Monthly Archives: August 2007

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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Write Objectively, Or Die Trying

One of the more interesting panel discussions at this year’s Games Convention Developers Conference focused on the press coverage of the Nintendo Wii, and the implications of this on the rest of the industry. Factor 5 president Julian Eggebrecht ventured forth the opinion that, should the Wii continue to grow in popularity to the point where it “takes over the world,”, magazines that specialize in perhaps overly-critical coverage of the console will cease to operate in the market. Certainly a valid point, given the openly-hostile and somewhat gratuitous negativity that plagued the console from it’s launch – however, does this mean that substandard games and blatant gimmickry should be overlooked for fear of reprisal from the rest of the ‘mainstream’ games journalism industry?

Case in point; Ubisoft’s Red Steel. I’m sure that many a gamer had visualized such a title long before it’s announcement – the combination of samurai sword-wielding action and first person shooter with the Wii’s innovative control system should have been a surefire success. However, as anyone that has actually played – nay, endured – the game will testify, it was anything but. Even Ubisoft’s attempts to rectify the less-than optimal control system of the game (where delay between player action and character response was significant enough to prove frustrating) failed to save the game from the beating that it inevitably suffered at the hands of the press. Truly a wasted opportunity, but the vast majority of the reporting on the game was largely accurate and, most importantly, fair.

Whilst negative gameplay experiences should and must be reported in the press, consider the alternative; the magazine in question (say, Arena, for the sake of example) delivers a well-crafted and compelling argument as to why Red Steel is such a disappointment, only to be branded as a whiny bunch of Wii-haters by everyone else so enamored by the Wii that ultimately their position is deemed unjustly harsh and is ultimately detrimental to the circulation figures of the magazine. Whilst truly poor games that fail to contribute anything positive to the console or it’s audience should be outed for the flagrant exploitation they are, we mustn’t ‘progress’ to the point that because of a console’s commercial success and consumer following, substandard products go unpunished in the press. Consumer loyalty and trust are critical in gaming journalism, and fans (read: consumers) should be given impartial, accurate reporting on the products in question, otherwise what’s the point?

Whilst all the examples and situations in this discussion are somewhat extreme, the point remains the same – where does the boundary between needless criticism and genuine difference of opinion lie? With the journalist in question. And, given that if a journalist knows little of what they write about, then surely this lack of due diligence and the poor penmanship that is so prevalent in much of today’s gaming ‘journalism’ will achieve the same result as the needless Wii-bashing mentioned by Eggebrecht in the panel discussion.

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‘Victory’, But At What Cost?

The powers that be – those self-appointed guardians of public morality, the ESRB – have deemed that Manhunt 2 is in fact suitable for release in the United States under the ‘M’ (for Mature) classification. However, whilst this may be good news for fans of the original game (of which I’m reliably informed there are some), this ‘victory’ against censorship of interactive entertainment is a shallow one – as mandated by the ESRB, Rockstar Games had to edit the game’s content to gain the approval of the board and ultimately, secure a commercial release. At this point, it is not clear what elements of the game have been cut but since the Manhunt 2 page on the official ESRB site says that the game still contains strong sexual content, blood and gore, use of drugs, intense violence and strong language, it seems that the content cut (sorry, ‘edited’) from the game would have to be pretty extreme stuff to warrant exclusion.

So, the question remains; is it better to play a censored version of the game, or to never have the chance of playing the game that Rockstar intended? Personally, the choice would be easy for me – I was never impressed by the first title, and as such was not overly concerned when the decision was made to effectively ban the sequel. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with the way that Rockstar / Take-Two have marketed the game as ‘art’, or the way that the ESRB have flexed their muscle in terms of deciding what games are suitable for me – if I wanted to play it, I should have the right to decide what content is suitable for me, and I take any censorship action as an affront to the very notion of freedom of speech.

Excuse the pun, but let’s not play games here – Manhunt 2 is not ‘art’, anymore than ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ is art. However, should that determine whether or not it’s content is suitable for me? Of course not. However, Take-Two themselves have brought the artistic validity of Manhunt 2 into question by even considering an edit. Obviously, with such time and effort having gone into creating the game it’s logical that they would want a commercial release. However, Strauss Zelnick’s statement that “It brings a unique, formerly unheard of cinematic quality to interactive entertainment, and is also a fine piece of art,” is contradictory – were it such a fine piece of art, perhaps they would have argued this point more strenuously before agreeing to alter their ‘vision’ for the sake of a commercial release.

As easy as it is to say, if Take-Two believed in the artistic merit of their product, an edit would never have been considered. Rather, compromising the original content of the game for commercial viability is something that we should have expected – after the hype generated by the ESRB and BBFC’s original decisions had died down. After all, Manhunt 2 is just another obvious media target, and – from what we’ve seen in terms of marketing material and the content of the original game – a rather pedestrian title. You can’t buy this kind of marketing, especially for a game that likely would’ve shifted far fewer units if it weren’t for the high-profile media coverage that the game has enjoyed of late.

Remember not so long ago, when Gordon Hall was telling us we should rally behind them?

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