Human agency is a wonderful thing, but like normal people, you probably don’t have control over many of the things that happen around you. Nonetheless, even offering someone the illusion of choice is a powerful psychological and behavioral tool that can benefit both player and playee in different ways (on a related note: economists just tested the infamous prisoner’s dilemma on real prisoners. After all, the desire for personal volition is the driving force behind every decision-making process, every choose-your-own-adventure book, every puerile Buzzfeed quiz, and pretty much every figurative (or literal, I’m not above shameful wordplay) forked road. Games offer us an infrastructure to explore alternative socioeconomic paradigms and narrative spaces that marry high- and lowbrow culture under our own steam. Not unlike the essence of all good science fiction, games are a realm for speculation and exploration.
As digital game developers continue to inflate their industry bubble and the concept of gamification becomes less faddish and more mainstream, gaming’s influence on its musical, literary, and cinematic brethren continues to escalate. For the most part, our crippling lust for new distractions, desire to quantify success, and ongoing game technology developments – sleeker consoles, faster processors, sexier graphics, stronger stories and better A.I. – have melded into a veritable Babylon of networked life . People tend to inherently trust technology, which is also referred to as “automation bias,” perhaps because technology is still produced by fellow humans. For instance, take the people behind Candy Crush Saga who tried to trademark the word “candy” – now we have a parody game called TrademarkVille that ridicules King’s overreaching ambitions to trademark a common word. On a whole other level, Twitch Plays Pokemon recently consumed the gaming community across platforms and genres, with any number of RPG diehards and realtime strategy fans tuning in to watch history made with what is usually been acknowledged as an adolescent franchise. To borrow from Susan Sontag, games today are basically the petri dish of our becoming. Gamification as a concept has been around for years, but only recently has the video game, as a medium, attained a critical new reputation for testing strategies, social values, and economic experiments. For Dazed, video games are the perfect medium to bridge technology and human emotion. Here are ten reasons why.
It’s nice to see that after two decades of cultivating a hyper-nostalgic desire for retro gaming mechanics, Tetris has been officially acknowledged as a craving management tool for food, booze, and cigarettes. Researchers concluded that just three minutes playing Tetris can reduce a patient’s cravings by up to 24%. One researcher explained, “Episodes of craving normally only last a few minutes, during which time an individual is visualizing what they want and the reward it will bring. Often those feelings result in the person giving in and consuming the very thing they are trying to resist. But by playing Tetris, just in short bursts, you are preventing your brain creating those enticing images and without them the craving fades.” Indeed, “Tetris theory” is an actual topic that compares the redemptive powers of the game, the impact of its neoplastic imagery, and overall parallels with life. More importantly, our collective cultural familiarity with the game is a comfort factor that soothes modern anxieties, and since many mobile games are built on this de Stijlian strategy of matching colors and shapes, it probably explains why games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled have been so successful at ruining lives and/or attention spans.
Teaching empathy via games
Trip Hawkins is all about education. So much so that he believes we can successfully teach empathy to children with a new educational approach called SEL, or social and emotional learning, and video games. It’s a little humorous (and some might say slightly ironic) that the man behind Electronic Arts, an industry behemoth that was voted as the worst company in America last year should be so concerned about stress management, and, well, you know, feelings. So far, he’s raised $6.5 million for his new startup, If You Can, which has developed a tablet game called IF (absolutely nothing to do with this other If… which features a marked absence of all empathy. What IF does is expose kids to three basic types of reactive social behavior – neatly categorized by one journalist’s 11-year-old son as “confused,” “good," and “bad.” According to Slate, the kids who did play the game felt it was for a younger, more malleable audience, due to the underlying focus on imperative-driven action. Either way, gaming could use a little empathy across the board right now, or maybe just Arthur Chu, the newest Jeopardy sensation (or villain, depending) who uses the moneyball (statistics, baby, statistics) approach to screw over competitors, ignore age-old Jeopardy etiquette, and dominate every Daily Double possible...
Harder, better, faster, stronger
…but of course, like any good competitor, Arthur Chu just wants to maximize his winnings, and mashing his buzzer and/or being unprecedentedly aggressive in his technique is just a means to a very lucrative end. In the right context, gaming can make us stronger because everything is hypothetical and unlikely to affect “real world” meatspace (unless we’re talking about AR games like Ingress, which are a whole different ballgame). Gaming culture is highly adversarial and places an understandably savage premium on numbers and showmanship, which can serve as motivation to hone one’s skills in the real world, especially when it comes to decision-making. Gamers are also notably better at making situational judgment calls, are more observant of their surroundings (better visual skills overall), and are capable of making quick numerical estimates while “in the field.” Most recently, security giant Symantec hosted their annual wargames that turned its employees into criminal hackers whose goal was to break into a bank. Contestants could use whatever strategies they wanted in order to steal the most money, which calls for a certain level of amorality and detachment (hey, isn’t bank money insured anyway?) as well as pragmatism. On a vastly different level, game tech can also train us to make better hard calls via straight-up emotional manipulation. Case in point: the upcoming Japanese game God and the Fate-awakening Crossthesis, a narrative study on how the player deals with the vagaries of life. Its predecessor, The Guided Fate Paradox, was a wish-fulfillment orgy focused on fate, but GatFC is far more interested in how we make hard choices. The protagonist basically has to save one of two people whom he loves, which doesn’t sound like the most enjoyable thing in the world, but if you’re looking for a virtual mindfuck and/or ethical wake-up call, gaming offers a surprising safe technosphere in which to completely annihilate the remnants of your humanity.
The next generation of combat
What could better personify SNAFUs and moral lapses than Marvel’s iconic Danger Room? That is, the sentient wargames facility in the X-Men universe that allows our favorite mutants to test various combat scenarios using virtual reality. In comics, the Danger Room’s base appearance is paneled, hi-tech space that uses unique (and obviously fictional) technology to immerse its users in, say, a Shi’ar throne room, or an inhospitable jungle. Now, a German tech startup has developed a smart floor that basically allows entire surfaces to become interactive touchscreens – “SensFloor”, a large-area sensor system, is based on a textile underlay with a thickness of only 2mm…whenever a person walks across the floor, sensor signals are sent to a control unit and various different types of events are identified: The sensor system differentiates between a person staning or lying on the floor and determines the direction and velocity of movements.” The same company also has NaviFloor, which is an RFID floor for A.I. navigation. Combine this with modern holographic technology and we have the makings of a new military training resource that has the potential to make or break the future of warfare.
Kerbal Space Program is a sim that lets players develop their own space program, which is pretty much what everyone from India to German hackers to enterprising libertarians is doing anyway, these days, and NASA is helping them with their next chunk of downloadable content. The new expansion, Asteroid Redirect Mission, is named after an actual NASA program to detect and interact with asteroids in three steps: identification, redirection, and research. Players will be able to use “real” NASA components to build their spacecraft, which the space agency hopes will pique further interest in their programs and highlight space exploration as a means of technological progress.
For every histrionic helicopter parent ranting about the psychologically detrimental effects of video games, is one buried study about how gaming can help to address certain medical conditions. For instance, children with dyslexia can actually perform better with the help of action games, since this specific genre requires the player’s attention to constantly shift between visual and aural cues. Studies at Oxford showed that dyslexia could be an attention problem, as dyslexic test subjects took longer to read when they had to “alternate their attention between a sound and a flash,” and “reacted much more slowly to a sound if it followed the flash.” Virtual reality environments and haptic peripherals are also being used to help people with nerve damage, namely a new gaming system named RehabMaster, which basically performs occupational therapy on the upper extremities of post-stroke patients.
The fine craft of sandboxing
There’s something undeniably alluring about Minecraft, whether it’s the lurkers, the tangible sense of satisfaction from building and maintaining personal empires, or even the simple joy of ganking a sweet (insert game asset) from another player. I firmly believe that sandbox games, especially a well-oiled sim with complex scenarios and vengeful RNG gods (random number generators, the bane of many a gamer’s existence), are a vastly under-used tool in exploring new world paradigms. Minecraft has taken the idea of a basic sandbox sim to a whole new level. If one were to list the types of accomplishments that Minecraft players have achieved, including one computer science student’s latest mission to make a 1:1 scale model of the entire island of Manhattan brick by brick, one would probably give up after a few minutes. The benefits of creating a parallel world to ours, which boasts accurate scale models of fictional and nonfictional landmarks, has the potential to host fascinating social and economic experiments that would be impossible in the real world. For instance, a Swedish anti-smoking group has set up a “Fear Clinic” for people trying to quit cigs, with a qualified psychologist on standby for three hours a day. The impact of having a digital clinic in a familiar environment was a definite plus – 800 people dropped by on the first day the program was implemented. Most importantly, Minecraft has become the darling of progressive-minded educators who believe it can be used to teach children about coding, sharing, and cooperative play. Minecraft espouses the finest founding principles of sandbox games – exploration, freedom, and creativity – though with constantly developing mods and add-ons, it would be interesting to see more radical uses of sandbox tech to provoke instead of educate.
I stream, you stream, we all stream
Streaming games isn’t a new idea, but Sony has fully integrated its back catalog with shiny new hardware via a new cloud service called PlayStation Now, which claims that “PS4 users in the living room can continue playing a game on a PS3 system in their bedroom.” This might seem like a pretty basic feature to a non-gamer, but backwards compatibility has long been a contentious issue for loyal gamers with strong opinions. What PSNow does basically has the effect of creating a Netflix-style streaming service for all Sony property, and will probably trigger copycat moves from Microsoft and even the slowly-dying Nintendo. What does this mean for old content? Is there going to be a hateful DRM backlash against REALLY old games that don’t even warrant any kind of legal attention anymore? Is it even worth paying money for some of these (used, old games are usually cheap)? It is notoriously painful to pull old-guard gamers away from their favorite software/hardware/console/platform, and it simply doesn’t make sense not to appeal to an older generation of gamers with more disposable income to spend on this sort of nostalgic tech. Sony has also failed to specify whether PS1/PS2 games will also be available, which could add a lot more froth to the frenzy.
Nothing to Hide
Nothing To Hide is an anti-stealth game. It’s a biting statement about the status quo, and it’s an especially painful example of art imitating life. Everything about the game is an open-source advocate’s wet dream, from music to code to art – we can imagine that somewhere in the world, six feet under, Jeremy Bentham’s brittle corpse is rolling over in its grave. Nick Liow, the game's creator, is pledging partial funds to various free-internet/free-speech organizations, including Mozilla, Creative Commons, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Liow even built his own Kickstarter-style page and implemented his own payment schedule with an excessively reasonable refund policy that would never make it on a commercial/mass site. The meta-significance of an anti-stealth game cannot be understated in our current sociopolitical climate, what with the constant public flagellation of Our Digital Martyr Edward Snowden. Nothing to Hide turns a critical eye on how we facilitate our own self-surveillance and the endless loops of paranoia that come with it. The main character is the neurotic teen daughter of a powerful politician, forced to be seen and heard in the name of freedom. It is an especially artful twist on the traditional protagonist-antagonist dynamic in games, seeing as the player has to basically play against himself/herself for a greater goal.
Art for art’s sake
Games are a form of art. This is something that has been said for years, and has drawn lots of flak from art-world elitists (and the late Roger Ebert – sorry, you were wrong) who believe that this is an egregious misclassification. Late last year, the Smithsonian took a brave step to legitimize the artistic credibility of games by adding two to its American art collection: Jenova Chen’s breathtaking Flower and a simplified side-scroller version of Halo. The beauty of video games is that it allows an otherwise passive viewer (here, analogous to a visitor in an art gallery) to engage with the art in a meaningful way; a well-written game is also a perfectly legitimate form of literature, and in some cases, a well-executed cutscene is pretty much like cinema. Among those who understand the contentious relationship between art and games is one Ian MacLarty, an ingenious Aussie game designer who recently unveiled Action Painting Pro. APP basically turns players into artists, whose movements create abstract, blotchy masterpieces. If you do well, you get health, money, and inspiration. The result: the player ends up with a unique piece of “art,” which invites a wealth of artistic analyses and classification about what is really going on in the game. Perhaps the best solution here is for games to evolve and mature beyond a conventional understanding of art, thereby freeing the industry, creators, and players from the same tedious argument. After all, the rapidity with which game tech moves (cue Oculus Rift and other gamechanging tchotchkes that are set to hit us within the decade) can be terrifying to the average human, and downright bonechilling to an academic who has spent most of their life defending art as an institution.
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer