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Stanford School of Medicine has just completed a new video game to help teach medical students to treat sepsis. Sepsis is a severe medical condition that begins as a bacterial infection, and quickly expands to become a systemic disease that can kill patients within hours.

The game, which can be played here, is intended to put doctors into the situation of having to treat patients under the same time limitations that they would encounter in a hospital setting. The player must review patient reports, charts, and history, administer tests and treatments to multiple patients. As the patients’ health decreases, they fall towards the bottom of the screen, and as they are treated (properly) their health increases and they rise towards the top of the screen. The player (or medical student) must manage treating multiple patients before their health drops too low and they die. The game ends when all patients have either been cured or have died.

 

 

Though I didn’t enjoy the game much since I do not have the medical background to know how to treat sepsis (and thus lost quickly), this game is another great example about how video games can be used for educational purposes. It may eventually help doctors be better able to treat this rapid and severe disease, and if more games of this type are created, video games may become a large component of medical education.

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ImmorTall

http://armorgames.com/play/5355/immortall

In this short game, the player controls an alien that has crash-landed on Earth. You quickly befriend a young girl playing near your crash site, and her entire family. The game then takes a turn for the worst, as the military begins to attack you. The family you have befriended also falls under the military fire, and it is your job to protect them by blocking the soldiers’ attacks. At first the alien appears to be immortal, and the player is able to protect the family by standing in the way of the bullets. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that you are being hurt by the onslaught, and eventually you die. After this, the family mourns over your body, and then leaves unharmed. At the end of the game a message is displayed “Live (forever immortal).”

I tried playing the game again, this time not protecting the family, and instead trying to dodge the onslaught. The family quickly died, but the military continued to attack until I finally died and received the same message “Live (forever immortal).”

To me, this game has two central messages. The first is about society’s fear of the unknown, and militaristic tendencies towards that which is different. The alien means no harm to the people, and even protects the family (if you choose to do so), but there is no way to signal this to the military, which simply attacks without end.

The second message is an interesting take on death for a video game: simply living is not enough, you must do something good or important with your life. If you choose to save yourself instead of the family you eventually die alone. However, if you choose to protect the family, they mourn over you when you die and the attack stops. Since you cannot actually survive the onslaught, your options are to sacrifice yourself to save the family, or allow everyone (including yourself) to die. It is thus your deeds that are important, and not your life, in ImmorTall. You win the game not by surviving, but by making an impact with your actions.

-Wes

Connecting Games to Gambling

Throughout our discussions about what has made games (and especially casual games) successful, I have realized more and more how the mechanics that make us addicted to games are the same ones that make people addicted to gambling (not to say that I am addicted to gambling!) They just both use the same strategies.

I think that Bejewled, a game that runs on the tile-matching mechanic, emphasizes these strategies the most. It makes use of bright colors and lights, as well as exciting bonuses, and payoffs (in terms of points) to draw the player in. If you play Bejewled Blitz, the game only lasts one minute, and challenges you to get as high a score as you can in that amount of time. While skill is definitely a factor, the short time span of the game forces the player to rely more heavily on luck than in a tile game with no time limit. The player is restricted by how well the “board” is set up at the start of the game, and how well new jewels line up to allow for bonuses. This combination of luck and instant results is essentially similar to slot machines.
In fact, the key aspect of gambling (according to the ever-insightful Wikipedia) is wagering money on “an event with an uncertain outcome … Typically the outcome of the wager is evident within a short period.” Games too rely on uncertain outcomes to keep players invested, and casual games make excellent use of outcomes in short timeframes. In fact, legal gambling is technically referred to as “gaming.”
In Bejewled, the player receives a score, which is sometime disappointing, often average, and, rarely fantastic. Similarly, slots will often give you nothing or a small return, but it is the hope of winning big that keeps you playing. It is the hope of getting that high score that keeps the player invested in Bejewled, starting a new game every minute in hopes of doing better than their last game.

The same can be said for many casual games. As has been mentioned many times before, it is this short time frame, ability to play (or stop playing) whenever, and the social aspect of comparing scores with friends that makes casual games so popular today. The main difference is that the big payoff is in points, and not money.

 

Pokémon: (Yes, Pokémon)

As a quick background, Pokémon is based on catching, raising, and battling various fictional creatures, each having unique battle move-sets. Some Pokémon transform into new forms when they are raised to a certain level (called “evolving”), usually becoming stronger when they do so.

I could say 151 things about Pokémon (even though there are now 649 different Pokémon!), but I can’t talk about everything at once. Our class discussion on World or Warcraft made me think about capitalism (why do you “gotta catch em all”?) as well some concern about animal cruelty (so you capture these wild animals… to make them fight each other? Sounds a little like cockfighting…), but I’ve decided to focus on something more positive.

There is a surprising amount of cultural and scientific richness built into the game and its various Pokémon. Many of these references are to Japanese legends and fables, but the references expand beyond this into other cultures and into science as well. Here are just a few examples:

Cultural:

Magikarp and Gyarados:
Magikarp is a fish, which when leveled up through enough battling and experience becomes Gyarados, a powerful serpent-like Pokémon. This transition is based on the Japanese legend of the koi fish (also known as a carp), which upon successfully climbing a waterfall, would be transformed into a dragon. This legend has associated the koi fish with perseverance against adversity, and is incidentally also why tattoos of koi fish are so popular.

Ninetales:
This Pokémon is based off the Japanese kitsune, or fox. Japanese folklore says that the more tails a kitsune has (the maximum being nine), the wiser and more powerful it is. Some consider them to be deities.

Jynx:
This Pokémon’s original design had to be altered, after a controversy involving its similarities to the 19th century entertainment form blackface, in which white men would dress up as stereotyped caricatures of blacks.

Science and Technology:

Multiple Pokémon also model the biological systems of symbiosis, metamorphosis, and evolution. The games could introduce children to these real world concepts by simplifying them into aspects of the games mechanics.

 

Mew and Mewtwo:
In the games, Mewtwo is the dangerous result of a genetic experiment-gone-wrong in which the DNA from Mew was altered to make it more powerful. Here we see a cautionary statement against the improper uses of genetic engineering and biological manipulation.

I know that was a lot, but there are many more references, and both good and bad aspects to the games. I’m curious as to what you think: do the cultural/scientific references and messages outweigh the concerns about animal cruelty? What other cool symbolism is there? So please comment!

-Wes

Foldit

This game is about protein folding: how the individual molecules that make up a protein are arranged in 3-D space. I realize that sounds like the most boring subject ever, but please stick with me for just a minute. [You’re about to find out what a huge science nerd I am.]

The reason that Foldit is so cool is not because the game has an exciting premise, nor an influential message, but rather because it has been used (and is still being used) to discover real science! It’s not trying to say anything about society, but is instead actively contributing to our knowledge of molecular biology.

Here’s how it works. The player is given a 3-D representation of a protein.

With the mouse, the player can then rotate the image to see it differently, and click and drag portions of the molecule to move its pieces around. The goal is to create the best shape for the protein, which in reality is based on multiple factors, but in the game is simplified into reducing red zones. As you reduce red zones by moving the bits of the protein around, your score goes up, and once you reach a certain score you pass the level. There is no one shape for each level that gets you to an adequate score, and multiple shapes theoretically could work. This is because the creators of the game do not actually know what the true structures are for these molecules.

Apparently even state-of-the-art computers can only estimate these shapes to a point, and to get more accurate structures, a human mind working to solve the puzzle is better than any computer developed to date. The structures of proteins solved by average Joes playing the game online have resulted in multiple publications and discoveries, including a better understanding of HIV/AIDS.

Foldit gives the general public a way to contribute to real science, not by having to understand the intricacies of molecular biology or biochemistry, but instead by playing an online game. Moreover, it underscores (perhaps unintentionally) that while we can develop incredibly complex computing programs, they cannot surpass the human intellect.

That being said, I didn’t find the game too fun to play. It’s essentially a puzzle game, so if you enjoy that type of game, give it a try! You might discover something new. You can download it [for free!] here: http://fold.it/portal/ 

And here’s a video demo:

Flower

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJam5Auwj1EImage

This game is way less intense than the previous few, and propagates the well-popularized message of preserving the environment.

Flower is a short downloadable game for the PlayStation 3 in which the player controls the wind that is blowing a flower petal through the air. The goal is to collect other flower petals by flying past flowers in the landscape, that will then follow you on the breeze as you progress through the level. Often times collecting these petals causes changes in the landscape itself, adding color by revitalizing other plants or turning on windmills.

The controls are extremely simple. The game utilizes the gyroscopic mechanism of the PS3 controller, and the player controls the direction of the wind simply by tilting the controller in the direction they want the wind to go. Any button increases the speed of the wind, but no actual buttons need to be pressed to proceed throughout the game.

Throughout the game’s six levels (which are loosely connected into narrative without words), its environmentalist message becomes ever more apparent. The first two levels focus on the player increasing the beauty of the landscape by revitalizing grasses, trees, and flowers. The focus in the third and fourth levels then shifts to activating windmills, which then turn on lights as night approaches. In the fifth level, night falls and the flower approaches a city during a storm. The music becomes noticeably more ominous and the landscape fills with power lines that can shock the flower petal (though there is no way to die or lose). This urban landscape is noticeably darker, more dangerous, and finding the flowers required to progress through the level becomes more difficult. Finally in the sixth level the player reaches the city, which looks abandoned. Here the flower petal gains the ability to destroy metal obstructions and as it does so, it revitalizes the city. At the culmination of the level, the flower destroys the metal girders in a large crumbling skyscraper, and transforms it into a giant tree.

Image

Through this narrative arc, the message of preserving nature, and revitalizing society through nature are obvious. The flower petal both revives the natural landscape and the city, demonstrating the essential connection of nature and society. While environmentalism is not an issue lacking in public awareness, it is not the actual message, but the way it is delivered that is interesting. The “natural” style of the controls (simply directing the wind with the position of the controller) helps connect the player directly with the game, while also underscoring the importance of nature in harmony with technology. This message is be easily understood, but is not overbearing. No words are ever used in the game, and no specific actions are ever forced upon the player. The player is free to explore the world on his or her own, and to draw their own conclusions from what they discover. Flower manages to make its argument purely through visual (including audio) and procedural rhetoric.

-Wes