"Games," pronounced Professor Alan Wilmington in his characteristic pontificating style, "are a remarkable guide to the nature and inner workings of a civilization."
If that is true, thought Kevin, then the Playstation generation has a lot to answer for.
Kevin was attending another of the NISSA briefing sessions. On this occasion, the theme was commonplace technology that he was likely to encounter on visiting the Island. The Professor actually used the word "technology" in this context, although Kevin had yet to comprehend any reasonably rational basis for the processes which underpinned the operation of such artefacts in Lyndesfarne.
Professor Alan was explaining about the Island equivalent of computer games. It appeared that automatically-mediated multi-player games had been a feature of Lyndesfarne society of a long time, Kevin was slightly dismayed to note. He did not really comprehend the Professor's explanation of the behaviour, and got the impression that Alan was not entirely au fait either.
Despite his easy familiarity with computers in his professional life, Kevin was of a generation that did not really get the absorbing nature of immersive computer games. This was especially true for those games where several people could play together with the rules being enforced by the machines. He supposed this was a hangover from his university days, when the technology was in its infancy, and the few people interested in this kind of thing were unwashed, long-haired geeks of the first water, even by Kevin's own standards as a swotty student.
Things were different in Lyndesfarne. On the Island, such entertainments were immensely popular, and not just with teenagers and young adults. Typically, these were role-playing games, based almost entirely on skill, rather than relying on pure chance.
Games were played "for real" in what the Professor could only describe as a light trance. For single-player games, one took what looked like a pair of smallish stones into each hand; they fitted neatly into each palm. For multiple players, the participants were seated together, and each took up a similar pair of stones. At an initialization gesture, the stones soften, allowing the manipulation of what Kevin thought of as a virtual environment.
"You enter a kind of dream-like state," the Professor said in an attempt at explanation. "Immersive, entrancing, persuasive - an environment sometimes difficult to tell from reality. You need to experience it yourself to really understand."
"But how do you get out? Suppose the house if on fire?" Kevin asked, curious as always as to the practicalities of the inexplicable. "Surely there has to be some way of contacting the player."
He had had some very occasional experiences with trying to attract the attention of one of his younger colleagues when playing computer games. Needless to say, this had usually been during business hours, and when they should really have been doing something more closely related to the work at hand.
The Professor smiled.
"There's a gesture which people in the, well, real world can use to break into your game. It's considered bad manners to use it without reasonable justification, of course. And as for the player himself, he also gets unambiguous clues that the environment he perceives is synthetic."
Kevin was intrigued. He wondered if the idea for computer games had been somehow suggested by the Lyndesfarne experience. The parallels were obvious, but he could not immediately see how the ideas could have been transferred from one society to the other. Perhaps, he mused, this was a genuine example of parallel development.
Kevin was being briefed about all this because the same kind of imitation magical environments had a more serious purpose. He had wanted to know how the detailed design for the Island side of the New Bridge was being handled. He knew that large numbers of extremely detailed specifications and calculations had to be made. It was becoming clear that a variant of these games had been used to represent the bridge's construction. So it is quite possible, he considered privately, to build realistic models of things that really do not exist, and indeed could not possibly exist - even in the near-fantasy world of Lyndesfarne.
Another thing that struck Kevin as odd at the time, although he could not quite put his finger on exactly why, was that gambling games were not popular on the Island. Professor Alan explained that there were no games which relied heavily on chance and bluff: no card games like Poker or Gin Rummy; no dice games, even as innocuous as Ludo or Monopoly; no casinos or slot machines.
All kinds of sports and ball games were certainly well-liked. However, these were regarded as social activities, to be played with friends and family; something one did oneself at the weekend as a member of a club. On the Island, there was no culture of high-profile sport, nothing with the overt enthusiasm (mass hysteria was Kevin's view) and widespread support in the way that soccer, for example, was treated in Kevin own world.
The Professor did not offer an explanation of why this should be so. Without saying as much, he gave the impression that this was all to do with the social fabric in the world of Lyndesfarne, with a nod towards the emphasis on family life. Kevin did not think to press the point further at the time. He had always thought that sports with huge followings appealed to some tribal sense of belonging, and he wondered if this was somehow absent in Lyndesfarne.
Later in the same session, Alan turned his expertise to the social effects of the Island approach to long-distance communications.
"There's another aspect of Lyndesfarne society I would like to mention to you," Alan began. "It's something you will almost certainly come up against, and I don't want it to be too much of a shock to you."
Kevin nodded politely. He had received so many cultural shocks over the last few months that he felt one more would not be a disaster. But let's not get too blase about it all, he thought.
"As we do here, people in Lyndesfarne like to keep in touch when they are travelling. But, over there, they will use a form of long-distance writing using what we call 'slates'. Have you seen an old-fashioned writing slate - like a miniature blackboard in a wooden frame?"
Kevin shook his head.
"No? OK. Well, the best analogy is a portable blackboard, usually about the size of a large pad of paper," explained the Professor, forming the appropriate size in the air with his hands.
"One writes, or sketches or whatever, using ordinary chalk, and then one uses a series of gestures to indicate the intended recipient."
Kevin had not heard of such devices before, and was immediately fascinated.
"The similarity with our modern electronic mail is obvious," Alan continued, "Although it is worth observing that long distance written communication has been a feature of Lyndesfarne society for generations."
At this revelation, Kevin became extremely thoughtful. Several interesting implications had already occurred to him. According to the Professor, there was nothing resembling telephones in widespread use. The only exceptions were the very short-range intercoms such as those he had come across in the hostel he occasionally used when visiting the construction sites. Kevin thought he could probably shout and make himself heard over that distance.
Another inference he drew was that Lyndesfarne people were used to writing, all the time. No doubt this was in a wide variety of styles, and often highly informal and chatty. Nevertheless, it was not quite a conversation. Messages written on the slates appeared to take a few minutes to arrive - it was not quite instantaneous - although why this should be so was not made clear to Kevin.
Also, it meant that there was nothing analogous to mobile phones in Lyndesfarne, and certainly nothing like the extreme miniaturization of sophisticated electronic function that had become such a ubiquitous feature of modern life in Kevin's world. It turned out that the writing slates used for letters were quite large - apparently there was no easy way to make them smaller - which implied that Island people were used to carrying around fairly large bags at all times.
The discourse on games and slates had lead Professor Wilmington onto a discursive exposition (or "ramble", as Kevin defined it) on other aspects of entertainment on the Island. Kevin's attention had begun to wander by this time, and he was barely taking in the Professor's words.
Alan covered reading and writing at some length. As Kevin already knew, there was a written language with a different but otherwise conventional alphabet. Apparently, books and magazines were available in a huge variety, including many topics without analogues in Kevin's world. The name Sprite Fancier's Monthly drifted though Kevin's dazed consciousness at this point, for no readily discernable reason.
Most books and magazines were printed on conventional paper, although the magical means of doing this was not made clear. The equivalent of daily newspapers was handled quite differently. Some variant of the slates used for letters (never the same ones) would be updated several times a day with new articles and reports. Of course, you had to get a different slate to subscribe to a different newspaper-equivalent - so deliberate, commercially-driven technical incompatibility was a feature of the Island world as well, mused Kevin.
Recorded animations of plays of all kinds were very popular, including the equivalents of soap operas.
"And, before you ask, yes, there is an equivalent to Coronation Street." The Professor laughed, jolting Kevin into a more attentive state.
Kevin was not a great fan of such entertainments, but he was mildly interested to learn that they were delivered through the medium of magical stones, like the games. In this case, both hands were placed on a single stone, and it was not necessary to move significantly. In this more passive mode, a viewer was not so much immersed in the soapy world as presented with a virtual environment allowing them to watch the action as if upon a stage. The stones updated themselves periodically (once a week, or more frequently), and could therefore be enjoyed at a time to suit the subscriber.
The downside to all this was that you had to get different stones for each play (or serial, or channel, or whatever) one wanted to watch. All this implied that the number of different choices an individual could actively experience was rather small, compared with the extreme choice and (in Kevin's opinion) hugely variable quality of satellite or cable broadcast television in his world. So, less choice but hopefully better quality, he concluded, and wondered what effect that had on people's social life.
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