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IFDA, YouTube

How a Professor Turned Henry David Thoreau's Retreat Into a Video Game

IFDA, YouTube
IFDA, YouTube

When you think of Walden Woods, you probably think of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. You think of a rustic cabin, nature, self-reliance, simplicity. What probably doesn’t cross your mind is "video game." In fact, sitting down and staring at a screen seems like the antithesis of what Thoreau was trying to accomplish. But not to game designer Tracy Fullerton.

Fullerton, a professor at the University of Southern California and the director of USC Games, has been working on a Thoreau-inspired interactive game since 2002, when the idea came to her in the middle of a 10,000-mile road trip sabbatical. After a particularly inspiring day at Walden, including a discussion with an actor portraying the writer, Fullerton noted in her journal that a video game based around the experience could be really interesting.

After letting the idea percolate for a few years, Fullerton decided the time was right to pursue the game in 2007. She and her team revisited the classic book, then took what Thoreau determined were the four basic needs of humans—food, fuel, shelter, and clothing—and made them the basis of the game. They also added a goal of "inspiration," requiring the user to read, interact with visitors, and enjoy the sounds of nature. As players lose inspiration, the environment fades and gets duller. The more inspired they are, the more lush and green and detailed it gets.

In short, players will spend their time in Walden Woods just as Thoreau did: building a cabin, fishing, collecting arrowheads, planting crops, finding edible native plants—all while relevant excerpts from Walden pop up along the way.

If you’re wondering where the action comes in, well, don’t hold your breath. Thoreau isn’t going to encounter bears; he doesn’t escape from a burning cabin; there are no brushes with death. That’s not the point of the game. "There is no winning or losing in this particular game," Fullerton says. "This is more about experiencing Thoreau’s experiment. Each player may judge their outcome by their own standards."

And for the Walden critics who will point out that Thoreau wasn’t really roughing it, don’t worry—that’s addressed in the game as well. As the writer, you’ll be able to take your laundry home to your mother and go put your feet up at Emerson’s house.

Walden: A Game has an expected release date of late 2016 or early 2017.

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Brain Training Could Help Combat Hearing Loss, Study Suggests
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iStock

Contrary to what you might think, the hearing loss that accompanies getting older isn't entirely about your ears. Studies have found that as people get older, the parts of their brain that process speech slow down, and it becomes especially difficult to isolate one voice in a noisy environment. New research suggests there may be a way to help older people hear better: brain training.

The Verge reports that a new double-blind study published in Current Biology suggests that a video game could help older people improve their hearing ability. Though the study was too small to be conclusive, the results are notable in the wake of several large studies in the past few years that found that the brain-training games on apps like Luminosity don't improve cognitive skills in the real world. Most research on brain training games has found that while you might get better at the game, you probably won't be able to translate that skill to your real life.

In the current study, the researchers recruited 24 older adults, all of whom were long-term hearing-aid users, for eight weeks of video game training. The average age was 70. Musical training has been associated with stronger audio perception, so half of the participants were asked to play a game that asked them to identify subtle changes in tones—like you would hear in a piece of music—in order to piece together a puzzle, and the other half played a placebo game designed to test their memory. In the former, as the levels got more difficult, the background noise got louder. The researchers compare the task to a violinist tuning out the rest of the orchestra in order to listen to just their own instrument.

After eight weeks of playing their respective games around three-and-a-half hours a week, the group that played the placebo memory game didn't perform any better on a speech perception test that asked participants to identify sentences or words amid competing voices. But those who played the tone-changing puzzle game saw significant improvement in their ability to process speech in noise conditions close to what you'd hear in an average restaurant. The tone puzzle group were able to accurately identify 25 percent more words against loud background noise than before their training.

The training was more successful for some participants than others, and since this is only one small study, it's possible that as this kind of research progresses, researchers might find a more effective game design for this purpose. But the study shows that in specific instances, brain training games can benefit users. This kind of game can't eliminate the need for hearing aids, but it can help improve speech recognition in situations where hearing aids often fail (e.g., when there is more than one voice speaking). However, once the participants stopped playing the game for a few months, their gains disappeared, indicating that it would have to be a regular practice.

[h/t The Verge]

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Something Something Soup Something
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This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
Something Something Soup Something
Something Something Soup Something

Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

[h/t Waypoint]

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