Computer games can make us better humans / Humans + Tech - #43

+ Chatbots can help reduce opioid use + Bacteria that eats cancer-causing pollutants + Tech-enabled authoritarianism is on the rise


Can computer games make us better humans? Yes.

Peter Bebergal, in an article for the New Yorker, talks about Richard Garriott’s journey in computer game development and how he developed games that taught people ethics and morality [The New Yorker].

Richard Garriott has been developing computer games since he was a teenager, even before even computer graphics were commonplace. His games, Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III developed in the eighties, were inspired by his love for Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings.

Some parents were extremely unhappy with what he had developed.

The mother of one Ultima player was so horrified by the image of a demon on the cover art for Ultima III—which Garriott told me is based on the devil Chernabog from the Walt Disney film “Fantasia”—that she sent a letter to Garriott, who was twenty-two, calling him “the Satanic perverter of America’s youth.”

He also received fan mail that told him that the Ultima games rewarded playing as a bad guy as it was the easiest way to gain power in the games.

He was despondent. “I inadvertently made games that drove the players to act dishonorably, as this was the path of least resistance.” What if, he wondered, there were a game in which your moral choices had consequences? He wanted the next installment of Ultima to reward honor and courage, and to penalize players for casual depravity.

Garriott studied philosophy and world religions to find answers for his questions about morality and the ideals of truth, love, and courage. He ultimately found it in The Wizard of Oz and designed Ultima IV. In Ultima IV, players were rewarded for acting honourably and choosing actions that were more compassionate. It turned out to be a huge success, even influencing people to be more ethical and moral in real life.

The mail for Ultima IV poured into the Origin Systems office. One woman wrote to Garriott that her daughter, who had begun shoplifting, played Ultima IV and mended her ways. Even more remarkable were the emotional letters from Christian gamers who claimed that trying to become the Avatar had helped them feel closer to God. One player wrote to say that Garriott taught him “almost everything I know about morality and ethics.” People felt deeply connected to a game in which winning was not just about the most kills but behavior. Garriott discovered that even though he couldn’t possibly program Ultima IV to respond to every action, people played as if the game could. “It didn’t matter if there was really a virtue test,” Garriott said. “It mattered if the player believed there was a test.”

Garriott has developed many more games after Ultima IV that promote ethics within the game, but still considers Ultima IV his greatest artistic achievement.

Chatbots delivering psychotherapy help decrease opioid use after surgery

Researchers at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics found that automated daily text messages from a chatbot reduced opioid usage by about 37% in patients who had just undergone surgery to fix fractures [Science Daily].

They split a group of 76 patients who had undergone surgery and had similar opioid prescriptions into two groups.

Although each group received the same prescription of an opioid medication for pain, just one group was enrolled in a daily text-messaging program. That group received two daily text messages to their phones for two weeks after their procedure from an automated "chatbot" -- a computer that uses artificial intelligence to send messages -- starting the day after their surgery.

The messages were designed by a pain psychologist who specialized in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to help patients cope with the pain rather than to discourage them from using the opioids.

Each message fell under one of six "core principles": Values, Acceptance, Present Moment Awareness, Self-As-Context, Committed Action, and Diffusion.

So, for example, a message a patient could receive under the Acceptance principle could be: "Feelings of pain and feelings about your experience of pain are normal after surgery. Acknowledge and accept these feelings as part of the recovery process. Remember how you feel now is temporary and your healing process will continue. Call to mind pleasant feelings or thoughts that you experienced today." Or a Committed Action message might urge a patient to work toward a life goal, even if some pain might be present.

The researchers discovered that not only did these daily messages lead to the 37% reduced opioid usage, but those patients also reported less overall pain only two weeks after their surgeries.

One bacteria’s food is another human’s poison

Scientists at Rutgers University, while trying to find ways to clean the Passaic River Superfund site, found bacteria that munch on cancer-causing pollutants [Futurism].

The bacteria was found thriving in toxic mud at the bottom of the river, where it was happily munching away on cancer-causing and otherwise dangerous toxins called dioxins, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. By giving it a little boost, the Rutgers scientists believe they could set the bacteria to work cleaning up the Passaic River and other toxic waste sites around the world.

The bacteria plucks the chorine atoms out of the dioxins, which makes them far less dangerous. The team is researching ways in which they can expand this to toxic sites around the world.

Tech-enabled authoritarianism is on the rise


Even the largest democracy in the world is flirting with authoritarianism enabled by technology. India is now the world’s leader in internet shutdowns [MIT Technology Review].

In 2018, there were 134 internet blackouts in more than 6 Indian states. In 2019 it was 106 internet blackouts across more than 10 states. India is now ahead of China, Iran, and Venezuela in internet shutdowns.

Even the capital of Delhi was not spared from internet blackouts during the protests for the new citizenship law that was enacted last year. But the bulk of the internet blackouts have been in Kashmir which have lasted for more than a year now. Ever since India revoked article 370 in August of 2019, the state has had internet blackouts. After the Supreme Court of India declared the blackout illegal in January this year, the government restored the internet, but the speeds throttled to 2G that makes it basically unusable.

When Covid-19 started spreading, Kashmiris were left without the means to get the relevant health-care updates and information needed to protect themselves.

This year, though, brought something new. On March 18, in Srinagar, the largest city in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, a man tested positive for covid-19—the first in the valley. The mayor asked everyone to stay home, but the message didn’t travel widely. Communication across Kashmir was limited, mobile-phone services were often disrupted, and internet speeds were stuck at a plodding 2G. So although some Kashmiris followed the order to shelter in place, many had no idea they were at risk. “We knew nothing about the virus,” says Omar Salim Akhtar, a urologist at the Government Medical College in Srinagar. “Even health workers were helpless. We had to ask people traveling outside Kashmir to download the medical guidelines and bring back printouts.” 

They are also unable to work and study from home while in Covid-19 lockdown.

Berhan Taye, a senior policy analyst at the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, says there is “a direct correlation between shutdowns and human rights violations.” 


Brazil has created a master database for its citizens called the Cadastro Base do Cidadão - an act by President Jair Bolsonaro that caught Brazil’s citizens by surprise as it was put in place without any debate or public consultation [MIT Technology Review].

The government argues that consolidating this information will improve public services, cut down on voter fraud, reduce bureaucracy, speed up the delivery of social welfare and tax benefits, and make public policies more efficient. Critics believe this data will be used to abuse their personal privacy and civil liberties. 

Brazil used to be one of the leaders in data governance. From its internet steering committee established in 1995 to its internet “bill of rights” in 2014 and a data protection law, LGPD, similar to Europe’s GDPR, passed in 2018, Brazil has led the way in internet governance and data protection. However, under Jair Bolsonaro’s government, the country is increasingly pursuing data grabs and surveillance infrastructure.

The covid-19 pandemic has produced further evidence of the president’s intent to use data as an instrument of power. In April, when the governor of São Paulo launched a project using phone data to track how well people were adhering to isolation measures, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo called it an “invasion of rights,” and the president quickly put a stop to a similar plan from the science ministry. Yet he apparently had no such qualms a week later when he signed a decree mandating that telecoms hand over data on 226 million Brazilians to IBGE, the government’s statistical agency, ostensibly for surveying households during the pandemic. Critics said the data grab was unconstitutional and disproportionate, and it was eventually struck down by the supreme court.

Like many countries, Brazil has been increasing its use of technology for tracking its citizens. Surveillance camera networks installed for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics stayed in place after those events ended. Several police forces used facial recognition software during this year’s carnival to scour the crowds for criminals. And a series of bills both enabling and mandating widespread adoption of the technology—on public transport, for example—have been making their slow way through Brazil’s congress.

At this rate, all the BRIC countries will soon become authoritarian states.

Quote of the week

You know what's really exciting about video games is you don't just interact with the game physically -- you're not just moving your hand on a joystick, but you're asked to interact with the game psychologically and emotionally as well. You're not just watching the characters on screen; you're becoming those characters.

—Nina Huntemann, Game Over

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)