Mind games

It’s hard to explain if you’ve never played. Chess to me was one of the first games I remember having a complete infatuation with as a kid. My older sister by seven years grew up longing that her younger brothers would eventually engage enough mental ability to be come a more interactive playmate.

This was a process she did her best to speed up by trying to teach us how to read, play and compete at a very young age. Besides being able to read “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and “Goodnight Moon” before entering kindergarten, I also had a firm grasp on the basics of checkers and Go Fish.

Watching my sister and parents slide polished wooden figures of crowns, castles and horses across the board in what seemed like completely random ways fascinated me. With cool sounding names like pawn, king, rook and knight, I was dying to command my own army.

I begged to learn and my sister begged me to play and the two eventually met sometime after I began school. I don’t remember the first game or how old I might have been, but I remember cheating and faking most of the moves because at first I couldn’t keep it all straight.

After learning how to play came the dark, yet intriguing times of perpetual loss. I rarely grew tired of playing and I never won. A few years later my younger brother came into the strategic fold and my skills had increased dramatically; I may have even won a game or two.

Now before 10 I’d learned every board game I could get my hands on, chess, Risk and Stratego, were my favorites. My brother, although younger, shared my excitement and potential for the strategy games. He has adopted the life-long role of respected opponent on a number of competitive gaming fields.

Then this thing happened which changed the landscape of our pastime completely: Someone invented the video game.

In the early years, hopping a two-dimensional Italian plumber across a psychedelic world of carnivorous plants and hostile flying turtles (Mario Brothers) was great amusement, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the type of versatile competitiveness gleaned from a checked board.

Over the years, games developed with incredible speed.

Today, I log into my Xbox 360 account and join a team of eight comprised of nationalities across the globe. Our objective this Saturday afternoon is to capture our opponent’s flag, hidden deep in their base and guarded by a similar troop of eight players. Using the advantages of cover, superior fire power, flanking techniques and suppression, we were able to achieve our objective in a pitched battle of cooperation. The key to online victory is teamwork. It’s a game of strategic leverage mixed in with modern miracles of high definition and surround sound.

If you’re a person completely foreign to the concept of a modern video game, I feel you’re missing out on something completely remarkable. There are a lot of different games, but a few of the more strategic tend to be one of the three following. Puzzle-solving: like Tetris or Bejeweled or any mindless time versus pattern recognition and adaptation strategy games. (Tic-tac-toe anyone?)

First -person: You’re in the shoes of the hero, that barrel sticking out in front of you is the gun you’re carrying – now go find a friend and try and shoot in the right direction. In these “real-life” simulators, you have to pay attention to your environment, coordinate efforts with other players and know your game’s weaponry.

The third group are the true modern strategy games. They include complex arrangements of buildings, units and terrain. Some include tutorials that take up to an hour to complete which teach you the basics of managing a virtual economy, warfare and infrastructure growth. Think of SIM City and Risk, but on a scale of depth so great there is now way to explain them in general terms. These games tend to scare off most ordinary people because watching a person play can appear to be so very labor intensive – it seems more like real work. Honestly sometimes it is, but the challenge and competitiveness is what it’s all about.

Since we started playing games at about the time Nintendo was born to present, my brother and I gained an eerie perspective on just how far computers have come.

You see a common factor: playing any game often means matching wits against the computer. In the first decade that was a no-brainier. Computers are very fast and very organized, but they are also unable to adapt as well to a wide range of changing factors. In each match you find a number of convoluted differences from the last, which works against the Artificial Intelligence’s (AI) advantages.

AI is what a lot of gamers call the computer’s ability to compete with human players. They are infamous for being predictable, but relentless. A computer never gets caught up in the action or forgets to keep an eye on a weak point in the heat of battle – things people are prone to.

But a computer never seems to realize when to seize the moment or adapt quickly to a random development – something the human mind can do in a flash.

However, over the years I’ve had the strange sensation of watching these AIs develop into opponents that nearly mock every aspect of a human mind – something I must admit I thought they’d never be able to do. Spending the last two decades banging heads with computers in games of chance and strategy has given me a window of comparison into just how far technology has come.

The constant competitiveness and the drive to adapt to different games I have no doubt has only improved my mind’s ability to process.

So the next time you see the kids tapping away at the controller or the keyboard, remember there is worth to video games.

If you read this and have a hard time understanding where I’m coming from, remember what I said about chess. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never played.

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