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Escaping into another world with The Talos Principle

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I’ve needed a distraction from my thoughts this week. It’s too emotional to spend time in Second Life and I’m bored with my other games, so after reading a couple of reviews, I downloaded The Talos Principle on Steam. It’s a single player puzzle game, but it has lovely graphics and surprising depth.

My comments are only based on three hours of playing, but I’m looking forward to having free time to go back in. Without giving away too much of the gameplay — because the point, and the delight, is in discovering things little by little on your own — you awake in a strange world of ruins and are guided by a voice who introduces himself as ELOHIM. The default view is first person, so you don’t see your cybernetic body unless you choose to change the settings (which I only did for the screenshot above; first person view and movement are very good). As you explore, you find puzzles that need to be solved to get pieces that can be used to activate keypads. You discover terminals that allow you to read files and interact with an automated system. You also find digital artifacts left behind by…well, that’s part of the mystery.

All of that is enjoyable, but the hook is philosophy. Yep, philosophy. In fact, one of the effusive reviews on Steam is from someone who describes himself (herself?) as a PhD in philosophy. There are a lot of questions raised about the nature of humanity, personhood and citizenship, freedom and authority. I think you could enjoy the game without contemplating the deeper questions of what it means to be human, but it’s there.

The Talos Principle is $35.99 (10% off) until January 2nd. If you decide to give it a try, pick up the free game Sigils of Elohim. It’s quite literally a puzzle game — fit the pieces into the shape — but completing each level provides a code for extra content inside Talos.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2014 in Gaming

 

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What would your life be like without digital technology?

A couple nights ago, The Colbert Report interview segment featured yet another self-important philosopher-type. When asked to critique modern culture in ten words or less, he replied, “Too much digital. Not enough critical thinking. More physical reality.”
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Now, I agree with him about critical thinking, though it seems to contradict the rest of his statement. My opinion is that people who are active in both the physical and digital worlds can consciously choose to experience the best of both, based on their preferences.  There are outliers on both sides and their choices are valid too, whether they choose full immersion in the physical or digital realm (as much as that is possible), but their choices are in no way superior.

What experiences shape the opinions of digital naysayers? Did their teenagers text through an important family moment? Was AOL just a little too complicated? Do they see ads for laptops and tablets and think that they’re babble in a language they don’t understand?  Was a moment of forest reverie interrupted by a hiker’s Maroon 5 ringtone?

If I imagine my life without the digital components, it is not a richer existence.  My husband and I got to know each other online for years before we met in person, so I wouldn’t have my comfy home life. I wouldn’t have any of the relationships I’ve built in virtual worlds and games, whether fleeting or enduring.  The most lucrative positions in my job history and my financial stability now are based in digital technology. Before that, I was managing office buildings, which can be a difficult, miserable job.

Without digital technology, my experience of the world would be limited to what others tell me. I could read my local newspaper and the selection of books at the library and local bookstores, chosen by others. I could watch local television news and the national news. How limiting that would be! Now I have the work of thinkers around the globe, ancient and modern, at my fingertips. I can see the news through a plethora of filters. Plus, the income from those tech jobs allowed me to travel widely and to go back to college to study anthropology.

Speaking of anthropology, digital technology helps me understand and relate to other people. I’m not inherently good at that and if I had to meet everyone face-to-face, I’d become a hermit. I’m not innately compassionate either, yet Facebook and email allow me to express concern and support without my reserve being misunderstood. Because I can have a lot of interactions online, I have social energy when I need it. That allows me to take yoga classes and make small talk with strangers when I walk my dog through the neighborhood. Those can be excruciating or impossible when I am socially exhausted. Technology is thereby a contributor to my physical well-being, too.

My experiences with the physical world are entwined with the digital.  Once I finish writing this post, I will clean and process a fantastic seven pound mushroom harvested from my yard: I know it is edible thanks to online mushroom guides, I watched a YouTube video of how to clean it, and I found a recipe for wild mushroom soup on a blog. Those digital elements don’t detract from gathering and eating the most local of food; they enable it.  We’ve gone camping in tents, kayaking, and on long bike rides this summer, and all of those deeply physical experiences were connected in some way to the digital — making campground reservations online, finding where we took a wrong turn off the bike paths using Google Maps, checking the weather radar to see if those dark clouds heading toward us were full of rain and we should paddle our arms off to race to the beach.

Sure, some of us act like selfish narcissists and those traits can be more obvious when technology is involved. Some of us get dazzled or obsessed with something for a while, and aspects of digital tech appeal to our compulsive inclinations. But for many, digital technology is an integrated and balanced part of our lives. I might be an extreme example but I’m certainly not unique.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Culture, Offline impact

 

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Gaming will not turn you into a psychopath

Why Online Games Turn Players into Psychopaths is the silly headline of a WIRED article published yesterday. The author writes about behavior in the open, dangerous worlds of DayZ and Rust, and specifically his transition from helpful and cooperative to naked murderer.  He keeps using the term “virtual worlds”, but I think he’s talking about worlds where violence is built into the game design. His sweeping statements would only apply to a tiny group I’ve met in an open virtual world like Second Life; much closer to the stat given in the article that 1% of the RL population is psychopathic.

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Feeling antisocial in a land of gigantic crows and tiny feet

The author doesn’t seem to grok that he’s writing about worlds where survival may depend on killing before being killed, so what he sees as psychopathic behavior can be strategic gameplay. In the games that he mentions, those cold-blooded and cruel killers are the ones that are having fun and are still alive, which means even more since death is permanent (there’s no “Continue”; a player must restart with a new character). Building a nonviolent commune in DayZ isn’t going to end well. On the other hand, that could be the model for a successful community in SL, where violence is limited to certain areas and griefing or harassment could result in an account ban.

At one point the author asks, “Are our actions in a virtual world tantamount to imagining those things we could do in real life but never would? Or are we merely behaving as we would in real life if there were no consequences for our actions?”  Inhibitions are lower online, especially for those who maintain anonymity (John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory certainly applies to some). Online anonymity can be like Plato’s Ring of Gyges scenario: in The Republic, Glaucon asserts that even a just man would use a ring of invisibility to do unjust things, because it would be foolish to do otherwise. However, except for the tiny percentage of true psychopaths among us, we bring qualities like empathy and a sense of right and wrong with us when we enter virtual worlds. We might stretch our definitions and act far beyond our RL orientations, but I suspect that most of us still act within the perceived social contract of that online space. Most, not all.

On a tangent, there is a section of the article that resonates with my thoughts about the awful new player experience in Second Life.  The author interviews a notorious thrill-killer from DayZ:

He says players in games like DayZ and Rust devise elaborate ways to abuse others because the open-ended nature of these games leaves them bored if they don’t create their own goals.

“Normally, when you log into a game, the game communicates its rules to you,” Kalle says. “If we both jump onto a Call of Duty server, the rules are there. It’s agreed that we’re going to kill each other. DayZ doesn’t give you goals, it just gives you tools.”

Thus, Kalle and his friends create their own fun. That might mean manipulating, abusing or even killing other players one day and helping them the next.

The open-ended nature of a virtual world is a two-edged sword. It’s full of opportunities, but without guidance it’s easy to fall into boredom or mischief. I think SL’s new member experience could benefit from some gamification. Rules, challenges, and rewards.  Some of that used to exist with the initial tutorial, but not anymore. The answer is not in guiding new residents to classes at Caledon Oxbridge or other places, though those are useful.  How addictive would Candy Crush be if you had to schedule hours of real time to attend classes before you could understand Level 2?

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Culture, Gaming

 

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