Virtual Violence

When one man eyeballs another, whether they are 5 or 50 and it results in a combative invite to the car park after school, sooner or later you are going to run into someone who is better than you are. The course of events will guarantee that someday you are going to have the crap beaten out of you. When you do, for ever after you will never have a problem distinguishing real violence from simulated violence. If you have ever observed in the average Saturday night Australian pub an act of unfair violence, what we call a “King Hit” from a coward from behind or someone putting the “boot in” when someone else is down on the ground, you have no problem thereafter of distinguishing real violence from simulated violence. If you have ever seen mistaken violence caused by an unthinking act of senseless stupidity or learnt to your cost that before you are 25 years of age you were going to lose three of your friends to a drunken high speed car accident. Particularly if you have had the misfortune of seeing one of these instantaneous mishaps in the real world, distinguishing that from a car crash in a game is most definitely discernible. So does a kid playing nonstop, a first person shooter, a PvP (Player versus Player) game in a fantasy world, eventually become more violent and less caring in the real world?  I for one, suspect he doesn’t. Why? Well I for one, was surprised to discover that after 10 years training from a disciplined and dedicated Kung Fu master I became less violent rather than more. No matter what level of graphic card realism we can achieve in computer games I suspect the real smell of blood and fear will forever remain unmistakable.

The obese young man found dead of a heart attack over the keyboard of his gaming computer was so huge the wall had to be removed and a crane used to lift out his body for burial. His small single bedroom unit was stacked with empty home delivered pizza boxes and none of his neighbours had ever seen him. I venture to suggest this guy probably had an obsessive problem with gaming. Had he been the average active young gamer with a multitude of extracurricular pursuits, good social skills and reasonable behaviour no one would have had any reason for concern. This young man’s addictive gaming behaviour was most likely linked to distress originating from a combination of family problems, psychiatric conditions and social issues. Such underlying problems could have made him vulnerable to the negative effects of virtual violence in video games. Young men like this, sharing a similar fate place the media focus on the exception rather than the rule and are a result of lazy journalism during a slow day in a never ending sensationalist news cycle.

A number of studies recently have suggested that violent gaming does not increase violent behaviour. In one study after a 20-minute gaming session, a researcher pretended to drop some pens in front of players and noted how many helped pick them up. The experiment showed that regardless of whether the game played was violent or not, only about 40-60 per cent of participants helped pick up the pens. There was no correlation between violent game play and unhelpful behaviour.
“We fail to substantiate conjecture that playing contemporary violent video games will lead to diminished pro-social behaviour,” – Morgan Tear.

I know what you are thinking; I thought the same, not exactly scientific rigor was it? Forget the pens if the researcher had bothered to observe a group of players of World of Warcraft on a raid against a really tough “Boss” they would have reached the same conclusion. It is all about high speed observation, help and cooperation at the limit of your reaction time in a team effort to achieve that “epic win.” In fact WOW players will tell you the best “Raid” leaders are often the girls. They are measured, patient and non-judgmental even when the same dickhead makes the same mistake that gets everybody killed over and over again.

Just as many other studies contend otherwise. One concluded that although gaming boosts visual attention it may reduce the ability to inhibit impulsive behaviour. This is called “proactive executive control” and they believe its lack increases aggressive behaviour. Consider this however. I’m not fast, I’m old therefore playing a first person shooter is a real challenge for me. I die a lot. In “Battlefield 1942” I couldn’t even outrun the NPC (Non Playing Character) soldiers to get control of a tank or helicopter. When playing with my young nephew he just gunned them down to get control of the tank. I was shocked. “You just gunned down our own men” I said. He looked at me as though I was a total idiot and replied, “They are NPC’s it doesn’t matter.” I never thought of that. I do now. I have no trouble getting control of a tank or helicopter. Did my nephew turn into an aggressive young man? He did not. He is full of love and has a zest for life that fills every room he walks into.

Some researchers link attention problems and aggression to total screen time and violent games. “An individual overrides aggressive impulses with good executive control capability. Violent video gaming with high levels of total screen time reduce proactive cognitive control that can lead to aggression and attention issues.”
I read this and then think Wait a minute! This researcher has obviously never been a junior coach of a contact sport. In real life many a strident parent can be observed marching down the sideline screaming violent encouragement to a pre-pubescent child to inflict violence on an opposing child. Still the Australian Council on Children and the Media conference in Sydney concluded screen violence ”represents a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents. Exposure to screen violence in adolescence changed the development of young people’s brains, leading to increased aggression, reckless behaviour and decreased empathy.”
However in contrast the chief executive of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association of Australia, Ron Curry, said there was no ”strong evidence that violent video games can cause long-term effects on aggressive behaviour”.

Gamers counter claim that as gaming has increased, violent crime rates in the US have dropped. One study tracked retail game sales and reported crime found that a 1% increase in sales of violent games was linked with a .03% drop in violent crime.
“The real question is whether video games have a uniquely negative effect on those individuals compared to the many other activities and scenarios that they would routinely encounter in their daily lives. I suspect that video games would be one of many possible things that could affect those particularly vulnerable people but we would need good evidence to conclude that video games are any more harmful than other activities, such as playing basketball or chess.”– Morgan Tear.

It reminds me of the climate change debate. What side of the debate you are on depends on if you are a gamer or non-gamer. A definitive argument won’t be found anytime soon. Find out for yourself. Drop a pen and find out if your friend is an aggressive don’t care person or a caring, touchy feely pen lover. In the meantime ….. File……. Load saved game.

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Have you got Square Eyes?

When I was a kid, adults told me that if you watched too much TV you would get square eyes. I was always on the lookout but from that day to this I’ve never seen anyone with square eyes from watching TV. I’ve tried really hard. I had an old uncle that did nothing but watch TV and grunt a lot. He had grunts for everything. A hello grunt and a goodbye grunt. A grunt for get me a beer. He had a, I’m really pissed off grunt. If he had a happy grunt I never saw it. I studied him closely over many years and his eyes stayed exactly the same. They didn’t even look like they were getting square. Maybe its just kids it happens to but I don’t think so. “Spud” Jones was the first kid I knew with a TV in his room and his eyes are still round.

Kids hardly watch TV at all now. People 68 or older are the “Builder generation”. They watch more TV than any other generation. They were the ones that called the TV, the “idiot box” yet they watch on average 4 hours and 16 minutes a day while the Y Gen kids watch just 2 hours and 16 minutes. I wonder when kids are going to start saying: “You better watch out grandma, because if you sit in front of the “idiot box” for too much longer your eyes will go square.” These kids’ parents watch TV for 4 hours and 2 minutes a day, not far behind Grandma.

The Y Gen kids (19-33) spend 10 hours and 21 minutes a day consuming media according to Social analyst Mark McCrindle. The maths worries me. Add 8 hours’ work and 5 hours sleep (not healthy!) and we have 39 minutes left to smell the flowers, get sporty, get social and get laid. Just under 10 minutes for each every day. We might have to take account of multi-screening behaviour and multi-tasking even if it’s an equally worrying concept. Australia has just passed very tough laws on using a mobile phone while driving. No one has taken any notice of them at all and suicidal “texting” abounds. The middle generations spend about 3 hours 58 minutes on the internet, mostly on a desktop computer and not a mobile device like their children.

Smart phones are the third most used media device with the national average being 1 hour 12 minutes a day. The Y Gen kids will use a smart phone for 2 hours a day and grandma for 35 minutes.
With the boom of mobile gaming on smartphones, Australians now spend more time playing computer games than they do watching DVDs and movies.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the report is in the study of computer gaming across the generations. While Generation Y are the biggest gamers, spending an average of 36 minutes a day playing, they are just ahead of their grandparents who spend 35 minutes a day gaming in playing challenges like Sudoku to keep their brains active.”  – Rod Chester

The report, Australia: The Digital Media Nation released by McCrindle Research reports a 2 hour daily increase on the 2008 study. The one statistic that is going to increase dramatically is the average 29 minutes a day Australians spend using tablet devices.
It puts to bed the other myth adults told us as we “laid back” in the lounge room for another sedentary Sunday in front of the TV, that humans one day will be born without arms and legs. It’s the opposite we will have opposable big toes to grasp the steering wheel while we text and eat lunch on the way to work in peak hour traffic.

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Aussies use electronic gadgets for 10 hours a day, report reveals

Digital Dilemma: Ownership of Zero’s and Ones

Ultima 1, The First Age of Darkness released in 1981 was one of the first RPG games to leave the dungeon and come above ground. Even though the stick figure baddies looked like stick figure baddies with New Guinea head dresses we were at last out of the dark damp digital dungeon mazes of RPG’s like Wizardry. The Ultima series went through nine versions before becoming a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) with Ultima Online being released in 1997. The game is coming up to its 15th anniversary and is one of the originals of this genre. I have been playing it for 13 years of its 15 year life and still enjoy it to this day. But more of that later.  It’s the first time the word Avatar was used for your game character and the convoluted problem solving puzzles of the Ultima series 1 through 9 has been copied and emulated in nearly all games of this genre since. It was the creation of one of the most visionary game designers in the field, Richard Garriott.

The Ultima series had as a basic concept the development of virtues both good and bad. In Ultima Online he extended that idea from a single player format to a multiplayer one with unanticipated consequences. No one wanted to be good. Everybody wanted to be evil and lay in wait just outside the guard zones of the main city Britain and slaughtered new players indiscriminately and looted their bodies leaving a grey, naked ghost looking for a NPC (Non playing character) healer to resurrect them only to be slaughtered or pwned again. It didn’t do a lot for increasing subscriptions of new players so they duplicated the world into Trammel and Felucia. Hard core players called Trammel “Barney World, warm and fuzzy” where players just fought monsters but in “Fel” it was player versus player and you got slaughtered and looted on sight.

To be looted you had to own digital things worth having, or not really worth having but necessary to develop skills. If you wanted to be a carpenter you needed wood. To get the wood involved hours of mindless RSI mouse clicking on digital trees. You could do it yourself, you could pay a third world player to do it for you, you could use an illegal program script and watch TV while your character automatically chopped away or you could buy it on EBay. It was seeing all these in-game items for sale on EBay that first drew my attention to the legality or lack thereof around ownership of digital possessions.

This problem gained attention in 2005 when one player stabbed to death another player over the theft of a digital item.

Qiu Chengwei, 41, repeatedly stabbed Zhu Caoyuan after discovering that Zhu had sold the “dragon sabre” for 7,200 yuan (£464). Qiu had lent his friend the cybersabre last February, later reporting it as “stolenwhen he learned of the transaction. Police, however, told him that – as the disputed weapon was virtual property – he had no recourse to law.” – Amalie Finlayson

The legal argument on one side stated: “The armour and swords in games should be deemed as private property as players have to spend money and time for them.” – Wang Zongyu, an associate law professor at Beijing’s Renmin University of China.
Whilst on the other side of the argument: “The ‘assets’ of one player could mean nothing to others as they are by nature just data created by game providers.

Despite the various means players use to sell or exchange virtual items gained in their online worlds for cash or kind they are treading on dangerous ground. It’s a case of not reading the fine print.
It becomes clear that the dominant paradigm regarding ownership is that corporate entities retain ultimate control through the use of software license agreements, which are often poorly understood by end-users. With only a few exceptions, players have no legitimate ownership rights to artifacts that they perceive as their property in virtual worlds and, more importantly, often unwittingly waive copyright to works they might create in the course of their interactions in the world.” –  Benjamin Tarsa

In 2011 the online gaming industry was worth 25.1 billion dollars and increasing so we are not talking small change. The creation of a market for these items has developed regardless and it is likely that players will start to demand a change in end user agreements.

Yet, extensive markets have emerged as a result of perceived value in these items and have consequently transformed once imaginary artifacts into legitimate assets; entities that possess liquidity and may be transferable in exchange for capital. As more virtual inhabitants decide to invest in the creation, purchase, and sale of these virtual products, it is likely that they will begin to demand protection for the value of their licensed content.” –  Benjamin Tarsa

The problem has been compounded by the games companies actively selling items for players to use inside the game. When World of Warcraft offered a rideable winged horse for $25 dollars, it was reported that in the first four hours sales of the Celestial Steed netted Blizzard $4.4 million dollars. Players will use this kind of practice to argue for digital ownership rights. It doesn’t even touch on the minefield around digital theft whether inside or outside the game. Policing will be a bitch!

I don’t care what my end user agreement says, it’s taken me 13 years to get a castle with 4000 kick arse items particularly a full set of invulnerable armour and a vanquishing sword and it’s all mine, mine, mine!

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When it Started Not with a Bang but a Dice Roll

You had two choices. Either green or amber on black. Your incoming enemy was a dot of green or amber on a black screen. “Cant you see? its coming at me from behind and to the left, I am doing a spiral turn up and to the right so I can come in from behind and get my missile away.” My friend said.
“No all I can see is f***ing green dots!

Until you started to play the game yourself. You died while they were still dots but suddenly your brain flipped and you got spatial imagination. It just seemed to happen. Your brain got it and you were suddenly in 3D space, doing a spiral turn to the right to get in behind an attacking dot that was not a dot but an enemy galaxy class star fighter. I had no idea then of how important that skill would become later. That was my first encounter with star trader. We had heard a new monitor with four colours was on the way, an EGA monitor, but it was very expensive. In the meantime fun was had with green on black believe me.

Back then computing capability was doubling every two years and so were games but the first expressed parental concern with game addiction was not these new computer games but a board game called Dungeons and Dragons, a role playing game or “RPG.” There were newspaper reports of kids who should have been sustaining brain injuries playing football like normal kids but were dressing up in medieval costumes, spending hours madly mumbling and rolling dice under the mind control of some manipulative Machiavellian “Dungeon Master.” Parents were concerned, this was not natural behaviour. I can find no evidence of parents freaking out about playing Monopoly for too long, but Dungeons and Dragons was considered dark and devilish and messing with young minds.

Then Dungeons and Dragons went digital and this new genre of role playing games or RPGs has captivated and engaged players and concerned parents ever since. Back in the city the boys had moved on from “Space Invaders” and were now playing “Wizardry
The first Wizardry was one of the original dungeon-crawling role-playing games, and stands along with Ultima and Might & Magic as one of the defining staples of the genre.” – Lara Crigger.

Watching my friend I marveled at his mastery of this game. How did he know where he was going in that maze of levels and corridors? He had just got to level 20 and his main character “Bilbo” was at the highest level a character could attain, hours of painstaking work. Mazed out he went to bed leaving the PC unattended. His house mate said why don’t we get Bilbo and the rest of the party and have a quick look at level 20. As soon as we stepped out everybody died. You took your dead party back to the shrine and paid game money to resurrect them. When we got to “Bilbo” we got the message “Oops Ashes.” He was gone. Yes I mean really gone, digital dust, no backup no reboot, gone forever like real life. Can you imagine that happening in a game today? There you are with a fully geared up level 95 World of Warcraft Paladin, get killed and really die, I don’t think so. We tried to break the news with the old tried and true “We have some good news and some bad news”, but it didn’t work. He didn’t speak to us but thankfully 40 years on he no longer holds it against us.

I went straight home and bought that game and played it obsessively. It was my first confrontation with digital addiction and I badly beat myself up over it. There I would be late Sunday night after a lost weekend down in the dungeon painstakingly plotting my location on a piece of graph paper. Its only 2 o’clock in the morning, one more level before bed, tomorrow it’s only work. While I was at work I was thinking about the game and while playing the game I never thought about anything else. Continual mental beat-ups, “I’m just wasting my life away”, “what am I doing with my life?” came thick and fast, self administered guilt.

Until a really big job came up at work. The programmer had totally stuffed up an amalgamated accounting application for three large companies. Nothing was dropping into the reports correctly. To solve it you had to zero out everything, drop a dollar into one of the expense accounts and painstakingly follow it until it dropped out into one of the reports, follow it back and correct it. At first “smoko” on the first day the others asked me how many reports I had fixed. I had fixed ten to their two. They looked at me with awe. I had become a legend in my own lunchtime that day. I realised it was because I was capable of keeping a three dimensional twenty level maze in my mind, picture perfect. The accounting package problem was small change in comparison.

As a consequence I have never beaten myself up over the time spent playing a computer game. I have learned many other applicable skills gaming.
Is there such a thing as a destructive addiction to gaming?: Yes!
Am I attempting to trivialise the problem?: No!
Should parents become concerned over addictive gaming behaviour?: Sometimes.
Have I displayed addictive behaviour since?: Absolutely, but I get over it.
Its a phase thing. In the beginning you can’t get enough but then as time goes by you put it into perspective with the rest of your life. It’s either that or start going out with someone who games.

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When Games were Words

Every morning when I went into my friends terrace house next door he was having breakfast and reading the morning paper. He had book cases with books however it took me two years to realise he couldn’t read. As far as the government was concerned he could read. He could fill out a tax form, census and voting slip and pick up the gist of the news from the headlines. I think reading has to become intuitive for the pictures to come. The mental pictures I mean. I gave my niece a copy of Lord of the Rings when she was little and would read it to her when I visited. She went on to read it 17 times. When Peter Jacksons movie came out I rang my niece and told her I would not see the movie unless she told me my mental image of Gollum from reading would not be spoiled. She said see the movie. When Gollum came creeping down that cliff he was as I always imagined him to be from the words I had read. How did I find out that my friend next door couldn’t really read? We were both off work sick and he came into my place to hang out in mutual suffering. I was reading “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and having to put it down every few minutes to belly laugh. I mean really crack up, tears down the cheeks laughing. His look of pure perplexing confusion that words could be that funny made me realise he couldn’t really read. I started to read that book to him. I read to him all that day. The warmth of his reaction was a wonderfully rewarding experience as it also made me appreciate what a gift reading is when it is intuitively linked to imagination.

The first real games for a PC were text games. The first famous one was Zork in 1980.
West of House
    You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
    There is a small mailbox here.
So what are you going to do? “Look in the mailbox.” To do that you had to be able to write and spell.

I was working for a welfare agency dealing with unemployed youth. Many of them had very low literacy and numeracy skills. The only way to get them into literacy courses was to make them compulsory and not pay the unemployment benefit if they did not attend. You quickly learn that an illiterate adult hates to admit the fact. If they put the effort they put into hiding their illiteracy into becoming literate it would not be such a daunting task. At the start of each course you had a seriously hostile audience who already hated you. Consequently no one wanted to teach it, unless you were the newest employee and were ordered to. That was me. What saved me was a text computer game called “The Hobbit” running on a tape loaded Sinclair Spectrum personal computer.

From the very first lesson I never mentioned the word literacy. “I know none of you want to be here so we are going to spend the time playing a computer game, but you are going to have to do a little test at the start and the end.” My Dads expression “There is more than one way to skin a cat” is essential for any teacher with a hostile audience. They grumbled through the literacy test on that first day and then we got into the game. The first thing I learned was computers are non-judgemental. When you stuff up, only it and you know it and it is not telling anyone. So instead of getting hung up on stuffing up you will give anything a try.

When I got to work they would all be waiting at the door. If I was two minutes late I got a really hard time. “Where the f**k have you been? Johnny thinks he knows how we can get across the river!” It was fantastic, they collaborated, problem solved, argued and sometimes came close to punching each other’s lights out but we successfully completed the game. The text screen at the end simply saying “Congratulations” came nowhere near reflecting the sense of achievement we all felt. And guess what, the literacy test I gave at the end proved everyone had greatly improved over the time without ever having to do anything obviously literate.

The text game I played and remember with the greatest affection was “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” I had already loved the book, radio program and TV show for being so disarmingly different and uniquely funny. The game reflected all that and more. My problem was I never got to finish it. I hit a problem I couldn’t solve. Me and Marvin the manically depressive robot got to this door. The door asked me to prove I was intelligent before it would open and I never could. To this day I have no idea what is beyond that door. There was no world wide web, no Google to find a cheat. I tried many a bulletin board but no luck. I can’t imagine a game release now that would be designed to be too difficult for the majority of its player base and still be hugely successful. Pay $90 to never finish I don’t think so!

Down in the dusty and mouldy archives of my computing life is a saved game file still stuck at that damned door. The door had serious attitude problems and had mean and nasty ways of rubbing in the fact you were nowhere even close to proving yourself intelligent. I know I could now find the cheat but I would rather leave it be with the memories of me and Marvin outside the door.

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When the Games Began

Do you remember the first computer game you ever played? I lived in a world before computer games. What was before that you might ask? Not much, nothing in fact, especially in our little town. In our Cafe we had a couple of pinball machines, a pool table and one of those mechanic soccer player machines with a plastic player on each metal bar. To be a really great pinball wizard you had to always play on the edge of a “Tilt“. If you grabbed that old pinball machine and physically nudged or tilted it to make the ball roll your way you got the big score, if you nudged too far it would flash “Tilt” and you got no score. It no gamed you. I saw people curse and attack pinball machines over a Tilt. I mean its an inanimate object! When was this? When TV was so new you watched the “test pattern.” It was pretty new if you would watch nothing. My brother did. He sat watching nothing but the test pattern, wearing these stupid plastic mouse ears, waiting for the “Mickey Mouse Club” to start at 4:30. Not me I was on my horse, my dogs let loose, my Winchester pump action 22 rifle loaded in my hand. Off to nail a feral fox or two before sundown. I must admit I was 15 so I did watch the opening dance before I left. Particularly the female mickey mouse musketeers to see if anything moved. Nothing ever did. They must have made those girls wear caste iron bras back then. Even so it was worth waiting for. After that I was gone. Who would want to stay in a house in daylight with a 2000 acre farm and hundreds of miles of state forest on your doorstep? Not me, but I digress.

You have to be very careful about making friends with people who are in Rock bands. Especially when you come from the country and wear white socks and white leather shoes. They gleefully lead you astray, they really do. When they do and leave you morally stranded they laugh rather than apologise. The more you protest the more they laugh. Also they are really good at managing idle time. If you hang out with them long enough you too will become idle. While I was being idle with them I discovered the forerunner of the first computer game in a Cafe they took me to on Bondi Beach. Its the only thing I do remember from that holiday in the city with the boys in the band. I discovered “Space Invaders” in that Cafe. There were so many people playing you either sat in the place for hours waiting your turn or rang up to see if a “John Wayne” was still at the machine. A “John Wayne” was someone who got a perfect score every time and so a free game every game. But every “John Wayne” had to take a piss sometime. Everybody had their 20 cents lined up in order and in a line leading up to the coin slot. “Space Invaders” was my first exposure to the addiction of electronic engagement. I was a “Greenhorn”, never got a free game but still I loved it, never looked back, a gamer from that day to this.

The story of the first Arcade and tape loaded PC game is one of insight and serendipity. Nolan Bushnell  while studying at Utah university was looking after a DEC mainframe with a friend. A primitive coded “Ping Pong” game was on the mainframe and the two of them spent late night idle hours in monotonous maybe maintenance playing “Pong”. Bushnell’s friend commented that if someone could put this game in a cabinet with a twenty cent coin slot and place it in an Arcade they would make a fortune. His mate did nothing about it but Bushnell did and he is now considered by Newsweek as one of the “50 Men Who Changed America.” While at Atari Bushnell was involved in a release of a version of the original arcade game “Space Invaders” designed by Tomohiro Nishikado.

I was given a very challenging teaching task when I was employed to do some one on one teaching with a 14 year old boy Danny. Danny had cerebral palsy and intellectual impairment and spent a day at the Challenge Foundation each week. It was a wonderful organisation helping kids with severe disabilities. They had just bought one of the early 286 IBM clone computers and thought it might be used to improve the motor skills of kids like Danny. Danny couldn’t manage to touch an individual key on a normal keyboard. I hunted all over the country until I found a company in Melbourne who sold huge keyboards with big keys for disabled kids. I remembered “Space Invaders” and bought the Atari version. We didn’t do too good at first but behind that kids hunted and haunted eyes was a steely determination. Every week for six months we tried and failed but still had a lot of fun. Despite no real means of communication other than mutual affection we became close. Then one day he nailed one. Caught us both by surprise. The look on that kids face is still one of my finest teaching moments. His face lit up, I danced a jig around the room and word spread like wildfire through the joint. Everybody came in on the cry “Danny got one.” His beaming smile was in the centre of everyones hugs, back slaps and high fives. The thing is once he got that first one he got more every week. He got in that wonderful gamers zone of focus, attention and dexterity. Running on a human algorithm.

I don’t know what happened to Danny. The funding ran out and the place closed down. However it was the start of my belief that computer gaming is good. Its a theme I will be returning to, so watch this space!

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