Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Are you controlling the computer or is it controlling you?

Microsoft XP isn't a barrel of laughs — except for one feature.

Microsoft engineers put some games into the operating system. Not games like "find the missing DLL" or "Where's the error in the registry," although those can give you hours of enjoyment. Not enjoyment, really, more like barely controllable rage.

No, these games are called games and they're actually games. Solitaire, battleship, a few other ones, and pinball.

Pinball games for computers are generally crummy. The ones for Mac OS X are worse than that; they seem to have been designed by apes with low self-esteem.

The Windows pinball game is pretty good. The physics and speed are good, meaning that the ball moves and bounces like a real ball. The other element is how fast the ball rolls down the playing field. Here too, Windows pinball is fine.

Consequently, it is possible to waste incredible amounts of time tapping the z and / keys to operate the flippers, aiming at targets, and generally keeping the ball in play.

But, what's going on here (other than putting your job or marriage in jeopardy)?

Are you really playing pinball? No. You are using a simulation of pinball. The simulation and the real thing are pretty similar. They involve moving your index fingers. On a real pinball machine you would be compelled to stand.

Most other computer or video games are also simulations. Most of the simulations are of activities you could not or would not engage in, like killing, crashing cars, flying fighter planes, and performing various sports.

These non-pinball games depend on manipulating symbols. "O" fires a missle, "X" is a kick to the head, and so on. All actions are mapped onto a controller with about a dozen controls. What are our brains actually doing?

Once the controls are memorized and become second nature, we translate an action into a push button, which changes values in the program and makes an action happen on the screen.

So we think the game is the simulation, while really, the simulation is happening in the brain.

Will humans eventually shun the real world and manipulate symbols, instead?

Or are we almost there?

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