Thursday, January 13, 2011

Playing chess against a computer (14 June 2007)

I'm hesitant to write about this subject because I suspect I've written about it before, and I have no new insights into it, but perhaps that's appropriate -- indicative of the rut I feel I am in with playing chess against my computer. Every few months this happens: I begin playing chess as a way to procrastinate between various tasks I need to complete in front of my computer. But rather than take on a human opponent on Yahoo or something, I prefer to play the computer, which strikes me as more convenient, more suitable to the aim of taking a brief time out. The initial presumption is that my ego won't get invested since I am not really matching wits with anything. But then, naturally, because I am only half concentrating, the computer takes me apart in humiliating fashion, no matter how artificially dumb of a challenger I select (Chessmaster comes equipped with several hundred fake opponents who have names like Kricek and Lacey and who are designed to play poorly to give amateurs a chance to taste victory). This then infuriates me, and I need to continue to play until I win a few matches and elevate my rating, which the program tracks on a graph and which I spend an embarrassing amount of time looking at, as if it graphed something significant, as if I had some kind of public chess career that the chart has archived. In reality, it records the shocking amount of time I have wasted sheltering myself from other people and my work. It's pretty pathetic, but it becomes compulsive, and I play game after game in a subdued rage, learning nothing new about chess (despite the rationalization that playing chess to unwind is somehow edifying, superior to solving sudoku puzzles or playing Minesweeper), barely even thinking, just trying to to win as fast as possible. Sometimes I'll even ask the computer for hints and then pretend to myself that I was able to beat it and try to revel in that.

What inevitably ends up bothering me is the way the computer opponent becomes anthropomorphized, becoming a kind of tormentor, yet I prefer this figment to a real human challenger, who will likely give me a game that resembles real chess and will reward my concentration. But I'm not looking to concentrate; I'm choosing the worst possible medium -- chess playing -- to avoid concentration. I should perhaps resume playing Freecell or something.

It seems inevitable that I will not only be able to avoid the "inconvenience" of a human opponent in chess but could avoid the trouble of a human partner for all forms of social activity, that I could exist in a pseudo-social universe with programmed frustrations that I can be assured of eventually overcoming (through persistence or hints or maybe cheat codes) replacing the real frustrations of understanding other people.

Worse than the failure to concentrate or relax, though, is this sense that I am becoming as machine like as my opponent, stuck in a repetitive cycle that Chessmaster seems to be programming me for: mechanically moving pieces around, deriving no real pleasure from the exercise but feeling compelled to do it anyway, wanting above all no interruption from human beings and all their spontaneity, which begins to seem supremely inconvenient. The convenience of the computer opponent, and my becoming an automaton-in-training, seems emblematic of the ultimate course of convenience as an ethic (and of mediating social behavior through computers) -- to program oneself with compulsive habits, killing time while avoiding human contact, basically draining life out of oneself. After all, the end goal of all convenience is a supreme thoughtlessness, a structuring of one's life where every next move is predicted, where there is no possibility to contemplate meaningful or challenging choices, which are systematically nullified, where the institutional nature of existence becomes like a computer that's moving the pieces for you but you feel as though you can take credit for the victory nonetheless.

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