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10 Amazing Ways Video Games Can Change Your Life

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by JR Minkel

They can save your life, crush your soul, make you a fortune, or even leave you penniless. Here are 10 reasons why video games have more real-world power than you think.

1. They Can Make You a Better Surgeon

The next time you go under the knife, make sure to vet your surgeon's video game skills first. In 2007, researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City reported that people who played video games for at least three hours a week made better surgeons. In a series of hands-on tests that mimicked laparoscopic surgery, gamers made 37 percent fewer errors and were 27 percent faster than non-players. Among the 33 surgeons who participated, skill and experience at video games were better predictors of test performance than years of training or even the number of surgeries they'd previously performed.

The study's results confirmed what Dr. James Rosser, Beth Israel's chief of minimally invasive surgery, had long suspected. A lifelong gamer, Rosser noticed that his non-gaming peers didn't have the same fine motor control with their hands that he did. Now that there's proof to back his theory, Rosser and his colleagues have a good excuse for keeping multiple video game systems close to the operating room and playing them in their downtime. After all, a surgeon's got to stay sharp!

2. They Can Marry You

Men have loved video games for a long time, but we know of only one man who has proven his love with a commitment ceremony.

In November 2009, a Japanese man who goes by the name SAL9000 married Nene Anegasaki, one of three female characters in Love Plus, a video game for the handheld Nintendo DS. He even had a priest there to conduct the ceremony in front of a live audience. SAL9000 had been courting his beloved Nene for a long time; he'd already taken her on vacation to Guam and documented the trip online.

Although the wedding wasn't legally binding, it did highlight the popularity of Love Plus and other dating sims, in which the player—usually a man—woos a number of young women by taking them on virtual dates. In most sims, the game ends when the woman professes her love for the player. Love Plus, however, has taken the concept a step further by advancing the relationship past courtship to physical intimacy. When the virtual girlfriend wants affection, the player can simulate kissing or caressing by touching a stylus pen to the screen. When she wants to hear "I love you," the player speaks the words into the game system's microphone. And while SAL9000 used his wedding ceremony as both a performance-art piece and a lighthearted way to affirm his love for his virtual girlfriend, not all gamers are so self-aware. One Love Plus player reportedly keeps his virtual girlfriend near him while he's sleeping and bathing.

3. They Can Teach You How to Build an Empire

In 1984, a 24-year-old game designer named Will Wright published his first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay. The goal was for players to pilot a helicopter over a series of islands, blowing up factories and bridges while dodging enemy fire. As people advanced to the next level, the factories were programmed to produce more sophisticated weapons—fighter jets, missiles, battleships. Realizing that the design tool he used to program the factories was a game in itself, Wright started experimenting with the concept. The result was a new game called Micropolis. This time, the object was to design a city from the ground up. Players built roads, factories, housing, and other infrastructure, and the game progressed according to the principles of urban planning. If the city grew too quickly, traffic congestion set in. If people didn't have enough places to work, they'd riot.

Major game companies were leery of a game that had no criteria for winning, but Wright met a pair of fellow designers who liked the concept. The three retitled the game SimCity and self-published it in 1989. The results were stunning. SimCity became a smash hit in its first year, spawning several sequels. It also launched the category of "sandbox" games, which focus on exploring a game's possibilities rather than winning or losing. Riding on SimCity's success, Wright became the first superstar of game design. In 2000, he released The Sims, which puts players in control of simulated people. It went on to sell more than 15 million copies, making it the best-selling computer game of all time.

4. They Can Overrun ESPN.com with Unicorns


PC World

When gamers need help from a higher power, they know exactly what buttons to press: up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. The cheat sequence, known as the Konami code, was created by a game programmer named Kazuhisa Hashimoto. In 1985, Hashimoto was trying to adapt the fiendishly difficult Konami game GRADIUS for the Nintendo Entertainment System. To make the game easier to test, he introduced a code that would allow him to start the game fully stocked with weapons. Hashimoto must have leaked the code to someone, because after he used it again while developing the game Contra, entertainment magazines were all atwitter about the trick sequence. When players entered the code in Contra, they went from having three lives to 30 (or nine to 90 with continues), making it possible for average players to win the game in one binge.

The Konami code went on to appear in dozens of games, and it remains a geek touchstone to this day. Until 2009, you could type it into ESPN.com, and the page would fill up with unicorns and rainbows.

5. They Can Make You Crazy Rich

Make no mistake; there's plenty of money to be made playing video games. In the late 1990s, game makers introduced online role-playing games in which thousands, even millions, of online players can vanquish monsters and hunt for treasure while inhabiting virtual worlds. These massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, encourage players to collect gold coins and other in-game money, and then trade them with other players for more powerful weapons, armor, and equipment.

It sounds innocent, but this virtual market made a quick leap to the real world after users realized that they could sell their make-believe valuables on eBay for a profit. The system, known as gold farming, can be quite lucrative. In 2008, one analyst estimated that gold farming was a billion-dollar industry that employed some 400,000 people worldwide. In China, where 80 to 85 percent of gold farmers reside, companies pay gamers low wages to work 10-hour shifts in sweatshop-like conditions. The firms even have call centers set up to handle international clients, with individual operators fielding as many as 100 calls a day.

The system has vexed video game companies, and they aren't the only ones irritated by the emerging market. In Asia, gold farming has become so prevalent that governments are stepping in to regulate the practice. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments have enforced laws concerning virtual currencies due to the growing number of scams and fraudulent acts taking place in gold-farming communities.

6. They Can Teach You About Starting Over


Collectors' Quest

In the early 1980s, Atari was the hottest commodity in the booming video game industry. In 1982, the company grossed $2 billion, thanks in large part to the release of Space Invaders for the home Atari 2600 system. But the following year, everything changed. The company posted losses of more than $500 million, kicking off a two-year slump that nearly killed the young industry.

Although there were many causes for the decline, one of the biggest had to do with a certain lovable alien. It all started when Atari's parent company, Warner, paid more than $20 million to license E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial from Universal Pictures. By the time the contract was signed, Atari had only six weeks to come up with a final product. The end result was a poorly conceived game in which E.T. had to find the pieces of a telephone in order to phone home. As if the storyline weren't dull enough, the game's scavenger hunts were made worse by the fact that many of the pits that E.T. could search through were completely empty. Gamers were left frustrated, and sales were abysmal.

But E.T. wasn't the only dud on the shelves. Third-party publishers started flooding the video game aisles with subpar games, and retailers were forced to slash prices. Even Quaker Oats and Purina got into the gaming business, releasing their own shoddy products. Consumers grew so wary of video games that in 1985, when Nintendo arrived on the scene with the NES, its primary marketing angle was to convince parents that it was offering a toy, not a home video game system.

7. They Can Wreck Your Lives

Most people are able to tear themselves away from a video game eventually, no matter how much fun it is. But the trouble starts when the rewards of playing a game begin to outweigh the benefits of real life.

Such was the case in 2005, when a 28-year-old South Korean man named Lee Seung Seop suffered a fatal heart attack after playing online games for nearly 50 hours straight at an Internet café in the city of Tengu. Sadly, these types of cases are growing in number. According to surveys conducted in the United States and Asia, an estimated 3 to 30 percent of gamers show signs of video game dependency.

Psychologists put the affliction in the same category as pathological gambling. A player experiences a small high after completing a task in a video game, and the high keeps him coming back for more. Over time, the addict requires more and more time in front of the screen to achieve the same high, while the rest of his life is left to crumble.

Treatment centers for gaming have sprung up in a number of countries, including South Korea and China. In 2005, Chinese officials became so concerned about game addiction that they instituted an anti-addiction program online that's designed to prevent people from playing longer than three hours at a time. If that doesn't work, parents are encouraged to send their kids in for game-addiction treatment, which may include counseling, medication, and shock therapy.

8. They Can Shock and Awe

When Nintendo burst onto the home-gaming scene in 1985 with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it was determined not to repeat the numerous mistakes of its predecessor, Atari. One of Atari's biggest missteps had been the public relations hit it took in 1982 with the release of Custer's Revenge. The game, created by a third-party publisher, featured a naked General Custer dodging arrows on his mission to have sex with a tied-up Indian princess. Women's rights and Native American's rights groups promptly protested the game, creating a public relations disaster.

Learning from the Custer's Revenge incident, Nintendo made it official policy to review the content of all the games published for its system in the United States to ensure that they were appropriate for America's youngsters. References to sex and drugs were out, as was excessive violence. Nintendo even sanitized the violent games that had already been out in arcades.

Mortal Kombat put an end to this policy. The original arcade version, which was a big hit in 1993, featured characters that punched and kicked each other until they sent blood flying. The brutal game also featured moves called "fatalities," in which players could decapitate their opponents or rip out their hearts. But when Nintendo replaced the blood with sweat and took out the fatalities, the game flopped. Meanwhile, its rival, Sega, released a faithful recreation. Its version of Mortal Kombat outsold Nintendo's three-to-one. (Nintendo eased its policy for the game's sequel.) In 1995, Sony introduced the powerful new PlayStation console, and game developers flocked to a company that would let them express their pent-up creative urges.

9. They Can Clean Your Room

Nintendo designers knew they were breaking the mold when they introduced the world to the Wii in 2005. Instead of sitting still and pressing buttons, players could get up and move, slashing swords and hitting tennis balls by simply swinging the Wii-mote. The secret to the Wii controller is that it contains both an accelerometer, which measures its velocity, and Bluetooth technology, which sends information to the game console wirelessly.

Of course, it didn't take long for techies to figure out how to hack the Wii-mote, sending the wireless signals to other types of electrical devices. These days, clever programmers use their Wii controllers to deejay music, run interactive whiteboards, and even control their Roomba vacuum cleaners—all by waving their Wii-motes like a wand.

10. They Can Steam Things Up

The best-selling video game series Grand Theft Auto is all about freedom—the freedom to steal cars, run people over, and shoot at the cops. But it was the freedom to have sex that got the makers of the game into legal hot water.

In 2004, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the fifth game in the series. In one of the game's subplots, players can send the main character, C.J., on dates with various girlfriends. After enough dates, one girlfriend would invite C.J. into her home for coffee, followed by muffled sounds of fornication. Shortly after the game hit stores, a 36-year-old Dutch techie named Patrick Wildenborg discovered a piece of buried computer code that, when slightly modified, unlocked a scene showing C.J. and his girlfriend in the act. According to on-screen instructions, players could control C.J., pressing up and down to achieve maximum "excitement level."

Wildenborg titled the code "hot coffee" and distributed it online. At first, Rockstar Games denied that the virtual sex was its doing, and insisted that Wildenborg had invented the scene. But hackers quickly uncovered the same code in Rockstar versions made for other gaming systems. The Entertainment Standards Review Board immediately switched the game's rating to Adults Only (18 and up), and stores pulled it from their shelves. In 2009, after lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit alleging consumer fraud, the company settled for $20.1 million.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine in 2010. Pick up a copy wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold, request a free issue, or check out our iPad edition.

Can you out-fact the Facts Machine? Go to this post and leave a comment with your own amazing video game fact. If your fact is deemed sufficiently Amazing, you could win the mental_floss t-shirt of your choice.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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