Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

5. Illusion

  • This chapter covers the history for projected illusions and their impact on human emotions from the late 1700’s to the modern day. It starts with projected images and moves to building sized panoramic paintings. With the introduction of the cinema, all other forms became obsolete. Cinema takes advantage of the fact that showing the human eye 24 pictures a second fools it into thinking it is seeing continuous motion. While most people involved in illusions drew on innovations from many others, the Walt Disney company contained a group of artists who made all the necessary inventions as they moved from the first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” in 1929, to the first full length animated movie, “Snow White” in 1938. They made breakthroughs with color and paint and even invented the multi-plane camera to add visual depth. Their advances where so amazing that it was common to see adults crying at the end of the movie.

6. Games

  • There is no clear evolutionary purpose for game play, yet somehow our minds are drawn compulsively of the challenge and unpredictability of games. Once humans invented tools, it wasn’t long before the tools were used to craft games. In the process, tools were improved and new tools were created to serve the needs of games. Games have also feed global communication as they are quick to cross cultural borders.
  • Dice games were played in ancient Egypt but it wasn’t until 1654 that Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat invented probability theory after predicting the probability of winning a dice game. Games have driven advances in material science. The first rubber balls were created by the Olmecs in 15th century Mexico. Such balls were discovered by Columbus on his second voyage to Hispaniola. Although he didn’t bring any gold back to Europe, he did bring rubber and it turned out to be very valuable. The creation of rubber plantations also served to exploit populations and the environment.
  • When MIT installed an early mini computer in 1961, its first users were quick to create the computer game Spacewar. It was a game that introduced the open source approach to creating computer software that lead to the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the Linux operating system. Other advances in computer science were driven by games. Deep Blue’s defeat of chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 and Watson’s defeat to two Jeopardy champions in 2011 are prime examples.
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