About six weeks ago a new, and now terrifying, shitstorm was visited upon the internet. This movement, in so much as a hashtag can be a movement, once seemed to have the best of intentions. Ostensibly, it was about facilitating a discussion on the relationship between the video game industry and video game media.
Note here that I’m intentionally avoiding saying the name of this movement. Whatever good it may have done, whatever positive intentions some of its members may have, are, in my estimation, completely overshadowed by the actions of those who would use it as a forum for the promulgation of hate. This hate, more often than not, is directed against women who have the audacity to produce video games and/or engage in a critical discourse about the same.
For the benefit of anybody who still doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll say the name of this movement rhymes with LamerSlate and leave it at that.
Previously, I was content to offer little more than the odd tweet about LamerSlate. Whatever positive goals it may have, they are too amorphous and seemingly too undefined for my comfort. Furthermore, and from a purely philosophical point of view, I question the good that can come from a movement whose DNA is rotten in places, as illustrated in a recent piece on Deadspin. Though LamerSlate demonstrates that the internet has a great capacity for mobilizing people, and eventually starting some meaningful discussions on a topic near and dear to my heart, it has simultaneously given the spotlight to a mob that uses hate, fear, and now, terror, as their principal weapons. All we’re missing is fanatical devotion to the Pope, and it would be a great setup to a Spanish Inquisition routine.
Why then am I putting thoughts to action on this post? Because it seems like a critical mass of the internet – as seen through twitter, so a few grains of salt are called for – has had enough of LamerSlate. Personally, I think it’s about damn time.
It should not have taken the threat of a terror attack – or any other threat of violence – before people rejected LamerSlate, regardless of the good some of its members are doing. Once again, I reiterate that there is some measurable good coming out of LamerSlate. However, I can’t imagine any hashtag being worth the potential negative associative impact of LamerSlate. Further, and I’ll invoke my expertise as a historian for this part, no amount of reason in the face of concentrated bile and human misery is going to reclaim LamerSlate. Case in point, libertarians.
LamerSlate is not Idle No More.
LameSlate is not Occupy Wall Street.
LamerSlate is Chernobyl. While the good people of LamerSlate have taken it upon themselves to try and slow the reaction, we’re at a point where jamming home the control rods is only going to make things worse. It’s time to evacuate the countryside, draw a zone of exclusion around the bubbling hot mess, and start over again with the lessons we have learned. Because no group of people, no matter how talented they are, have the capacity to truly fix a structural problem by working in a disaster zone.
Now, if the gods are willing, this will be the last thing I have to say on the subject of LamerSlate. I await the internet’s wrath.
Hold on to your butts. Here comes the second episode of Fighting Words, the fastest podcast on the internet. Actually, I can’t back that up. I have no idea if Fighting Words is, in fact, the fastest podcast on the internet. But until I learn otherwise, that’s going to be the tag line.
In this episode, I talk about how business uses the things you love, in this case Joss Whedon’s Firefly, to try and get you to pay for things forever.
I mean, who wants to actually own things, right?
Owning things, that’s so 20th century.
A generation of perpetual renters might as well be a generation of perpetual leasers as well, right?
The seasonal barn burner of video game sales, courtesy of Steam and Gog.com, allowed me to pick up a few games that have been on my “want to play” list for some time. One among them is Strike Suit Zero – Born Ready Games’ attempt to inject some much needed life into the space combat genre. While it’s not Wing Commander or Freespace – in fact, it is closer in style to the reprehensible Zone of the Enders – SSZ is a more than respectable title, which I will review in earnest at a later date. Today I’d like to talk about how SSZ’s story got me thinking about morality in space combat games.
Unlike Bioshock, The Witcher, and like titles, morality in space combat games is generally a straight forward affair. Take Wing Commander as an example. The conflict between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire offers little in the way of moral complexity. The Kilrathi are brutal aliens bent upon the subjugation of the galaxy. Their political framing as an empire reminiscent of imperial Japan, compared to the democratic Terran Confederation (i.e. the Allies), also helps code their role as the game’s antagonist amid a conflict built on the back of World War Two’s carrier warfare in the Pacific.
Freespace and Freespace 2 took this dynamic a step further. The prototypical war between humanity and an alien Other (an Other whose culture is fleshed out through the use of ancient Egyptian and Indian religion and culture) is resolved at the end of Freespace’s first act. A military coalition between the Galactic Terran Alliance and the Vasudan Empire emerges as the morally just force in the face of a Shivan invasion. Any lingering doubts therein are quashed when the Shivans destroy the Vasudan home world, prompting a Vasudan Diaspora and the creation of the Galatic Terran Vasudan Alliance in Freespace 2.
I’ll save my discussion of a middle-eastern themed alien Other and Diaspora for another day.
Despite my affection for both franchises, it’s fair to say that they both lacked any sort of moral complexity in the narrative. They are great games, and exemplars of using game play as a narrative tool, but in terms of story they never do more than to beat on the drum of war is hell. In other words, there is never any doubt that the player, and their affiliated in game faction – is on the right side of history. Bearing this in mind, let us turn our attention to the Colony Wars franchise, a lesser known contemporary of Wing Commander and Freespace.
Colony Wars and its direct sequel, Colony Wars: Vengeance were released exclusively on the Playstation One in 1997 and 1998, respectively. In the shadow of Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom‘s port to the PSX in 1997, a game which was then the most expensive video game ever produced, and the release of Freespace in 1998, Colony Wars was a franchise that lived in the shadow of titans. Moreover, Liverpool-based Psygnosis Studio brought space combat to the Playstation at a time when serious gamers wanted their space combat on PC. Despite graphics that paled in comparison to WC4 and Freespace, Colony Wars boasted some innovations in space combat mechanics and a politically charged story – the latter being of particular concern to this essay. For your consideration and context, here are the opening cut scenes to Colony Wars and Colony Wars: Vengeance.
Colony Wars’ intro gives us all the language we need to code the Terran Empire as a straight forward antagonist: league versus empire, father versus Tsar, rebellion versus oppression. As the game progresses along a branching story arc based on player performance during the missions, it reveals that the father might not be the benevolent figure he seems. Perhaps, as the Colony Wars: Vengeance video suggests, the League are a rowdy bunch of terrorists. Surely the League must forfeit some moral high-ground in their war for independence when their solution to the empire’s hegemony is to seal billions of people within the resource starved Sol system, condemning them to a slow death.
This ambiguity, however, is not as overt as it might seem. Both games start from similar narrative places, mobilizing the sort of language that helps a player insert themselves as the hero of the story. Then both games proceed to gradually break down that initial coding until players are left to wonder if their side is indeed the righteous one. In CW the father escalates the war to include League strikes against civilian targets. In CW:V Kron, the leader of the Earth Navy, executes his fellow soldiers for dissent and questioning the righteousness of their cause. While both games stop short of letting players take an active role in challenging their political order (i.e. lud narrative agency), they none the less subvert the narrative of assumed player righteousness that permeates this genre.
This brings me back to Strike Suit Zero. SSZ’s opening cut scene spells out a fairly archetypal imperial conflict between the United Nations of Earth and its colonies. The colonies want independence, and the Earth isn’t having it. It’s the British Empire/American Revolution in space trope. Naturally, I presumed that I would be playing as the colonials, who in true Zone of the Enders fashion secure the strike suit and use it to toss off the shackles of oppression. Quoting Dan Harmon, “The audience follows their sympathy,” and my sympathy is rarely with the forces of oppression in these sorts of stories. Instead, I found myself playing for the Earth. Furthermore, I was playing for an Earth that is on the losing side of the war and the wrong side of history.
But the losers have to be the good guys. That’s what George Lucas encoded in all of us as kid. That’s how this genre of story telling always works. The good guys can’t be agents of oppression. Right?
Even though the Colonials are hell bent for leather on using alien technology to destroy mother Terra, the UNE brought this doom upon themselves through greed, stupidity, and mass murder. Similar to Colony Wars, Strike Suit Zero doesn’t offer any ludonarrative freedom to challenge the UNE. Instead, it peels back the layers on the Terran empire, exploring them as the best of two bad options. Fighting for the UNE means defending a state that oppressed and murdered the Colonials; to sympathize with the Colonials is to give tacit approval to a polity that mobilizes genocide and planetary destruction as a tool to affect geopolitical change. As is so often the case, nobody’s hands are clean in this war.
This sort of moral ambiguity is the antithesis of the space combat sim’s origins. The essential experience of the space combat game is to make a person feel like Luke Skywalker. X-Wing Alliance’s final mission goes so far as to retcon Return of the Jedi such that the player character, Ace Azzameen, is in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon during the Battle of Endor.
Even a classic like Tie Fighter does everything it can to remind a player that the Empire is the protagonist of the galaxy far, far away. Imperial pilots don’t carpet bomb planets or murder civilians – so the mission briefings remind us – they defend the good people of the empire against left-wing militants intent on destabilizing the galaxy.
When Wing Commander 3 lumbered into the realm of morally dubious things, it always framed them as necessary actions for the greater good. Again, there’s no ludonarrative freedom to make Colonel Blair turn back from his mission to drop the Temblor Bomb on Kilrah, thus annihilating the Kilarthi home world (nuclear allegory, ladies and gentlemen). Where one might expect Blair to quote Oppenheimer and put a gun in his mouth, WC3′s epilogue offers little in the way of guilt on the part of the Heart of the Tiger.
The Kilrathi, despite having a genocide visited upon them, all but excuse Blair of any guilt for his actions. The final narrative of the Kiilrathi is to witness Melek, chief retainer of the Kilrathi Crown Prince, say that his people brought their destruction upon themselves through corruption and decadence. How nice of them to absolve Blair, Paladin, Admiral Tolwyn, and the entire Terran Confederation of any guilt for the war. This leaves precious little room for inner turmoil or conflict on the part of the player for their hand in the destruction of Kilrah, especially when the game mobilizes the visual symbolism of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Blair, and the player by proxy, is left to believe that he has done good work, and is now free to go on about banging a porn star turned video game actor.
Strike Suit Zero leaves players with no such easy out. Players know that each Colonial ship they shoot down is a link in the chain of Earth’s oppression. Every colonial capital ship the player torpedoes is a further reinforcement of this shameful domestic policy. Adams, the pilot of eponymous Strike Suit, is on the wrong side of history in a war that might not have any clear path of virtue. It is a remarkable divergence from the gold standard of the space combat game.
In a genre where critical discussions tend to get hung up on Newtonian physics and the beams versus bullets, Strike Suit Zero reminds us that the space combat sim is to video games what the war epic is to film. The most interesting, though not necessarily the best or most recognized, entries among both genres are the stories that abandon the binaries of war and instead study how these grand conflicts drag everybody into the mud.
In the wake of last week’s Super Mario hooplah, I got to thinking about video games. Specifically, if I were an evil capitalist – and gods willing one day I will be – how I could I make a game that would ruin video games? What sort of game has the power to simultaneously make tons of money, show utter contempt for its audience, and be evil enough to get the attention of Republican media wags, whose lowest common denominator, daytime cable news discussions would generate the kind of free ad campaign that Madison Avenue can only dream about. Here’s what I came up with.
NB: To head off any “you have too much time on your hands, Adam” comments, I would offer that I cooked up this idea while on a treadmill, and there’s really not much to do on a treadmill other than think about odd things.
The Worst Game Ever – Doctor Mario’s Clinic
Please to note that this game will be built on the back of an existing title, namely Doctor Mario. Thus, it will have instant brand and name recognition. At Shaftoe Labs, we don’t waste time with original concepts.
Like all things evil and game related, Doctor Mario’s Clinic will be a free-to-play browser game that will also have crappy ports on to Apple and Android mobile devices. For completely arbitrary reasons, the Apple version will be better than the Android iteration. Doctor Mario’s Clinic is also going to be geo-locked for an American audience, if only to make Canadians want to play it even more. Eventually, it will get a Canadian release, but not before every Canadian blogger has authored an angry op-ed piece about the ills of targeted marketing. Alternatively, the Canadian release will happen after Doctor Mario’s Clinic gets shamed on CBC’s Under the Influence.
Here’s how the game itself shapes up. While Mario and Luigi were saving the Mushroom Kingdom – and participating in illegal street races – they were also spreading all sorts of Earthling germs about a land that no natural immunities to human ailments. With serfs and civil servants, alike, calling in sick, Princess Peach fears that unrest from the lower orders might lead to an outright rebellion against her dynasty. Once again, she charges an unemployed plumber from the Bronx with propping up her reign. After a quick study at the University of Phoenix Online, Mario gets his MD and opens up a for-profit clinic. (What? You think the Mushroom Kingdom has socialized medicine? Get real.)
After that introduction, the rest will be a standard free-to-play experience.
- Listen to Toad the Delivery Man talk about his cheating wife for three hours, or pay him $2.99 and he will offload your 500 units of penicillin in begrudging silence.
- Collect $3000 coins in treatment fees to advance to the next level, expand the clinic, and begin treating patients with typhoid.
- Uh-oh, a new super bug has made all previous drugs useless. Wait 24 hours to research a new treatment, or pay $2.99 to bypass the Mushroom Kingdom’s FDA oversight and proceed directly to human testing.
Here’s the best part: once people start complaining about the criminally exploitative and embarrassingly expensive nature of Doctor Mario’s Clinic, Nintendo need only take a page form the GOP playbook, and blame poor people for not having enough money to play the game properly.
Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and Richard Dansky
I’m not going to lie, Richard Dansky is one of the coolest people that I have ever had the pleasure of speaking to on the podcast. I’ve talked to writers. I’ve talked to video game developers. But this is my first time speaking with someone who does both, in addition to developing tabletop RPGs. Becasue why do two things when you can do three, right?
Look up “nerd’s renaissance man” in the dictionary and you will probably find a picture of Richard Dansky.
At least I managed not to gush this much during the recording session.
Topics under discussion include:
People doing terrible things to Vaporware
Vaporware as a parable on work-life balance
Insights into the game industry
Creative approaches across mediums
Do games need narratives
Finding Bigfoot / Reality TV
Hashtag War #RejectedVideoGames
Check out people doing terrible things to Vaporware here
Check out Richard Dansky’s website here, and follow him on twitter here.
I like Kickstarter. More often than not, Kickstarter and crowd sourcing at large have proven themselves to be excellent tools for helping artists bring their vision to life. And despite the Zach Braffs of the world, who would see crowd sourcing used as a way of funding narcissism projects, I remain hopeful that merit and creativity will continue to guide the internet’s collective decisions fund worthy projects. Yet I worry that the same esprit de indie, which saw great games like FTL brought into the mainstream, will marginalize the role of independent video game critics.
I’m going to use Double Fine Games’ Broken Age to illustrate my point. Tim Schafer – seen above – whose contributions to gaming and game culture are beyond reproach, set a new benchmark when he took to the internet in search of funding for Broken Age. The project secured $3,336,371 in funding through 87,142 backers. Impressive as it is to raise funds on an order of magnitude greater than one’s stated goal, I’m more interested in the number of backers the project received. Of the 87,142 people who supported Broken Age, 47,946 pledged at the minimum $15 level, ensuring they receive a digital copy of the game upon its completion.
Suppose that a meagre one percent of those 47,946 people are would-be critics. Those individuals go on to post a review of the game to their blogs, facebook, or other public outlets. Without having to give away so much as a single Steam key, thus eating into gross sales, Double Fine Games could see nearly five hundred reviews, independent of the major games journalism outlets, emerging out of the wood work. If that happens, if the people who already bought into the game are in a position to promote it at no cost to Double Fine, where does this leave the independent critic/reviewer?
When I send my supplicant email out to Double Fine’s Marketing/Press contact, wherein I justify why they should trust me to write an objective review of their game, why should they bother taking a loss on the bottom line when there is already a captive market apt to proselytize through, at the very least, word of mouth if not the written word? Worse still, what happens if the subtext of my email is translated as, “I think your game is interesting enough to write about, but I don’t have enough faith in you to pay up front for it.” Where’s the motivation for Double Fine to roll the dice on me producing a positive review of their game when my request can be seen as an implicit lack of faith in the final product?
Adam: Can I please have a review copy of your game? I’m ever so eloquent in my critical discourse.
Developer: Did you support our kickstarter?
It’s not my goal to be alarmist with this piece. I don’t think the sky is falling, nor do I think that this is some conspiracy laid out to silence the smaller voices of criticism. Kickstarter and crowed funding have created a renaissance for small to medium sized developers/studios. It’s allowed for a creative freedom that has been too long absent from gaming. That said, Q4 of 2013 and Q1 of 2014 are going to see the release of a number of successfully crowd funded games, thus marking our entry into uncharted waters. And as we navigate this new frontier, I want to make sure that the professional courtesy that developers have offered to independent critics in the past continues to exist going forward.
Some months ago Steam Greenlight appeared on Valve’s digital video game distribution service. This community driven feature quickly became the answer to the question I asked game developers when I started writing The Page of Reviews: who do you have to kill to get your game on Steam? The developers’ answers would often include words like “Pagan Rituals” and “blood pact with Gozer the Gozerian.” Perhaps taking its cues from the democratization of game development through crowd sourcing, Steam Greenlight allows members of the Steam community and general public to vote on what upcoming games should be included in Steam’s catalogue.
In Valve’s own words…
Steam Greenlight is a system that enlists the community’s help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam. Developers post information, screenshots, and video for their game and seek a critical mass of community support in order to get selected for distribution. Steam Greenlight also helps developers get feedback from potential customers and start creating an active community around their game during the development process.
As I looked through my Greenlight queue, judging future games based on screenshots and trailers, I thought to myself, why not do this right? Why should I limit debate to my inner monologue when I can draw some public attention to developers who have put the fate of their product into the hands of a fickle gaming community?
Gather round then, good citizens of the boundless digital empire. Cast your eyes upon these three games which would prove themselves worthy of your love and coin.
Fester Mudd: Curse of the Gold Episode 1 by Replay Games
Replay Games describes Fester Mudd as “a three-part comic saga of exploration, reunion, and redemption…and a love letter to the classic adventure games of the 90s.”
Let’s go to the video.
With a projected release date of Q1 2013, I think we can assume Fester Mudd is a finished game looking for a home. I like that the devs took it upon themselves to make an actual Greenlight trailer, rather than going with something generic to show off the game. As a guy who once went to school dressed up for Halloween as Roger Wilco, hero janitor of the Space Quest games, there’s really no way I could not want to play this game. The interface looks good. What little we see of the script and overall aesthetic seems appropriately light hearted and clever. Perhaps most importantly, Fester Mudd represents a niche of the gaming market that is due for a renaissance. Since I can’t see a lot of big publishers optioning a game style older than their target audience, Fester Mudd seems perfect for release via steam.
Verdict: Unequovical thumbs-up. If you’re a gamer whose old enough to buy their own alcohol, or somebody who likes Community then you would do well to pay attention to a game which draws its sensibilities from greats like Sam and Max, Full Throttle, and Space Quest.
NB: After giving my thumbs up to Fester Mudd I discovered that Replay Games is the studio responsible for the upcoming rerelease of the Leisure Suit Larry series.
MaK by Verge Game Studio
Verge calls MaK a “…physics playground – A sandbox world with engaging game modes built on top of it. We wanted to make something that gives you a sense of discovery and wonder – where creativity is king – a place to explore and experiment – to compete and cooperate – with your friends. The major features that define the game experience, so far, stem from these concepts.”
MaK’s Greenlight page offers five videos that showcase the game in its current pre-release Alpha build. Here’s one of them…
I won’t deny this game looks cool. From the footage alone it is obvious MaK does some interesting things with gravity. Despite the sandbox feel, the developers are promising multi-player support as well as a “… non-linear campaign that wraps around an intriguing central plot.” However, I’m not getting a “shut up and take my money” feel off of this game.
Since the success of Minecraft a lot of indie studios are working with variations on said theme. Certainly MaK is charting its own unique direction, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if it’s quite my style. Personally, I’d rather build a castle than a dancing robot.
Verdict: Thumbs Down. I think this is something a lot of people could have hours of with, but I don’t know if I’m one of them. When the essential question is “Would you buy this game if it were available on Steam?” my answer is a hesitant “only after I read the reviews.” That said, I’d be happy to review it, but I just don’t think I would buy it based on what I’ve seen so far.
MaK is scheduled for release in Q4 of 2013. Check out MaK’s Greenlight page and you can tell me how wrong I am about this game in the comments.
Haunt by ParanormalDev
This is the initial description on Haunt.
Haunt (originally named Haunt: The Real Slender Game) is independent adventure/horror game project inspired by Parsec Productions “Slender: The Eight Pages”, which was based on Victors Surge “Slender-man” idea.
Apparently I don’t run in the right circles on the internet because I have no idea what the Slender Man is, or why it has led to ParanormalDev doing their own take on another studio’s game, which at the time of this post is still in beta. Let’s go to the trailer.
So walking and a flashlight…is this another Dear Esther? The Greenlight description frames this game as “First Person Horror”. However, the trailer gives me the distinct vibe of a game intent on coming up with various ways of yelling “boogie boogie boogie” at me in an attempt to startle me out of my crappy Ikea desk chair. Games like that have never really been my scene; seriously, I didn’t even bother to finish the first Silent Hill. I don’t scare easily, and I’m often too cynical/clinical to buy into the underlying ghost/paranormal mythos that drives games of this spectrum.
One other paragraph within the game’s description caught my attention.
More important thing is that “Haunt: TRSG” that uses slender-game gameplay has become some kind of prototype for much more bigger project, that will provide unique story, gameplay elements, environment and will be inspired by many paranormal activities that appeared in our world. Yes – we will do anything to keep it free – even in case of Haunts successor. It is all in your hands!
Two things: first, you guys at ParanormalDev should call me the next time you do a press release, I’d be happy to do a pro bono copy edit; second, the game is free. Free is good, especially in the case of games which seem highly experimental.
Verdict: Thumbs up to Haunt. Since the developers are dedicated to keeping this game free, as well as using it to build a larger project, which too will be free, there’s really no reason not to up-check this game.
Acclaimed historical and science fiction writer Neal Stephenson likes swords. Stephenson likes swords so much that he and some of his writer buddies spent years learning European swordplay as research fodder for their novel/serial The Mongoliad. That alone should be enough to convince anybody that Mr. Stephenson has a great affinity for the elegant weapons of days gone by. Though when you stop to think about it, there’s not a lot of elegance in cleaving a man’s arm from torso with a broadsword. Still, it sure is fun to think about sword fighting within a conceptual framework that divorces the gory reality of bladed weapons from the nostalgic/cool parts.
Enter “CLANG” a sword fighting game, that in the words of Stephenson himself, “Doesn’t suck.” Or at least it won’t suck once Stephenson and his team get done making it. That’s right boys and girls, Neal Stephenson is making a video game. Here’s the video for his kickstarter campaign.
At the time of this post, the campaign has already raised $192,000 of its $500,000 goal. And who says that nobody’s heard of Neal Stephenson? The description of CLANG, as well as the video, boast three features that are going to make this product stand out among the competition.
Low-latency, high-precision motion controller: Critical to a satisfying sword fight is fast, accurate response. This is especially important for CLANG given the depth and complexity of moves that are used in real sword arts. Initially, CLANG will make use of a commercial, third-party, off-the-shelf controller that anyone can buy today
Depth: Roundhouse swings and crude blocks just aren’t enough. Real sword fighting involves multiple attacks delivered from different stances, pommel strikes, grappling, feints, and parries.
Expandability: Implementing the longsword style will oblige us to construct a toolkit that can then be used–by us, or by others–to create other examples of what we’re calling MASEs (Martial Arts System Embodiments). If your thing is Japanese kenjutsu or Viking sword-and-board, then in principle CLANG should support it.
It’s an interesting concept, due in no small part to CLANG’s desire to be a motion controlled game. Back in the late 90s there were a few FPS titles that wanted to capture the essential finesse of swordplay through eloquent mouse movements. They were ambitious projects that inevitably scaled down the action into the sort of “press X to swing”, “press Y to feint” mechanics that go into most contemporary hack and slash games. Given the embarrassing attempt on the part of LucasArts to integrate motion control into their recent title Star Wars Kinect, and the lingering bad taste thatthe Wii’s Red Steel left in my mouth, I think the market is primed for a watershed moment.
Though the initial release will be limited to arena based combat on the PC, Stephenson and team have promised that CLANG is being designed as something that can be expanded into a sprawling world full of quests and adventures to be had.
My only concern is the “third-party off the shelf controller” part of CLANG’s description. That sounds like code for Chinese Wii-mote knock off. While I don’t doubt the ability of Subutai Corporation to code a game that puts a premium on technique, I have some reservations about the ability of existing motion capture technology to make full use of said programming. My own experiences with the Wii, and Kinect have never inspired a “Shut up and take my money” response. So long as the technology can prove itself up to the task, and Stephenson puts as much effort into this game as he does his novels (sort of a given considering who we are talking about), CLANG may prove to be something gamers have dreamed of since they first put on a Power Glove.
There’s been a lot of talk in the news about the relationship between gaming and bullying. Where does smack talk end and harassment begin? What can be done to make sure that vulnerable people aren’t being exposed to cyber bullying while partaking in an activity that is supposed to be recreational? These are essential conversations. Yet experts seem to devote little attention to something that is obvious to anybody who is a gamer. The kind of bullying that happens in game space is not the same as that which unfolds in schools and other non-gaming online spaces.
I don’t want to suggest that game spaces are somehow exempt from lowest common denominator bullying and hate speak. That happens, and it’s quite sad. Instead, I would offer that there is a fundamentally different state of mind to the gaming bully, and said state is likely immune to conventional anti-bullying strategies.
Allow me to explain through narrative. Once upon a time there was a bully named Brandon. He had a shitty home life, a learning disability, and at age twelve stood nearly six feet tall. For various and sundry reasons, he decided that he would torment yours truly through a combination of punches to my knee and subsequent public ridicule as I limped around the playground. My parents’ advice was pointless in this situation; they told me to ignore him. That made things worse. Teachers were worse than useless in their attempts facilitate some sort of peace treaty between myself and my bully. If the half-illiterate lummox had any respect for the rule of law and civil discourse, then he wouldn’t have taken to bullying.
The only solution was one that Admiral Adama espoused in Battlestar: meet force with force. It took one glorious act of resistance, wherein I visited upon Brandon the pain and embarrassment he had heaped upon me for months, to break the cycle. For the remainder of that year, and the year that followed, Brandon never so much as made eye contact with me. But oh how I waited for the day when he would give me even the thinnest excuse to lay another beating on him. I had proven myself his superior; he knew it and I knew it. More than anything in the world, I wanted an opportunity to settle accounts for all the times he had laid his hands upon me.
Why this story, you might ask. Because gaming bullies, are not the Brandons of the world. They are not the sort who pick on smart kids because of their own short comings. They’re not sociopaths in the making who feel a giddy pleasure in hurting others. Gaming bullies are me, or rather what people like Brandon could have made me.Gaming bullies are people who have proven themselves superior to others, within their given game, and then search for opportunities to demonstrate that superiority. This is the keystone reason why combating gaming bullying is going to be a particularly challenging thing.
Consider current strategies for fighting childhood/teenage bullying. A pillar of that effort is reminding people that we are all, by and large, equal. Gaming bullies won’t respond to that principle as the game space itself is a pure meritocracy. If a person practices long enough, they will get good at their chosen game. In the mind of the gaming bully, they have earned the right to stomp on the skulls of their lessers – possibly because they were stomped on as a newbie (a behaviour pattern that gaming bullies share with those in the real world) or possibly because they feel that by virtue of their skill alone they can act however they like. Let me be clear, I don’t condone this false sense of privilege and entitlement. Nor do I mean to suggest that every elite player is prone to such retrograde behavior. Simply that those who undertake bullying actions in game spaces do so with an institutional righteousness that is absent in more conventional bullying. Therefore telling the gaming bully that their actions are unacceptable on the grounds of equanimity, and every act that stems from said core principle, will not be well met.
Another variable to consider is that gaming spaces are not public spaces. They’re owned by private corporations who are in the business of facilitating competition. While most responsible developers include, at the very least, boilerplate terms of service that name hate speak as grounds for termination of service, the effectiveness those policies depend heavily upon the willingness of gamers to self police.
Consider this example. Some months ago I was in Starcraft 2’s in-game chat. Therein one gentleman was going on at length about his inability to find a job. He aired all sorts of dirty laundry, including a story about his inability to land a gig at a fast food restaurant. Some people in the chat decided to give this fellow a hard time. He was told that if he sounded as desperate and pathetic in his cover letters as he did in chat, nobody would ever give him a job – perhaps a fair point if it wasn’t wrapped in a bow of dickishnes and snark. Another person said something along the lines of “just kill yourself already”. Others called him out for moaning about his life in Starcraft, rather than devoting his energy to job hunting. I doubt any of the people in this scenario would win a congeniality award, but who among them crossed the line? By what means do we measure that line? And before you say common sense, let’s remember this is a person venting about their career in an in-game Starcraft chat. Common sense would dictate a person talk to their therapist about those issues, not a room full of strangers.
This example also begs the question, what do gamers owe to each other as members of a community? How far does that community extend outside of the game space? Should everybody who was in that chat room have flagged the “kill yourself” guy for abuse? Or in his own trollish and ill-bred way, was he saying what we were all thinking, “Stop hijacking the conversation when we’re trying to talk about build orders.” Thus do we come to the next big problem in game space bullying: gaming is an intensely personal activity. The idea that a gamer would have to take on responsibility for other gamers’ welfare runs counter intuitive to the whole process. Why should a person pay for a game only to be told that part of enjoying that experience requires them to be on guard for potential bullies and other deviant behavior? Is that even a realistic expectation? NB: I’m excluding MMOs from this particular line of thought as they have their own unique social mores and hierarchies that would be worthy of a post on its own.
While I whole heartedly believe that conversations on gaming and bullying need to happen, these talks need to framed within an appropriate context. In the real world, people are trained to believe that we are all equal and valid. In the gaming world, this is hardly the case. The elite are elite not through inheritance or circumstance of birth, but through performance. Dealing with bullying that emerges out of that head space will require a strategy that 1) addresses the fact that these bullies have earned a station that puts them above others in a particular game space 2) doesn’t depend the expectation that gamers will be a self policing community and 3) is not so invasive that it prompts gamers, who can be very libertarian, into acts of Anonymous-esque rebellion against the measures that are meant to ensure a safe experience for all.
The Short Version: Criticisms against video game violence might have something to do with the horrible PR that orbits gamers.
The Long Version: It should come as no surprise that video games are one of my favourite things in the world. To that end, I tend to get a little bit testy during discussions of video game violence. I object to shallow arguments that establish some sort of causality between video game violence and real world atrocities. The reprehensible attack on the Domodedovo International Airport seems to have spawned one such discussion.
My kneejerk reaction is to blog a defence of creative expression in video games, regardless of the content. I’d then rattle off a list of controversial novels, plays and works of visual art before trying to make any potential detractors feel like small minded thought police. Upon posting such a screed, I imagine somebody would take my words out of context or just plain disagree with me. Said person would likely leave a comment voicing their opinion. Despite efforts to keep such dialogue civil, one party would likely get a little too snarky with the other. The subsequent flame war would alienate my audience faster than a Brechtian flavoured one man show about Duke Nukem called, “Fuck you! I’m the fucking Duke.” Since you now know how that story ends, let’s talk about some possible reasons why video games make such easy scape goats for the world’s problems.
I think part of the issue has to do with gamers as social group. We don’t really have the best PR team. Game forums are rife with petty bickerers, bad arguments and the occasional death threat. I can’t say that I’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in Xbox Live chat without hearing the discourse descend into obscenities and half baked rants (unlike my twice baked rants) about Obama and Nazis. Then some clown posts the whole episode on youtube and before you know it, private gaming moments are made public. Round out the horror show with the media getting their hands on a story about a toddler who drowns in a glass of milk while their parent was playing World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, thoughtful, pensive and well-educated gamers are excluded from the discussion because nobody wants to hear us talking about the architectural design of Assassin’s Creed 2. The cultural buzz that remains pegs gamers in a spectrum that ranges from immature to odd to obsessive. Without some powerful spin doctoring the language of “gaming addiction”, “problem gaming” and “games corrupting youth” overshadows the more significant discussions of gaming as creative expression.
““No Russian” the offending scene from Modern Warfare 2 taps into the collective anxiety that permeates life in the security state. Arguably, it can even be constructed as a criticism of American foreign policy as the military allows the massacre at the fictional Russian airport to happen under the guise of maintaining the cover of a covert agent. Visual art, literature and theatre abound with similarly horrifying images whose sole purpose is to promote self-reflection as they turn abstract ideas corporeal. Yet media outlets are attempting to build causation between the game and this real world event. Did Tom Clancy endure similar allegations in the aftermath of 9/11? Two of Clancy’s novels describe attacking the American government with hijacked passenger jets. The only difference between the two examples is one of accessibility. A video game is infinitely easier to get into than a book or a play. Therein lay a fundamental problem: the more people playing, the more trolls that find their way into the community. Thus gaming’s accessibility becomes the very thing that provides ammunition to anti-gaming advocates in the form of bad PR.
In fairness, new mediums for creative expression always have their detractors. Take prose fiction in novel form as an example. Jane Austen’s novels (boring as their plots may be) demonstrate a textual awareness of the fact that society did not hold novels and novelists in the same esteem that it held early nineteenth century poetry and poets. Even the act of reading a novel was once considered an antisocial behaviour that could indicate a person’s inability to keep a grasp on the real world. Now where have I heard that argument?
I don’t know that I can come up with a particularly brilliant solution to this problem. If this is indeed a problem of public relations, censoring games from some star chamber of concerned moms and sociologists won’t fix the issue. My hope is that as video games develop a broader canon the value of the art will start to outshine the cacophony of criticism. If so, the only way out of the negative PR cycle is continued creation within the genre and a recognition that games that appeal to base impulses do not invalidate the more thoughtful offerings.