Wednesday, September 30, 2015

AI in Video Games (part 3)

Another example of AI changes in video games involves a game where a powerful AI program is dedicated to operating the game's antagonist. In Alien: Isolation, Developers at Creative Assembly designed a complex AI for the deadly alien that prowls a space station looking to devour the main character, Amanda Ripley. You play as Amanda and must improvise to survive while the AI program reacts and behaves differently every time you play, learning from every decision you make, hunting you relentlessly. The AI learns based upon your actions, and the adaptive AI will not be fooled by the same tactic twice. You are unable to survive a direct confrontation with the alien, so you must outwit the AI program that makes use of all the data it has gathered on you—the AI notes your patterns of behavior and the deductive alien will hunt you relentlessly. With AI becoming more and more advanced in games, developers may soon need to start toning down just how smart these programs are. Otherwise, games are likely to become too difficult to play and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

AI in Video Games (part 2)

The developers at Croteam designed their puzzle game, The Talos Principle, with the challenge of balancing the game for players while allowing for an increasing amount of difficulty with each successive puzzle. This task became increasingly difficult because minor design changes often had a ripple effect that could affect all puzzles and potentially break the game. The team realized that playtesting needed to be done on a daily basis, but this is obviously expensive and time-consuming to facilitate. Instead of approaching the problem the traditional way, the team instead designed an AI bot program that would playtest the game for them. The AI bot spent an equivalent of 80,000 hours playtesting the game, making certain that all puzzles could be solved and the game could be finished. The bot reported back to the developers with the data it collected for the bugs it encountered, making it easier to pinpoint and correct the errors quickly.

Monday, September 28, 2015

AI in Video Games (part 1)

Traditionally, we think of artificial intelligence (AI) in video games as relating to non-player characters (NPC's) that we interact with in the game. In 3rd-person shooters, we say the game has “bad AI” if our opponents don't behave intelligently when fighting—standing out in the open waiting to be shot, failing to react to getting shot, etc. We say a game has “good AI” when our opponents stay behind cover, adjust to our position, and even try to out-flank us. In video games with more social environments such as RPG's, AI's are used to make NPC's seem more realistic through more dynamic comments, daily animated routines, and even responses to dynamic changes in the game that might “threaten” their existence. Yet developers are beginning to design new uses for AI programs, and video games are approaching a vastly different horizon as a result. This week, I'll talk about a few specific game developers and how they are using AI to make video games bigger and better than we've ever seen before.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Effect of Video Games (part 5)

The belief that video games cause violence, behavioral problems, or other supposed societal ills are often sensationalized reports from the media and have not been proven by scientific study. However, many studies have proven that video games increase IQ and cognitive function. For example, a recent study at Molecular Psychiatry found that “video gaming causes increases in the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning, as well as fine motor skills.” Researches at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charite University of Medicine studied brain volume before and after subjects played Super Mario 64 one hour a day for two months--there was a significant increase in gray matter compared to the control group that did not play games. In another study conducted by Dr. Tracy Alloway, 9 out of 10 students who participated in the study showed substantial improvement in their ability to solve mathematical and verbal problems. Some students also scored almost 10 points higher on IQ tests. Yet not all video games are necessarily good for you--in a study conducted at the Queen Mary University of London and the University College of London, cognitive flexibility was tested with participants playing StarCraft and The Sims. The StarCraft players responded to questions that tested cognitive flexibility faster and more accurately than those who played The Sims.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Effect of Video Games (part 4)

Another study, conducted in the United Kingdom, concluded that playing video games does not lead to behavioral problems, such as depression or attention deficit disorder (ADD.) The study focused on the impact of video games and TV on 11,000 children, and researchers wanted to see if children would be influenced by identification with characters and repeated rehearsal and reinforcement. The results of the study indicated that exposure to video games had virtually no effect on the behavior of the children.
However, it was found that viewing 3 or more hours of television a day did lead to an increase in behavioral problems in 5 to 7 year old children, both boys and girls. Studies have shown that the more time children spend watching TV, the poorer they perform academically. Yet a number of video-game studies have indicated that gamers have improved reflexes, better cognitive skills and healthier brains.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Effect of Video Games (part 3)

Video games are often blamed as a cause of violence. The Columbine shootings were blamed on video games, and even some politicians were publicly rallying against the video game industry during the aftermath. Yet there has always been a lack of agreement over the relationship between game violence and real-life violence. There are no commonly accepted tests for aggression so measuring levels of violence is unreliable. Studies with positive results get published when negative findings often go unpublished, so this publication bias causes researches to slant their conclusions and ignore studies that disprove their own research. There is also a problem of small effect sizes. How large of a correlation is necessary to prove a link between game and real-life violence? Current studies have produced a correlation of about 0.15, which is hardly a result that would warrant reigning in the game industry. It is far more likely that those that have caused real-life violence were already violent people who chose to play violent video games—their violence was not produced by the games they played.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Effect of Video Games (part 2)

Some studies have linked video games with decreased attention spans. The study suggests that elementary school children that played video games more than two hours a day are 67% more likely to have attention problems, though the same effect was noticed for those that spend more than two hours a day watching TV as well. Researches admit that there is currently no differentiation between attention span loss from TV watching and video game playing. Researches were also not able to identify the differences in the type of attention required to focus on school compared with the type of attention needed to focus on gaming. However, I found it rather comical that when I told my own 13-year old daughter about this study, she pointed out that it didn't sound like the kids had an attention problem at all—they were quite focused on playing a video game for over two hours a day!

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Effect of Video Games (part 1)

We have been hearing for years that children might suffer adverse effects from playing video games. Granted, children do sometimes get a little obsessively focused on games and have a harder time knowing when to stop when compared with adults. Of course, some adults also have the very same addictive tendencies—just google “deaths caused by video games” and you'll find stories about several adults that died from playing a game non-stop for too many sleepless days. But do video games really deserve the bad reputation they have been repeatedly saddled with from the media? A number of different scientific studies have been conducted about video game use, and there are varied but interesting results. This week, let's discover what some of these studies have to say about playing video games.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Advances for the Human Body in the Near Future (part 5)

Ectogenesis is the growth of an embryo or fetus in an artificial environment, outside the body of the mother. Test-tube babies/ in-vitro fertilization has already been going on for years, but as further ectogenesis developments are made, pregnancy might soon become a thing of the past. Mothers that are medically incapable of carrying a baby to full term, mothers that prefer to continue a lifestyle involving drinking and/or drugs, or even mothers that prefer to avoid disrupting their busy careers with maternity leave are likely to elect ectogenesis over natural birth, though employers with economic concerns may someday mandate that mothers use ectogenesis. With this process becoming more common, we will also see more children available for adoption, and waiting lists might plummet to zero. Baby selection might someday become a major industry, and it is also likely that increased use of ectogenesis will someday entail genetic manipulation, or “designer babies.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Advances for the Human Body in the Near Future (part 4)

After many years of testing, bionic eyes are now available for patients with vision loss. Though the first prototypes had problems with low resolution, the newest versions of the high resolution eyes allow patients to recognize faces and to read large print. With continued advances in this technology over the next few years, fully artificial eyes will someday be available that might actually provide better vision than a normal, healthy eye. It also seems feasible that bionic eyes will have other capabilities, possibly similar to the much-maligned “Google Glass.” Perhaps many of the functions we use our smartphones for will someday become features available through bionic eyes, with internet browsing and video recording being possible through the eye of the beholder. Privacy is heading steadily toward extinction.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Advances for the Human Body in the Near Future (part 3)

Memory boosting chips have been the subject of a recent study run by DARPA, which has surgically implanted these microchips into the brains of several dozen people. Targeted shocks were delivered to the subjects' memory centers and it was found that test results for memory exams noticeably improved. These chips could potentially restore memory to people suffering from traumatic brain injuries or other neurological complications. Another program being run by DARPA is using similar chips to provide relief to patients suffering from PTSD and other neurological disorders. Yet another DARPA program, called RAM Replay, is aimed at improving memories of physical skills by imitating the brain's natural process of replaying these skills, similar to our brain's behavior during sleep. Though we are still far from the concept of learning new skills through data downloads (think of Neo in The Matrix), we will definitely be seeing more use of microchip cranial implants in the future!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Advances for the Human Body in the Near Future (part 2)

It sounds like a fairy-tale, but the reality of an obesity-prevention drug isn't but a few years away. There are several such drugs already on the market, though they have been met with skepticism—people generally believe obesity is a problem of willpower instead of a medical condition. Not to mention that some of these drugs have serious side-effects, including an increased risk of having suicidal thoughts. However, new drugs are being developed that might allow us to eat whatever we want without weight gain. The drug will trick the body into reacting as if it has already consumed a full meal. By boosting adrenaline and neural serotonin, weight loss will be facilitated, regardless of how much food is being consumed! The food industry can't “weight!”

Monday, September 14, 2015

Advances for the Human Body in the Near Future (part 1)

As science continues to advance rapidly, more and more discoveries are being made about the human body. Though we may think of the future as involving many technological advances (and no doubt it will), there are many biological technologies in store for us as well. One such development that is currently being explored by DARPA involves turning the human body into a bio-factory to generate antibodies for use in vaccine production. The current process for making a vaccine is 9 months, but if DARPA's research proves successful, the human body could produce antibodies in much less time and with much more effectiveness. Consider that the 2009 flu vaccine protected only 1.6 percent of the population—in all other cases, it failed to immunize the patient against the virus. However, with a single shot into a person's muscle cells, a genetic antibody recipe could be introduced that would cause RNA to convey these instructions and produce many copies of the necessary antibodies, which are then harvested for use in other patients. If the human body is utilized as a bio-factory to produce antibodies, we might see more effective vaccines produced in much less time. This study is somewhat predicated upon the success seen with the antibodies produced by Americans who survived Ebola infection.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Judging Science Fiction (part 5)

If there are elements in your sci-fi writing that are unsupported by current science, such as faster-than-light-speed travel (FTL), alien civilizations across many worlds, hand-held laser pistols and flying cars (all of these are present in Solar Echoes!), there is a huge genre within sci-fi that will happily accommodate this type of story—Space Opera. Space Operas (or “soft sci-fi”) differ from “hard sci-fi” in that they contain a number of unscientific themes, but they are accepted by the reader because they are treated with consistency. The rules of the universe in soft sci-fi are somewhat less rigid, though there are varying degrees. In Solar Echoes, our science is solid and consistent, and this realism is layered upon a more fantastical imagining of advanced alien civilizations traveling in FTL starships. It produces a setting that people seem to readily accept, though if Star Wars hadn't paved the way for the Space Opera, I wonder if it would have ever succeeded as a sci-fi genre. What do you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Judging Science Fiction (part 4)

Sometimes, there's nothing you can do. I've written sci-fi that turned out to be improbable in the future, and it wasn't because of a lack of research. Things develop in unusual directions after your story is finished, when it is too late to make any changes. For example, in Solar Echoes there are infra-red and thermal goggles available for characters to purchase. Yet I read recently that eyedrops have been developed that allow you to see in the dark for a few hours before they wear off. It's unlikely we will need to wear cumbersome goggles in the near future to see in the dark, so someday, people will potentially scoff at the Solar Echoes universe. I doubt something like that will spoil the entire show, so to speak, but with each discrepancy, a sci-fi vision will crumble and soon be disregarded. When does this sort of thing not matter that much to a sci-fi fan?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Judging Science Fiction (part 3)

Spin an alternate reality with conviction. I remember a line from a movie where a con-artist advised to never break the con--if it looks like your lies have been discovered, double-down on those lies and dig even deeper. When writing science fiction, if you invest yourself deeply in the world that you've created with resolute conviction, your readers may be overcome by your writing and accept some inconsistencies, possibly even concocting their own explanations to excuse those discrepancies. However, it is risky to depend on readers to do this for you, and the best bet is to do a lot of research. If you've chosen to write sci-fi, you've done so because you intend your story to represent a possible or at least a plausible future. It's now your responsibility to make sure your vision aligns with the modern era as much as possible, following current developments in technology and science.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Judging Science Fiction (part 2)

Avoid dates. If you offer a date in your story, or sometimes even a specific era, you're setting yourself up for some serious scrutiny. Think about it: Orwell's 1984 did not happen in 1984 (though it could be argued he was just a few decades early!) We were not traveling through our solar system in big starships in 2001 or even 2010. At least Arthur C. Clarke played it safer with 2061, and even safer than that with his final novel in the series, 3000! Specific time references allow your readers to check to see if you're right, and even if that date might be in the near or distant future, people will still look at where things are and project their opinion of whether your estimate of that future coming to pass is realistic or not. Leave specific dates to historical fiction, and use a slightly less defined window of time open for your vision.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Judging Science Fiction (part 1)

What books and movies go out of style more quickly than science fiction? It might be safe to say that science fiction is the genre that often faces the harshest scrutiny, especially over time. Where are the flying cars? The teleportation devices? Hand-held laser pistols? None of these have yet come to pass, and when an author's vision falls flat in reality, it's difficult to suspend disbelief and become immersed in that author's world. There's also a very fine line with science fiction when it comes to actual facts. If the author gets something wrong and it doesn't align with current science, the rest of the work is often disregarded. What can a sci-fi author do to avoid these pitfalls?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Japanese Anime and Solar Echoes (part 5)

There are other anime series and movies that have inspired ideas which I have developed to fit in the Solar Echoes universe. Bodacious Space Pirates (seems to be a trend in silly anime titles—perhaps they are lost in translation?) focuses on a female high-school starship crew, and it has a surprisingly deep and high-quality overall design regarding the physics of space, military maneuvers, and electronic warfare. Anime movies have also had an impact upon me, and I particularly enjoyed the extremely impressive quality and deep storyline of Vexille, and the Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell movies. I also recently watched Harlock: Space Pirate, and not only was it of equally impressive quality, but the starship battles were nothing short of epic. I still try to keep a fairly steady diet of science-fiction in my life, and I find that it all keeps my mind turning over new ideas for future Solar Echoes content. Anime continues to inspire me, and I'm always excited seeing others sharing their creative visions of the future. I'd highly recommend giving anime a serious try—I'm sure glad I finally did!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Japanese Anime and Solar Echoes (part 4)

The dark anime, Texhnolyze, definitely contributed to the idea of a society that uses cyberware—robotic replacements for body parts. In Solar Echoes, though it is frowned upon to intentionally have body parts removed for cyberware replacements, these enhancements do provide a noticeable boost in power, though they are not without some drawbacks. Having too much cyberware will result in penalties to Biotech checks concerning that character and a serious vulnerability to electrical attacks—the same robots suffer (the character is, essentially, becoming a robot.) Another anime that influenced some of my ideas is Serial Experiments: Lain, an anime about a young girl that discovers others existing as consciousness in the digital world known as the Wired. I can't divulge entirely how this influenced my ideas, because I'd have to give away information players are intended to discover as their MC reveals it. Let's suffice it to say that there is a villain they will someday have to face that is an entirely digital consciousness. (More on this horrific, evil villain can be found in the Mission Controller's Guide)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Japanese Anime and Solar Echoes (part 3)

Outlaw Star, in my opinion, wasn't as good as Cowboy Bebop, but I still enjoyed it and my imagination was captured by the buccaneer-like hero, Gene Starwind. He ends up finding himself the owner of a stolen, highly-advanced, prototype starship, which propels him toward many adventures in space. I wasn't a fan of the “grappling arms” aspect of the starships in this series (it reminded me a bit of the mecha style, where ships transformed into robots), but other than that, I enjoyed the situations they found themselves in and the types of characters they encountered, as well as the various locations they visited. One particular scenario stuck in my mind for years, and that was the starship race they participated in, where they had to face a number of opponents all trying to get ahead in the race, using whatever means possible. This inspired my idea for the Solar Echoes mission, “The Tarball Run,” where Union Guard agents (the players' characters) must capture a criminal participating in the race. It's an exciting mission, where players must do a fair amount of investigation before the race and then strategize during the race to overcome some of the toughest competitors, just to get close enough to stop the criminal—an expert pilot and a deadly foe.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Japanese Anime and Solar Echoes (part 2)

The Cowboy Bebop anime was like nothing I'd seen before, with well-developed characters, excellent voice-acting, amazing style, and best of all, a science-fiction universe that was believable, characterized by a harsh, real-world feel. In a way, it felt somewhat like Firefly, and even though the characters were bounty hunters in Cowboy Bebop, it was similar to Firefly in that they survived from job to job, just trying to make their way in the universe. I was ready to try more anime, and it wasn't until years later that I'd realize how much Cowboy Bebop and other sci-fi anime helped shape the ideas I had that led to the design of Solar Echoes. I wanted even the art design of Solar Echoes to have an anime-like quality to it, and the Solar Echoes logo itself was inspired by the logo of sci-fi anime series Outlaw Star.