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How a Video Game Can Help Us Understand What It’s Like to Be an Octopus [Video]


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octodad

Image courtesy of Flickr/Saspotato

You have one brain. Which controls two jointed arms. And ten jointed fingers. All of which are going to have a very hard time keeping up with the protagonist in the new video game Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

In this game (out January 2014), which is a sequel to the freebie Octodad, players must command a mustachioed octopus who is masquerading as a human—and make sure he keeps his cephalopodian identity secret. Tasks include making coffee, mowing the lawn and cleaning up after his human children.

Which would all be too dull for a human-controlling-human game. But this is different. And far more challenging–and hilarious–than it seems like it should be (and Octodad even gives us a break by only giving us four limbs to control instead of eight).

Octodad’s limbs are wily, bendy, strong and covered in suckers. Players must not only try to simultaneously coordinate each of the independent arms but also the sticky suckers. Which leads to plenty of silly mishaps (dragging furniture, flinging coffee beans, sucker-slugging your fiancé) and lots of awkward lurching. The simple goal is to act as human as possible and keep your suspicion score low.

Controlling this character is difficult even for experienced video game players. And keeping him ambling about in any sort of human way is nearly impossible. As one reviewer noted, the game “has some of the most…finicky controls. And that’s a good thing.” Why? Because “being an octopus trying to act as a human would be finicky.” And trying to control an octopus as a human is even more finicky.

In this way, the game—whether it was the creators’ intention or not—perfectly illustrates the beauty of the octopus. As players quickly find out, giving commands to keep all of those flexible arms under control is exceedingly difficult. A problem that the octopus has solved by letting its arms—to a large extent—control themselves.

With two-thirds of their neurons located not in their central brain but in their arms, octopuses are able to delegate many of the mundane tasks (reacting to stimuli, engaging or releasing suckers) to the individual arms themselves. So their central brain doesn’t get overloaded with the nearly infinite possible motions of each boneless arm. (Scientists even suspect the arms can coordinate among each other—sans central brain intervention.)

And Octodad brings this home for us as we struggle to use our own mainframe noggin to try to keep up. As Forbes noted, the game “revels in the sort of neuron-challenging-glee of age old activities like patting your stomach and rubbing your head at the same time. In many ways the game sets out to make the worst use of the PlayStation 4 controls, to recreate the feeling of confusion and frustration of corralling all of those tentacles [sic] into action.”

The idea for the game came from an off-the-wall brainstorming session among students (then at DePaul University). “What if you were kind of a passenger in your own body,” one of the creators recalled asking (noting no drugs were in use at the time). “What if you were driving your own body? What if you’re a guy inside a robot and you were driving them? What if you’re an octopus in your head? What if you’re just an octopus?”

And the group (eight of whom spun off to create Young Horses, which is putting out the new version) was off and lurching.

Win an autographed copy of my new book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea. Click here for more details.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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