Author Archive | Jared Newman

The Double Standard of Violent Video Game Laws

Here we go again.

This week, a federal appeals court in Sacramento heard arguments as to whether the government should uphold a 2005 law to regulate and ban violent video game sales to minors.

We’ve already seen the same situation play out in Louisiana and Minnesota, where federal courts have struck down appeals. Other states’ attempts at similar laws never made it this far.

“Aren’t you asking this court to go where no court has gone before?” Appellate Judge Consuelo Callahan asked at the start of the trial–and rightfully so. These laws die without a causal link between video games and violent behavior. This hasn’t changed, though the state’s attorneys tried to raise evidence to the contrary.

Look, I’m all for not selling these games to kids. Even though the games of my youth–Doom, Mortal Kombat–started this hysteria, I understand video game violence looks a lot different now and should probably not be encountered by children unless a parent is there to explain it.

But the same is true for all violent media, whether it’s books, movies or music. Video games are worse, critics say, because they are interactive, but the potential payoff is greater when players identify with a character, deal first-hand with moral and social dilemmas or play online and work as a team.

There exists here a double standard. This law would relegate games to the same category as cigarettes and porn–vices, both of them. Want to buy the next Halo? You might have to pull it from one of those opaque top-shelf racks, the whole thing rapped in black cellophane. I’m of the mindset that video games aspire to the status of art; to treat them instead as porn would be catastrophic.

Another double standard comes to mind. We allow youth sports, which can entail real, physical violence and aggression, because they are viewed as a positive outlet. Why not let video games slide under similar logic?

A favorite argument by critics of violent video game legislation goes like this: Guys like state Sen. Leland Yee, who authored California’s law in 2005, want to punish video games because they don’t understand the medium. A better plan might be to work with the industry to improve self-regulation.

Let’s not waste any more time and money (the Entertainment Software Association countersues every state that tries to cripple the medium) demonizing video games and the people who enjoy them.


Does Religion–Any Religion–Have a Place in Video Games?

If you haven’t been following the controversy over the PlayStation 3 killer app LittleBigPlanet, here’s a primer:

Sony recalled the game, which was due out this week, because one of its background music tracks quoted the Quran. It’s not a forbidden practice under Islamic law, but it does risk offending some Muslims. Sony expects to have an edited version of the game back in North American stores on October 27.

The surrounding brouhaha can potentially go in all sorts of directions, and the media and blogosphere have examined most of them. Edge magazine quoted Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the head of the right-wing Muslim group American Islamic Forum for Democracy, as decrying the ban, while MTV’s Stephen Totilo talked to the more established Council on American Islamic Relations, which commended Sony for its efforts. He also asked experts if the reaction to the track could match the Danish cartoon controversy (it won’t) and got a statement from the musician, Toumani Diabate (he’s a devout Muslim). And of course, Sony’s motivations have been questioned, as the company loves the Middle Eastern market, and is no stranger to past religious foibles.

But one still-unexplored angle was brought to light by a commenter in Totilo’s article, who agrees with the song’s ouster because “religions create social boundaries, LBP is meant to have none.” And that really begs the question: Do religious themes, symbols and texts have a place in secular video games? Or are other mediums better-equipped to address religion’s subtler points? (I’m not talking about Left Behind and other overtly faith-based titles.) This situation is an opportunity — albeit less-sexy than the controversy itself — for a discussion on the subject. Let’s not waste it.


Death of the Split-Screen Game

Last month, I read a preview of Saints Row 2 that framed the game as perhaps “The Perfect Girlfriend Game.” In stores this week, the game is is a Grand Theft Auto clone–a tale of gangsters and turf wars set in a sandbox world where you can act out myriad criminal fantasies. It’s not the kind of thing that would interest my girlfriend, but Kotaku’s A.J. Glasser argued that the ability to play cooperatively with a partner and wander the city together was a surefire relationship-builder.

This was, apparently, before it became clear that two people can’t play the Saints Row 2 campaign on the same console. It’s online multiplayer, two consoles and televisions linked together, or nothing.

Until now, the death of split-screen gaming in general didn’t bother me. Dragging a less-experienced player into shooters such as Timesplitters or Gears of War for a duel was never too much fun because of the difference in skill, and while quite a few games have turned their story modes into cooperative affairs, they’re better off played alone unless both players’ hearts are in it fully, willing to play to the end.

Though I haven’t played Saints Row 2 yet–and I’m still debating whether I will–the lack of split-screen multiplayer seems like a missed opportunity. Unlike a typical shooter, sandbox games encourage free play, and anyone who’s tried Grand Theft Auto knows that messing around is half the fun. Now, imagine what that would be like with two people, sitting together, chuckling at their virtual exploits.

I’m not ignorant to the process of game development, and I realize implementing split-screen multiplayer in Saints Row 2 would be difficult, if not impossible. You’re basically asking the console to process twice as much information. But it’s important for developers to realize that split-screen is still a desirable feature. Just as Xbox Live brings together gamers with the same skill and passion for the hobby, local multiplayer can bring together all kinds of people.

Yesterday evening, MTV Multiplayer posted an interview with Michael Booth, the lead designer of the upcoming Left 4 Dead. The game is nothing like Grand Theft Auto, but it requires cooperation between four players to escape a zombie apocalypse, and it sounds like it would be great fun with friends. It was comforting to hear Booth say his team worked through the technical issues because they felt split-screen was such a crucial feature.

“We knew it was going to be a huge technical effort to make happen,” Booth told reporter Patrick Klepek. “It took…[pause]…a while to get everyone on board … but at the end of the day, we decided to bite it off and I’m very happy that we did it.”

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Video Games: The Neverending Story

One of the more interesting-looking video games of this holiday season, the futuristic parkour drama Mirror’s Edge, will eventually become a trilogy, according to a report at Fragland.

While this is welcome news to anyone who will happily invest 20 hours or more into playing one video game, this is terrible for the rest of us–and yes, it’s a trend.

Earlier this week, Blizzard announced that the highly-anticipated Starcraft II will be split into three parts. Gears of War 2, which will hit stores next month, is the second of three or maybe more games. And remember how Halo 2 ended in a cliffhanger? Obviously that was to set up last year’s somewhat repetitive conclusion.

Sequelitis is nothing new for video games, but game developers weren’t so ambitious in the old days. Super Mario Bros. was its own self-contained entity. The fans craved more, and Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 were born. But how would you feel if, at the end of the first game, you were told that the Princess was still in another castle?

That’s what is happening today. When game developers commit to three games up front, they open the door for dangling plot lines or flawed gameplay. Casual players who can’t spend 60 hours on one particular kind of game will end up missing the complete experience.

There’s a drawback for hardcore gamers as well: we don’t know if MIrror’s Edge will actually be worth two more games until we get our hands on it, and a decent–but not great–game is better off standing alone. The slash-em-up game Too Human, released in August, was a planned trilogy, but with an average Metacritic score of 66, publishers might not want to pay for another serving, let alone two.

Fortunately, there seems to be some backlash. MTV reporter Tracey John polled some Starcraft fans about the trilogy news and got a mixed, but mostly negative response. One gamer, John from Salt Lake City, called the move “a little lame.” Others will speak with their wallets.

“I’ll buy the first one,” Bill from Seattle said, “and then I’m probably not going to buy the other two.”

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Gamer at Play Reportedly Spots Obama Ad

A gamer has posted images of a billboard advertising Barack Obama’s presidential campaign which he says he came across while cruising the streets in the racing game Burnout Paradise for Xbox 360:

The Obama campaign and publisher Electronic Arts haven’t responded to press inquiries, leading bloggers to speculate whether the ad is just crafty Photoshop work or a real attempt to reach youngsters. Either way, as GigaOM’s Wagner James Au writes, the news raises an interesting question: Are in-game political ads a good idea?

The obvious answer is “yes.” Au notes that the Xbox 360 occupies a third of American homes. Combine that with historically low voter turnout from young people, and this looks like another way to bring out the vote.

Or is it? Utility for the political candidate aside, it’s worth finding out whether these ads actually work. Obama has been hailed for leveraging new technology in his campaign—My.BarackObama, Facebook, an iPhone app—and this is another piece of the puzzle. Unlike those other methods, which can convey detailed information, this is literally billboard advertising, but in a new, virtual space. Given the tendencies of young people to avoid polling places on election day, the Democratic Party–and the Republicans, for that matter–would be wise to study the impact of Obama’s methods. Perhaps they should invest in some exit pollers. I can see the question now: “Does leveling up put you in the mood to vote?”

If in-game political ads prove successful, members of Congress could try it again during midterm elections, particularly if the technology exists for location-based advertising.

At the very least, the ads’ presence might raise the mulitplayer gaming discourse beyond potty humor and bigotry. Although it’s possible they could also make the conversation even worse.