Archive for the ‘Games and Society’ Category

Screenshot, This War of Mine, 11 Bit Studios

Screenshot, This War of Mine. 11 Bit Studios.

Picture this: you’re trapped in a war zone, forced to take shelter in an abandoned, derelict building. You’re with a couple of strangers, all separated from their families; your homes and possessions are gone, destroyed in the conflict. You have no weapons, no way to defend yourselves, no comforts but what you can fashion from wreckage, and nothing to eat but what you can scavenge from your war-torn city. You’re hungry, tired, and scared, and your only options are to die tonight, or survive the night and try not to die tomorrow.

This is the reality that This War of Mine depicts: war is not heroic and it is not glamorous. War is harsh and brutal. It is a grim struggle for survival, and it spares no one.

War, in short, is hell.

Developed by Warsaw, Poland-based 11 Bit Studios—known for its tower-defense-on-its head Anomaly series—This War of Mine portrays armed conflict from a perspective that game aficionados rarely consider, and developers never present: the civilians all too often caught in the crosshairs. The game is about survival, about hunkering down and waiting out, about risking your life—and the lives of others—just to scrape by for another day. You don’t take up arms and fight, you stay quiet and invisible, and pray for the return of the sheltering dark, when you can venture out once again.

This War of MineThe game is slated for release later this year, so I haven’t had a chance to play it yet. However, reviewers at Polygon were treated to a preview by the developer, and even watching the gameplay is harrowing. This War of Mine is dark—literally and figuratively—and intense: everything about it, from the environment to the gameplay, is designed to engender unease. The game sets you on edge from moment one and holds you there for as long as you can stand to play.

Perhaps more significantly, This War of Mine is morally and ethically challenging: You’re forced to make life-or-death decisions every step of the way, some of which involve stealing food or medicine from others in need, or withholding help to conserve resources for your own group. While this may turn the odds of staying alive in your favor, it does so at the expense of someone else who, like you, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The message is clear: during war, all bets are off. The laws of nature reign supreme, and the only rule is survival.

Though this game may never put an end to war, for those with the courage to play, it sheds a welcome light on the human cost that others so often leave in the shadows.

For 11 Bit’s official game website (including a trailer), click here.

Polygon has some gameplay footage on their website here.

And you can read more about the game and the developers behind it here.




In my previous two posts, I talked a lot about avatars and some of the rather intriguing and exciting developments happening regarding virtual worlds. In brief, both are evolving far beyond what early digital pioneers could have envisioned when they took their first steps into virtual reality. We have the ability today, as demonstrated by LucasArts’ E3 reveal of Star Wars: 1313, to render near-photo-realistic environments in real-time. Absolute photo-realism is a mere skip in time away—five years at the outside—and completely immersive, realistic virtual worlds experienced through any connected device are already on the horizon.

This does not spell the death of the avatar. Avatars will, I’m fairly certain, always have a place within gaming and VR. But we’re fast approaching a technological revolution the likes of which humanity has never experienced. Soon we will have the ability to interact with virtual environments directly, without filtering our actions through a digital intermediary.

Very soon, in fact. Prototypes of The Oculus Rift VR headset show great promise in delivering fully-immersive 3D gaming to the masses. With it, you can climb into the cockpit of a star fighter and engage in ship-to-ship combat, surrounded on all sides by the vastness of space and the intensity of interstellar battle (as with EVE VR). Combine the Rift with the Wizdish omni-directional treadmill and a hands-free controller like the Xbox Kinect, and you can transform a standard first-person shooter into a full-body experience—allowing you to ditch the thumbsticks and literally walk through a game’s virtual environment, controlling your actions via natural motion of hands, feet, arms, legs, and head.

In the world of augmented reality (AR), Google Glass will hit the streets later this year, providing users with a wearable, hands-free interface between the real and the virtual, enhancing your interaction with reality, and allowing you to transmit  your view of the world across the globe.

But the real future lies in a recently Kickstarted project by startup tech company Meta. Meta’s developing a system for interacting with the virtual world that tears open the envelope of the possible, and drives the line dividing virtual from real one step closer to extinction. It’s a combination of stereoscopic 3D glasses and a 3D camera to track hand movements—allowing for a level of gestural control of the virtual world previously unseen (think Minority Report or The Matrix Reloaded).

Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Meta system includes physical control and also works in real space (not strictly a virtual gaming world). And unlike Google Glass, Meta creates a completely immersive virtual environment. According to a recent article by Dan Farber on CNET,

Meta’s augmented reality eyewear can be applied to immersive 3D games played in front of your face or on [a] table, and other applications that require sophisticated graphical processing, such as architecture, engineering, medicine, film and other industries where 3D virtual object manipulation is useful. For example, a floating 3D model of a CAT scan could assist doctors in surgery, a group of architects could model buildings with their hands rather than a mouse, keyboard or stylus and car designers could shape models with the most natural interface, their hands.”

In other words, with the Meta system, the wearer can actually enter and manipulate the virtual world directly, altering it to serve whatever purpose s/he desires. Atheer, another recent entry into the field of AR, is working on a similar system. Like Meta, Atheer’s technology uses a 3D camera and stereoscopic glasses for gesture control, and also provides direct access to the virtual world. According to Atheer founder and CEO Sulieman Itani,

We are the first mobile 3D platform delivering the human interface. We are taking the touch experience on smart devices, getting the Internet out of these monitors and putting it everywhere in [the] physical world around you. In 3D, you can paint in the physical world. For example, you could leave a note to a friend in the air at [a] restaurant, and when the friend walks into the restaurant, only they can see it.”

The biggest difference between the two systems is that Atheer isn’t building a hardware-specific platform; it will be able to run on top of existing systems like Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, or Xbox. Apps built specifically with the Atheer interface in mind will be able to take full advantage of the technology. Those that aren’t optimized for Atheer will present users with a virtual tablet that they can operate by touch, exactly like an iPad or Galaxy Tab. Here’s Itani’s take:

This is important for people moving to a new platform. We reduce the experience gap and keep the critical mass of the ecosystem. We don’t want to create a new ecosystem to fragment the market more. Everything that runs on Android can be there, from game engines to voice control.”

We’re rapidly approaching a critical stage in our technological evolution, nearing the point at which we’ll be able to work, play, and live, at least part-time, in hyper-realistic, fully-immersive virtual worlds, just as we do in real-world spaces today. So, what does this mean? Games will get better. Virtual worlds will become richer and more complex, and take on greater significance as we spend more time in them. And we, as humans, may begin to lose our grasp of the real. I spoke to Kim Libreri at Industrial Light and Magic about this, and he agreed that this could become a real problem. The human brain, he said, is a very flexible learning device. With the gains in fidelity that we’ll see in AR over the next decade, he believes that, as the human race evolves, it’s going to become more and more difficult to separate what’s real from what’s not. The longer we coexist within those places, the harder it will become, and this could begin to create problems. As Libreri said,

There’s a real, tangible threat to what can happen to you in the cyber world, and I think as things visualize themselves more realistically . . . think about cyber-crime in an AR world. Creatures chasing you. It’s gonna be pretty freaky. People will have emotional reactions to things that don’t really exist.”

It might also render people particularly susceptible to suggestion. It’s a bit like the movie Inception, where ideas are planted deep within a subject’s subconscious—except this would be easier. If you can’t distinguish the virtual from the real, a proposal put to you in a virtual world could seem like a really good idea someone presented in reality. If this sounds like science fiction, consider for a moment how vulnerable we are to the power of subliminal suggestion or even direct messages within everyday advertising. No, if anything, the intricacies of our approaching reality will most likely far exceed our ability to imagine them.

Of course, there are positives and negatives with any technology. Through highly accurate simulations, immersive virtual worlds could allow people to visit places they might otherwise not be able to. They could also provide greater and more intuitive access to information, and the ability to use and manipulate it in ways that are today all but unthinkable. Whether the looming future of alternate reality will be predominantly good or bad is irrelevant. It is coming, one way or another, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. If our past history and the ever-increasing speed of development and change are predictive—or at least indicative—of future events, then alternate reality, in whatever form it assumes, is poised to bring an end to the separation of virtual and real. And if that happens, we will all bear witness to the birth of a singularity beyond which the nature of human interaction—and indeed, of humanity itself—will be changed, fundamentally, forever.

You can learn more about the Oculus Rift here.

… and the Wizdish treadmill here…

.. and here.

There’s a video demo of Google Glass here.

And a demo of EVE VR here:

More info about EVE VR is here.

You can learn more about Meta and their computing eyewear here…

… and here.

You can read about Atheer here:

And for an overview of the future of AR, check out this article:

avatarsAvatars are all the rage these days. Facebook profile pics, World of Warcraft and EVE Online characters, Second Life and OpenSim personas—these are just a few examples of a growing phenomenon. We all seem to have some sort of digital representation of ourselves that we project into cyberspace—and we spend a fair amount of time designing and customizing them, getting their appearances just right.

Who can blame us, really? After all, they are us, the digital faces we present to the virtual world. That doesn’t mean they have to perfectly replicate our real-world identities, though. In fact, the beauty of designing an avatar is the ability to get creative, to choose exactly who we want to be, to build our ideal selves.

At first blush, it would appear that this is a one-way exchange: through the creative process, we affect the avatar, which we then use to interact with the virtual world. Certainly, with things like static photos and images, this is the case. However, with respect to a 3D digital persona that responds to our commands, it gets a little more complicated. In fact, as several researchers are discovering, situations that we experience virtually through our avatars can impact and even alter our reality.

vravatarPalo Alto research scientist Nick Yee dubbed this the Proteus Effect, after the Greek sea god Proteus, who could assume many different forms (and whose name lends itself to the adjective protean—changeable). He first described it in 2007 while studying how an avatar’s appearance and height affected the way people behaved in the virtual world. In his initial research, Yee provided study subjects with avatars that were attractive or unattractive, tall or short, and then watched them interact with a virtual stranger (controlled by one of Yee’s lab assistants). Here’s what Yee’s team discovered:

We found that participants who were given attractive avatars walked closer to and disclosed more personal information to the virtual stranger than participants given unattractive avatars. We found the same effect with avatar height. Participants in taller avatars (relative to the virtual stranger) negotiated more aggressively in a bargaining task than participants in shorter avatars.”

Yee’s work demonstrated clearly that an avatar’s appearance could change how someone acted within a virtual environment and interacted with its residents.

Okay, so what? It’s interesting, but what relevance does it have to the real world?

In 2009, Yee asked the same question: did changes in virtual-world behavior translate to physical reality? He revisited his 2007 study, adding another task: After concluding their virtual interaction, Yee had each participant create a personal profile on a mock dating site and then, from a group of nine possible matches, select the two s/he’d most like to get to know. Without fail, Yee says,

… we found that participants who had been given an attractive avatar in a virtual environment chose more attractive partners in the dating task than participants given unattractive avatars in the earlier task. This study showed that effects on people’s perceptions of their own attractiveness do seem to linger outside of the original virtual environment.”

The Proteus Effect has been credited with more than just creating more aggressive negotiators or making people feel better about themselves: weight loss, substance abuse treatment, environmental consciousness, perception of obstacles… all affected by people’s experiences through their avatars within virtual reality. According to Maria Korolov, founder and editor of the online publication Hypergrid Business—and who’s been studying virtual worlds since their inception—people who exercise within a virtual world…

… will exercise an hour more on average the next day in real life, because they think of themselves as an exercising-type person. It changes the way you think.”

Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center back this up. A weight loss study there found that people who lost weight either through virtual or face-to-face exercise programs were more effective at managing their weights if they took part in maintenance programs delivered through Second Life.

Regarding substance abuse, Preferred Family Healthcare, Inc., found that treatment outcomes for participants in their virtual programs were as good as or better than those for people who took part in real-life counseling. More significantly, fewer people dropped out of virtual treatment—vastly so: virtual programs saw a 90 percent completion rate, as opposed to 30-35 percent completion for programs at a traditional, physical facility.

3standford_virtual_human_interaction_lab_ym8phEnvironmental consciousness may seem like a stretch, but researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that people who felled a massive, virtual sequoia used less paper in the real world than those who only imagined cutting down a tree.

And perhaps the most interesting example, a study at the University of Michigan showed that participants who saw that a backpack was attached to an avatar consistently overestimated the heights of virtual hills—but only if they’d created the avatar themselves. Participants assigned an avatar by the researchers were much more accurate in their estimations. Said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State, who worked on the study,

You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself. Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar… If your avatar is carrying a backpack, you feel like you are going to have trouble climbing that hill, but this only happens when you customize the avatar.”

Of course, there is a dark side to the Proteus Effect. A study co-written by Jorge Peña, assistant professor in the College of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin, Cornell University Professor Jeffrey T. Hancock, and graduate student Nicholas A. Merola (also at Austin), showed that avatars could be used to prime negative responses in users within a virtual world. In two separate studies, researchers randomly assigned participants dark- or white-cloaked avatars, or avatars wearing physician or Ku Klux Klan-like uniforms. They were also asked to write a story about a picture or play a video game on a virtual team and then come to consensus on dealing with infractions. Those in the dark cloaks or KKK robes consistently showed negative or anti-social behavior. What really causes concern, though, is that they were completely unaware that they’d been primed to do so. According to Peña,

By manipulating the appearance of the avatar, you can augment the probability of people thinking and behaving in predictable ways without raising suspicion. Thus, you can automatically make a virtual encounter more competitive or cooperative by simply changing the connotations of one’s avatar.”

Behavior modification through manipulation of appearance is nothing new: Traditional, face-to-face psychological experiments have shown that changes in dress can affect a person’s behavior or perception of themselves. That this also happens in the virtual world says something interesting about the human brain and its ability to distinguish reality from virtuality.

It should also give us pause. We’re rushing headlong into a brave, new virtual world, and it seems all but unstoppable. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, as we move forward, we would do well to proceed deliberately and with caution. Our history is rife with examples of decisions made ignorant of the potential outcome, and good intentions corrupted. If we are going to plunge into the virtual, we must consider the consequences—intended or otherwise—that our choices, and our actions, may beget.

You can read a summary of Nick Yee’s work here.

For a discussion of the University of Kansas study, check this link.

You can read about the Preferred Family Healthcare study here.

The Virtual Human Interaction lab study is here.

Check out the University of Michigan study here.

And you can find a discussion of the potential negative aspects of avatar manipulation here.

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.

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


…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.

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.