Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Assuage That Gaming Guilt

When I was in high school, my friends and I would often spend Saturday afternoons playing pool and video games in a downtown arcade in my home town (OK, we would also spend part of that time in several pubs that didn't seem to care how old we were, but that's not important right now). I enjoyed some of the more challenging video games, and was quite good at them, but I was in no way what you'd call an addict.

Fast forward to graduate school. One of my friends owned a home video game console, and none of the games interested me at all, until the now-famous Doom came along. For reasons that aren't clear to me, we spent inordinate amounts of time on that game, working through the many levels until we finally finished it. After that, I was once again uninterested in any games that my friend bought.

Fast forward another ten years, to this past week's vacation, to which that same friend brought his Xbox with, wait for it, the newest incarnation of Doom - Doom3. You guessed it - I became hooked again, and each day we spent a couple of hours working through the game. Once again I can't really say why it grabbed me, but it was wonderful escapist fun.

Now; the above admission goes against the unspoken academic code, which one might paraphrase as
"Do not engage in any activity that is part of popular culture. Such activities include, but are not limited to; playing video games, playing card games (bridge excepted), watching movies without a serious social message and watching television (PBS, in particular NOVA, occasionally excepted). Any violation of the above may lead to a stubborn stain on your intellectual reputation, which may only be removed by repeatedly attending highly experimental theater."
It is hard to articulate the amount of guilt academics suffer when they have violated this rule, especially if they've done so deliberately. But once one realizes that such guilt exists, it helps one to understand comments like
"Last night I was looking for the NOVA program on Flying Casanovas (the Bowerbird really is fascinating you know) when I accidentally turned NBC on and caught the beginning of some crime show. I think it might be called `Law and Order', but I'm not sure. Anyway, I was too lazy to change channels and ended up watching the whole thing. It was kind of fun actually, in a predictable, corporate way."
Well, before all you fellow academics out there jump all over me, I should say that I'm exaggerating a bit here. But every one of you knows what I mean.

Given all this, an article on wired.com allows those of us who have violated the video game clause to assuage our guilt somewhat. This article points out that the next generation of home video game machines would be perfect for a distributed computing project such as LIGO@home (searching for gravitational waves), SETI@home (searching for E.T.) or Folding@home (searching for the solution to protein folding), which already take advantage of down time on personal computers. These are raw data-crunching projects, for which the sheer computing power of huge numbers of machines is extremely useful. As wired.com puts it
"Distributed, or `grid,' computing breaks down complex computing problems into small steps that can be solved in parallel by thousands or even millions of machines at once. It is basically the difference between hiring someone to label 1,000 envelopes for you and asking your friends to each label 100 when they get the chance. In this example, the hired person is the traditional mainframe crunching numbers, while your friends are personal computers all over the world that offer to crunch small packages of calculations when they're not busy."
The article ends with the thought
"So, let my console fold proteins or search for E.T. when I'm not using it. Let the public take a larger role in innovative research efforts. Most importantly, let me be able to end any console debate with, `So what if your system lets you watch movies and TV, listen to music and play games? My system cures cancer.' "
This seems like a wonderful idea to me. Huge numbers of kids (OK, adults as well) own video consoles and think of the time that these machines spend idle while the kids are, for example, at school. In fact, with a little thought, one might be able to use this aspect of the consoles to inform kids about some interesting science. If one was to take this really too far, one might imagine marketing campaigns designed to pitch different distributed computing projects to gamers. Oh dear, there I go again, offending the wrong people.

Most importantly, the next time I take a vacation I'll also be able to say "Sure, I didn't personally do any physics while I was away, but the time that I spent on the beach and not blowing away Cacodemons with my BFG-9000, I was playing a crucial role in the LIGO data analysis project"
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