On Video Games, Violence, and the Role of the Press

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The US Conference of Mayors held a meeting this weekend during which Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy had some things to say about violent video games. Actually, he had quite a few things to say on the topic, but one quote in particular stuck with me:

“the day that Newtown happened, there were games available that actually allowed people to go into a school in the game and shoot ’em up.”

Malloy is almost certainly referring to Kindergarten Killers, a flash game the NRA cited as evidence that the video game industry was having a negative impact on our society. The NRA failed to mention that Kindergarten Killers is a ten year old flash game created by one person, and it was never picked up by a publisher. Unfortunately, when reporting on Governor Malloy’s quotes, most outlets also failed to mention that fact.

Over the past couple of days I’ve seen a lot of outlets (both gaming outlets and non-gaming outlets) covering this story, but only a handful have provided any context for that quote.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of an uninformed parent reading that quote. This hypothetical reader might begin to form a negative opinion on video games – after all, this is a state governor making these statements, and that position carries a certain level of credibility in the eyes of most Americans.

By neglecting to provide any contextual information about a video game that “allowed people to go into a school in the game and shoot ‘em up.” the press has helped to shape the public’s opinion of video games through omission.

By choosing not to delve into the back story behind that quote, any outlet reporting on it is leaving the reader to formulate an opinion without the whole story. Someone not in touch with the gaming industry would likely assume that the game Governor Malloy is referring to could be sitting on store shelves next to the latest Call of Duty.

Kindergarten Killers is a vile example of what video games can be. It has no artistic merit, and the subject matter is straight up obscene. However, since it’s a ten year old flash game made by one person, citing  it as evidence that the video game industry is having negative effects on society is akin to citing a home movie found on Youtube as evidence that the film industry is having a negative impact on society.

This game should hold no bearing on the current discussion on violence in video games, but by allowing the misguided impression that the game is part of the video game industry to persist, the press is helping to shape a negative opinion on gaming held by a lot of people.

I’m not writing any of this to call out any specific members of the press. There are many reasons why a writer might not include information about Kindergarten Killers in a story about Malloy’s quotes. First and foremost, it is (strictly speaking) conjecture to assume that he was referring to Kindergarten Killers. I’m hard pressed to come up with another game he could have been referring to, but the fact remains that I can’t say FOR SURE that he was referring to Kindergarten Killers, and as such, mentioning it might be against editorial policy at some outlets.

On top of that, many writers covering video games write to their audience – that is to say, they write assuming the reader already has a certain level of knowledge on the gaming industry, which might keep them from delving too deep into info about Kindergarten Killers that they’re assuming the reader already knows.

Whatever the reason for various outlets neglecting to contextualize Governor Malloy’s quotes, their work is still helping to shape public opinion on this topic. Video games are going to be scrutinized in the coming months and years, and that makes it especially important to present the public with ALL of the information they need to make an informed decision on the topic.

So I’m putting out a call to all members of the press (both gaming press and non-gaming press) to report on this topic responsibly. If editorial policy at your outlet prevents you from getting sidetracked in an article about Governor Malloy’s quotes, at least link out to another article that explains Kindergarten Killers.

I’d also like to see the press handle this issue and issues like it better in general. If you’re reporting on something said or done by a small organization opposed to violent video games, make mention of the organization’s size. Your readers trust you, and if you’re reporting on it, they’ll assume it’s large enough to merit attention. Don’t betray that trust by omitting details that provide needed context for the situation.

If you’re reporting on something said by a government official, take the time to do some research on them and their core values. Do they take campaign contributions from the NRA? If so, that’s something the reader needs to know. That information provides the reader with valuable information on the process that government official is using to make their decisions and formulate their opinions.

If you can’t work any of that into the article you’re writing take the time to sit down and write a second article that contextualizes the first. If your editor won’t approve it, put that second article on your personal blog. Your readers trust you; don’t betray that trust.

 

Restrictive DRM Makes Buying Games Unappealing

On Tuesday February 7th Ubisoft plans to start some work on their servers. As you could probably imagine, that’s going to leave the online multiplayer component of most of their games unusable until the work is done. Unfortunately, for PC gamers the single player component of some of these games will be down as well.

PC gamers will completely lose access to Tom Clancy’s HAWX 2, Might and Magic: Heroes 6, and The Settlers 7. Mac gamers will completely lose access to Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell Conviction, and The Settlers. When I say “completely lose access” I mean the games won’t even work in single player mode. That’s right, if you bought any of these games on the PC you won’t be able to use them until Ubisoft is done working on their servers, and they haven’t announced exactly how long that will be. All of these games include Ubisoft’s always-on DRM and once the servers go down, that DRM won’t be able to check in to verify your game, and if it can’t verify your game the DRM will lock you out of it.

Before I go any further into this story, let me stop for a second and say that I understand why publishers and developers feel the need to add DRM into a game. A lot, and I mean A LOT of time, money, and effort go into producing a video game, and from the perspective of the publisher and developers the concept of losing sales to piracy is frightening. There’s no way to stop piracy completely, but if DRM helps to curb it, then there’s an incentive for the devs and publishers to include it.

While I understand Ubisoft’s point of view here, they’re going about it the wrong way. DRM hasn’t stopped people from pirating their games, but it has made things difficult for their paying customers.

I bought a copy of Might and Magic: Heroes 6 a couple of months back, and I’ve had frequent problems with it. Sometimes I fire it up, and everything goes just fine, other times I fire it up and the Conflux servers are down so I can’t get into the game I had been playing the last time I logged on. Sure, there’s an “offline mode” but a lot of the game’s best features are stripped out, along with my game saves. Had I chosen to pirate the game (I wouldn’t do that, but let’s pretend) I wouldn’t be faced with these problems – I’d be able to launch the game, and play without worrying about Conflux issues, or server maintenance.

By using extremely restrictive DRM Ubisoft has made buying their games less attractive than pirating them. The game actually functions worse when bought than when pirated, and as a result, the pirated version of the game becomes the more appealing version.

Publishers and developers need to explore different avenues for protecting their games. By adding hurdles for the paying customer they’re just encouraging piracy instead of hampering it. They need to make the legitimate version of the game more attractive than the illicit version.

I’d love to see games that reward the paying customer for their loyalty and support. Ubisoft has already proven that server checks can be built into the core of a game, so why not use those checks to reward the player instead of punishing them? Instead of using that tech to lock down the game, developers could easily use it to deliver something extra to paying customers – perhaps some sort of online stat tracking functionality similar to that found in Battlefield 3’s Battlelog, or maybe a steady stream of small pieces of free DLC.

The proper reward for the paying customer is going to vary from game to game, but no matter what the method, developers and publishers need to reevaluate their DRM strategies. Going too far down the “punish the paying customer” path could ultimately wind up bolstering piracy, and that’s bad for everyone.  These companies need to see a return on their investment in order to justify producing the next game they have planned, and discouraging piracy will help to draw in that money, but they have to do so in a customer friendly way. Continuing down the path of restrictive DRM just makes piracy more appealing.

My Game of the Year Awards for 2011

 

Well, the year’s almost over. Tomorrow night, I’ll be ringing in the new year at a fundraiser event for KAM, but today, I’m thinking back on 2011 and kicking off the first (and possibly last) annual What the Geek Game of the Year Awards.

To be completely clear, there’s no real scientific method behind my choices here. These picks come from the heart, not from the head. These are the games that brought me joy, engaged me, or touched me in some other way this year.

So without further ado, let the awards begin!

Biggest Disappointment 

This award goes out to the game that managed to create a certain set of expectations during the months leading up to its release and then failed to meet those expectations.

And the winner is…

Dead Island

Do you remember that trailer? I sure as hell do. I had heard a few things about Dead Island over the years leading up to its release, but all of the plot details I had heard were sketchy at best. This trailer left me with the impression that Dead Island would offer a serious and somber story about a zombie infection on an island resort. As it turns out, there’s very little that’s serious or somber about Dead Island. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, just that it didn’t meet the expectation Deep Silver and Techland created with that trailer.

Biggest Surprise

This award goes to the game that managed to exceed the expectations I had for it.

And the winner is…

Dead Island

It can win Biggest Disappointment and Biggest Surprise – who said it couldn’t? No one, that’s who. These are my awards and I’ll hand them out as I see fit. If you don’t like it, start your own GotY awards.

Dead Island was developed by Techland, the folks who brought you the Call of Juarez franchise. That franchise, and Techland as a whole don’t have a reputation for excellence, but despite a few bugs, Dead Island managed to keep my attention for a good long time. In fact, I plan to spend even more time with it in the new year.. Even when the game does glitch, it never does so in a game-breaking way. More often than not, the glitches are entertaining rather than frustrating, and the total package (bugs and all) is extremely enjoyable.

How can a bug be enjoyable? Let me give you an example. At one point while walking down the beach, I kicked a beach ball, and died immediately. There were no zombies nearby, so I can only assume the beach ball killed me somehow. Dead Island doesn’t penalize you terribly hard for dying, so instead of being an irritant, this glitch put me on a quest to kick every beach ball I came across to see if I could recreate the murderous beach ball glitch. I never did recreate it, but I’ll never ever forget it.

Glitches aside, Dead Island provides a robust and enjoyable gameplay experience that surpassed all my expectations (aside from those expectations that dealt directly with the story). That excellent gameplay earns Dead Island the Biggest Surprise award.

Best Presentation

This award goes to the game that provides the best total audio and video experience. That doesn’t mean the game with the most realistic graphics, or the game that melted the most video cards (though those games were included in my deliberation on this one) it means the game that used both sound design and visual presentation to create an attractive and engaging experience.

And the winner is…

Uncharted 3

Naughty Dog paid a tremendous amount of attention to how everything looks and sounds in Uncharted 3, and all of that effort really paid off. Nolan North delivers a great performance as Nathan Drake (both in terms of voice and motion capture) but that’s not where the presentation begins and ends. The detail put into the environments as well as the great sound effects, and effective use of surround sound all add up to an amazing video game.

 Best Download-Only Game

As the name implies, this award goes out to the best game that doesn’t come in a box. This may have been the toughest decision of all of these awards – there were A LOT of great downloadable games this year. Indie developers have been releasing some really excellent games on Steam, and all the major publishers have been launching smaller, more experimental games on XBLA and PSN. But there can only be one winner.

And the winner is…

Iron Brigade

You may remember this game by its original name Trenched, but thanks to some legal shenanigans, Double Fine had to change the name to Iron Brigade. Even under a different name this game still offers up some great gameplay. Iron Brigade does a great job of combining tower defense and third person action to create a unique and enjoyable game. Play it alone, play it with friends…. just play it.

 The Top 5

A lot of folks do top ten lists, and that’s fine, but I had some trouble with that. I just couldn’t settle on which game deserved which slot for numbers six through ten, so I just cut that part of the list all together.

As with the other awards, these are all picked based solely on their impact on me.

5. L.A. Noire

I’ve always been a big fan of just about everything Rockstar puts out, but Team Bondi really managed to impress me with L.A. Noire. This game combines the great gun play and action of a GTA game with the thoughtful nature of a point and click adventure game to form something truly unique. Team Bondi may have fallen apart after L.A Noire shipped, but I really hope this franchise isn’t dead – I want more games like this!

4. Uncharted 3

You already know how I feel about the presentation in Uncharted 3, but there’s a lot more to it than just good looks and great sound. In both the single player campaign, and the multiplayer Uncharted 3 offers exceptional gameplay. My girlfriend has a fear of heights, and she can’t watch me play this game (let alone play it herself) because it stirs up that fear each time Drake finds himself dangling from a high ledge. Any game that can evoke that kind of emotion in a spectator deserves high praise.

3. Batman: Arkham City

Back in 2009 Batman Arkham Asylum surprised the hell out of me by being a great game. This year, Arkham City surprised me by being even better. With an open environment, more super villains, and more Bat-gadgets, Arkham City did an amazing job of putting the player int he shoes of The Dark Knight.

2. Battlefield 3

I’m a sucker for a shooter with a good multiplayer component, and Battlefield 3 really delivers on that front. When you throw helicopters, tanks, jets, destructible environments, and 64 players into a large map, the end result is chaos of the best kind. Each match feels epic in its own special way, and I’ll never get tired of watching jets fall from the sky in a fiery blaze of glory.

1. Skyrim

I’ve spent 90 hours playing Skyrim so far, and I see no reason to stop there. This game is huge, and full of interesting things to do. You can become a powerful wizard, a wanted thief, a murdered, or you can even play as a pacifist. This game puts very few limitations on what you can do, and it offers up a lot of great quests, and plenty of areas to explore. It’s big, it’s fun, and it will keep you coming back for more… and more… and more and then maybe even a little more after that.

Honorable Mention

Two games deserve honorable mention despite not making the list.

Saint’s Row The Third

I have a feeling that, had I spent more time with it this year, Saint’s Row The Third might have made my top five. This game offers some of the craziest, most over-the-top gameplay ever found in a video game. Ever. If you ever played a GTA game and had a good time with it, go get this game right now.

Trackmania 2: Canyon

I’m not entirely sure I’d call Trackmania 2 a GOOD game, but it’s definitely a game I spent a lot of time with this year. Sure, there’s a single player mode, but the wealth of user created tracks makes this game worth coming back to again and again. Each time I fire it up and hop on a new server, I see a track I never saw before. Sometimes those tracks are a lot of fun, and sometimes they’re just terribly bad, but the experience is always unique when compared to all other racing games.

 

 

Pandora: A Case Study on the True Price of Bad Marketing



After taking a break from Pandora for about a year and a half, I recently dove back in, and I’m loving it.They do a far better job of picking music I like than competitors like Slacker and Last FM. Despite the quality of Pandora’s service, I might still wander away from them again. Not because I don’t care for the service or the company, but because they have made it difficult to just keep listening.  Continue reading “Pandora: A Case Study on the True Price of Bad Marketing”