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Games Grow Your Brain

Are video games good for you?

A new study concludes - maybe.

Richard Haier, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine, studied a group of girls who played the puzzle game Tetris for three months, and found "changes in regional cortal thickness."

More here, from the Abstract:


Neuro-imaging studies demonstrate plasticity of cortical gray matter before and after practice for some motor and cognitive tasks in adults. Other imaging studies show functional changes after practice, but there is not yet direct evidence of how structural and functional changes may be related. A fundamental question is whether they occur at the same cortical sites, adjacent sites, or sites in other parts of a network.


Using a 3T MRI, we obtained structural and functional images in adolescent girls before and after practice on a visual-spatial problem-solving computer game, Tetris. After three months of practice, compared to the structural scans of controls, the group with Tetris practice showed thicker cortex, primarily in two areas: left BAs 6 and 22/38. Based on fMRI BOLD signals, the Tetris group showed cortical activations throughout the brain while playing Tetris, but significant BOLD decreases, mostly in frontal areas, were observed after practice. None of these BOLD decreases, however, overlapped with the cortical thickness changes.


Regional cortical thickness changes were observed after three months of Tetris practice. Over the same period, brain activity decreases were observed in several other areas. These data indicate that structural change in one brain area does not necessarily result in functional change in the same location, at least on the levels assessed with these MRI methods.

Sony's 3D Game

Sony announced this week that it will be releasing 3D television sets by the end of next year.

CEO Howard Stringer said, "“3D is clearly on its way to the mass market. As with high-definition a few years back, there are a variety of issues yet to be addressed. But the 3D train is on the track and we at Sony are ready to drive it home.”

3D, obviously, isn't new, and there have been many attempts at 3D games in the past.  So the bigger question here is - how good will the games be?   It'll be interesting to see how Sony - and third party developers - approach this.   At the same time, Microsoft is preparing to release Project Natal, a game-changing motion capture camera.  So...2010 is shaping up to be a compelling year for electronic entertainment, and could redefine what videogames can be.

(Garage) Rock Band

This month, I have a cover story in Spectrum magazine about the making of the upcoming videogame, The Beatles:  Rock Band.

But in addition to transforming the Fab Four into a videogame, the makers at Harmonix are serving up something for the unknown rockers - the Rock Band Network.  As Harmonix vice president of product development Greg LoPiccolo tells Gamespot, the company will be debuting this means through which artists can get their own songs onto the Rock Band platform.

"We have a PC tool called Magma that you download from the site, and once all of your multitrack stems and MIDI files are complete, you load them into the Magma tool, which does error checking and tells you if you've got viable stuff. Then you use Magma to transfer it into your Xbox 360, where you can audition it. So you basically play-test your own song until you're happy with it," LoPicollo tells Gamespot, "Once it's fully polished, you log on and upload it to, where all the other Creators Club folks can download it and evaluate it. It's a play test and review process where people in the closed forums can give you feedback about your song, whether it was fun, too difficult, or so forth. Then you submit it for formal peer review, which is the second phase of play test. It's more technically oriented, where people are checking for copyright infringement and profanity and technical completeness. Once it passes that, which is sort of an automated process, it gets automatically dropped into the Rock Band Network Store and people can go buy it"


Wii TV

Back when Microsoft first launched the Xbox, word was that the platform was just a trojan horse for getting into the living room - and owning it as a multimedia hub.

Now that gamers are watching movies and surfing the Web via the game systems, the future is now.

And Nintendo is on board.

Here's a bit of news about a service called PlayOn which expands your viewing options for the Wii:

"We are excited to announce that PlayOn officially supports the Nintendo Wii -- in Beta. That means the almost 25 million Wii owners can watch Hulu, Netflix, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Amazon VOD, YouTube, AdultSwim, Crackle and much more on their TV, from their couch, using their Wii Remote."

Videogames for the Blind

Interesting story today on Gamespot.   It covers a little-known gaming culture - videogames made by and for the blind.   

Several years ago, I wrote a story about Shades of Doom - a variation of the popular first person shooter made by a blind gamer named David Greenwood.  Greenwood coded what are essentially text-based games (in the vein of the classic Colossal Cave Adventure) but with audio cues.  His first game, Lone Wolf, was a submarine simulation.  To play, gamers typed out commands on their keyboards as they listend to a sub race through missions. Instead of looking through a periscope, say, a player would press the letter P on the keyboard and hear an audio-reading of what he saw outside.

Lone Wolf sold a few hundred copies, and Greenwood later worked with an online community of blind gamers, Audyssey, to co-develop a Doom-look shooter, using a similar methodology as Lone Wolf.  You can still find a copy of the game here.

Wolfenstein Rises Again

I just got my copy of the new Wolfenstein game.   Hard to believe it's been 17 (!) years since Wolfenstein 3D, the classic first person shooter from id Software (that game, of course, was based on the classic Apple II hit, Castle Wolfenstein). 

I haven't had a chance to dig into the new game yet, but it did get me thinking about how much game development has changed in the two decades.  When Wolf3D came out, it was the essence of garage band gaming - a small group of geeks in a small apartment churning out something amazing.  Breakthrough games (LittleBigPlanet, Halo, etc.) are still possible on consoles, but I keep hearing developers moan about the unwieldly size/complexity of game making teams.  Maybe the new world of iPhone apps will usher in second golden age for indie development. 

In the meantime, here's a video that id co-founder John Romero posted, capturing the id "band" in their heyday - coding Doom, the follow-up to Wolf3D, in their new offices in Mesquite, Texas.



CliffyB's Games

The game indsutry always needs some rock star geeks.   And the current one is Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski.  The lead designer of Epic Games is behind the brawny sci-fi shooter Gears of War, one of the fastest sellers ever for the Xbox 360 and a coming film from New Line.  The game, for all its flash, are suitably geek-friendly -  complete with a DIY editing program to create your own levels.  It’s all part of Bleszinski's grand design to put the power back in the machine. “There are a lot of designers who want to quit the blockbuster game thing,” he once told me, “but I’m a go-big-or-go-home big action blood on the screen all hell breaking loose kind of guy.”   And the fanboys who churn out CliffyB YouTube devotionals and t-shirts love him for it.   After all, he’s one of their own:  a bratty kid from the suburbs who grew up dressing like a ninja and coding his own games.  While most game designers are anonymous cogs, CliffyB’s pyrotechnics have made him the most iconic people in the industry - whether including a pulpy chainsaw gun in Gears or paling around with pornstars in a giant white bunny suit. “I want to show the world how rad it is to be a game designer,” he says.

Virtual Worlds For Kids

Virtual worlds for kids are expanding.  Hasbro retrofitted their Littlest Pet Shop line of toys, which has been around since 1995, with a virtual world. Each VIP—Virtual Interactive Pet—has a code in its collar that lets you enter the Littlest Pets site, where you can earn the virtual currency of Kibbles to buy wallpaper or plants for your pet.

Disney has the slightly less derivative Pixie Hollow, a line of “eJewelry” branded with Tinkerbell and the fairies of Neverland. The centerpiece is the Pixie Dust eJewelry Box, which has a USB cord that plugs into your computer. When girls buy a Pixie Friendship eBracelet or Pixie eCharms and wave them in front of the box, and it will unlock items in the Flash-based online world of Pixie Hollow. The charms can also interact with each other: girls can click their fairy bracelets together to trade avatar data. The bracelets will glow to confirm that “fairy friendship” has been made. When girls go home and log on, they’ll find that they also transferred codes granting each of them access to new items.

The Freedom Fight

Matt Lee is one of the Net’s leading young activists, but you won’t find him on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or MySpace. The scruffy 27-year-old forsakes these and other proprietary sites as the campaigns manager of the Free Software Foundation, the grassroots group fighting to remove restrictions from the computer programs we use. The mission: to empower the gamer generation by letting them freely modify and share software, and have access to the code behind the scenes.

Lee preaches the gospel well, because he grew up with it. The free software movement began when legendary hacker Richard Stallman created and disseminated a free operating system called GNU in 1983. Lee, an autodidactic hacker from Manchester, England, heard a calling in Stallman’s message. The once underground online world was exploding mainstream, and with more start-ups dominating the way we communicate and interact, the stakes were on the rise.

After striking up a friendship with Stallman via email, Lee moved to the U.S. to runt the Foundation’s website and take on perhaps its most important task: educating a new generation of computer users who blindly embrace every new online fad. When he’s not organizing protests, Lee travels the world speaking on the new wave of free software alternatives – from social networks to online games.

All You Need Is...Beatles Songs

A list of songs for the upcoming Beatles game, Rock Band, has been released.   Now you can spend your weekend listening to the tunes to prepare for the game:

I Want to Hold Your Hand
I Feel Fine
Day Tripper
Paperback Writer
Don't Let Me Down

Please Please Me (1963)
I Saw Her Standing There
Do You Want to Know a Secret
Twist and Shout

With the Beatles (1963)
I Wanna Be Your Man

A Hard Day's Night (1964)
A Hard Day's Night
Can't Buy Me Love

Beatles For Sale (1964)
Eight Days a Week

Help! (1965)
Ticket to Ride

Rubber Soul (1965)
Drive My Car
I'm Looking Through You
If I Needed Someone

Revolver (1966)
Yellow Submarine
And Your Bird Can Sing

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
With a Little Help from My Friends
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Getting Better
Good Morning Good Morning

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
I Am the Walrus
Hello Goodbye

The Beatles (White Album) (1968)
Dear Prudence
Back in the USSR
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Helter Skelter

Yellow Submarine (1969)
Hey Bulldog

Abbey Road (1969)
Come Together
Octopus's Garden
I Want You (She's so Heavy)
Here Comes the Sun

Let It Be (1970)
Dig a Pony
I Me Mine
I've Got a Feeling
Get Back

Love (2006)
Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows



IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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