Echochrome - the new Brain Age?

Kylie Prymus is the first columnist for PS Fanboy. A Ph.D candidate in philosophy, Kylie specializes in the sociology of technology. Through this new weekly column, Kylie will explore the impact of PlayStation on thought and culture.

Any gamer who has spent a significant amount of uninterrupted time staring through a 2D screen into a 3D game world understands the strange perceptual shift that takes place when returning to the truly 3-dimensional space of the real world. There is a disorienting effect, a sense of unreality, in coming back to a place where perspective changes are achieved not by the subtle movements of an analog stick, but by actually shifting the head which houses your ocular apparatus. I first experienced this 10 years ago after a marathon session of The Ocarina of Time, giving my not-yet-21 self a taste of the post-college-party vertigo to come. A similar effect can be achieved by long stretches of reading, focusing on a purely 2D plane for hours and then trying to adjust to the vividness of reality.

Games also have a deeper effect on our perception of the world, one which far too much press has declared detrimental to gamers and society at large. Our actions in the game world can and do affect our real-world thoughts. Who can claim not to have had at least a small desire to put the pedal to the floor after playing Gran Turismo, especially when one of the licensed songs comes on the radio? How often do you think about the alternate routes through the grocery store a Portal gun would make possible? Beyond being whimsical fantasies divulged only in conversation with individuals at or above yourself on the gamer-nerd scale, some games can actually change the way you think in a positive direction. The intellect enhancing possibility of games has been exploited most successfully by Nintendo with their DS selling Brain Age series (despite a recent Wired article claiming it has no such benefit). Echochrome may well be Sony's answer to the Dendrite Stimulation genre. There's just one problem: what exactly does it make you smarter at?

Spend a few hours with Echochrome and I guarantee your perception of the world will be temporarily distorted. Besides the typical vertigo that accompanies any marathon gaming session, you will become acutely aware of the way your own vision is fundamentally 2-dimensional and that it is only through our lifelong experience of living in a 3-dimensional environment that we naturally assume the appropriate visual relationship to the world. Ask anyone who has lost an eye in a Cylon prison or other mishap (or for an extreme twist, talk to Stereo Sue) and they will tell you that seeing the world in 3D is not as easy as it, ahem, appears. What Echochrome does, quite brilliantly, is tweak our perception of dimensionality in an interactive way not possible with Escher drawings or Penrose triangles.

Echochrome makes us aware of the frailty of our own perceptual apparatus and creates a mild obsession with flattening the world to create shortcuts to the mailbox – unless we're budding surrealist painters, is this really useful to us? Take the example given by Colin Turnbull of a BaMbuti pygmy who, on emerging from a forest in which he had spent his entire life without seeing distances in excess of a few yards, mistook the buffalo he saw on the horizon for tiny insects. For him, 3-dimensionality on that scale simply was not possible. We can imagine him asking, like the protagonist in Abbott's Flatland novel, what lies at the next level above 3D. How would we answer?

Modern gaming environments are all but exclusively 3D. We take it for granted, so much so that a game like Echochrome can prove challenging. I imagine that a gamer from the early 80's (at the time when the first game to use 3D polygons, I, Robot – ignoring all jokes about Will Smith's lack of acting depth – hit the market) would find the puzzles in Echochrome a bit of a bore. Those early gamers were accustomed to a 2D environment, so once they mastered what for them would be a novel control scheme, they would likely tear through every level. They would resist seeing the game as 3D just as much as we resist seeing it as 2D.

But where we resist interacting in the 2nd dimension we still understand it, and nothing challenges us to explore the relationship between 2D and 3D more than Echochrome. If we wish to set really lofty goals for the future of this franchise we might conjecture that it will open our minds to the possibility of 4D thinking along the lines of a hypercube. To be more modest, the types of spatial reasoning required to appease Echochrome's wandering mannequin may aid in other sorts of pattern recognition, of the sort useful in games like chess, or disciplines like advanced mathematics. Or perhaps it only develops a skill in search of a useful application, making us better able to do one and only one thing: quickly pass more levels.

Besides, if you caught the Dendrite Stimulation (DS) crack a few paragraphs ago you probably don't need games to increase your intellect. If you found it amusing, however, you may want to consider getting out of the house more – without your PSP.

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