings about all of this. It’s my nature to be optimistic, and I’ve lived long enough to know that it’s always two minutes to the apocalypse. If the threat seems more serious at the moment, I can take comfort in the fact that it’s not just griefers who have a talent for adaptation. And of course there are also many benefits to living in the future. Those billions of human beings, for instance: Some of them are amazing people, and even an old introvert like me has forged friendships that wouldn’t have been possible in any other era of history.

The point of understanding others is not just to make new friends, though. We are not all going to get along. You cannot play nicely with people who selfishly insist on winning every time. But branding someone a villain doesn’t magically make them disappear. You still have to figure out how to deal with them, and the rules you propose for doing so will be more effective if you grasp that your antagonist has goals and motives of their own, and a mind that is not beholden to how you see the world.

The question “What are they thinking?” has an answer. The first step to finding it is remembering that other people are real.