Red Steal?

As reported in the China Daily, video game production outsourcing to China is predicted to exceed $2.5 billion by 2010. Given that China is currently the fourth-largest economy in the world, with recorded economic growth reported as 10.7% last year, it’s no surprise that interest from game developers and publishers in establishing a long-term presence in China is high, given that production costs are significantly lower than the West and investment opportunities are common. However, the Chinese government’s position on the moral issues surrounding video games as an entertainment medium – especially within the context of internet use – is no secret, with Beijing displaying little tolerance towards Western companies seeking to capitalize on the rapidly-growing market for online gaming and cheaper labor. Is a backlash inevitable?

With potential revenues proving especially enticing to Western companies, it’s unlikely that pursuit of this lucrative market share will wane, even with fierce opposition from Beijing. Companies like Ubisoft are already building branch offices in China for development reasons, and Electronic Arts recently expanded their Pogo casual gaming service to offer their services to Chinese gamers. However, could intense interest from foreign investors (particularly Westerners) be met with stern response from the Chinese government? Never one to bow to popular opinion, Chinese President Hu Jintao has regulated the Chinese media (particularly internet usage and television broadcasts) in a manner deemed stricter than his predecessor, and also favors some rather hard line views in terms of political reform.

It is this that could prove to be a conflict of interest for Jintao, and the Chinese as an economic power. I’m sure that Beijing won’t pass on the chance to capitalize on the West’s need for cheaper production costs long associated with Chinese outsourcing, but will traditionalism and the iron grip on the country’s media be won over by aggressive business interests of Western media companies and China’s desire for economic growth? China’s internet usage statistics indicate a strong increase, despite heavy censorship and media control and video gaming is gaining in popularity at a steady rate – something has to give, especially given the speed at which the Chinese economy is growing. Will Beijing listen to the voice of The People? Or will China’s continued growth be met with ever-tightening control?

Expansion comes at a cost – but will Beijing be willing to pay?

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Jack Thompson: “Are You Nuts?”

Everyone’s favorite pantomime attorney Jack Thompson was making headlines across the gaming world, following his comical email exchanges with Gena Feist, Take-Two’s VP and Associate General Counsel regarding his criticism of Take-Two’s business practices. Whilst the legality of this is questionable under the terms of the legal agreement between Thompson and Take-Two, perhaps what is more irritating than Thompson himself is the fact that he remains free to continue his political soapboxing on sites like Game Politics.

I understand the fact that this is considered newsworthy information, and that Game Politics would be foolish not to report on it in the first instance. However, without taking sides, you don’t see Take-Two contacting political blogs and sending out of context, incorrectly timestamped emails for the purposes of posturing and assigning blame, which seems to be the sole point in doing so unless I’m missing something. Not only that, but Thompson does himself no favors by highlighting his ignorance of the legality of commonplace age verification techniques – something I’d assume attorneys would do well to be knowledgeable of. I’m sure that much will be made of Take-Two’s failure to respond to Game Politics’ request for a statement regarding the emails, but perhaps they simply recognize that the proper place for this kind of discourse is the courtroom.

Personally, I look forward to the time when Manhunt 2 is forgotten about as the mundane, uninspired title that it will inevitably be, and these painfully frequent arguments about video game violence and selfish political agendas can be reserved for games that people actually want to play, like GTA IV. Roll on 2008.

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Seung-Hui Cho: Games Not Motivation for Va. Tech

With the release of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s report detailing the findings of the Virginia Tech massacre review panel, the influences of violent video games were dismissed as a contributing factor in killer Seung-Hui Cho’s actions. Whilst this will offer little comfort to the victims’ families, it is a welcome development in the almost-daily conflict between the sensationalist media and common sense. Whilst I’m sure Jack Thompson and ‘not actually a medical professional’ Dr. Phil are sharpening their pitchforks and stocking up on paraffin, such instances of blame laid squarely at the feet of interactive entertainment beg the question – why is it so difficult for people to assign blame to the conscious decisions of the individual?

I’m sure many of us had wondered what, if any games had featured in Cho’s (now apparently) non-existent games collection, and how long it would take proponents of the ‘people don’t kill people, games do‘ argument to secure their parasitic mandibles onto the victims’ families’ suffering as a sickening means to further their own weak, tired agendas. Somehow, I can’t see even Jack Thompson managing to pin the blame on the hedgehog this time. I desperately want to believe that there’s another reason for games acting as a perpetual scapegoat other than the fact that people simply cannot accept that people like Cho are simply that fucked up that to assign blame on them personally would be just too hurtful; to acknowledge that society itself is fundamentally damaged enough to spur young men like Cho onto horrific acts of murder would be too difficult to accept, but that too is just too difficult. I’m acutely aware that to dare to imagine such a world is shameless utopianism, but to dismiss the killing of innocent young men and women as a result of playing video games does nothing more than cheapen the tragic loss of life, and the misery of the people left behind.

Perhaps the focus of the attention of ‘professionals’ like Jack Thompson is misguided; surely if anyone lies to blame, the gratuitous media coverage of massacres like Virginia Tech should also be held accountable. If Dr. Phil wants to publicly lambast video games for the moral turpitude they are on shows like Larry King, then surely he has to accept that news coverage of tragedies such as this are equally guilty for glamorizing killing. Pot, meet kettle.

I applaud Tim Kaine and the Virginia Tech review panel for conducting their investigation impartially, without bending to popular opinion or media ‘expertise’. We can but hope that this report will go at least some way towards restoring the sense of personal responsibility tragically lacking in today’s society.

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Insert Random N-Gage Gag Here

Despite the spectacular failure of earlier attempts by Finnish communications giant Nokia to crack the notoriously difficult handheld gaming market, and the subsequent ridicule that was heaped upon them because of it, they are nevertheless trying again. Word on the street is, predictably, similar to last time – more ridicule and mild speculation as to their chances of success. However, they’ve got the backing of some major players and could fare considerably better this time around. So what’s different?

Well, for starters the last time they ventured into the market with their original N-Gage device, which was by described by some as resembling a taco, Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance largely dominated the market for handheld gaming and their efforts to break into this highly contested marketplace were further hampered by the terrible design of the device itself. Combine this with a less-than stellar lineup of games, and the result could be compared to the ‘success’ of Microsoft’s attempts to muscle in on Apple’s turf with their Zune media device. However, you don’t become a market leader without learning from past mistakes, and so this time Nokia seem to be in a much stronger position to make their re-launch of the N-Gage gaming platform more profitable. I use the word ‘more’ in the context of ‘it may actually make them some money this time around’ and the word ‘seem’ in the context of ‘the whole venture could still crap out anyway, dooming Nokia to decades of pointed fingers and hysterical laughter’.

With companies like EA, THQ and Capcom all declaring their support for the N-Gage, things are starting to look quite promising for November’s relaunch. However, the real cunning behind the whole operation lies with the decision to implement the N-Gage platform across a range of devices, as detailed in this interview with Jaakko Kaidesoja. Now, when you look at the previous device – aside from very real fears of being petrified by it’s nightmarish ugliness, like a certain Gorgon of legend – it’s easy to grasp why this would be so crucial to the success of the N-Gage platform. It is not only this, however, that makes smartphone compatibility such a shrewd move for Nokia.

Last time I was on the subway, I noticed a large proportion of the other passengers playing games on their cellphones – although this could’ve been an excuse to avoid direct eye contact, according to the unspoken rules of subway etiquette. This observation got me thinking – how many potential gamers are out there, that would never consider buying a device so perceived as ‘childish’ as a Nintendo DS or PSP? Despite the proof to the contrary, gaming is still perceived by many would-be gamers as a childish pastime. However, as evidenced by the growing popularity of mobile gaming, there’s gold in them thar phones, and by offering people a way to play games on devices that they’d like to own anyway, the re-imagined N-Gage platform has all the ingredients for a successful foray into the handheld gaming market.

Despite this, Nokia cannot afford to be complacent – as Peter Molyneux recently stated, limitations of the hardware and actual usability of the devices themselves will still prove a barrier to many gamers. All things considered, perhaps Nokia’s critics would do well to wait until Q2 of 2008 before passing judgment on the N-Gage platform.

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Families That Play Together, Stay Together – Indoors

Casual games bring families together.  Whilst it sounds disgustingly like an insidious marketing slogan, that’s what PopCap are telling us after revealing the results of a recent survey of casual gamers – the largest survey of it’s type ever conducted, according to their claims.  However, upon closer scrutiny of the figures, the conclusions drawn could prove to be misleading.

Without regurgitating the figures from the survey or the Gamasutra article that caught my attention in the first place, the results of the survey and the way they are presented are questionable.  Whilst there are most definitely many positives to be highlighted in the results – such as almost half of casual gamer parents feeling that playing casual games improved their children’s vocabulary, language and history skills and 92% of parents stating they felt that casual gaming helped them bond with their children – what people aren’t commenting on is the fact that, despite all the warm, fuzzy feelings being shared by families that play video games together, all this ‘family bonding’ and ‘quality time’ is being enjoyed staring at screens, indoors.  What about away from the computer?

Playing For Keeps, a non-profit organization focused on child development through play, had some less optimistic statistics available regarding how kids are spending their time these days. According to them, ‘unstructured’ outdoor activities have declined 50% over the last generation, and, perhaps more sobering, the average American two-year old spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen, whether that be a television or computer.  Of course, in the interests of impartiality, it’s not immediately clear where they got this information – just like PopCap.  Anyone can manipulate statistical information for their own evil machinations, but even if these figures are remotely true, then perhaps it’s about time we sat up and took notice. 

Ordinarily, my advocacy of all things game is not called into question.  However, whilst the results of PopCap’s survey indicate that casual gaming has it’s bonuses, the overall situation is somewhat less picturesque than we may be led to believe.  Whilst I’m not suggesting anything as radical as destroying televisions en masse and a return to communal living in the mountains, isn’t anyone else a little concerned that maybe – just maybe – we’re becoming way too reliant on electronics in our homes?  I’m most definitely in favor of families spending time gaming together – but not at the expense of time spent away from screens, out of the house, in the glorious sunshine.  If we get to the point where electronic intermediaries become vital to our relationships with our children, then we’ve got a serious problem.

I think it’s great that so many families are using gaming as a way to spend time together, advance their language and numeric abilities and to learn to cooperate with each other towards common goals – but let’s not forget that tossing a frisbee around can be fun, too.

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Dare To Be Different?

So, in a somewhat ‘daring’ move (I promise that’ll be the only time, ok?), Sir Richard Branson has acquired the rights to resurrect ‘classic’ British science fiction comic hero Dan Dare in a cross-platform deal that gives Branson the rights to the publishing, television, movie and video game licenses for the franchise.  This is the latest high-profile entertainment deal involving Virgin, following hot on the proverbial heels of the announcement of the proposed Ramayan 3392 MMO to be produced in association with Sony Online Entertainment.  The question is – why?

It’s no secret that Branson favors risky business deals – after all, it’s a defining characteristic of any successful entrepreneur, and to build up a media empire consisting of over 350 companies, you’ve got to have balls of steel.  However, it’d be a not-inconsiderable challenge to name a franchise that would be harder to reinvent and rebrand for a modern audience, especially in the context of movies and subsequent video game adaptations.  Perhaps this would be worse, but not by much – hopefully this series will be short-lived, and will crawl off to die in a corner somewhere, perhaps between Xena: Warrior Princess and reruns of Sliders.

The most pertinent question with regards to the imminent return of Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare is not one of style; even the guys at Extreme Makeover could probably cobble together a ‘look’ for Dan that would sit well with the legions of moviegoers and gamers that would buy into the franchise.  No, the question lies with the character himself, and how the audience is expected to identify with him.

To say that Dan Dare comes from a different age would be a perfect example of the old saying ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’.  Defined by his rigid moral and ethical code, Dare was a role model to a generation of kids in a time where the memory of World War II was still pervasive across popular culture, especially comics.  Preferring diplomacy to violence, Dare serves as a memory of a bygone age where honor was still held in high regard, and a man’s word was worth something.  Short of completely reinventing the whole notion of the Dan Dare character, how are modern audiences supposed to take him seriously?  Strip away the moral aspect of his character, and what are you left with?  A tired, generic space hero from a time long since forgotten in the mire of today’s popular ‘culture’ of product placement and questionable ethics. 

However, I believe firmly in Branson’s business acumen, and genuine enthusiasm for the character.  Perhaps my skepticism is misplaced; maybe the franchise can offer something sadly lacking in many of today’s entertainment series – integrity.  Also, given the originality of the decision to develop an MMO based on a Sanskrit epic is certainly promising given the drought of originality in the video game industry today, and could be an indication of the care and attention that Branson’s team will lavish on the Dan Dare franchise.  I for one would love to see them pull it off. 

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie – Or Just Kill Them

And so the Manhunt 2 saga continues unabated. Whilst it feels almost as if Manhunt 2′s media coverage should have it’s own channel (or blog – maybe the nice folks at Weblogs, Inc could capitalize on this missed opportunity), today’s installment – from the opposition, no less – raises a valid point regarding the ESRB and the way in which they operate.

Since neither Rockstar nor the ESRB themselves have yet disclosed what despicable acts of depravity were cut (sorry, edited) from Manhunt 2 in order to grant a commercial release, California Senator Leland Yee has not only called for this information to be made public, but also the communications between Rockstar and the ESRB that resulted in the edits and subsequent release. He claims that parents cannot trust a regulatory body that doesn’t disclose how they arrive at a particular rating, despite the fact that this page offers quite a considerable amount of information on their process. This can mean only one thing – he’s just pissed that he can’t find out exactly what was cut so he can use it for his own dastardly political gain in future nonsensical arguments about video game violence. However, he does raise a good point – should we know what content were cut from the original game? Or should we just trust the ESRB to make that call? After all, that’s their job, right?

Perhaps what would be more prudent would be to identify the qualities that makes the ESRB’s ‘specially-trained game raters’ (whom are, presumably, gifted with superhuman powers granting them more resistance to porn and violence than ‘ordinary’ people – y’know, like gamers) suitable for their roles. The fact that their official information specifies that ‘at least three’ game raters are required to pass judgment on a title before being allocated a rating is perhaps more worrying; three people is hardly indicative of an accurate cross-section of opinion. To quote the official site; “They rate games on a full-time basis, although they may be assisted by part-time raters when necessary.” I can only imagine the strength of moral fiber necessary to resist the evils of video games on a full-time basis; Herculean feats of endurance matched only by their determination to protect the youth of America from the immoral filth manufactured by developers like Rockstar; wearied, exhausted Republicans, dripping with sweat having spent the whole day resisting the temptation to fuck, kill and profane everyone around them – truly they are heroes indeed. As for the ‘assistance’ from part-time raters – do they ask the interns on their way to the hotplate if something is ‘too evil’? Does this look like porno to you, Jimmy? No sir, it don’t.

Whilst I’m less concerned with exactly what was cut (due to my aforementioned distaste for all censorship on principle along with many other rational, thinking adults capable of making decisions all by themselves), I would most definitely welcome more news regarding the ESRB’s process of determining suitable content, and what qualifies their staff to make these decisions. And needless to say, the communications between Rockstar and the ESRB would almost-certainly be more entertaining than the content of the game itself, censored or not.

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