Monthly Archives: November 2012

At least one more GotE coming

One more economic one is in the pipeline; I’ll throw it up on the site on Monday.  Might do another after that, depending. Got a deadline for a NM piece bearing down on me.

(Edit: So, yeah, kind of overtaken by events there. I might still post it up, but the game violence debate has flared up again in a way nobody was expecting.)

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Gaming and the Election 5: American and Global Economic Problems

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming.

Now we get to the economy. Prepare for many words…but nowhere near enough. I’m still thinking about doing a big Nightmare Mode feature about this issue.

5) Remember Clinton? It’s still the economy, stupid.

Identity issues are important. But the big lesson of the election may well be that the economy is universal. The only reason why it was even as close as it was had to do with dissatisfaction with the economy; the Republicans lament that social conservative outbursts made it less and less likely that people would vote for them as time went on. The economic conservatives in the Republican coalition are furious that an election that they saw as a “gimme” turned into a rout.

Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that the American economy just isn’t doing well right now. That’s very slowly changing, but there’s a lot of reason to believe that it’s going to be very slow indeed. More than that, it’s going to be uneven; there’s a gap growing between the wealthiest Americans and the “99%”, and that gap isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also not just an American phenomenon; doldrums are happening in pretty much every part of the world that isn’t directly pumping out oil.

The results of the election may help with that, but they probably won’t. The president has something resembling a mandate, but the House is still controlled by a Republican party that owes its control of the chamber to the Tea Partiers. All of the other issues and recrimination is only likely to redouble their commitment to financial and economic conservatism, which means that any sort of stimulus is unlikely. In fact, if the “fiscal cliff” isn’t averted, America could be staring down a second recession. The only way that that will be averted, unfortunately, is with the kind of revenue-generating tax increases that the modern Republican party simply cannot accept. So things aren’t looking promising.

(That’s not a figurative “cannot”. That’s literal. If any of them try they’ll get destroyed in the only elections that worry them in a Gerrymandered house: Republican primary battles. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge hasn’t gone anywhere.)

How does that affect gaming? Well, gaming is expensive. Really expensive. For all that publishers regularly whinge about the cost of production, the simple fact is that laying out sixty-plus for a five- to six-hour-long game with maybe two hours of truly engaging content is almost ludicrously pricey in a world where consumers are facing huge financial challenges. Why do you think so many PC and mobile games are free-to-play? “Free” is about all that users can afford!

(And, please, don’t go on about how they can afford smartphones and PCs. Being willing to lay out ten times the cost of a game for a device that has a thousand times the utility and entertainment value isn’t hypocrisy, it’s financial sanity. Besides, most smartphones are bought using plans.)

Gaming, as a hobby and as an industry, requires a strong, healthy, prosperous middle class. Even the free-to-play games require “whales” that are willing and able to outlay significant sums to make up for all those free players. Some might be wealthy, but I suspect that the truly wealthy aren’t likely to be spending their time playing F2P games in the first place. No, many F2P players are going to be middle-class people who are willing to fork out for something they or their children love. Nothing wrong with that…but they have to be able to do it first.

That’s the reason why console gaming is having a tough time. It’s not really about budgets and whatnot. It’s not about a lack of innovation. It’s actually straightforward: people aren’t going to be able to buy new consoles or many new games. When they DO buy new games, they’re very conservative, so they tend to pay for  tried-and-true franchises and  accessible, multiplayer-focused games that can add a tremendous amount of value to their purchase.

You wonder why Call of Duty sells well to the “core” audience each year? It’s a series they know, it’s got predictable gameplay they generally like, and it’s got a gigantic and reliable multiplayer community that generally includes their friends. The better question is why it wouldn’t sell under those conditions. It’s all network effects and path dependency.

Sure, consoles still sell. But it isn’t necessarily for gaming. They’re becoming convenient Netflix Boxes, and Netflix’s monthly-fee model is one of those models that DOES make sense in a recession-strapped economy filled with people who are trying to stretch their dollars. That doesn’t even help console manufacturers; a Netflix Box ain’t one that’s paying them those sweet, sweet platform royalties. Frankly, if the economy doesn’t change, things look pretty dire.

If things turn around and American incomes even out a bit more, then things might be different. Dedicated consoles and dedicated console-style AA or AAA games are worthwhile, and the price to create them is only going to go down as the tools become more and more accessible. Not every genre or game can or should be an el-cheapo mobile-style game or a social F2P game. There’s still hope, but only if these trends reverse.

As to whether they will…well, it really depends on whether or not everything remains deadlocked. A complete victory for either Romney or Obama could have changed things. I believe that Romney’s plan would have changed everything for the worse, but at least it would be a change. As it is, American government is still divided; there’s still going to be a House controlled by Republicans that owe their jobs to the tea partiers and serve at the far right’s pleasure, arrayed against a Senate and White House controlled by emboldened Democrats.

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Next “Gaming and the Election” Tomorrow

Other things have come up today, so I’ll have the first economy-related G&TE up sometime tomorrow.

(Edit: For a given value of “tomorrow”. I’ll see about having it up tomorrow. As in Wednesday. For real this time.)

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Gaming and the Election 4: “Who are we shooting at?”

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming.

This time, a short one on America’s new multicultural face.

#4: We’re shooting at Who, exactly?

The other big identity-related thing that’s come out of this election is that “minority groups” aren’t minority players anymore. They’re a key part of the Democratic coalition and, again, they aren’t going anywhere at all. Hispanic Americans, Black Americans, Asian-Americans, and the whole GBLTQ rainbow are going to play a big, big part. They might even play a bigger part than “straight” white males. They’re the ones who consistently vote Republican, after all.

So the same question that applies to women applies to minorities: is it really a smart idea to have your games flamboyantly cater to white guys? To have the same old lily-white protagonists fighting off waves and waves of [Brown/Black/Asian/insert-outside-group-here] badguys who have all the character development of your typical Xenomorph? To take all your minority characters and turn them into caricatures? To take alien and fantastic characters and have them somehow act like ethnic caricatures?

Excuse my french, but FUCK no. And not because it’s a bad idea or immoral or lazy, though it usually is all of those things. It’s because you’re trying to sell games to the same multicultural, multiethnic America that just handed the Dems this monster victory. The lesson is sitting RIGHT there, RIGHT in front of you. For the love of all that’s Holy, learn from it before you and yours become another economic casualty.

In some ways, this is a more immediate lesson than the one about gender. There’s a lot of arguments out there about whether or not women and girls will want to play “boy games” (though, as you saw, I don’t think that’s the point). There’s absolutely no question that males are going to want to play them, though. It’s not a possible audience, it’s an obvious and already-interested audience. There’s no reason whatsoever to keep your protagonists as all-american straight white dudes. There’s literally no downside to being more pluralistic.

It’s also useful from a creative point of view.  People who see themselves reflected in the games they want to play are going to get more invested in the medium.   That makes it far, far more likely that they’ll go into the business themselves. The biggest barrier for game-makers is ensuring that they aren’t insensitive to groups not represented on their teams. Get rid of the lack, and you get rid of the barrier.  More representation, more interest, more talent, more representation, and so on and so forth.

It’s a virtuous cycle. Hallelujah.

(That’s that for identity issues. So tomorrow (or possibly Monday), we get to the economy stuff. Strap in.)

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Globe and Mail Assassin’s Creed Editorial? Bunk. And Scarily Nationalist.

Okay, break from the election stuff.

So a lot of you have probably run across the Globe and Mail editorial that’s saying that Assassin’s Creed 3 is historically inaccurate and somehow unpatriotic.  No, really, here it is.

The “historically inaccurate” bit is something that everybody on Twitter is making fun of literally as I write this. Go check out the #globeeditorial hashtag, it’s awesome. Everything from “plumbers can’t actually become raccoon hybrids and fly” to “hedgehogs give no shits about gold rings, oddly enough”. Entertaining way to spend an afternoon, and for that we all have to give the Globe a note of thanks.

Sure, a few people (notably Rowan Kaiser) are grumbling that “it’s just a game” isn’t a cogent counterpoint, but to me it’s about nailing down the idea that Assassin’s Creed isn’t a work of historical fiction. It’s fantasy fiction (or maybe science fiction if you’re feeling generous) that’s placed in a historical setting. The setting isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately the fantastical war between the Templars and the Assassins that drives the series, and complaining about historical inaccuracy in that sort of setting is just as ridiculous as complaining about the scientific basis for The Force.

What bothers me more, though, is the odd retrograde nationalism in the piece. Check out the lede:

Assassin’s Creed III is an historical-action video game developed by Ubisoft Montreal in which players join the “continental army in a war for freedom.” The goal of this Canadian-developed game is to “hunt down the British redcoats.” Whose side is Ubisoft Montreal on, anyway?

Those who doubt the decision by the Canadian government to invest in the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 should pause and think about the implications for a country that fails to teach its history and celebrate its story. As it happens, the Quebec and Canadian governments have given Ubisoft significant support.

Wait, what the hell is THAT supposed to mean, Globe editorialists? Because, from here, what it seems like is that you’re actually trying to accuse Ubisoft Montreal of insufficient loyalty. What does it matter whether or not a Quebecois subsidiary of a French(!) company has their (fictional and fantastic) protagonist take the side of the American revolutionaries over the British in a war that happened over three HUNDRED years ago?

For that matter, what on earth does it have to do with current Conservative Canadian government’s decision to spend a whole lot of money celebrating the war of 1812?

Look. If Ubisoft Montreal wants to glorify the revolutionaries (though there’s every indication that they don’t), then they’re perfectly entitled to do so. They don’t need to  present a rigorously accurate portrayal of the conflict, since they aren’t presenting a work of history in the first place. Even if they were, they certainly have absolutely no responsibility whatsoever to present in some sort of bizarrely pro-British “patriotic” fashion, as the Globe apparently demands of them.

That’s not patriotism. That’s the worst kind of nationalism. It’s the sort of thing that Canadians have historically rejected, and the Globe’s thinly-veiled attempts to curry favour with the government-of-the-day are absolutely no reason to revive them.

And, hell, if you actually play the AC games, it’s exactly the sort of thing they’re trying to reject. In the words of Ezio “head assassin in three games running” Auditore himself:

“We don’t need anyone to tell us what to do; not Savonarola, not the Medici. We are free to follow our own path. There are those who will take that freedom from us, and too many of you gladly give it. But it is our ability to choose – whatever you think is true – that makes us human…

“…there is no book or teacher to give you the answers, to show you the path. Choose your own way. Do not follow me. Or anyone else.” 

If you’re looking for a lesson out of the AC games, Globe editorialists, take a look at that one. And then, maybe, take a good hard look in a mirror.

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Gaming and the Election 3: Lady’s Choice?

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. This is the third one; a follow-on on the gender issue. 

#3: Games aren’t just boys’ toys.

I think there’s a connection to gaming in a more general way, though. Right now women are still seen as a bit of a secondary audience in gaming. They aren’t “core”, whatever that means, and games that are aimed at them tend to either be half-assed girly-game crap that’s drenched in pink or social-network games that cynically attempt to ruthlessly exploit society’s pressure on women to be helpful and cooperative.

That should end. It must end, because the lesson of this election is very simple and very applicable to the gaming industry: white males just ain’t enough. The targeted audience for the Republican messsage are white males, just as the targeted audience for console gaming is (generally) white and (definitely) male. The former failed, and the latter is failing too, because there just aren’t enough to sustain the enterprise.

It’s becoming really, really clear that games should focus a bit more on the sorts of things that girls and women want in their games, and a bit less on the things that (the industry thinks that) boys want in their games. What are those things? Don’t ask me: I’m not in a place to say. Go ask Mattie, or Patricia, or Kate, or Leigh. Go ask girls and women. Go ask your girlfriends and partners and mothers and sisters and daughters and wives.  Ask focus groups if you must. But don’t ask me.

I do suspect, though, that it doesn’t mean that there won’t be shooters or action games. That sort of essentialist attitude makes no sense and is rooted in the same beliefs that generate “girly games”, and it’s just silly when you’ve got Patricia Hernandez writing great pieces about her experiences playing shooters. It may well just mean having female protagonists that are well-written and visually reflective of their audience. It works for boys. Why not for girls?

(More tomorrow.)

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Gaming and the Election 2: Women are here to stay

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. Second one’s today, and it’s about women. It’s important.

#2: Women are here. They’re staying. Deal.

The big roiling issue in gaming right now–other than the horrific decline of consoles in general and triple-A console gaming specifically–is definitely gender. All over the Internet, across every single gaming website, and especially on Twitter, we’re seeing female gamers and female game writers assaulting the Boys’ Clubs of gaming. Good on ’em. A lot of somewhat sketchy stuff is being brought into the light; and though there are debates to be had on the appropriate balance of allowing free expression and debate in quasi-public spaces vs. also ensuring that said spaces are welcoming to women, the very fact that we’re having these debates is the kind of leap forward that you normally only see at the Olympics.

Well, guess which other Boy’s Club is getting broken down? The SENATE. That’s right: with this election, the United States of America is going to have more Senator women than it ever has in its history. America’s even seeing it’s first Lesbian senator! That’s kind of a big deal! More than that, though, the fact is that it’s women–especially minority and single women–who were the drivers of the Democratic victory. Dems have to be very, very aware that  issues that affect women are no longer any kind of “sideline” issue. Women are at the heart of the new Democratic coalition, and they aren’t going anywhere.

In a country where “women’s issues” are now at the apex of politics, it’s unlikely to the point of impossibility that any sane person would continue to see women’s perspectives as some kind of sideline in gaming. Women matter, guys, and they’re going to keep calling you out on all the crap that you used to get away with back when it was just a He-Man Girl Hater’s Club. It doesn’t mean they’re going to “censor” you–the cases where that sort of thing actually got some traction were, historically, generally due to alliance with the same social conservatives that flamed out so badly last Tuesday–but you’re going to have to deal with the Female Gaze in your life online.

(Though I still don’t get why there’s this whole thing against men wearing hats.)

Another tomorrow, running along this same line.

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Gaming and the Election: End of the Censorship Wars?

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Obama’s going to have a lot more legitimacy; he’s got as much of a mandate as Bush ever did. There are more Dems in the Senate, and the’re more progressive Dems at that. Judicial appointments are on the way, as is the implementation of Wall Street reform and ObamaCare. This election result is going to change America. Hell, it’s going to change the world. No doubt about that.

Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. First one’s today. It’s short. Don’t worry, they get longer.

#1: The wars over censoring game violence are probably over. At least for now.

This may sound a bit weird, considering that it’s often progressives that are at the forefront of “won’t somebody please think of the children!” reactions to video games. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, it seems pretty likely that it’s over for a while, even over-and-above the Supreme Court decision. Why?

In a word:  Pot. Marijuana is one of the other issues where parental concerns and fears about their kids often tend to dominate the debate. The fact that two states have gone with out-and-out legalization suggests that the forces of fear are less powerful than they used to.  If parents aren’t screaming about their kids getting high, it seems pretty unlikely that they’re going to be screaming about their kids possibly playing GTA, especially when dad (and, yes, mom) are probably gaming too.

The complete collapse of the anti-gay-marriage movement points in the same left-libertarian direction. even if the social conservatives aren’t happy about the more small-“l” libertarian shape of American politics, they clearly can’t do much about it. I’m sure that the younger, more big “L” Libertarian conservatives in the Republican party are already keen to take the reins after this drubbing, and are well-positioned to do so. Are a bunch of young Libertarians going to go after Activision for their latest FPS? Not fucking likely.

Especially because, frankly, we all have more important crap to deal with. Nobody’s going to worry over their kid playing GTA when they’re too busy worrying about how to feed them.

More tomorrow.

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A One-Star Review Isn’t a Troll

Okay, I’m already starting to see a lot of drama over Tom Chick’s one-star review of Halo 4. (There’s a ton of it on Twitter. No direct links, but it’s not hard to find.) People are complaining about how he “couldn’t possibly think that the game was a 20%!” and how “he’s just trolling! and how “he’s ruining the MetaCritic average!”

Sorry, no. That’s all complete nonsense, and in a lot of ways, it smacks of people wanting to have it both ways.

You can’t have it both ways on scores. If you’re calling out score inflation and piously claiming that “a fifty percent is an average score” on your site, then you have to allow other sites to choose their scoring meters too. Chick’s site, “QuarterToThree” uses a film-like “star” system. Anybody who has read a movie review in the last few decades knows that a one-star film is not execrable, but definitely flawed, and will likely disappoint anybody but the most dedicated fans of the franchise.

I read the Chick review. That score is absolutely backed up by the text. He makes it abundantly clear that he is disappointed by what he played. He praised the original Halo’s “raw genius” and called the recent effort “a drawn-out retread without any fresh perspective”.     You can agree, you can disagree, but that’s a one-star review.

And if you think that single star is a “20%”, then you don’t “get” measurements, because ordinal and ratio data aren’t interchangeable.  The gap between 1 vs. 2 stars in a score may be enormous compared to the gap between 2 or 3 stars, depending on the reviewer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If MetaCritic translates one star as a “20%”, and directly compares it to some other site that gives an equally disappointing game a 60%, then guess what? MetaCritic screwed up. Don’t apologize for them or make the same mistake.

You also can’t have it both ways on reviewers’ freedom. I’ve read game critics and game reviewers bitterly complain about fanboys’ angry reactions to their reviews over, and over, and over again. It’s why I’ve never really been tempted to write the things. Who needs the grief?  Reviewers certainly don’t; they want to be able to express their opinions and criticism, and truly hate it when they’re accused of “trolling” or “bias” or being “on the take” or some such thing. They get especially peevish (and rightly so!) when their words are skipped over and they’re castigated for their scores.

Well, guess what? IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR TOM CHICK. You may disagree with him. Lord knows I have in the past. I’ve read reviews of his that I thought were so completely out to lunch that I was tempted to put in a comment asking Tom to pick me up a turkey club, hold the mayo. But if you accuse him of simply “trolling”, instead of being an idiosyncratic reviewer that you disagree with, you’d best have a damned good reason. A reason that’s one hell of a lot more compelling than “here’s a set of reviews I disagree with and also look at that score!” 

I’ve disagreed with Chick before. I haven’t played Halo 4 yet, but I may well think that he’s completely full of shit on this one as well when I do get the chance to play it.  That doesn’t mean he’s “trolling”, any more than you are when you write a review that people disagree with. Go after Chick, and you’ve given the fanboys every legitimate reason to tear you limb from limb in comments. You’re no different than he is.

Mostly, though, you can’t have it both ways on MetaCritic.

Reviewers regularly respond to angry fanboys screaming about their scores lowering metacritic averages by saying that “Metacritic averages don’t or shouldn’t matter”…usually right before insisting that they don’t think about the effect on metacritic averages when they write their own reviews.

Thing is, the fanboys are actually on pretty good ground on this one. The dirty little secret at the bottom of all of this is that they have absolutely EVERY reason to pressure reviewers for better scores. MetaCritic averages do affect their favorite developers’ bonuses and job security. They do affect unit sales of the games they enjoy. They do affect whether beloved franchises get new installments. Rational arguments won’t work against that, because they are making the rational move. Scary, but true.

So the only way to stop the harassment is to make it perfectly clear that, rational or no, you don’t CARE about any of this. Reviewers need to make it clear that their only concern is expressing an informed opinion. Their scores are a reflection of the text, and the text is what it is. Full stop.

You need some demonstrate some solidarity to pull that off. The fanboys are going to notice if you start carving up some other guy on Twitter for hurting developers giving a bad score, and guess what? They’ll do the same thing to you! Sure, you might think that his “20%” (it isn’t a 20%, it’s a one-star) is totally different from your 6/10. You might insist that your score is sensible whereas his is nonsense. Guess what? It won’t help. They won’t believe you. They’ll hammer you for ruining a Metacritic score and throwing young developers to the welfare lines just as quickly as you hammered Tom Chick.

Don’t get me wrong. Disagreement is fine. Disagreement among reviewers is great. Disagreement among reviewers is what will help kill this toxic notion that you’re nothing more than MetaCritic input devices and that your words are a bunch of meaningless bullshit that distract from the all-important score.  Disagreement among reviewers helps show that you’re people, not  commodities.

Don’t confuse this with an endorsement of Chick’s opinions (hah!) or a condemnation of reviewers, either. Like I said, I don’t even write the things. Even if I disagree with a review, I still have immense respect for the people who stick their necks out like that. Some reviews are straight-up terrible, sure, but there are loads of reviewers and critics who demonstrate professionalism and care in a field that often doesn’t reward it like it should.

But, please, don’t fight this battle. Remember Franklin. You hang together or you hang separately.

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