Monday, March 27, 2006


I'm officially filing
(as in "writing a blog post") a complaint against Penny Arcade's characterization of the Video Game Voters Network from Monday, March 20.

I can't really say Tycho's got it all wrong, just that he's filtering it skewed. Which could be for the purpose of keeping to the persona crafted in his posts -- still, a few things deserve to be addressed. Keep in mind this is not an attack on those fine upstanding gentlemen or their fantastic comickal art.

"I understand the idea behind it - the network, I mean. But I don't think there's actually a monolithic "gamer" voting block that receives their signal from the mothership and then behaves according to some agreed upon protocol."

I'm not sure why such an idea would need to be refuted, especially in a cautious manner (e.g., "But I don't think . . . "). Of course there's not a monolithic "gamer" voting block. But it would be stupid to form an organization based around blocking certain video game legislation and call it "Cod Lover Voters Network" or "A Specific Type of Video Gamer Voters Network."

Such an obvious mischaracterization seems to imply that, in fact, Tycho does not understand the idea behind it. I'm willing to discard this seeming naivete about how issue groups like these function as poetic license.

Second, there's this: "[T]he people who would be most grievously affected by gaming legislation aren't of voting age."

Sure, because it couldn't be about a serious censorship attempt, only about carding minors. Why should adults care?

About a week ago I covered the Lieberman-created CAMRA proposal. This study will be conducted by the Center for Disease Control. Think about that. If that doesn't make a point about how some of our legislators view video games, then I'm not sure what would.

Or consider this from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich: "For the same reason we don't allow kids to buy pornography, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy cigarettes, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy alcohol, we shouldn't allow them to go to stores and buy video games."

Third, I'm willing to buy how difficult it would be to motivate gamers to come together on these issues. But I'm not willing to just leave it at that. Who cares if gamers end up agreeing? The point is to at least let them know what's on the table. To extend the pizza metaphor -- at least let them know you're fucking ordering pizza.

The last paragraph is what really touched a nerve:

"I think the threat to adult gamers is usually described as a "chilling effect" that will constrict the themes of even mature entertainment, the self-censorship of games to secure a more desirable (i.e., marketable) rating. The First Amendment is often hauled out in these instances, as though concessions to the marketplace amount to the tromp of the jackboot, but to the best of my knowledge the "Right To Be Sold In Wal-Mart" is not enumerated in the constitution."

Well, that chilling effect happens all the time. It's why NC-17 movies never come to your neighborhood. Sure, maybe you don't miss them. You can always buy the special DVD cut. But that effect exists. The same thing happens in music. And it's been happening in video games since they arrived on the scene (the Nintendo Mortal Kombat no blood version). Talk to developers and ask them if they ever feel restricted in their content, even when they're making games geared toward adults.

There is usually a modicum of media self-censorship in order to adhere to a general social acceptability. The trick is to look for tipping points, where the censorship begins affecting decisions for all consumers of a medium.

The legislation is designed solely to create such a chilling effect. It has nothing to do with selling M-rated games to minors. They are looking to push through censorship using market pressure created by legislation. And that is also known as a block to freedom of expression.

These laws do not keep children from playing violent games, which is ostensibly their purpose. All they do is make it a crime to sell such a game to a child. A parent could still purchase the game for their child (or brother, sister, uncle, etc.). A child could play at a friend's house. The bills are designed solely to restrict the types of games sold because the risk of defending against accusations of wrongdoing are too great.

Remember, a store doesn't have to carry these games. If Wal-Mart wants to reject a title, that's their business. But the bill makes it so that stores willing to carry mature games must now change their business practices in order to comply. What about fake IDs? Will that require new training? Will they need to turn over their surveillance tapes to a government agency? The pressure to restrict the titles carried could grow.

Look, the same lawmakers pop up again and again with the same old legislation in a new wrapper. They tried to claim that the ESRB's rating system is insufficient; It isn't. Then they decided to attack it from a "for the children" place of faux-outrage.

Lieberman is an old pro at this trick. When he pushed the PMRC into the spotlight it was the same pattern: Attempt to legislate morality by playing up the "danger to children" angle.

There is nothing currently preventing a parent who feels their child has been harmed by a video game they bought from seeking damages from a retailer or the developer. They are free to raise such charges. But such cases are difficult because the evidence simply isn't there.

Jack Thompson knows this because he's lost a few of those cases. So the legislation is also designed to make it easier to use "the video game made me do it" defense, by legitimizing the idea that certain games are harmful without the necessary scientific backing. And Lieberman and Clinton have listened very closely to Mr. Thompson. They're more than willing to push this as far as it will go.

It was disappointing to read such a dismissal. The guys at Penny Arcade have a lot of pull. While it was nice of them to provide a link, Tycho's take was bound to influence quite a few. I'm sure the thought of rocking a vote or something sparks up the anti-authoritarian in many people, but it's not as if the PA fellows are strangers to political actions.

Their Child's Play charity is itself a political act, not to mention one of profound advocacy. They might couch it in, "We just want to give games to sick children," and think nothing else of it, but even a statement such as that is political. Then you add to that their donation in Jack Thompson's name and you can't really make the charge that being political is somehow out of their realm.

If Tycho doesn't want to join the monolithic horde that votes Borg-like, then that's his choice. I just wish he hadn't completely misrepresented what's actually at stake.

One other reason these bills are bad news:

They result in unnecessary expenses for states when they are overturned. Taxpayers foot the bill. Enjoy.

Take note:

If I had to pick a substantial reason to question the Video Game Voters Network, it would be that they are obviously set up by the ESA (Entertainment Software Association). Which means that by educating yourself about video game legislation you are in actuality giving the nod to a corporate protection scheme.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Complaint Department

Ahh, forums
. Where good English goes to die a gruesome death.

After much analysis, I have rendered the perfect post for those times when a game fails to work on your "perfect rig."

Be sure to open a new topic and post this under every single heading regardless of pertinence. And remember the secret mantra, "No matter what, it cannot be a problem on my end."

Topic: OMGWTF?! This game is shit and I am cutting off my hands in protest.
Name: VentruYoshiDanteKillzU54

I bought this game and tried to run it on my awesome setup -- 54000 Ghz Quantum Computer with like a billion terabytes of RAM and the newest video card that's so new it's not even out yet but I have an inside source -- and the stupid crap game won't even boot up.

Unacceptable! Nay, criminal!

I can't comprehend how a pc game could not be tested for the infinite number of possible configurations of both hardware and software. I have no concept of going from approximately 30 dedicated, in-house testers to several hundred thousand customers running with completely different equipment and setups. I also don't understand that even with the same specs I might be using hardware from a different manufacturer. Materiality does not concern me, for my computer's essence is pure.

There is no way in hell that I'm doing anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with my machine. I know everything there is to know about drivers and registries and .dlls and everything else. I even hacked into the Windows source code and looked for errors with a hex editor. Nothing.

I fail to recognize the difference between a console, which has a controlled, centralized mode of operation and PCs, which vary wildly from system to system. Everything should work perfectly right out of the box because software should never be released with bugs. No other games ever come out with bugs and I've never had problems running Quake 15 on a 90 inch plasma with 20x super-antialiasing at 1000 frames per second.

Even if other people have had problems with other games that doesn't concern me because only my problem is relevant and those other people are probably idiots who have a problem on their end.

The testers deserve bamboo shoots under their fingernails and they should pay me for all the work I'm doing to make their game run on my system -- plus they probably don't even speak English and eat orphans and hate gamers and have a personal vendetta against me and my turtle. Fuck those testers and fire them all, they were obviously slacking off since they couldn't discover every possible error in a complex system. I don't give a shit about the months they sacrificed to crunch time.

This game was totally released unfinished and it's garbage and now I'm going to cry myself to sleep.

PS - if they had delayed the game to allow more time for testing I would be on these forums bitching about how the company can't meet milestones and that they aren't doing any work and they hate their fans and they're sipping tequila while they bang models in hottubs.

Note: This isn't directed at anything in particular. I swear.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bite My Shiny Metal . . .


Apparently, Billy West, voice of Fry (and Zoidberg! and a bunch of others) on Futurama has said in his forum that they are making 26 new episodes for TV and a currently hammering out the details.

26 new episodes. Of Futurama.

I am ecstatic.


I am not ecstatic.

Thanks (I think) to ArC, who sent me a link that I can only refer to as That Which Crushes Dreams. There are no new Futurama episodes. Maybe there's a DVD project.

In a world where Drawn Together somehow got past its third episode and where Family Guy was resurrected from its rightful trash heap (and they gave the creator another crappy cartoon with which to rip off the Simpsons) . . . no new Futurama just seems like a cruel joke from a deity with a terrible sense of humor.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Forget Facts, Let's Make Some Laws

Quick word on the street
concerning videogame legislation.

Game politics has a nice Google map that tracks different legislation or political posturing concerning videogames. They show current legislation under consideration, laws already in effect, bills defeated, court challenges and political promises. Very thorough, and helps to conceptualize the battleground.

The second item is the Children and Medical Research Advancement Act or CAMRA (which has to be the most inexact name for a bill ever).

The pushers of this bill are the usual moral fascists: Senator Lieberman introduced it, Senators Clinton, Brownback, Durbin, Bayh and Santorum cosponsored. They say it's to find out what effect media-saturation has on children's health, but we can be reasonably assured that none of them own a PSP.

And please, let us all remember that Lieberman helped create the PMRC circus that put pressure on music to be bland and inoffensive.

Gamestorming: Images of War

"I don't believe in objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. But I won't be a propagandist for anyone. If you do something right, I'm going to take your picture. If you do something wrong, I'm going to take your picture also."

-John Hoagland

Of late I've been considering a basic outline for a game based upon combat journalism. The most difficult challenge is finding a way to make a game centered on combat without allowing the player to engage in combat. Should be very simple.

Journalists are often found in videogames as plot devices, like Valerie Cortez in Far Cry. But her investigation (and how she survives) are lost in some parallel plot, while you run around gunning down everything in sight.

Beyond Good and Evil had an investigative journalism bent to it, though I felt that it wasn't nearly as developed as it could have been. The central idea of the sleuthing and photographing, however, that the right pictures and the right story at the right time could change the world, made for powerful and emotional gaming. A shame that bringing down the system still required laying the smack down on a big boss.

I would've preferred Boiling Point: Road to Hell to take much more an investigative route since, y'know, you were investigating the disappearance of your daughter. This, naturally, required you to join with rebels, the military, drug smugglers, and so forth and blow lots of stuff up and kill lots of people and take drugs.

A sufficiently motivated team might be able to work out a simplified virtual social networking model based upon willingness to divulge information and then map different verbs which can affect that network in both positive and negative ways.*

Collecting information could expand your network, enhance your knowledge of the gamespace, give your reporting greater influence or add to your toolset. On the negative side you might find yourself tracked and ambushed, vilified in the press thus restricting your contact pool or your equipment stolen.

Your character might be embedded with an infantry unit on patrol. A firefight breaks out and you have to seek cover while capturing the best angles with your camera. A soldier is hit and calls out for help. Do you run out and expose yourself to risk to help his buddies drag him to safety?

Or you're asked to find a local guerilla leader and get an interview. Your friend, a physician, asks you to track down some antibiotics which he will exchange for setting up a meeting. You're taken before the warlord and ask some pointed questions. Someguerrillass burst in and inform the leader of an assault, with mortars incoming. You have to make your way back to the safe zone by avoiding the battling factions.

There are so many narratives you could weave into a fictional warzone: exploring atrocities and ethnic tension, discovering how people cope with their everyday lives during a time of war, the quiet horrifying banality of death. You know, the usual subjects explored in videogames.

*A concept which seems to be explored by agent-based modeling.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

'Round Here

I rarely feel
at home in videogames.

Playing them, yes.

But in-game, in that virtual space, home seems absent.


There are games which provide havens, breaks between the ebb and flow, the tension and release, small zones of comfort which rarely persist.

Most videogames are infused with a tremendous spirit of wanderlust.

A hero. Conqueror. Explorer. Blue hedgehog. Always fighting. Always expanding. Always searching. Always moving forward.

I have yet to find that space which I desire to not just occupy, but inhabit.

Narratives tend toward isolation of the main character, distance from an attachment point.

I may get glimpses of home, flashes of emotions.

A swell of nationalism during a round of Civilization while sending forth chariots from my capital.
That first glimpse of Orgrimmar as my young Orc Hunter made the long trek from his training grounds. CJ's arrival at his mom's house on Grove Street after a long absence.


But there seem to be disconnects in each of those examples.

The capital city is but a symbol, a focal point to rally around and protect. Orgrimmar is large and unfriendly, with no personal space, only streets on which to camp. CJ came home knowing that he was cursed with that old cliche, "You can't go home again."

Everywhere I look I see young orphan warriors looking to prove themselves, temporary bases to be built, defended and then abandoned, cities filled with zombies from which to flee, round after round of fights in unwelcoming surroundings. Or cities, nations, worlds at a distance, a layer of abstraction blocking a more personal bond.


There are things which home provides that nothing else seems to fulfill: a feeling of permanence, a safe space in which to perform rituals, an area for personal freedom and intimacy, a place where I can allow myself to feel totally secure (no matter how illusory any of these feelings might be). Plus it's where I numbly cruise the internet and watch far too much television. With my wife.


Seen in that light, videogames don't stand a chance at simulating home for me. Perhaps they might do better for someone with lower expectations.

I most often subscribe to the idea that a videogame can be a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

But the modicum of home they can and often do provide has been more than adequate. A glimpse here and there, for the protagonist, of a place often dreamed of but not yet found. A reminder that sometimes in the chaos there can be a stable space to collect your wits and soldier on. A splash of detail that fires a small ember of pride.

Just a little slice, that's all.