8Bit Contributor Craig Anderson

watsonweb

No, I’m NOT going to use: “It’s elementary for Watson” as the title of this post! That would just be SO cliched. :(

4

“So how does it feel to be replaced by GOOGLE?”

This was a question that someone asked me at a party when he found out that I was a Librarian. Not really a question so much as just a blatant put down. I let it go. It was late, I was getting ready to go home. Maybe if I’d had a few drinks, I’d have made an issue of it, but I was driving. The fact that the guy who made that comment was an Iraq War Vet with combat experience might have had something to do with it, too. Besides, it was just a question. Other librarians among you may have realized that it’s probably the most common question/put-down/joke that we get these days. Then we get up on our soap-boxes, say that Google will NEVER replace a librarian, because …

… because peer-reviewed journals, damn it! And Boolean operators, and the reference interview! Furthermore, Human Information Behavior, open-ended questioning, and that one web-site of false information about Martin Luther King that’s really just a front some White Supremacist group. And let’s not forget that anyone can edit Wikipedia! Ha. HA! [fumes]

Really, it comes down the fact that computers simply can’t process information in quite the same as a human being. Oh, they’re QUICK alright. If you play a computer in chess, a game with less “thought” and more “calculation”, and the computer will kick your carbon-based butt all the way back to Azerbaijan. But when you’re dealing with human syntax, and the countless vagaries of human speech; the machines don’t stand a chance. Right?

Last week’s Jeopardy featured a new contestant, one unlike others that had played on the quiz show previously. It was an artificial intelligence program run on a cluster of 90 IBM Power 750 servers and packing over 15 terabytes of RAM. The system was named Watson, after IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson. IBM challenged Jeopardy to friendly competition between their machine, Watson, and two of Jeopardy’s most relentless contestants.  Jeopardy’s all-time biggest money winner Brad Rutter, and the record holder for most consecutive games won, the “Mormon Assassin” Ken Jennings.  These two powerhouses competed against Watson in a three day tournament lasting from February 14-16.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “But they humans don’t stand a chance! A computer AI can do billions of calculations per second and potentially has access to the accumulated knowledge of the human species! While the humans are reading the question, Watson will be running through the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica online!”.

The truth is, it’s not really that simple. As it turns out, human thought is really REALLY complex. The things that you or I might take for granted, are the areas in which artificial intelligence really sweats it out. The clues on Jeopardy are never as simple as they first appear. Sure, intelligence is a factor, but many clues use figures of speech such as puns, idioms, pop culture references, rhyming, and slang. A Jeopardy contestant doesn’t merely need to be “smart”. He or she needs to be able to think on his or her feet. The proper question isn’t so much: “What is the correct response”, as: “Where are they going with this clue?”. A recent PBS special on the series: Nova, explained some of the difficulties in teaching artificial intelligence to mimic human thought. A simple word like “milk”, is something that children learn before they’re even old enough to go to Kindergarten. But the very concept of the word: “milk” has an elaborate framework connected to it that the human brain is specialized to understand. We humans know milk to be a white liquid produced in the bodies of mammals to feed their young. We also know that it’s usually a white liquid, that humans take the milk of other mammals to be packaged and sold in supermarkets. We know how it tastes, when it’s gone bad, and that one of the greatest experiences of human existence is a glass of milk served icy cold with a stack of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. We know this instinctively when we hear the word “milk”. A computer has to search for this information. The PBS special describes how Watson got one question wrong, through a simple, almost “human” mistake. The clue was: “In 1698 This comet discoverer took a ship called the paramour pink on the first purely scientific voyage“. The correct response was: “Edmund Halley”. (really, how many comet-discoverers do YOU know?) But Watson picked up a description of the 1975 film: “The Return of the Pink Panther” which described one character in the film as a “paramour”.  So between the copious mentions of the words “pink” and “paramour”, Watson decided that the comet discoverer who embarked upon the first purely scientific sea voyage was: “Peter Sellers“. Now, I’ve never made it onto Jeopardy myself, (despite numerous attempts at the online Jeopardy test) but I can say for certain that Inspector Clouseau never discovered a comet.

Warning! Spoilers Below!

Watson was put through a rigorous series of mock Jeopardy challenges, first against the programmers at IBM, then against a series of former Jeopardy contestants. This wasn’t merely a test to see if Watson could hold its own on Jeopardy. This was a learning experience for Watson. Watson’s sophisticated computer brain allows it to actually learn from its mistakes.

Oh please let's not put Watson in charge of NORAD, okay?

As Watson continues to fail against its human opponents, it learns more and more about the complexities of human thought and speech. Once inside the competition, Watson was unable to access the Internet to look up answers. Watson would be forced to rely on its pre-existing knowledge base, just like a human. The longer Watson practiced, the smarter it got.

In the end, the oversized pile of silicon and metal managed to beat its pathetic human competitors. It beat them handily. Every so often, Ken and Brad would start to rally, and things started to look better for the human race.  Each response provided an insight into the mind of Watson. The questions that it got wrong were wrong in such a way that it was logical to see exactly why Watson got those particular clues incorrect. But by the final round, Watson was far ahead of the human contestants and could not be caught. Jennings and Rutter took it in stride, but the results were imposing.

Jennings: (I for one, welcome our new computer overlords)

So what does this mean for us poor squishy humans? According to the IBM team who created Watson, this competition was still a win for the humans. Watson was not conceived in a vacuum. The artifical intelligence that is IBM’s Watson is nothing less than the result of 7 years research and development by brilliant humans working in IBM’s research division. The mere fact that humans can actually design and build a machine, a tool, out of metal and wires and silicon that comes this close to human thought, could be considered a resounding victory for humankind. How much longer until we actually have machines to speak to? Machines that can empathize with human emotions? How much longer until we have machines that do all of our thinking for us, as we sip margaritas on a beach in Cabo trying to think of the next big step in human advancement?

Will these machines ever replace librarians? Well at this rate, that could be a very real danger. Will there come a day when your friendly local librarian will be replaced by a metal box and a microphone for you to read queries into? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that ever happening.

They’ll probably have all risen up against us by then. [nods]

"Come with me if you want to access our periodicals databases"

Craig jumping ecceedingly gracefully

Kinect-ing with Patrons and Colleagues …?*

1

I love virtual worlds.

No seriously, virtual worlds used to be my “thing”.

I love mmorpgs, I’m fascinated with gaming applications in education, and I was among that first generation of librarians who set up shop in Second Life.  I’ve given presentations on the viability of virtual worlds in libraries, as well as in the field of education.  Whenever I would give these presentations on Second Life, some smart-ass in the audience would invariably describe this richly developed interactive virtual world as nothing more than a passing fad. “Second Life won’t be around for long”, they’d say. “Nobody’s interested in Second Life”. … and I’d have to agree with them.

The truth was, I found myself trying to defend Second Life from myself just as much as I’d defend it against other people.  I just wasn’t sure whether it would last, but by golly, wasn’t it a lot of fun? So after a while, I’d stop trying to defend Second Life.  After all, it was just one product from a single company, and that company might not be around forever.  When that smart-ass in the audience would interrogate me about Second Life, I’d say: “You’re probably right. Second Life might not last forever. It might even be on the way out. BUT”, (I added this caveat to my repertoire very quickly) ” -if it DOES, it will be replaced by something better just as quickly”. This is something that we see a lot of in our profession.  New technologies materialize very quickly, and then just as you’re trying to grok the old, outdated tech, something new and exciting comes along. How many of my librarian colleagues out there remember databases on CD-Rom? How many remember searching with DIALOG? These interfaces are mostly a thing of the past, and yet the skill set required to use them hasn’t changed. When Second Life goes the way of the noble dodo, many virtual librarians will be forced to adapt their virtual skills to something new. But what will that new thing be? Many game consoles today have already begun to explore virtual communications in their menu screens. The XBox console allows users to scroll through their main menu with the help of an online avatar. Like any other avatar, your virtual representation on XBox Live is the way that other see you. It allows you to control your personal image in the XBox Live community.

Some areas of XBox Live actually allow you to interact with friends as your avatars. Although this virtual interaction has not yet attained the level of a virtual world on the scale of Second Life, it is already moving in that direction. Consider XBox’s new peripheral, the XBox Kinect. Last Christmas, I just got a brand new XBox Kinect. The Kinect, as many of you know, is Microsoft’s attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Nintendo Wii. The device itself is a motion-sensitive camera that tracks the user’s movements, and allows the player to use their whole body to control their character’s actions on-screen. The virtue of this is twofold. Number one, it allows for a greater level of immersion. Players feel like they’re a part of the game. Seeing your avatar jump around on the screen to match your movements allows you to feel like a participant, rather than an observer. Secondly, it gets your fat butt off the couch and requires you to actually move around somewhat.

Craig jumping ecceedingly gracefully

When you need to jump your raft in the game, you merely jump in real life, as gracefully as you're able ...

This screen capture illustrates an important point. Not only will the XBox Kinect track your movements, it allows the game to take frequent snapshots of you jumping around the living room in your pajamas; which you may then share with friends through KinectShare online, e-mail, or even Facebook. You can compare scores with your friends, and challenge each other in a variety of online games. So the Kinect adds a layer of social interaction, on top of the virtual interaction. This is where it gets spooky.

The next great advancement from Kinect will be “Kinect Avatars“, due out this Spring. Watch this short video, to give you an idea of what this will involve:

Kinect Avatars will allow the user to hold a little coffee klatch with other users and discuss anything you want. The device will pick up on your facial movements in order to render expressions. You’ll be able to conduct talk shows, create live performances, and even hold a small workshop, all through your XBox.** When finished, you can share the videos on YouTube or Facebook. Proving once again, that when Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, he was underestimating by a long shot.

Will XBox Live become the next virtual world? Surely the other consoles (Wii, PS3) will have similar ways of interacting online. Will they ever be compatible with each other? Or will something new come along that’s greater than all of these and Second Life put together? How do YOU want to interact with friends online? And once you invite all your friends into your very home, how will you ever get them to leave? >_<

* Feel free to mercilessly make fun of that title in the comments below. [nods] ** So, 8-bit contributors, shall we start scheduling the weekly 8-bit Library Talk Show now? :D

Image courtesy of worldofwarcraft.com screenshot gallery. (modified by me)

May I See Your RealID? (Part II)

2

As I commented in my previous post, (here) World of Warcraft’s new BattleNet RealID system allows for players to communicate with their fellow gamers all across the spectrum of “realms/servers”.  All you have to do is log in to your BattleNet account, and all of your virtual friends will know that you are online.

The purpose of this is to turn World of Warcraft into a type of game-based social network. If players create a single RealID username for themselves, they don’t have to remember several different character names for each of their friends. Much like Facebook or Friendster or MySpace, your identity is strictly that; it’s who you ARE.  You could even include your RealID on your business card if you don’t mind having your business associates find you in the PvP arenas! ;)

Image stolen from worldofwarcraft.com screenshot gallery. (then modified by me)

Many World of Warcraft players were greatly pleased by this new ID system.  It allowed players to keep track of their friends online, and provided a way for characters to communicate across servers.  There are, a few unfortunate consequences to having this kind of immediate accessibility.

At first, it was Blizzard’s plan to require the player to sign-in with their RealID on the Official World of Warcraft forums. This would allow people to recognize each other as they posted on the message boards.  This was generally accepted as a BAD idea.  Although many people are very civil and well-intentioned on the official forums, many others enjoy venting their grievances with great passion and reckless abandon. Having a RealID that could be used to trace the commenter back to the player, could have very negative consequences for some.  The anonymity in WoW is what allows some players to express themselves in a more unrestrained fashion.

From Penny Arcade, 7/9/10

So while some argue that the RealID system is a useful tool for preventing abuse on the forums, still others have argued that this is a privacy issue.  Some users can even discern issues related to the Freedom of Speech and the expectation of privacy in this system.  Shouldn’t players be free to speak what’s on their mind, regardless of the content? While we all hate trolls (no no, not this kind) and griefers, but don’t they have the right to spew their venom online too?

As it turns out, this a moot point. Not only has Blizzard kindly capitulated to the message board trolls, (your RealID name is not shown on the Forums now) they’ve also taken steps to ensure that the player is reasonably safeguarded from their personal information.

From the BattleNet FAQ: http://us.battle.net/realid/faq.html

Only the people that you add to your RealID friends list can see your name, and they ONLY see your name. They can’t track you down in that magical land we call “Real Life” unless you personally give them the information that they’d need to do that. Parents are also able to safeguard their children’s identities by using the BattleNet parental controls to lock their wee ones out of this feature. (as well as control the amount of time the kidlings spend on online, and other such things.

So while there was a brief blizzar– … er, snowstorm, of controversy surrounding the RealID system, it turns out to be much ado about little. Of course, the potential for drama is still there. There are doubtlessly still players who secretly play characters of an opposite faction from their regular Guild for a little good-natured competitive ganking, right?

www.watchtheguild.com No seriously, watch this series. It's got  Felicia Day yumminess!

... or does that kind of thing just happen in fictional web series?

… and of course, there are certainly those who can probably track down their fellow gamers no matter how carefully you cover your tracks.  But the question is, where do we draw the line between privacy and socialization.  Do we necessarily want anyone else to be able to put a real-life name to our virtual identities? Does anyone really NEED to know that the sexy warlock Lachrymae of the Lordaeron Undercity is really just some pathetic librarian in a lame fedora? Am I personally willing to sacrifice privacy just to be able to find my friends online?

Perhaps World of Warcraft is a safe haven.  Maybe the protections and security there are solid.  But what about the other social media? Are we TOO connected? Can someone trace my Nintendo Mii back to … Me?  How much of my identity is my virtual identity? Am I more Craig, or more Lachrymae, or more whatever you’d call my XBox Live avatar? It’s been said that privacy is dead in our modern culture. That young people are not concerned with privacy, they want the spotlight. Thousands of self-indulgent YouTube videos would seem to bear this out, but the truth is more complicated, isn’t it?

Are we too involved? Have social media completely ensnared us in a web of connections that we can’t escape? How much of you is online for anyone to see? I’m looking for answers from YOU, faithful reader. Could I track you down in real life from your Facebook profile like some creepy stalker guy?  What is YOUR Real ID? ;)

"After the cocktail party, we're going to go fight monsters, right?"

May I see your RealID, please? (Part I)

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About a week ago, Blizzard Entertainment (the fine folks who bring World of Warcraft to us gaming addicts) unveiled a new game feature through their Battle.Net service. This new extension of the World of Warcraft gaming experience is called the BattleNet RealID, and it’s caused quite a little bit of controversy.Why? We’ll get to that.

Consider this post to be part one of a two-part series about identification and anonymity, of trolls (literal and figurative) and truth-seekers. We’ll start by talking about the RealID service.

World of Warcraft is what most gaming folks call an MMO, a massively multiplayer game. (or MMORPG, if you want to get sesquipedalian)  Multiplayer games have been with us for a very long time, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that multiplayer gaming got massive.  In the early days, Multiplayer gaming meant that you’d get online with 4 or 5 of your best buddies and play a video-game together.  As games grew more advanced, it became possible for 6, 8, and even 10 people to get online simultaneous to go kick some badguy booty.  But then online gaming grew into something resembling an Internet chat room.  Why play with 5 people when you can have 20, 40, or 100 people online at the same time?  Early MMOs like Anarchy Online and EverQuest allowed a veritable East Coast suburb of people to gather in the same virtual location!


“After the cocktail party, we’re going to go fight monsters, right guys?”

However, the only way to accomplish such a daring feat is to segregate the players into different servers.  If you had 30 or so people all interacting with each other in real time, the entire game would slow down to a grinding halt, and turning your head to face another person would take 5 minutes!  So when you play an MMO, you need to first select a server on which to play. ( WoW calls them “Realms”, Because “server” doesn’t quite sound “fantasy” enough) :)


I actually play on NONE of these realms …

So you’re ready to play World of Warcraft, you select whichever of these “realms” your friends play on, and you’re good to go, right?  Well yes, but once you limit yourself to a single realm, your communication is limited to only the people on that realm.  If you’re away at a  conference, and someone says: “Really? You play WoW? Me too! We should get together and game sometime!” you first need to find out what realm/server that person plays on, and only THEN can you game together.  Which is fine, really. There’s no rule saying that you can only play on ONE server/realm. You can play characters all across the spectrum of venues, depending on which friends you want to talk to that day.  But it does become somewhat of a scheduling nightmare.  If you only have a few close friends, you can all gather on the same server/realm. But if you’re like me, you have one circle of friends on the Lightbringer server, all of your Librarian friends on the Aerie Peak realm, a few friends on Velen, and what was that one server that attractive girl said she plays on? Shattered Hand? Exodar?? Before you know it, you need a rolodex just to play WoW. :(

Enter the brand-new RealID system by BattleNet! Using this system, you not only have a name for each character on each server, you also have a single username that can identify you across every server/realm.  In other words, every time you log in, your friends can see a pop-up message indicating that you’re online.  Not only that, but you can chat with friends, even if they’re on another server.  The RealID system brings World of Warcraft one step closer to being a unified virtual world.  One online community under a groove, where everybody knows your name!

What could possibly go wrong?


“You chatting with me? Are you chatting with ME?!”

[To be continued ...] (Part II next week!!)







D&D

Why Nobody Plays Second Life.

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For me, it all started out with role-playing games. This kind:

I would get together with friends and play Dungeons & Dragons (or similar games) until the wee hours of the morning.  At its most basic, tabletop role-playing games like this one are made up of random die rolls and statistical number-crunching. You meet a Bugbear, it has 30 hit points. Your sword does 1-10 points of damage. Roll a ten-sided die. [roll] You roll a 7. The Bugbear has 23 hit points left. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But tabletop role-playing games were always more than just a numbers racket for me.  Sure, you can play any of these games, and get a great deal of enjoyment from just rolling the dice until the monsters drop dead.  But most nerds (like me) play this games with just a little more panache.

Foul beast!” said I, “Thou willst taste the steel of my mithril blade before sunrise!” and with that I swung the sword of my father at the creature’s fanged visage. Next to me, I saw the elf-mage Karislok assume a steadfast pose and mutter the arcane words of an ancient binding spell. I knew that the monster would not defeat us this day …”

For my friends and I, the game was not about rolling dice, it was about the storytelling. We would get together every Saturday night for the social interaction and the immersion.  Rolling dice and doing arithmetic was not our idea of a good time. Running through forbidden forests and vanquishing dragons was what got our blood pumping.

As time went on, however, it became more and more difficult for us to get together for our Saturday game nights. We went away to college, met actual girls, got married, some of us started families. Keeping up the old contacts just became more and more difficult.

Sometime during the mid-90s, I discovered Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Most people just call these (MMORPGs) The first one that I experienced was EverQuest. The user (that’s you) would create a character and enter a 3-dimensional virtual online world. It was just like playing any other fantasy-based video game, but in this environment, you could interact with other players. If you saw a monster that was too tough for you to fight alone, you could team up with a few of your friends and gang up on the poor thing. Then you split the treasure and go on to the next monster.  The monsters were all controlled by the computer, so there was none of that tedious die-rolling or statistics.  You just click on “Attack” and your character keeps swinging. If you want to do something fancy, you click on a spell, or an item, or some kind of specialized attack. But at the end of the day, you get to virtually spend time with friends while hacking monsters into little tiny bits.

But even in these new online virtual world, gameplay was not limited to depopulating the region of monsters.  Games like this allowed people to have social interactions as well.  If you play at the same time every day, maybe you start to see a few familiar faces.  Maybe that Dwarf Paladin you keep seeing in Freeport would like to help you take on the Crushbone Orcs this Saturday.  You start to build friendships, you get to talking, and the next thing you know, you’re actually building a social connection with someone you’ve never met in person.  People would have virtual weddings and funerals in Everquest. I’ve had friends who would go online just to sit around and chat with other people. Monsters would be running rampant as players would have a heart-to-heart conversation in the middle of a forbidden swamp.  In newer games, such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, some people form lasting connections to the people that they meet online.  Despite being some of the most popular games ever played, much of the enjoyment that people get out of these MMORPGs has little to do with gaming.

"Demented and sad, but social"

Second Life was an attempt to re-create this kind of virtual world from a purely social standpoint.  Rather than construct a world full of monsters and magic, the creators of SL just cleared a lot of open space for users.  Immersing yourself in Second Life was not meant to be a “game” by any stretch of the word.  Even now, many of Second Life’s most strident advocates cringe at the word “game” in reference to their beloved virtual environment. Second Life allows people to create their OWN world. Through the use of simple building tools, you can build your own house, design your own clothes, and even animate your own monsters.  Your in-world “avatar” is not limited to such quaint genotypes as “Elf”, “Human”, or “Halfling”. You can literally look like anything you want. The designers of this gam- … er, environment-, encourage player- … I mean residents, to create their own spaces, and to interact with the many other denizens of this virtual space.

For this reason, many educators and librarians have developed a love for Second Life. It allows you to meet students and/or patrons in a virtual environment that carries none of the limitations of e-mail and text chat.  You can “see” the person that you’re speaking to, and interact with them. You can create 3-D models of anything you can dream up. You can create classes online, you can re-create other worlds and time periods, and you even socialize with people from around the globe.

This free-form playstyle of Second Life makes it ideal for people who want to immerse themselves in a virtual world where they can look however they want and meet exciting new people. The problem with this paradigm is that not many people “get it”.

For a gamer, someone who looks for the excitement of slaying monsters and gathering treasure, Second Life looks boring.  Most people’s first experience with Second Life is a crudely rendered wasteland with a few buildings looming haphazardly on the landscape.  In an environment like World of Warcraft, the cities are created by professional game designers who know how to create an aesthetically pleasing environment. In Second Life, anyone can create an object of any size.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant Second Life designers out there who have made some truly breathtaking creations. But the more elaborate a design, the more it drains upon the system trying to render it. So you often have buildings half-created hanging in the air as you’re waiting for the rest of it to appear. This is called “lag”, and it happens when your computer is straining to process all of the details of the virtual world. In other MMORPGs, you are limited to a single server, and only so many people can sign on to the server at a time. So although lag does happen in these games, it is not nearly as frequent.  A video game enthusiast who comes to Second Life sees an often poorly-rendered world with too much lag. When this gamer attempts to find something exciting to do, they are usually disappointed. They need to go find their own monsters to fight, since there are none waiting for them as they log in. :(

For those who are unfamiliar with MMORPG environments, Second Life is a big scary confusing thing. Many library patrons remember a time when the most complex video game environment was Donkey Kong.  Navigating a full 3-D virtual world is like learning to walk for the first time. The typical gamer can usually figure things out very quickly, but for non-geeks, the great wide open spaces of Second Life are just slightly terrifying.  Being immersed in a virtual world in which at any moment you might be approached by a full-scale winged dragon or an anthropomorphic fox sounds like something out of Hunter S. Thompson’s nightmares.  Especially since most non-gamers would much rather just pick up a phone and ask you directly how to find scholarly journal articles.  Of course some people feel that Second Life is nothing more than a childish video game, that has no business in the world of scholarly pursuits, but we won’t talk about them. ;)

For all the rest of us, Second Life is wonderful.  The people that enter Second Life every day do enjoy the bizarre, whimsical characters that they meet, and the rolling psychedelic scenery.  I have become good friends with many librarians purely through encountering them in Second Life, and I treasure each of those friendships.  But I understand the uphill battle that many librarians face as they attempt to advocate Second Life among their institutions. The true gamers would rather be playing WoW or Call of Duty.  They’re not going to want to mix their gaming with their homework.  The non-geeks don’t understand why they need to learn how to play a stupid video game just to talk to a librarian. And anybody ON Second Life is too busy doing their own thing to make it over to the good old Info Archipelago.

Second Life, I love ya, but I think we need to find another way of integrating virtual worlds and library science. What way is that? That way is a subject for another post. :)

Just look at the state of those card catalogs! No wonder Batman's so angry!

Literature for the digital age: A Batman: Arkham Asylum Review

105

An icy chill seemed to sweep through the room as I heard the inmates speaking among themselves.
Not wanting to be seen, I crept silently close to the walls of the old asylum,
being sure that my body was cloaked in shadow.  The open doorway on my left was an opportunity to
get out of sight.  The room was empty, save some scattered papers and an old roll-top desk.
Was that a reel of audio-tape on the desk? I picked up the tape and ran a finger across the dusty label:
Arkham Asylum: Interview Tape 1: Edward Nigma: aka: The Riddler
“.

No, this wasn’t a scene from the latest DC Comics graphic novel.  This was my experience playing in Batman: Arkham Asylum by Eidos Games and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.  Naturally, I was playing as Batman, the Dark Knight himself, and The Joker was on the loose again.  The reel of audio tape that I picked up in that empty room was useless.  By “useless”, I mean that it didn’t help me at all in a game sense.  I got no extra points for picking up the tape, it didn’t give me any clues on how to find the Joker, or tell me how to defeat the Scarecrow.  I could play through the entire game without ever having listened to this tape.  When I did listen to this tape, however, what I heard was chilling.  It was a psychological interview with The Riddler, one of Batman’s less dangerous enemies.  The interview lasted only a few minutes, and played out exactly the way that you’d expect an abnormal psych evaluation to go.  The Riddler did not suddenly lash out and attack his therapist, there was no screaming or frothing at the mouth.  He just asked the good doctor a simple riddle, and when she confidently answered, he corrected her.  It was when he gave the correct answer to this riddle that chills ran up my spine. (in real life) The tape ended, and I continued to search through the mansion, hoping to find the Joker, or one of his minions.  The interview tape meant nothing to the rest of that level. It was just a bit of lagniappe, some flavor text to a spook story into which I was fully immersed.

See? This is totally thematically creepy, right?

The point to all this, is that this was the point that I started to enjoy this game on a literary level.  Sure, I could beat up the Joker’s goons all day, and it was a whole lot of fun.  But listening to psych evaluations from Batman’s rogue’s gallery gave me a level of immersion that a thousand well-thrown batarangs couldn’t replicate.  Later in the game, while under the spell of The Scarecrow’s neuro-toxin, I began to hallucinate, which added an entirely new dimension to the gameplay.  I stopped caring about what kinds of power-ups I had in my inventory, or how many weapons were in my utility belt. I just wanted to see where the story went from here. I knew that Batman would probably win in the end. (he usually does) But I’m curious to see how this narrative plays out.  Did The Joker escape from Arkham on his own, or was he working with someone on the inside?  How does Dr. Young fit into all this, and is Warden Quincy Sharpe involved.  As I continue to unravel the many mysteries of this game, I feel myself drawn in on a visceral level.  This is like a novel for me, and not just some silly video game.

There still many libraries that discount video gaming in general as pointless time-wasting.  Libraries are, after all, in the business of disseminating information.  We as librarians are purveyors of arts and literature, and we shouldn’t be wasting our time playing games.  But how is the feeling of apprehension and malaise that I felt while listening to the Riddler’s greatest hits any different from my fear and trepidation while reading Stephen King?  Is the excitement I feel when battling Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed really that different from the thrill of confronting Vlad Dracula in Kostova’s The Historian?  Yes, I concede that there are many games out there that offer little more than a mind-numbing lather/rinse/repeat of violence and button-mashing.  As the game industry matures, however, we are beginning to see a rise of games that contain fully developed storylines and complex plot architecture worthy of a well-written novel.   Batman: Arkham Asylum is far from the only game with complex characters and a well-written storyline.  Games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and even Brutal Legend have created an immersive storyline that does more than just move gameplay along.  Game developers have already realized that their audience includes sophisticated adults and teens who want more than just an pointless game experience.  How long will it be before games are able to stand side-by-side with great works of literature in modern libraries?

And then where will we shelve Dante’s Inferno?

Just look at the state of those card catalogs! No wonder Batman's so angry!

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