Archive for October, 2011

Exoplanets. Planets beyond our solar system, far removed from Earth’s comfortable neighborhood. Exotic. Mysterious. Dramatic. The domain of science fiction fans and UFO and SETI enthusiasts worldwide, exoplanets conjure images of wild landscapes populated by strange, alien creatures either (depending on who you talk to) hell-bent on our destruction, dedicated to our salvation, or completely indifferent to our presence.

Exoplanets have a long history of speculation, with varied results. Sixteenth-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was the first person to put forward the view that fixed stars similar to the Sun must also be orbited by planets similar to Earth. He said (rather bravely, I might add),

This space we declare to be infinite… In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.”

Bold, daring, and spectacularly ill-timed: he philosophized during the Roman Inquisition. Not known for open-mindedness, the Inquisitors burned him at the stake.

Sir Isaac Newton echoed Bruno’s ideas 200 years later in the conclusion to his revolutionary 18th-century monument to mathematics and philosophy, the Principia:

And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”

By Newton’s time, cooler heads prevailed, and he fared much better. Even so, he was still long gone before his theory was validated: Scientists discovered the first exoplanet in 1988, and as of October 25, 2011, they’d confirmed another 693. This may sound like a lot, but NASA’s March 2009 launch of the Kepler spacecraft provided scientists with a flood of data that completely overwhelmed them. Tasked with searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, Kepler discovered 1781 candidates between May 2009 and September 2011.

Faced with this incredible volume, scientists turned to the public for help via a browser-based game called, appropriately enough, Planet Hunters. Launched in December 2010, 40,000 citizen scientists have used Planet Hunters to help professional astronomers analyze light from 150,000 stars, in the hope of finding (ideally) Earth-like planets orbiting around some of them.

After a combined 60 years of man (or woman) hours later—and barely a month since gamers unlocked the structure of an HIV-like virus (see my 9/2011 post “When scientists fail, call in the gamers!”)—amateur virtual astronomers struck gold with the discovery of two officially-confirmed candidate planets. This may not seem like much to crow about, but it’s a significant achievement. First, these are citizen scientists, not professionals. And second, according to Oxford University’s Dr. Chris Lintott, one of the physicists behind Planet Hunters,

These are planets that had slipped through our fingers. They had escaped our automatic detection methods, and they’ve been rescued by the heroic efforts of the people who visited our website.”

Debra Fischer—Yale astronomer, exoplanet expert and co-leader of the Planet Hunter project—is similarly excited by the astro-gamers’ success:

This is the first time that the public has used data from a NASA space mission to detect possible planets orbiting other stars. As soon as I saw the Kepler data, I knew this would be a great project for citizen scientists.”

Big news, indeed, and yet another instance of science tapping the boundless creative energy of gamers. As videogames continue to evolve, and as we move beyond media hype and examine their reality—what they’re truly capable of accomplishing—we can recapture the energy spent vilifying them and direct it towards answering some of humanity’s burning questions, tackling our greatest challenges, and finding solutions to our most urgent problems.

You can read more about the gamers’ discovery here

here

…and here

And you can find an abstract of the scientific paper presenting the discovery here.

Check out the Planet Hunters website here.

And to learn more about NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, follow this link.

The railgun. Staple of sci-fi film and literature and the Holy Grail of videogame weaponry. Legendary for its destructive power, it uses electromagnetism to launch a solid projectile from a pair of metal rails with enough force to penetrate virtually any barrier and reduce an organic target into a mass of beautifully-rendered, digital goo. Also known as a mass driver or fuel rod gun (for its use of depleted Uranium slugs as ammo), a version of the railgun first appeared in the 1897 novel A Trip To Venus, in the guise of an electric device used to launch vehicles into space. Over the years, many variations have appeared across the sci-fi landscape, but it wasn’t until id Software’s first installment of the Quake series in the mid-‘90s that the railgun gained notoriety as a weapon of mass destruction (sorry for the pun, but it couldn’t be helped).

Where fiction begins, reality often follows: Scientists and inventors have toyed with designs for electromagnetic weapons and delivery mechanisms since 1918, and have even created small-scale, working models. However, the vast amount of energy required to power a full-size railgun confined them to the realms of imagination and speculation.

Until recently, that is. On January 31, 2008, the US Navy changed the game, firing a shell out of a prototype railgun at 2,520 m/s (for comparison, the M16 assault rifle’s muzzle velocity is a mere 930 m/s). Expected performance of the finished weapon (available to the Navy between 2020 and 2025) is nearly double that—an astonishing 5,800 m/s—and it’ll be able to hit a five-meter object at a distance of more than 370 km.

Why is this important? Railgun-fired projectiles pack more punch than traditional explosive-filled shells, and in a smaller size, which means you can carry more ammunition. Also, they’re not explosive, which eliminates the hazards of transporting a lot of volatile and dangerous ordnance around—good news for our servicemen and women.

However, and more to the point, it’s a convergence of videogame fiction and military reality. And it’s hardly the first. One of the most publicized examples is a game the US Army released in 2002 called America’s Army—the first videogame ever developed with military recruitment as its specific goal.

Built on the Unreal game engine (a very popular first-person shooter, or FPS), America’s Army immerses players in the world of the US Army—giving them a visceral and extremely accurate experience of life as a soldier. The portrayal of weapons and combat is highly realistic: you go limp after taking one or two hits, the next one finishes you. You’re also bound by the Army’s Rules of Engagement: shooting civilians or taking out one of your teammates lands you in a virtual Leavenworth.

America’s Army quickly became one of the most popular FPS games of the time, receiving high marks for its gameplay and mechanics. And it grew to be far more than its developers intended. Started as a PR campaign to build Army brand awareness among America’s youth, it became a valuable training tool both within and outside the armed forces. Soldiers about to deploy could play through customized scenarios to help prepare for their deployments, new recruits and seasoned veterans alike could run combat simulations, and ordinary civilians could learn how to save lives.

Yeah, you read that right. A videogame teaching people how to save lives. America’s Army isn’t just about combat. Those inclined to the Hippocratic arts can take on the role of combat medic, and learn skills critical to perform as a first responder. You can’t just jump into it, though—you first have to pass a virtual course based on actual, real-world medical training, covering topics like prioritizing casualties, controlling bleeding, recognizing and treating shock, and administering aid to non-breathing victims. Paxton Galvanek, an avid America’s Army player, put that training to use when he found himself first on the scene of a multi-victim car accident (read the full text here):

In the case of this accident, I evaluated the situation and placed priority on the driver of the car who had missing fingers. I then recalled that in section two of the medic training, I learned about controlled bleeding. I noticed that the wounded man had severe bleeding that he could not control. I used a towel as a dressing and asked the man to hold the towel on his wound and to raise his hand above his head to lessen the blood flow which allowed me to evaluate his other injuries which included a cut on his head.”

Okay, that’s all well and good, and I’m all for the Army teaching people how to heal others. But what about the darker reality?

It’s no secret that the US military has employed various first-person shooters as combat training tools, both to teach personnel how to work together (the Marines modified id Software’s Doom II to do just that) and to acclimate them to the job of killing. Does it work? No one knows for sure, and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. However, much as the media likes to blame youth violence on violent videogames, no research has ever been able to prove a link between them. In fact, during the same period that videogame popularity began to rise, incidents of juvenile violence have actually dropped. So it seems that violent videogames are not, in and of themselves, a cause for concern.

For me, the more problematic question centers around unmanned military drones. Without a doubt, they provide clear advantages over boots on the ground: it’s safer to conduct reconnaissance in hostile areas or clean up undetonated enemy ordnance with a remote-controlled robot, and they also allow you to run risky missions without putting lives on the line. But what about drone bombing attacks or search-and-destroy missions? Pilots control both air and ground vehicles with joysticks and other videogame-style controllers, and view the world through a screen and from a perspective that’s highly reminiscent of an FPS or combat flight simulator. Yes, this keeps our servicemen and women out of harm’s way—and it’s hard not to view that as a good thing, especially for those of us who have friends and family in the military—but does war-by-remote insulate us from the brutality of conflict?

Students of war have noted that the further away one is, the easier it is to kill someone. Hand-to-hand combat or knife fighting is intensely visceral: your opponent is right there, sweating, breathing. Taking his or her life is a matter of individual survival, and becomes a personal affair, with nothing separating the two of you. Put a firearm in your hands and target someone across a square, and you’re now a step removed from your victim. You’re still doing the killing, but it’s more distanced. Climb into a bomber and drop explosives on a target thousands of feet below, and now you don’t even see the victims. You’ve removed yourself another step. You still have to be there, though. There’s still some connection.

Now imagine sitting sit down at a computer, joystick or D-pad in hand. You’re controlling a drone vehicle that may be on another continent entirely. The images on the screen in front of you have no connection to your reality, to the world around you. Where you are is safe, removed from combat. And they’re just images. How hard is it to pull the trigger now?

Again, there are undeniable benefits, and I would never argue against protecting our troops. But as we increase the distance at which they can operate, as we remove them farther and farther from the destruction they create and the horrible reality of war, we should stop and ask ourselves this: are we sanitizing the business of killing, and making it easier to carry out?

For more on remote drones, check out this CNN article here

… and Slate.com’s take here.

And for more about America’s Army, check out the official website here.

What is art? People of all backgrounds, experiences, and walks of life have asked and debated this question since time immemorial. Bertolt Brecht believed that art was a hammer with which to shape reality. Raymond Chandler felt that all art had a quality of redemption. Picasso once said “art is a lie which makes us see the truth.” According to Annie Dillard, “art is like an ill-trained Labrador retriever that drags you out into traffic.” Longfellow felt that art was the child of nature. Stephanie Mills believed that art “troubles and pleases, inspires, and reminds us that humanity is ever capable of adding to the sum of the world’s grave beauty.” Louise Bourgeois said that art was a guarantee of sanity. And Beethoven once quipped, “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?”

Which says more about art’s effects than its reality. When it comes to actually defining art, even the mystics are silent. You can give it a shot if you like, but I’d wager that any definition you devise will be a statement about what art does rather than what it is. And here’s the thing: for most of us, it doesn’t really matter. We may not be able to define art, but we know it when we see it.

There are, however, some forms of expression that fall within a commonly-accepted concept of art: painting, sculpture, classical music, ballet, literature and photography to some extent (you may not like James Joyce or Ansel Adams, but I defy you to deny their artistry). And, of course, videogames.

Yes, I said it. I mean, you had to know it was coming, right? Okay, maybe adding them into the category of agreed-upon art forms is a bit of a stretch—at least right now. And in the era of Space Invaders, Asteroids and the Atari 2600, it would have been a hard claim to justify. However, in 1993, a little game called Myst changed everything.

Myst presented an immersive, virtual world that was—in a first for videogames—both engaging to play and gorgeous to behold—prompting both Wired magazine and The New York Times to suggest that videogames could, in fact, become a bona fide means of artistic expression. Myst was a runaway, and somewhat unanticipated, success, and it also represented a convergence of technology, talent and opportunity: the larger capacity of CD-ROM drives allowed skilled graphic artists to create stunning visual landscapes and game images, and Myst’s popularity clearly demonstrated the gaming audience’s hunger for more. The success of its sequel, Riven, as well as two similar games, The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, confirmed this.

But, you protest, four games doth not an art form make. Okay, granted. However, before you write me off as hopelessly deluded or just plain insane, I’d like you to consider a few items.

First, the National Endowment for the Arts now officially recognizes videogames as a legit art form. Now I don’t go around changing my definitions of things because the powers that be make some declaration, but this is a significant legal win for videogames, and it provides grants of up to $200K to artists working in the medium (details are here).

Second, and perhaps more significantly, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is hosting “The Art of Video Games” next year, from March 16-September 30, 2012. That’s right. The Smithsonian. The exhibition explores the four-decade evolution of videogames as an artistic medium, and focuses on visual effects and creative use of technology. It features some of videogaming’s most influential artists and designers, and takes a look at their contributions and influences, and the larger role that videogames play in popular culture.

The Smithsonian installation isn’t the first display of videogame-related art. An earlier exhibition at the Barbican, in London, showcased the videogame-centered work of Brooklyn-based artist Cory Archangel. And an online exhibition entitled The Semiotics of Video Games examines videogames and the production of meaning.

Games are growing up. Stories are becoming more sophisticated, music and audio rivals the best in Hollywood and the symphony, gameplay is increasingly interactive and non-linear, and digital artists are creating virtual worlds of breathtaking beauty and power. In the best of the genre, all these aspects come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Whether this translates to a valid art form is a decision each of us has to make for ourselves, and it’s not likely that we’ll all agree. But the history of art teaches us one thing: it is not static. Art is constantly evolving, pushing boundaries. It speaks to the human condition, and seeks to reveal something about ourselves—or, at the very least, shine a light into spaces we’d rather not go. It is a living, breathing form of expression, and it will not be denied.

Ready or not, videogames are about to throw the art world into a spin. So grab something solid and hold on for the ride.

Check out the Smithsonian’s “The Art of Video Games” here.

You can learn more about the featured games here

… and here.

Here’s a write-up of Cory Archangel’s London exhibition.

And you can view the online exhibit, The Semiotics of Video Games, here.

When Steve Jobs passed on October 5, the world lost a visionary, the computer industry lost a creative genius, and videogaming lost an unintentional hero.

Though he focused on other forms of entertainment—music in particular—Jobs had a huge impact on videogaming through a little invention of his called the iPhone.

Maybe you’ve heard of it? It was the first of its kind, an elegant, one-button mobile phone with a high-resolution touch-screen, motion-sensitive accelerometer and integrated web browsing capability that revolutionized the industry and redefined the idea of what a cell phone could be.

The very aspects of the iPhone that shook up mobile communications also changed the way we experience videogames. Yes, there were mobile gaming devices before the iPhone—Nintendo’s DS and the Playstation Portable (PSP) in particular—but this was something new. This was a serious device, an essential tool for the businessperson, and indispensable to the busy commuter. You could call the office, catch up on email, check the latest news on the web, organize your calendar. This was a tool, a godsend to the type A+, zero-down-time, productivity-obsessed. Yes, you could play games on an iPhone, but it was definitely not a toy.

Which was exactly the point. The iPhone appealed to a segment of the population that had little to no interest in PSPs or DSs, but might bust out their phones to play a few rounds of Mah Jong or solitaire—or maybe even Angry Birds—between meetings or during the evening commute.

To no one’s surprise, the iPhone took off like wildfire. Game developers suddenly had a new and extremely popular platform for delivering their wares, and access to an enormous market of potential gamers. Yes, they’re casual gamers, but bear in mind that casual gamers make up the largest and fastest-growing segment of the game-playing population.

Apple followed up its iPhone success with the iPod Touch—a device actually intended for entertainment—and eventually with its big brother, the iPad—which may become the biggest mobile gaming platform in history. As other hardware and software developers scramble to catch up, more and more smartphones, hand-helds and tablets are coming to market—and there are games for them all.

For game developers and casual gamers, it’s a great time to be alive. And it’s largely due to the unintended consequences of an uncommon mind. So, Mr. Jobs, from those about to rock, roll, fly, jump, and drive, we salute you.

The United States population is growing, and I don’t mean our numbers. There’s no delicate way to say this, but too many of us are fat—really fat. Obesity in this country is an epidemic: about a third of all adults and 17 percent of children—three times the rate of 20 years ago—are obese, and not a single state in the union has met the Healthy People 2010 goal to lower obesity rates below 15 percent. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer… the list goes on. And the economic cost is staggering: obesity hammers us with a $200 billion medical bill, and it’s only getting worse. But most distressing of all, you know all those happy, carefree kids you see everyday? They’ll probably die before you do. That’s right, for the first time in US history, today’s generation of  kids probably won’t outlive their parents.

Okay, now that you’re paying attention, here’s the good news: The power to end obesity is in our hands. All we have to do is eat better and get more exercise—and there’s a great tool out there that can help. Anyone? Anyone?

You guessed it: videogames. Specifically, exergaming.

Active videogames have been around since 1982, but didn’t really take off until the introduction of Dance Dance Revolution in the early 2000s. The game’s surprising popularity tore the exergaming market wide open, and gave birth to the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 Kinect, and Playstation Move—all variations on a theme, and with the laudable goal of getting average Americans off their asses and moving.

And boy do we move. Kung Fu, boxing, cycling, tennis, bowling, dancing, track and field—the list of options is virtually endless, and more and better games come to market every year.

“Okay,” you ask, with perhaps a hint of cynicism, “but do they really work?”

According to researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Massachusetts, they do. They found that kids who played exergames for 10 minutes got a workout as good as or significantly better than a 10-minute walk at three-miles-per hour on a treadmill. In the March 7 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Bruce Bailey, PhD (Brigham Young) and Kyle McInnis, ScD (U. Mass), wrote that

Exergaming has the potential to increase physical activity and have a favorable influence on energy balance, and may be a viable alternative to traditional fitness activities.”

And guess which is more fun. In fact, the researchers noted that entertainment appeal is exactly what makes the games so effective: Kids enjoy them, and are more likely to stick with the program—and reap the benefits—as a result. Now before you accuse me of hailing videogames as a panacea for US health issues, no one believes that exergaming can, or should, replace regular physical activity. As McInnis and Bailey noted,

Although exergaming is most likely not the solution to the epidemic of reduced physical activity in children, it appears to be a potentially innovative strategy that can be used to reduce sedentary time, increase adherence to exercise programs, and promote enjoyment of physical activity.”

George Velarde agrees. He’s the chair of the P.E. department at Sierra Vista Junior High in Canyon Country, CA. In 2003, he added an exergaming room to the school’s fitness center, and had this to say about it:

The kids don’t even know they’re working out, but they are working out even more at moderate to vigorous levels because of exergaming.”

Dr. Adam Noah—Technical Director of Long Island University’s ADAM Center and MoCap Lab, and an avid (and quite accomplished) gamer—plays DDR regularly, and he can tell you from experience that it’s much more like working out than gaming:

So when I play at this level [the highest level], I’m reaching 15 times my resting metabolism. That’s roughly equivalent to running on a treadmill at 10, 12 mph. People don’t do that. Yet I’m enjoying playing the game.”

And running on a treadmill is, in a word, boring.

Alright, so what’s the point of all this anyway? Just this: videogames, rather than being evil devices that turn people into couch potatoes, can actually play a key role in helping us get healthier. They may never replace real-world physical exercise, but when was the last time you broke a sweat watching TV? Think about it.

The LA Times has an article on exergaming studies here

…and WedMD has one on games and weight loss here.

For more on exergames and physical education, check out this link.

You can find a collection of news articles related to exergaming here.

There’s a discussion about exergaming research here.

Check out this article about gaming and fitness…

…and this one, too.

And for those interested, this link gives a brief history of exergaming.