Breaking News: Fun Games are Relaxing

April 29th, 2008

PopCap, developer and publisher of casual hit games such as Bejeweled, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures, have funded a study that shows that playing casual games relieves stress and improves your mood. Maybe I’m just a tad cynical, but my initial response to that is a raised eyebrow and a “no excrement” look on my face. I’m not really surprised that playing a cute casual game results in joy and less stress. Isn’t that pretty much the whole point?

And wait a second… This study was funded by PopCap? Hm… If I were a bit more cynical I would almost suspect that the study is intended to point out the obvious, and that they’re doing this purely for PR reasons. Especially since the games mentioned are - wait for it - Bejeweled 2, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures. But that couldn’t be the case, could it?

Also, I really don’t think there’s enough data present in the press release or in the slides accompanying it. It’s little things, like the following snippet:

In all cases, the changes in stress levels and mood were measured in comparison to a control group that experienced a Web-based activity similar in physical and mental nature to the game-playing groups.

Exactly what Web-based activity was this? And how can they assert that it’s similar in physical and mental nature? A similar mental nature would be something intended to stimulate positively, like…um…a game. Which would mean that they played a web game instead of a downloadable game? And how exactly are they confirming that the physical natures are the same? Playing a game is a much more involved experience for me than just, for example, browsing the net; even if they per definition both involve moving the mouse and sitting on my ass, the physical experiences are subtly different.

But seriously, the study was interesting and confirmed my intuitive belief that games help me relax. And there’s probably loads more information in the actual paper for those who wish to check up details about the study. That wouldn’t be me, though – I prefer to complain.

Either way, go casual games for making us all relaxed and happy! Now I feel like playing some Magic Farm.

Encyclopedia of Life

February 27th, 2008

Lately all of my updates have been about Spandex Force. Trust me, I could write a ton more on what’s happening with the game but today I’m just going to give you a quick link: Check out the Encyclopedia of Life project!

It’s an amazing attempt to catalogue the 1,8 million know species on the planet…and to add new ones as they are discovered. Here are some example pages of how it will look. There are two things that immediately strike me about this:

  1. This looks like a lot of fun. Seriously, it looks awesome! I’ve mentioned my fascination with Wikipedia and how I can look up esoteric topics for hours on end…and I can definitely see myself doing the same on this site. As a kid I used to read books about nature, and I spent countless days browsing my mom’s library of books on sharks and reptiles and mammals and fungi and whatnot. This site will probably be the same for the next generation of nerds.
  2. Listening to the-end-is-nigh environmentalists you get the impression that the world will end in a few decades. I googled for “extinct species per year” just now and found a page that claimed that 30000 species become extinct per year. I have no idea if that figure is correct, but if it is, negative people are probably saying things like “there’ll be no species left in 60 years!” Of course, they’re probably missing the fact that new species also emerge constantly. Either way, the thing is that if species are dropping and emerging at that rate, then it’ll be rather difficult to maintain this collection of species. 30000 per year means that someone will have to write a big red “EXTINCT” on 82 pages per day. I’m guessing that the 30000 species per year is either wildly exaggerated…or that the 1,8 million named species mentioned on EOL refer to a relatively stable core of species. Hey, I have no idea how many non-named species there are, after all!

Oh, and buy Spandex Force unless you’ve already done so! If you have you’ll be getting an update soonish; testing is still in progress.

Sudoku, Benjamin Franklin and Mathematical Puzzles

January 27th, 2008

Mathematics is not one of my strengths; if I put my mind to it I can get by,  but I lack the discipline to become skilled at it. I’ve read some calculus and algebra and combinatorics and statistics and whatnot, but in general I’ve just taken some courses only to forget everything I’ve learned shortly afterwards. The only maths I use regularly, except for simple arithmetic, is trigonometry. (It’s quite useful for 2D games.)

Logic is a completely different matter though. My job as a software developer at a Large Multi-National Corporation(TM) demands that I keep many of my skills sharp: the ability to juggle many ideas and projects, the ability to deal professionally and courteously with customers, and the ability to drink copious amounts of tea. Oh, and let’s not forget the ability to actually write code. Many non-programmers seem to think that maths is necessary for programmers, but in reality it’s logic that’s in high demand.

Speaking of skills at work, another thing that I tend to do there is solve sudokus. I find great comfort in spending my lunch breaks listening to the ongoing conversations while I solve a sudoku and – if something interesting pops up – add something to the discussion. Solving a sudoku is relaxing; you know that it’s solvable as long as you apply some logic, so you can take your mind off the possibly-unsolvable problems facing you in real life. At one time I did many sudokus per day, but now I limit myself to at most one for the sheer pleasure of it. A friend of mine mentioned that sudokus can be used to measure stress as well: if you find yourself taking too long on a standard sudoku, it might be an indication that you’re too stressed to think straight at the moment. True enough, but I find that if I’m too excited about something it also makes it hard to concentrate on the problem at hand. But then again, I suppose that that could be classed as stress as well, albeit of the positive kind.

Incidentally, speaking of sudokus, did you know that Benjamin Franklin used to amuse himself with mathematical puzzles similar in principle to sudokus when he was not busying himself with inventing just about everything you could imagine? Read the article and be amazed at the 16-by-16 magic square with bent rows that Franklin devised. You know about the magic square, where each line has to add up to 15? This is a magic square where each line has to add up to 2056. And all the coloured areas also have to add up to 2056. I’m just shaking my head at the complexity of the puzzle.

Read the article above to see more puzzles.

At one time I was pondering if I could devise a meta-puzzle game, where each puzzle mechanism would be unique, and one part of the problem would actually be to figure out the rules themselves. I started examining the sudoku to get inspiration, and quickly decided that it’s above my current skill to actually bring that idea to life. The idea is seductively simple: create a formal definition of the sudoku, and then expand that definition to encompass other mathematical puzzles. After you have created a suitable grammar of mathematics puzzles, you simply create a generator for new exciting puzzles. But in reality, this is much too complex for a layman in mathematics.

However, after having read about Franklin’s exploits in the puzzle domain, I wonder if this would have been something he would have enjoyed to create.

Glowing Pigs and Genetic Manipulation

January 11th, 2008

This has to bee the coolest thing ever: a cloned pig has had its genes altered to make it glow fluorescently green! And the fun doesn’t stop there – the manipulated pig has also bred piglets that also glow in the dark. In other words, the specialized genes have been transferred to the next generation without any external intervention.

Glowing pigs!

Robin Lovell-Badge, a genetics expert at Britain’s National Institute for Medical Research, thinks that this technology could potentially be very valuable for growing organs for transplants. Personally I couldn’t care less about that: I’m just waiting for the day we get glowing pork chops! Think of the fun!

Speaking of genetic manipulation I’ll have to mention my new game project, with the working title Wildhollow: in the game you’ll get to combine mad scientist desires with cute fluffy animals. The design isn’t done yet, but the current vision is that you’ve inherited a farm and your task is to bring the farm around from near-bancrupcy. How? By breeding animals; and in particular, by cross-breeding animals and applying mutagens to create new types of beasts!

Of course… The game won’t mention either the word genetics or mutation. It’ll all be covered up by politically correct terms like “breed your animals and discover strange new creatures.”

Stay tuned for more information next month; first I have to complete Spandex Force!

The Dangers of a Little Knowledge

December 3rd, 2007

This weekend I saw a 2006 movie called The Black Hole. It stars no one I have ever heard of, the acting was appalling, and it had one of the worst storylines I have ever had the misfortune to endure. The IMDB rating is 3.1, but despite all my negative comments I think they’re a little bit harsh on the poor flick: it was entertaining after all!

First, let’s go through some basic physics. A black hole is a point in space where the gravitational field is so dense that nothing can escape it. Not even electromagnetic radiation such as light. So far so good – the movie described black holes pretty well, and even fit in a nice comment about why they’re called black holes. (Hint: see the previous sentence.) But then things got worse. Let’s see if I can offer a brief synopsis of the movie.

An experiment in a particle accelerator in St. Louis results in the unfortunate creation of a microscopic black hole. From this black hole, an energy-eating creature emerges and starts to gobble up all our precious electricity. Meanwhile, the black hole starts to consume first the research facility, and then most of the city. For no apparent reason the President decides that a nuclear strike will make things better, despite what an expert on black holes says. Aforementioned expert presents his theory that the energy creature is connected to the black hole, and that if the creature is sent back through the hole, both of them will disappear. After some difficulty this is exactly what’s done…and all ends well.

Oookay. Now… Let’s see where to begin.

The movie mentions that in 1999 scientists foolishly disregarded the possibility of a black hole’s creation. This refers to the disaster scenarios presented before building the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, in which they summarize the threat with the following comment:

We conclude that there are no credible mechanisms for catastrophic scenarios at RHIC

Those foolish scientists! Don’t they see the dangers of microscopic black holes, prophecied by the movie?! Well, no. As far as I know, black holes aren’t stable while they’re small; it’s speculated that they leak Hawking radiation, and if the black hole is smaller than, say, a great mountain chances are it will evaporate with time.

Then we have the small detail of the energy creature emerging from the black hole. Dude. The movie’s plot would be completely acceptable if it just contained the black hole! It would have been a more decent disaster movie, and it wouldn’t have flaunted its ignorance like it does now. Why not leave it at a black hole? Why invent an energy creature that shouldn’t be able to travel through black holes (since…well…nothing escapes)? And why invent some story about closing the hole by shoving the creature back through it. What the hell? If we accept the idea that the creature consists of some Mystical Energy(TM) that’s unknown to us, and that the presence of that energy can neutralize the gravity field of a black hole, then why in the lower blazes didn’t the black hole get neutralized when the creature passed through the first time? I could have accepted some strange speculation about Mystical Energy, and how the creation of a black hole results in the creation of this Mystical Energy Creature and it’s gravity-neutralizing effects…but the scientist in the movie mentions how the creature travels through black holes to new parts of time and space in order to eat more energy.

(But of course, if we start to accept Mystical Energy creatures, we must start to accept other strange possibilities. Like, maybe they can be Mystically Positive or Mystically Negative, and when they’re positive they can generate black holes, and when they’re negative they close them. The act of travelling through the hole would then cause the Mystical Energy creature to switch polarity. So… Let’s just disregard the whole Mystical Energy idea completely.)

Watching The Black Hole is a little surreal. It not only contains (*cough*) questionable science, but the acting, the script, and the rest of the movie makes just as little sense. Why would anyone suggest deploying nuclear weapons against a black hole? What would they hope to achieve? I would assume that even a little kid knows what a black hole is – not to mention the President of the USA and his generals!

Still, despite all its bad points, the movie was strangely amusing and entertaining. And it does bring up some interesting things: the script writers were familiar with the debate about the RHIC, and when they designed a creature they chose an energy being…which is the only reasonable choice, since all matter would have gotten torn apart by the gravity of the black hole. Sure, energy can’t escape either, but given the choice between “look, a warrior serpent emerged intact from the black hole” and “look, a weird energy life form emerged” I choose the latter. Still, it would have been nice if the script writers had chosen a subject closer at hand. This is the dangers of possessing just a little knowledge: if you don’t know anything about a subject you probably wouldn’t take the task upon you, but if you have a little knowledge you arrogantly believe that you know enough to get the work done.

(Disclaimer: I’m a programmer, not a physicist. Nothing said above is guaranteed to contain a shred of truth. I hope the irony is quite visible for everyone.)