STARRED REVIEW
February 2022

Seven Games

By Oliver Roeder
Review by
Seven Games is a fascinating look at how humans fare against artificial intelligence and asserts that games are what make us human.
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Oliver Roeder is very serious about games. With a Ph.D. in economics with a focus on game theory, the author of Seven Games: A Human History argues that games—those activities that force us to suspend the normal rules of life in order to overcome self-imposed obstacles in the name of fun—are what make us human. Rather than homo sapiens, we are, he says, “homo ludens”: the humans who play. To make his case, Roeder takes a fascinating look at seven enduring games: checkers, chess, Go, backgammon, poker, Scrabble and bridge.

Roeder chose these games because, despite being easy to learn (with the exception of bridge), they all require strategic skills that can take years to acquire. In fact, they call for many human qualities: forethought, the ability to see both the big picture and small details, and even, in the case of bridge, the ability to communicate efficiently but obliquely with a partner.

For Roeder’s purposes, however, the main thing that unites these games is that they have all been conquered by artificial intelligence. A great deal of each chapter details how computer scientists seeking to make computers more “human” have taught them to play these games. Initially clumsy, the computers became more skilled as their programmers exploited the computers’ ability to make astronomical calculations in a matter of seconds. This advantage eventually crushed human masters of these games, including former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and professional Go player Lee Sedol.

It would seem that AI’s triumphs have made games for humans meaningless, but Roeder argues that they haven’t. Instead, the masters of these games have harnessed the computer’s power, using it to improve their skills and bring their expertise to new levels. However, the progress of human and automated intellect is not where games’ salvation lies. Instead, it’s the strivers—the players among us who love the challenge of overcoming those self-imposed obstacles—who will ensure that games continue to enrich our humanity.

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Seven Games

Seven Games

By Oliver Roeder
Norton
ISBN 9781324003779

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