In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Joshua Foer is the author of Moonwalking With Einstein, a piece of participatory journalism that immerses him in the world of competitive memory competitions. The book was published last year, but Foer is still in the business of near-total recall.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Joshua Foer: These days, my moments of procrastination are being completely consumed by Memrise. It’s a language-learning app created by Ed Cooke, whom readers of Moonwalking With Einstein will know well. Ed was my memory coach when I trained for the USA Memory Championship. The idea behind the app is to take all of the best practices that companies like Zynga have used to hook people on the most mindless games imaginable, and instead use them to game-ify learning. It’s totally addictive. But more importantly, it actually seems to work.
Gameological: So you’re still memory training even though the book is finished?
Foer: I know, just when I thought I could finally move on to another story, the memory training pulls me back in. I needed to learn Lingala, the language spoken in the Congo, for a new project I’m working on, and, well, the nearest university with a Lingala course is 1,000 miles away. So I turned to Memrise. I’m kind of shocked at how well it works.
Gameological: That seems a suspiciously productive way to spend prime time-wasting phone time. When is a game no longer a game and only an ornamented learning device?
Foer: Isn’t a game just a set of feedback systems that make you want to keep doing whatever it is you’re doing? If someone has figured out how to make me want to keep memorizing foreign vocabulary, I’m happy to call that a game with benefits. Better I should be doing that than playing Angry Birds.
Gameological: That is depressing. I happen to like shooting Brazilian paramilitaries in the face for its own sake, thanks.
Foer: I prefer my virtual enemies to wear swastikas, but different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Gameological: Do you have to recruit people on Facebook into Memrise in order to advance?
Foer: No, I don’t think that’s a feature yet. But a la Farmville, Memrise analogizes your memories to a garden of plants. It has an algorithm that knows when a given plant is starting to wilt, and it emails me you to remind you to water it, so that it can eventually be harvested into your long-term memory. Just this morning I watered nyoka, mokanda, and mongwa—snake, paper, and salt.
Gameological: Watering snakes seems like a terrible idea. Don’t do that in Congo, no matter how many double-dog dares you get. Have you ever been to Africa?
Foer: A couple times. But I haven’t learned how to say “double-dog dare” in Lingala yet.
Gameological: One of the memory techniques you talk about is filling a room with familiar figures doing unfamiliar things. Do any video game characters exist in your memory mansion?
Foer: Not in mine, no, but I know that three-time world champ Ben Pridmore has some Street Fighter characters in his. Ideally, you want a character in your memory palace to be really three-dimensional, with a big personality—something that will make him or her extremely memorable. Frankly—and maybe this will get me into trouble in a column read by gamers—it doesn’t seem like there are nearly as many fleshed-out characters in video games these days, compared to my childhood. Luigi, Zelda, Leisure Suit Larry—those were personalities that filled the room.
Gameological: I’m not sure I want Larry knocking around in my brain. Might give it the clap. Any new additions to your memory palace lately?
Foer: Besides a whole new African language? Not really. I’ve become a mnemonic schlub lately. I’m out of shape.
Gameological: Is there a Babe Ruth of memory athletes?
Foer: Well, Germany has Gunther Karsten. He won their national memory championship seven years in a row. But he’s not a drunk, overweight womanizer, if that’s what you’re asking.
Gameological: I wasn’t not asking. What’s your first gaming memory?
Foer: My family got our first 8088 PC when I was three, which means I was playing stars.exe, a black-and-white interstellar shoot-em-up, before I could read. I’d love to find that game again and see how it stacks up. [Any idea where to find it, readers? —ed.]
Gameological: That sounds amazing. I’m sure it’s bouncing around out on the internet somewhere. So do people ask you to do memory tricks all the time now?
Foer: Thank God, no.
Gameological: Do your newfound memory superpowers extend to remembering long nights spent at the bar? Just how deleterious an effect does alcohol have on memory, in your opinion?
Foer: Any self-respecting memory champion can wake up in a pool of his own vomit, and still recite every license plate he passed the night before. But for those without such powers… yeah, drinking in excess is not good for your brain.
Gameological: Can you beat three-card Monte now?
Foer: I can beat ten-card Monte now.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.