Rated E – Not Quite For Everyone

controllerPractice makes perfect, but do you ever wonder why some people need less practice than others? Have you ever been awful at a video game and figured, “oh well I just need to get used to it” but then you never caught on? If you never have been in this position, you can take it from me. It is very upsetting to try and try and still not be able to pick up simple moves in Super Smash Bros, or most games truthfully. For years, I have made excuses as to why I am no good at video games and now I have finally found a possible scientific reason. My brain structure may be my flaw.

The Cerebral Cortex journal posted neurological research that studies the correlation between learning ability and the size of three specific parts of the brain. The researchers took 39 healthy adults aged 18-28 years who has reported playing less than 3 hours of video games a week for the past two years. The research was to be based on their learning ability on a game called Space Fortress, developed at the University of Illinois, over a 20-hour period. These subjects were randomly split into two groups: a fixed priority group and a variable priority group.

Fixed Priority – aim to get the highest score possible

Variable Priority  – series of tasks that forces the player to improve their skills in different areas

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Screenshot of Space fortress from Researchgate.net

Each subject was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan to determine the size of three specific structures: the dorsal striatum (putamen and caudate nucleus), the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens), and the hippocampus. The size of each structure was recorded in comparison to the total volume of the subjects brain.

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The chart on the right shows that the learning curve is similar between the groups; however, the variable priority group scored 29% higher by the end of the training. This suggests that we learn better when we allow ourselves to focus on one task at a time. So maybe instead of button smashing on Super Smash Bros., I should be trying to focus on learning the moves of a specific character (but where’s the fun in that?).

 

When examining the correlation between brain structure and learning ability, the hippocampus was found to not be predictive of performance of improvement. This puts the focus on the striatum. The volumes of the dorsal striatum has a positive correlation with training induced performance improvements for those in the variable priority group. However, the fixed priority group has no relationship with the volumes of the dorsal striatum.

learning curveIn early training sessions, the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens) was positively correlated with improvements in performance, but the same relationship was not seen in later sessions.

 

The research was concluded by arguing that “preexisting variations in striatal volume can affect the rate of learning in a complex task that involves the coordination and integration of many cognitive, motor, and perceptual parameters and rules, at least when conditions of learning capitalize on flexible learning strategies.”

That was a lot of science, but basically there are two things to get out of this study (for me, the non-scientific non-gamer).

  1. The way you try to learn a game is important
  2. Some of it may be your brain structures fault

While these discoveries may give me comfort, it is obvious that while these effects may slow down the learning process, it is still possible to become skilled at a game with enough effort.

For now though, I’ll just blame my brain structure for getting kicked out of a Rainbow Six Siege round for not being able to kill a single person.

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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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Learning to Play

For full effect, please play this.

A lot of people have games that they consider integral parts of their childhood.  As we have discussed in class, for a lot of people this game was Pokemon.  For others, Super Mario Bros or the Zelda series were the cornerstones in their gaming careers.  For me, that game was Morrowind.

For those who are not familiar with Morrowind, it is the third game in The Elder Scrolls series, and the first that was (and still is) widely discussed online.  The Elder Scrolls games are a set of fantasy RPG’s with immersive lore, a fully fleshed out game world, and multiple races (based on, but not copying, standard RPG races) you could play as.  Released by Bethesda in 2002, Morrowind served as a bridge between the first two games, which were both incredibly hard and not very user friendly, and the last two games, which, while still occasionally challenging, adopted standard RPG aids like a compass and quest markers.  Instead of these, Morrowind had a quest journal the player can consult, but besides that must find their way to quests through good old directions given by NPC’s.  As such, this seems like a very odd game for a young teenager like myself, especially one not well versed in games, to choose.

An example of the stunning graphics Morrowind had to offer.  Source

I think the reason Morrowind, and for that matter gaming in general, ended up being so important to me was because it represented time I got to spend with my father.  My dad was in the military, so he was sometimes deployed for months at a time and frequently called away to meetings for a few days at a time.  As such, I didn’t really get to spend as much time with him as I would have liked.  However, when he was home, one of the things we loved to do together was for him to play a game and for me and my twin sister to watch him play it.  I know it sounds like kind of a weird thing to do, but since he loved lore-heavy RPGs like Morrowind it was kind of like watching a really, really long movie where you could kind of, sort of convince the main character to do what you wanted him to do.

I’m sure we made quite the picture: a gruff army man sitting in his chair, staring intently at the computer he was playing on, with two excitable children bouncing around behind him, telling him to go do this quest or go talk to this person.  Eventually, however, just watching my dad play these games wasn’t really enough for me.  I wanted to play these games for myself.

Ironically, as a kid I wasn’t really allowed to play too many video games, and my parents (mainly my mom) weren’t about to support a possible gaming habit by buying me a console (Luckily, they later changed their minds).  As such, instead of the child-friendly Nintendo games many grew up with, I ended up mostly playing old PC games that my dad was done with on our family computer.  This is where I truly fell in love with Morrowind.

The beautiful character creation screen found in Morrowind. Source

When I first started playing Morrowind, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.  The good thing was I didn’t need to. Vvardenfell, an island that makes up the majority of the province of Morrowind and the main setting of the game, was so immersive that I was simply content to wander around, talking to literally everyone I saw and generally getting nothing done. In all honesty, I had probably created at least two or three characters, starting over the game each time, before I even left the starting city of Seyda Neen.

Seyda Neen wasn’t exactly a big town… Source

Once I got into it, though, I really got into it.  Because even my tiny child self was a completionist, I tried to get every single side quest in the game done, ignoring the main quest in the process.  I wandered from town to town, joining all of the guilds and collecting all of the quests, dying frequently and leveling up in a way that hardcore gamers would probably have cringed at.  I never did finish the main quest line, but that didn’t really matter to me.  What mattered was that my character, and by extension me, really felt like a part of that world, a world that was shared by both me and my father.

Morrowind is still one of my favorite games, and I feel like I would not have developed as much as a love for RPG’s as I have without it.  In all honesty, writing this while listening to its awesome soundtrack has made me really want to play it again, but this time actually try to beat it.  What about you guys-what games would you consider to be an integral part of your childhood?  Why do you think that is?  Thank you for reading and I look forward to reading your comments below!

Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and The Video Game Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Don’t get caught up in this damn World of Warcraft arms race,” he told me. “You’ll only lose sight of why you enjoy the game in the first place.”

He was referring to the fact that in World of Warcraft, a game that we played together when I was younger, the developers constantly released new, awesome material that required your constant attention and dedication in order to master. A lot of this came in the form of high end “gear,” or equipment that would grant bonuses to a player’s abilities. Once you got towards the end of the new content, you might get diminishing returns on your investment in terms of stats, but it was still noticeable, and a lot of players still grind out countless hours for the sake of becoming a tiny bit stronger. I was one of those players.

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Though my old account has long since been deleted, this is some of the stuff I was working with. You tend to have a lot of free time when you get grounded as a teenager, and oh lord could WoW use every bit of it. There was a never-ending stream of items, equipment, skills and mounts to obtain and master. I’d spend a lot of time going through the same dungeons and events over and over in the hopes of getting some gear that I hadn’t gotten yet, half for my own abilities in the game and half for pride.

My dad would notice my reaction when I’d lose some sort of achievement that I wanted, and he’d usually get on me for not enjoying the game itself. You know, cuz that’s kinda the point of a game. I’d spend most of the time that I played with my dad looking forward to simply getting loot, losing track of what was most valuable about that time with my dad.

One of our favorite dungeons was called Karazhan; it was an old castle filled with all sorts of magic creatures and haunting spirits who held strong items and fun challenges.

This is but one of them, as our heroes attempt to defeat the actors in the play. The play changes between three random options, and in this one they try to defeat the Big Bad Wolf as he spontaneously chases random members of their party, who are designated as “Little Red Riding Hood,” all the while screaming “Come here little girl!”

Totally fun, right? I missed out on a lot of the pure enjoyment of the game because I was too concerned with the end result. Another good example comes from the final boss of Ulduar, an ancient Dwarven city dedicated to the mystical Titans who created this world.

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Besides the innovative combat, the stunning location and graphics, and the numerous challenges present for players, Ulduar offers some of the most expansive and immersive lore that I’ve ever encountered as a gamer. Hours of gameplay must be dedicated to reach this point, and we are given a lot of incredible story line along the way that culminates in our showdown with Yogg-Saron. This encounter is both extremely challenging and totally fun, but I spent most of this time worrying about what loot he was going to drop.

Had I not, I might have enjoyed the game as it was meant to be played. I couldn’t tell you now all the stuff that my characters possessed in this game, or even how much time I spent acquiring it. However, I can’t describe the nostalgia that I got when looking up videos to put in this blog. Each of them brought back individual memories with my dad, or they reminded me of how much fun I had immersing myself in one of the great games of our time.

This is all to say that we should take the message of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to heart, especially in gaming. If we start to stress too much about the end goals of the game, or keep chasing minor achievements and a minuscule leg up on other players, then we start to lose the reason that we play games like this in the first place.

Pokemon GO(ing down)

This may or may not be another controversial comment on my part. Either way, they’re my opinions on why Pokemon GO has probably peaked and won’t see anywhere near their huge rates of play again.

First, the game was very much a beneficiary of the bandwagon effect. It easily would not have been as popular if it were just based on individuals taking to themselves, but with public spaces with multiple stops having from tens to hundreds of people hanging around, talking in groups about their Pokemon and what they were seeing, and some people getting into it having never played any Pokemon game before because their cousins, siblings, children were. But that’s a scary marker if you’re interested in longevity – crazes end fairly quickly, and Pokemon GO’s certainly has.

Second, the game is having trouble even with users who at least were fairly dedicated previously, as the lack of promised features like tracking make finding rare Pokemon much more difficult. The existence of PokeVision made life easier for a lot of people – they would be able to search their areas for the rare Pokemon they saw on the broken tracking feature, and then go out to find it. Yet Niantic has requested these third party groups to take down websites like these, to “prevent cheating.” Given there is no real high-risk/reward competition in Pokemon GO (the design of gyms causes them to change hands incredibly frequently), cheating is fairly irrelevant in any case.

My last point is that Niantic doesn’t seem as capable to efficiently handle these issues and push past their scheduled releases. The Buddy system was apparently released yesterday (though I don’t seem to have it active on my phone yet), but the majority of users are still without a tracking feature – something that has been an issue since two weeks out of the game’s release. Given that it’s been now two full months and they still haven’t implemented their fix universally, and have had the third party workarounds for it shut down, it almost feels like they don’t care. I won’t say that’s true, but with something that increased so much in size and was instantly profitable, it surprises me that they didn’t allocate more resources to have more timely releases for fixes, etc.

I won’t say that I don’t like the game. I do, and my hours and hours of play time can attest to that. I wouldn’t have gotten all the way to level 22 without enjoying it, but it is frustrating trying to be patient with a game that isn’t necessarily broken but is certainly not complete. When Niantic fixes the game, I’ll probably come back and put many more hours into it, but until then I’ll be another user that’s moving further and further from the game.

Augmented Reality: The Postmodern Literature?

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Photo from: Niantic.com

 

If you have found this blog, and you have no idea what this could be about, note that I’m in a course that discusses the ideas of the new media and its connection to literature. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be enrolled in the course to understand what I will be discussing. It seems that everywhere we “Go” (yes, that was a pun) there are new ways in which technology has submersed itself into our own lives. It allows us to be involved in both real-world and fictitious experiences. Essentially, it can be used for practical and recreational reasons. What I’m specifically referring to here, and you probably have caught on based on the title, is a relatively new technological innovation called augmented reality. If your not to familiar with what this is, Merriam Webster defines it as, “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (as a smartphone camera); also :  the technology used to create augmented reality.”

Referring back to the pun earlier, the most common augmented reality around right now is this game called, Pokémon Go. Developed by Niantic. As the definition stated, it pretty much overlays cartoon characters (Pokémon) and one tries to catch the Pokémon with a ball hat the user throws onto the Pokémon. This would be an example of  AR-technology that would be used for recreational purposes.

So what does this say about the way we spend our time. More specifically, I’m discussing how what once was a big book reading world, we now have a very involved technological world. With this new AR invention, does his mean the end for formal literature as we know it. Let’s look at the comparisons. Most books have an exposition, plot and conclusion while video games do as well, including AR. Moreover, books have been a way for anyone to escape to a far away or fictitious land with sometimes  vivid characters. In Pokémon Go, there is the same thing, except a much diminished struggle for the use of imagination. There is still plot and what not, except that not only is it visual, you also have choices. As discussed in our class, this question was brought up: “What choices to we really have when reading a book?” I mean, we could read the book backwards, or read subsections or chapters out of order- but that is really it. This AR experience seems to take it one step further and gives the “reader” (really user) the ability to change the course of the plot by the decisions they make. A regular book does not do that.

It will be interesting to see what the next big interactive technology platform will be. Certainly, we can expect to be even more involved in the plot of whatever comes out next.

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.