Archive for the ‘Games and humanity’ Category

Lara CroftFor a few years now, I’ve been raving about Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of Tomb Raider and their reimagining of its protagonist, Lara Croft, from a scantily clad, hypersexualized, adolescent male fantasy to a more realistic, appropriately dressed and anatomically restrained, tough, gritty survivor (see my earlier post here). I applauded their depiction of her as an imperfect woman forced by circumstance to make difficult choices and carry out some fairly gruesome acts in order to stay alive and save her friends. Lara’s not proud of what she does, nor does she take pleasure in it. She does it because she has to, because her only other option is to give up.

That both gamers and critics praised Tomb Raider came as no surprise. At long last, the franchise had a game that looked stunning, played beautifully, and featured a tough, intelligent heroine that both men and women cared about and could believe in. Here, at last, was the Lara Croft we’d all been waiting for.

And now, Crystal Dynamics has done it again. At Microsoft’s E3 press conference this past Monday, they revealed a teaser trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, slated for a late 2015 release. The trailer features all the energy and excitement of the first game, including a few very tense moments of Lara in peril—no surprise there. But it features something else, something unprecedented in the history of gaming.

Rise of the Tomb RaiderThe video begins, not with Lara escaping death or brutally overcoming an attacker, but with her in therapy. You read that right: therapy. We see her on the edge of a chair, cloaked in a hoodie, head downcast. As the therapist talks, Lara digs her fingers into the upholstery, clenches her fist, bounces her leg. She can’t sit still. She’s clearly anxious and uncomfortable. This is not the bulletproof heroine we’ve come to expect, casually shaking off the death she’s dealt. Lara has experienced horrors the likes of which most of us can’t imagine, and she’s been deeply affected by them. But neither is she a broken woman. Battered and scarred yet alive, she’s found away to exist in between. Her therapist continues:

For many people, these traumas become a mental trap. They get stuck, like a ship frozen in ice.”

Lara HoodiePTSD. That’s what he’s talking about. This is classic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lara is suffering from something that affects nearly eight million American adults, that’s all too common among veterans of war and survivors of abuse, that can strike at any age, and that can tear families and communities apart. She has PTSD, and she’s dealing with it. That a video game is so directly dealing with this is extraordinary. And that Lara is working through and recovering from the trauma of her ordeal may provide hope to those facing traumas of their own. I’ll leave you with the experience of a young woman suffering from PTSD who, while playing Tomb Raider, discovered just that:

It didn’t hold any punches, but it didn’t need to… it affected me in a way years of therapy never did. It healed me in a way that no one’s physical comfort, words, and condolences could ever do. It made me realize that, much like Lara Croft, I survived as well—and that I had my own path to walk. That my experiences were real and tangible and yes, they defined me, but that I’d have it no other way. I am a survivor and I am alive.”

After years of buried trauma and hidden pain, this young woman had found solace and salvation by her own hand, through Lara Croft and the game. By reimagining Lara, Crystal Dynamics has done the impossible: from a game heroine, they’ve created a human being.

Execution of Thomas Armstrong, 1683

Human beings have a tendency towards violence. Even the most casual observer of history knows this. Just examine all the interesting, innovative and frankly horrifying ways we’ve designed to injure and kill one another: the rack, drawing and quartering, bayonets, stoning, Columbian neckties, landmines, firebombs, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons—the list is nearly endless. In fact, our propensity to violence and the variety of means we’ve created to carry it out makes one wonder how the human species has managed to hang on this long.

But it may all be over soon. Late in the 20th century, we developed a truly horrible weapon, one targeted at the most psychologically vulnerable of us—our children—and that turns all exposed to it into ruthless, mindless killers. We invented the videogame.

Sounds kind of silly, right? But that’s exactly what videogame detractors would have us believe. Think about it: if there’s a violent act committed by one of our youth, videogames are identified as a—if not the—cause. This is nothing new. Emergent media has always suffered from suspicion and accusation—comic books, radio, TV, movies and videogames have all been viewed by many as harbingers of doom, heralding society’s imminent collapse.

Not to be blunt, but they’re wrong. The fact that we’re having this exchange proves it. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s latest figures, 72% of US households play videogames. That’s a lot of potential killers. And yet we’re still here. Go figure.

Now, before you accuse me of whoring for the media, let me make something clear: I don’t feel that overexposure to violent images in any form is a good idea. As a parent, I take my responsibility to filter what my son sees and experiences very seriously—and I would expect others to do the same. At the same time, I grew up watching TV and movies and playing games, and they didn’t turn me into a socially-maladjusted serial killer.

A recent article in USA Today addresses this very issue, and confirms what gamers have known all along: when it comes to violence, focus on the player, not the game. While it’s true that no one knows exactly what makes a person violent, recent research suggests that personality has a lot to do with it. According to psychologist Patrick Markey of Villanova University,

If you’re worried about a video game turning your son or daughter into a killer, don’t worry about that. But is your kid moody, impulsive, or are they unfriendly? It’s probably not the best idea to have that child play violent video games. Video games are not simply good or bad for everybody, but for some individuals who have certain dispositions, if they play video games they’re much more likely to be negatively affected.”

In other words, use a little common sense, parents. Pay attention to your kids, and keep an eye on what they’re watching and playing. And get involved. Here’s a thought: if you’re really worried about what games your kids are playing, play with them. It’s a great way to gain a little knowledge (and a whole lot of perspective) and interact with your kids. And you might even enjoy it.

Just hide the kitchen knives before you do.

You can read the USA Today article here.

And here’s another article on videogames and violence in kids.

Check out  the Entertainment Software Association’s website here.

And download a fact sheet about games and gamer demographics 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.