Archive for the ‘Casual Games’ Category

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.

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.

For about 33 million people around the world, videogames may be a matter of life and death. That’s because gamers have just accomplished something that had confounded scientists for 15 years: They’ve unlocked one of the great mysteries of AIDS.

And they did it in three weeks.

Using an online game called FoldIt, gamers cracked the protein structure of a retrovirus similar to HIV—a critical step in understanding the cause of AIDS and developing drugs to beat it. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, scientists enlisted the help of gamers worldwide—and were astonished at how quickly they got results. Published yesterday in the journal “Nature Structural & Molecular Biology,” this is the first time gamers have solved a long-standing scientific problem, and may be the only time in history that gamers and scientists have appeared as co-authors. Bear in mind, also, that very few, if any, of the gamers have a background in biochemistry. Calling this a monumental accomplishment is an understatement on the level of referring to the Sun as a bit warm.

FoldIt screenshot

So how did they do it? Through modeling. Developed by the University of Washington in 2008, FoldIt is a game with a purpose: groups of players compete against each other to unfold chains of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins. When players sit down at their computers to play the game, they are presented with a 3-D model of an amino acid. As they work to unfold it, they can use online tools to rotate the model and view it from any angle. This allows players to “see” the protein structure in a way impossible through a microscope: in full 3-D. Why is this important? Pharmacologists need 3-D pictures of a protein in order to identify potential target sites for drugs. Seth Cooper, one of FoldIt’s creators, explained the gamers’ success simply:

People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at.”

And while that’s inarguably true, Firas Khatib, of the University of Washington’s biochem lab, acknowledged and validated something that gamers have always known. He said,

The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

Kudos to all the gamers who made this a reality. Now just imagine what else we could solve if more people put that energy to use.

To read the original paper, click here.

You can also check out this article in Yahoo! News.

And to learn more about FoldIt, check out the website here

… and watch a video of the game in action here.

Remember the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda lifts Luke’s X-wing out of the swamp with the Force? Or when Darth Vader, using only his mind, repeatedly smashes Luke with a variety of blunt objects? That was cool, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to move things just by thinking about it.

Now you can. And though it’s not quite the Force, there are a few games on the market that allow you to move objects or alter the gaming environment simply by concentrating. Mindflex, by Mattel, and Uncle Milton Industries’ Force Trainer rely on headsets that read players’ electrical brain waves and transmit them into the game, allowing players to control items within the games themselves. The games have raised their fair share of skepticism, but all that changes once people play them. Said Stanley Yang, chief exec. of Neurosky, the company behind the operating system inside Mindflex and Force Trainer,

That’s everyone’s initial reaction to the technology: It doesn’t work. It can’t work. Telekinesis is just something in the movies. And telekinesis in its pure form is really impossible. But this technology is as close as you will get.”

Iceland-based developer MindGames also has two apps for sale on Apple’s App Store (where else) that are controlled by brain waves. W.I.L.D. allows players to navigate through the game landscape or complete a range of tasks by concentrating and relaxing. Tug of Mind is also designed to encourage relaxation—this time through use of an angry avatar that gradually gets happier the longer a player stays calm.

The technology driving these games has applications far beyond entertainment, though. In yet another instance of life imitating art, both Honda and Toyota are investing a lot of green into researching mind control features, such as trunks and doors that open by thought command. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has even gotten into the act, last year awarding Johns Hopkins University a cool $34.5 million to test mind-controlled prosthetic limbs. It may sound like science fiction, but they could be available as early as next year. Before long, these limbs could be giving new hope and new life to injured soldiers, amputees, paraplegics—the list goes on. And they’ll have games to thank for them.

Now how cool is that?

You can find the Mindflex/Force Trainer article here.

And the article about MindGames is here.

For details on mind-controlled prosthetics, check out this article…

… and this one.

Photo by Tristan Morphew

Most of you reading this would describe yourselves as gamers. That takes no great intellectual leap; this is, after all, a blog about games and gaming. For those of you who don’t consider yourselves gamers, though, you’re wrong—and I can prove it.

First, I’d like to point something out: None of you needed me to define my terms. When I said gamer, you all read it as videogamer. Games became videogames, and gaming became videogaming. Am I right? Thought so.

There are at least a few dozen boardgame companies who would take issue with this. And rightly so: videogames have only been around for a few decades, while people have been gaming for thousands of years. Even as recently as the ‘80s, gamer typically referred to a lover of classic, die-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Top Secret.

Videogames changed everything. In the mid-‘80s, video arcades became the hotspots for anyone too young to drink—and like the pinball wizards before them, within gaming circles, videogame prodigies became rockstars. But it was the rapid ascendance of PCs and home consoles that gave videogames the means to take over the world.

Thirty years later—not even a blip in human history—videogames are everywhere, in a dizzying variety of forms, and have so completely captured our culture’s attention and imagination that they’ve co-opted labels that have been around for centuries.

It’s precisely this reach and diversity that allows me to, with some certainty, call you a gamer. You don’t have to enjoy hardcore games like Halo, Call of Duty or World of Warcraft for the label to apply. Ever played solitaire or Mahjong on your laptop? How about Angry Birds, The Creeps, or anything else on your tablet or smartphone? Or even Facebook games like Farmville, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or Mafia Wars? Well, you’re a gamer.

It goes deeper than that, though. Gaming, writ large, is an essential human activity. Every society since the dawn of recorded time has created and played games. Wei Hai, the oldest known war game, became popular in China around 3000 BC, Iranian and Egyptian excavation sites have yielded up dice and Senet boards older still; it seems likely that games date back even farther, perhaps to the beginnings of humanity. Like worrying about the future and obsessing about the past, engaging in gameplay is fundamental to our experience as human beings. So your weekly family game nights or regular Monopoly sessions are echoes of cultural heritage and genetic memory that hearken back to our earliest ancestors. Videogames are just a natural extension of this phenomenon, the next step in the evolution of gaming.

Call me crazy, but from this vantage point, gaming seems more than just a frivolous pastime. Like breathing, eating and sleeping, gaming seems necessary for human survival.