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The Moralgorithm

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

A glitch? Perhaps. Over time, Batty says, the programmers have fixed most real glitches in the game. It could also be that those improbable pyrotechnics are accidentally reflecting that fundamental intangibility in real basketball. What are the flashes of mushin in sports if not human glitches - momentary suspensions of reality? Maybe spontaneous supernatural power is not just a digital artifact. Afer all, wasn't Dr. J's famous floating reverse adjusted no-look layup in the 1980 finals an error of some kind, a brief, one-in-a-million window into the realm of impossibility?

"One more step towards human irrelevance," said BACOBIT when I explained that NBA Live's moralgorithm is both real and remarkably well-developed. But it's not (yet) irrelevance, so much as technological entanglement - the mushin belongs to neither man nor the machine alone. It's a recombinant program, a digital-analog continuum of flow residing somewhere in between.

If it's disconcerting that we're headed into a future where computers supply half the emotion, there may be some consolation. Batty admits that there are still plenty of intangibles that the Electronic Arts programmers have yet to translate into code. "Like team chemistry," Batty said, "which is now quantified only very simplistically."

A good example of that, I offered, was the Phoenix Suns, whose cumulative rating in the game did not correspond to their actual playing this season. (NBA Live computes team ratings by combining the players' characteristics for a score out of 100; the Suns' NBA Live percentage was never the highest despite this year's record - the best in the league and the most dramatic turnaround in history.)

"We noticed that too," Batty said. Then again, he observed, even in NBA Live, the Suns outperformed their actual stats. "When we were finishing the 2005 version, we updated the rosters, with Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson, tweaking Amare Stoudemire's settings and so on. And in testing, Phoenix became everyone's favorite team to play with." Fun, quick, hard to beat - just like the real players - the digital Suns formed a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And don't forget, Batty noted, that the NBA Live production team discovered the Suns' power before the regular season even started. They knew then that the team was going places.

Apparently an emergent property of the game's overall intricate detail, chemistry seemed to function anyway. And without any special coefficients, the game still provided an uncanny predictive power in the case of the Suns. That didn't surprise Batty, who said that NBA Live also forecast how the playoffs would shake out. The production team can simulate a set of games thousands of times over and average the results for an expected outcome, and as much as Batty wanted to see the Suns make the Finals (Steve Nash is from nearby Victoria), their playoff model always pointed toward a Spurs-Pistons face-off. "What did the eight ball say about that outcome?" "Spurs are going to take it."

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