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The Esoteric Beat: Virtual Minds, Virtual Finance, and Virtual Canoes

The Esoteric Beat: Virtual Minds, Virtual Finance, and Virtual Canoes

August 2, 2005 | By Jim Rossignol, Brandon Sheffield

August 2, 2005 | By Jim Rossignol, Brandon Sheffield
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More: Console/PC, Serious

Welcome to 'The Esoteric Beat', the news report that provides new and unusual ways to think about game and culture. This week's column looks at virtual minds through advanced AI, Japanese serious gaming with virtual finance, and of course, virtual canoes that push the boundaries of physics simulation.

- Echoing last week's virtual society, this week's first piece of esoteric news comes from the University of Southern California's computer science department, where researchers are developing a project for the US military that will attempt to create a 'virtual mind', as reported in the LA Weekly. The program, PsychSim, is an attempt to create a game-like environment in which virtual agents can interact with human beings. This Turing Test-beater is part of a complex training program under development, the aim of which is to teach soldiers to interact with potentially hostile non-American civilians, such as those encountered by soldiers in Iraq, by using sophisticated videogame environments. (It's a little like Deus Ex, but with a very different set of cultural references!) The AI was created to offer emotional and cognitive attitudes towards other agents encountered in the game world, and is designed to make this a powerful tool for learning, but it could also have huge ramifications for gaming, were the research to be made available for consumer use. Imagine that virtual online society populated by humans as well as sentient AI agents, and you begin to glimpse the possible future for massive interaction in virtual environments. The potential exists for an AI member of your party who could, in a fantasy MMO, be integral to the game narrative, perhaps without your even knowing.

- In a more reality-based fantasy scenario, the Japanese government has gotten in on the idea of using serious games as tools for education. The software in question; Zaimudaijin Ninatte Yosan o Tsukurou! Yosan Sakusei Game, or "Let's Become the Minister of Finance, and Balance the Budget! The Budget Drafting Game," is rather self-explanatory. The free-to-play browser-based game launched in early July, quickly becoming the most popular area of the Japanese Ministry of Finance website. Presumably the aim of this serious game is not only to educate the population about the current state of Japan's 781 trillion yen debt (US $7.015 trillion), but also, through its difficulty, to take some of the heat off of the ministry itself for its inability to resolve the debt in a timely manner. Predictably, almost every outcome suggests that the budget problems will continue for at least another generation. Wouldn't it be something if the ministry of finance were actually monitoring the results of this game in order to choose the budget that would make the most sense to the public?

- Heading back out in the realms of virtual reality once again, we've got a technological novelty for those programmers currently working to make fluids function more realistically in 3D environments. A darkhorse in that category is this canoe simulator, which is being designed by the Sato Lab in Tokyo. The device, unveiled at the SIGGRAPH convention, demonstrates the Sato Lab's aim to show how a better understanding of real life physical and engineering problems applies to recreating those phenomena in virtual environments. For the curious, there's a video of the canoe in action, on the linked site.

[Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK - his progressive games journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times, to name but a few. Brandon Sheffield also contributed to this report.]

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