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Weight of Your Words

Assignment: Use a physics library.

Physics libraries like Box2D tend to use extremely rational language in extremely literal ways (mass, friction, gravity, etc.) — I wanted to build on this language by overloading its meaning and taking it in an absurdist direction. Electrons, in the quantities pushed around by our machines, certainly don’t carry much physical weight… how, then, can we weigh a string of characters?

Google seems to have this sorted out… just about any conceivable string of text can be quantified, weighed, and perhaps valued by the number of results it dredges up.

So I whipped up an app that literally uses Google’s search result count to determine how game elements behave — with the intention to pressure a player into testing their own judgment of the worth of a word against Google’s. It looks like this:

How does our understanding of how much a word weighs depart from Google’s absolutism? How much weight can you balance?

The game mechanics are pretty basic… Box2D manages the interactions between the words and the tilting ledge below. The ledge is attached to a joint in the middle of the screen, and if words are distributed unevenly it will tilt and send terms sliding into the abyss.

The cloud floating above has a text input box which sends search queries off to Google. A bit of code scrapes the resulting HTML to figure out how many results exist for the query. This runs in its own thread so as not to block the rendering / physics work. After the query count comes back from google, the term you entered drops from the cloud onto the ledge. (You can influence where it will land by positioning the cloud with the mouse beforehand.) The more results a term has, the higher its density — this means that major search terms will help you load extra weight on the ledge, but their extra mass also means they’re more likely to tilt the ledge past the point of recovery. This, I hope, forces the player to estimate the weight of a term before they drop it from the cloud.

Here are a few more screenshots from development and testing:

Weight of Your Words help screenWeight of Your Words tilting overboard

The game doesn’t work very well as an Applet (it uses the net library, which requires code signing), so it’s probably easiest to download the zip below if you’d like to give it a try.

The source is a bit long to embed here, so I’ve attached it below.

February 16 2010 at 8 AM