The video game that would REALLY keep you up at night

I’m no stranger to losing sleep over video games, though usually in a positive context, e.g. that the game is fun and I don’t notice the time. But what if I was to tell you the story of a video game that was literally designed to steal your ability to sleep… among other things? Sounds far-fetched, right? Read on, gentle reader.

In 1981, Atari had created an extraordinarily innovative video game called Tempest. This game, originally imagined as a 3-D remaking of Space Invaders, had players pilot a spacecraft on the near end of a “tube” that extended into the distance on a display, using now-primitive but then new and innovative colour vector-based graphics (as opposed to raster-based graphics, the more traditional pixellated, hand-drawn art). Vector graphics weren’t new at the time, having been used for other games like Asteroids, but the addition of colour with Atari’s “Color Quadrascan” shadow mask technology, developed to compete with raster games, was a significant step forward. The game also featured differing playing boards at each level, with different geometric shapes making up the “tube”, rather than the usual incremental difficulty increases on an identical board that video games til then had used to ratchet up the pressure on players as games went on. And it even featured the ability to choose your starting level based on performance in a previous game, so veterans wouldn’t necessarily have to play through the initial levels over again while attempting to cause the game to roll the level or points counts over. This marked the first video game continue option — though a later raster game called Fantasy implemented it in its more traditional form.

This post isn’t really about Tempest, though. I’m really just setting the stage for what the state of the art was in 1981. If you’ll believe the urban legends, the US government, at about that time, teamed up with a German developer named Sinneslöschen (loosely translated: “Sense Erase”) in an attempt to turn the nation’s Pac-Man Fever into something a little more useful for the empire: mind control. They created a video game that kids would become addicted to, would play at every opportunity, until the mind control would kick in and they’d lose the ability to sleep or even lose their memories.
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The Legend of Ben

The Legend of Zelda is a game franchise that is much beloved, has sold millions upon millions of copies franchise-wide, and has sixteen-plus installments spanning the rough time-frame such that people prone to creating ghost stories — teenagers to young adults — have grown up with these games making a large part of their childhood. It’s honestly no surprise that a creepypasta — an internet ghost story — was created out of the game series, and in fact it seems that it was just a matter of time.

The statue of Link created by playing the Elegy of Emptiness. It's not a particularly faithful representation of Link.

The statue of Link created by playing the Elegy of Emptiness. It’s not a particularly faithful representation of Link. To people familiar with this story, this is Ben.

One game in the series, Majora’s Mask, is already incredibly dark and unusual in the series. It is one of the very few that does not take place in the Kingdom of Hyrule (or what would eventually become or once was that kingdom — there’s actually a very involved canonical timeline that connects all the games in the series). It is one of the very few games whose chief antagonist is not Ganondorf or a god, but rather, a recurring character who’s gained access to some specific magic. It is also the only game whose chief motivation is preventing the destruction of the world through the manipulation of time, attempting to forestall a natural disaster that’s about to occur — the moon is falling on Terminus, and the Skull Kid, having stolen the magical artifact called Majora’s Mask, is both the impetus for and in possession of the only way to prevent this disaster. In this game, Link has fallen into a doomed world and needs to prevent this doom; as the Mask Salesman tells him, he’s “met with a terrible fate”.

Today’s ghost story involves someone discovering that a young boy named Ben, a boy who’d once apparently owned a bootleg copy of Majora’s Mask, himself met with a terrible fate: he drowned. But then he went on to haunt this bootleg copy, and subsequently the poor hapless 4chan Paranormal board denizen who found it.
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Ghostcraft; or, how Minecraft can really be used to build anything

The extraordinarily popular building/survival game Minecraft by Mojang has revolutionized the very concept of a sandbox game. With its popularity, with its community, comes all the little things that enhance or corrupt society built by society’s own members — including myths and ghost stories.

Minecraft has been described as “LEGO for big kids”, a gigantic sandbox filled with materials that you can collect, and use to build whatever you’d like — a dirt hovel, a series of traps and defenses, a sprawling mansion, a plain old House, an elaborate train system, even relatively complex circuitry (at relatively macro scale). There are no real rules, only a gigantic overworld filled with procedurally generated trees, forests, oceans, lakes, caves and even abandoned mines and dungeons. There are two other realms you can travel to, and there is in fact a way to “win” the game, if that’s your cup of tea. You can travel to the Nether, the Minecraft equivalent of a lava-filled hell, and you can travel to The End, a strange realm from whence the Endermen enemies spawn, and you can do battle with the Ender Dragon to complete the game.

Most players just build things, though. Given the choice between playing in a sandbox, and doing battle with the neighboring town’s dragon, I can understand why the sandbox is a significantly less stressful objective. And there’s always the collaborative aspect of playing with other players on the same server — you can all work together to build great works of art, or you can compete for resources, destroy one another’s work, and steal what resources the other players have accumulated.

Given that aspect of the game is not for everyone, there’s always the option of playing a game entirely single-player, so nobody can undo all your hard work.

Except… was that another player off in the distance? He looked just like your player skin… only his eyes were entirely white. And when you went back to your home base, your accumulated treasures were missing, and all your torches replaced with redstone torches.

You thought you were alone here? Think again!
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The ghost in the Pokémon machine

In 1996, the Pokémon franchise hit the scene in Japan with its first two games for the Nintendo GameBoy: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. They were released at the same time using the same game engine, but with different monsters and plot; the idea was that players of the different games could trade monsters with one another, and it was necessary to trade with someone in order to collect all 150 Pokémon. (Mew, a 151st Pokémon, existed in this tier of games but was only given out as prizes for Nintendo Power competitions and other such promotions, or could be unlocked using a Gameshark or through a glitch near Lavender Town — coincidental to today’s video game urban legend.)

Lavender Town in these games was a sort of “graveyard” town, where Pokémon are put to rest in a Tower and hauntings by restless spirits of Pokémon are apparently relatively common; and it’s central to the myth that hundreds of Japanese children committed suicide in a spike in 1996, when the games were released, but only once they got to Lavender Town in their games. The myth has come to be known as “Lavender Town Syndrome”.
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Radford / Stollznow defamation case: What we know and what we can infer or extrapolate reasonably

I’ve noticed a trend in amongst the so-called “skeptics” who have, from the get-go, denied every single claim of harassment in the community. That trend is denialism masquerading as skepticism, and a willingness to lie about who said what, when. That’s why I’ve been fighting that trend by building timelines. Someone needs to document what was actually said, and what can be reasonably inferred from these events. It also helps to document the attacks launched by certain people against certain other people, because it helps define the tribal lines against which these denialists are aligning.

[pullquote align="right" textalign="right" width="30%"]“I didn’t write it, I never agreed to it, I never signed it, and I’m not the liar here.”
–Karen Stollznow, Twitter, March 25th, 2014[/pullquote]

One of these big accusations of harassment has resurfaced in the past few weeks, with new movements occurring for the first time in months. As a refresher, here’s all the points from my sexual harassment accusations timeline.

I don’t claim to know for certain that these allegations are true, but I can certainly develop a narrative that, I think, accounts for all the actual points we apparently do know, as well as what we could reasonably extrapolate.
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Skeptech Gameathon Fundraiser – March 22nd!

Last year, the first Skeptech conference was, entirely unsurprisingly, a big success. With some big names talking about some big topics in and around the intersection of science, technology and skepticism, they’ve got a tough act to follow this year.

And yet, they seem to have managed just fine on the speakers front, with Jesse Galef, Tim Farley, and Debbie Goddard, to name a scant few.

They’re still in a drive for fundraising though, since the rocket packs they’re strapping to all these cats don’t come cheap. So, I’ve agreed to host a twelve hour gaming fundraiser telethon, with games broadcast via Twitch TV while we concurrently run a Google Hangout On Air. Brendan Murphy and Chelsea DuFresne will be the real hosts, while I play video games and run tech and probably get more than my fair share of screen time regardless. Stephanie Zvan will visit in person, as will Brianne Bilyeu; we’ll have a number of guests join us via the Hangout, including Rebecca Watson, Scicurious and Surly Amy.

From the teaser:

On the 22nd, this page will be outfitted with a Google Hangout, Twitch Stream & Chat, and an easy way to donate to the Skeptech conference (paypal).

Here are some initial incentives (more will be added):

$5 to be a member of our Organ Trail team.
At $200, we’ll buy Super Meat Boy and fail horribly.
At $1000, we’ll buy Amnesia, and play it at full-volume in the dark. You’ll be able to watch our horror on the hangout.
We hope you’ll join us! Stay tuned for a rough schedule of what we’ll be playing, who will be joining us, and when.

I don’t have this rough timeline myself, but I can reveal a few other incentives we have on tap. For $20, you can jump into the Hangouts for 15 mins and try to go all debate-club on us, while we try to multitask and out-debate you while also staying on the course on Rainbow Road in Mario Kart or some other such outlandish gaming stunt. Wanna talk about gaming handicaps, there you go.

For $100, I’ll write the blog post of your choice — you get to pick the topic, the side you want me to argue (and I’ll even steel-man some positions I’d otherwise never take or even strongly disagree with!), and you can even give me a specific phrase to work in. Minimum of 1200 words, to boot, EXCLUDING blockquotes. This is a quote-miner’s goldmine, and it could be yours for a mere hundred clams.

Or for $50, you can point me to a post by anyone on any topic, and let me blog whatever I’d like about it, taking whatever angle I so choose. Minimum 1500 words — a better value, but you don’t know necessarily what I’ll argue or how!

And I’m sure if you come up with specific gaming stunts or bounties, we could come to some arrangements. It’s interactive entertainment, all to serve a higher cause: dispelling the demons of ignorance and delusion while talking about the science and technology that proves our side is the side of angels.

See you there!

Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning’s shell game

It’s been known for quite some time that Brian Dunning is dirty. From 2006 to 2007, he and his brother set up their joint venture Kessler’s Flying Circus as part of the eBay affiliates program wherein you get commission from every sale if someone purchased something after clicking on a banner ad on your site. Two of Dunning’s other websites, WhoLinked.com and ProfileMaps.info were configured to “stuff cookies” for eBay — that is, to create persistent cookies in your web browser such that if you visited one of those sites, the next time you visited eBay it would imagine that you’d clicked on one of those banner ads. Basically, by going to the site, without knowing it, you were treated as though you’d clicked on the Dunning brothers’ ad campaign even if you’d never even seen that ad. And the cookie would persist such that all your purchases looked as though they came from that ad campaign.

He’d figured out to do this by reverse-engineering Shawn Hogan’s tools — Shawn Hogan being the top-most eBay affiliate, who had himself defrauded eBay of $30+ million USD.

In 2008, eBay filed a lawsuit alleging that Dunning and Dunning had defrauded them of $5,300,000 USD. Though not as big a fraud as Hogan’s case, the Dunnings were the number two affiliate, and this was not chump change. eBay was definitely not getting the advertising bang for their buck. In 2010, a federal grand jury indicted him on five counts of wire fraud in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343. The FBI issued a press release in April 2013 showing that Brian Dunning had pled guilty. He faces 20 years jail time for his crimes.

Given that his general defense to the FBI was that eBay had been “stupid” in the way they set up the program, it’s fairly self-evident he was not repentant of his crimes and thought he could fight the suits in a sort of characteristically Libertarian “if you can do it, then it’s okay to do” defense. Now that he’s pled guilty, it’s fairly evident that he could not fight this case with that method of thinking.

Dunning’s legacy, his skeptical podcast Skeptoid, has long been known to be a cash cow as well — with its own advertisements, and a kitsch store with huge markups on t-shirts and mugs and the likes. However, now that Dunning has pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, Skeptoid’s fate is in question.

In May of 2012, Dunning filed to convert the Skeptoid Media, Inc into a 501(c)3 non-profit charity, removing the ads from the podcast and site. This is mere months after he’d been forced to publicly admit that the lawsuits were ongoing.

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This is a screenshot of the filing for non-profit status from the Department of Justice website.

It’s an easy leap to believe that this was done to protect it from fallout from his fraud; it’s an easier leap to believe that all he has to do to protect the money he stole is to donate it all to Skeptoid as soon as the non-profit status comes through. I am under the impression that Dunning is presently setting up a board for this non-profit entity prior to the status actually changing. I don’t think it’s possible, at this point, to consider the brand anything but spent and destroyed — any efforts made by any members of our community toward rehabilitating its image and disassociating Skeptoid the brand from Brian Dunning the imprisoned felon are, in my mind, wasted and themselves tainted efforts.

I’m certain that the FBI will not allow this shell game to happen, especially not with the scrutiny that’s levelled at Brian Dunning presently. But on the off chance that it does happen, that Skeptoid is allowed to use funds from the eBay fraud, and that it doesn’t die on the vine thanks to the ongoing support I see from numerous big-name skeptics in our community, at least it won’t have happened because everyone stayed silent.

I do not consent to the skeptical “brand”, insofar as there is one, being represented by malicious con-men and other ne’er-do-wells. The skeptical way of thinking is a toolset that supplements a person’s identity. Not every person’s identity toolset is complete — many people lack empathy or a strong moral compass, among other numerous lacks. The skeptical toolset has too long been associated with amoral Libertarian con-artists that comprise the big-name skeptics, like Dunning, and I’d very much like that to end now. We have enough of an image problem with so-called “honest liars”; no need to prop up dishonest con-artists as part of a package deal.

Speak up. Repudiate any efforts to resurrect the Skeptoid brand. Dissociate yourselves from it if you have ties. Dunning is an unrepentant con-man and none of us need to go down with his ship.

I say that as someone who got into movement skepticism with Skeptoid being the first podcast I ever listened to.

Much ado about cyber-nothing

I’ve been drowned in the world of tech over this holiday season. It is, after all, my lifeblood, as well as my hobby — it’s how I pay the bills and help keep this family afloat. So time has been in short supply for anything but work, and I’ve been choosing (as I mentioned recently) to spend most of my free time either playing Starbound (an absolutely incredible space sandbox game that’s still in pre-release — I’m going to write up a review ASAP), or working on learning Java and creating a procedurally generated platform game that will probably never see market because I suck at art.

Pictured: wanted cyber-criminal "The Hamburgler"

Pictured: wanted cyber-criminal “The Hamburgler”

Being drowned in tech as I am, the things I’ve been reading are mostly technology-related as of late. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped being a skeptic or atheist — just that they haven’t been topics on my must-read list.

This particular piece in All Tech Considered made my skeptical and security-minded tech parts of my brain flip the hell out, and I figured I should share that feeling with you. The piece starts appropriately doomsday, extrapolating from the actual information at hand in a manner that makes me think the piece was written by a very experienced science journalist:

If your computer is infected with a virus or other forms of malware, disconnecting the machine from the Internet is one of the first steps security experts say you should take. But someday, even physically separating your laptop from a network may not be enough to protect it from cyber evildoers.

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