New Adventures in Old VR (And Vice Versa)

The Adventure Science Center, located about an eight-minute drive from Vanderbilt University’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee, is an incredibly fun place to explore, learn, and, in my case, work for. I was an exhibit attendant and front desk operator for ASC for quite some time, and in my tenure, I was able to witness first-hand the effects of new media and technology on kids’ education.

One of my jobs was to maintain and run the Blue Max Flight Simulator, which was a two-person pod capable of recreating the flips and turns of a digital roller coaster, or the flight of a fighter jet. The concept was not new- arcades and play places had similar devices in my childhood, but this was the first time I was technologically familiar with the ride. The roller coasters were more like incredibly active movies, in which the viewer watched a tightly shot screen of a digital roller coaster and the pod moved to simulate the drops and flips. The roller coasters were not the most realistic things in the world (we had ones where you rode over space, or through a volcano), but even the ones simulating a realistic experience still gave away their simulation through graphic composition, or through the incredibly loud Red Hot Chili Peppers mix blaring through the speakers.

The fighter jet was user-controlled, with joysticks located on the sides of each seat, and again, the graphics left a lot to be desired. But, the kid’s sense of realism was more than fulfilled by having the pod respond to their joystick movement, actually putting them into a dive or repetitive barrel rolls. Physical movement, it seemed, made up for the pixellated images.

I spent a lot of time watching the rides in the Blue Max bay on the screen on the control panel, listening to the shrieks and swears of passengers, and the weirdest thing happened: it started to get old. I was bored of the standard rides and loops, could repeat the theme music for each ride, and became more concerned with how long it took for patrons to empty their pockets. A child was sitting at the desk next to me playing with the flight simulator that was identical to the one in the pod, the joysticks and buttons controlling a wide array of turns and data. He had figured out, all on his own, how to work the joysticks, shoot, and switch camera angles. And he couldn’t have been more than seven years old.

The ASC recently added a VR center for kids ages 13 and up, and currently has a program designed to put the kid directly in the center of the process of building a skyscraper in downtown Nashville. The equipment was clunky and hard to work with, and more than once, we found minor inconveniences could shut down an entire station. No one wanted to work at the VR station. It was boring. All you did was watch people hooked into a complicated system raise and lower their hands and turn around in a blank, empty space. But in the players’ eyes, they were lifting cross beams, choosing window styles, and directing cranes.

It is a strange feeling to work with VR, to see the detached human side of the virtual playground, and it is easy to get bored with it, like it is with any job. But, looking back, the extent to which VR incorporated itself as a normal part of our lives and work environment was disconcertingly quick (the new exhibit was installed in a month, we were trained for a week, and then it went live). It raises a lot of questions for me about the future of this sort of technology, and the ease with which we adapt to it. Where do we go from here?

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The Place of Video Games During Finals Season

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. What should be a wonderful and beautiful time of Christmas music and holiday cheer is spoiled by the crushing realization that we all have a lot of work to do before we can enjoy the seasonal cheer. I find the behavior of many people very interesting during this time of year. Some folks seem to maintain a quasi-cheery attitude, knowing that they’ve done this before and they’ll do it again. To them, worrying only doubles the pain, so what’s the point of getting too wrapped up in your studies? On the other hand, some people are quite open about how much they’re struggling. It’s some kind of odd coping mechanism, I think. This (false) dichotomy, though, has shown me one rather interesting thing about the use of video games during this time of the year.

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A very retro Christmas to all

For the “chiller” group, as I will call them, they keep most of their habits the same, in terms of leisure. Sure, they’ll devote more time than usual to their studies, but they still find time to game, watch some Netflix, or go to the gym. I think this group tends to do better in the long run. Go ahead, search if it’s better to take breaks while studying, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find some good data that suggests we do better sectioning off our work in to chunks, rather than punishing our brain for 8 hours straight. Even my pre-med roommate finds time to play some mobile games in between his intense biology slides. I’m certainly not saying that you should devote this weekend to beating every side quest of Skyrim (ha), but it might not be the worst thing to knock out one.

To all you “thrillers” who lock yourselves in Stevenson for 12 hours on the weekend, only emerging for food and water, take some time during this final season and try out some sort of quick breaks. Even if it’s to check social media or listen to a few songs, try giving your brain a break to synthesize everything that it’s taken in. I was once like you, I had a lot of internal guilt to overcome when I would enjoy some leisure time. I told myself that I was wasting time that I would need to work. Give it a shot, though. I think you’ll be surprised at how much stronger your work will be when your brain isn’t a heaping pile of mush.

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Disney and Media (for B8 due on 11/18)

In honor of our brief discussion of Disney during our class today with its relationship to art and media as well as my recent move to invest in the The Walt Disney Company, I wanted to discuss just a few of the many ways Disney advanced in media over the years.

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d23.com

 

First, let’s take a look at this photo from Steamboat Willie. This was one of the first cartoons ever created by Disney (d23.com). Notice how the drawings are very saturated and the lines rich. This was because, of course, that the company hand to draw every one of their first characters to create an animation on the screen. The music was also very rich and but sharp, with mostly a treble and mono audio output. The actual animation was nothing like today, but still spectacular for its time. One of the more popular scenes of all of cartoons is right above, with mickey stomping his foot while steering a boat.


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d23.com

 

“Brought to you by, Technicolor”

Soon after, in the latter 1930’s (d23.com), Americans and viewers across the world were able to see the adventures and fantasies created by the Walt Disney Company in color. Providing ric reds and sot blues, this photo from Snow White captures the power of enhancing outlined drawings with rich saturation of color. While the color is not yet advanced, it did allow for less speculation and provided a more unified interpretation of the scenes visuality.

 


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fanpop.com

 

I’ve enlarged this picture to show you the advances in color and cartooning. Here, you can see more vibrant whites and a larger color platform available. While the original snow-white had limited color variances, the Walt Disney Company advanced their media through updating its color palette. Moreover, the animations were advanced in there were examples of “shimmering” crepuscular rays (sun rays) and rolling clouds- an animation technique not available with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Troll Culture

Like most of you, I cannot get this election off of my mind. I have not been able to focus and write these blogs like I usually do without glancing at my social media every five minutes to see if some new, terrible act has been committed in his name. There is also a part of me that still wants to believe that this cannot be happening, and, despite this dread, I cannot help but know that it is insignificant compared to the legitimate fear that is felt by my black, Muslim, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, Latinx, etc. friends. This lack of focus lead me to conclude that I have to write on something related to the election, but also related to video games.

Enter the troll. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of I-r0k from Ready, Player One. They are someone who enters the online community and intentionally stirs up trouble or negativity in a variety of ways, only to sit back and enjoy people’s reactions. They can be innocent and fun, like the infamous Ken M. of Facebook. His comments are often briliiant in their stupidity, and, admittedly, it is a little fun to see people fall for the bait and “feed” him, only leading to more laughs.

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However, there are certainly parts of the internet that are less friendly, and, here, there are much worse people with little regard for social customs or common decency. I would rather not include a picture of some of those comments, as they are incredibly hate-filled, ignorant, and generally unfunny. These sorts of trolls either believe in the validity of their racist, homophobic, misogyny, etc., or do not care enough about these issues to see the impact of their words.

Given this election, I expect that the online community is in for an increase in the number of these sorts of trolls. How do we respond? Do we “feed” the troll and oppose their hateful words? As someone of privilege, I see that words have power, and this is the response that I want to take, but online arguments are extremely unproductive. I’m still very much confused, and there are much larger issues ahead as well. Would love to hear y’alls thoughts.

 

Character development and communication in gaming

There are a lot of ways that characters can be developed in games. This could be something as simple as their communications with other characters in the game, dialogue, or simply a narrative. Every game has a different approach to the way they develop their characters, however almost every game depends on some form of communication to achieve this. Some of my most favorite games such as the Ratchet and Clank series on the Play Station Portable follow the idea of using a narrative to develop characters. The game uses short films in the middle of game play to both develop characters and further the plot of the game. This form of character and plot development is seen quite often in many games.

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https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/ratchet-and-clank-size-matters-psp/

Journey is one game that uses a very different way to develop the main character and communicate between characters and the gamers. Journey is set in a vaguely Egyptian region, with appearances of several things such as many glyphs and symbols and of course the figure that possibly depicts the Egyptian goddess Isis, that point to this Egyptian influence. The way this game communicates between characters and gamers is something I have never seen before and find very interesting. Throughout the game, we control a robed figure that travels through a desert towards the mountains in the distance. What’s surprising to me was that the game had no mechanics allowing us to communicate with other characters, and we didn’t even see any cinematic scenes where the characters talked.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_(2012_video_game)

We start off as single player but often come across other characters, soon to realize that these are actually other players playing the game from around the world. Usually in cases like this, you would expect to be able to communicate with those players, for example, in Lord of the Rings Online, the world chat enables us to communicate with those characters, and we can also interact with them, and challenge them to duels or form a fellowship with them. However, in Journey, we can’t do any of this and the only possible way we could “communicate” with those characters is by “singing” and signaling to them. I found this form of communication very interesting, and after watching a couple of walkthroughs, I found that gamers ethos plays a big part in the game. I saw that many gamers would guide new gamers through the game and wait for them as they followed them – even though they didn’t actually know them. The game has an overlaying theme of maternity and has a very calm feel to it, and the actions of the gamers really represents it. The game shows clear and definite themes of romance, and this game really shows that games allow portray their creativity by using familiar themes in and shows that the same effects can be achieved in different mediums in variety of different ways.

Cancer is not enough

That Dragon, Cancer deals with one of the saddest imaginable situations: losing a child.  Honestly, I have a very hard time thinking of a more depressing and emotionally significant premise for a game.  I’m usually a big sucker for story-driven, emotional games and I thought that I would really enjoy this game.  However, to my surprise I really didn’t feel much of any emotion during most of the game and I think this is because of the lack of story/exposition besides “your child has terminal cancer.”

Now, before you decide I’m a monster for my opinion, let me clarify- I’m not saying that I don’t sympathize  with the parents loss or even that the premise of the game didn’t have an emotional impact on me.  On the contrary, I cannot even imagine the pain one must go through in that situation.  But as a game, the game had very little impact on me.  I appreciated the different scenes and lessons, and even though to some the Christian aspect was overbearing, I thought it was well done with where they took it.  In the end no matter what you do, what is going to happen will happen.  For me though, I needed more story before all the sadness takes place- I needed more hope before everything went to hell.  The game started too late into the sadness of the story and I wasn’t able to make myself care honestly.

Some critiques of That Dragon, Cancer reference the lack of real gameplay in the game, but again I really don’t mind participating in an interactive movie.  And if this game was the latter half of a longer game, I really believe I would have enjoyed it a lot. But without being able to get used to the characters and becoming invested in their story before it all goes south, I really feel like a big piece of the game (or at least its impact) is missing.

The producers did a great job with what they were able to do, and even the bits that were unsavory for others set well with me, but I just needed more of a reason to fully appreciate the game.

Pokemon GO! The Ethics of Augmented Reality

Pokemon Go is the new gaming phenomenon of the year. Revisiting the old fashioned Nintendo Pokemon games, Pokemon Go takes that same experience up a level by adding the features of Augmented Reality. Allowing people to walk around the planet with their phones and search for Pokemon, the game has added a new dimension to gaming. And along with that, one of the main selling points of the game is their focus on fitness. A recent statistic stated that since the game released earlier this year, people playing the game have walked about 4.6 billion kilometers. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the distance from the Sun to Neptune and more than the distance NASA’s Voyager 1 has travelled in the past 12 years!

However, this achievement does not come without problems. While the game has several positive aspects – people are being more active and have started going out more (even though they are still looking into their screens), and meeting new people (I myself have made a couple of friends while playing the game), there have been quite a few concerns regarding trespassing. People have often been reported to walk into peoples private residences, trying to catch a particular Pokemon. While Niantic, the developers of the game are completely on the legal side of this issue, questions about the company’s responsibility for the actions of their consumers have started emerging. The popularity of the game has pushed the company into new ethical and legal issues that have never been dealt with before; and with the fast developing world of augmented reality, such issues are going to become more frequent as new games implementing this technology are released. While some people say that the players are completely responsible for their actions and how they play the game, many suggest that the game in some ways is encouraging players to trespass into restricted areas, or at restricted times through where the PokeStops are located and where many Pokemon are found.

Public places like monuments or parks are the ideal location to play games such as these, so often Niantic focuses on such areas by providing more Gyms and PokeStops, in a way encouraging their players to come to that location more often. Niantic has received requests from several organizations to remove PokeStops from near their establishments, and so far, Niantic has complied. But the question of whether Niantic is responsible or not is still unanswered.

In my opinion, both parties in question are to an extent to blame for this. Neither are completely wrong in doing this, but since this is a new field of ethical gaming and technology we are dealing with, new rules must be put into play. So far, there are no limitations to where one can place digital markers in the real world, but now as augmented reality is becoming a… reality, we need to make some new laws or rules to govern this. The lack of limitations on where Niantic has put their Gym’s and PokeStops often leads people into unknown territory. As far as the players are concerned, ideally they should be paying more attention to where they are walking and should be more receptive of their surroundings, but the fact that to play the game you must always be looking at the screen of your phone is not really helpful. Niantic has made some efforts to reduce the amount of time that people spend looking at their screens by introducing apps for wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, but this is still not the complete solution. I’m sure that as more game developers start implementing VR into their games, new laws governing the use of digital space will emerge, but until then all we can do is make sure to be more receptive to our surroundings while playing until we are offered a satisfying solution.