[First, a disclaimer: This isnít about video game music. Heck, this doesnít even have anything to do with sound. Iím just having some wordplay fun with this monthís topic. Hopefully you find it interesting, informative, and a little thought provoking. If you donít, then at least Iíll know you have spent a couple of minutes reading my blathering, and those few minutes are like oxygen to a narcissistic person like me.]
Noise is more than the static coming out of your speakers. It's television snowís warm glow as it flickers in and out. It's a dream where disparate aspects of your life converge with no logic neatly tying it together. As a broad generalization, noise is what occurs when a given number of sources (be they sound waves, pixels, or neurons) change their outputs in both a random and completely uncorrelated fashion. Randomness is a fairly easy concept to understand. Each source is capable of producing some finite number of outputs, and each output is equally likely in a random system. Correlation, however, requires a bit more explanation.
To illustrate correlation, look at five letter words in the English language. We have five sources capable of twenty six different outputs. Now, whenever we see the letter Q in a word, every person would predict that the next letter is a U (unless youíre a Scrabble fiend familiar with the sweet sixteen). Show me "Q _ _ _ _ " in a crossword puzzle, and I will have the balls to write, in pen no less, a U in that second slot. Thus, the appearance of Q is correlated with the appearance of a U. In a system with zero correlation, however, no such predictions can be made. Imagine a monkey banging on a typewriter. The appearance of a Q on his manuscript does not tell you any meaningful information. Youíre just as likely to find an X or V then you would a U immediately following. At best, your predictions for the next letter are due entirely to chance. This typewriter is only producing noise.
So who cares? Whatís this got to do with video games?
Itís not the games themselves, but the people who play them. Compare the video gaming demographic of twenty years ago to that of today. The number and percentage of people who admit to playing video games has sky rocketed. According to a survey published by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), nearly two thirds of American households report to playing video games in 2010. What was once considered a fringe part of pop culture is now commonplace. With this increase comes an increased correlation between gamers and the public. Not only do the ideals and values of current generation influence the direction that games take, but the converse holds true too: games of the current generation can influence the direction that society takes.
This isn't exactly news. The nay sayers of gaming have always believed that they corrupting the children. Kids are phasing out face to face contact with virtual interactions. They're being exposed to hyper violent scenarios that leave them desensitized to the real violence that occurs in their own neighborhoods. They're encouraged to be sedate and lazy, leading to the obesity epidemic in the United States. Blah blah blah. Why not just portray games as hoodlums punching kids in the face and then taking a piss in their Cheerios?
All of us at Destructoid disagree with this, I'm sure. Through some way, video games have helped us become better people. We've learned abstract problem solving skills, improved hand eye coordination, made new friends, etc. There's a myriad of reasons that we can cite to say how video games have improved our lives, but realistically, are we going to convince any non-gamer of this fact? We probably won't, but a handful of others are willing to champion the cause and show that games are capable of promoting positive changes across multiple aspects of life.
Jane McGonigal spoke at the TED conference in February of this year. In her talk, she shows how gamers are incredibly productive and intelligent within their fabricated universes and proposes ways to translate that productivity to the real world. Though we might question her logic at times throughout her presentation (and cringe at her overuse of the phrase "epic win"), there's no questioning her intentions She wants to help gamers with their reputation. More than just a pretty face and earnest speaker though, she is a game designer that specializes in alternate reality games. I'd recommend listening to her entire talk, but if you're only interested in her work, fast forward to 16 minutes in.
World Without Oil, released on April 30, 2007, puts 1700 players in a world that had to cope with a sudden oil crisis. They're encouraged to blog, photograph, and video tape the methods they used to adapt. Jane has kept track of the players since the gameís end (June 1, 2007) and observed how their in-game strategies have crossed over into their present day behavior. Her most recent project, Evoke, placed the players into the more proactive role as agents sent to solve current world problems: poverty, food and water shortages, cultural extinction, etc. At the end of the gameís run (May 12, 2010), players were encouraged to create an Evokation, a plan of action targeting a specific problem in a particular region. Six of these Evokations will be presented at a summit in Washington DC at the end of this month, where both the game designers and officials from the World Bank will attend. Together, they will all work on turning their Evokations into funded projects.
Now Janeís games have noble goals, but are they really games? You could consider them more akin to grandiose social experiments, and you'd certainly have a case. Many people play games as a way to detach from reality rather than engage in it. While immersive environments or captivating storylines are one means of escape, there are times when gamers favor simplicity. The thrill of having a good run, narrowly evading waves of enemy space ships or holding out for the line block to complete a long overdue tetris, is incentive enough to play.
Two professors at the University of Washington, David Baker and Zoran Popavić, know how powerful that incentive is. They created Foldit, a game where players attempt to figure out the three dimensional structure of proteins. They took the core concepts that govern protein shape (hydrogen bonds, electrostatic interactions, and several others) and abstracted them to a basic set of rules. Biochemists aim to minimize the energy required to hold a protein's shape together while players aim to maximize their score by doing the same thing.
The Foldit creators have succeeded in taking a complex task that could only be tackled by specialists and made it approachable to anyone familiar with a puzzle game. Even more surprising is that high ranking players can find a solution that surpasses current computer algorithms for solving protein conformation problems, both in terms of accuracy and speed. Knowing the structures of these proteins helps scientists across multiple fields of biology, from cancer research to neuroscience. Ever since the result of Folditís success has been published in Nature (a highly regarded scientific journal), the research community has taken notice of gamers' insight.
Evoke and Foldit have both engaged thousands of players, but thousands is still just a small sliver of the population. Is it possible to have a socially relevant and noble game reach hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of people at a time? Even game companies that regularly produce blockbusters struggle to regularly achieve those numbers. The ESA and other organizations, however, are not only searching for a game that satisfies both criteria, but are offering grant money to aid in their development.
Though the United States is an industrialized nation, it's been struggling in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in children. One of President Obama's education platforms was not only to improve their knowledge, but also to renew their interest in those fields. The National STEM Video Game Challenge, which issued a press release only a couple of days ago, is one such way to do so. The contest calls for developers to ďdesign mobile games, including games for the mobile Web, for young children (grades pre-K through 4) that teach key STEM concepts and foster an interest in STEM subject areas.Ē I can personally vouch for educational games and their impact on my decision to choose science as my career. However, I didnít know many people that had both a PC and a copy of Turbo Science. By focusing on mobile gaming, the contest removes the hardware/software barrier of entry. Kids can be exposed to these games in their schools, and should they enjoy it and want to play more, can go their libraryís computer lab and continue to play.
Let me state that though these games have gotten positive results thus far, it is by no means concrete evidence. Optimistic as I am, I need to see proof that these projects are even capable of their lofty ambitions. Show me the results of the Evokation that resolves to transform a squatter village of 20,000 in South Africa into a sustainable community. Show me the scientists who cite Foldit as instrumental to their research when they discover a cure for Alzheimerís Disease. Show me test results and science fair projects after the ESA finds, funds, and distributes their games across the country. For all we know, all of these projects could fail.
But thatís not what I came to write about. Iím here to highlight that even the possibility of any of these goals is far beyond what designers could comprehend at the genesis of gaming. Pong may be a pop cultural landmark, but it meant virtually nothing to the American public. Today, some designers are banking on their games stirring about change in other sectors of society. Even the slightest increase in correlation will be a milestone because it signifies that games are can no longer be written off as frivolities. They've finally transcended to a higher level, where they can be considered more than just noise.
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About Changstonone of us since 10:37 PM on 08.26.2008
I'm Jon. I've been reading Destructoid since at least August '08, but only decided just recently (as of May '09) to start being an active community member. If you want to know more about me, feel free to read my intro forum post.
Long story short: I'm a grad student who enjoys video games and video game related news, but doesn't get around to actually play them that often. That's probably why puzzle and rhythm/music games are my bread and butter, since they're pretty easy to pick up and play. JRPGs used to be #1, until it dawned on me that I no longer have time to hunker down for hours at a time.
To anyone with a PS3 and a love of puzzle games: I bet you I could kick your ass in Puzzle Fighter and Critter Crunch with a probability of 50%. Game on!