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Intentional Fallibility

June 5, 2010

I’m no huge fan of Major League Baseball’s commissioner, but Bud Selig did the right thing on Thursday when he decided not to grant a perfect game to Armando Galarraga. As Craig Calcaterra over at NBC’s baseball blog HardballTalk points out, the 27th out of Galarraga’s perfect game wasn’t the only blown call that night, much less over the course of the rest of this season. Despite baseball’s reputation as a game suited to meticulous scorekeeping and the tracking of individual achievement, the unchanged outcome of the final score ensures that the emphasis remains on the teams rather than the players.

Would I feel the same way if I was Mr. Galarraga? Hell no. But I happen to sort of like that baseball can be as infuriating as it was that fateful night. It makes for better theater — I’ve certainly talked to more people about Galarraga’s perfect-but-not outing than Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden’s recent perfect games combined. When instant replay inevitably gets expanded on the baseball diamond, my head will be glad for the players who won’t have to worry that a close play will be called incorrectly, but my heart will be a little bit sad that the all-too-human element of error is removed.

That said, the reignited debate over instant replay reminds me of one of the minor issues that got cut when I hacked my review of Sony’s MLB 10: The Show down to 300 words: the umpires in the game are fallible.

In the name of authenticity, the umpires in MLB 10: The Show screw up. This is not a new phenomenon in sports games — Madden‘s been implementing the red flag for the last couple of years, for example. Baseball’s a little bit different than football, however, in that umpire screwups in baseball are not subject to review. They are not part of the game as defined in the rules. As far as the rules are concerned, the umpire is right, even when he’s wrong. An umpire’s missed call in baseball is an impediment, whereas an official’s missed call in football becomes a part of the game; I can’t speak with any certainty on this, but I don’t think the officials in Madden miss calls that can’t be overturned.

There are a couple of reasons that the introduction of umpire error in MLB 10 feels a bit, you know, off. One is that the announcers feel compelled to talk about every single missed call. Having been tasked to review the game, I spent a lot of time in one of the game’s new modes: the catcher’s-eye view. From the catcher’s perspective, there is a visual cue that marks exactly where the ball was when it crossed the plate, giving a clear indication of what was a ball and what was a strike. Every time a ball was called a strike by the umpire (and vice versa), the announcers to the game would say something utterly dismissive of the umpire, something like “well, I don’t know what he was looking at, but…” or, “wow, that looked awfully close.” Every time. It belittles the job of the home plate umpire, and also drives home just how many calls are being missed. The announcers’ apparent perfect sight and judgment is clearly superior to the all-too-human umpires who are actually calling the game, which makes the player wonder why the announcers just don’t ump the game themselves. They’re obviously better at it.


Even if the announcers didn’t have a little too much insight into which calls were right and which ones were off, however, I think I’d still have a problem with the umps missing calls, and the reason relates to the Turing Test.

This is an issue that comes up all the time in AI, the question of whether we’d have an idealized model or a realistic one. Sony’s approach to baseball is one whose goal, it seems, is to pass something like a “baseball Turing Test”, which introduces as many elements of the actual game as it can in order to most closely replicate the real thing. Part of this is allowing the umpires to screw up, because real umpires don’t get it right all the time. I don’t agree with this, and here’s why: I’m playing a video game. What I want in my video game is an idealized version of the game, one in which the umps don’t get the calls wrong, one in which my skill, and not a D100 roll, determines whether the pitch is in the zone or the call is out or safe.

What’s the difference, then, if the rates of error are statistically the same? Why am I okay with umpires getting it wrong in the majors, but not okay with them getting it wrong in my game?

My theory here is that my problem is simply that the game’s umpires are not human. They are not erring because they are fallible slabs of meat prone to distraction and influence. Rather, they are erring because they have been programmed to err. If an AI umpire blows a call, it’s because a programmer told “him” to blow a call every so often. Human error has a certain charm to it; intentional computer error feels insidious.

I am aware that I can turn off blown calls in the options screen. I also want to make it clear that I don’t think that this is necessarily a fault of the game — just my own personal perception of whether I feel missed calls “add” anything to the game or not. Still, up until now, my preferences had always been skewed toward realism. While I certainly have a fondness for the Sega Genesis iterations of the classic franchises, I’d much rather have near-photorealistic character models and beautiful stadiums to play in, with a choice of cameras that goes beyond “up ‘n down” or “left ‘n right”. I always leave penalties on, I want to play nine-inning games, and until they ditched ’em in the NHL, two-line passes were fine with me. I like my games to be “realistic”. Programming an official or an umpire to be fallible without recourse strikes a different sort of chord. It doesn’t feel like realism, it feels like hostility toward the player.

For the first time in my recollection, I’ll be updating the defaults in a sports game. Too bad Galarraga didn’t get the same opportunity.

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