Tag Archives: Games

Reflection VIII: «Cognitive exercise»

My thoughts have been swirling around for weeks now; thinking about what and how to write about the previous week. I’ve thought about several angles I can approach from, made some mental notes, and some written down. The week I want to write about now was the last one with video games as the subject. Continuing with serious games and doing some ‘field work’ trying to experience the whole aspect of empathy in games, as I wrote about in the previous post.

My game of choice was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; a game with a strong focus on mental health, or lack thereof.  Following the character Senua in her quest to rescue her lover’s soul in Helheim; the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Senua has been struggling with her mental health most of her life, the same as her mother, and this is built in to the gameplay; trying to give the player some sense of what it’s like to undergo psychosis. This is a crucial part of the whole quest for an empathic video game – is it able to trigger a response in the player? Based on consumer reviews and feedback, it has done a great job in doing so. I’ve felt some of it too, the intense feeling of wanting to breakdown and quit, or simply pause the game, when they combine stressful puzzles and negative voices talking from every angle. With that, I can relate somewhat to people having similar experiences every day.

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Screenshot 2018.04.23 - 18.47.09.82

However, due to strict linear design of the game, I’m often reminded of the fact that I’m playing a game and it breaks with the immersiveness, like the mechanics of walking or jumping over a stone.
Most games include some level of guidance in how to play it, but not this one. You’re thrown right into it, and It’s both refreshing and somewhat bothering that I had to open the menu to find out what your character (Senua) can do in-game, because the screen is stripped of any HUDs (head-up display).

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Screenshot 2018.04.23 - 18.23.32.93

I still believe in the value of video games and digital art in general in conveying empathy, compassion and morals. I recently heard a phrase that I really like: “smelling salts for morality”. Said in one of my favorite podcasts, Very Bad Wizards. In an episode where they talked about their favorite movies about empathy – I’ll link it at the end.

Serious games can be so much more than simply trying to trigger some empathic reaction in the player. I’ve also learned about Dr. Adam Gazzaley’s work on improving the brain with video games. He’s now working on getting them FDA approved for medical use. I’m really fascinated about how a video game can be built to trigger just the right parts of the brain with an accuracy that’s out of reach with traditional medication – without the side effects of course. He spoke about his research in detail with Kevin Rose on his podcast, linked bellow as well.

The use of technology in education have grown quite a lot in the recent years and with any change, skepticism follows. How will simple games on a tablet affect children in the long run? Are there any benefits with digital tools versus traditional books and paper? I believe that with anything, there are pros and cons, and people respond differently to stimulation. I’ve written in the past about how I see myself as someone thinking in visual terms, and in the same way, I learn best with visual guidance; I think that a lot of people are in the same boat. Pushing us through tough material with the traditional techniques can be catastrophic and may help young people to lose motivation and end up quitting school. I love science, but I’m terrible with numbers. I can see and understand the logic in physics if presented with graphics, but I hit the wall when trying to figure out the actual formulas. I do believe that gamification of the hard sciences would’ve benefitted me in school – at least a combination of games and paper. There’s an old principle in web design called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) where you got a split screen in the software (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver) with hard code on one side and the result on the other. Purist would laugh at it, but it helps a lot of people to learn coding. Raw coding is equivalent to math in my mind, so I often rely on software to help, or just edit existing code to tweak.

The blog for next week is about electronic literature, but before that, I’d like to finish this post up with sort of a bridge between serious games and interactive fiction. It’s a new game (2014) that I’ve played called The Talos Principle. It’s been described as a narrative-based puzzle game with a philosophical storyline. You play as a robot with artificial intelligence in a seemingly virtual world, solving puzzles built by your maker, Elohim. Computer terminals are placed here and there in the world, and gives you a glimpse of the outside world, the personal logs, emails, chats made by the creators of the simulation. You also read outtakes from Greek and Egyptian mythology, while contemplating existential questions and talk to the, presumably, artificial intelligence residing in the computer library system. Sparing on philosophical questions – like what is consciousness?

The Talos Principle Screenshot 2018.04.25 - 18.17.18.44
I’m referring to interactive fiction due to the number of responses you can give to the computer and how it shapes the responses and progress in the storyline.

The Talos Principle Screenshot 2018.04.27 - 15.11.54.77

 

My final thoughts for now is that serious games are important and can help a lot of people, but must be created by skilled people if they’re to be used in education, replacing or adding to existing methods. I end with an amazing part of The Talos Principle, a transcript of a voice recording from within the game, and as a part of the narrative.

“The answer that came to me again and again was play. Every human society in recorded history has games. We don’t just solve problems out of necessity. We do it for fun. Even as adults. Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope and they will unravel it; Leave a human being alone with blocks, and they will build something. Games are part of what makes us human. We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we’ve always been a species of problem-solvers.”
From time capsule #02, Alexandra Drennan, Project Lead / AI Module, Institute for Applied Noematics, The Talos Prinsiple


Very Bad Wizards: Smelling Salts for Morality: Our Top 3 Movies About Empathy (with Paul Bloom)
https://verybadwizards.fireside.fm/104 

Kevin Rose: #22 – Adam Gazzaley M.D. / Ph.D – Improving your brain with medically prescribable video games
https://www.kevinrose.com/single-post/Adam-Gazzaley

Neuroscape
https://neuroscape.ucsf.edu/technology/

Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline?
https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/can-video-games-fend-off-mental-decline.html

 

How to play more games

We are creatures of habit. We seek the familiar. The comforting. We create routines for ourselves to blanket ourselves from the noisy reality that is life. Humans do this for everything. Food, people, ideas, entertainment and schedules. At least I do this a lot. Luckily one of my routines involves trying new games. Growing up my family was quite poor, so I didn’t have the cash to try out new games very often. I had my little horde collected over years and years, but I got to try quite a few games through friends and later on, the internet. This is where I got my good routine from. When serving in the military I had a lot of time to kill, but even less cash than usual. So, I stared play flash games and smaller productions which were published online for free. These games can be seen as proto indies. Game developed not with profit in mind, but for the joy of making games and the allure of internet fame.

I got into the habit of playing these games every day. Newgrounds, armour games and Kongregate became my go to place for entertainment. The games presented here were all of varying quality and length, but most of them we’re short affairs. The most common reason people have for not trying random new games is time and money. Most AAA or II games are time consuming projects which demand that the player set of a few days for the experience. Browser game however rarely demand more than an hour or two from you. And they don’t cost any money.

I’m going to recommend a few games now. These are some of my favourites, but that also means that they usually are either puzzle games or some sort of twist on normal games. This might mean that it’s not the best list for new gamers who aren’t familiar with gaming tropes. I do however still recommend you try a few of them and start looking for others at the site.

First of we start with Its just tic tac toe.
https://www.kongregate.com/games/xmatos/its-just-tic-tac-toe?haref=HP_FRB_its-just-tic-tac-toe

This is a newer game which I stumbled over while finding links to the other games. Well worth the time and has a good message on how videogames can subvert and improve upon even the most common of gameplay ideas.

 

 

You have to burn the rope

https://www.kongregate.com/games/Mazapan/you-have-to-burn-the-rope

Action! Adventure! You have to burn the rope even has a boss fight. One of my all-time favourites.

 

 

Don’t shit your pants

https://www.kongregate.com/games/Rete/dont-shit-your-pants?acomplete=don%27t+shit

A good puzzle game which harkens back to the text based choose your own story games of yore. It’s a silly premise, but still a good play.

 

 

Aether

https://www.kongregate.com/games/Edmund/aether

Edmund would later go on to make a few hit games like Super Meat boy and The binding of Isaac. Tons of his old games are however still on Kong and while they lack the polish of his later games they still have the heart.

 

 

We become what we behold

https://www.kongregate.com/games/nutcasenightmare/we-become-what-we-behold

Many browser games remind me of student films and short stories. They often have some sort of grand message which they deliver with conviction and without guile. It might not be subtle, but it’s effective.

 

 

There is no game

https://www.kongregate.com/games/KaMiZoTo_Creator/there-is-no-game

Merging narrative and gameplay is hard and making the narrative about the game which you are currently playing is really damned hard.

 

 

Frog Fractions

http://twinbeard.com/frog-fractions/

This game is legendary. Passed around from friend to friend with the only sentence being “Trust me It’s worth it, don’t give up before you find the secret”

 

 

In the company of myself

https://www.kongregate.com/games/2DArray/the-company-of-myself?acomplete=in+the+company

As a kid this game got to me. I still love it for its game mechanics.

 

As you might have noticed most of these games comes from Kongregate. It’s a platform for browser games which over the years had gotten better and better. I recommend to anyone wanting to experience more games to make a user on the site. Their daily badge system suggests a new game for you to try every day. Tons of known indie developers got their first taste of fame on the site.

By trying new games and exploring the shorter experiences you will broaden your horizon and it will give you a better idea of what is possible with the medium. Not every game needs a massive team or scope.

How do you start playing games?

Getting into videogames is easy. As a new player you can’t go wrong with the blockbusters. They are by design made to be fun for as many people as possible. This is how they get their money back and as a new player that is perfect. Want to try some of this shooting action? Why not try out battlefield, call of duty or some of the other big war games. Maybe you want something a bit more story based? Then Assassins creed or Horizon Zero dawn might be more up your alley. Maybe you just want the feeling of adventure in a more light-hearted setting? Nintendo has your back! Zelda or Mario is filled with wonder and adventure with some puzzle elements strewn over it.

What I’m getting at here is to treat videogames like any other media, go for the big hits or classics first. Make it easy for yourself to hooked on what the medium has to offer. You’ll often end up asking your friends for suggestions and these will very often be great games, but maybe not for newer players. In the grand scope of things, video games are something new and fresh, but we have a good forty years of games which built upon one another. Starting on the fringes where people experiment and try new things might give you a false impression of the current games scene.

To many times I’ve talked to parents who tell me that they just don’t get video games. When I ask them what kind of games they’ve tried it’s most often none. Their knowledge comes from other media talking about games, their kids talking about their experiences with games or observing their children during play. While this is a great way to get a certain understanding it’s also woefully lacking. Games are, by definition, an interactive medium. Yes, streamers are a big part of the community, but most people watching streamers play games themselves. They have an innate understanding of interactivity and thus can set themselves in the shoes of the streamer. And those nice times when parents have played games it’s usually in some sort of warped experience. They pick up a controller mid game as a player two to their children. Going on a virtual tour of a child’s Minecraft city is lots of fun, but there is no context to the amount of work the kid has put into their creations.

When you want to get into videogames treat it like any other media. Don’t start a book in the middles. Don’t jump into a story focused tv series in the middle. Follow the whole journey from the start. Play alone.

That last one, play alone, is the scariest I’ve found. There is comfort in not knowing what a deal is when you haven’t really tried. Having a shield of ignorance is great protection from engagement, but if you play alone you don’t need a shield. You can immerse yourself without fearing scrutiny from experienced kids or judging none gamers. Playing alone gives you a free space where you can bumble about not knowing what buttons to press. You are free to experience a game on your own terms which is something I recommend to any new gamers. Later, once you’ve built up some confidence you should start playing with others. Preferably with new players like yourself, but as long as the people you play with aren’t assholes or kids you should not get any flak for being new.

 

 

Who owns my games?

One of my favorite games of all time is the puzzle game Peggle. After being introduced to it in 2008, I have played countless times on multiple platforms, including PC, Android, iOS and X-Box (my favorite platform to play Peggle on). Recently, while trying to think of a new game to download to my Android phone, I felt like playing Peggle again. I bought the game for Android years ago, but I was disappointed to find that it was no longer available on Google Play Store. As it turns out, PopCap, the company behind Peggle, retired the game in August. In stead, a new version of Peggle – Peggle Blast – can be downloaded for free. But the thing is: as much as I love Pegge, I hate Peggle Blast. It’s a for-mobile-only, freemium game with lots of in-app purchases and bad gameplay. So, no Peggle for me…

Peggle is an awesome game!

This experience did make me think, though. While Peggle Blast is free, the original Peggle game was not. I paid good money for that game. And I bought the game knowing that I would be able to download and play it on any future Android phone. I don’t know why it’s not available anymore (though, I bet it has something to do with getting people to play the freemium game instead), but it doesn’t feel right. If PopCap doesn’t want people to be able to buy Peggle anymore, that’s fine. But I had already bought it. A transaction was made. I had one more game than before I bought it, and not as much money. I bought it! The game was mine! Wasn’t it?

I’m not sure anymore about who owns my games. Did I pay for Peggle, or did I just pay for the right to play Peggle. And it’s not just Peggle, or mobile games – It’s the whole gaming industry. Most of my X-Box games are located in the cloud. What happens when someone decides to turn that cloud off? And the games I do buy in a real-life, physical store, and I have a physical copy of, can’t be played without having to download a huge update.

The times when I could just buy a game and play it right away is over. Whether a game is bought online or as a physical copy, my feeling of ownership of the games I buy is not as certain as it should be. Most games need to have an internet connection (at least the first time playing it), even if it’s a single-player game. Most games need to be downloaded, even when owning a physical copy. And the games get updated constantly, feel incomplete without purchasing extra downloadable content, and, as was the case with Peggle, can disappear from existence.

There are many technological reasons for why games are changing. The level of internet access allows for games to be larger than what could be fitted on a game disc, as well as a constant string of updates and bug fixes. This of course isn’t all that negative. But financial incentives and the success of mobile gaming are encouraging game developers to create free games with ads, in-game purchases and episodic content, in stead of creating finished quality games for gamers to buy. And it’s partly our own fault. We’ve become so accustomed to things being free that we don’t want to buy even small, cheap mobile games. And the developers see that – and respond to it. So for the future of gaming, I hope people get tired of the freemium gaming model. I want my games back!

 

 

Learning with video games

In the introduction to chapter 4 of Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, “Learning and Literacy”, Mimi Ito writes about “Learning in the wild”. This view of learning argues that the traditional view of learning – that learning involves the passive receiving of information – is outdated. Learning is something that also, and possibly more efficiently, happens in the real world. Ito uses math as an example, and how people can figure out math in real world examples, such as grocery shopping and measuring ingredients.

While I think there is a necessity for traditional learning, I agree with the view presented by Mimi Ito. But I would like to make a case for non-real world, real world learning. By that, I mean the fake worlds of video games. A few weeks ago in class, the subject of learning ethics using the video game “The Walking Dead” came up in discussion. And while I think that this is a great example of using video games in a teaching situation, I feel it barely touches the surface of the possibilities of learning through video games.

But first, I must specify that learning doesn’t have to just be about facts. It’s about building a mental world, with lots of room for facts to be attached to later. As an example, consider the turn based strategy game “Civilization”. The player controls a nation from the dawn of civilization to the modern age. But does that make it a good game for learning history? There are, after all, very little historical facts.

I would argue that a game like civilization, while not presenting a lot of historical facts, allows the player to create a mental image of the history of the world to attach facts to later. First of all, the names of the civilizations and their starting locations, teaches the player about long lost peoples and nations, and their geographical location. Secondly, the technologies the player researches tells a story of the technological development of mankind.

Civilization does not teach history. But when a civilization-player learns about, as an example, the Mongols of the Middle Ages for the first time, he will already have a mental representation of the Mongols in the game: “those purple guys who take over Asia and who are very difficult to have a peaceful relationship with”. This previously unknown people will have already been implemented into the players mental representation of world history.

Mental world-building can happen in a number of games – not just strategy games. And they don’t have to be historically or factually accurate, as long as they create a world for facts and knowledge to be put into.

Mimi Ito writes about participation and learning. Participation, production, collaboration and community organizing can also be vital part of video games in the modern, connected world. People create and learn about architecture through games like Minecraft, and they organize themselves and practice politics through online games like Ark and World of Warcraft.

The Greek and Roman systems of mnemonics focused on creating mental worlds in which to place representations of things that needed to be remembered. With video games, the mental world are built for us. And in stead of being static places, they are vivid, narrative worlds with plenty of space for factual pins where information can be attached and remembered.