Games and politics

The humble case

Walking_dead

A few days ago, I wrote that reasonable people have genuine concerns about the effects of violent video games - and depictions of violence across media - on our kids and society at large. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, harsh critics of video games have pitched drastic measures to curb violent content, while defenders contend our fascination with violence is healthy, innate and as old as The Iliad.

Neither argument is fully persuasive, and I think most of us fall somewhere between the two perspectives. Banning or censoring “objectionable” material is a dangerous and self-defeating precedent ; but the ceaseless flow of combat, death and destruction in games has come to feel overwhelming, even to those of us who sometimes consume and enjoy such media.

It’s important to note this isn’t just about kids and parenting. It’s also about civility and stewardship of a society. It’s about fostering a culture that values peace. And it’s about a real and growing concern that a bellicose nation, numb to the consequences of violence, breeds ever more fear, hostility, and hate. These concerns extend far beyond games and guns. But both are implicated, regardless of the rhetoric or data thrown at them.

That’s why we who love games need to talk to anyone willing to listen. We need to tell our stories. The defining qualities of games - beautiful systems that engage us like no other medium - are not self-evident, especially when they’re buried inside iterative formulations of shooters, RPGs and other well-worn genres. I am forever explaining why this hero-saves-the-world game is infinitely superior to that one, among colleagues who can see no apparent difference between the two. But they are different, and those differences matter.

As a teacher, I’m predisposed to believing we can teach and learn our way past most problems. Maybe that’s a naive perspective. Perhaps Ian Bogost is right when he calls Joe Biden’s meeting with the video game industry “a trap.”

The truth is, the games industry lost as soon as a meeting was conceived about stopping gun violence with games as a participating voice. It was a trap, and the only possible response to it is to expose it as such. Unfortunately, the result is already done: Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

I understand Bogost’s point, but I don’t believe talking to a politician implies acquiescence. We can’t surrender a point we haven’t yet owned (I didn’t say “earned,” which is a different thing). Bogost and I (and probably you) know from experience that games are, in fact, a “diverse and robust medium,” but the conversations I described in my last post suggest we’re nowhere near ubiquity on that point of view. Brendan Sinclair gets it right in an op-ed piece that appeared on GamesIndustry earlier today:

Despite everything the Wii and mobile and social games have done to expand the audience in recent years, when people think of games, they still think of an endless parade of games that let players shoot each other square in the face. And it's completely understandable why. That's what we make. That's what we market. That's how we present ourselves to the outside world... So when tragedies happen, our response must be galling to those who don't "get" games... Instead of explaining the merits of what we do, we throw up discussion-ending roadblocks of First Amendment rights and scientific research... It's not unlike what the National Rifle Association does when the issue of gun control comes up. They say it doesn't work, namecheck the Second Amendment, and change the subject.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of E3, especially given the rise of mobile/casual games that rarely appear there. But we must acknowledge that the show exists as the biggest, loudest, and most media-blanketed games event in North America. Nearly all the major developers are there (and an increasing number of indies), and coverage reaches into mainstream media outlets like no other event.

E3 is the public face of the video games industry, and it is an ugly mess. This year’s event was essentially about watching publishers run one bloody shooter after another up the E3 flagpole. As I noted after returning from L.A. last June, two massive convention halls filled with shooters isn’t ethically problematic. It’s worse than that. It’s boring.

In the current political climate, we who care about games can make a difference, but we must acknowledge and address genuine public concern about games that make killing feel like fun. It’s a moment for us to bring forward our best stories about games - not as a collective “God, I love this game,” or “This game made me cry,” but as careful observers of the deep and vivid experiences games can provide. We must put our faces and reputations behind the games we admire and explain to a skeptical public why violent games like Bioshock, Metro 2033, and The Walking Dead really are about more than plugging baddies with bullets and ray-guns.

I’m not pointing at an invisible mountain. It’s there, and many have successfully climbed it. It’s an ongoing effort from a community I’m proud to be part of, and we’ll keep doing our thing.

Our new challenge (not really new, but certainly more pressing now) is to fuse our critical sensibilities with a humility that understands why otherwise tolerant people feel outrage when they see bulky power-fantasy avatars armed to the hilt, mowing down enemies with automatic weapons. We cannot shield ourselves from the reality that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, with killings in 30 states. 25 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and 7 of them took place in 2012.(1)

We may never finish making the case for games, but if we’re to succeed, we must make that case with compassion for those who feel victimized by violence in all its forms.

Violence will always factor into our play. It’s our job to explain the function of that violence in our make-believe worlds and assign meaning where we can find it. The places where we cannot may be the places where our critics have something to teach us.


Win-lose

Loser We've seen a fair amount of euphoria emerge from the video game community in response to Monday's Supreme Court decision. The ruling has been hailed by various outlets as a validation of games as speech, games as art, and games as analogous under the law to other media like books and films.

Monday's ruling is unquestionably a win for games, but I'm not so sure it's a win worth celebrating. While I'm delighted that seven Justices saw fit to protect games under the First Amendment, their formal opinions on the case raise serious questions about their understanding of games and their ability to grasp the defining characteristics of the medium.

Even the Justices themselves express deeply ambivalent reactions to their own ruling, with Alito and Roberts issuing separate statements taking issue with Scalia's majority opinion, and Thomas and Breyer (who often collide on other issues) offering strongly worded dissenting remarks.

So, what on the surface looks like a landslide decision (7-2) is in reality three Justices who share Scalia's point of view (see my previous post for details) and four who take issue or strongly disagree with many of his assertions. As a matter of strict scrutiny constitutional law, games won the day; but as cultural validation, the ruling looks like a familiar a mish-mash of uncertainty and fear.

People (like me) who believe video games can be powerful artistic forms of expression will find much to be troubled by in Monday's ruling. Scalia's majority opinion goes out of its way to diminish the uniquely interactive nature of games - he equates them with Choose Your Own Adventure books - and in so doing he privileges the narrative dimension of games over their nature as complex systems that operate rhetorically very differently from literature or film.

Alito's response (which I find more thoughtul) worries much more about the extraordinarily immersive experiences games can deliver, and he expresses concern that we don't yet properly understand how this “new and rapidly evolving technology” works and why it should or shouldn't concern us.

Of all the Justices, Alito is the one who took it upon himself to research video games by playing them himself and observing their contents firsthand. He reports that “the violence is astounding”; he notes a preponderance of stereotyped minorities, and he cautions that “We should not jump to the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar.”

Again, Alito sided with the majority because the California law was poorly written and failed strict scrutiny. But his opinion strikes me as more valuable and informed than Scalia's because he accepts what so many of us have been saying for years: video games, at their best, deliver a substantively different experience than other media, and this experience can profoundly affect the player emotionally and intellectually.

Put another way, if Jim Gee, Ian Bogost, and Jane McGonigal are right (or even if they're only partially right) about the transformative power of games to impact human behavior, maybe we oughtn't be so thrilled about Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor lumping them together as analogous to other media, albeit with wiz-bang tech.

Maybe, as Alito and Breyer suggest (Thomas argues an originalist view that essentially ignores games), we ought to pay more careful attention to how games work and what they can do for good, ill, and otherwise. Doing so acknowledges that these newfangled electronic gizmos may fall under free speech protection, but they aren't movies and they certainly aren't books. California may have written an ill-conceived and unenforceable law, but that doesn't mean kids shouldn't be prohibited from buying games that may mess with their heads in ways we don't fully understand.

Ironically, maybe our case, as gamers who understand the transformative power of games, would be better served by a loss that acknowledges the medium's true nature, rather than a win from a court that states: “Even if we can see in them 'nothing of any possible value to society..., they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature.'”


SCOTUS Modern Elite Force 7 Rulez

Scalia

Today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that would have restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. This landmark ruling - and I don’t use that term lightly - goes farther than any scholarly treatise, keynote address, or impassioned blog essay in settling the case for games as a medium of artistic, and, therefore, protected expression.

For many of us, designating video games as free speech is a no-brainer. But to the broader society at large, it’s still very much an open question, just as it was when the court struck down censorship against motion pictures in Burstyn v. Wilson, a case cited in today’s ruling and widely seen as a cultural milestone.

Why is today’s ruling so important? The obvious headline is that the court “legitimized” video games today. CNN declared on its website: “Supreme Court sees video games as art.” The Washington Post ran with “Supreme Court: Books as ‘interactive’ as video games.”

These are pithy takeaway messages, but they fail to account for significant and far-reaching issues emerging from Justice Scalia’s majority opinion. While it may be refreshing to think the Supreme Court considers video games art (I'm not sure they do, actually, but more on that later), other aspects of the ruling may be more consequential.

Distinctive communication
“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas and even social messages through many familiar literary devices...and through features distinctive to the medium.” The ruling notes that while games share characteristics with other media, they must also be seen as possessing unique discursive powers worthy of protection. This is a welcome and surprisingly nuanced view coming from a set of judges, none of whom play video games.

Hobgoblin of interactivity
Today’s ruling dismisses the notion that interactivity, by itself, presents special problems. Scalia characterized as “unpersuasive” the claim that players who participate in violent action on screen are at risk, noting that “This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.” Furthermore, the ruling suggests that video games cannot lay sole claim to interactivity, noting that “all literature is interactive. The better it is, the more interactive.”

Games don't cause violence
The court examined research presented by both sides and concluded: “Nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology. ...Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”

Grandstanding fail
The ruling chastises California for selectively targeting video games while ignoring other media that routinely depict egregious acts of violence. He notes that such policies raise “serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.” In other news, California State Senator Leland Yee vows to fight on.

The Playboy argument
Today’s decision also protects video games from the tyranny of the ‘moral’ majority. While the court displayed a clear distaste for games like Mortal Kombat (and an unmistakable elitism about its artistic merits1), the majority opinion reiterated its support for individual choice and interpretation. Quoting United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Scalia writes, “Under our Constitution, esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature...are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”

No obscene ideas
While the court recognized the State’s legitimate power to protect children from harm, “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. Speech...cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.”

Parents rule
At various points in the majority opinion, the justices express doubts about a ‘government knows best’ approach in this case. “...punishing third parties for conveying protected speech to children just in case their parents disapprove” is an improper means of aiding parental authority. The ruling goes on to note that “Not all of the children who are forbidden to purchase violent video games on their own have parents who care whether they purchase violent video games. While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want."

-----

Today’s Supreme Court decision attempts to address many key issues related to video games, not simply the question “are games art?” In fact, a careful reading of Scalia’s opinion suggests that he, and perhaps others in the majority, may not consider games art at all. Scalia uses the term only once in his 18-page opinion (and it's a quote from a previous ruling). Nowhere does he argue or claim that video games should be considered art.

What the Supreme Court did say, unequivocally, today is that video games must be considered speech; and, therefore, must qualify for First Amendment protection. This, in a representative democracy influenced by powerful special interests, is a much bigger deal than the question of art.

I’ll return in my next post with a few thoughts on why I won’t be writing Justice Scalia a thank-you note just yet. I hope you’ll stick around.

1. "Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones."

 


Step up

Sixdaysinfallujah_3_small

IGN is reporting that Six Days in Fallujah, the first game to focus directly on the war in Iraq, is finished and ready for release. The controversial title by developer Atomic Games was announced by Konami last April and cancelled three weeks later following criticism from a variety of groups and organizations.[1] Atomic Games is a division of Destineer Games which, among other things, makes training tools for the US military.

Atomic doesn't say so directly, but it appears they're looking for a publisher willing to step up and publish the game. I say it's time for a publisher to do just that. It's time for someone with vision, conviction, and cash to unequivocally lay claim to creative autonomy and freedom of expression as fundamental imperatives for games. It's time for a publisher to publicly assert, with money as its marker, that games can resonate culturally only if they're free to explore unexamined ideas and challenge our comfort zones.

Plenty of people have argued on behalf of Six Days in Fallujah, citing a double standard separating games from film and television. Why, they say, should games be prevented from going where films like Battle for Haditha or The Hurt Locker have gone? 

This is a useful observation, but it relies on the increasingly threadbare argument that games deserve to occupy the same culturally respectable space as other media. Claiming it doesn't make it true. It will never be widely seen as true until games finally elbow their way to a place at the table. No one is holding that place for us. No invitation is forthcoming. You gain your place at the table by forcing your way in and then making yourself essential to the conversation that ensues. We aren't there yet because we haven't demanded to be there.

Six Days in Fallujah is that elbow to ribs. I don't know if it's a good or a bad game. I haven't played it. What I know is that the developer interviewed 70 people with intimate experience in Iraq, including returning Marines, Iraqi civilians, enemy insurgents, war historians, and senior military officials.[2] I know they hope to convey through the player's experience an emotional and psychological arc that reflects something truthful about what happened in that battle.

The game may or may not deliver on its ambitions, but success or failure are beside the point in this case. Konami didn't cancel the game because it fell short of its design goals. Six Days in Fallujah was canceled because Konami decided it had more to lose than gain by publishing it. It bowed to pressure from people who made (mostly) baseless or uninformed claims about the game.

Several phrases recur throughout the criticisms leveled at Six Days in Fallujah - a game, by the way, that not a single critic has played. The most common among these are: "exploiting," "trivializing," "glorifying," and "too soon."

I don't mean to diminish or overlook the suffering that many of the game's detractors have experienced. I understand their objections stem from real, heartfelt concerns. But these are the very places artists must go. There is no safe way to explore these painful issues. In fact, the safe way is the surest way to oversimplification; the surest way to telling lies.

The fact that I charge an audience money to see the art I create doesn't mean I'm "capitalizing" on a painful event that caused great suffering. What fuels an artist's fire may also be the cause of human conflict or desperation. The artist is drawn to these places. He has no choice. His freedom to explore the world using the tools of his art must be assiduously protected, encouraged, and, yes, even funded.

The charge that Six Days in Fallujah trivializes or glorifies horrific events will surprise no one. It stems from an assumption that games lack the capacity for any other response to violence. Games have done little to challenge that assumption, and no amount of blog posts or GDC roundtables will convince anyone otherwise. 

Six Days in Fallujah is an opportunity to begin tearing down that wall. If we believe games can be, or do, or say more, then we must produce those games and push through the inevitable resistance to them. If Six Days fails, we learn what can be learned from that failure, and we build the next game better.

What's needed now is an enlightened publisher willing to facilitate that process, clearly articulate the stakes, and take the inevitable heat. Maybe it also means losing money. I don't know if such a publisher exists, but for the sake of dangerous games, I hope so.


More common sense about the impact of video games on kids

Boyplayingvideogames_3 I've been reading the just-released Byron Review, an independent research report commissioned by the UK government on the effects of violent media on children. The study was conducted by Dr. Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist and author of three books on child behavior - Byron is also a mother of two.

As I mentioned in a recent post on the forthcoming book Grand Theft Childhood, rigorous research on the effects of video games on children continues to dispel fears espoused by alarmists, while also suggesting some reasons for concern. Though wider in scope--it focuses on children's exposure to the internet as well as video games--The Byron Review reaches similar balanced conclusions and offers a series of sensible recommendations.

A few key excerpts taken directly from the report:

  • Having considered the evidence I believe we need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer.

  • In relation to video games, we need to improve on the systems already in place to help parents restrict children’s access to games which are not suitable for their age. I propose that we seek to do that by reforming the classification system and pooling the efforts of the games industry, retailers, advertisers, console manufacturers and online gaming providers to raise awareness of what is in games and enable better enforcement.

  • Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.

  • We need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‘beneficial’ from a ‘harmful’ experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child. The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child. That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children’s brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up. This is not straightforward – while we can try to categorise children by age and gender there are vast individual differences that will impact on a child’s experience when gaming or online, especially the wider context in which they have developed and in which they experience the technology.

I'm struck by how Byron rejects the summary judgments and simplistic solutions proposed by politicians, religious figures and others who have placed themselves at the forefront of this issue. I admire her decision to place the needs of children at the center of her study, and I respect her insistence that we preserve "the right of children to take the risks that form an inherent part of their development," but also enable them to play games and explore the net "in a safe and informed way."

My brief summary doesn't begin to capture the full scope of this work. You can read the full report here or an executive summary here. You can also listen to Dr. Byron discuss her approach to the study in an audio interview with The Guardian (UK).


Another bad day for little girls

Blacksite_box_4 Little girls keep popping up in scary video games. The innocent bright-eyed child appears, melts our hearts...then somebody dies. Bioshock, F.E.A.R., Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Haunting Ground--all feature apparently vulnerable young girls in a survival horror setting. The Aberrant Gamer has covered this unsettling phenomenon (dare I say cliche?) in two terrific pieces you can read here and here.

Well, I can report that our plucky little heroine has broken free from her confining horror genre bonds...only to be victimized yet again in a shooter game. This time, however, her presence is notable not because of her role in a game, but because of her appearance in an ad that self-consciously references the most controversial commercial in American television history.

The game is Midway's Blacksite: Area 51, a first-person shooter set in sci-fi's favorite Nevada locale, to be released next week.

Modern day fears come to life in a familiar, yet extraordinary setting in BlackSite™: Area 51®. A small American town is swarming with alien life. The government is desperate, struggling to contain secrets so terrible, they can no longer be kept. Everything hinges on the actions of Aaron Pierce, a former Special Forces assassin thrown into the most explosive moment in American history.[1]

Standard narrative fare for gamers raised on Fallout, System Shock, or other world-at-end thrillers. What sets Blacksite apart, however, is its setting and its particular "subversive"[2] ambitions. Blacksite is set in contemporary Iraq and small-town USA. Its designers make no bones about their political point of view:

The game starts in Iraq. You're Aaron Pierce, this Delta Force assassin, essentially. Something happens to one of your squadmates in Iraq. You're looking for weapons of mass destruction that aren't there, of course, and then you move into small-town America...Then it just gets more and more subversive from there as Pierce figures out that the primary enemy in the game, which is being called an insurgency operating on U.S. soil, is really wounded American soldiers from Iraq who are being disappeared by the government, taken underground, and experimented on with regard to this "Army of One"-type program. So we go into the Walter Reed allusions, and the Abu Ghraib allusions, and we try to do it in such a way that won't make people vomit or whatever, but at the same time, it's definitely there. The whole theme is, "Who is the enemy? Look at the enemy -- do I look like the enemy to you?" One year, somebody's a freedom fighter, the next year they're a terrorist.[3]

A nation in fear. A highly politicized war. A government's motives questioned. Check. Check. Check. So how to advertise such a game? Why not hearken back 33 years to a time of similar fear and questioning and summon the most memorable political commercial ever to air on American television:  the "Daisy" ad.

The "Daisy" commercial ran only once before being pulled by the Johnson campaign, but its impact was profound. Its narrative framework and apocalyptic message are clearly echoed in the ad for Blacksite: Area 51:

It's likely that only gamers "of a certain age" will make the connection, and I suppose it's possible the similarities are purely coincidental. Regardless, I'm intrigued by the game's ambition and its willingness to address contemporary issues in a contemporary setting. It remains to be seen whether Midway can make good on its thematic aspirations while still producing an engaging shooter. My guess is that one will be sacrificed for the other.

Oh, how I would love to be wrong on this one.


Mercenaries, PMCs, and video games

Old_snake_gun_2 Stick with me. I promise this will eventually get around to video games.

CNN is reporting today that the Iraqi government has completed its investigation into the Blackwater shooting incident and has asked the U.S. State Department to "pull Blackwater out of Iraq":

Al-Maliki adviser Sami al-Askari told CNN the Iraqis have completed their investigation into the shooting at Nusoor Square in Baghdad...Al-Maliki and most Iraqi officials are "completely satisfied" with the findings of their probe and are "insisting" that Blackwater leave the country.

Blackwater is one of many private military companies (PMCs) in Iraq. Currently approximately 100,000 PMC contractors work directly for the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq providing services ranging from operating mess halls on U.S. military bases to providing security for officials. (More info on PMCs can be found here.)

Article 4.1.4 of the Geneva Convention draws a clear distinction between contractors and mercenaries. A captured contractor is to be treated as a prisoner of war, while a mercenary is deemed an "unlawful combatant" with no right to claim prisoner of war status. A contractor is considered a mercenary when he/she engages in combat.

Now the game angle.

Video games have a long love affair with mercenaries. It's a natural attraction. The lone wolf on a dangerous undercover mission. Weapons, maps, stealth, strategy, shooting...pure gaming bliss: The original 8-bit Mercenary series; the Soldier of Fortune series; Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction and its forthcoming sequel; the Jagged Alliance series; Mech Warrior 4: Mercenaries...the list is a long one.

That love affair may be over, at least for now. Game designers, clearly influenced by current world events, have shifted their focus from mercenaries to PMCs. In particular, three upcoming games suggest that this new focus will be a critically reflective one.

HAZE (Ubisoft, U.S. release date: November 19, 2007)

Set in the year 2048 in a world where Governments have outsourced military operations to Private Military Corporations, you play a newly enlisted soldier seeking fulfillment and thrills by fighting for a good cause. As the leading PMC, Mantel Global Industries offers a high-tech arsenal of vehicles, deadly weaponry, and a performance enhancing bio-medical support known as Nectar, a nutional supplement that enables soldiers to fight harder and smarter.[1]Haze

However, as you progress through the game, you find out that there is more to Mantel and the "nectar" than meets the eye. The game takes place over three days that will "change Shane forever." Mantel battles a guerrilla group known as The Promise Hand led by a dictator called Gabriel "Skin coat" Merino; a brutal man who wears the flayed skins of his POW camp inmates. In recent trailers, it has been revealed that Shane will switch sides over the course of the game.[2]

Army of Two (EA Montreal, release date: November 13, 2007)

From a Gamasutra interview with lead designer Chris Ferriera:
What we’re trying to do as we advance though the story in the game, we start with the characters. We take them from their days in Delta Force, and their days as Navy SEALs, and their start as PMCs and how they get trained. We unveil the corruption behind the military privatization, and we explain the problems that poses to society and to America, and the world, when you have a gigantic organization that does nothing but operate for corporations and for money.Armyof2_2

We’re hoping that someone who plays the game a lot and who really follows the story, and doesn’t just skip through it and pays attention, that we can spark them to say “you know what, I’m going to look into this.” That’s all. “I’m going to gain interest in this, and find out what’s really going on here. What am I doing?” In the game you’re doing all kind of crazy stuff for this company. You’re sent on all these different missions, and then you find out what’s wrong with this deniability and what’s wrong with everything in general.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Kojima Productions, release date Q1 2008)

From a Gamasutra interview with assistant producer Ryan Payton:
This is the first time for a Metal Gear game that the subjects have been very relevant to the time that it was being released...With MGS4, we've been doing a lot of research on what's going on recently. Recent conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, where real private military companies are being used to fight wars.Snakegun

And obviously there's that whole issue with Blackwater, and that controversy. This is becoming a very relevant issue. It's tough for the writers, and guys like me, who are involved with the story, because new information is coming in almost on a daily basis. We were literally days away from finalizing MGS4 story, and the text, and going to record it, and Hideo comes by our desks and says, "Did you see the news on NHK today? We've got to put that in there too. Make some kind of reference to that in the story." And we've done that. So it's very up-to-the-minute in the story, and we've been keeping watch of what's going on in the world.

In his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that games have the power to mount arguments and influence players. They can "disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change."

I agree. In a mature medium, artists convey what they see and think and feel into a vehicle of subtle expression. Maybe one of these games will transport us in such a way. My money is on Kojima.

Oh, did I just refer to video games as art? There I go again.


In support of Gameology

Gameology is an intelligent and respected blog devoted to news and commentary for the game studies community. Zach Whalen, one of the key contributers to the blog, is a Brainy Gamer subscriber and was kind enough recently to include my site on the Gameology blog roll. I have assigned Gameology essays to my students in the past and have always appreciated the positive ways they have provoked my students to think about video games.

Zach's most recent Gameology post includes details of a threatening letter he received from an attorney representing Left Behind Games, Inc., developer and publisher of the Left Behind series of video games based on the best-selling books. Gameology, along with many game review sites, panned the game and its "convert or die" gameplay premise.

The letter threatens Zach with legal action unless he removes "false and misleading" comments from his website. From the letter:

Left Behind Games Inc. is demanding that you immediately remove any and all information contained on your site about the above stated game that is false and/or misleading, including any such statements or commentary and the responses thereto. This includes posted comments made by others in the context of reading the incorrect or misleading statements.

If you do not comply immediately, the company will be forced to pursue additional legal action which will include claims for damages, costs of suit and attorney’s fees. This may subject you and your organization to significant legal and financial damages.

It appears Zach isn't the only blogger who panned the game to receive such a letter. You can read more about others contacted with more details on the story here and here.

I have read all of Zach's Gameology posts on the Left Behind game and can find nothing but solid critical writing. Zach's opinions of the game and the ideology that spawned it are clearly articulated. He objects to some of the fundamentalist tenets espoused by the game, and he explains why they concern him. In other words, he functions as a critic.

Left Behind Games' lack of specificity regarding "false and/or misleading" statements suggests less about anything Zach has done wrong and rather more about a company bullying small-time bloggers with few resources to wage legal battles. Perhaps not coincidentally, it comes from a company that "has yet to realize a profit and [whose] stock price has collapsed from a high of $7.44 a share last November to as little as 14 cents in recent trading." (Daily Kos)

The Brainy Gamer strongly supports Zach Whalen and the entire Gameology crew. I encourage others to do the same and respond to Left Behind Games Inc. in whatever way you deem appropriate.


China's latest weapon against terrorism: Counter-Strike

Counterstrike1_2 Chinese citizens worried about terrorists capable of respawning from death and armed with two magazines of ammunition, a knife, a pistol and $800 apiece can now rest easy. The Chinese government is using Counter-Strike to sharpen the anti-terrorist skills of Tianjin’s police force. From The People's Daily:

Han Zhen, a tactical instructor of Tianjin police, found the game very helpful. "Given its close resemblance to real-life scenarios, the game greatly enhances the terrorism awareness of our officers," the five-year veteran gamer said. "And it is very important as terrorism has become a global issue.

"In particular, it trains our officers in the use of weapons and taking advantage of different terrains, and is also a test of mental strength in a duel with a terrorist," said Han. Above him a red banner proclaimed: "Enhancing police forces through technology".

When they get their hands on Halo 3, the police will apparently be ready for anything that comes at them from now until 2552.

Thanks to GamePolitics for the heads-up.


Video game battleground: real world edition

Gameteacher Pressure to mount a crackdown on violent video games is heating up in the United Kingdom. As we've seen here in the U.S., blaming video games for all manner of social ills can get you a lot of attention, as the continuing prominence of anti-game industry fanatic Jack Thompson proves. Despite the absence of conclusive data or scholarship proving a link between violent behavior and video games, politicians from both ends of the spectrum continue to jump on the reckless bandwagon. This time it's conservative party leader David Cameron applying pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to regulate video game content.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, State Senator Leland Yee continues his apparently endless campaign to write laws into the California state code that will later be found unconstitutional.

Gamepolitics.com has details on both stories, including a video of a television news report on the Manhunt 2 controversy that illustrates how little light the news media generally sheds on this complex subject. You can find their stories here and here.

Update (Sep. 6): Jack Thompson has filed documents with a federal court in Florida requesting to subpoena President George W. Bush. I'm not kidding. Thompson apparently wants Bush to give a deposition as part of his legal fight to help preserve his license to practice law and fight off ethics violation charges against him. The saga continues.