Monday, 19 March 2012

Night Run Like Skyrim

I’m not a serious gamer. The last computer game I bought was Civilization IV, and that was probably five or six years ago, I probably got it out of a bargain bin, and although I admit I’ve spent many happy hours over the years playing Civ, I've had little inclination to buy another game. But for some reason I absolutely cannot explain, I recently forked out nearly $100 for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and have had an absolute ball playing it. I’m surprised to discover some curious carry-overs into real life, one of which was so mind-blowing, I want to share it with you.

If you’re not familiar with Skyrim, it’s kind of like an interactive fantasy novel where your character/avatar explores this amazing kingdom, goes on quests, does battle with a variety of nasty villains and creatures, harvests wild herbs, learns magic, and if you choose to follow what appears to be the “plotline” you discover you are “dragonborn” and a saviour of sorts.  After some 30 hours of play, I think I’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing and stunningly beautiful land, and I’m hooked.

As an avatar—and this is my first experience playing a game of this sort—you can experience events either first hand through the eyes of your character (1st person) or by watching (3rd person), and I find myself generally preferring the 1st person point of view. A lot of the time in this game—if “game” is really the right word—you take yourself jogging down roads and paths, day or night, in all sorts of weather, as you travel from one place to another, meeting and conversing with other journeymen/women and keeping a watchful eye out for wolves and other potentially malicious beasts. (Here's a screen shot from the game.)

So, what does this have to do with “real” life? Well... There’s a 50-minute forest path not far from my house that I often walk, often just because it’s a nice day and I feel like a walk, but also when I’m feeling particularly stressed or upset about something. There is nothing more effective (for me, anyway) than getting outside in the fresh air and setting of at a brisk pace down the forest track to settle the churning stomach, the tight chest, or the harried, jagged thoughts that are my natural bodily reaction to stress.

So the other night a situation arose—it had been building all day—and I just had, I JUST HAD to get out. So I put on my walking shoes and, even though it was dusk and night was fast approaching, I headed down to the park. Concerned about the encroaching darkness, I hadn’t really intended to do the forest walk, but my feet knew the way, and my pent-up energy was such that I not only headed up the path, but I broke into a jog. Now I’m not a runner. Not at all. No way! But I had the most AMAZING experience jogging that path in near darkness, and it was so like my character in Skyrim that I almost imagined myself with my bow slung over my back, ready for any encounter or situation that might arise. I was also surprised to find several other people out on the trail that late at night, walking dogs or just walking—appearing first as vague forms in the gloom in front of me and gradually gaining definition as we approached each other—and even that was Skyrimmian.

Now the fact that I don’t run, and have never before chosen to take this trail in the dark before makes this a significant departure from my usual behaviour, and yet I found myself doing so, and it felt so incredibly natural it just sort of blew my mind. I didn’t feel winded, or tired, and I didn’t struggle to see in the dark. So what kind of brain training must be going on when you play a video game like this?

Computer simulation has been a popular and effective method of training in numerous industries: pilots and astronauts, police, business and more. And I understand they are finding wii games assist stroke victims in recovery. But the whole idea that playing a computer game for a few hours would translate to a new and unpredictable behaviour choice concurrent with apparently enhanced physical abilities seriously challenges my pre-conceived beliefs about how we learn and the mind body connection.

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