Or: My New Year's Resolutions for Gaming Only, Because I Don't Follow the Other Ones (As If I'm Going To Follow These), 2009:
At this time, there have been something like 2,000 reviews of Spore on Amazon. A massive number of them are 1-star reviews complaining about the DRM--partially because it's the standard SecuROM crap, but also because a glitch in the activation servers apparently locked out a number of the early purchasers. The negative comments don't seem to have hurt sales anyway, since it's still one of the top-rated sellers in Amazon's video game category.
Set aside the debate of whether or not this is an appropriate way to use the site's review system--after all, Amazon is notoriously lax about policing the ratings (see also: Jonah Goldberg's ill-advised Liberal Fascism, which is tagged by users with the phrases "ein volk ein reich ein bag von cheetos" and "code pink invaded poland" among others). There are at least a couple of more interesting questions to be raised about the Spore rating debacle: the effectiveness of excess, and the need for more information about DRM.
First, do two thousand reviews actually mean anything? At what point, really, do we trip a kind of mental incredulity barrier, and the entire process starts to work against itself? Clearly, a page with 81 five-star and 2,088 one-star ratings has something going on, and customers who aren't as informed about DRM might find it more than a little odd. It may be that such a strong reaction doesn't so much dissuade buyers so much as it simply causes them to tune out the review system entirely. Hence the strong sales for the title.
I suspect that this has happened, actually. But the DRM-focused reviews are serving another purpose: they provide information about the SecuROM that's otherwise usually hidden from consumers. Normally, if I buy a game, I have to do at least a quick Google search before I know what kind of DRM it might be carrying. I can look at a typical Amazon page and see system requirements and cost, but I won't see what kind of copy protection it has built in. In a roundabout way, that's what these reviews are providing: information that the market failed to produce on its own. Which is fantastic.
For example, when I first got my new laptop, I picked up FEAR so I'd have something to play through on a more powerful video card than my previous system. Obviously the box doesn't say, but FEAR also includes an earlier version of SecuROM. People bag on Vista's UAC feature all the time, usually without understanding it, but it flagged the installation process during the DRM installation stage. Thanks to the warning, I found a crack to disable the DRM, just in case.
Now, that's just me being paranoid. After all, SecuROM's pretty non-invasive as DRM goes. But that's like saying it's only a minor infection--it's still not something I want on my system, particularly given Sony's past behavior with rootkits and shady code (Sony develops SecuROM). And what about games that use StarForce or other, more destructive copy protection? Shouldn't consumers know what they're installing when they install that game, and then be allowed to choose to go ahead?
The optimal path, of course, would be along the lines of the recent Gamers Bill of Rights by Stardock, which specifies no copy protection at all. Failing that, I think retailers should notify customers about the DRM included in the products they sell. And as a final precaution, I've started thinking about creating an open game DRM wiki, so that buyers can easily check in a centralized location before making a purchase.
Because I'm all for markets and market solutions. But I also believe that DRM is a market failure, and another is the lack of information about DRM that's available to the consumer. Until that failure is remedied, the PC gaming situation isn't going to get any better.
Did you hear that PC gaming is dying? You probably have, because nobody seems to be able to shut up about it.
Certainly not the big producers. Crytek blamed poor sales of Crysis on piracy, although the game then apparently sold more than a million copies, beating their expectations. iD's stopped making PC exclusives, as has Epic--they've explicitly blamed piracy and integrated graphics for the problem. And many of the big developers are not making exclusives for PC any more, or they're back-porting their lower-end console versions to the platform, or they're blaming their lower-end console versions for the lack of a PC port (see: Lucasarts and The Force Unleashed). There's a lot of scorn going around for the PC, what with its heterogeneous hardware and its sometimes maddening software stack.
Honestly (and perhaps sadly), I take this a little personally. I grew up with PC gaming--didn't own a console until college. I played Duke3D and Counterstrike in the computer lab during lunch in high school. I remember loading up Strike Commander just to fly around the landscape, and going through a nerve-wracking two weeks as my father and I tried to get the deluxe version of Simcity running in VESA-compatible mode. And writing Joust knockoffs in BASIC was one of the experiences you just can't get anywhere else.
So I've been watching this for a while. And these complaints--it's too unstable! too unpredictable! too expensive!--are kind of funny, because they've been around for years. The PC market has always been dying, it seems. And yet it's still here. It's either dying very slooooooowly... or reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
It certainly seems dire when cast in the most extreme terms. You mean some console games won't also come to the PC? Well, that's indeed a shame. But then, you're not seeing much Stalker love on Xbox, are you? Don't Darwinia or Defcon count as exclusives, too? Sam and Max: not available on consoles. And isn't WoW kind of the big elephant in the room here? Even if the other MMO's aren't making quite those kinds of numbers, I don't hear companies like NCSoft complaining, frankly.
But those don't count, because PC gaming is dying. Only generic, big-budget console releases count when we value a platform--because heaven knows that's where the really exciting design takes place. Halo 3, anyone? Another Final Fantasy, maybe?
And then there's one of my favorite new games, Sins of a Solar Empire. Sins is, to put it bluntly, incredibly addictive. There are actually very few games where I lose track of time, but I have had the experience of looking up and realizing that I've spent two hours buried in the Thinkpad. It's a very "PC" type of game--lots of mousing and menus and keyboard shortcuts. It's hard to imagine doing it on a console. The game also scales well--there's no doubt that it looks sharp at full tilt, but you can also run it on a machine that's several years old.
Sins has so far won just about every gaming award available to it, and it's been within the top ten-selling titles on the retail charts for the PC since its release (downloads have also been strong, they say). There's little doubt that it's been extremely profitable for Stardock (a relative upstart in game development), even though it doesn't use any copy protection at all to prevent piracy.
But PC gaming is dying, right? The guy from Epic said so.
Valve, meanwhile, has been making a killing off Steam, apparently. They're big PC guys. My friend Matt sends me an e-mail every now and then to let me know how neglected his Xbox copy of the Orange Box feels after the Steam patches and updates for Team Fortress 2--and I feel for him, but if he played his shooters on a platform with a mouse like a Real American, that wouldn't happen to him. In any case, Valve's support for the PC through Steam is unmistakeable--they make a point of it at product announcements. And here, again, is a company that's not betting the farm on the bleeding edge, and understands their platform. My laptop is pretty top of the line for a business-class notebook, but it's a relatively weak gaming machine. It still runs Half-Life 2 beautifully.
Still, there's no need to pay attention to the claims of one of the world's most consistently high-quality game development houses. They and Blizzard must be crazy to go through all this effort, right? Everyone knows that PC gaming is dying--just look at the NPD numbers (the ones that don't include digital distribution or MMO subscriptions).
It couldn't possibly be the case that Crysis underperformed at first because of release timing issues, not to mention because you need a small render farm to run it properly. It couldn't possibly be true that the PC really does have games that consoles don't have. Digital distribution couldn't really make up that much of the market, and MMOs couldn't really be that successful, right? Because (say it with me now) PC gaming is dying.
Except obviously it's not. What's happening is really pretty simple: consoles finally caught up (mostly) with the average computer for gaming power (also, with its more annoying "features," like having to install the game before you can play it). As such, people have somehow gotten the idea that the platforms are equivalent, and that the PC should be able to substitute for an Xbox or PS3. Unsurprisingly, the strategy of cramming the same expensive, graphic-heavy games that have sold on consoles into the PC has shown a few flaws.
Look, this is not the end of the world. PC gamers (and I count myself as one, even if I spend a lot of time on consoles these days) may not get to play the latest Metal Gear, or whatever it is that apparently sets the standard on any given day. But there are also experiences that are only going to show up on the PC, including the incredibly thriving casual game market (which both hardcore gamers and gaming publications like to pretend doesn't exist). The truth of the matter is that the computer is an odd beast. It costs more than a console, varies wildly in its capabilities, and plays host to a number of genres that practically don't exist anywhere else. To top it all off, it's incredibly widespread. The PC is a market that's simply huge--just not the same market buying GTA IV.
PC gaming isn't dying. You just have the wrong definition of "alive."
Since I never tire of repeating myself, we rejoin the theme of... well, of themes in games. Today's exhibit is Harvey Smith, designer of Blacksite, speaking to Gamasutra.
HS: People give me shit off and on about the left-leaning politics in BlackSite, and I'm like, "Don't you realize that games like [Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon] are implicitly, strongly political?" There's a patriarch figure. You're a good citizen, because you follow orders. The bad guys are the guys in religious garb who are poor. The good guys are the ones with a command infrastructure and the millions of dollars worth of equipment, and are following orders. It's like, oh my god.
Gamasutra: And it's good to kill the bad guys.
HS: It's good to kill them, you're right! You're a hero for killing them. We'll give you a medal. I'm not the first person to say that, though. Ian Bell was like this total hippie developer guy. ... this awesome guy who did the game Elite [with David Braben], the space trader game. He said that he loved Elite, but he only realized years later that he had made an inherently capitalistic game that very much supported the values of the haves having more and more while the have-nots have less and less, because of positive feedback loops that are in economics.
If he had known then what he knows now, he would have tried to balance that, or put in a consequence, or shown you the difference of what happens when one company becomes a mega-monopoly, and buys the rainwater rights for a third-world city-state so they could sell the bottled water or whatever. It's like, how did this happen? It's all about positive feedback loops and emergent economics. Unless we cap it, it'll just keep running.
People make a big deal about sex in movies. There's not nearly as much fuss about movie violence, even though the violence can be not only appalling (and I say that as someone who enjoys action movies and bloody horror flicks) but also serve a misogynistic and hateful agenda. If nothing else, think about how many movies the armed forces assist with each year, films which are required to portray the military in a golden light.
Video games do not usually engender sex scandals, with a few notable exceptions. Violence does catch the public eye, some of it with good reason. But just as with the movies, people tend to criticize the excesses without ever mentioning that the violence could be shown with less blood, but it could still promote attitudes of military capitalism. And it is not usually subtle. America's Army is now available for PC, XBox, and XBox 360. But heaven forbid that Grand Theft Auto include a hidden sex minigame, or Oblivion use anatomically-correct textures.
Where to start with a rant by Gamestop employees on how much they hate you, the customer? Ars Technica links to a messageboard post by a store clerk who was incensed by Kotaku's frustration with automated calls. How dare these uppity customers get upset by what basically amounts to telemarketing?
What basically comes across in the rant is the frustration and contempt for the customer. People call in who don't know the correct name for what they want to buy (although, to be fair, Ninja Garden does sound like a lot of fun), or they don't know the difference between a game system and its software (some kid's parents, perhaps?), and for these sins they are considered by the author to be the lowest form of life on the planet. He is also amazed that anyone would not be interested in the pre-order system, even though it is an alien abomination completely unique to game retailers--no-one asks me to pre-order movies, or books, or anything else that I buy off a shelf.
Clearly, he's not being supported or trained well, and he's bought the company line about its ridiculous policies. That's not necessarily his fault: he is probably young, and stupid, and we have all been there once. I don't like the game retailers very much, and I've tried to avoid them, but I wonder if we could actually step back from making this about video game stores and look at it from a wider context. The snarky, hateful clerk is a staple of speciality or geek retail niches--the snobby record store guy, for example, who makes snide comments about people who want to buy something that doesn't meet their standards of hipness. We could change some of the language in that rant and easily have complaints about customers who want to buy the wrong wines, or the wrong organic foods, or the wrong movies ("Batman Forever?!? You pedant!").
And yet these venues have not vanished yet, although in some cases (independent movie stores, small record shops) they are in danger of being eaten alive by the chains. I am no fan of giant chain stores and corporations, seeing as how they are grotesque avatars of The Man, but you have to admit that they usually put more effort into their training and hiring practices. They did not get to be large, abusive chain stores by scheming up new ways to alienate their customers. Maybe Gamestop is just leading the way by scaling up the sneer of small business into industrial proportions. Now I can get the distaste of a small store and an exploitative global business model all in one transaction!
These are exciting times.
Following up on my Trotskyist tendencies:
You might remember, if you play the occassional video game, when the genre started seriously moving toward 3D. Developers began to realize that it was a lot harder to pump out good-looking levels and gameplay in three dimensions, not in the least because better graphics carry with them higher expectations for realism and scale. As a consequence, a lot of games got shorter. Reviewers complained. I remember that Max Payne, a game with both photo-realistic aspirations and a genuinely witty storyline, often got marked down for its length--"criminally short" at ten hours long, said Gamespy. I'm sure non-gamers are a little bemused by that assessment.
Contrary to those critics, this was the best thing that ever happened to gaming.
Go back and play a game from, say, the NES or Super NES era. It's probably not as good as you remember. One reason is that there's a lot of make-work, basically chores that the game will make you go through. These chores contribute the majority of those mythical thirty-hour games we once played, back in the yesterdays of nostalgia. Players had to sit around and level up. They had to find different-colored keys. They had to solve puzzles by trial-and-error. A few exceptions aside, this was not a golden age. It was padding.
I believe, at some level, that video games can have an emotional and cultural meaning--they can be texts, the same way that movies and books can. A game can say something, can deliver a message, or can capture some kind of art. But it can't do that while it's wasting the player's time with a grind. This isn't an argument for cutscenes, or to say (as if I had any power anyway) that developers should stop including collection and leveling mechanics in their games. But we need to recognize that those mechanics are not value added, and that they are often an intrinsically worthless use of player time. Is it really worth struggling through those parts? Do you feel rewarded?
There are lots of boring, compulsive ways to spend time. Speaking solely for myself, I'd like to question whether a video game is my most productive option when it comes to doing my chores.
I'm more than $300,000 in debt to a raccoon in an ill-fitting suit. My neighbors are a barely-coherent zoo sometimes prone to veiled drug references (could there be a better description of false consciousness?) I am singlehandedly responsible for filling a local museum. And I have a pretty sweet picture of Lenin in my living room, right next to the moon and a shark pit.
Welcome to Animal Crossing, Comrade.
Animal Crossing is in some ways Nintendo's answer to the sandbox genre, like Grand Theft Auto. There's no end goal, no overarching plot, and no forced behavior--just a village with some creepy mail-obsessed animals and a whole bunch of stuff you can collect. At first glance, it's a game about ownership. And that put the socialist in me a little bit on edge. So I decided to wander around the game with a more devout Marxist's eye, see if there's really an unconscious ideology behind the cheery surroundings. Can we say the same about other games, as similar products of a capitalist system? Or have I finally fallen off the deep end?
Going by the photos, we might have to argue the latter.
I want to take a moment and offer this to any less leftward-leaning readers: the viewpoints I'm offering here aren't entirely the ones that I hold. If I had to lay out my own political viewpoint, it would be more socialist-democrat--I believe in markets, but I also believe in regulation and I don't trust corporations to do the right thing. At the same time, remember that the dominant narrative for cultural examination in this country is from a capitalist, if not a libertarian, viewpoint. Although the political right will sometimes attempt to paint the left as being a group of overt Lenin-worshipping central planners, you would be hard pressed to find a politician or journalist who does not hold as simple fact the superiority of a corporate market economy over all other systems. Undermining this assumption can be an interesting way of examining--and then possibly reaffirming--those biases in a self-critical, honest way. Besides, strip out the references to communism, and what I say here may not seem that radical.
If someone wanted to play Animal Crossing as a socialist, it's surpringly open to the possibility. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," except that you really have no needs, other than those you bring to the game. The housing loan does not ever have to be paid off. You can, through scavenging and barter with the neighbors, acquire some property without ever handing a cent to Tom Nook. Fruit, money, and furniture literally fall from the trees when you shake them--you don't have to eat the fruit, or eat anything, but you can if you want to. It's perfectly possible to bypass the entire buying furniture/upgrading your house rat race. A player could instead occupy themselves by talking to the other villagers, or visiting other players online. It's good, clean, Marxist fun... or is it?
The Man and his System won't let us off that easy. Like it or not, a significant portion of Animal Crossing is still about ownership, materialism, and capitalism, even if you're not actually required to own anything. How can this be? Well, for one thing there is an implicit reward system in place for players to collect more useless items (and they are useless--most objects in the game don't actually do anything except exist). Consider this: apart from the four character slots (hat, accessory, shirt, and equipment), objects can only be viewed when placed inside your own house. Everywhere else, they manifest to the player only as a leaf icon and a name. Since the only thing the various collectibles are good for is to be seen and arranged, and this provides much of the variety in Animal Crossing, the space inside the player's house is a direct representation of their freedom.
And house size is a direct representation of money spent on upgrades. Increasingly expensive upgrades. Ones that require you to either fish or farm obsessively. It's not for no good reason that people who play this game tend to refer to Tom Nook (the shopkeeper/landlord/proletariat capitalist dog) as a slave-driving, exploitative criminal--except that the game won't let them take the next step and remove him from power.
Workers of the Wild World, you have nothing to lose but your chains!
Even with these gripes, the consumption impulse of Animal Crossing is relatively gentle and unforced. Although it is nice to have the extra space, item collection can be relegated to one of many town options--terraforming, painting, and visiting are all free or cheap, and all can be just as, or more, satisfying. Instead, we should treat this as an example of the entire "collection" gameplay tool, which has become far more widespread. As I noted while talking about casual games, the impulse to pokemonetise has become much more widespread and accepted.
This is disturbing on two levels. First, it is reinforcing the message that the collection of things is not only valued, but an end in and of itself. Second, as The Red Critique pointed out, gaming offers escapist entertainment that replaces real change. Ironically, many video games feature themes of overturning corrupt corporations or fighting against injustice, yet the purchase of those games subsidizes the corporate capitalism that probably fueled a worker's need for escape in the first place. With the rise of Second Life and other virtual environments, the Internet philosophy of "free and equal information" has extended to the perceptions of the games themselves. Sure, anyone can get anywhere in Second Life, given enough time--but who has the time? Only those with sufficient resources and time to waste. Like it or not, virtual achievement is still linked to real privilege.
So just out of curiosity, what would a game look like if it avoided these capitalist biases? What do I look like, a designer? If we were to actually take the implications of the last few paragraphs seriously, the only conclusion to reach is that participation in gaming in the first place is a waste of time. By paying money for games--even by playing them on equipment built by workers in unfair working situations--we perpetuate an exploitative capitalism. Our choices are not restricted only to different means of consumption, and we must find alternatives. Screw gaming. Viva la revolucion!
But since I am not quite that hardcore, I'll offer a few thoughts. Perhaps a Marxist game designer would eliminate points and collectibles, to disincentivize consumption as well as to place more emphasis on the humanity of the worker. Maybe using the game to train people for political action (A Force More Powerful) would be a goal of this revolutionary designer. A nation simulation might try to show that (at the very least) providing for the health and welfare of workers creates a more successful country (we are edging into propaganda here, of course). It might tie itself to real life events, since (at least in its early forms) Marxism was intended to a practical, action-oriented political pilosophy. But at the very least, I think a socialist might try using a game--at its lowest levels, a collection of rules and systems--to show how the rules and systems of commerce can be cruel and exploitative. Most people that I talk to don't seem to understand that socialists aren't just Stalin and Mao, but covers a wide gradation of ways to understand market structures. We've been tarred with the Soviet Union for a long time now, and we need better PR.
I'll leave you not with a deep thought or some kind of armchair programmer wisdom, but with my favorite quote from the Red Critique article (emphasis mine):
Take that, video game violence debate! You know, I really think a surprising amount of that piece was sensible and reasoned, but then they toss a line like that in there. Even if I disagree, I insist that it is awesome to see it so frankly expressed.
This piece was inspired, in part, by Johnny Pi's excellent post on casual games and political action.
Following in the footsteps of other neologisms, Wired recently crowned the word "ludology" with some semblance of legitimacy. May I present the following alternate definition?
Because in all seriousness, if you can read something like this without feeling like someone is really missing the point, you're a better person than I am.
The South Park Republicans, not content to make me ashamed for enjoying television, music, and dumb action movies, are now trumpeting the value of video games as brain-building mental exercise (link to Joystiq, not OpinionJournal).
No offense to the many whom I'm sure will leap to join the chorus defending this hobby, but that's terrible reasoning. I'm more in agreement with Roy Edroso:
Though I cannot speak to the aesthetics of Doom and Grand Theft Auto, I will say that, much as I love The Sopranos, complicated plotting is the least of its excellencies; and that, while the ability to follow multiple story lines may be admirable and perhaps useful, it would better suit a young person to learn how to tie various story threads into an analysis, a skill that far predates the digital video disc.
It has been my experience as a remedial English tutor that even the brightest students are undertrained in, and often unaware of, the simplest analytic tools -- including grammar, sentence structure, and outlining. These are not nearly so easy to absorb as the skills Gladwell values, but the fact that he can make himself clear in essay form shows that he has himself mastered them, which makes it rather disturbing to me that he seems not to care much that we make so little effort to wrench our kids away from their entertainment modules long enough to learn how to diagram a sentence or tie three supporting details to a main idea.
We are all futurists nowadays, and it is to be expected that the author of The Tipping Point would hope to find some bright, positive New Paradigm in the video obsessions of our young people. But it is a stubborn fact that some sorts of machinery, greasy and earth-bound as they may seem, are yet necessary to our progress, and that this goes for intellectual as well as physical realities. If we don't teach our young citizens to think rather than merely process information, all the video-savvy in the world isn't going to save their sorry asses. As seductive as the Information Age fantasy is, we will never be a nation of managers, magically summoning prosperity with our Blackberrys, without something to manage. Something has to be created first. And to create we need tools. Noun-verb agreement is to my mind a good start. You can do your part by collaring some young ruffian and making him or her learn it.
Play a lot of video games? Do I! Embarrassingly so! But Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You argument that somehow inventory management and basic logic puzzles are creating valuable life skills has gotten way out of hand. It is certainly possible for gaming to carry an educational mission, but I would doubt honestly that the vast majority of entertainment software is causing the next stage of human evolution--much less granting job skills that couldn't be just as easily learned in a different context, such as (and these are just my examples) joining a rock band or closely following professional sports management.
I try to look at gaming as a hobby that exists in a greater context; socially, politically, and culturally. Sometimes, I'll admit, the resulting posts are tedious and not well written--or even well-considered. But I like to think that it's possible to take such a wider view by using the same tools we might use to analyze a book, or a movie, or an action taken by a public figure. You won't learn how to critique a rhetorical message from a video game--and maybe you shouldn't. That's not a fault of the medium. It is instead an endorsement of complicated answers to our questions. Too often, especially in the tech community, we look for simple answers: OLPC, the ESRB, and now video games.
I also can't say for sure if the toolkit required for these complicated answers--logic, evaluation of credibility, and some grasp of metaphor--is being taught to the disobedient youth at our debauched modern day schools. Nor can I say whether they will stay off my lawn! My father, who teaches the anklebiters for a living, feels that there is a lack of critical thinking ability in the young today, but the school system hasn't had much time with them by the time they reach him.
In "A Canticle for Leibowitz" the polite term of post-nuke address is "simpleton," a backlash against the scientists who invented the bombs. It's a symptom of a wider anti-intellectual movement. Only in the presence of a similar anti-intellectual movement--and look no further than the Oval Office for its prime advocate--could we see video games as anything other than a neutral cultural artifact. It is one thing to be able to look at those games, and by extension the large part of our society's empty-headed entertainment product, and try to see what it says (or could say) about us as people. It is quite another to trumpet the games as a learning experience in and of themselves, which is what Opinion Journal (and ultimately Johnson or Gladwell) would have you do. Limiting ourselves that way is the mark of being a simpleton, and proud of it. I don't want any part of that.
Five posts in one day? Why yes, my Internet connection at home has been unreliable lately, how could you tell?