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8:27 PM on 07.13.2011

The Curse Upon Video Games

Dichotomy. It is a fundamental construct of nature. It is positive and negative, ones and zeroes, peace and war, good and evil, health and disease. Every level of observable discourse displays this pattern in some way, both socially and scientifically; even the entity of video games. How, you might ask? Video games themselves and all the good things that come with them such as simple entertainment, artistic expression, community interaction, and economic impact, to name a few, present the positive aspect. On the other hand, however, lays the curse of ignorance. While it is true the same could be said for any social construct, I believe this has a special case within the realm of video games. Unfortunately, this fights like a giant, two-headed monster.

One head barks the hordes of uneducated public, especially in academia, politics and the media, oblivious to the video game industry and what it actually contributes to society. Out of the other, and potentially more troubling, face are the infected members of the video game community who are equally unwitting to the values of society as a whole and the potential repercussions of their actions back on the industry.

As alluded to, video games seem to have a strange dogma about them in contemporary society. Today, everybody knows that movies in the theatre are 3D and not on reels, your favourite television shows are in high definition and not over antenna, and music gets played on an iPod and not on cassette. But it seems to me that if you asked them about video games, a good portion of people would still think the kids are playing Pac-Man in an arcade or Duck Hunt on their Nintendo. And if you ask them about that new-fangled Xbox, they’ll comment on those realistic games where you kill people, making the kids these days purely violent when they go into the streets, if they’re not too obese to fit out the door.

Some light hyperbole used there, but the mentality is explained. It is this mentality that infects people of greater society including politicians, like our good friend Senator Lee being concerned with the video game industry making “billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community” because the industry only makes money from violence and kids only want to play the violent games. Consider academic professionals like Mr. Pope, saying that “spending two hours on a game station is equivalent to taking a line of cocaine in the high it produces in the brain”, or Ms. Lieberman claiming rape without citing any empirical research or having any credentials other than “therapist”. That’s because there isn’t any of either.

Allow me to explain what they’re fighting. Gamers fit into a perfect normal distribution. The meaty middle part is you and me, your average, sane gaming majority who can tell the difference between reality and what light is coming from their TV. On the left are the below-average gamers, the fewer number who’ll play some at a party or get a free game or two off the App Store. On the right are the hardest of the hardcore. The few who may be truly mentally unstable and the ones every one hears about because they make the news. So naturally, that’s what games must do to everyone! We must stop these sinful games now before they defile our youth and blight them with blind hatred! Fear that which you don’t understand, so they say. Maybe try learning about it? Who does that?

Another disturbing trend I’ve noticed is equal amounts of unabashed ignorance from people within the gaming community, both those within the game industry and gamers themselves. It takes two to tango it would seem, and some are willing to dance. While not as widespread as in the masses, some feel the need to feed the fire of the politicians. Developers putting out ridiculous things like dog fighting games, or homosexuality “cures”, or school shootings (although I see it differently than Mr. Stirling here). Mr. Stirling’s recent Jimquisition (among others) provides evidence for the ignorance of some gamers at large, and this presents a troubling feature. Trolls will be trolls, but you would think it has to come to a point eventually. Not only gamers share this mentality, but fellow journalists. I’m not trying to sound like a Jim fanboy here, but entitling someone to their opinion abides by a certain code of ethics, especially among your colleagues.

Returning to the point made previous, Mr. Holmes has brought to light how the children are suffering the repercussions of their elder's indignant fears, in addition to the other factors mentioned. I played my fair share of games with guns in my youth, don't get me wrong, but I was taught their meaning and place of entertainment. But I digress. I can't rant about everything at once (or can I...). Alas, the moral paradox. Where do you think you fall on the curve? Do you fit nicely in the sane majority, proving to the world that gaming can be a positive entertainment outlet? Or are you a trolling maniac, defaming the honour of being a gamer to the greater society? Defend your position wisely.

/rant   read

12:20 PM on 06.14.2011

CONSCIOUSTOID #2: When I was your age…

I think it’s safe to assume that every gamer has some experience with a real-time strategy game of some fashion. For me, Command & Conquer: Red Alert was the first game I played online. Likewise, every gamer had a buddy who played Starcraft and made them at least try it. Being more of a console man myself, there was something about using your brain on a large scale that had me going to my buddy’s house to play Red Alert on his computer (mine sucked too much). Suffice to say, they are not easy. Even the much simpler early generation games of the genre were by no means a cakewalk and if you just don’t have the knack for it, no difficulty setting is going to save you. As such, the multi-tasker’s paradises of these games have been used to study the acquisition of complex skills. But you can’t just study these things in normal gamers…where’s the fun in that, right? Segue…

The Study: Researchers in Texas tasked 15 female and 5 male seniors (average age = 70, 62-75 years) to train for a total of 23.5 hours over 5 weeks at Rise of Nations: Gold Edition. Set on the easiest difficulty, game performance was measured by the completion of skirmishes and the total game time. Concurrent with this, high-resolution structural MRI images were taken of the participants to see if there was any relationship between the game performance and the volumes of functionally related brain structures.

The Results: To set the scene, the overall time to complete games reduced 55% over the course of the 23.5 hours, but the speed with which the participants physically moved the mouse and pressed keys did not change. The meat and potatoes of the study though were the areas found significantly larger with the MRI in relation to improvements in game time. The medial frontal gyrus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, motor cortex, premotor cortex, and []cerebellum[/url] are the key players.

My two cents: This is your brain on games. Apologies for the technicality, but this study also gives a snapshot of a young brain playing video games in a general sense. Contrary to popular belief, old people are humans too. If you clicked the links like you’re supposed to, you may have noticed a pattern. “Executive function”, or: planning, decision-making, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, appropriate muscle action initiation and inhibition, and selecting relevant sensory information. Yup. Sounds like video games to me. Some of these areas, in particular the anterior cingulate cortex, are also involved in heart rate, blood pressure, reward anticipation, empathy, and emotion. Sounds even more like games now, doesn’t it? Now when you notice these responses the next time you play you’re going to think of an old lady playing Rise of Nations. I’ve ruined video games for everybody.

The Ask: How into your games do you get? If you do get right into a good game, do you find your responses stronger than other media, like a movie? Are you the gamer who games for the mindless hack 'n slash, or are you the gamer who games for the art and experience? Which do you prefer? I'm more of a narrative man myself having recently played through Uncharted 2 again, but there is definitely a time and place for some mindlessness getting back into Just Cause 2 for fun. Comment away!   read

12:41 PM on 05.26.2011

CONSCIOUSTOID #1: Orbb, Mynx, and Angel

Greetings fellow Dtoiders!

I come bearing Conscioustoid, a series I’ll be trying to keep up with about a lesser known use for video games; academic research. As a graduate student in neuroscience, I have to read many, many journal articles to keep up with my studies and I thought why not read ones about GAMES. Now before you dismiss these as boring Vulcan science, I’m aiming to create discussion about the topics I’ll present and explain to the community at large what’s going on in your brain while you’re sitting in front of your screen for hours. I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

First, I’d like to make a note on current research in video games. After researching this for quite a while, I’ve found it to be very similar to the gaming industry itself. A bunch of shit is put out that satisfies various government and corporate meatheads with their money-stoked furnaces, telling them what they want to hear about how video games make kids aggressive or fat or otherwise making games a social scapegoat. Digressing, there are some passionate researchers out there who aim to truly understand human-computer interaction and the effect this all-senses engaging media has on us earthlings.

As we can all attest, music provides an undoubted sensory factor to the gaming experience. Also, after recently seeing Video Games Live (which everyone needs to see immediately) this topic provided especially intriguing. A study I found out of Montreal back from 2005 used (I don’t pick the games) Quake III Arena and set up a game in Q3DM3 with the player as a Klesk fighting an Orbb, Mynx, and Angel bot for 10 minutes. Two groups played with either no sound at all, or just the in-game music. They found that the gamers who played with the music had higher levels of stress hormone, cortisol, than the other group. Also interesting is that the gamers with elevated stress didn’t report feeling stressed while they were gaming.

My two cents: From my personal experience, the music makes all the difference. If the narrative and play style don’t get in the way, the music can make or break the immersion. I’ve been recently playing the Assassin’s Creed series and the majestic, grandiose music playing even while aimlessly jumping around makes me feel like I’m doing something important. It makes me wonder what it would be like if there were some kind of music playing during multiplayer… Although I think being down 48 to 49 without the shotty or the sword is stressful enough already. We don’t want people going code blue.

So, I ask, what effect does the music in your games have on you? Do you notice the music stressing you out? Some games, Halo and Assassin’s Creed as alluded to, really put emphasis on the timing of music in certain sequences. On the other hand, the music can totally “ruin” a scene…cough…Deadly Premonition… Does this make games better overall? Tell me!   read

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