Games and Learning

Ready, Set, Go!

For this cycle’s play session I asked one of my friends to teach me how to play Go. The game has been in the news lately, an AI constructed solely to play the game beat one of the best Go players in the world (much like the DeepBlue AI and Chess).

Watch this video to get a better understanding of the Game and how they came up with AlphaGo.

Go is an ancient game originating in China, and is believed to be more than 2,500 years old. Many people who are unaware of the game will look at it and think of Othello, but it is much more complicated than that, it is said that it is more complex than Chess.

A typical game of Go is played on a 19×19 board, but for the sake of time (we were playing another game shortly after when another friend arrived) we played on a legal 9×9 board. One player uses the white stones, and one player uses the black stones. He quickly explained the rules to me:

  • Black goes first
  • You play on the intersections of the squares (not in the middle)
  • The point of the game is to get the most territory by blocking off the most squares that you can
  • “Liberties” are the unoccupied intersections surrounding a stone (not counting diagonals)
  • You can capture the other player’s stones by surrounding all the liberties around it, these stones count toward your points at the end
  • The game ends when both players pass (A player will pass when they see no beneficial move)
  • You’re not allowed to suicide your stones

We started the game and I went first, my friend said that a good starting point is the middle of the board, so that’s where I started. At the start, he explained why he was making every move he placed, and he described what a good move for me would be (and a couple times that was what I was thinking) but ultimately left it up to me where I would place my stone. Mid-game he got quieter and let me explore on my own. When we got to end game he started explaining again, and pointed out some better moves for me. He ended up capturing a few of my stones and I lost, the score was something similar to 35-20. I feel like I did pretty good for my first game!

Throughout the game I thought about the symbolism of the pieces and the board. My friend told me it’s all about balance, and I told him I was thinking about the symbolism between the black and white stones: Yin and Yang, darkness and light, and it makes sense given that this is an Asian game.

I can’t even begin to explain how well this game is designed. No game will ever be the same, on a 9×9 board there are 1.039×10^38 legal game positions, and on a standard 19×19 board there are 2.081681999382×10^170 legal game positions, Wikipedia doesn’t even have the number for a 21×21 board. It is said that there are more possible moves in Go than atoms in the universe.

This game seems very simple, but it allows for a surprising amount of creativity. Players have many different play styles that they can use. You can be an aggressive player and just try and get the most territory possible without defending your own stones. You can play strict defense and hope it works out, you can play a mix of the two, or you can completely try and avoid your opponent.

This game of go brought me all the way back to cycle one and the Katie Salen article. I immediately thought of the Litmus test she describes. Before the game started I thought to myself: Can I try it? Of course I could, I’m a smart adult, I can try it! Then during the game I started thinking: Can I save this? I knew the answer was ultimately no, because of my inexperience, but I tried anyway!

My friend also had the opportunity to teach the game to a classroom of elementary students a few weeks ago (I don’t remember the exact grade) and said it was an interesting experience. He didn’t go much into detail, but I thought to myself that he had become an educator, even if it was just for a few minutes.

I’m going to end this post with a quote from said friend “I want games to be the most accurate as possible, it’s the only place we learn anything”. I’m not sure if he realizes how much truth is in that statement and how much it resonated with me.

About Lisa


  1. Hi Lisa! This was an awesome journal about your experience playing Go. I’ve never played it, but I played Othello a lot as a kid and I see the physical resemblance. Your comment about there being more play combinations than atoms in the universe is astounding! That blew me away. It got me thinking about the game as a natural element, not just a man made creation. Like perhaps this game concept exists in the natural world, maybe even invisibly…Anyway, my favorite part of your experience was how your friend taught you: explaining his own moves, then working through your moves with you, then gradually letting you make your own choices. This is exactly the way that I believe I learn best, and why learning games is often so frustrating for me when it doesn’t happen that way. I think I need a great deal of that kind of scaffolding to hold me up! Thanks again for your journal.

  2. A very thorough introduction to Go (Wéiqí). Including a bit of the history is really cool, as this is what piques my interest. Much culture flowed from China to Korea and then on to Japan, and this game is believed to have traveled the same route. If one looks at a map of Asia this seems quite logical, although international politics often conceals this fact. Your fascinating play journal entry prompted me to do a bit of quick research, and of particular interest to me was the fact that “It was considered one of the [four essential arts] of a cultured Chinese scholar in antiquity and is described as a worthy pastime for a gentleman in the Analects of Confucius” (Wikipedia). Imagine that, a cultured person should spend time playing games! Thanks for your patience with my thick-headed responses to your Tweets. I think I’ll take it up when I move back to Korea, as it will provide me an immersive environment to practice my Korea

  3. Lisa! Thank you for introducing me to this game. It looks like something I would love. Deceptively complex, elegant, and timeless. I will have to try it!

    “This game seems very simple, but it allows for a surprising amount of creativity.”

    What’s interesting to me are the various patterns that would emerge by play style, and perhaps how the computer would have to learn to assess these patterns based on player behavior in order to beat the pro human player. It’s also interesting how players may learn to understand these patterns as the possible combinations are so vast.

    “Before the game started I thought to myself: Can I try it? Of course I could, I’m a smart adult, I can try it!”

    What’s interesting as although this game is being praised for complexity and relation to mathematics (which I usually do not enjoy in games) I found this game less intimidating than many other games we have played because of the simple aesthetic. Sometimes games with lots of reading, skill traits, racial passives, etc, etc, become so overwhelming to track although these games may be less complex. This seems like a deep game without all of the “fluff” often associated with games. I think it would be easy for many people to “try” it in the Salen sense because of this.

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