After the End

Decaying ruins consumed by vegetation, buckling roads littered with broken-down cars, bomb-blasted wastelands under a polluted sky – remnants of a once thriving technological civilization, now monuments to that civilization’s downfall. These images are becoming all too familiar in today’s society, not because they are the scenes we see when we look out our windows, but because they are the scenes that we see when we turn on our television sets, or go to the movies. These are the scenes of a post-apocalyptic world, one that was ravaged by some cataclysmic event that shattered our current society and rendered all technological advances obsolete. It’s a setting that many science-fiction fans are familiar with, but thanks to Hollywood and media moguls, the post-apocalyptic setting is one with which all are becoming acquainted.

While I still think it’s important for everyone to pick up a good book and read for fun, I also appreciate the role movies and television have to play as works of art and commentaries on society. Movies and Television shows are more sensitive to the whims and wants of society as a whole, and as such, reflect our current society’s beliefs and values more quickly and transparently than literature. It’s because of this that I believe this visual medium has some worth when talking about the “big questions.” Of course, the silver screen and glass box are also filled with junk that turns our brains into goo, so it’s important to keep reading, because books are less likely to turn you into a drooling couch potato, but I guess some people like that feeling. Anyway, I follow a lot of the latest movie and television buzz that floats around on the interwebs, and I’ve noticed a particular trend: the rise of science-fiction movies, particularly, that of the post-apocalyptic flavor.

Just this past week, two trailers have been released which take place in an Earth unfamiliar to us. The movie Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, is about one man who patrols a now desolate and war-torn Earth and his journey as he questions everything he once knew. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, After Earth, features Will and Jaden Smith as father and son who have crash-landed on a hostile planet filled with deadly creatures. And unlike previous Shyamalan movies, the twist in the plot is already known – the hostile planet is Earth, or Earth years after the humans left – and the movie actually looks somewhat promising. If you add on the latest trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, then that’s three trailers that have been released regarding some “end-of-the-world” situation or setting, all in one week. I could name countless other examples of movies, and even television shows that also dwell within post-apocalyptic Earth that have appeared within the last year or two. Just think about all the zombie movies and television shows out there now.

Of course, humanity has always had a fascination with the end of the world. It’s not just because it’s December 2012. All stories, from folklore and legends, have always dealt with sweeping events that determine the fate of the world. Additionally, a friend showed me a list of every single date that has been predicted to be the end of the world, and that list is long. Human history is just as concerned with how things will end as how things begin. So really, this trend has been going on since humans started to think, “what next?”

But the main difference, I think, with our typical myths about world-defining events, is that lately, our stories aren’t concerned with just the fact that the world will end and everything that we knew will be destroyed, but are concerned with the realm of “what happens after the world is destroyed, what happens after WWIII, after the alien invasion?” Where history talked about the apocalypse, we now talk about post-apocalypse. Where previous stories talk about the end, current society is concerned with “after the end.”

It’s an interesting concept, “after the end,” it’s a concept that believes in the immortality of all things (in some way or another). “The Ends” don’t exist in stories anymore. To borrow a quote from one of my favorite webcomics, “There is no end, there’s just the point where storytellers stop talking.” There’s always something more. But I think lately, we’ve been thinking that  “Sure, that big event happened, but now what?” Perhaps our obsession with this scenario is our subconscious surrender to the inevitability of our current downward state of environmental preservation. Despite our realization that pollution and environmental forces are changing rapidly, globally, we have done very little to combat this issue. Perhaps we are accepting the possible fact that we won’t fix the issue, and our world is doomed, so now let’s start thinking about how to survive afterwards. Or perhaps our obsession with “after the end” is the start of people becoming aware and acknowledging the consequences of our actions, that all things have effects, and what is the effect of our actions?

I, for one, am more interested with the feeling of nostalgia that post-apocalyptic settings bring forth. The images of once familiar places – buildings, monuments, cities – now collapsed, ruined, decayed, immediately fills us with a sense of longing for the times when those places were at the height of their splendor, while filling us with a sense of pain, regret, or guiltiness, for knowing that we were somewhat responsible for their downfall. But it’s not just the pain that nostalgia brings, it’s also those romantic notions of beauty in the decay (at least, to me). As you watch the landscapes in the trailers and movies, you notice that there’s a strange beauty to the setting. A beauty that results not because of the always-consuming power of nature, but of the consumer power of an altered nature. Yes, the ruins are covered with vegetation, but the landscape is forever changed because of those ruins. It’s something both new, and old, that fills us with both positive and negative emotions, that combine and form a different kind of beauty. I don’t know about others, but I find that kind of landscape almost alluring, in a possibly dangerous sense. It could be because we’ve started to romanticize post-apocalyptic Earth, or maybe it stems from our inner desire to leave a mark on this world after we leave. It may be a sense of satisfaction knowing that even when humanity itself is no longer on Earth, we have still found some way to be a part of it, to influence it in the form of altered landscapes. Usually, these settings are places of doom and gloom, of depression, but lately, there seems to be more of a calm, if not tranquil side to these settings. In a way it’s about rebirth, how even after the most traumatic, earth-shattering events, something new can emerge. The story goes on.

It’s also in these stories where we see the many “true” faces of humanity. We see the scavengers, the raiders, the protectors, the law-enforcers, the loners. In this setting, we understand who are true friends are and where our loyalties lie. It can be a very dark time. In a post-apocalyptic setting, all the illusions and distractions of today’s society are gone, and we have returned to our primitive selves, doing all we can just to survive, and yet we have the knowledge of a time where things were exponentially better, and worse. It is the ultimate test of human nature, will we revert back to a dog-eat-dog world, where the strong prey on the weak? Or will we try to reshape our societal structure? Or will we be able to just leave? Perhaps deep down, I (and maybe others) actually feel a longing for such a period of time. I once said it takes a huge event to shake us and call us into action, perhaps today’s media is us daydreaming about such an event.

Honestly, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, I just wanted to point out a trend and take it down random thought paths. I’m not even sure if any of this made sense. I could probably keep talking aimlessly about my thoughts and eventually end up in a different subject matter altogether. There’s no way I can draw a conclusion out of this mess of ranting, but I hope it got anyone reading this thinking. There’s definitely things that can be said of our current obsession with the post-apocalyptic, I just don’t know what. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts, so feel free to comment. I’ll probably end up writing more of these random musings in the future.

But for now, I think I should pick up a book.

EDIT: I found this neat site, “The World Without Us,” which features a timeline listing how long the remnants of human civilization will last.

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Modern-day Weather Machines

It’s certainly been a pretty hot summer this year. In fact, it’s been so hot, us Midwesterners are probably experiencing the worst drought in decades. Although it has rained a little bit these past few days, Summer 2012 has mostly been populated with +100 degree Fahrenheit days, cloudless skies and yellow grass. Crops are withering and food prices are rising. The overall rise of summer temperatures, along with the unseasonably warm winter months (we barely got any snow up in Ithaca, NY) seems to point in the direction of Global Warming (or Global Climate Change, I’m not sure what’s politically correct these days).

It’s these scorching hot days that make one wonder, “I wish I could make it rain.” Rain dances and evil-scientist weather-machines aside, there are very few methods out there that can change the weather. A relatively new area of engineering, called geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) is starting to gain more popularity (if not support) around the web. Geoengineering is basically the science of altering the earth’s climate through the use of planet-scale projects. The most common and widely-used geoengineering method is Cloud Seeding, which is the method of injecting Silver Iodide particles into Clouds to cause rain (China currently has the largest cloud seeding system in the world). Because of its large-scale impact and project-size, geoengineering projects are few and far between and there exist even fewer studies on the long-term impacts of such projects on the Earth, causing many scientists and environmentalists to remain skeptic on the benefits of such projects. Currently, scientists in Switzerland and Germany are trying to figure out ways to induce rain by pointing lasers in the sky. In order to combat global warming, Harvard engineers have proposed launching balloons filled with sulphate aerosols which will be released into the sky. The particles will reflect the sunlight, thus deflecting the incoming heat from the Sun and cooling the Earth. Students at UCLA are taking the same concept even further. After studying the Mount Pinatubo volcano eruption in 1991, the students discovered that the Sulfur dioxide particles in the atmosphere helped cool Northern Europe by about four degrees Fahrenheit for the following summer. The UCLA students have proposed emitting large volumes of Sulfur particles in order to reduce global temperatures, possibly by erupting artificial volcanoes. German researchers have found promising results in carbon sequestration by scattering the ocean surface with iron dust. Phytoplankton feed on the iron dust and in the process, sequester CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere. The Phytoplankton then die off and fall down to the bottom of the sea, taking the CO2 with them.

Geoengineering Projects around the world (click to enlarge)

All these methods have yielded positive results. Positive in that they accomplish what they set out to do. However geoengineering is a very touchy subject, and many projects have undergone delay and scrutiny by skeptical politicians, scientists and environmentalists (many of whom claim that geoengineering is just a ploy backed by oil companies to distract consumers from worrying about company carbon emissions). After all, geoengineering projects alter the Earth’s environment, and we still don’t completely know the side effects of such changes. The fact that these projects would cost millions, if not billions of dollars to implement also pose a large obstacle for the implementation of such projects. And for the romantics out there, it simply feels ‘wrong’ to be messing with the Earth on such a grand scale. I for one feel very hesitant about such approaches, but the humanitarian benefits could be great. Farmers experiencing droughts would be pretty happy with the rain as well as the reduced heat. Nevertheless, there seems to be a greater urgency for more research to be done. After conducting research, The Royal Society in the UK published a report in 2009, urging for the investment of geoengineering projects. The article explains that the reason why people are so hesitant with geoengineering, is because there is not a lot of data on the projects, and the only way we are going to get that data is through more research. And while I’m not necessarily an advocate for space colonization, geoengineering projects would certainly improve our chances of terraforming. But in the end, the safest and most effective way of combating climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But then again, if we ever find ourselves at war with a solar-powered robot race, perhaps blocking out the sun is the only option.

Operation Dark Storm (Source: Animatrix (2003))

At the Precipice…

Source: Imageshack

I once heard that the United Nations had appointed a scientist to be the Official Liaison for Outer Space Affairs. It was said that her job was to be the first contact in the event that an extraterrestrial species tried to make contact with Earth. Basically, she is the person that the aliens want to talk to when they say “Take me to your leader.” While it may seem slightly ridiculous, I thought this was a great idea. You never really know if or when an alien species will attempt to contact us, and if/when they do, it’s best to be ready. And often, as so many science fiction stories and movies like to point out, when the Earth is on the receiving end of an Outer Space visit, it probably means that whoever is coming has far more advanced technologies than we do, which puts us at a very vulnerable position.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the story was somewhat of a hoax. Yes, Dr. Othman is the head of the UN’s Outer Space Affairs division, but extraterrestrial contact is not part of her job description. She mostly handles problems that arise with a stray meteor that could potentially harm the Earth. But with all the publicity that was made when the story first came out, it’s a wonder why the UN didn’t decide to appoint someone to be the first contact for aliens, or at least appoint a group of people. Countries spend so much money on space exploration and yet don’t think very hard about the consequences. What if we do find life on another planet? How are we supposed to go about contacting those life forms in the most peaceful way without any possibility of miscommunications? Plenty of science fiction stories out there cover this topic, and many of them describe what happens when things just go plain wrong.

I for one believe that the first people to make formal contact with an alien species should not be political world leaders (I am a skeptic of politics I admit) but should in fact be the world’s intellectual leaders, the people who are leading the ways in not just space, but life sciences and technologies as well. The rational people who understand that not everything is about who has the most advantageous position in a relationship, but understand that alien contact is something that should be dealt with calmly and professionally in order to bring out the best for both parties involved. This also touches on my thoughts about leadership positions and such, but I that’s for another time.

Professor Barnhardt and Klaatu conversing in the universal languages of Math and Music

A couple of years ago, Hollywood came out with a remake of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I had watched the original when I was really young, so I don’t actually remember much of the plot, other than that it dealt with a giant robot and an alien that was warning the humans about messing with nuclear weapons. But the remake (starring the extremely expressive Keanu Reeves) dealt with issues about the environment and pollution – a more pertinent topic for our generation. The movie didn’t do too well if I remember correctly, I know I didn’t watch it in the theatres, but like many science fiction movies, it still made me think. As usual, the humans didn’t deal with an alien new comer very well, but there is one scene in the movie where Klaatu has a discussion with Professor Bernhardt about Klaatu’s mission to destroy the human race to allow the Earth a chance to recover from the harmful effects of humanity. Professor Bernhardt then tries to convince Klaatu to stop his plan.

Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don’t make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threated with destruction that you became what you are now.
Klaatu: Yes.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.

I found this scene highly intriguing because this was one of the few times I saw such a scene where logic was used to help convince a possible enemy. Here, Professor Barnhardt is asking Klaatu to give the human race a chance to change, because it is only when given the chance at the breaking point that humans find the will to change. Evolution occurs when we are forced to make a decision, where one result is extinction and one result is life. It’s a very interesting topic of discussion. How we only change not when we have been warned countless of times, but when the danger is imminent, in our face, that we force ourselves to actually do something about it, otherwise we end up facing death.

Professor Barnhardt makes a good point, one that I agree with. I really do believe that humans as a whole don’t often change, individuals rarely change, and they only do when faced with some immediate danger or something like that. If you watch the TV show HOUSE, you’ll know that one of Dr. House’s mantras is that “People don’t change” (along with “People always lie” and “It’s not lupus”). Despite how much we want certain things to have a profound impact on us, there’s a good chance it won’t, simply because it wasn’t really up-in-our-face. Also, in Firefly, there was one episode (I don’t remember) where one of the villains says something along the lines of “You can spend your entire life with a person and never really know him until he faces the very brink of death.” It appears that only when faced with impending doom do we actually change, and then afterwards, when the danger is no longer immediate, we once again return to our relaxed selves, forgetting how we felt during that situation that made us drastically change who we were for that period of time. (You can tell I learn a lot of my life lessons from television shows, ah, isn’t our generation great?)

Source: Visboo.com

A recent TED talk also covered this issue to some degree. Paul Gilding’s talk entitled “The Earth is Full” discusses that fact that right now the human race as a whole is living unsustainably, and if we keep up this trend of growth (or even maintain this level of consumption), the system is going to break down, and we’ll all be screwed. And yet, Gilding wonders why nothing has changed? We’ve known the signs of this outcome for over 50 years. We know what will happen if we keep on this trend, and yet here we are, trucking along with barely a hesitation in our step. We’re not even slowing down. Gilding calls on us to stop our denial and realize that this time, we can’t wait for the precipice to evolve, to change, we have to realize it now so that we can prepare to face the precipice with a plan already in mind. Gilding admits that “It takes a good crisis to get us going” but even right now, when there are numerous crises out there, not much has changed, simply because those crises are not affecting us here at home, directly affecting our loved ones. And those that experience direct loss feel that there simply isn’t enough of them to make a change that matters.  But when we look back, thanks to the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we’ll realize just how foolish we’ve been.

“So, in 2012, Mom and Dad, what was it like when you’d had the hottest decade on record for the third decade in a row, when every scientific body in the world was saying you’ve got a major problem, when the oceans were acidifying, when oil and food prices were spiking, when they were rioting in the streets of London and occupying Wall Street? When the system was so clearly breaking down, Mom and Dad, what did you do, what were you thinking?”

-Paul Gilding

Souce: publicintelligence.net

We know all of it was happening, yet we kept going? Why? Well, perhaps we simply do not feel as if this is our precipice, our breaking point. We may not know it yet, but we’re in some pretty monumental times of change. Technology is accelerating at an every increasing rate, country-wide protests are becoming almost the norm, and we are surrounded by warning of drastic environmental problems. Gilding calls on us to realize that even if the threat is not imminent, it is still very much there. But because of this, we aren’t going to change anytime soon. We’re going to keep on going, until the system collapses. Which makes me wonder, at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still (SPOILER…but its predictable, so I don’t feel bad) Klaatu decides to cancel his mission to destroy the human race, even going so far as to sacrifice himself to save them after witnessing that humans actually do possess some – for lack of a better word – ‘good’ in them. But is Klaatu’s sacrifice worth it? By saving the humans from an imminent doom, will the Humans actually change their way of life? Humans are an extremely paradoxical race in my opinion, not just in negative aspects but in positive ones as well. It is that paradoxical nature of hope that fuels us. That despite the fact that we know we will fail, we know we cannot prevent poverty, we know that we cannot end world hunger and disease, we try anyway. We think that just by us actually doing something about it, we will have some sort of affect, that as long as there is some sliver of hope, we will keep going, we will keep fighting, despite the looming shadows and dark clouds above us. It’s what makes for great stories and actions of heroism and the “American Dream,” fighting despite all the odds, being the underdog, simply because we had that small sliver of hope and we took it, knowing full well that we probably would fail.

So will we change? At a point where the danger is not imminent, will we make the decision to change the way of life that we are currently living. To at least stop and wonder, examine, “Why are we doing what we are doing? What does this mean for future generations?” I am depressingly inclined to say no, even with people like Mr. Gilding showing us all the signs. The fact of the matter is that people have been showing us the signs for years, and still nothing changes. But what makes us change? What caused such transitions as the civil rights movement? We can undeniably say something changed after those events, and have remained so to this day. But what caused this permanent change? And why is this change, this change to save our world, so much more difficult? Simply because we are not faced with the imminent threat, I think the change will be all the more difficult, maybe even impossible. We need that imminent threat to make us evolve. I wrote a short story (a very short story) touching up the idea, and hopefully with a lot of free time, I can expand that story even more. But I am sad to say that is what I think.

And yet, just as I had mentioned before, just like all humans, I am a paradox. I still cling to that increasingly small sliver of hope. I know that there’s a very good change that we’re all going to fail. But you know what? I’m going to keep trying anyway. I’m going to make sure that what I do is something that convinces myself that I have an impact. That I at least have the illusions of impacting the way we affect the world, that I matter and I have some form of control. It may be selfish of me, to do something only because it’ll make me feel good at the end, but perhaps that’s what we all need. To convince ourselves that despite all odds, the fact that we are doing something instead of nothing matters. So perhaps the way to make us change isn’t to present a clear threat and crises, but to  make us all understand that the crises will come, and let everyone find their own way to deal with it.

So I’ll end with another brief scene earlier in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Where Klaatu convers with a fellow alien-in-human-form Mr. Wu (in slightly garbled Chinese, but hey, props for trying) about the human race, and whether or not Klaatu should go through with his mission.

Klaatu: You’ve been out of contact for a long time.
Mr. Wu: I had a dangerous assignment. This is hostile territory.
Klaatu: I’ve noticed. I was hoping I could reason with them.
Mr. Wu: I’m afraid they are not a reasonable race. I’ve been living amongst them for seventy years now. I know them well.
Klaatu: And?
Mr. Wu: Any attempt to intercede with them would be futile. They are destructive, and they won’t change.
Klaatu: Is that your official report?
Mr. Wu: The tragedy is, they know what’s going to become of them.
Mr. Wu: They sense it. But they can’t seem to do anything about it.
Mr. Wu: I’m staying.
Klaatu: You can’t stay here.
Mr. Wu: I can and I will.
Klaatu: If you stay, you’ll die.
Mr. Wu: I know. This is my home now.
Klaatu: You yourself called them a destructive race.
Mr. Wu: That’s true. But still, there is another side. You see, I… I love them. It is a very strange thing. I… I… I can’t find a way to explain it to you. For many years I cursed my luck for being sent here. Human life is difficult. But as this life is coming to an end… I consider myself lucky… to have lived it.

So even without an immediate threat, a precipice, to force us to adapt and change will you consider yourself lucky to have lived the life you lived?  Because the threat is very much there, even if we don’t see it.

Game-Changers

Warning: unedited stream of consciousness follows, may be difficult to comprehend.

Skyrim: Yeah, you wouldn't be doing this in Real Life

I don’t know how many of you out there have heard, but a couple weeks ago a highly anticipated video game came out. You may have heard of it: Skyrim. Many of the guys in my dorm pre-ordered a copy and when the video game came out they spent a good portion of their night and early morning playing the game. I watched a few of the game trailers and walkthrough’s on YouTube – I do that a lot with many video games – but I never considered purchasing the game myself. I’ll explain. While I enjoy watching people play video games, I myself am not a fan of playing them. First off, video games these days are pretty expensive, around 50-60 dollars each, which seems like a quite a bit of money to me. Second, video games are time-consuming, and I frankly would rather spend my time doing something a little more productive than leveling up a character inside a metal box. I’ve just never really seen the appeal in sitting in front of a tv screen for hours on end playing a video game that will have no effect in real life other than making you a little more sleep-deprived. I’ve played video games before, but I’ve rarely had the desire to continue playing a game after playing it once or twice if I’m by myself. I occasionally play online computer games or free downloadable games, but I rarely stick with them and only play them for an hour at most when I really need a break from reality. Party games I understand, it’s far more entertaining to be playing games with your friends, but individual games I have a hard time continuing, even if it’s an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game for those of you who don’t know, and don’t get me started on those, monthly fees? bleh). And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate or judge people who play video games or call themselves ”gamers,” I have plenty of friends who play plenty of video games and are quite good at it, I just personally don’t see the appeal (probably cause I’m not very good at them either).

Even as a fan of science fiction and fantasy genres, I don’t find the desire to play video games such as Skyrim. Finishing video games is a tremendous time commitment and can even be dangerously addicting. I appreciate the games like Skyrim for what they are worth, and enjoy learning about the game world and even learning about the stories, but I just don’t consider playing the game myself a priority. It’s kind of odd actually, that I enjoy writing and reading and even watching sci-fi and fantasy stories but I don’t feel the need to actually immerse myself by playing them.

Jane McGonigal at TED

But I came across another TED video (TED videos are really great, consider spending some time on there if you’re bored instead of Facebook) featuring Jane McGonigal (yeah, like the Hogwarts Professor) who is a game developer. But she doesn’t develop ordinary games,  She develops Alternate Reality Games which are games that are “designed to improve real lives or solve real problems.” Now that sounds interesting. Games that can actually have a real impact on the world around us? Sounds like a productive form of gaming, turning video game addictions to something beneficial. I admit I’m pretty skeptical at the thought of ”educational-games” that try to teach kids while being ”fun”. Usually, the games fail to achieve both their goals and I don’t really buy into research that says kids actually learn better in a game-environment. I’ve even been part of a study where I had to play a game that was supposed to teach me about cancer treatment. I played the role of the doctor and I had to diagnose the patient based on an interview in which they told me what symptoms they were experiencing, examine and identify the cancer on a medical image, and then position the lasers correctly to minimize damage to healthy tissue. It was all interesting I guess, but it’s definitely not something I would want to pick up and play on my own, and honestly, I don’t think I left that room any wiser or smarter. But the idea is nevertheless, different and a lot of research has been done on it, so it must have some sort of effect. I know strategy and simulation games certainly have benefits (Starcraft 2 is being called the next “chess”), but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

McGonigal explains how she wishes to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in gaming and apply it to the solving real problems instead of just virtual ones. I think this idea is really cool. I’ve occasionally made jokes in reality that relate to video games like “level up!” or “___ joined the party!” and I think that actually constructing games that award people for completing ”quests” in real life would motivate a lot more people – especially the hardcore gaming community – to contribute to society. But blending the virtual and real can be just as – if not more – dangerous than addictive gaming.

McGonigal’s ARG games follow similar trends. They are all real-time event-based, meaning that the games only last for a certain number of weeks, with each week bringing a new mission. Therefore, all the games she has made are over now, the most recent one being EVOKE, a game funded in part by the World Bank Institute. Upon completion, participants are even granted Social Innovator Class of 2010 status by the WBI, which sounds really official. From what I can tell, the games feature videos that brief players around the world about missions and instructions, and then for a given time-span, players create and share ideas and conduct research on the real-world problem (like world hunger, disaster relief, overpopulation, oil shortage). I’m not too clear how it goes from there, but I think players are then supposed to actually implement their ideas in the real world, but I haven’t seen any actual documentation of that. I have to admit the the instructions to these games aren’t the clearest, so I’m kind of at a loss at how exactly these games are supposed to be played, but from what I can tell, they certainly generate neat ideas.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

But generating neat ideas aren’t enough of course, people actually have to implement them. And while I think it’s great that games like these encourage people to help solve world problems, I still don’t think these are actually ”real” games that would attract the hardcore gaming crowd – people that play Skyrim for instance. The problem with these kinds of games, games that encourage alternatives from sitting behind a computer all day, is that players usually play video games so they don’t have to be active, they would much rather sit then go outside and implement a project. Sure, some people might find it interesting, but for the serious players, the ones that actually train day and night to improve their gaming, skills, they’d much rather play a visually stunning, well-written video game then a game that tries to do the same but has an obvious educational aspect. Once a game brands itself as an educational game, it loses the attention of hardcore gamers. I think gamers don’t want to be told that they are learning something educational or relevant to the real-world, after all they are playing to escape from the real world and use their brain to learn about math or science.  But that doesn’t mean gamers aren’t learning. A well-written game could certainly prompt creative thought and discussion. Many games these days deal with deep philosophical questions dealing with life, power and even love. It’s just that their primary intent is not to be educated, but simply to be entertained, and have a say in the direction of the entertainment.

Anyone remember her?

Therefore, in order to attract more of the gaming community into games that actually have beneficial real-world impacts and foster creativity, innovation and social responsibility, I think the games should contain the following things:

  • Education should not be explicitly stated as a goal: I know, this seems like it’d be lying, and in a way I guess it kind of is. You have to trick your audience into playing the game by having the game appear as any other game would do, with no do-gooder intentions that could turn people off to the game. In a way you are trying to get people to do the right choices, for the wrong motivations (the advance in the game rather than for the good of society) but hopefully a good enough game will have a large enough impact that gamers will realize the benefits of doing those actions without the game rewards. The game may have educational aspects, but it shouldn’t be stated to the players, it’ll feel like you’re forcing certain ideas on them. If you want to attract the gamers that play World of Warcraft or Skyrim, or even Starcraft and Minecraft, you’re going to have to attract them the same way all the other gaming companies do. This means stressing an interesting story line, innovative game features, and stunning visuals.
  • Don’t Teach, Play: This goes with the above point. Many problems with educational games is they just throw a load of information about a certain topic at you, and then you have to “play” the game (which usually results in just quizzes or something of the sort). Players don’t want to sit there reading a bunch of text, if given the chance, they will simply skip ahead, and then the game has lost its purpose. If you want to teach or get a point across, do it in a way that is engaging. Better yet, don’t teach, but encourage the players to come up with the ideas and get them enthused to learn about the topics themselves.
  • Encourage MMO-style games: In real life, you’re going to have to talk and interact with other people, and social skills are an important skill to have. While there have been some problems with MMO games in which players interact harshly and rudely to each other because they can hide behind anonymity, MMO games encourage interactions and teamwork. Social responsibility is a responsibility to the community, so having games that encourage interactions is important, and if you can find some way to get people to interact and collaborate  in real-life as well (which can also be potentially dangerous), starting online is the easiest way for people to get in touch and share ideas. To avoid the potential stranger-danger, have the game encourage groups of friends to actually physically meet up when playing, perhaps there is some bonus?
  • Interesting Story: I know, I mentioned this at the end of the first point, but I really think it’s important. The story and premise of the game is often the selling point, and even more so for a game with intentions of solving real-life problems, education and inspiring creativity and life-style changes. The story has to make sense and weave in these elements seamlessly so that players won’t question the reasoning behind them. If the goal is simply to “recycle 20 cardboard boxes” without any justification, the player is going to see right through the ploy and realize that the game is just trying to manipulate them to recycle more. The Quality of the game needs to be excellent.
  • Incorporate both real-life actions and on-line actions: McGonigal’s games do this for the most part. The idea is to have a game that allows gamers to sit behind a computer and do what they do best (although her games often require research and writing, which gamers aren’t always fond of) while also requiring the gamer to go outside and do something active and beneficial to the game’s progress. That way, there is a sense of balance that won’t throw traditional gamers out of their comfort zone too quickly. This also include incorporating real-life elements with virtual elements. For instance, if they succeed in an online portion of the quest, give them a gift certificate to a environmentally-friendly restaurant, or if they volunteer at a local animal shelter, they can receive the virtual code for a limited edition item in game.

Yay, Fun! Does anyone else feel cramped?

Well, those are just some of my ideas that I have on the matter. I have some more thoughts and points, but they would require a lot more writing and probably some research to back up my claims. Also, my writing is atrocious, I’ll be surprised if anyone can follow it. I think ARG gaming is a really intriguing topic and method to get our technology-dependent society to do something beneficial, but I also think there is plenty of room for improvement. I’m really interested in participating in one of these games myself and I”ll be keeping a lookout for EVOKE season 2. Games at their worst can be isolating, addicting, unhealthy, destructive and a way to avoid real-world problems. Games at their best can promote community and teamwork, inspire innovation and creativity, promote socially responsible and healthy ideas, and solve real-world problems. Perhaps people can change the world with Games. But until then, I probably still won’t be playing or purchasing any video games, there’s just simply so many things I should be doing. Like studying tomorrow.

EDIT: Here’s an interview of Jane McGonigal with Stephen Colbert on his show, it’s short but succinctly addresses both the positive and negative of video games (with Colbert playing somewhat as the Devil’s Advocate).

Do We Need Another Earth?

What would be the first thing you’d say if you met yourself?

Questions like this are posed in Another Earth, an Independent film that won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance Film festival a year or two ago.  I won’t go deeply into the summary of the story (you can watch the trailer here, I’ve realized I’ve been posting way too many Youtube videos), but it’s basically about a young woman who attempts to befriend the man whose family she had killed in a drunk driving accident. Meanwhile, Earth 2, an identical planet has been discovered behind the moon that contains a duplicate population like the one here on Earth. Sound bizarre right? But the movie doesn’t really focus on the sci-fi aspect of it, instead it focuses on the internal struggle of Rhoda and her relationship with John. The double Earth situation is used as a metaphor and jumping point for the movie to explore deep philosophical discussions on the nature of “what is the self?” and finding forgiveness. It’s quite an interesting movie for those people interested in drama and philosophy with a dash of the fantastical. All the talk about doubles and alternate selves/realities reminded me of a discussion I had in my writing seminar. We discussed an essay by Freud in which he explains that our consciousness is basically an internal alternate form of ourselves, able to make judgments on our own actions by viewing our own selves from the outside (I’ve realized when talking about this movie and topic, one will use the word ”self” many, many times).

And while I’d love to spend hours (ok, maybe just two) discussing  the nature of the ”self” and what truly makes one person different from another,  I wanted to touch on another aspect of the film, the science fiction aspect: space travel. Interestingly enough, Another Earth originally was inspired by the science-fiction aspect of the story – the question “what would it be like to see yourself?”” But there is also a strong theme of space exploration. Rhoda originally wanted to be an astrophysicist, there are numerous scenes with planetary symbols or dialogue dealing with space travel and astronomy, and well…it’s Another Earth. In an interview, Brit Marling – the lead actress and co-writer of the film – said this:

”  … I think it’s a really sad thing that we’ve closed the shuttle program and I think that’s a symptom of something larger that’s happening, which is that we’re not like looking outward anymore. We’ve become so deeply inward, everything in our culture is like me, me, me, me, me, me, me. I think there’s something deeply alienating and sad about that. I think people want to feel, they want to connect, they want to explore the unknown, they want to reach out for more and I hope that this movie gives them some sense of that. I hope this movie makes people demand that we continue our space travel, because it doesn’t really matter what we find in our lifetime but the search in and of itself means something and to not search … what is it about not searching that’s so –”

While I agree with some points Ms. Marling made – mainly that our culture is very narcisitic – I also have a different opinion on space travel. I’m not a fan of the space exploration program to be honest. I think NASA, while very cool, is also somewhat of a waste of resources. I somewhat understand the original need for it, to beat the Russians and gather information about space. And space traveling technologies have brought us satellites and such. But it takes quite a bit of money to launch people and satellites into space, and  for what purpose? To say that we were first? To advance technologies? To find out if we are not alone? And then what? What if we discover life on another planet, what will we do? Will we attempt to make peaceful contact with them? Will interplanetary war eventually break out? I understand the human need to want to know more, to continually search, but frankly, there’s still a lot about the world we live in that we still don’t know a whole lot about. Our oceans for instance, we’ve barely penetrated the surface of the deepest oceans and we’re still finding weird creatures that live down there where no light can penetrate. If you want a whole world, just look under your feet, it costs somewhat less to get there too. While I am in support for peaceful contact with alien species and all, I think the main priority right now should be making sure the world we live on right now is taken care of, and understanding more about this world, cause so far, this is the only one we got right now.

Which leads me to my next point. My water treatment design Professor is not a fan of the NASA program, and I guess some of his opinion rubbed off on me. NASA’s goals, as presented on their website, include “…designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars.” And while I support NASA’s research in more efficient and safer aeronautical travel, their mission for exploration is somewhat discouraging. Bascially NASA’s goal is to get people on different planets, hopefully planets that can sustain more life. Why? Well, I guess no one’s gonna say it, but in the event that we screw this world up so bad that the resources are depleted, we’ll have to move to a different planet in order to survive. It’s a pretty typical sci-if scenario, humans leaving earth in search of a new home. My professor likened this practice to the traditional slash-and-burn technique that small tribes use or used. Basically a tribe would cut down all the trees in an area and burn them down in order to create the fields. The ash fertilizes the soil and the people begin using the field for farming. After all the good soil is used up, they move on to a new land to let the used up land have a change to replenish (which can take decades). For a small group of people, this agricultural technique works…as long as you  have a large ratio of land to people, but becomes pretty unsustainable as the population grows since people would be using up resources faster than they could replenish them. That’s basically what the human approach to Earth is at the moment, or at least, through NASA. We are allowed to use up all the resources and then just move on to a new planet. But we don’t have a new planet yet, so I think we better keep our hands on this one, trying to find new planets may be beneficial in the knowledge aspect of it all, at least we know there’s life out there, but what does that mean for civilization in terms of progress?

I also don’t think space exploration is the only way humans can explore the unknown and reach out for a sense of of how small we really are in this universe. It certainly is one of the easiest ways though, just look up into the night sky and you’ll realize just how small and insignificant we really are compared to huge stars and celestial bodies. Nature here on earth can make us feel pretty small, there are some pretty huge mountains out there, as well as large expanses of oceans. And while I think it’s important we look outward as a species, I think the inward look is also not enough. I don’t mean looking at ourselves in a narcissistic way as the center of the universe, but I mean looking at ourselves reflectively, to contemplate who we are, a form of meditation if you will. Understanding why we do certain things is a pretty important step in order to change. I think the movie touched on the relationship between the self and selfishness pretty well, it certainly made me start thinking about it. Finally, Ms. Marling concludes:

“”…I think it’s going against our humanity and I think that’s what it means to be human, to question to wonder who we are and why we’re doing it and the exploration of space, the shuttle program is just a literal manifestation of that and I think we have to keep looking.””

And I totally agree with her. Humanity has a need to continually search, to question, to try to understand. But there’s so much here on Earth that we can explore, and after we learn all we can on Earth, then I suppose it’s ok to look farther. I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing NASA, cause I think space exploration is cool stuff, just maybe not what we need at the moment, and space exploration is not the only avenue to express our innate curiosity to know. We can certainly search here on Earth, and through it benefit not only humanity, but nature.