My kitten and her laser toy

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laser toyI’m pretty sure that if I was a cat, I’d find laser toys extremely frustrating. You just chase a spot of light, and even if you put your put your paw right down on it, you can’t catch it. The game could go on for hours, but you’d never win. You can’t even make progress, because chasing games are all or nothing; either you catch it or you don’t, and you can’t catch a spot of light. But my kitten doesn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she thinks it’s a delightful game, and she prefers the laser beam to any of her other toys. When I turn it on, she trills with joy and proceeds to chase it all around the room, bouncing off the walls and doors as it seems necessary.

I admit that sometimes I do a mean thing to my cat. I hold the laser toy with one hand and “catch” the light with the other hand, while turning the laser off so that it looks like I actually did capture it. Then I turn the laser back on as I open my hand. My kitten is completely baffled as to how I can catch the laser light when she can’t. But if I alter the trick and turn the laser off when she puts her paw on the spot of light, and then congratulate her on her victory, this is unacceptable. She will stare at me accusingly, because I clearly cheated. I tried to end the game prematurely, and she wants to keep playing.

Here's a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can't get good ones of her when she is playing.

Here’s a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can’t get good ones of her when she is playing.

As far as she’s concerned, the goal isn’t to actually catch something, anyway. Running around and smashing into furniture is the whole point. Lasers are so much more fun than spiders, because when you catch a spider, it dies and stops running, and when you eat it, it disappears. This ruins the game, and it’s not cool. The other day, she found a frog. I’m not sure how it got into the house, but it did, and my cat found it. She was very pleased for a little while, but the frog wasn’t a fun toy because he kept playing dead. Whenever she started to walk away, he moved and caught her attention again, but when she stared right at him, he held perfectly still. When she lightly batted at him with her paw, politely requesting that he hop away so that she could chase him, he continued to hold still, and if she batted at him a little more forcefully, he actually slid along the floor. It was no better than playing with a fabric toy, so that’s what she did, and the frog got away.

I remember one time hearing about a study that said that people were happier when working towards a goal than they were after achieving a goal. On the one hand, this seems like one of those studies that was completely unnecessary and a waste of funding, because I think most people find that conclusion almost as obvious as my cat does. On the other hand, it’s also a very interesting point. But in the life of a human, I’m not sure if it’s always true. I think it depends upon the nature of the goal. Right now, I’m looking for a job and an apartment, and I find it hard to believe that my life won’t be cooler once I’ve acquired those things. But there are definitely some goals that are more fulfilling to strive for than to accomplish, and anything that exists solely for entertainment purposes falls into that category. If you’re glad or relieved to finish a book or a movie or a game, that probably means you weren’t really having that much fun with it. That’s why it’s so hard to resist watching several episodes of a TV show back-to-back. That’s why it isn’t frustrating to play a computer game where, every time you win, you just start another level that’s more or less exactly the same as the previous one.  That’s why most successful books and movies have sequels, and why those sequels sell even if they aren’t nearly as good as the original.

Glypha IIIBut there’s still some sense of achievement in getting a high score in a favorite game or finishing a long book or a jigsaw puzzle or craft project, no matter how much fun it was. I think most people are goal-oriented, even if the process is what they really enjoy. I think that people need small victories along the way in order to stay interested and motivated, regardless of whether the goal is something important and meaningful, like learning a useful skill, or something fun and comparatively trivial, like a game. This is one difference between the personalities of humans and animals; people like to work towards goals and animals live in the moment and enjoy the game regardless of whether anything cool happens when they win. That’s all for the best, since human beings are the ones who are responsible for running the world and getting stuff done, while animals are either just trying to survive or just trying to enjoy life. (Depending upon whether or not they’re domestic, because domestic animals generally have the survival part taken care of for them) The human way of living is a lot more purposeful, but it’s also a lot less fun.


Computer Games Are Awesome

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For at least as long as I’ve been alive, it has often been said that children nowadays are too obsessed with things like video games and computer games. You shouldn’t spend your life staring at a screen, people say. There are better ways to spend your free time, they add. Of course they’re right. Books are wondrous and awesome things for many important reasons, and it’s good to spend time outdoors when the weather’s nice. And then there are board games and jigsaw puzzles and Lego blocks and all sorts of other awesome toys that are considered much more wholesome than computer games. And there are many cool and interesting skills that are worth taking time to learn. One could really go on all day talking about all the worthwhile things to do that don’t involve using a computer. I’m not denying for a minute that any person, child or adult, can have lots of fun without using a computer.

But let’s not ignore the fact that an awful lot of computer games are pretty awesome, too. If you have free time on your hands, computer games can still be a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable way to use it. (I’ve never been into video games, but I am willing to extend my defense of computer games to cover video games as well.) There are a lot of computer games that I played as a child that were very important to me and that I miss very much now that I don’t have spare time for that kind of thing. In fact, I would go as far to say that some of my favorite computer games had educational benefits for my younger self. But besides that, they were a lot of fun. It’s probably kind of pathetic just how nostalgic I can get about old computer games. In memory of some of these cherished games, I now present an incomplete list, in no particular order, of some of the coolest computer games that I’ve ever played.

(Note added later: In some of these cases, I found a video on youtube and included a link. But I didn’t find those videos until after I wrote the description, and in some cases, particularly Treasure Mathstorm, the videos prove my memory to be incorrect and sketchy. But that’s inevitable when you’re trying to describe a game you haven’t played since you were a little kid.)

Glypha IIIGlypha III. This was a fairly simple arcade-style game with an ancient Egyptian theme. The avatar thingy was a little person riding an animal that looked like a duck or a goose. The goal was basically to kill lots of flying sphinxes. There were three different kinds of sphinxes. Each time you killed one, it would turn into an egg thingy and the egg would hatch into a sphinx of the next level. If you wanted to, you could land your duck/goose on an egg and kill it, but you’d get more points if you’d let it hatch and then kill the sphinx instead. And there was an evil eye and a hand that tried to pull you into the lava at the bottom of the screen. It was very cool. Granted, I can’t offhand think of any life lessons I learned from playing this particular game, but it was infinitely fun, and that’s definitely worth something.

Here is a youtube video someone made of themself playing Glypha III.

Treasure MathstormTreasure Mathstorm. I vaguely recall that this game involved frequently solving basic arithmetic questions. I think that you had to catch elves with a net, and if you got them, they asked you a question, and if you got it right, you got points or jewels or gold pieces or presents or something cool like that. There was also something about throwing snowballs, but I don’t remember why. Really, the only specific things I remember about this game had to do with the graphics. The avatar was a mountaineer guy. He was trying to save this snowy mountain from something evil, which required climbing the mountain over and over again. There were three levels, and I don’t remember how they were different. Then when he got to the top, he got a prize and he parachuted to the bottom of the mountain and put his prize in his cave and started up the mountain again. At some point, the game ended, but I don’t remember how, or what happened at the end. The point of this game, of course, is to learn basic arithmetic and to learn to catch elves.

Here is someone doing the last trip up the mountain before winning the game.

Brickers Plus: I’ve played many different games similar to this, but Brickers Plus was my favorite. I don’t even remember if that was its real name; I know I can’t find it by googling it. It’s a simple arcade game where the center of the screen is filled with bricks and there’s a bouncing ball that makes the bricks disappear when it hits them. The point is to move a paddle at the bottom of the screen to catch the ball and bounce it up at the bricks. If the ball reaches the bottom of the screen and the paddle isn’t there to catch it, you die. The cool bit is that, if you end a level by killing the last brick from above, the ball starts the next level at the top of the screen, and you can just sit around doing nothing for most of the level. The moral of this story is that winning takes less effort if you know how to be in the right place at the right time.

TetrisGames where pieces fall from the top of the screen: I can’t remember the name of the game I played and loved when I was little, but there was another version called Drop that I really liked. Tetris also falls into this genre, although I didn’t discover Tetris until comparatively recently. The goal of these types of games is to move pieces as they fall in order to make them fall in certain patterns. In most of the versions I’ve played, you want pieces of a certain color to line up, but in Tetris, the pieces have different shapes and you line them up so that they fill rows. In both cases, pieces disappear when you put them in a good place, and the objective is to make the game last as long as possible before the stack reaches the top of the screen. Obviously, these types of games involve attention to patterns, which is considered a valuable mental skill. But also, success requires that the gameplayer know how to work around the mistakes he or she has made. Perhaps there’s some metaphorical significance to the fact that the only way to solve these mistakes is to avoid covering them up as gameplay continues.

SimAntSimAnt: In this game, you are an ant. A yellow one. And there are black ants and red ants. The black ants are the good guys, and the yellow ant belongs to the black ant colony. The red ants are the bad guys, and they must die. Aside from the red ants, other perils include flooded ant nests, ant lions, a spider, and the occasional foot of a human. As far as I can remember, there were three different modes of this game. (Not counting the tutorial, which I never played, because tutorials aren’t fun.) There was a simple mode in which the game took place on a small plot of virtual land, and the goal was either to kill the red queen or to kill all the red ants; I don’t remember which. Then there was a more complex mode, where the game took place throughout an entire yard and house, which was divided into little squares, each of which was equivalent to the entire simpler mode of the game. I don’t even remember the goal of the complex game. I do seem to recall that the yellow ant was allowed to join the red ant colony in that version, and that’s the way I generally liked to play it. Finally, there was an experimental mode in which you could do whatever the camaduka you wanted. You could turn into the spider, you could create food and rocks and walls and stuff, you could even conjure additional ants into existence at the touch of a button. There was no goal to the experimental mode. You just did what you wanted and ended the game when your parents called you for supper or bedtime or something. SimAnt taught me to have an appreciation for little and seemingly insignificant things like ants, and it taught me a number of specific facts, such as what an ant lion is. (An ant lion is neither an ant nor a lion; rather, it is a type of insect that, in the larvae stage, lives underground in a shallow pit and devours any ants that inadvertently enter the pit. What the game did not teach me is that ant lions mainly live in Africa.) Also, it taught me that, even as a human, it makes sense for me to get involved in conflicts between ant colonies and to pick sides. Finally, it taught me that, if you ever find yourself in a situation where there are no particular objectives, that means that you’re in experimental mode and you get to choose your own objectives.

Here’s a youtube video of someone playing SimAnt.

Zoo TycoonZoo Tycoon: Technically, I don’t need to feel nostalgic about this game because I can still play it on my current computer, and in fact, there were two days last week that I did play it. Zoo Tycoon, as the name implies, is a game in which you build a zoo. You build exhibits for a wide variety of different zoo animals (the full version includes dinosaurs and water animals) and you place concession stands and various zoo attractions for guests. The goals are to keep the animals happy by making the exhibits suitable, to make the guests happy by making the zoo cool, and to make a profit. The first two goals aren’t too hard, but the third one is basically impossible unless you cheat. In Zoo Tycoon, unlike in most aspects of life, cheating is perfectly okay and cool. The best way to cheat is to pause the game when the game’s calendar is in October and to buy and then immediately sell lots of dinosaur eggs. Dinosaurs cost less in October, so you can make a profit this way. If you are very patient and don’t get bored easily, you can get really rich that way. That is the main moral I can find in Zoo Tycoon.

Dinopark TycoonDinopark Tycoon: Dinopark Tycoon was the older and simpler version of Zoo Tycoon. Instead of having a bajillion different types of animals, you had a few different species of dinosaurs. Instead of having a bajillion different types of fence pieces, you had four. Instead of having a bajillion different buildings, you had a couple. Or maybe there weren’t any buildings; I don’t remember that for sure. Also, the graphics weren’t as good and the music was a more prominent part of the game. And I don’t remember any of the cheats. But there definitely were some, and it was this game that taught me the useful fact that there is such a thing as cheating in a computer game. I’m not sure if you can consider that to be a valuable life lesson, but it’s some kind of life lesson anyway.

And this is what Dinopark Tycoon looked like.

Wild WheelsWild Wheels: It’s a game where you drive cars and carry robots and there’s TNT and stuff. Need I say more?

Oregon TrailOregon Trail: I remember playing two different versions of Oregon Trail. The one I played when I was little was one of the oldest versions and it was a lot simpler. Then a few years later, my sister got a newer version for a Christmas or birthday present. It was more complex and had more options and the graphics were a lot more advanced. The two versions were very different, but I remember really loving them both. I wasn’t particularly good at Oregon Trail; my people died a lot. Sometimes, I even started the game with the intention of killing them on purpose. When I wasn’t on a suicide mission, one entertaining aspect of Oregon Trail was naming the people. Generally, I either named them after my family members, the cats, or Doctor Who characters. (From the classic Doctor Who, of course, because this was in those long-ago days prior to the current Doctor Who series.) But sometimes, I would give them all the same name because that seemed hilariously funny to my little-kid brain. Or I would give them names like “The corn”, or “All your oxen”, because it was highly entertaining when the computer would inform me “The corn is sick with dysentery”, or “All your oxen drowned”. This is the height of sophisticated humor, I tell you. Then there were the times that my sister and I would use the diary and write absurd and pointless things the whole time long instead of actually playing the game. Every now and then, I did actually play the game according to the intended objectives, but those instances were less memorable. One life lesson that I learned from Oregon Trail is that you shouldn’t eat just any plant you find growing on the side of the path.  I also learned a fair amount about the geography of the American West, despite the fact that I had a bad habit of somehow managing to turn around and go back the way I had come. This is also how I tend to drive in real life.

Carmen SandiegoCarmen Sandiego: We had several different Carmen Sandiego games. I think my favorite was “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” just because I was more interested in international trivia than state trivia. We had another version geared more towards little kids, and I think that was also international. Then there was a game that had word puzzles rather than geographical trivia, but I don’t have specific memories of it, even though I did enjoy it. And at one point, we had an older Carmen Sandiego game that I found complicated and difficult to play. I seem to recall that I never even figured out how to win it, but then again, I was pretty little at the time. For all of the intellectual and informational benefits of the Carmen Sandiego games, the thing that really made them cool was Carmen Sandiego herself. You’ve got to love Carmen Sandiego. It’s probably an official law or something.

Here’s a video. Also, these opening credits were so cool.

Castle ExplorerCastle Explorer: This game actually belonged to my brother, but he was pretty generous about letting me play it, which is a favor for which I am not sure I ever adequately thanked him. Thank you, O brother, for letting me play Castle Explorer so much when we were small children. It was truly an awesome game. It was sort of a role-playing game, except that the character, who was a spy sent by the king, didn’t have a personality at all, and never in fact spoke or did anything besides wandering around the castle. Castle Explorer included an interactive map of a baron’s castle, where you could click on things and read random fun facts about castle stuff. There were also gold coins that you could click on and collect, although I don’t remember what you did with the gold coins. And there were four virtual rooms that you could enter and look around and click on stuff. One was the kitchen, one was the armory, one was the alchemist’s study, and one was the baron’s chambers. In each one, there was a hidden piece of a map, and the goal was to gather those four pieces. When assembled, they showed the location of a secret tunnel, and for some reason, the existence of the secret tunnel proved that the baron was guilty of treason. Aside from all of the really awesome factual information that I learned from that game, I also learned that it’s not a good idea to have an emergency escape exit, because that proves that you’re a bad guy. Actually, I didn’t learn that because it isn’t necessarily true. But I did learn that if you’re a spy and you have to go into a certain room to find something, make sure you talk to the person in the room before sneaking through all of their stuff, because they’ll catch you if you start searching right away. But they’ll just randomly ignore you as long as you say hi to them first. Wait, that doesn’t seem applicable to real life, either. But I definitely learned some really cool factual information from that game, and that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Here’s a video of the opening thingy.

Lego IslandLego Island: I first encountered this game on the computer at the library when I was little. My siblings and I loved it and would spend as much time playing it as our mother and the librarian would allow. Years later, while washing dishes, my sister and I were reminiscing about the awesomeness of Lego Island, and we ended up finding it on eBay and buying it. This was a greatly exciting moment in our lives. Lego Island is a collection of various short games, most of which are arcade-style. There’s an underlying storyline connecting all these games, though. In the first phase of the game, the avatar, who is a pizza delivery Lego boy named Pepper, is trying to build a house. Each time he delivers a pizza to one of the townspeople, they give him bricks for his house. Eventually, he finishes his house, and the next pizza he delivers goes to the guy in jail. The guy in jail is called the Brickster, if I recall correctly. The reason for this is so that he can use the phrase, “The Brickster is ready for some tricks, Sir.” But that’s not the good bit; the good bit is when he says something along the lines of, “That’s funny. And I don’t mean the ha-ha kind of funny, I mean the gee-that’s-interesting kind of funny”. We always said that part out loud with the computer. We also said the bit about it being a sad day today on Lego Island. The second phase of the game involved chasing botheads, which really was what the Brickster’s robot thingies were called. And then phase three consisted of travelling to various places and completing various puzzles and games. Somehow, they led to the defeat of the Brickster, but I don’t remember why. One cool thing about Lego Island was that you could change someone’s hat or their hairstyle just by clicking on their head, which was a fun thing to do when they were talking and you didn’t feel like listening. This, I have noticed, does not work in real life. Another cool thing about Lego Island was that you could throw pizzas at people whenever you wanted, which, again, isn’t the way reality works in my experience.

I’m cutting this list really short because I don’t want it to take all evening to write, but there are many others that deserve a mention, such as Kid Pix, and the game with the maze thingy, and American Girls Premiere, and the one with the robot and the killer tomatoes that was on the computer at the library, and Drone, and the entire Jumpstart series, and that game that takes place on an island where there’s that evil scientist guy, and all the computer games that were basically an interactive computerized version of certain children’s books, and so forth and so on. (Many of those games didn’t make the list for the simple reason that I just cannot remember their names.) And I also didn’t mention any of the various computer games that exist as actual board games, such as chess and Scrabble and Risk and Clue. They were awesomely fun as computer games, too.  I’m sure there are some others that I don’t even remember, at least not off the top of my head.

To make a long story short, awesome computer games played a fairly significant role in my early childhood, and I benefited greatly from their awesomeness. I have lots of good memories involving staring at a computer screen.