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The Joy of Constraint Satisfying

Years ago I read Paul Ekman's Emotions Revealed on emotions and facial expressions. He identifies seven major emotions:

major emotions: my adaptive annotations

fear: don't eat me
anger: don't eat my child/food
sadness: someone ate my child
surprise: what's that?
disgust: that wasn't food!
contempt: you're beneath me
happiness: i ate/i had sex/my child done me proud/etc

Later he breaks happiness down:
16 possible positive emotions: 5 for pleasure from each of the 5 senses.
Amusement, excitement, contentment, ecstasy, wonderment, relief, fiero,
naches, elevation, gratitude, schadenfreude. He's not sure the last three are
emotions as opposed to other emotional states.

elevation -- feeling uplift from seeing surprising moral acts.
fiero -- From Italian. Pleasure-pride in a difficult accomplishment.
naches -- From Yiddish. Pleasure-pride in the accomplishment of your child or student.

There's an odd pleasure I experience a lot, which I don't know a name for. I guess it's closest to fiero, though sometimes secondhand or like elevation (pleasure from someone else's difficult accomplishment.) It's like solving puzzles, but these aren't deliberate puzzles, more like using a set of tools someone else provided in a surprising way, or making sense out of nonsense. I guess it's related to hacking, like building an operating system out of elisp, or a one-line program that generates cool graphical patterns. I should just give examples:

Firefly: eventually we realize that the show isn't just being coy about FTL or not, that there is no FTL, and that there's dozens of habitable and terraformed worlds in one system. At first this seems like bullshit, even with the humility proper to current planetary science. Then they say "multiple" stars and you're still skeptical. But then you learn that Castor is a real sextuple system in like the orbit of Pluto (two binary stars, themselves in a binary setup, and with another binary star revolving around the other four), and that there's another known sextuple (two triple stars), and you go huh. And gas giants can hold lots of large moons in a small space. And then you read some semi-canon explanation</i> with artificial gravity and sent-ahead terraforming probes, and moons and dwarf planets being compressed for a more Earthlike surface gravity, and you remember Paul Birch's ideas for mass stream momentum transfer to change orbits and rotations with tech we could do today, and you go "huh. Unlikely, but more possible than FTL."

Or (lots of RPG examples now), you known Dungeons and Dragons, and the magical spells and items and item creation rules provided, all meant to model vaguely medieval fantasy, but someone figures out how to make a post-scarcity society with wall of iron spells and decanters of endless water and you feel proud of them for building something surprising. (But if they notice that a ladder costs less than two ten foot poles, that's just exploiting an obvious bug and stupid.)

Or there's D&D's Great Wheel cosmology, based on a two axis moral alignment system that has never made sense, with planes of existence that have their intrinsic cool elements, and someone
preserves most of those elements while using order/violence axes that make a lot more sense, and in fact making many of the elements even more sensible and attractive as variant afterlives, and you vow to use it should you ever run Great Wheel D&D.

Or there's Exalted, with a semi-standard fantasy trope of gods powered by prayer and worship built in, but later someone publishes a goddess who's found a niche as a voice mail service, taking messages in the form of prayer and passing them on in dreams, and you go "cool, yeah, that makes sense", and then you remember that the gods are in a Celestial Bureaucracy, and imagine underlings who run the equivalent of mailing lists...

Or looking at the Blue Rose magic system, and realizing that if I dropped the Shaping Arcana, the rest could emulate a lot of Tolkien magic, including the corrupting sorcery, pretty well, even to building the Rings of Power. But Blue Rose was designed for romantic fantasy, not epic! Go me!

Or again in Exalted, my combining some obscure Charms and rituals to create a society of enlightened mortals with a Sidereal patron and integrated afterlife and Wyld polders, and I'm proud of having built this out of the provided elements, even if I haven't properly written it up yet... but if I try to imagine a fantasy society on my own, free of any constraints or strong influences, my mind blanks out at the sheer openness of it all. Magic can do anything, until you pick constraints, but picking my own? Feels artificial, I should go do something useful...

So yeah, partly it's hacking RPGs. But also married to that "making sense out of incoherence" a la Firefly and the Great Wheel, which also applied to reading Mere Christianity and seeing Lewis give a metaphor for the Holy Trinity that almost made sense. Doesn't quite seem like hacking. A joy in rationalization? Mystery-solving? I don't know. Maybe it's entirely unrelated emotions that I happen to associate because RPGs are often both hackable and nonsensical, whereas computer programs and (theology or sloppy SF) tend to be separate.

A friend calls it lateral thinking, which certainly applies to some of the 'hacking' "make it do something unexpected" stuff.

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Damien Sullivan

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