Archive for November, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011. Providence, Rhode Island. The Civic Center. For team Instinct, this day would be like many others—the four young men would spend a large part of it doing what they do best: playing videogames. The only difference? This was Major League Gaming’s National Championships, the biggest event of the year. It was day three, the final day of competition, and Instinct held the number one spot. They were now within 10 games of claiming the 2011 title and taking home the trophy. At stake: reputation, fan adulation, bragging rights… and a cool hundred grand.

That’s right: $100,000. For beating another team at a videogame.

Okay, while you let that sink in, consider this: that was less than a quarter of the prize money up for grabs. By the close of the event, professional cyber-athletes would walk away with more than $600,000. Not exactly chump change.

Now, many of you may be saying to yourselves, “What? You’re joking, right? All that money for playing videogames? How hard can that be?” Those of you who are gamers might even entertain the idea of going pro yourselves. Maybe you’re really good at first-person shooters and think you can compete with the big boys.

Allow me to disabuse you of that notion: You can’t. Sorry. As a delusion, that ranks slightly above believing that, because you’re good at slow-pitch softball, you can step into the batter’s box and hit a major league pitcher who’s throwing heat faster than most people drive. It’s just not going to happen.

Like any other sport—baseball, football, soccer, you name it—reaching the upper echelons of pro videogaming requires practice, dedication, determination and, yes, skill. Imagine trying to shoot a moving target the size of basketball from 100 yards away while jumping in the air and avoiding getting hit yourself, and you get some idea. That’s only one piece of the picture, though. To be the best—to win a national championship—a pro gaming team has to master a variety of games types—capture the flag, slayer, king of the hill—on different maps (think of them as virtual arenas) that all require different strategies. They have to know the locations within those maps of special items and beat the other team to them. Most importantly, they have to function and communicate as a team—that means knowing where everyone is, who needs backup, who has what weapon… no longer sounds easy, does it? And winning a $100,000 prize purse doesn’t sound like much—especially when you consider that many pro athletes in traditional sports make more per game for doing far less.

At this point, cyber athletes are still on the fringe. Mainstream audiences are not well-aware of their existence. But for the fans, players like Pistola, Walshy, Ogre 2 and Snipedown are household heroes. They follow the stats, collect autographs, sport T-shirts with their favorites teams’ names on them. For sheer thrill factor, victories rival anything the NFL, MLB or NBA have to offer—and defeats in the game world are just as real, and no less heartbreaking.

For more on Major League Gaming, check out their website here:

You can stream video from the 2011 National Championships here:

And for more on team Instinct, check out MLG’s wiki here:

Oh, and by the way, Instinct took the championship—and the hundred grand—after beating two teams in three straight games each. And they were brilliant.

After 520 days locked in a mock spacecraft, six astronauts with the European Space Agency have finally returned home.

The all-male crew of the Mars500 mission—three Russian, two European, and one Chinese—spent nearly a year-and-a-half crammed into a windowless box to answer one question: can people stay healthy and sane while rocketing to Mars and back? To ensure that the answer was as accurate as possible, conditions had to match the physical and mental stresses of an actual voyage to the red planet: The astronauts rarely showered, ate standard astronaut rations, and took blood and urine samples throughout the mission. They communicated with their families through email and video messages, and only had each other for company.

For 17 months. Yikes.

It may not sound like fun (and if it does, you should have yourself professionally evaluated), but it’s a critical question to answer—and, as it turns out, a risky one to ask. The last time scientists tried this, it ended in disaster: Two of the men came to blows while a third tried to force a kiss on a female crew member. Not the European Space Agency’s proudest moment. So this time, they changed things. First major difference: no women (damn!). Second: they had Counter-Strike.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Counter-Strike is a first-person shooter (FPS) that pits two teams against each other in a virtual battlefield. Your team wins by either reaching a set objective before the other team, or by wiping the opposing force off the digital map. It was one of the first games played professionally, and is still popular on the professional circuit today. For the Mars500 astronauts, it was a life-saver. Not only did it help to pass the time, it kept the crew sane and prevented outbreaks of violence: The crew could burn off stress and settle disputes or disagreements with a few rounds of Counter-Strike. By the end of each match, tensions dissipated and harmony was restored.

So, how did the mission turn out? Though they were bedraggled, gaunt and a bit ripe, all six emerged from their isolation smiling and intact. Said China’s Yue Wang, the youngest of Mars500’s crew,

We rarely finish these long-term experiments and we did it as a team. We are family members, we built a very close, solid relationship. We trust each other.”

To read the full article, follow this link.

Autism. Scary word, isn’t it? For parents, it’s near, if not at, the top of the list of non-fatal conditions to fear. There’s no early detection system, no cure, and though not life-threatening, for sufferers and families autism is profoundly life-altering.

Autism is hard on many levels: tough to diagnose, difficult to treat… hell, even defining it brings up more questions than it answers. And it’s on the increase: according to the Talk About Curing Autism (TACA) organization, autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, on average, one in 110 US children has an autism-spectrum disorder—that’s nearly a hundred-fold increase from the 1970’s rate of one in 10,000. The economic impact of this is staggering: autism hits us with an annual medical bill of more than $35 billion. But it’s the human cost—particularly to children—that’s really sobering: developmental delays, integration issues, and daily struggles with a condition that’s socially isolating and poorly understood.

Fortunately, the world of videogames offers hope—and not just as fantasy escapism for those with the condition (although there’s that as well). I’m talking about actual solutions that teach kids with autism how to do everything from interact with peers to safely cross the street (check this link out for more).

Earlier this year, John Steven, a student at Scotland’s University of Abertay Dundee, built a game that helps autistic kids learn color and shape recognition while keeping them calm and focused. Here’s John’s take on the project:

I really wanted to use the creative skills… to help children with learning difficulties, and giving them the opportunity to use music to learn and relax at any time felt like a really important thing to do. There’s very little available in terms of interactive games for children with autism, which is a huge shame. By bringing together shape and color learning with relaxing music and interactive play, I hope this project can make a real difference.”

Right now, the game works by pressing a key that corresponds to an image on a computer screen, but John’s looking to expand the game and develop a dedicated controller for more precise input.

John’s game is a pretty simple example, but within the realm of virtual reality you can find far more immersive learning experiences. Case in point: researchers at Northwestern University are using virtual peers (full-size digital playmates) to help autistic kids develop communication skills and learn the rules of social behavior—something that most kids pick up intuitively but that presents autistic kids with a serious challenge. Says psychologist Miri Arie, who works with the team at Northwestern,

Although children’s play appears spontaneous and wild, it follows certain basic social rules. We hope virtual peers… will allow children with autism to practice the rules behind joining a game, holding a conversation and maintaining social interaction. Then they can apply their newly acquired skills to real-life situations.”

In a similar vein, researchers on the London-based ECHOES project have created a virtual environment where autistic kids can develop and hone social and communication skills by interacting with virtual characters and objects. Within this very safe environment, kids can experiment with different social scenarios and see how their own reactions change the outcomes—without any fear of real-world consequences. Such learning environments really excite ECHOES’ project leader Dr Kaska Porayska-Pomsta:

… Echoes may allow some children to exceed their potential, behaving and achieving in ways that even teachers who knew them well could not have anticipated. A teacher observing a child interacting in such a virtual environment may gain access to a range of behaviors from individual children that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to observe in a classroom.”

Early results are promising. After several sessions, some children show higher-quality interaction within the virtual environment as well as improvements in managing their own behaviors.

Like ECHOES, all the work being done with gaming and autism shows great potential, and what researchers have seen thus far is encouraging. And though none of it will eliminate autism, it gives those suffering from the condition hope that, in the future, their struggles will be easier.

For more on the ECHOES project, check out their website here.

You can read the full article on virtual worlds and autism here.

The full text of the Northwestern University article is here.

You can read more about John Steven’s work with autistic kids in the Science Daily article here.

And for more info on autism and other similar disorders, check out the CDC website here.