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The Sunday Papers

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Sundays are for being lazy. Here’s the best writing about videogames from the past week. (Although this week is unusually light on vidgams. You’re welcome/sorry.)

For Vice (which Waypoint has now regrettably been folded back into, by the way), Elizabeth Ballou delved into the fascinating and sometimes creepy world of Ingress, an augmented reality game about spies and logistics. I love how people get so deeply invested, but the way that tips over into genuine harassment is disturbing. Ballou’s article is only about that in part though. It’s riveting and you should read it despite the slightly misleading headline.

Other players held grudges, spread vicious rumors, and even stalked agents from the other factions. Ratoo told me that Enlightened players started accusing him of photographing them with a long-range camera as an intimidation tactic. Meng said that if agents wanted to insult a specific player from the other faction, they’d track that player’s movements, figure out where they lived, and take down their “couch portal,” or the portal closest to their apartment. Targeted agents felt like their privacy had been violated.

While we’re doing secrets, here’s an old article I stumbled on about the flavouring industry. I haven’t had time to read all of Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker piece yet, but so far it’s been unreasonably intriguing.

There are the hyperrealists, who strive for molecular-level precision; the neo-primitivists, who use centuries-old palettes of extracts and essential oils; the Fauvist types, who embrace a sensually heightened sensibility. Placed in the context of art history, the flavor industry today would be in its modernist phase, somewhere in the waning days of Cubism, for even the most outlandish flavor concoctions take direct inspiration from the real world. Whereas a perfumer can invent commercially successful aromas that are totally nonrepresentational — a Pollock in a crystal bottle — the flavorist must still respect the deeply held conservatism that people tend to hold when it comes to putting food in their mouths.

Here’s one of those gooey, wholesome ‘parents using videogames to bond with their kids’ stories, from Colin Campbell over on Polygon. I tease, but I also like. Totally Accurate Battle Simulator does indeed seem like perfect family fodder.

Then there are battles in which we repeatedly fail to find the winning formula, howling in frustration as our last guy is mobbed by the enemy. Finally, joyously, the answer is discovered, and it all turns on the survival of one last heroic warrior, standing victorious among the shambles of war. We clap and high-five and fist-punch and “yesssss.” and all that parent-kid stuff.

There are some good neuroscience tidbits in Ian Tucker’s Guardian interview with Dr Hannah Critchlow. Causation questions abound, obviously, but:

“There have definitely been studies that have looked at different brain profiles associated with ideology. People who are very conservative seem to have a much larger volume and a much more sensitive amygdala – the area of the brain that is involved in perceptions of fear. People who are more liberal seem to have a greater weighting on the region of the brain that is engaged in future planning and more collaborative partnerships. They don’t seem sensitive to immediate threats; instead, they are looking to the future.”

For Aeon, Daniel Callcut argued that the internet introduces people to the morally unthinkable – but there’s more to his article than truism. I try to resist linking to too many indulgently philosophical essays here, but this is an unusual combination of well-written and thought-provoking. Plus Callcut goes on for about a quarter as long as most philosophers like to.

It’s easy to underappreciate the importance of the morally unthinkable. Discussions of ethics tend to focus on matters of conscious choice: which moral rules to follow, or advice on how to approach moral dilemmas. But a hugely significant part of ethics concerns what is unthinkable. You might, for example, be strapped for cash, but robbing the neighbours is unlikely to be an option for you. That’s because, whenever you deliberate, you have already ruled out all kinds of unthinkable possibilities. It isn’t that you consider robbery only to dismiss it: the idea never even crosses your mind.

Oh go on, have yet more Aeon and neuroscience. Sara Kimmich wrote about neurofeedback, a psychiatry technique that involves watching your brain respond to your own thoughts. It’s not just cool: it seems to be unprecedentedly effective at treating an array of mental disorders. I’m wary of it being overhyped here, as anyone should be about any magic bullet type solution for mental health issues. It’s nevertheless exciting, despite potentially introducing (or increasing the volume of) ethical issues to do with treatment consent.

This technique is known as neurofeedback. It’s one of the most promising and rapidly advancing frontiers in mental health. By linking brain activity to an image or sound in real time, we can use simple game-like techniques to get people to train themselves to forge new neural connections and voluntarily adopt (or avoid) certain mental states. Like a thermometer going up and down according to temperature, the fact that people can see and hear what their brain is doing provides a lever that allows them to internally regulate their own mind, without the need to engage in more direct behavioural interventions.

I don’t tend to listen to podcasts nowadays, but Graham does. He sent me this chat between Jordan Erica Webber (of Gadget Show and Guardian fame) and Kat Brewster (of freelance RPS fame, among other things). I’m only five minutes in, but their mixed feelings towards the Gaming Baftas already seem interesting.

Whatever you think or do not think about Game of Thrones, I believe you will enjoy this.

We’re back on the fiddle, thanks to the new Elephant Sessions album. Music this week is Colours.

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Who am I?

Matt Cox

Staff Writer

Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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