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Recently, on a cold, solitary evening, I decided to reprise one of my teenage pastimes: I played Super Mario 64. At first it was a little different than I remembered—the picture grainier, the music tinnier, my computer keyboard unnatural as I tried to put Mario through the classic moves I would have completed with finesse with an old-school Nintendo controller. But as I got my bearings in this uncanny digital world, I looked up at the clock and an hour had passed. I thought it had been ten minutes.

This is called playing in a flow state, according to Edward Melcer, a doctorate student in computer science at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. “Flow is that boundary between excitement, boredom and frustration, and it’s really hard for game designers to get right.”

Game designers spend years developing games to get players to this place. It’s what makes the difference between a hit game that fans play for hours on end and something they’re done with after 20 minutes. Melcer and his colleagues may have a new way to understand players’ needs–even better than the players understand themselves.

“There are a lot of things that go into a gaming experience that can be difficult to communicate, and some people don’t have the verbal skills to be able to do so,” Melcer says. “Sometimes communicating with visual objects makes that a lot easier.”

Since the 1940s, neuroscientists have found that the brain associates certain shapes with particular emotions. Sharp corners are angry, circles are happy. The authors of a 2006 paper concluded that psychologists could use these associations to assess a person’s feelings with more accuracy than verbal evaluations. Melcer is developing software that would allow game players to manipulate a digital sphere to match their emotional state. Using sliders, angry participants could make a side of the sphere stick out like a bird’s beak, or discouraged ones could bore a hole in the ball.

Credit: Eddie Melcer

Credit: Eddie Melcer

Video game developers could use this tool to get a better sense of how users’ emotions change as they play the game, Melcer says.

How A Video Game Is Made And Tested

Game developers start by deciding on a few basic elements that are more difficult to change later on, such as the way the camera follows the character through the game, the preciseness of the user’s movements, or even controls the players use.

Once developers establish these basic elements, programmers and artists create a working version of the game. This first usable game is then subjected to a few different kinds of tests with different types of users so that developers can figure out what changes need to be made. Professional video game testers push the game to its limits, looking for technical glitches that happen only when the game is played for hours on end, or if users repeat the same action many times, so that the programmers can fix them. “[The testers] represent a hardcore set of users,” according to Randy Pagulayan, the director of user research at Microsoft Studios. “In the population of people who game, there will be a small but important set of users that will always go to the most difficult level, jump right for the most competitive gaming situations, that your average user may not go for.”

The game designers need feedback on lots of other game elements that make a difference to the average game user, too. Pagulayan noted that his team is constantly bringing in “external consumers” who represent this demographic to weigh in on elements of the game that its designers can fine-tune. These players make sure the game doesn’t get too challenging too quickly, that the villain and hero are clearly defined, that the signage can help the player navigate to the next level. The further along the developers are in this process, Pagulayan said, the fewer game elements they can change, so it’s important to get feedback on these basic parts early.

Pagulayan and his colleagues get this feedback by asking the participants a series of questions and asking for answers on a five-point scale. Some questions might include: Was the game too hard? How were the graphics? Did you have enough ammo? Was it fun? This scale is fairly intuitive to both users and designers, Pagulayan said, “but what went behind it was years of research around wording and statistical analysis on interpreting results, along with collecting competitor info so that we have a database to create a distribution of responses for analysis and interpretation.”

Melcer hopes to get to a deeper level of participants’ psychology.

Melcer hopes that his tool can get to a deeper level of participants’ psychology, but not everyone in the field thinks it will be more effective than the existing questionnaires. “I have never seen people have a problem expressing their emotions,” says Amy Jo Kim, the creative director of Shufflebrain, which helps design games and apps. Marc Hassenzahl, a psychologist specializing in the digital user experience at Folkwang University of Arts in Essen, Germany, notes that video game developers already use a number of different measures to understand how testers feel while playing the game, such as their facial expressions and heart rate.

Pagulayan added that he and his colleagues already collect additional data when they bring participants in to the lab by monitoring their eye movements and sweat from various parts of the body. But he doesn’t think these metrics are perfect yet. “I don’t believe there is a single ‘silver bullet’ measure that will make a huge difference on its own,” Pagulayan said. He foresees that measures for player response will incorporate some bigger-picture elements like those that Melcer has been working on, while also making sure that feedback is reproducible and easy for designers to understand.

As these tools improve, designers will continue to refine ways of getting players into that elusive flow state. “At the end of the day the experience that a designer is trying to create can be a very abstract thing,” Pagulayan said. “How do you measure something like fun?”

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How Are Video Games Fully Leaked Before Release?

If you’ve been reading the news regarding video games recently, you have seen that Nintendo’s new Super Smash Bros. game was uploaded onto the Internet before it was officially released. This led to Nintendo banning the accounts of people accessing the game online before the release date came around.

This is not the first time this has happened: games like Crysis 2, Spore, Half-Life 2, and Super Mario Odyssey reached players before the store shelves. How does this happen, and what are companies doing about it?

Product Leaks

The problem with having a product release countrywide on a specific day is that you can’t ship it to every store on that day. Trying to do so would just be a logistic nightmare! As such, the games are usually sent to the stores weeks before the release date. The employees then keep it tucked away in storage until release day, at which point it’s moved onto the shelves.

The more ambitious a launch a game expects, the more vital it is to have the game in-store on release day. This means games can be held in stock for long before the street date. Unfortunately, this gives people plenty of time to sneak a copy home and leak the contents onto the Internet. Super Smash Bros. was leaked when an employee from Mexico distributed the game from stocks.

Companies are trying to cut down on this method of leak by sending out the game as late as possible. While they can’t risk having the game missing from the shelves due to a late delivery, they can cut down on the amount of time it’s sitting in storage, ripe for the picking.

Source Code Leaks

Sometimes the source of a pre-release leak comes from the developers themselves. This can either be a malicious attack on a former employer, a hacking attack stealing a game in development, or simply code getting out into the wild. Half-Life 2 was originally hacked from developer Valve’s servers and leaked onto the Internet, causing the hacker to come under serious allegations with the law. Valve saw it unfit to release a game everyone had already played for free, so they remade the game to keep it fresh.

Of course, this is only fixable by keeping code under tight wraps! Locking employees out of their accounts before telling them they’ve been let go, as well as keeping the code itself tight and secure, are ways companies can prevent their code being leaked to the public before it’s ready.

Simple Mistakes

Sometimes a full leak isn’t due to people pilfering product from a store or a hacker gaining access to the developer’s database. Sometimes it’s down to an honest, well-meaning mistake. Players were excited to hear the next installment of the Yakuza series, Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life, would have a demo release before the main game came out.

The demo came out, but it had a strange file size: 35.6GB, roughly the size of a full game. Sure enough, players soon discovered that the demo was just the full game with restrictions placed on it. By circumventing the restrictions, players gained full access to Yakuza 6 two months before it was supposed to be released. The demo had to be pulled after the developers heard of this.

Sneak Peek at Leaks

Seeing full videogames leaked before the release date can be shocking and can damage sales of the game as a result. Unfortunately, there are many avenues through which a highly-anticipated game can be leaked. Developers and publishers have to take great care to stop games from reaching player’s hands before the release date.

Have any games you were looking forward to suffered a partial or full leak? Let us know below.

Image credit: Video game retail store, consumerism at its finest..

Simon Batt

Simon Batt is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for cybersecurity.

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Old Fish Bones Could Make The Eco

Plastics are a scourge in the land and sea and can cause harm to both human and wildlife health, but a more “green” alternative, other than drastically reducing our takeout containers and disposable straws, has been hard to come by. It turns out, the oceans that have felt the pressure from our plastic habit may hold a solution. 

[Related: Post-pandemic seafood could be more sustainable. Here’s how tech is driving the change.]

“Anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the landed weight of a fish ends up going into waste,” she says. With potentially 20 percent of that being oil, she says there is “surprisingly a lot of waste fish and waste oil that would be produced around the world.”

Instead of using phosgene, the toxic gas, to make plastics, in this fishier process, scientists first perform a chemical reaction of fish oil with hydrogen peroxide, Kerton says. Then, this substance reacts with carbon dioxide and an amine, which links up the molecules to form a polyurethane-like polymer. This substance can be turned into a stretchy plastic, which down the road could used for products like cling wrap or even medical wound dressing. “It’s fun to try and let our imaginations run wild and bounce ideas off each other of where it could be used,” Kerton says. In their previous iterations of this research, amines derived from cashew nut shells gave the plastic a unique reddish color.

The local aquaculture industry is interested in doing something with their waste material, says Kerton, adding that the fish oil extracted from this kind of waste isn’t high enough quality to be used in fish oil supplements. “Anything we can do to give them another product that they could sell would really help people living in rural communities.”

[Related: The sun can help break down ocean plastic, but there’s a catch.]

Creating plastic derived from biological materials, such as plants and algae, is hardly a new concept. Vegetable and soybean oil can also create bioplastics, but this fish oil-based plastic can exploit waste that would be destined for the trash instead of growing new crops for plastic, which can often be an energy-intensive process.

Taylor Weiss, an assistant professor in the environmental and resource management program at Arizona State University, researches how algae can be turned into bioplastic. Weiss, who was not involved in the fish oil plastic research, says it is a good idea to find ways to use fish waste in areas where it is especially prevalent, such as Newfoundland or Norway. “It’s great basic research; it will absolutely have its application in a certain place in certain markets,” he says. 

As we approach a future that uses fewer fossil fuels, Weiss adds, it is important to find biological sources that we can use to make plastic. “The more carbon we pump out of the ground, the more carbon we have to then pull out of the atmosphere. The more carbon that we keep on Earth and reuse on Earth, the easier it’ll be for everything.”

One of the most critical aspects of bioplastics is how fast and well they degrade in the environment, which would hopefully help prevent the addition of even more microplastic to oceans that plague waterways worldwide. “We’re still studying the biodegradation,” she says, so the specifics of how long it takes to degrade are entirely unknown, but when it is put into a “nice wet environment,” microbes start to break it down, which is a good sign for how it would fare in the real world. And in a world where our oceans are rapidly filling up with tiny plastics, finding a double-whammy of reducing waste and replacing the trickier substances we depend on becomes all the more enticing.

Humans And Neanderthals Could Have Lived Together Even Earlier Than We Thought

A broken molar and some sophisticated stone pointed tools suggest that Europe’s first known humans may have been living on the continent 54,000 years ago. The findings are detailed in a study published May 3 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE and suggests that the first modern humans spread across the European continent during three waves in the Paleolithic Era. 

[Related: Sex, not violence, could’ve sealed the fate of the Neanderthals.]

Homo sapiens arose in Africa over 300,000 years ago and anatomically modern humans are thought to have emerged about 195,000 years ago. Previously, it was believed that modern humans moved into Europe from Africa roughly 42,000 years ago, leaving the archaeological record of Paleolithic Europe withs many open questions about how modern humans arrived in the region and how they interacted with the resident Neanderthal populations. The 2023 discovery of a tooth in France’s Grotte Mandrin cave in the Rhône Valley suggested that modern humans were there about 54,000 years ago, about 10,000 years earlier than scientists previously believed. 

“Until 2023, it was believed that Homo sapiens had reached Europe between the 42nd and 45th millennium. The study shows that this first Sapiens migration would actually be the last of three major migratory waves to the continent, profoundly rewriting what was thought to be known about the origin of Sapiens in Europe,” study co-author Ludovic Slimak, an archeologist at and University of Toulouse in France, said in a statement. 

The newly analyzed stone tools from this study have further upended that timeline. They suggest that the three waves of migration occurred between 54,000 and 42,000 years ago. The team of researchers compared records of stone tool technology across western Eurasia to document the order of early human activity across the continents. It focused on tens of thousands of stone tools from Ksar Akil in Lebanon and France’s Grotte Mandrin (where the tooth was found) and analyzed their precise technical connections with the earliest modern technologies in the continent. 

The technology of the tools went through three similar phases in each region, Slimak said, so they may have spread from the Near East to Europe during these three distinct waves of migration. The study suggests Neanderthals only began to fade into extinction in the third wave–about 45,000 to 42,000 years ago. 

[Related: Archery may have helped humans gain leverage over Neanderthals.]

The team also looked at a group of stone artifacts that were previously found in the eastern Mediterranean region called the Levant, or what includes today’s Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Slimak compared the tools from Grotte Mandrin to the ones from Ksar Akil in Lebanon, noting similarities between them. The artifacts from a group of stone tools known as the Châtelperronian resemble the modern human artifacts seen in the Early Upper Paleolithic of the Levant. The Châtelperronian items date to about 45,000 years ago and scientists had often thought Châtelperronians were Neanderthals.

“Châtelperronian culture, one of the first modern traditions in western Europe and since then attributed to Neanderthals, should in fact signal the second wave of Homo sapiens migration in Europe, impacting deeply our understanding of the cultural organization of the last Neanderthals,” said Slimak.

A Good Night’s Sleep Could Help Vaccines Work Better

Feeling sleepy after getting a flu or COVID-19 vaccine? Go ahead and hit the hay. New research shows that getting a good night’s sleep around the time of your shots could be a boost for immunization. 

A review published in the journal Current Biology on March 13 found that adults who got less than six hours of sleep a night tended to produce fewer antibodies than those who got at least seven hours of sleep. The difference was on par with the decrease in antibodies two months after a brand new COVID jab. The authors didn’t specifically find data for the COVID shots, however—they combined and analyzed seven studies on influenza and hepatitis vaccinations to draw a broader conclusion on how rest benefits people’s immunity. 

[Related: The FDA says get used to COVID-19 vaccine boosters.]

The studies in the review looked at shut-eye in a number of different ways: motion-detecting wristwatches, directly measuring sleep in a lab, or self-reported sleep. The authors only found an association between vaccine strength and sleep in the studies that tracked sleep with devices or in the lab. The duration of self-reported sleep didn’t seem to affect the level of antibodies, probably because survey data is often inaccurate. 

All in all, those who consistently slept for seven or more hours had higher levels of antibodies. There is a big caveat here, though: The effect was only significant in men, and much more variable in women. “We know from immunology studies that sex hormones influence the immune system,” coauthor Karine Spiegel, a research scientist at the French National Institute of Health and Medicine, said in a press release. “In women, immunity is influenced by the state of the menstrual cycle, the use of contraceptives, and by menopause and postmenopausal status, but unfortunately, none of the studies that we summarized had any data about sex hormone levels.”

Additionally, the negative impact of poor sleep on antibodies was mostly prevalent in 18- to 60-year-olds rather. Older populations, however, tend to get less sleep in general. 

[Related: What to know about polio boosters, oral vaccines, and your medical history records.]

“When you see the variability in protection provided by the COVID-19 vaccines—people who have pre-existing conditions are less protected, men are less protected than women, and obese people are less protected than people who don’t have obesity,” Eve Van Cauter, professor emeritus of medicine at UChicago and senior author, said in a press release. “Those are all factors that an individual person has no control over, but you can modify your sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep is beneficial for many reasons—from cardiac health to maintaining a balanced weight to keeping mental health in check. And unlike many other maladies, it’s something most individuals can change directly. So resting up before and after your next trip to the doctor or vaccine clinic is probably not a bad idea. 

“The link between sleep and vaccine effectiveness could be a major concern for people with irregular work schedules, especially for shift workers who typically have reduced sleep duration,” Van Cauter added. “This is something people should consider planning around, to ensure that they are getting enough sleep in the week before and after their vaccines.”

Major Study Finds Video Games Don’t Hurt Or Help Your Mental Health

A University of Oxford study published on Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science journal found that the amount of time spent playing video games is unlikely to have a significant impact on well being. The study from the Oxford Internet Institute, with almost 40,000 individual gamers tracked over six weeks, is the largest of its kind and directly counters the narrative that gaming is harmful to mental health.

The Oxford study has quite a few things going for it. Unlike most previous studies, they collaborated with game publishers in order to get actual player data rather than relying on self-reported gaming time. Working with Nintendo, EA, CCP Games, Microsoft, Sony, and Square Enix, the study recruited 38,935 Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Outriders, and The Crew 2 players. 

Each participant was asked to fill out three surveys, sent to them via email. In every survey, one set of questions was related to their mental well being, and the other set about their experiences and motivations for gaming. Participants answered these questions at the start of the study, at two weeks, and at four weeks. The researchers used each participants’ game play data from the two weeks preceding each survey to investigate the effect—if any—of the amount of time each player spent gaming on their mental health.

After crunching the numbers, the research team found that time spent gaming had a “negligible” effect on mental well being. The study data suggested that the average player would have to play 10 hours more than they typically do each day for there to be a noticeable change to their mental health. There were some minor variations when researchers looked at player motivations and the different types of games, but on the whole there was no major impact. 

[Related: Inside the ambitious video game project trying to preserve Indigenous sports]

Of course, 40,000 players across seven games is a tiny fraction of the 3.2 billion people who play and the thousands of different games they play. There could well be more nuanced effects on sub-populations who play other games than the ones the researchers tracked. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (13,536 players) and Gran Turismo: Sport (19,073 players) were by far the most popular games in their dataset, but neither is representative of the kind of games most often criticized. 

Similarly, Dr Matti Vuorre, Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute says that “right now there is not enough data and evidence for policymakers and regulators to be developing laws and rules to restrict gameplay among certain groups in a population.” (Something that has happened in China.)

While this study has the largest dataset of its kind, it is not the only one suggesting that gaming is not the villain it is sometimes painted as. A secondary analysis of just the two online shooter games (Apex Legends and Outriders)  in the study found that time spent playing had no measurable effect on self-reported feelings of anger. Similarly, previous research by the same research group found that the players who spent more time gaming reported slightly greater levels of well being. There is also plenty of evidence suggesting that playing video games can improve cognition, boost your memory, and increase cognitive flexibility.

With all that said, it’s also important to note that with a large dataset like this, you are really getting a sense of the average effect of video gaming across the population, not on individual gamers. The World Health Organization recognizes video game addiction and organizations like game quitters provide incredibly compelling anecdotal evidence that games can take over peoples’ lives. It’s also easy to argue that the kind of people for whom gaming is a problem would be among the least likely to respond to a survey.

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