Reflection VIII: «Cognitive exercise»

My thoughts have been swirling around for weeks now; thinking about what and how to write about the previous week. I’ve thought about several angles I can approach from, made some mental notes, and some written down. The week I want to write about now was the last one with video games as the subject. Continuing with serious games and doing some ‘field work’ trying to experience the whole aspect of empathy in games, as I wrote about in the previous post.

My game of choice was Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; a game with a strong focus on mental health, or lack thereof.  Following the character Senua in her quest to rescue her lover’s soul in Helheim; the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Senua has been struggling with her mental health most of her life, the same as her mother, and this is built in to the gameplay; trying to give the player some sense of what it’s like to undergo psychosis. This is a crucial part of the whole quest for an empathic video game – is it able to trigger a response in the player? Based on consumer reviews and feedback, it has done a great job in doing so. I’ve felt some of it too, the intense feeling of wanting to breakdown and quit, or simply pause the game, when they combine stressful puzzles and negative voices talking from every angle. With that, I can relate somewhat to people having similar experiences every day.

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Screenshot 2018.04.23 -

However, due to strict linear design of the game, I’m often reminded of the fact that I’m playing a game and it breaks with the immersiveness, like the mechanics of walking or jumping over a stone.
Most games include some level of guidance in how to play it, but not this one. You’re thrown right into it, and It’s both refreshing and somewhat bothering that I had to open the menu to find out what your character (Senua) can do in-game, because the screen is stripped of any HUDs (head-up display).

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Screenshot 2018.04.23 -

I still believe in the value of video games and digital art in general in conveying empathy, compassion and morals. I recently heard a phrase that I really like: “smelling salts for morality”. Said in one of my favorite podcasts, Very Bad Wizards. In an episode where they talked about their favorite movies about empathy – I’ll link it at the end.

Serious games can be so much more than simply trying to trigger some empathic reaction in the player. I’ve also learned about Dr. Adam Gazzaley’s work on improving the brain with video games. He’s now working on getting them FDA approved for medical use. I’m really fascinated about how a video game can be built to trigger just the right parts of the brain with an accuracy that’s out of reach with traditional medication – without the side effects of course. He spoke about his research in detail with Kevin Rose on his podcast, linked bellow as well.

The use of technology in education have grown quite a lot in the recent years and with any change, skepticism follows. How will simple games on a tablet affect children in the long run? Are there any benefits with digital tools versus traditional books and paper? I believe that with anything, there are pros and cons, and people respond differently to stimulation. I’ve written in the past about how I see myself as someone thinking in visual terms, and in the same way, I learn best with visual guidance; I think that a lot of people are in the same boat. Pushing us through tough material with the traditional techniques can be catastrophic and may help young people to lose motivation and end up quitting school. I love science, but I’m terrible with numbers. I can see and understand the logic in physics if presented with graphics, but I hit the wall when trying to figure out the actual formulas. I do believe that gamification of the hard sciences would’ve benefitted me in school – at least a combination of games and paper. There’s an old principle in web design called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) where you got a split screen in the software (e.g. Adobe Dreamweaver) with hard code on one side and the result on the other. Purist would laugh at it, but it helps a lot of people to learn coding. Raw coding is equivalent to math in my mind, so I often rely on software to help, or just edit existing code to tweak.

The blog for next week is about electronic literature, but before that, I’d like to finish this post up with sort of a bridge between serious games and interactive fiction. It’s a new game (2014) that I’ve played called The Talos Principle. It’s been described as a narrative-based puzzle game with a philosophical storyline. You play as a robot with artificial intelligence in a seemingly virtual world, solving puzzles built by your maker, Elohim. Computer terminals are placed here and there in the world, and gives you a glimpse of the outside world, the personal logs, emails, chats made by the creators of the simulation. You also read outtakes from Greek and Egyptian mythology, while contemplating existential questions and talk to the, presumably, artificial intelligence residing in the computer library system. Sparing on philosophical questions – like what is consciousness?

The Talos Principle Screenshot 2018.04.25 -
I’m referring to interactive fiction due to the number of responses you can give to the computer and how it shapes the responses and progress in the storyline.

The Talos Principle Screenshot 2018.04.27 -


My final thoughts for now is that serious games are important and can help a lot of people, but must be created by skilled people if they’re to be used in education, replacing or adding to existing methods. I end with an amazing part of The Talos Principle, a transcript of a voice recording from within the game, and as a part of the narrative.

“The answer that came to me again and again was play. Every human society in recorded history has games. We don’t just solve problems out of necessity. We do it for fun. Even as adults. Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope and they will unravel it; Leave a human being alone with blocks, and they will build something. Games are part of what makes us human. We see the world as a mystery, a puzzle, because we’ve always been a species of problem-solvers.”
From time capsule #02, Alexandra Drennan, Project Lead / AI Module, Institute for Applied Noematics, The Talos Prinsiple

Very Bad Wizards: Smelling Salts for Morality: Our Top 3 Movies About Empathy (with Paul Bloom) 

Kevin Rose: #22 – Adam Gazzaley M.D. / Ph.D – Improving your brain with medically prescribable video games


Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline?


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