The science behind video games

“Stop playing those stupid games, you’re wasting your time!” – that’s what you’re likely to hear from your parents when they see you playing video games. But are we really wasting our time? Are video games skill-building phenomena or mere distractions? Well, I’m sure lots of gamers (and parents!) want to know the answer to that so let’s dive in!

Alright, first thing’s first: let’s define what a video game is. For those of us who have been living under a rock for the last 30 years, video games are virtual games where you electronically manipulate (through a joystick or keyboard) a playable character and such games could be played either solo or with other people. Some have straightforward goals (e.g. save the Princess from the castle) whereas others are just for fun and experience of the atmosphere. Video games have changed significantly over the years but they are still united under several common factors. Researchers say that the reason why we like playing them is because they satisfy 3 core needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Let’s look at each one on their own…

Autonomy means that we have the choice of many actions related to the plot of the game and it’s that freedom of choice that makes us feel in power. Our decisions become our playable character’s decisions (and vice versa). Competence applies to video games like platformers where we build up skills and knowledge that we’re progressing through the game, exploring our character’s abilities as well as the virtual surroundings. Last but not least, we’ve got relatedness, which means that we relate to other people and generally feel that we’re making a difference to a cause or society. Games which manage to provide all 3 of these elements would instantly become likeable.

I know, I know… I still haven’t answered the question at the beginning, I’m getting there! Some studies have actually shown that playing certain video games (such as the Legend of Zelda franchise) improves people’s navigational and spatial orientation skills whereas others like Super Mario help you become more detail-oriented and persistent. This is because such games help us gain expertise in a particular field. The more we play them, the better we get at them (a.k.a. perceptual learning). Of course, there have been claims that some video games make us aggressive and change us for the worse. Well, guess what? This has also been tested by comparing role-playing games (RPGs) and first-person shooter games. What was found was that the first-person shooter games make us exhibit more violent thoughts than the role-playing one and the explanation behind it is quite interesting. Basically, in an RPG, you play a character whose physical layout is already determined while the first-person shooter presents things almost as if you’re the one holding the weapon, thus making you relate more to that character and mimicking their behaviour.

Nowadays many video games permit you to create your own avatar, the ideal way you want to look in the game so even if it’s an RPG, you would still relate to him or her. Another study discovered that people are sometimes up to 3 times more violent in video games than in real life. So to some extent individuals can exhibit violence but that’s mostly confined to the game rather than everyday life. Don’t forget that different people see the value of video games in different ways. While some see them as a challenge, others are there just to connect with friends. As for the stereotype that men are more attracted to video games than women, it’s actually quite true and science proves that. According to a study at Stanford University in 2008, the male brain is more stimulated than a female brain when playing video games as it generates a reward chemical in greater quantities for men. In short, blokes get bigger neuropsychological satisfaction from playing a video game than women do. Check for yourselves, count how many men and women are present in the game store next time you walk by…

Anyway, time to sum this post up! We know that video games are not always there to distract us because some of them do help us improve our skills. Whether video games appeal to everyone is another question as all of us are different. Bear in mind that video games didn’t appear until the 80s, so there might be generations who still consider them alien. In any case, game on!

Are we all born to be leaders?

Here’s a question for you: what’s the common thing between Napoleon, Gandhi and Steve Jobs? Well, all three of them were visionaries for their era and had people who followed them as well as their morals. In two words, they were leaders. But can all of us claim to be leaders? Let’s find out in this post!

First of all, let’s see if leaders are born and not made. Many psychology studies in the second half of the 20th century (e.g., Mann, 1959; Nadler & Tushman, 1990; Stogdill, 1974) tried to see if there was a connection between key personality traits and leadership. None of them found any significant correlation and there was little evidence of a generic leader personality profile. In other words, it’s hard to predict who will become a visionary and who will be a failure in leading others. In fact, it’s often external factors that influence whether someone will be seen as a leader by others or not. Some researchers claim that from a situational perspective, a leader is the person who best meets the requirements of the current situation (i.e., the right place at the right time). Many people say that the main reason why Churchill was elected for the post of prime minister of Britain in 1940 was because he possessed the personality traits which were essential in times of war.

The style that a leader has is equally important. An interesting study by Lippitt & White in 1943 tested 3 types of leadership styles among schoolboys: autocratic (aggressive and self-oriented), democratic (friendly and task-oriented) and laissez-faire (friendly and play-oriented). They found that the democratic style yielded the best results as followers liked their leader and their productivity was high, whereas for the laissez-faire style, the leader was liked but productivity was low and vice versa for the autocratic one. So it pretty much seems that it’s about finding the ideal middle spot between productivity and group satisfaction. Well, yes but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

A leader is usually confronted with a dilemma: should I be entirely loyal to the group or should I be innovative and instigate change? The answer is both, actually. Social psychologists like Hollander and Jullian argue that leaders build up “credit” which they can later spend on deviation from the group. However, finding the perfect balance between group loyalty and deviation can be easier said than done… If followers suspect that their leader is either not listening to their needs or not making any important decisions, they would most probably leave them or protest against them.

Alright, so we know what an ideal leader should do but do we know if a leader knows if they are doing the right thing? Not necessarily and history can definitely prove it! The truth is, followers may not always realise what the moral consequences of a leader’s goal/decision could be. Perhaps the best (or worst, in this case) example is the Holocaust during World War II where millions of German people approved their leader’s politics without acknowledging that they were committing a crime of humanity. Don’t forget that followers can easily be captured and blinded by a leader’s master plan and charisma has a lot to do with it. Many history reports say that the reason why Hitler was chosen as leader of the nationalist party was not because of his political competence but because of his charisma and inspirational speeches. The biggest challenge that we all face is to discern which leaders use their charisma for selfish manipulation and which leaders use it for the good of their people.

Right, so what have we learned? True leaders are more likely made rather than born. Whether we all have a hidden leader inside each one of us is a tough question but at least we know that good leadership depends on many factors: style, current situation and balance between group loyalty and innovation. Whether you’re the head of state, a teacher or the pope, you will always have the responsibility of leading individuals to a better future.

The social monster

We all have that one friend who’s totally obsessed with constantly checking their social media profiles and can’t live a single minute without Wi-Fi. Oh wait… it’s not just one friend, there’s plenty of examples out there! I bet that even you, my dear reader, have got a profile in at least one social media site. In any case, have social media platforms twisted the way society functions? And have they turned us into social monsters? Let’s find out now!

We should first look at what the aim of social media actually is. Initially, platforms like Facebook were created for business purposes to connect people and enable them to share photos, messages, statuses and organise group discussions. However, Facebook has significantly evolved since then and is now almost the symbol of someone’s virtual autobiography or online journal. Your Facebook friends can see what you’ve done during the day, what you liked or commented on, what you shared, where you were, who you were with etc. Sounds a bit like Big Brother from the novel “1984”, doesn’t it? And you can argue that it’s pretty much an invasion into someone’s privacy. Yet, at least a quarter of the planet’s population have profiles on Facebook. But why?

Here comes the psychology bit. It’s no surprise that people want to be liked and appreciated by others. Well, social media provide an ideal tool for this by helping you showcase yourself, your life and your moments. The problem is, many people want to create this “ideal self” through an online profile which presents them in a light that’s much different than what they truly are in reality. The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined a phenomenon called “the tyranny of the shoulds” where an emotionally unstable person switches between his ideal self and his despised self and never reaches the middle ground of his normal self. People who have trouble with their self-esteem want to compensate for this and they go the extra mile to prove to others they can be much more than they are. Just think of that girl who seemed so shy in class but suddenly becomes this extravagant persona on Facebook or Twitter. Magic? No, psychology…

There’s nothing wrong with someone seeking acknowledgement and appreciation from others for what they’ve done. The problem comes when this someone becomes obsessed with the need for online (and real life) admiration as if it’s a drug for them. The truth is, yes – it acts with the same mechanism with which a drug would act. Seeing a friend who likes your selfie or pseudo-philosophical status on Facebook gives you behavioural reinforcement that you’re doing something right in terms of getting people’s attention. Naturally, you’ll want more and more because it makes you feel appreciated.

In my post “Homo mobilis [Part 1]”, I mention the irony of social media: although it’s meant to connect people, it makes us absorbed in our mobile devices and we become absent in real-life conversations and relationships. Of course, I’m not saying that every single person is like this but it can definitely be noticed in the younger generations because that’s when individuals become self-aware and see themselves as actors on a stage, trying to appear cool and attractive. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about – we’ve all been through this…

So what does it turn out to be? Society still functions but it has slowly been adapting to a virtual means of communication and expressing feelings. And yes – we have to admit that there are “social monsters” around us. Whether that’s for better or for worse is yet to be seen. Anyway, let’s see how many likes my selfie on Instagram has gathered so far…

Cartoons: Are they just for kids?

A cat chasing a mouse? A talking rabbit engaging in slapstick with an angry hunter? An anthropomorphic dog helping a bunch of hippies solve mysteries? Sure, all of these sound like good cartoon ideas that kids could enjoy. But what about adults? And do animations teach us anything at all or are they just there for pure entertainment? Well, let’s explore this together!

                   

Firstly, we should see what a cartoon is meant to be: it represents a drawing (or series of animated drawings) that depict a character in a humorously exaggerated way. This basically means that in a cartoon, characters’ traits are accentuated in a funny way through satire, irony, and slapstick which wouldn’t necessarily be possible in the real world. For example, the white man who chases the “Pink Panther” has an enormously huge nose, body proportions and movements that can’t exist in reality. This way, the audience remembers that character thanks to these outstanding features, which also help shape an animated person/animal’s appearance and personality.

Earlier versions of cartoons didn’t need complicated plots. Take “Tom and Jerry” for example: it’s just about a cat trying to catch a mouse in a game of… well, cat and mouse! Since the characters seldom talk, the accent in that particular cartoon is mostly on slapstick and cartoon violence, which can be funnily manipulated by making the characters defy the laws of physics. Kids find it hilarious even nowadays. And adults – they do as well! An interesting fact is that during World War II, American troops were sometimes shown cartoons to “lift their spirits up”. Remember that every form of comedy is based on some form of misery, specifically when you see another person (or animated character) get hurt in a humorous way.

There are some cartoons which might not be for kids only as they could contain adult jokes and imagery. “Grave of the Fireflies” is a heart-breaking 1988 animated film which is obviously intended for adults whereas “Dora the Explorer” is an educational programme for little kids, sometimes acting as a distraction tool, too. Whether the cartoon is educational is up to the animator and producer really. Ideally, a cartoon should educate someone by teaching them vital lessons about life and the importance of moral values. Naturally, it’s hard to create a message that young viewers can understand. Although some animated shows or films don’t necessarily teach you anything, they might still be worth watching thanks to their style, humour, cinematography or characters. Each one of us has watched particular cartoons when little that they might find closer to their heart than other shows. This is due to the power of nostalgia and associative memory. These shows have meant something to you and have a made a difference, that’s why you preferred them to others. If you want to dig up more info on this, check out one of my previous posts called “Nostalgia or The power of associative memory”.

       

Of course, by creating animated characters with particular features, there’s the fear that some characters are just stereotypes. We want kids to have good role models when they watch cartoons and that’s why society reinforces the view that the protagonist in a cartoon should possess positive traits and be good-looking, polite and brave. That can’t always be the case so animated shows and films have to be very careful what types of messages they’re trying to convey to their audiences. With time, some animated characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have turned into icons that kids look up to. Thus, many children can be caught saying “When I grow up, I want to be just like [insert animated character here]”

In answer to the questions at the beginning: yes, adults can also watch cartoons as there are animations which address more mature themes. And yes, some cartoons can teach us important things about life and there are others which are there just to entertain us. You’re never too old to watch cartoons, especially if you’ve grown up with them.

#Villain

Ah, gotta love villains in all sorts of media… Can you imagine what Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ would have been without Claudius in it? Probably a really boring play. Or ‘Star Wars’ without Darth Vader? Or ‘101 Dalmatians’ without Cruella De Vil? Or… OK, you get the point. This post will look at what role villains play in the things we see and read about and how they affect our perception of society.

                     

A few centuries ago, the word ‘villain’ didn’t have its current meaning. It was actually used to describe a certain class of people from lower levels in feudal society, mostly in England and France. Nowadays, it means a person who deliberately commits illegal or immoral actions in a heinous manner. Just call it ‘bad guy’, it’s easier… Anyway, when we look at literature, we can often see a main conflict between our hero(ine) (a.k.a. the ‘protagonist’) and another person (or group of people), also called ‘the antagonist’, which drives the plot of the novel. Antagonists provide an ideal cause for the inception of the story’s development, almost like a starting point which prepares the reader for the culmination and denouement later on.

Alright, I don’t want to sound like your English Literature teacher, so let’s break things down a bit. When kids watch cartoons, it’s often made quite apparent to them who the good and bad guys are so that they can expect the conflict. And children want to see a conflict between two sides just as much as adults do. This also gives them a hint about what is right and what is wrong by following, and later imitating, what the good guy does. There are many films out there whose villains are uninteresting, pathetic or downright unnecessary, almost like the director just wanted to have them for the sake of having them… The really good films are those that manage to show you how and why an antagonist is an antagonist. In other words, how did they become the person they are and why are they committing the actions they commit?

If you remember a previous post of mine about ‘Can humans be evil? [Part 2]’, I mention that there is no ‘evil gene’ in any individual. People start doing things which are deemed bad by society because of their circumstances which have shaped their personalities. Many criminals have a disturbing past, including abuse, neglect or bereavement. This, in turn, makes them feel no love and they seek revenge against the hostile world by projecting their previous experiences. Complicated, huh? I’ll give you an example: the Joker from ‘Batman’. His father was an alcoholic who used to beat him up as well as his mother. Do you think he saw the world through pink glasses? Probably not. And because he went through so much trauma when he was young, he decided to create anarchy around him, ignoring the rules of society. And there you go – a perfect case of a villain (although a fictional character)…

When I was little, my friends and I used to play lots of role-playing pretend games based on whatever films or shows were popular at the time. When picking who was going to play who, no one ever wanted to play the villain and most of the time I was the one to ‘fill the gap’. I often wondered why they’re bad and could never put my finger on the exact reason why they were evil. Well, now that I’ve grown up, I know that power, greed and revenge are perhaps the most common causes that make ordinary people step beyond the acceptable limit and go into the realm of blind selfishness and ill absorption. But what if you’re defending yourself or a person close to you – would that be considered a villainous act? Feel free to check out a video of mine where I talk about the 4 Roots of Evil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfvJHpStsww

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As it turns out, villains are very complicated characters with detailed background stories (unless you’re watching ‘Dora the Explorer’). Are they needed in films and books? Absolutely! They help us understand what role models not to follow and keep us invested in the main story (as long as they ARE interesting, that is!). #itsgoodtobebad

All hail the bookworms: The power of literature

Remember when people used to ask ‘What’s your favourite book?’ instead of today’s ‘Who’s your favourite celebrity crush?’ Reading books is not something that most people would put in the Activities and Hobbies section of their CV, but it’s still an interest as well as an exceptionally useful, and often underestimated, skill.

Ever since the rise of literacy from the time of ancient Egyptians and Greeks, reading literature, either prose or poetry, was almost considered a precious gift which enriched individuals’ general knowledge and improved their emotional well-being. There weren’t many literate people back then and they often envied those who had the quality to read. Think about it: if you’re reading a good book, it can strongly influence your emotions and sometimes make you feel sad (take Stephen King’s ‘The Green Mile’ for example) whereas other times you’d giggle like a little schoolgirl thanks to any of P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories. Most of all, however, literature makes us think critically about the world we live in and the things we experience.

                                            

The way to tell if you’re reading a good book or not is by seeing whether you can remember at least one feature about it but also if you have managed to form your own opinion about the subject that the book addresses. After all, books are not there to guide your life for you, they’re there to help you construct your own schema about life and society. One of my top 5 favourite books of all time is ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. ‘But that’s a children’s book!’ you might say. Well, no, it isn’t, my friends. It’s a book about… everything actually! But perhaps, most of all, it’s a book about the different ways that people see the world. It also teaches both kids and adults vital lessons about life, such as cherishing the beautiful, taming the unknown and seeing with your heart rather than eyes.

OK but ‘The Little Prince’ is considered classic literature’ – a term which encompasses symbolic novels which were pioneering in relation to exploring daring plots (e.g. Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’), addressing unimaginable themes (e.g. Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’) and making readers involved with their captivating characters (e.g. Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’). But what about scientific literature and textbooks? Yes, I haven’t forgotten about them: although they may not be every student’s preferred read, they are necessary for us to gain knowledge about a subject that we’re interested in so that we can later add to that mass of knowledge. As Isaac Newton himself says: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Sound familiar? It’s also on Google Scholar’s homepage…

The types of literature that you read as you grow up help shape your personality and thinking patterns. Some studies have also found that people who read have more developed computational skills than those who don’t, so it’s pretty much to your advantage to read a book. Of course, you shouldn’t be forced to read, it has to be your own initiative, otherwise you’ll learn to associate the process of reading with the notion of something tedious and annoying (and it’s clearly not!). The dystopian novel ‘451 Fahrenheit’ by Ray Bradbury describes a dark future where firefighters are not extinguishing fires but burning books. At the same time, the thoughts of the people are numbed by constant distractions to the point where individuals have become brainless robots and can’t form their own opinion about a subject. We obviously don’t want this to happen in our society and should cherish the literary richness that we have on offer in libraries and the internet.

Phew, that’s quite a lot to take in! But I hope you managed to get the general point of this post. While we’re not obliged to read, we should familiarise ourselves with any type of literature as much as we can as it will never hurt to read a book (unless it’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, haha!). This is especially true for the 21st century where most texts are digitalised and condensed, with people not feeling the need to sacrifice their time for literature. So what are you waiting for? Grab that book and start reading!

Naive physics or “Of planes and seagulls”

Imagine this: you go to the arcade and start playing one of those mini-basketball games. You suck at them but your friend seems to be getting every ball in. He’s not Michael Jordan by any means and he’s never even played basketball before! “How did you do that?!” you ask him, mouth wide open in awe. “Simple – naive physics!” he replies. Turns out he’s a Psychology student… Anywho, that’s what this post will look at: what’s “naive physics” and how does it affect our day-to-day decisions?

To be honest with you, Physics wasn’t my strongest subject at school (it wasn’t the weakest either though!) but I hope I can still explain the concept of naive physics to you. In a nutshell, it’s when people rely on their personal experience rather than logical reasoning in order to predict and rationalise the physics (e.g., movements) of objects around them. Still too complicated to grasp? How about a cool example then? Look at the picture below: it’s a plane, moving horizontally at a constant speed. At some point during its journey, a cannonball is dropped from the plane to the ground. Ignoring air resistance, which of the 4 options would best describe the trajectory that the cannonball will have when falling from the plane?

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Alright, time’s up! I’m not going to torture you anymore: the right answer’s A. Surprised? This diagram was actually part of a series of experiments in the late 90s and early 2000s where a group of Psychology and a group of Physics students were tested on choosing the right option in the same tasks. Naturally, you would expect Physics students to know their stuff but alas – most of them were equally bad at choosing the right answer as the Psychology students were. But why? It all comes down to associative learning. Individuals would normally extrapolate from their personal experience with similar physics rather than thinking logically and applying their knowledge about Newtonian physics. In this case, students wrongly interpreted that the cannonball has no impetus and that gravity should pull it down immediately (most of them chose option D). As mentioned in an earlier post of mine, associative connections make useful mental shortcuts for us and we would rely on our memory or intuition, which would not necessarily turn out to be right. I remember I chose the right answer for the plane problem because I have watched documentaries about World War II where planes were filmed dropping bombs on cities and the trajectory of the falling bombs could be clearly seen there. Interesting, huh?

Here’s another interesting thing about naive physics: a psychology experiment was recently carried out at the University of Exeter (ah, the memories!) led by Dr Ian McLaren, where researchers tested Psychology and Physics students (again!) and used the same physics problems as the original ones. However,  they changed the scenario of these tasks. For example, instead of a plane dropping an object, the task was to say what the trajectory of an ice-cream dropped by a flying seagull would be. And you know what – at least 85% of both groups chose correctly. That’s because “dressing them up” in a more familiar scenario helped people visualise the problem better through everyday situations. Other “dressed up” examples included predicting the trajectory of a skateboarder on the edge of a ramp as well as the direction of a monkey jumping from one vine to another. That familiarity enabled the association between the scenario and the physical consequence – voila!

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The thing is, we’re not born with this feeling of naive physics. On average, babies up to 9 months old would have no concrete concept of physics. It’s when infants start encountering objects, liquids, wheels and so on that they gradually create a sense of action -> consequence. For instance, if I tip my baby bottle to the side, the liquid will spill but if I hold it upright, it will stay in the bottle. Kids aged 3-7 start encountering more complex physics problems like density, quantity, transparency, transition, inertia etc. If you’re interested, you can check out Renee Baillargeon’s work. Speaking of inertia, how do you know which side of your body to lean on when staying upright in the bus? If most people are asked, they probably won’t know how to put it in scientific terms but their previous experience with buses (or public transport and inertia in general) would have built, through trial and error, that schema of intuitively predicting what to do. Remember Daniel Kahneman’s System 1? Naive physics is largely linked to it and to the whole concept of subconscious/implicit learning.

Okay, the lesson’s over, everyone! Hope you’ll take away the main message of naive physics: although it’s something erroneous and not always logical, you can’t argue that it can help us adapt to an ever-changing environment. But hey – make sure you pay attention in those Physics classes!