When a game is more than a game

Networking systems that allow thousands of gamers to simultaneously interact via the Internet might be scaled down and adapted to collaborative engineering, design, and machine troubleshooting.

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Dan Hebert, PEBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

AN INVESTOR buys a piece of land, sells the mineral and hunting rights, and makes a nice profit. It happens every day, right? It does, but this time the land exists only in the on-line computer game Project Entropia. Some thought the investor foolhardy to pay $26,500 for an island that didn’t exist, but he had the last laugh. According to the international newsmagazine The Economist, the investor made a tidy profit selling land rights to other on-line Project Entropia gamers.

Welcome to the land of Massive, Multiplayer, Online, Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), where millions of people reportedly spend hours every week. The Economist says these MMORPGs often are Tolkienesque fantasy worlds where players battle monsters, go on quests, and build up their virtual power and wealth.

In the industrial arena, engineers have worked for years to develop sensory input and output devices. Visual inputs to operators range from computer-generated graphics to 3-D, virtual-reality headsets. In the realm of computer-controlled outputs, machine operators now can control robot arms and other devices directly. It would seem to follow that gamers would immerse themselves in virtual reality with sensory input and output devices originally developed for industrial applications.

Instead, gamers choose to inhabit their virtual worlds using the power of their minds via standard I/O devices such as a keyboard, mouse and graphics terminal. These computers can be PCs or gaming terminals like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation. Gamers can play alone, with partners in the same location, or with participants worldwide via the Internet.

The scary part is that many game players can’t or won’t separate gaming from reality. In one recent survey, 20% of MMORPG players said they regard the game world as their “real” place of residence, while real-world Earth is just where they eat and sleep. This past July, a South Korean man reportedly died after a 50-hour MMORPG session.

For many in third-world countries, playing MMORPGs is more profitable than working in a factory. Skilled gamers can make about $3.50 per hour by generating virtual wealth, and then selling the results for real money. Companies in China pay thousands of people, known as “farmers,” to play MMORPGs all day, and then make a profit selling the in-game goods they generate to other players for real money. Could this presage an eventual shortage of industrial labor in China and India? Why work in a factory when you can make decent money playing on-line games?

Another fascinating sub-text to gaming is its use by health professionals to cure certain maladies. To regain movement in partially paralyzed limbs, stroke victims must spend long hours making repetitive movements. Dr. Sung You of Hampton University in Virginia told The Economist that he bought two “immersive” video games, Snowboarding and Sharkbait, which use a small camera to incorporate the player's image into the game.

During physical therapy, stroke victims twist and turn as they tear up the slopes or avoid sharks. The doctor found that the greater motivation and focus of gamers meant they recovered more coordination than patients in a control group. He reported his results in the May 2005 issue of Stroke, a journal published by the American Heart Association.

The Economist adds that Eric Styffe, a 22-year-old carpenter who lives in Thalwil, Switzerland, used to suffer from severe attention-deficit disorder (ADD). But then a therapist taught him how to play “neurofeedback” video games designed to sharpen concentration in ADD patients and autistics. With electrodes fixed to his skull, Styffe fixed his mind on game characters, such as a juggler or a Pac-Man-like blob fleeing ghosts in a maze. When his mind wandered, the virtual characters dropped dead. After just two weeks of daily game therapy, he reportedly stopped taking Ritalin, a prescription amphetamine. Styffe now plays once a month to avoid relapse.

Is it possible to envision a day when some of these gaming technologies crossover into our machine automation world? Networking systems that allow thousands of gamers to simultaneously interact via the Internet might be scaled down, for example, and adapted to collaborative engineering, design, and machine troubleshooting.

Head-mounted displays and even skull-placed neurofeedback electrodes could be a great improvement over today’s one-dimensional graphic displays. These electrodes also might be a better, faster way to control and adjust machine operating parameters than using a keyboard and mouse.

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