Asteroids, Meteors, Meteorites, and Meteoroids! From Sci-Fi to Reality

In this lesson, students will learn to differentiate between asteroids, meteors, meteorites, and meteoroids, they will think about their definitions and representations in science and popular culture, and they will consider ways to go about further explaining these phenomena to an audience through a critical, creative-writing piece.

Battle of the Consoles Part 2

In this lesson, students collaborate to identify the specifications of different next generation video game consoles to determine if the next generation of video game consoles will really be superior to the last generation.

The Science of Google Glass: An introduction to prisms and augmented reality

The unveiling of the Google Glass still seems more sci-fi than reality to many. Like any new technological advancement, we should understand the science behind these futuristic specs and their pending impact on our society.

Google Glass is simply a wearable CPU that includes a camera, mic, speakers and a visual lens called a prism. This prism makes use of the electromagnetic spectrum, focusing on visible light. All light travels as waves, and that wavelength defines the various regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The prism uses a mini projector to transmit light or visuals to your eye’s retina, fovea and optic nerve. This visual layer is projected onto your eye, allowing you to see a digital image layered on top of your actual eye sight.

Some users have complained of eye soreness and a tendency to get headaches coming from their right temple. These symptoms are believed to be related to motion sickness. While there is no evidence of health hazards associated with the use of the Google Glass, some lawmakers are trying to outlaw the use of the glasses while driving, claiming that the additional images being sent to your brain will cause a distraction and can lead to disastrous results.

Naturally, this leads us to more questions than answers. Society will change drastically the more popular and widely used Glass will become. Soon we will need to ask ourselves where do we draw the line between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior with new technology? What will be the new rules? And more importantly, what will be next?

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Female Representation in Video Games: A Real Controversy in a Virtual World

 

Video games exploded in popularity in the early 1980s and there have been female characters in video games ever since. There’s Ms. Pac-man, Princess Peach from the Mario Brothers games, Lara Croft – the list is extensive.

 

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There is an on-going discussion over Lara Croft’s place in our society, some people claim she represents a strong, leading female figure and others argue that she’s just another objectified, overly-sexualized female character.

Games that have featured female characters have gone on to be some of the most successful franchises in the industry. Ms.Pac-Man is the most popular arcade game of all time, selling more than 115,000 gaming machines to arcades around the world. She was made into toys, t-shirts and even a Ms. Pac-Man cereal merchandised in her name.

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Though her name isn’t well known, Princess Peach has been a supporting character in the Mario games. In most of the Mario games the main object of the game is to rescue Princess Peach from the villain Bowser. When Mario succeeds in the rescue, he is rewarded with a kiss.

Tomb Raider debuted in 1996 and it has spawned 14 video games since it first came out. It went on to produce two movies starring Angelina Jolie, which earned over $430,000,000. Lara Croft has been a household name for nearly 20 years. There is an on-going discussion over Lara Croft’s place in our society, some people claim she represents a strong, leading female figure and others argue that she’s just another objectified, overly-sexualized female character.

Such arguments like these, have grown recently in the video gaming community. Some game developers are challenging how females are represented by creating strong leading female characters. These developer’s characters aren’t just a female version of a male characters (like Ms. Pac-Man), weak (like Princess Peach) or sexualized (like Lara Croft). One example is the character Kaitlin who is the main character in the game Gone Home, a realistic dark narrative game. An online group called #GamerGate formed in August 2014 in opposition with these game developers and their new types of games. #GamerGate opposes these more varied roles and content in video games. In one instance, Zoe Quinn, the creator of Depression Quest, a game allowing the player to explore the effects of depression, has been harassed by members of #GamerGate to the point where she and her family have received death threats.
Find out more about these issues in the following lesson and decide where you personally stand and why.

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Breaking Fallout: And Other Ways to Play Video Games Outside the Box

 

Let’s Players, or LP’ers, are video game players who stream their games on Youtube who often try extreme feats to stand out from the pack. One LPer, Kyle “The Weirdist” Hinckley, recently performed an impressive feat: completing Fallout 4 without killing a single person, animal, or robot.

This surprised even the game’s lead designer, who actually did not previously believe that he had made a game that could be beaten entirely without violence. Fallout 4 relies heavily on violence both as a mechanic and a storytelling element.

Mechanically, violence is the most interesting, complicated, and well-developed part of the game, and almost all skills and items improve your character’s ability to kill. From a storytelling point of view, the story relies on violence to enforce the themes of post-apocalyptic social collapse, desperation, and self-interest. The story, about the disappearance of the main character’s son, assumes that the character will kill to get the son back. As a result, many characters in the game must be killed for the story to advance. So how did Hinckley do it?

Turns out, while certain characters must die, the game system makes it possible to manipulatively cause their deaths, without directly killing them. Hinckley used a whole range of strategies to keep killing off his character’s record, making the story about a squeamish master manipulator rather than a post-apocalyptic fighter. This brings up one of the most fascinating differences between written fiction and video games.

The Unique Storytelling of Video Games

In written fiction, the reader experiences only the plot created by the author. In video games, players can experience both the intended narrative, controlled by the game designers, and unintended experiences, controlled by the player. Video game players also exercise creativity, using the game as a tool to create their own new art. How you personally “break” a video game is a good indication of how much your creative mind is suited for making games of your own. In this lesson, students will consider how to break video games in ways that create new experiences. But first, let’s look at the elements of the videogame experience.

Video Game Appreciation 101

Video games have three elements:

  1. Aesthetics: the computer generated graphics, art and music
  2. Narrative: the scripted story elements of the game
  3. Ludology: the mechanics and options available to the player

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Aesthetics and narrative are entirely controlled by the design team, but ludology is not. Designers cannot predict all player actions, only some.

Being Unpredictable

Video game designers tend to envision specific audiences. RPGs like Fallout are sold to an audience of 17-35 year olds that has, statistically, roughly equal numbers of men and women, and that shows a preference for less complicated, high-reward gameplay. RPG players are most motivated by quick candy-like rewards, also known in brain science as Incremental Goal Progress. That little rush when you loot an enemy for a reward is the core of the RPG. When designing the game, therefore, designers try to encourage players to experience the plot by putting more rewards on the plot-heavy paths. For example, in Fallout 4, the designers encourage the player to kill enemies by making killing the easiest way to gain wealth and experience points. The designers can therefore assume most players will be violent, making it easier to cluster the best art and story along the violent path that they know players will take. Hinckley’s experience was so different because he was not playing like a typical RPG player.

Let’s look at some other examples. Racing games all assume that their players want to win, every time. This means they often do not test what happens if players go completely offroad or backwards. By exploring offroad, players not only create their own experiences, but also tend to find a ton of unplanned glitches. Minecraft is designed as a cooperative crafting game; the designer did not predict people would build into the game an elaborate shooter. Most first-person shooters can be turned into ridiculous physics puzzles, as long as the player isn’t interested in a fair and balanced shoot-out.

In the games you play, think about what the designers think you will do. Is it possible to do something different? Can you create an entirely new game by breaking an existing one?

 

Super Smash Physics

Students explore the connection between momentum and mass while examining the physics of the popular video game Super Smash Bros.

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The Science of Why Elders React to (and Love) GTA V

 

 

Grand Theft Auto V is the fifth installment of a popular video game franchise, where players assume the roles of crooks and criminals, advancing their careers and performing illegal activities.  Some of the press surrounding the game has been quite critical, which is understandable given the subject matter, especially when you consider young impressionable minds playing it.  The React Channel filmmakers on YouTube saw an opportunity to explore the nature of play with GTA V, especially with a group of people who may have a strong aversion to this kind of entertainment.

When asked what their opinions were of this notoriously naughty video game, a selection of elderly individuals were quick to negatively judge it, saying they have heard of it and thought it was a bad influence and game overall.  When given the opportunity to play the game for a half an hour, some were curious and eager, while others didn’t have any interest at all.  While playing the game, there were observable, telltale signs that these elderly individuals were actually enjoying themselves! Whether they were actively aware of it or not, there was a noticeable motivation to play, to try out actions in the game (most very violent) and the end result was a recognition from most of them that this was essentially an amusing experience that they might want to try again.

Was this a case of people judging a book by its cover?  Is there a cognitive bias at play?  What were the psychological reasons these elderly individuals had a positive, fun experience playing GTA V?  The elderly generation didn’t grow up playing video games, so they don’t understand them as well as the younger generations.  This may result in negative or suspicious feelings about them.  The same thing happened with new technology that arrived in the 1940s – the television.  Some thought it would ruin kids’ brains if they just stared at a screen all day.  Also, the media loves to push huge generalizations about games and gamers, because it provides tangible reasons for unreasonable, violent behavior.  These superficial reasons to dislike video games in general can be considered a cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input.   An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.  That is why when asked what they think about these kinds of games, the responses are largely similarly negative without any firsthand experience.

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Here are some observations from the video.  The players clearly had the drive to figure out how to get their character to perform the required actions.  Beyond the morally reprehensible behavior, actually functioning in the game the right way was a priority for the players.  Some people were so closed minded that they openly criticized it the whole time. Some of them stopped at stop signs and waited for lights to change even though there are no “real” rules at play in this universe.  Some are completely open to exploring and are excited to be in the environment – and even discover some secret gems about the game that traditional players might overlook.  Nearly all of them got excited to find the ammunition.  It would seem that materialism and freedom are alluring qualities to just about anyone.  There were some real surprises here, mainly the desire across the board to shoot innocent civilians in the game.  The players understood its just a game, but really wanted to shoot em up!

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Many people view games as a safe form of release.  A safe way to experience stress, and to generally, just play.   Perhaps that comes from the stress hormones released during game play – cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).  Playing the game creates a heightened sense of stress and this can actually be an enjoyable experience, especially for those who have never had that kind of “safe stress” experience before.   Why is it fun to play games?  Recent research has found that gaming can be an ideal platform for people to try on different hats and take on a characteristic they would like to have. Giving players the chance to adopt a new identity during the game and acting through that new identity – be it a different gender, hero, villain – can make them feel better about themselves and less negative.

What Grand Theft Auto games provide can be thought of as the essence of play.  What is play if it isn’t breaking reality’s boundaries, taking on a role, experiencing the feelings, emotions, problem solving with a different set of circumstances from our own usual day to day life?  Play in its purest form creates a sense of release through experimentation.  GTA can provide that.  For the elderly people who may not actively take the time to participate in these kinds of activities, it can be a real thrill.

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The Future is Here Pt. 2 of 3: Augmented Reality, Gimmick or Game Changer?

Released in 1999, a scene in David Fincher’s movie Fight Club features the narrator walking through his apartment visualizing products from the IKEA catalog popping up along his walls. The items pop up paired with information about them from the catalog – adding depth to the viewable reality. Today, IKEA has made that brief minute of fiction an actual reality. You can now use an IKEA catalog and your smartphone to visualize how their products would actually fit in your home or office.

IKEA cataloge with a smartphone showing a AR chair.

This new technology is referred to as Augmented Reality or simply AR. It has existed in movies like Robocop, Terminator, Minority Report and Iron Man, for years, but it has only recently found its way into our modern life, with smart devices.

The advance in mobile-device technology has given the world a new digital window to look at our surroundings. Augmented Reality is used in a lot of new advertising, as well as, with translating, construction tools, medical training, military training… the list is endless. Some Augmented Reality uses QR codes, others printed text and still others use real objects like the buildings of a city as a trigger, or marker, for AR objects.

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Augmented Reality augments our viewable realities by adding information, images and depth. Microsoft has developed, what they’re calling, the first untethered augmented reality or holographic computer. They’re looking for innovative people to try out their new technology and come up with new ways to communicate, invent, explore and solve the world’s problems.

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AR is a rapidly expanding technology.  Where is your place in it? Do you currently use it? Is AR surrounding you more than you realize? Do you want to try your hand at creating some of your own AR objects? Explore the limits of AR in this lesson and see what all of the buzz is about!