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An experiment in video gaming

Just after Christmas Will started playing Battlefield 3, a violent video game simulation of war and a game that I have been hopelessly addicted to since its release in November. The game differentiates itself from the rest of the market by focusing on objective based team play rather than just shooting anything and everything that moves.

Watching Wills progress in the game was interesting but it wasn’t until having lunch together a few weeks ago that I became fascinated with his journey. During lunch Will mentioned in passing that he bought a Playstation and started playing Battlefield as some kind of experiment. A couple of days after our lunch I had so many questions that I thought it would be a good idea to interview Will, find out exactly what this experiment was, how it was going and then try and document it in blog post. I think this will raise more questions than it answers but should provide some food for thought.

Here at NM, we are fascinated by the future. What kind of tech will our children be using? What affect will it have on us as individuals, business sectors and society as a whole? What will happen when existing technologies such as augmented reality, retinal displays, long life batteries and the 5th generation mobile networks are thrown together? A realtime headsup display detailing everything and everyone around you? These are some of the things that get us excited.

In many ways, video games are a test bed for these types of technologies. Games can simulate a world where these technologies exist but they can also push the evolution of them in the real world. The Nintendo Wii brought us cheap motion controls and Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 has extended that further by replacing the controller with motion and body detection. A similar controller to the Xbox 360′s has been adopted by Lockheed Martin in order to control British UAV’s. Which brings us onto the first part of Will’s experiment.

Unmanned drones are pretty much like video games (give or take a pinch of salt). The pilot sits miles (sometimes thousands of miles, back in their home country) away from the area the actual drone is operating in, sat in front of a TV, armed with just a video game controller. This detachment must have some kind of affect on the decisions a pilot is making, but more than that, how does having prior experience playing video games affect the pilot? Do these two things combined make it easier to take the life of a another human being? A recent article in the New York Times documents that drone pilots often suffer from ‘high operational stress‘. Interestingly this is caused more by the long work hours and shift changes rather than watching hours of video of people being killed by up-close drone strikes, something that has been attributed to the fact the pilots are helping fellow soldiers on the ground out of a tight spot.

These guys are up above firing at the enemy, Colonel McDonald said. They love that, they feel like they’re protecting our people. They build this virtual relationship with the guys on the ground.

This kind of relationship is kind of similar to that of Battlefield players and another aspect of the game and the online world in general that Will is interested in. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Battlefield 3 concentrates on team play and provides you tools other than a gun with which to help each other. There are 4 types of soldier you can deploy as, each with their own unique weapons but most importantly, abilities: the assault class can throw down first aid kits for wounded players to use, they can also use their defibrillator to revive players who have been shot and killed; the support class are able to throw down extra ammo for anyone nearby; the engineer is able to fix up damaged vehicles; and the recon class is able to deploy a flying thing that reveals enemy locations on the map. The game also has a ‘squad’ system, this makes communicating and helping fellow players easier. A full four man squad consisting of well balanced player classes can help immensely. Your squad will be much more effective if one of you is able to heal and revive your squad mates that are trying to push back an enemy at an over run outpost, helping your squad work better can be very rewarding. There was a fascinating article on the Guardian games blog this week discussing how and why people are helpful in Battlefield. Is it because it is personally rewarding or do we only do it for the points? For me, I find it is a bit of both.

Lastly, there is the aspect of general health. What happens to your mind and body and relationships if immersed in a violent virtual world that rewards you for pretty much everything you do? This is one of the most interesting aspects of Will’s experiment. So far he has been grumpier due to staying up later to play and he is deaf in one ear from having his headphones too loud. Unsurprisingly he is also suffering from what I like to call Grand Theft Auto syndrome, the mental spasm that you could ‘jack a car at the traffic lights’ that comes after playing too many hours of GTA. For Will this has manifested itself in mental flinches that he should take cover whenever a helicopter flys overhead, every now and then I keep having to double check there are no snipers on the cranes building the new Amex offices when I go past on the way to work.

I asked if playing Battlefield every night for two weeks solid had effected Wills home life. Surprisingly he said that it had actually been a benefit. His wife has been happy that he has been working less and actually able to wind down rather than constantly thinking about work, reading business books or not really having anything occupy him. However, will the addictive qualities of the game reel him in further? Will admitted that his current play patterns are unsustainable in the long run, wearing headphones and talking to oddballs (like me) over the internet for hours on end does not normally make for a happy partner.

I look forward to seeing Wills progression from n00b to veteran gamer. As much as people may think it is childish and silly, I think there is a lot to learn from games and gaming. There were a million questions thrown up from my interview with will so perhaps I will follow this blog post up with some more thoughts and explorations.

Thoughts? Leave us a comment! Playing Battlefield 3 on PS3? Hit me up!

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