Sometimes, moral lessons can be learned from blowing away zombies.
- Most video games are happily escapist entertainment, but some are much more.
- One of these is The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic pandemic world.
- Through the innovative use of game play technology TLOU2, radically changes your perspective and elevates this game from entertainment to true art.
There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.
Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.
Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.
The sublime art of TLOU2
Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.
The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.
Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.
Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.
The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog
You've been warned
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.
When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.
The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.
The big plot twist
Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.
As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.
What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.
That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.
Fighting materialized, virtual monsters can be cathartic in stressful and precarious times.
- Some of the most downloaded video game genres during the pandemic quarantine have been horror games designed to inspire terror and anxiety.
- Authors of a new study say that inserting yourself into a virtual horror realm could offer relief during times of stress by allowing you to engage and dominate materialized monsters and demons.
- They argue that the horror game appeal is similar to religious methods to grapple with fear and guilt (sin).
A befuddling trend in the world of gaming culture has emerged in the coronavirus era. In the midst of a deadly pandemic, economic decline, social injustice, and the resulting social unrest, some of the most downloaded video game genres in recent months have been horror games designed to inspire terror and anxiety. For example, "Resident Evil 3," "The Last of Us Part 2," "Nioh," and "Doom Eternal" have all seen a spike in downloads.
As it turns out, there may be a psychological explanation. Some researchers think that inserting yourself into a virtual horror anti-fantasy could offer relief during times of stress.
The ‘Mastering Monsters’ hypothesis
Photo Credit: images.pexels.com
In a new study published in the journal Preternature, the authors suggest that disturbing video games may have a therapeutic role in today's precarious world by providing players the illusion of control. "Faced with physical and psychological dangers, human beings imagine them as monsters and seek to master them," they write in the paper.
This idea is exemplified by the authors through a critical analysis of the post-apocalyptic game "DayZ," in which the player enters the middle of a zombie infested landscape. The aim is simply to survive with bare minimum equipment and a fragile character. Death in the game is final, and the character has to be recreated to play again. Essentially, the goal is to keep the underdog character alive as long as possible despite the stacked odds.
Maybe it hits too close to home, but for some it might be exactly the kind of escapism they are craving right now. At least, that's what the authors suggest. They explain that when unfortunate and uncontrollable events start to occur in our worlds (i.e. coronavirus) we may personify them as malevolent forces intentionally out to destroy us; our health, our jobs, our relationships, etc. But these forces in our environment are not material and maddeningly elusive. Horror video games, on the other hand, solidify those fears into material monsters. They offer players a virtual realm in which they can embody a character that can actually fight and possibly destroy those forces. In this way, these games give individuals a sense of control in precarious times.
What gaming and religion have in common
Much of the stress that stems from something like a pandemic or economic uncertainty is the helpless feeling about events entirely out of our control. Terrorizing video games offer the opportunity to actually do something about stressful events.
"The horrific experience of video games, and hence their cathartic appeal, emerges when a game produces a constant level of anxiety in players while allowing the players to act on it," the authors explain. They write that fans of "DayZ," "generally enjoy, rather than avoid, the combination of permanent death…and the drive to strengthen their characters and make them safe."
The authors argue that this is similar to religious tactics to grapple with fear and guilt (sin).
"Religion stems, in part, from our capacity to see agency in our environment," explains the study. "A strategy designed to help us avoid danger, but which also leads us to believe that there are forces at work just outside of our immediate awareness. The tendency to turn shadows into stalkers and fallen twigs into footsteps."
Both horror games and the belief in an angel / demon spiritual duality of the universe give us a sense of control over our destinies.
Study details and conclusions
After surveying more than 7000 players of two online horror games, "Requiem: Memento Mori" and "DayZ," the researchers found that nearly 70 percent reported that the gaming experience was mildly to very cathartic. Another interesting finding was that 20 percent of the participants reported that since playing the video game they felt that things were less frightening than before. Though, most said that the games had not changed their daily life.
The authors believe that the dark forces faced in the electronic world of video games "represent the irrational, the repressed, and the wholly other." They go on to suggest that those experiences are reconstructed in the world of a horror game and manifested as tangible, albeit virtual, monsters that players feel are directly challenging.
"That these games exist shows that we need horror," they conclude. "The demonic and the monstrous appear in pop culture because they represent evil and our fears and anxieties. It is our human nature to be attracted to the horrific and obtain pleasure from encountering it because this is how we gain a partial and temporary victory over ourselves."
Ultimately, these findings seem to indicate that human nature seeks physical control, even the illusion of control, over our fates and fears whether it's through horror gaming, religion, protest, or another means.
This video game designer's creations have been said to work "neurological magic."
- Video game designer Bennett Foddy's games hack players' neurology to allow them to embody the subjects on the screen.
- Foddy plays with perceptions of sensation to explore how gamers "become" the digital characters.
- Research indicates that video games can change how our brains perform and their structural makeup. For instance, enhancing several kinds of focus.
A gaming surge has begun. Steam, an online gaming marketplace, has seen record numbers of concurrent players over the past week, landline networks in Italy have seen a 70 percent increase in traffic, and console games are drawing millions more, as the world adjusts to life at home. Since we're all locked in until the end of the coronavirus crisis, these are the free games your brain might be craving in the midst of social isolation.
Bennett Foddy’s games
New York-based game designer
Bennett Foddy's programs are about the neurological sorcery in gaming that allows players to embody the subjects on the screen. Foddy's creations, many of which are free to play via the flash-enabled internet browser of your choice, are not overly intense or for "hard-core gamers." They're light-hearted, addictive, and have limited controls that are easy for non-gamers to pick up on, though mastery is not so simple. The gaming wizard's latest creation, Get On Top, is a game hidden in his 2016 gaming time capsule Sportsfriends. The two-player browser version uses your keyboard for input, with arrow keys controlling one figure and AWD controlling the other. "It's designed to sit with one other person and play for hours," the website explains. (Learn how to enable Flash here).
QWOP , one of Foddy's more popular creations, is a simple and diabolically addictive game about sprinting down the straightaway on a track. It can be played on PC or a smartphone mobile browser. The screen shows a man lined up to race the 100 meter dash, and you must press the QWOP keys to manipulate his left and right calf and thigh muscles to (hopefully) propel him forward as fast as you can. (The cult classic game was even featured on the U.S. version of The Office on the sitcom's season 9 premiere.) In 2012, it was updated so that it could be played with two people at once.
The phenomenology of gaming
Photo Credit: Foddy.net
In a 2011 piece for WIRED UK, Mark Brown wrote that Foddy's games are about "turning gaming's heavily abstracted and automated actions – like running forward or scaling a perilous cliff face – into brutal simulations of the most intense micromanagement."
For Foddy, it's about playing with perceptions of sensation to explore how gamers come to embody the digital characters in the game.
"When you play a [video game]," Foddy explained, "as long as there is a very short time between your formation of an intention to act and something happening on screen, there's a kind of neurological magic which makes you feel like you are the character, rather than just controlling a little guy on a screen." QWOP is unique in that it does this by making a "deliberate disconnect between your intentions and the character's actions."
Another of Foddy's games, GIRP, enhances the experience of embodiment. The game, whose hero is a rock climber, turns your keyboard into a cliff face. The player needs to finger-tip grip the keyboard as if he or she is white-knuckle clinging to a cliff. In this way, when you play this game you phenomenologically become the daring climber as your consciousness moves through the electronic space in the virtual reality of the game.
Foddy, who studied addiction at Oxford, designed GIRP to hijack the neurological reward-system by allowing players to set their own achievable goals in the game. WIRED's Brown described GIRP as "maddeningly compulsive."
How video games affect the brain
Video games can change how our brains perform and their structural makeup. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that video game players display enhancements in several types of attention such as sustained attention (the ability to focus on an activity over a long period of time), divided attention (focusing on multiple pieces of information at once), and selective attention (the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time). Moreover, the areas of the brain that play a role in attention are more efficient in video game players as compared with non-gamers. Gamers also don't require as much activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.
There is evidence that gaming increases the size and competence of regions of the brain that are responsible for visuospatial skills, or an individual's ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects (for example, hitting a ball zooming towards you with a baseball bat before it smacks you in the face). The 2017 research also suggests that video games that require players think spatially can increase the gray matter in the right hippocampus.
So go ahead and game the plague away. You can find Foddy's games for free here.
From ultra-realistic graphics to more intelligent A.I. characters, the 2020s will bring some mind-bending video games.
- The video game industry will be worth an estimated $200 billion by 2022.
- The growth of the industry is helping to advance gaming technology, which will allow for new types of gaming experiences.
- Some gaming evolutions likely to occur in the 2020s include ubiquitous ray-tracing technology, smarter A.I. characters, and big-budget virtual reality attractions.
The video game industry is booming at a staggering pace. To put it in perspective:
- The industry is worth more than $120 billion (more valuable than movies and music combined), and it's set to grow to nearly $200 billion by 2022.
- Some 100 million people watched the 2018 League of Legends finals; about as many watched the Super Bowl.
- By 2021, there will be 2.7 billion gamers worldwide, according to estimates.
With profits and industry growth virtually guaranteed, companies are competing to push gaming technology forward and create new types of gaming experiences. So, what are likely to be some of the biggest evolutions in video games this decade?
For video games to look realistic, they need to convincingly mimic how light behaves in the world: reflections, shadows, and changes in light after characters manipulate the environment, say, by shooting a hole through a wall. In most video games, like "Minecraft", light is "baked into" animated scenes. It's static.
With ray-tracing, however, light behaves fluidly, changing in real time based on where your character is in the game. Ray-tracing "traces" the path of light rays in the game. The light behaves sort of like real-life photons, which are emitted from a light source, bounce off surfaces, and eventually make it to your eye. Only ray-tracing works in the opposite direction. It turns out that it's much more efficient for an algorithm to compute the path of light from the character's "eyes" to the light source, instead of the other way around. And to make it even easier for the computer, the algorithm actually only computes the path of a few important rays, and then uses machine-learning to fill in the gaps.
The end result is virtual worlds that look far more realistic.
NVIDIA GeForce Minecraft RTX - RTX On/Off Gameplay
Currently, you need a pretty expensive graphics card to play games with ray-tracing technology on high settings. But as the hardware gets better and cheaper, you can expect to see ray-tracing become a more common feature in video games.
"I think it's paradigm shifting," AJ Christensen, a visualization programmer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, told Wired. "There's a lot of stuff that we've been waiting to be able to do. The imagination far precedes the technology, and I think a lot of people are excited and waiting for it."
Reactive A.I. characters
One frustrating part of modern video games is that non-player characters (NPCs) tend to be clunky and awkward. They're generally limited to uttering a few lines of dialogue, or performing a few predetermined actions. But with better artificial intelligence, we might soon see NPCs that can react to players' unique behavior, remember past interactions and alter the game's storyline accordingly, similar to what Spirit AI is doing with its Character Engine.
Michael Zyda, the Founding Director of USC's Computer Science Games Program, told IEEE Spectrum that he foresees A.I. characters tailoring their behavior based on the player's emotional state.
"For example, say a pirate character is trying to make your life miserable but he senses that you're happy," he said. "The pirate's goal is to change your emotional state to angry by communicating with you in some way. Next thing you know, he's able to interact with you like a human would.
"Characters from novels or stories could be turned into interactive forms so we could talk to them. For example, someone might want to play Hamlet or one of the other characters in the play. Using artificial intelligence, Hamlet and others will be able to express emotions, have behaviors, and share knowledge. You might even be able to rehearse your lines with other characters. This is not like watching a movie—this is you interacting with others and being completely immersed in the game."
Virtual reality theme parks
Virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular, and its gaming market is expected to be worth $33 billion by 2023. A recent survey shows that most game developers agree that VR gaming headsets will continue to sell and evolve. But these products have a key limitation: locomotion. There are currently several common ways to move yourself (or your player) through a virtual world, such as: using a joystick, walking in place, or pointing and teleporting.
But what if you designed a physical space to match the virtual world? That's the hook of big-budget attractions like Disney's Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, produced by ILMxLAB and The VOID, which allows players to move untethered through a physical set that matches a VR game. Sure, it's rather expensive, and the games are limited because the virtual worlds more or less have to spatially match the physical set, for safety reasons. But it seems likely that these types of attractions are going to become more of a draw. At least until VR games deliver even better locomotion at home.
About 21 percent of gamers in the United States are over the age of 50.
- More than 164 million Americans play video games on their phones, computers, or gaming consoles.
- An entire fifth of American gamers are over the age of 50.
- Results of studies suggest games can improve memory and reduce signs of aging.
According to a 2019 report by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), more than 164 million adults play video games and three-quarters of all American households have at least one gamer inside. While the average gamer is 33 years old, 21 percent of gamers are over 50. Reasons vary from leisurely fun, to spending time with younger relatives, curing boredom, and improving mental dexterity.
While there are no rules to which games more mature players can enjoy, studies have found that certain games are more popular among older players. Some have even been found to improve the health of senior players diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Here are 6 games across numerous platforms (Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC) that are worth adding to your cart.
According to the EPA report, Baby Boomer gamers (ages 55 to 64) are really into virtual board games and the classics such as Monopoly and Scrabble. This pack is available for Xbox and PS4 and also contains solitaire and Risk.
A recent study conducted by the University of Montreal on people between the ages of 55 and 75 found that video games (specifically Super Mario 64) caused a significant increase in gray matter in the hippocampus. The loss of gray matter is associated with diseases such as Alzheimers.
Based on the results, the researchers hypothesized that 3D games could be used to improve memory and prevent the effects of the disease. Super Mario 64 was made for previous generation consoles (Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS) but Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is similar and available for the Switch.
A 2012 study by researchers at North Carolina State University found that seniors who played the "cognitively challenging game" World of Warcraft showed an improvement in spatial ability and focus, especially those who scored the lowest in the baseline tests. The multiplayer online role playing game was originally released in 2004 and has since had several expansion packs, Battle for Azeroth being its seventh (released in 2018).
One of the top-selling games of 2018, Minecraft is great for older players who like puzzles and simulations, and for those who want to spend time with the young gamers in their family.
Sixty-five (65) percent of older male gamers prefer playing alone, according to the EPA. The percentage is slightly smaller for female gamers in that age group at around 58 percent. A large portion of gamers over 55 (35 percent of men, 45 percent of women) are also big fans of puzzle games. Tetris has been the king of the solo puzzle genre for decades, so this this one is an easy recommendation. This recent version for the Nintendo Switch comes with an online membership, but there is also an extensive "Marathon mode" for offline play.
This farming simulation game lets you do everything from raising livestock to mining ore, all while making sure that you have enough time, energy, and money to get things done. It's not the most exciting game in the traditional sense, but for those looking for a calmer gaming experience it comes highly rated by industry critics and online reviewers alike.