President Obama

It’s just a game…

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Social Media 19 Comments

Does reading erotic stories excite you?

Are you salivating while watching your favorite Food Network show?

Do you get nightmares after renting that horror flick?

What happens when you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, Soldier of Fortune or a game like Manhunt?

No matter the context, our brain is constantly processing events from the outside world, turning them into physical, emotional and (sometimes) rational responses. In a split second, it has to answer these three questions:

1. What do I see, hear, feel, smell or taste?

2. What does it mean?

3. How do I respond?

If our behavior of choice results in positive feedback (e.g. the release of endorphins, causing a “high”), we’re more likely to choose that type of response in the future. The more we do it, the more we want it, and the better we get at it. It’s classic conditioning.

PLAYING GAMES ALTERS BRAINS

In 2012, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine published the results of an experiment with 28 young men between 18 to 29.

One group played a shooting video game for 10 hours over the course of one week. The second week they didn’t play at all. The control group did not play any video games during these two weeks.

Both groups had fMRI analysis at the start, after the first week, and after the second week. Yang Wang, is assistant research professor in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Science. He said in a news release:

“For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home. These brain regions are important for controlling emotions and aggressive behavior. (…) These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.”

In the same year, researchers for Ohio State University discovered that:

“People who played a violent video game for three consecutive days showed increases in aggressive behavior and hostile expectations each day they played. Meanwhile, those who played nonviolent games showed no meaningful changes in aggression or hostile expectations over that period.”

VIOLENT GAMES ALTER BEHAVIOR

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication and Psychology and co-author of the study. He comments:

“Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression.”

Recently, a research team at Brock University in Canada found that teenagers who play violent video games over a number of years become more aggressive towards other people. They said their results were “concerning” and argued that violent games could “reinforce the notion that aggression is an effective and appropriate way to deal with conflict and anger.”

“It is clear that there is a long-term association between violent video games and aggression,” said Lead researcher Professor Teena Willoughby. “This is an important and concerning finding, particularly in light of the hours that youth spend playing these games.”

THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF GAMING

Not all studies on video game violence and aggression come to the same conclusion, though. David Ewoldson is professor of Communication at the same Ohio State University that published Brad Bushman’s study. His take on the matter:

“Clearly, research has established there are links between playing violent video games and aggression, but that’s an incomplete picture. Most of the studies finding links between violent games and aggression were done with people playing alone. The social aspect of today’s video games can change things quite a bit.”

He concluded that violent video games don’t always make players more aggressive. It all depends on your playing style. Players who cooperated in playing the video game later showed more cooperation than those who competed against each other. (source)

In January of 2012, the Swedish Media Council published a comprehensive review of the research done between 2000 and 2012 into violent video games and aggression. The Council concluded:

“There is an extensive amount of research that demonstrates a statistical relationship between VCG (violent computer games) and aggression. Much of this measured aggression related only to mental processes and not to violent behavior. In addition, there was no evidence for VCG to cause aggressive behavior.”

“That a person reacts in a given manner in a laboratory environment does not mean that they would react similarly in an everyday environment.”

THE GAME BOYS

Some estimate the video game industry to be worth $100 billion worldwide. Whether or not there is a proven causal relationship between violent games and violent behavior, Vice President Joe Biden wanted to meet with video game industry representatives. He did, and they talked for two hours. The topic: gun violence prevention.

According to Biden, the issue at stake wasn’t just gun control. It was about “civility in society,” and the coarsening of our culture.”

After the meeting, Biden suggested ways to address violence in video games, movies and on television when he sent President Barack Obama a package of recommendations for curbing gun violence. This was in response to the Newtown school massacre that killed 20 kids and 6 adults.

According to Reuters, a senior administration official said that President Obama would be asking for $10 million for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the root causes of gun violence, including any relationship to video games and media images.

OUR OWN RESPONSE

Of course Biden wasn’t the only one discussing gun violence and control. As was the case after the movie theater massacre in Aurora (12 dead, 58 wounded), Facebook exploded.

People sticking to their guns clashed with those who didn’t know what to make of the ongoing infatuation with firearms. After heated exchanges, long-time colleagues were unfriended and new friends were found. That’s freedom of speech in action.

Here’s what bothered me most.

The voice-over community discussed putting armed guards in schools, weapons at Walmart, strengthening background checks and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Those issues are important, but they are symptoms of a much deeper problem in the United States. People hardly talked about the culture of violence in this country, and the role video games play in that culture.

To me, that would have been interesting, because a number of voice-over actors are making a decent living voicing violent games; games in which aggression is magnified, glorified and rewarded. Games that according to people like professor Bushman, make the players more aggressive. 

 Why in all these years, didn’t anyone in our community have the guts to stand up and say:

“This stuff is sick. This stuff is wrong. I don’t want to play any part in it!”

I think I know why.

GAMING GLORY

Things get uncomfortable when they hit close to home. The discussion is no longer about theoretical situations. It touches our lives and our livelihood. Someone’s got to voice these things, right? It might as well be you. A paycheck is a paycheck, and if you’re lucky, you get to go to Comi-Cons and talk about your character and meet the fans. You’re almost a… celebrity!

Secondly, we’ve grown up with the perverted idea that violence makes enticing entertainment. In a twisted way, inflicting imaginary pain causes pleasure. Boys and girls who are bullied at school get to handle mega rounds of ammo and can blast their evil opponents to smithereens. That’s even therapeutic, yes?! 

Military ManShoot-them-up video games are said to improve visual skills and eye-hand coördination. But what happens when the player snaps and gets his hands on the real thing?

FEEDING A NEW GENERATION

Right now, America is talking about the things we feed our kids (and ourselves) and the impact these things have on the health of the nation. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to realize that there is a link between the obesity crisis and our diet. 

The fact that our youngsters have become a generation of video game playing couch potatoes who get very little exercise doesn’t help either. Eventually, junk builds up in the system like a powerful poison, and one day it will present its ugly face.

But what else do we feed our kids? Think about their mental health for a moment. Do we teach our kids how to build meaningful relationships, how to communicate effectively and how to resolve conflicts peacefully?

Do we teach them to loathe cruelty, to engage in dialogue, to be emphatic and become kinder, more understanding and respectful citizens?

Show me one popular video game that teaches those values.

I have yet to find it.

What we are exposed to on a regular basis becomes the norm. It starts to live inside of us. For better or for worse.

IS FAKE VIOLENCE OKAY?

There used to be a time when researchers could say: All that violence on TV and in the movies… people know it’s not real. Watching TV or a movie is passive. It really doesn’t affect us that much. That was before the era of hyper interactive, highly addictive video games.

As Dr. Bushman noted, most people learn best and much faster when they are actively involved. In Psychology Today he asked the question:

“Suppose you wanted to learn how to fly an airplane. What would be the best method to use: read a book, watch a TV program, or use a video game flight simulator?”

Bushman also observed that “players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer (…) In a violent TV program, viewers might or might not identify with a violent character. People are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with a violent character.”

He continues:

 “Violent games directly reward violent behavior, such as by awarding points or by allowing players to advance to the next game level. In some games, players are rewarded through verbal praise, such as hearing the words “Nice shot!” after killing an enemy. It is well-known that rewarding behavior increases its frequency. (Would you go to work tomorrow if your boss said you would no longer be paid?) In TV programs, reward is not directly tied to the viewer’s behavior.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The Swedish Media Council I mentioned earlier, makes decisions about age limits for films to be shown in movie theaters. They do not only base their considerations on how much violence the film contains. Assessment is made using a formulation from the UN’s child convention, about whether the film may harm the child’s well-being. The Council states:

“The same reasoning should be applied to computer games: a one-sided focus on the violence in the game leads to other issues regarding content being forgotten. (…) If we adults stop focusing all our energy on the incidence of violence in computer games, we can instead begin asking ourselves questions that the research will never be able to answer: what values, norms and ideologies do we want to pass on to our children?

I don’t think it’s necessarily either/or. Why not have a discussion about norms and values, as well as a dialogue about video game violence? One has to do with the other.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Toddler playing video gameI live in a nation that has the highest gun-related homicide rates of any developed country in the world. Gun sales are soaring.

As a dad of a ten-year old, I often wonder and worry about the world I will leave behind for my daughter and her children. Is it going to be a safer, sweeter and saner place, or will we have armed guards on every street corner and in every school?

Is that the “Land of the Free” we so proudly sing of, or is it the “Land of the Fearful”?

How will we teach tolerance and respect and help our children understand and appreciate differences between people, faiths and cultures?

Some scholars say that games are an innocent way for kids to get ready for the real world. Games allow us to playfully engage in imaginary scenarios that -subconsciously- prepare us for things to come. 

If that’s the case, what’s a game like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt teaching our teens? How is it enriching their lives? With so much exciting, innovative technology at our fingertips, is that really the best we can do for our children? Don’t they deserve better?

As a professional, I think it’s time for voice actors to come together, take a stand and speak out against these ultra violent games that are getting more lifelike by the day.

The fundamental question is this: How do we wish to use our talent? Are we going to use it to produce gratuitous violence or to teach people to get along better? Are we going to search for a solution, or are we going to stay part of the problem? 

Or, do we simply stick our heads in the sand and claim there is no problem?

After all…

We’re simply involved in the production of harmless entertainment.

A video game is just a game, right?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Are you replaced by Text-to-Speech software?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 1 Comment

Should voice-over artists be afraid of artificial unintelligence?

Will robots take over the role of narrator or do voice-over professionals still have a future?

 The man who had lost his voice from thyroid cancer, spoke again on the Oprah Winfrey show. In 2010, the late film critic Roger Ebert gave his Oscar predictions with the help of text-to-speech (TTS) software that speaks whatever he typed.

The first computer-based speech synthesis systems were created in the late 1950s. They’ve come a long way, but a lot of TTS software still sounds rather robotic and unnatural. That’s why Ebert turned to Scottish firm CereProc for help.

CereProc actually uses someone’s audio recordings to create a digital voice that comes very close to the real thing. Usually, CereProc has people come in to their studio and record about 15 hours of audio. This is used to re-create the original voice.

In Ebert’s case, they used audio commentary he had made for several DVD documentaries. The quality was poor and the recordings were not as long as they would have liked. Nevertheless, they did the impossible and gave Ebert his voice back.

OUR NEW COMPETITOR?  

TTS software is not only used for people who have lost the ability to speak. It’s used to capture accents and dialects that are on the verge of dying out. People also use it to learn a foreign language. There’s one other application you should be aware of: it could eventually be used to replace you and me! Poland-based Ivona Text-to-Speech advertises:

“Save money spent on voice talent recordings. You do not have to look for recording studios and speakers. You do not waste time concluding agreements and contacting the contractors and it’s accessible 24/7.”

If you want to get an idea of what this software is capable of, go to their website; type in a few words and have a digital voice read it back to you. Rival NeoSpeech, headquartered in California claims: 

“Robotic voices are now history.”

Neospeech offers nine different voices that speak US English, Mexican Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese for a wide range of hand-held devices, desktop and network/server applications.

POLITICAL VOICES

If it weren’t for a certain former president, Roger Ebert might never have  found CereProc. Ebert came across the Bush-o-Matic talking head, a hilarious re-creation of the 43rd president. I must admit: Bush never sounded so articulate! You can make him say things that are intelligent, and even make him wink, squint or blink.

The CereProc engineers pieced the voice of Bush together from his weekly radio address. It’s kind of scary, but in a fun way. Just to be fair, they also added a virtual version of president Obama’s voice and the inimitable accent of the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As you can tell from the audio samples, CereProc is getting close, but they’re not quite there yet. One of the biggest challenges any TTS provider needs to overcome, is how to add some emotion to the speech. Most artificial voices still sound a bit flat and get very boring very quickly. And for ordinary mortals, it’s still too expensive to re-create their own voice with the help of this technology. 

TIME TO GO?

So, do you think it’s getting time for professional voice-overs to pack their bags and start looking for other work? Yes and no.

First of all, text-to-speech companies all over the world use voice talent to record different languages and accents for different applications. Secondly, if you’re a musician, you might find this technological development very interesting but non-threatening.

As you probably know, any musical instrument under the sun has been sampled, and entire symphony orchestras can come out of a can. Yet, people are still buying real Steinways and there are plenty of musicians who make a very decent living.

Do you think that we’ll ever see the time when Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” as performed on virtual instruments, will win a Grammy? I don’t think so. Will a laboratory ever be able to produce a recording of Bach’s cello solo sonatas that rivals the depth of Yo Yo Ma’s interpretation?

You see, there’s still hope for the most subtle, most flexible, most surprising and unique of all instruments: the human voice.  

Here’s the rub: robots have a hard time emoting. They can patiently and dispassionately guide you to the next exit, but they have a hard time expressing even the most basic of feelings such as fear, anger, hurt, guilt and… love.

However, give it a few years, and who knows what the industry will come up with!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice