The Moralgorithm

How the little black box knew the Spurs would (probably) win the NBA Finals

 NBA LIVE 2005
Publisher: Electronic Arts

At the height of performance, great athletics seems inexplicable, like something conjured. Even the athletes are at a loss to explain what goes on in those moments that are always vaguely articulated as "flow," or being "in the zone," or what Zen students of samurai swordsmanship called mushin. Ineffable or not, the effect of deep physical focus is apparent enough to spectators, and nowhere more so than in basketball, where the initiative changes every 24 seconds at most, and where pace and team play make the game a sequence of runs and rallies, charges and comebacks.

Or lopsided meltdowns, as when the San Antonio Spurs knocked the Detroit Pistons on their heels in the opening minute of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, 8-0. One game down already, the Pistons turned cold, and San Antonio eased into mushin, winning by 21 points.

This came as a surprise to those who thought the series would expose the Spurs' soft spots and reconfirm the Pistons' supremacy. But not to me. I'd simulated the game in advance several times on NBA Live 2005 for Xbox. (I like to play the Spurs because I like the Spurs: Their team feels like being at a discotheque on Corfu or something, with Tony Parker's supercilious Parisian charm, Manu Ginobili - a.k.a. the ballerina from Argentina - cutting up the rug, and soft-spoken Tim Duncan, the Caribbean expat, quietly running the bar.) And I knew the nuanced Spurs had it in them to beat the hard-driving Pistons, because I'd seen Parker and Ginobili's Xbox avatars shut down Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton before. It may always be a challenge - near impossible sometimes - to defeat the champs on NBA Live; but it can be done, especially if you can discombobulate them early. I've noticed the same thing with any strong team in the game: If the CPU gets off to a solid start, you're in trouble. The only hope then is to disrupt their flow.

That assumes that the CPU has some flow to disrupt. "It's in the program," I theorized about this to BACOBIT, a friend I sometimes play against on Xbox Live. The flow factor plays a role against other players as well. I squandered a 10-point lead with the Spurs to BACOBIT's Pistons and my guys started growing left feet for all their limbs. There must be some kind of algorithm that generates morale, I suggested, a moralgorithm - and my team's was off.

"It's not the computer," said BACOBIT, "it's your moralgorithm. When you're off, you hit the buttons too late, judge the plays wrong, lose patience and shoot funny. Don't blame the game, bro. Yours is the algorithm that's losing." Could be that too. NBA Live gives the player extremely detailed control, so your shot timing or passing or playmaking is affected if you get emotional or anxious or have clammy hands. "But that's a good question," said BACOBIT, reconsidering. "Is it in your head - or in the Xbox? Just where is the algorithm?"

At least some of the ghost is in the machine. Gathered on one floor of the Electronic Arts campus in Vancouver are the 53 people responsible for building new versions of the NBA Live game each year. Over the years, explained the game's producer, Todd Batty, dozens of programmers have indeed tried to quantify the intangible by writing several hundred lines of code that govern what Batty calls "in-game momentum."

Dozens of variables in the game's computational assessment of flow. Home crowds, big baskets, surprise bench scoring, time-outs, even the coach's known record in difficult situations, can drive momentum. Individual players, too, go on hot and cold streaks. Three badly chosen, off-balance leaning jump shots that miss will wear down a player's confidence, and reduce his percentage of hitting the next shot. And vice versa: A string of nice baskets will give the next one a little boost.

"Perform well, and it feels like the stars are aligning - your guys jump a little higher, or dribble a little faster," Batty said. "Or sometimes you're just digging yourself a hole, and nothing works right. We tried to create that to make the game play like real basketball."

The programmers have not yet interviewed neurologists or looked into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, but they do go through reams of data to assign all the intricate multipliers to the moralgorithm. "We watch lots of game footage and collaborate with NBA statisticians," said Batty. "We need to see how much better a team actually shoots when they're on fire. And what the stats are for teams that step up in the last two minutes of a tight game. We analyze a lot of information."

I told Batty that I'd occasionally seen the moralgorithm needle hit the red; that every so often the game goes supernatural. Like one matchup, where I was playing the Sonics against the Heat on Xbox Live, and I could tell something really clicked for me when Jerome James, my oafish center, hit two three-pointers. Then Vladimir Radmanovic, whose little polygonal computer face seemed to look as surprised as I was, stole the ball from 10 feet away and passed to Antonio Daniels on a fast break that drew so much moralgorithmic momentum, I swear Ray Allen levitated up court for the most improbable alley-oop of all time.

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