Grand Theft Auto IV

30 04 2008

Grand Theft Auto hit retail on Tuesday, and is expected to eclipse the launch of Halo 3 last year. GamesIndustry.biz reports that play.com was receiving 80 orders per minute on launch day (though it doesn’t specify how long for), and Jason Kingsley of Rebellion has spoken up for Britsoft:

“This is world’s biggest launch in the games market and the intellectual property is actually British made, he explained. “I think that’s fantastic. It should be celebrated.”

Mainstream press coverage has been surprisingly positive, if quite formulaic, with much of it devoting a lot of time to “Other forms of entertainment have sex and violence too”. This is old hat for game developers, but nonetheless a vital part of pushing this conceptual framework out into culture. Plenty of editors and writers, along with their audiences, could still do with having this point hammered home.

NPR have said many of the same things, but it’s by far the most thoughtful piece I’ve seen in this vein.

Edit: Richard Bartle has written a fairly crowing but pragmatically brutal piece for the Guardian:

They’re no more concerned about “moral decay” or “aggressive tendencies” or any of the other euphemisms for “ohmygod I don’t understand this” than you are about soap operas.

We’ve definitely hit a turning point in the cultural dialogue, with so many more things emerging that we can point to as “games”. Fears over videogame violence are soon going to seem as irrelevant and niche as the same fears over comics.





More Byron Review Fallout

24 04 2008

Conflicts

Industry lobbying of the UK government seems to be going up in frequency, with TIGA teaming up with their Austrlian equivalent, ELSPA speaking out again and Iain Livingstone voicing concerns.

Meanwhile, the European Commission have said the exact opposite of the Byron review about ratings: that PEGI needs to be strengthened and more deeply integrated with national rating systems. This continues to be an interesting part of the conflict, because the BBFC has greater brand recognition in the UK, but PEGI has greater applicability (and economy of scale) in the EU.

I’ve been used to the idea of “videogames” entering a state of flux for a long time, but to see so many different aspects of them doing so simultaneously seems remarkable.

(CC image by factoryjoe)





Byron Reactions

15 04 2008

BBFC film ratings

Barring a few upcoming and typical tabloid smears on video games, the dust now seems to have settled on the Byron review. MCV have been doing exhaustive coverage of the reactions to it, the biggest of which has been PEGI raising serious concerns about the applicability of BBFC ratings to online content.

It’s not a bad point. While BBFC ratings are more immediately meaningful to UK consumers, the method by which the BBFC rates things seems poorly equipped to deal with the torrent of content online, not to mention the legal ground that would have to be laboriously trodden in defining what content needs to be rated and what doesn’t. The BBFC claims it can, but such an approach could easily be unable to keep up with a voluntary scheme such as PEGI.

It’s an interesting dilemma, and each side has its merits. BBFC ratings make sense culturally, but perhaps not economically; they may even drown in the volume of online content. Indeed, it seems that any rating system will be dwarfed by the overwhelming amount of freely accessible unrated content – it was easy enough for teenagers to get hold of porn before the internet, and speaking pragmatically it’s impossible to stop them.

Ratings are a useful system when picking content for children, but I’ve rarely ever seen people using them as a factor when making a personal decision on what to watch or play. The two exceptions I’ve seen recur are highly religious people of a kind very sensitive to violence or sex, or men in their late teens and twenties, who tend to say of films things like “It’s rated 12 so it’s going to be crap”.

With its focus on protecting children, it’s natural that the Byron review would spend so much time on rating systems, but it seems to me that education is far more important. With the exception of very young kids, there’s no way to monitor everything they do and look at.

Speaking personally, I can say it’s too easy for parents to give the impression to kids that, if they see something that upsets or confuses them, they might be be punished for finding it rather than helped to deal with it. That’s the picture of a culture that can’t deal with disturbing content, and it exists in patches throughout UK society.

The lack of hard research on the actual effects of certain types of content on children is also frustrating, because so many studies on violence and pornography have to conclude “Noone really knows”. As Tanya Byron points out in the report though, there are no ethical grounds on which such research could be based. Alongside honest discussion of content, rating systems remain the best tools we have, and they’re built on the impression many of us have that seeing certain things without the mental apparatus in place to contextualise them can be harmful.

The recommendations of the Byron Review will take some years to put in place, and I suspect the market may have something to say after the government.

ELSPA and a few others have been kicking up a great stink about the added expense to the industry, though in the case of big publishers if not AAA developers, it’s largely sabre rattling: the 10K or so required to submit a game to the BBFC isn’t much for them. However, it’s yet another thing that will keep small casual and indie productions out of the market for boxed product and push them even further toward digital distribution. If the industry would rather use PEGI and make it prominent, online is definitely now the place to push it.





Grand Theft Chldhood Interview

28 03 2008

Laura and Scott with Guns. Yesterday.

I’ve blogged before about Grand Theft Childhood and am still looking forward to my preorder landing, but for now Open Education have an interview with one of the authors:

One very encouraging finding was how sophisticated middle-school boys were in their understanding of violent games. They could enjoy playing bad guys without wanting to be them. As one boy told us, “When I play violent games like (Grand Theft Auto) Vice City, I know it’s a videogame. And I have fun playing it. But I know not to do stuff like that, because I know the consequences that will happen to me if I do that stuff.” We were especially struck by how protective these boys were of younger kids; in fact, their concerns about video game influence were almost identical to those expressed by parents.

(CC image by Merrick Brown)





Byron Review Published

27 03 2008

Byron’s Works

The Byron Review has now been published, and so far there are no big surprises. It takes a much more balanced tone than Gordon Brown talking about games and knife crime.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.

These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

The full report can be downloaded from the DFES website, and the BBC have mirrored it too. From their coverage:

Dr Byron has said games should have just one set of symbols from the BBFC on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for films.

Pegi ratings will now appear on the back of boxes.

It actually makes sense, even though some are bemoaning an extra layer of legislation. The video rating symbols given to cinema, VHS and DVDs are a part of the cultural consciousness of the UK populace. They have more mindshare and impact on people than PEGI labels, and I think adopting them will do more to impress upon people that the games industry is responsible than any amount of PR for PEGI.

Additionally, it lowers the cognitive load imposed on non-media savvy parents choosing games for their kids. The mechanics of rating decisions obviously have to be different from one form of media to the next, but to combine that approach with a single recognisable set of symbols is very sensible. Consumers don’t need to understand rating procedures (though I’m certainly not arguing for any lack of transparency – it is both vital and fascinating), in fact between turning 18 and encountering the issue with games, age ratings are something I forgot about almost completely. It doesn’t matter how good a shiny, new, self-regulatory rating system is if consumers are expected to learn it from scratch. Existing, well known symbols can get the job done much more efficiently by exploiting prior learning.

When the Byron Review (so far) seems to be so balanced, it’s unfortunate that people will misread it as an irresponsible industry getting a well deserved kicking. Some people will even read it that way and trumpet it as a success, but you know what? Screw those people. Just about every case of anti-game media coverage in the last few years has illustrated just how unreasonable and prone to fantasy the anti-games lobby is. They can tell whatever stories they like, but they are not and still won’t be the people driving these policy decisions.

“The games industry is reasonable” is a much stronger statement to make to the public on the basis of the Byron review than “the anti-games lobby scored a point”. They didn’t, the games industry is just going through some admittedly uncomfortable steps on the compromise-riddled road to public credibility and de-facto acceptance.





Grand Theft Childhood?

14 03 2008

Myths and fantasies

It’s a clunky title for a book and, *gasp*, they use comic sans on the website, but this may be some of the most vital research to backup games for a considerable time to come. It will apparently talk about the actual risks of videogames rather than hysterically imagined ones, and about how parents and teachers can manage them.

The Myths section seems quite noteworthy – while nothing there is really new to or not suspected by developers, it presents the information in a way that’s very direct and understandable, making it good for pointing people to:

MYTH: The growth in violent video game sales is linked to the growth in youth violence — especially school violence — throughout the country.

FACT: Video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions. Violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since. School violence has also gone down. Between 1994 and 2001, arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaults fell 44 percent, resulting in the lowest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes since 1983. Murder arrests, which reached a high of 3,800 in 1993, plummeted to 1400 by 2001.

It also has a chapter on an actual, honest to goodness study of violence and games:

We may be asking the wrong questions, and making the wrong assumptions. For example, instead of looking for a simple, direct relationship between video game violence and violent behavior in all children, we should be asking how we might identify those children who are at greatest risk for being influenced by these games.

Preorders are open on Amazon now.

(via Bruce on Games, Sword in the Stone/Alice in Wonderland image by pingc)





WiM Keynote, Raph Koster

11 03 2008

Paris riot

It seems far more downbeat than usual, but Raph Koster gave quite a negative keynote at the Worlds in Motion Summit:

He showed photos of Club Penguin, and glamorous Second Life characters with torn jeans — and then followed them with unsettling slides of Darfur and Haiti.

“I look at what we do and I say, god damn, we’re kind of irrelevant,” Koster said, pointing out the schism between virtual reality and the real world we know.

It’s not a very new point, though Jane McGonigal put it across in a much more positive way during her Game Developer’s Rant:

I’m not here to rant about game designers. I’m mad, but I’m not mad at game designers. I think that compared to the rest of the world, game designers pretty much have it all figured out. We’ve invented a medium that kicks every other medium’s ass. As game designers, we own more emotional bandwidth, we occupy more brain cycles, and we make more people happy than any other platform or content in the world. And if you don’t already believe that, if you don’t realize that we’ve already won, then you’re not paying attention to the staggering amount of time, energy, money and passion that gamers all over the world pour into our games every single day.

So why why have we won? Because as an industry, we’ve spent the last 30 years learning how to optimize human experience. We know that our brains are made for playing games. Recently, some of us have remembered that our bodies are made for playing games. And we’ve always known that our hearts are made for playing games. So as an industry, we’ve spent three whole decades figuring out how to engineer systems that fully engage our brains, and our bodies, and our hearts. And we’ve pretty much solved that problem – or, at least, our solutions are working better than other designed experience on the planet. So our systems work better than anything anyone else is making to engage human beings. And as a result, the way I see it, right now, we basically rule the world.

That’s the good news. But the problem is, we don’t rule the real world.

Where Raph says we have a moral obligation to attend to the world’s problems, Jane is saying we have the power to do so.

(CC image of a riot in Paris, from Daniel Meyer)





Amateur Versus Indie?

13 02 2008

Braid

It started with a GameSetWatch op ed:

The gaming press is conflating two trends in game development into a single category that they label the Independent Game. The first is commercial oriented, casual, independently produced games by people attempting to make a living from writing and designing games without committing to a publisher. These I’m happy to call Indie Games, and they operate much in the same way that the independent labels in the music industry, or independent studios in Hollywood.

The second is subversive, modded, copycat, patched together from pre-built parts, non-commercial or anti-commercial. Amateur game development is done by people who are scratching an itch, who can’t not write computer games, who want to see their ideas in pixel form ahead of trying to generate a return.

and went on to Gamesutra too. The comments on both have been just as polarised as the article itself, but I think he may have hit on a useful distinction, even if it is very rough right now. He’s absolutely right in saying “Most modding efforts are amateur games although their creators may deny it”, and I think the difference between an “arthouse” game and an indie effort aimed at commercial success is going to become more apparent over time as more indie games turn up via digital distribution and others languish in beta on obscure corners of the net.

People seem to feel attacked by the division, as if their work is being called valueless. Some developers are offended by the idea that their games might have no commercial value, and others are offended by the idea that their games have no cultural value.

I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at. Aesthetes and businessmen coldly eyeing each other is an outright caricature of the indie games scene, but such a controversial and quite arbitrarily polarised division raises an interesting question worth examination by all indie developers: Are people doing it for the money or their art? I’m certain most people would answer both, but if they had to give one up, which would it be?

(Pictured: Braid, which as an XBLA game with some very deep thinking and concepts behind it seems to be the most prominent example of both extremes together).





M Rated Games in Decline

7 02 2008

ELSPA Ratings 2007

ELSPA have put out a breakdown of the ratings assigned to games in 2007, and found that games rated M are declining:

The E category saw the largest increase over last year, accounting for nearly 60% of ratings assigned overall. The M (Mature 17+) category represented 6% of the overall ratings assigned, down from 8% in 2006 and 12% in 2005.

It’s often been said that M games are a minority of those released, and it sits interestingly with the amount of attention and criticism game get on the basis of them, even from game developers. I guess sales might tell a slightly different story to ELSPA’s ratings pie, but nonetheless, it really shouldn’t take much more than this to create a deafening silence from unfair media outlets.

Also, where’s Adults Only in the breakdown? Has it almost entirely disappeared due to large US retailers refusing to stock it?





One system of age ratings or more bad press?

7 02 2008

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Industry fears grow that Gordon Brown could use report to introduce an aggressive ‘crackdown’ on games

A Whitehall leak to Scotland On Sunday last week suggested that Brown was ready to introduce an aggressive ‘crackdown’ on violent video games in the wake of the Byron Review, which will recommend the introduction of BBFC ratings for all software titles when it is published next month.

Brown’s choice of rhetoric has got top publisher, retailer and development bosses concerned – not least because Byron has won industry-wide praise for her open-minded approach to her task.

Byron met industry representatives behind closed doors in London last week. A source told MCV:

“It was pretty much agreed by all parties – publishing, retailers and parents and Government – that there needs to be one rating system for transparency’s sake, whether that be the BBFC or something more voluntary.”

“But there’s a definite fear that Brown will aggresively present this to the media and public as ‘we are fighting the industry for your kids’ safety’. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Tanya Byron knows that.”

“The meeting ended with a lengthy discussion, headed up by her, on how we can present this to the Government.”

A spokesperson for the Department For Children, Schools and Families said: “We cannot comment on anything that has not yet been published.”