Metawriting, Again

Metawriting, Again

Hey folks,

It’s 1am and I should have been in bed hours ago, but hey! That’s what coffee is for. The curse of being a writer is that words form, and you must get them out of your head before you can sleep. So I figure it’s better to write this down at a computer now, rather than mashing it into an iPhone with bloodshot eyes at 2.30am.

Let me tell you a story. I wrote a weekly column for Split Screen called ‘Reality Check’. It became pretty popular: we went from 200 hits a piece to around 30k for the best ones. Feeling confident from the success of Reality Check, I thought “this is a good thing, as good as articles on commercial sites, and I should be getting paid for it!” So I contacted Keza MacDonald at IGN – I’m not about to slag off IGN by the way, I think their UK branch does an excellent job – and she said that, although she really liked the column, she didn’t have a budget for it. That was fine. Totally understandable response.

But what if I’d then gone on to say “alright then, you can have the column for free!” My work might have been published on IGN. It would have been great exposure for me as a writer: undoubtedly, I would have got more readers from IGN than Split Screen. And if I’d then said after a few columns that I’d like to get paid for this work, would IGN’s freelancing budget have expanded? Of course not. In fact, it probably would have decreased, since they were able to run the site for less money because my free writing filled a content gap.

So I got some exposure for my work. Yet here’s the thing: editors commission work on the strength of your pitch and your writing, not where that writing has been circulated. Case in point: I got commissioned for the New Statesman because of a piece I wrote on my personal blog, with a readership of around twenty people. What’s the value of exposure? You can’t feed yourself or pay the bills with exposure. The implied value of exposure is that you’ll ultimately be paid for your writing. But if you’re already writing for free, when exactly do you think you’ll be paid? For an editor under budget pressures – that’s all of them, in case you weren’t sure – your free writing is just what they need, but it does nothing for you.

If you’re working for free, and someone is profiting from your work, you’re diminishing the value of your work and your contemporaries. You make it more difficult for everyone to get work. You’re hurting the industry in which you want to get a career. It’s a short sighted, foolish and selfish thing to do.

Should you write for free on your own blog? Absolutely. That’s how you build a portfolio.
If you want to be a writer or journalist, will you need to hold down another job while you build such a portfolio? Probably.
Is it OK to write for free for a hobbyist site, or a non-profit organisation? I don’t see why not.

Writing for the love of it is a beautiful thing. I write for Five out of Ten because I enjoy it, not for the financial compensation – I just need to write. Whether it’s good or bad, this stuff needs to be written down (just not necessarily published!) But if I don’t get paid for a New Statesman piece, that sends a message to its other staff writers and freelancers: “your writing is not worth money, anyone can do it for free”. That’s not only untrue, but it means they can’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they can’t afford to write, and if they don’t write, we don’t get to read the lovely things they produce. Professional work deserves financial compensation, whether you need it or not. That’s the only model that is truly fair to writers. 

We’re in the middle of a war, where great writing is measured in terms of hits and advertising revenue; where we expect journalism to be available for free, as if it is spontaneously generated rather than the product of considerable thought and experience. I don’t think that model is sustainable. It leads to a lot of big fish in a rapidly evaporating pond. If you agree with me, it’s time to start fighting.

Right, I’m off to bed.

P.S. The new Five out of Ten is on sale now. We’re not writing for free – we’re donating our commissions to charity!

Portable Magic

Portable Magic

portable-magic

A rabbit out of your pocket.

This week I was on holiday in Spain. Between starlight swimming and copious beer swilling, I brought my DS out of retirement to play Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. In Alicante airport waiting for my return flight, I was playing the Spirit Pipes (literally- you blow into the DS’s microphone) when four children appeared from behind my suitcase like curious elves. “What are you playing?” they asked, fascinated, giggling while I played a scale on the pipes and told them about the game. It was heartwarming.

Before I went on holiday, I had a rough idea for this edition of Reality Check. It was going to say “portable consoles have had their day, iPhones are just as good for gaming, I’ll not be buying a 3DS or a Vita, see you next week, grumble grumble sarcastic punchline”. It’s easy to think of portable consoles as another specialist device destined for inevitable failure like the digital camera or MP3 player, both of which have been assimilated into the mobile phone. Nowadays, I use my iPod for nostalgic reasons rather than utility. My phone hasn’t replaced my camera completely, but that’s because my camera is a Canon DSLR I’ve nicknamed ‘The Cyclops‘. Still, there’s a lot of appeal in having one device to rule them all.

Where does this leave the 3DS and Vita? Clearly, these offer something beyond the capabilities of a smartphone: the 3DS has migraine-inducing 3D and real buttons for ‘real’ games, while the Vita is a polygon-spewing omnisensory behemoth designed to give multiple eyegasms. My complaints about the Vita are about its consumer-hating overlords rather than its hardware, and I probably would have bought a 3DSXL before going on holiday if they were available in the UK. Yet we can emulate these experiences on smartphones with touch screens and horrible virtual buttons. We’re at the stage where Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is on the iPhone, but not the Vita or 3DS. Sonic 4 is rubbish, but that’s not the point.

The argument in favour of the handheld games console is similar to the photographer’s argument for the DSLR, or the audiophile’s defence of a dedicated music player: they just offer a better experience. Some people want a camera to take photos of their friends in a club, facial details obliterated by an overzealous flash. I want a camera to create art, as pretentious as that sounds: to convey the grandeur of Guadalest or highlight interesting architecture. Without proper depth of field on a smartphone I can’t draw your attention to an element of the scene as easily, while fast-moving animals become a smear across the phone’s sensor.

Sometimes I just want a pair of headphones that won’t fall out of my ears at the gym, but other times I want to hear every note in perfect balance or have the bass shake my cerebral cortex. Others couldn’t care less: they’re the ones who use those terrible earphones that come bundled with an iPod and pollute the airwaves with their tinny, leaking auditory effluence. I care a lot. Who’s right? Me? Yeah, probably.

Smartphone gaming is similar to handheld gaming, but it is not the same, and as long as people are able to differentiate between the two there will always be room for dedicated consoles. That’s the trick, though: the player needs to appreciate the difference. When it comes to touchscreen-centric gaming, iPhone and friends actually have an advantage over the 3DS’s ageing hardware: they feel more accurate, recognise more fingers and the screens are far brighter and sharper. Yet whenever you move away from Zoo Keeper and into something like Super Crate Box, the convenience of having your console in your pocket is replaced by the frustration caused by its utilitarianism.

Seriously, have you tried playing Super Crate Box for iOS? How can you stand it? As soon as I start enjoying the game, my comically-oversized thumbs move away from the dedicated ‘control zone’ on the screen and I die within seconds. There’s a very good reason why Team Meat chose not to directly port Super Meat Boy to the iPhone: it is immediately obvious that it would be bloody awful. It’s equally obvious that it would be brilliant on the Vita, ported as is.

Back to the Spain vacation: I ventured outside to play Spirit Tracks and I couldn’t see a thing. This isn’t an unusual phenomenon for an LCD display (I am currently writing this column in my garden, at the mercy of cloud cover) but it occurred to me that many people actually play handheld consoles indoors rather than on the move. That’s how I spend the majority of my time with the DS: I wouldn’t play it on a short bus trip into town or while my girlfriend is shoe shopping. That said, I wouldn’t game on a smartphone while shopping any more as I am single and it would be rather unproductive, not to mention frustrating for the shop staff.

Since the launch of the Game Boy Advance in 2001, portable consoles have ceased to be watered-down gaming experiences. We could play Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars and Castlevania on the GBA with just as much scope and nuance as a home console. Perhaps it’s my unashamed love of the 16-bit era, but I actually prefer playing Astro Boy: Omega Factor and A Link to the Past over most Xbox games. In this sense, the 3DS and Vita act as a second miniature TV, a concession that allows a dedicated gamer to relinquish possession of the TV to their bored spouse while continuing to play. Perhaps their real competition comes from the Wii U, which fulfils a similar role albeit in a more cumbersome fashion. This is why Sony have included PS3 Remote Play on the Vita, but what they should really be doing is selling one digital license for a PS3 and Vita game with saves synced across the cloud. If you think this is foolish or impossible, you need to think harder, or perhaps think about Sony’s purchase of Gaikai.

The best devices – of any kind – are enchanting. They compel people to stop and stare, whether they care about the medium or not. The Arthur C Clarke quote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, still rings true, but it’s not the hardware that’s magical: it’s the experiences the hardware can offer. It’s about software, but good dedicated hardware gets the most out of the software.

That’s the difference between smartphone gaming and dedicated devices: smartphones offer mere gaming on the go, but handheld consoles can offer portable magic.

 


The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

The Challenge

The Challenge

the-challenge

Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult.

This week, I’ve been playing Spelunky. It pisses me off. It pisses me off so much that I have to stop playing because I’m infuriated, it makes me want to throw my controller out the window. Every step is a struggle: it took me three hours to get through the first level.

I can’t stop playing it.

Gamers love a challenge. We’re obsessed with it. Just look at the names of the publications I’ve written for this year: ‘Medium Difficulty‘, ‘Nightmare Mode‘. We love to collect achievements, beat each other’s high scores, brag about how our Street Fighter victories are so severe that they cause real-life injuries to our opponents. That idea of not just winning, but usurping and outmatching, seems intrinsically linked to the gaming psyche. It has been around since scores existed: the score database Twin Galaxies and the brilliant King of Kong show how intense and fascinating these rivalries become. Difficult games are critically acclaimed: the ultra-punishing Dark Souls was one of the best-reviewed games of last year, Spelunky has received widespread praise and Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t know if I like playing Spelunky. I am compelled to play it in the same way I go to the gym- because it’s a goal to overcome. Yet I don’t like it when I’ve got two dumb bells suspended above my head. I like the satisfaction that comes after the training, but not the event itself. A lot of people don’t see the appeal of a gruelling gym session, just like many gamers don’t see the appeal of Dark Souls and its brutality. One of these enriches both body and mind, letting us experience things we never could have imagined… and the other is Dark Souls. I understand why people are dissuaded from playing tough games, and it’s not just a matter of taste. It’s about how we choose to spend our free time and how we derive enjoyment as individuals. Craig, for example, generally dials back the difficulty so he can enjoy the story- and also because he’s rubbish at games, of course.

I’ve never been a fan of competition. I don’t enjoy multiplayer games unless I’m in a team with my friends, and I never invest the time to improve my skills. I think it stems from my ineptitude in high school sports: every time someone’s taking Halo way too seriously, I find myself back on a rainy rugby pitch, staring at a ball sinking into the mud while the coach and my teammates yell at me. It’s just a fucking game, I would say to myself, because sports mattered much less to me than the video games I’d play alone at home.

The bravado on the pitch extended far beyond it: the sportsmen – Americans might call them ‘jocks’ – were often jerks, competing on everything from astounding feats of bullying prowess to the prestigious title of who could score lowest on a test. High school life was a zero sum game, where your progress up the social ladder was offset by someone less fortunate landing on a snake. I was at the bottom of the ladder: now I simply choose not to play that game, and it’s influenced how I approach online gaming as well.

Just as jocks bully geeks, the geeks in turn now bully the weak. Competitiveness and trash talking isn’t contained in the online arena: it manifests in our attitudes, the way we treat others. Instead of dividing ourselves into teams of Shirts vs Skins and Red vs Blue we get Men vs Women, Straights vs Gays, Us vs Them, distinctions no less artificial and pointless than the colour of your shirt. Anyone who doesn’t meet a level of gaming prowess is branded a loser and disregarded, in the same way the sports coaches disregarded me because I was perceived unfit- although I finished a half marathon last year, so fuck them and their lack of encouragement! I hate people who are unsporting or excessively competitive: campers, organised squads of hitmen and women in online shooters, cheaters sucking the fun out of it all. Most of all, I hate the hatred they create, the bullying and the intimidation.

I used to think that the goal in life was to fit in with other people: to be assimilated into the culture. Anyone can be a member of a crowd, but the real challenge is to stand out in that crowd. It’s much harder to speak out against wrongs than ignore them, much harder to bring people together than to divide them.

Are these arduous gaming goals we set for ourselves a way to make up for the other challenges we choose to ignore in life? We’d rather throw ourselves headfirst at the tedium of Max Payne 3‘s hardest difficulty than tackle a culture that advocates violence against women who try to discuss it. Better to face the caverns of Spelunky than the bowels of misogyny. We see the rugby ball spinning in the mud, and all around us are screaming team mates (the sides were chosen long ago). We don’t want to get our hands dirty until we realise that this match extends beyond the field; this is a game that will play out whether you’re playing or not.

Games are appealing challenges because they offer simple answers: button combinations and dialogue choices. They create the illusion of progress and personal development. Increasingly, I think that challenges with simple answers aren’t worth the sport.

 


The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every (other) week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

Back to Reality

Back to Reality

back-to-reality

Escape artist.

It would be a mistake to go to Hollywood and expect the Cannes Film Festival, yet that was my impression of E3 coverage this year: complaints about iteration and regurgitation, the awful press conferences from disconnected companies to their disillusioned fans. Maybe we expect too much from what is a corporate trade show: it’s not meant to be a fan convention, no matter how journalists treat it.

Yet the real problems weren’t the underwhelming announcements. They were the ultraviolence, the casual misogyny (and the not-so-casual), the shocking PR. The other week, Craig and I watched the trailer for The Last of Us. It started in the usual smoke and mirrors manner previously seen with Assassin’s Creed and Killzone, where the presenter spends more time sightseeing than playing the way a normal player plays. I watched a man’s face being crushed into a table and another’s head eviscerated with a shotgun. I don’t know what horrified me more: the graphic violence, or the bloodythirsty roars of the reporters watching it.

Misogyny, gratuitous violence… are these the issues games should get us talking about? The games I played as a child were all based on abstract, fantastical concepts: a blue hedgehog rolling inside a pinball machine, an opossum flying into space with a jetpack, geometric shapes aligning and exploding- just because. Despite the occasional real-world elements, beloved games like Outcast and Half-Life were rooted in fantasy and science fiction.

Perhaps it was a lack of technological horsepower preventing the fascimiles of reality that are now commonplace, but I don’t think that’s the case. Operation Flashpoint managed military simulation without the ethical dubiousness of Medal of Honor: Warfacemankiller; games that mimic sports and realistic motor racing have been around since the dawn of the medium. As games develop, it’s natural that they tackle mature issues: not the ‘maturity’ of awkward sex scenes and gruesome depictions of decapitation, but issues that actually matter.

As games are all about taking on the role of someone we can’t be, they are wonderful educational tools: Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia springs to mind, but there are many others. Games can change the world, and it’s right that they should try. Yet, I spend all day reading about these issues in books and newspapers. My news feeds are filled with so many super serious discussions about games that I almost miss why I started playing them in the first place: pure, selfish escapism.

Dys4iaWall-E creates emotion from the abstractThis is what Tomb Raider should be about.

Games with abstract concepts can be as true for us as games which reflect reality: the worlds created by Pixar in Up and Wall-E reflect humanity rather than reality. It’s not true to say that games need to be grittier, more violent and realistic to tell us about the world and our place in it. Quite the opposite, in fact: games can cut through the cruft, the Hollywood imitation and get to the point. Journey wouldn’t be better set in New York; Child of Eden draws on real-world concepts but creates beauty from the abstract. These games don’t need bludgeon or sicken us to make a point about life.

In Brechtian theatre, a core concept is Verfremdungseffekt: the audience is distanced from the characters, reminded they are watching a play to better understand the social commentary presented. Games like the aforementioned Dys4ia can achieve the same effect by subverting our expectations of a game’s rules, but I also enjoy that games can distance us from the world and let us experience pure entertainment. When the real world bleeds into the game world, that escapism is no longer possible. If I think about how the developers have depicted Lara Croft, I can’t concentrate on her shooting a Tyrannosaurus. Can’t we just give her an average-sized pair of breasts, lock her in a room with a sliding block puzzle and a giant squid, and have some fun?

It seems that publishers would have me trade Halo’s aliens for generic Russians as the enemy of choice, filling them with licensed bullets rather than purple needles. We can’t be on a spaceship: we have to be in Iran, as if that’s meant to serve a purpose besides jingoism. There is a place for both the real and the unreal, the serious and the silly. The only company that truly understands this dichotomy is Nintendo, and yet their games are often derided for being childish. The older I get, the more I am drawn to these games. They remind me of my childhood. Maybe we all need to be reminded of it: there’s a clarity of thought that comes from being in that mental state.

If you want to play realistic games, great. If you want simulated wind to affect the traversal of an imaginary bullet, that’s fantastic- but it’s not for me. I demand the right to fantasy: to ride a dragon through the stomach of an even bigger dragon, to dart through an avalanche on a snowboard while blue light streaks off the tail from an unknown source. I don’t care about the source: I care about the ride.

As much as we think we want ‘real food’ – games dealing with difficult social issues, making us think – let’s not forget that sometimes we need to get away from all that shit as well. I don’t want a game to remind me that I’m single, physically weak and have unrealistic life aspirations. I never stop thinking about those things, and sometimes I’d rather just block them out by blasting space aliens for a few hours.

I want games to educate me about life, without immersing me in its horrors.

 


The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

Shameless Self Promotion

Shameless Self Promotion

Shameless Self Promotion

Vote for us! Or don’t vote for us!

How do you support the publications you love? It’s not simple to answer now so much content is available for free. Many sites rely on ad revenue, while others offer subscriptions. Some, like Split Screen, receive no financial support no matter how many visits we get. We’re powered by good feelings. We feed on your love.

As previously gloated, we’ve gone from strength to strength over the past year: more and better articles, our (almost) weekly column Reality Check, new podcasts and new video features like Retrocity. Although it’s hard to believe it’s June already, we’ve still got exciting developments in store that will simultaneously blow your mind and paradoxically impart a quiet sense of contentment.

Right, now that’s out of the way: the Games Media Awards are now accepting nominations. We’re not crass enough to beg for your votes, but we can still heavily insinuate it. If I were a person that liked Split Screen, some of things I might nominate us for would be:

  • Best Games Blog
  • Games Radio and Podcast
  • Games Video (your choice of video!)

And anything else you think is relevant. Probably not Top Tweeter though, we’re rubbish at that. You’ve got until July 20th to decide!

Love,

Alan and Craig

Reality Check Super Collector’s Article of the Year Edition

Reality Check Super Collector’s Article of the Year Edition

Reality Check Super Collectors Article of the Year

With additional bonus content!

Everything has a special edition these days, so we thought we would get with the times. This is Reality Check: Super Collector’s Article of the Year Edition! We’ve packed a huge amount of bonus content into this feature to continue the Reality Check experience long after you’ve finished reading. Listen to the soundtrack, treat your computer to a makeover with some wallpaper and watch the exclusive ‘Behind the Screens’ video. Thanks for pre-ordering this article… wait. You did pre-order it, right?

A game is no longer special enough without releasing a special edition as well. The Crysis 3 announcement was accompanied by the ‘Hunter Edition’. You mean to tell me that at no point in the development process did someone say: “maybe this content would, you know, be better in everyone’s game?” Special editions aren’t about specialty. They are mere upselling: a con artist selling you extra rubbish you don’t actually need, like a phone ‘screen protector’ that micro-bubbles your screen and makes it more suspectible to scratches. Once, someone tried to sell me DS insurance: I think I will die before my DS does.

By the time you’ve read your Collectors Edition strategy guide (printed on real Egyptian papyrus, embossed cover hand-whittled from mahogany), changed into your pre-order t-shirt and played the iOS tie-in app, you might even have time to play the game as well. All those bonus costumes and avatar items melt away into the digital void: you won’t even remember that you purchased them, and you’ll never lament their absence if they were never there in the first place.

I tried to find where this trend started, but all I could find was an ambiguous list on Wikipedia. There’s nothing wrong with producing a game that’s especially collectable: the first production of The Legend of Zelda came on a gold cartridge, and I own a 10th Anniversary Collectors Edition of Sonic Adventure 2. It used to be the case that you could pre-order a special edition of the game which cost the same as the standard version, like my copy of Doom 3 that has the original Doom included. If you can get a bonus soundtrack or behind the scenes DVD for the same price as the standard game, then go for it.

Yet when everything is ‘special’, nothing is. These special editions are much more expensive than the standard games and offer content that should have been in the game, or plastic rubbish no self-respecting adult would keep on a shelf (and I’ve got a Knuckles the Echidna action figure on mine) and no child’s parents can afford. You can buy Halo 3 Legendary Edition, which comes with a giant Master Chief bust that you can’t wear as a real helmet. Why fill it with discs and art books when you could be filling it with your own head? Or why not splash out on Modern Warfare 2: I Don’t Believe It Actually Comes With Night Vision Goggles Please Tell Me You’re Joking Edition.

Halo 3 Legendary Edition Modern Warfare 2: I Don't Believe It Actually Comes With Night Vision Goggles Please Tell Me You're Joking Edition 10/10 GAME OF THE YEAR featuring Batman.

My brother buys all this collectors crap: he doesn’t even put it on display, it just litters the upper floor of the house. I know he reads Split Screen, so Paul: stop buying all this junk! Play that copy of Dark Souls I bought you for your birthday instead of reading inconsequential lore or playing with a fake doll from a fake world! I’m worried that after this week’s column is published, I’ll be found dead with an Arkham Asylum Limited Collectors Batarang lodged in my chest.

No discussion of insidious gaming marketing would be complete with mentioning ‘Game of the Year’ re-releases. Game of the Year editions are actually quite good: they’re a great way of bundling downloadable content that would otherwise cost extra. I never got around to playing Red Dead Redemption, but when I do that GotY edition is going to be a sensible purchase.

Yet I object to the use of the term ‘Game of the Year’ for games that are definitely not the best of the year. What’s wrong with ‘Director’s Cut’, ‘Ultimate Edition’ or ‘Platinum’? Looking back at 2011, unless you’re Portal 2, Skyrim or Skyward Sword, you probably weren’t the best game of the year- and that’s OK! Most books I read are not the best book of all time and most albums won’t receive a hallowed five stars in my iTunes library, but I still love them.

Publishers are playing the role of an overachieving parent, making up awards for their children, then demanding we all acknowledge these imaginary accolades. It’s as crass as buying your mum a “Best Mum in the World” card for Mother’s Day when you know that some mothers have died for their children. I’m sure your Mum makes fantastic pancakes, but you need to have some perspective. Whenever a publisher can release Dead Island: Game of the Year Edition with a straight face, you know something is rotten besides the zombies. Are your relatives really going to be fooled when Christmas shopping if every single game claims to be the Game of the Year? Not everyone is getting it wrong: CDProjekt should be commended for The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition, which not only contains tangible enhancements, but was extended to everyone who had previously bought the game for free.

Publishers need to realise that selling a game is about more than shifting product from a warehouse: they should build a relationship with the player, patch any bugs in their games’ code, and treat the player with respect that’s often lacking. Well-respected developers like Valve, Mojang and CDProjekt give back to their fans, and they are rewarded with repeat business. Larger publishers like Activision, EA and Microsoft increasingly treat their customers with contempt. There are even rumours Microsoft are going to create a third tier of Xbox Live, a second gluttonous layer of icing on the money cake.

It’s just not good enough to call everything ‘special’, dividing pre-order bonuses across multiple retailers, releasing ‘Game of the Year’ editions for mediocre titles and expecting us to swallow it. You know what’s really special? Playing a great game. Those are worth collecting.

 


 

Super Collector’s Article of the Year Edition Bonus Content

Download your exclusive signed copy of Reality Check by Reality Check creator Alan Williamson

Download the Reality Check Desktop Wallpaper Pack and send in a screenshot of your desktop for the chance to show off your desktop to the world!

Download the official collector’s edition soundtrack here (4.5mb) or subscribe to our podcast feed in iTunes!

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Alt Fire on YouTube: http://youtu.be/HmjsVdejW08

 


The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

Killers

Killers

High Scores, Low Points

Indie Jones and the Latest Crusade.

The games industry is obsessed with death: not just the satisfying pop when an alien’s head explodes like a burst watermelon, but games killing other games as well. Writers used to describe every new shooter as a ‘Halo killer’, forgetting that murdering the emotional attachment between player and game is easier said than done. This didn’t stop Sony from bragging about how Killzone would take Halo… well, into the kill zone.

Publishers talk trash to keep the game hype machine rolling from the moment of inception to the Christmas retail showdown. Game rivalries become established, yet they are far from the zero sum death matches their promoters portray. What would it look like if games actually fought each other? Battlefield taking a set of keys to the back of Call of Duty‘s disc, their boxes flapping violently against each other. An Xbox stealthy wrapping a PS3 in a blanket while it’s playing a Blu-Ray and pouring custard into its vents.

This endless competition, this ‘1up-manship’, is futile. Not every game can be a commercial success, but last year showed there was room for both Battlefield and Call of Duty. Like David Mitchell’s brilliant parody of British TV football coverage, these struggles are monumentally anticlimactic. Call of Duty and FIFA are so popular that they exist beyond the gladiatorial arena. Playing Call of Duty is more like watching a soap opera or televised football: it becomes a small part of a regular routine, while Batman: Arkham City is a more concentrated investment over a relatively shorter time. People don’t watch other TV shows instead of Eastenders: they watch them in addition to Eastenders.

In promoting your product in direct opposition to these behemoths, you are dooming yourself to failure. By lining up Call of Duty in your sights, you can’t help but look second best. We get tragedies like Free Radical’s Haze, where the rubbish quality of the final product is farcical when compounded with the hype . It lifts our expectations to unrealistic levels. Good games speak for themselves: they don’t need spokespeople proclaiming their superiority. The original Modern Warfare didn’t overtake Halo 3 in popularity through sheer bravado; it simply delivered the goods.

Indie games have largely sidestepped the PR fracas, with Minecraft and Fez gaining popularity through word of mouth rather than advertising. Humble Bundles have snowballed in popularity, so it’s only natural that big publishers would get in on the action too: EA released an ‘indie’ bundle this week, which reaches “Jeremy Irons drinking Irn-Bru while dressed as Iron Man” on my Scale of Irony.

It didn’t take long for Mojang’s Markus Persson, aka Notch, to decry EA’s marketing and complain that they were ‘killing the games industry’. Notch complaining about something isn’t exactly newsworthy: he just seems to get away with it more than other people. How exactly are EA killing the games industry by promoting it? The games in their bundle are published by EA without dictatorial control. Surely that’s a good thing?

A typical reaction to playing HazeMinecraft- an atypical indie hitDo players treat FIFA more like a soap opera than an event?

How can EA kill a company like Mojang, a powerful example of how development studios can succeed outside the traditional retail model? Although I’m not a fan of EA’s insistence on insidious downloadable content and online passes, we are not forced to buy their games. Despite the pointless “me too”-ness of Origin, I wouldn’t want to be in a world where Steam was the only online retailer. Ultimately, you have to vote with your wallet: I buy what I’m interested in, and that includes EA games like Mirror’s Edge, but not Battlefield 3: Grey Guns and Brown Buildings or The Sims 3: Windowsills and Mullions Pack.

Indie developers are like Anonymous: they are indefatigable (or should that be ’indiefatigable’?). You can’t stop something that can publish anywhere and is self-funded. Unlike big publishers, indies are fast and nimble. They can create games on a shoestring budget and survive on smaller sales. They can be funded on Kickstarter or a lone coder can create a game in their spare time. This isn’t a David vs Goliath battle: it’s more like a Ferrari vs a steamroller.

When companies like Maxis and BioWare are swallowed up by EA, game fans complain like they are bands ‘selling out’. If EA are Universal Music, then EA Partners are Def Jam and Mojang a defiant Epitaph. All of these companies want to make money and success is often a corrupting factor: it’s not that long since EA were the rebellious upstarts circumventing Sega’s licensing and reverse-engineering the Mega Drive. An altrustic ideology will only get you so far: look at Google. I hope Mojang don’t end up the same way.

If anything, it is the blockbuster ‘AAA’ model that will die as development costs continue to increase inexorably, replaced by indie developers and even individual programmers. The message of Anna Anthropy’s book ‘Rise of the Videogame Zinesters‘ is that bedroom programming and game development, especially of individually expressive ‘art games’, is destined to increase. Anyone can make a game, and everyone who can should. (I haven’t read the book as there seems to be no legitimate way to obtain a digital copy in the UK, so read this review. Gift copies gladly accepted.)

There is a presumption that you can learn to program, but no more so than the presumption that a writer can type words into a text editor. I don’t agree entirely with Anthropy: game making, like writing or any other talent, is not something everyone can do or something they should do. I can’t paint or sing: these are things I should be barred from practising. It’s a public safety issue, really. Perhaps the take home message from Anthropy’s book should be ”discover your niche and express yourself”, unless that expression is a genre of music I don’t like, of course.

The mainstream media have, as is now inevitable whenever an act of violence occurs, drawn a correlation between Anders Behring Breivik and gaming because he has played Call of Duty. Given the popularity of that game, this is about as meaningful as making a connection with him breathing oxygen. Yet maybe it’s no wonder the media associate video games with killing when we’re obsessed with killing each other, both in the game and out of it.

When publishers use the language of combat so openly to describe a mere sales contest, it inevitably bleeds into a wider context. Maybe this time might be better spent on actually making the games, rather than boasting about their retail slaying prowess. Like a skilled Civilization player, it’s possible to win through construction and development as well as outright conquest. Some people just like to start a war.

 


The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

High Scores, Low Points

High Scores, Low Points

High Scores, Low Points

Redefining reality.

It’s 9.20pm on a Saturday night, and I have writer’s block. I am blinded by an off-white abyss; my perfunctory bullet points provide an meagre base from which to construct a column. Well, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. See you next week.

It’s much easier to destroy than to create, to deride instead of improve. People often confuse ‘criticism’ with negativity, but it’s not about that at all. Writing critically is about striking a balance between positive and negative: not necessarily objectively, but you probably shouldn’t review a game if it murdered your parents. A little scepticism is healthy for the mind, but cynicism can be toxic in large doses.

Lately, I feel many writers- myself included- have struggled to maintain this balance. The Sixth Axis came up with a games journalism headline generator, which sounds like a good joke at first. It’s a dig at the churnalism I’ve criticised in the past. Yet when you look at the news posted on The Sixth Axis, the situation is even worse than the pot calling the kettle black: the pot is pointing at the kettle and shouting “you’re filthy!”, while refusing to wash itself. People in glass houses shouldn’t tell jokes.

Press news journalism involves reporting and investigation (unless you write for the Daily Mail, when it’s mostly creative writing). Games news journalism involves reading things other people have written and rewriting them. Games journalists have a different term for investigative reporting: these pieces are called “features” and are interesting things people like myself actually want to read. The best games publications like Edge, Eurogamer, Kill Screen (and the chrysalid Polygon), plus blogs like Nightmare Mode, have a decent mixture of ‘news’ and original features. Many do not.

Recently, I’ve started using a brilliant iPad cookery app called Basil. Creator Kyle Baxter explains he couldn’t find a suitable app to catalogue his recipes, so he made his own. What a great reason to create something! When I was sixteen, I wrote a walkthrough for Ecco the Dolphin because such a guide didn’t exist. It was scarily comprehensive and badly written, but revising it now would be like rearranging a loved one’s face to suit a fashion trend. Anyway, I digress: I assumed this walkthrough would be the only Ecco guide anyone would need, but it didn’t stop people from writing alternatives.

There’s not much worth in remapping explored oceans: there are many games of which, to paraphrase Ecco, “no songs have ever been sung”. Part of the inspiration behind Retrocity was to tell stories about obscure gamers than even gamers hadn’t heard of: after all, who wants to watch me playing all the way through Sonic the Hedgehog? After many years of extensive research, it seems the answer is “no one”.

The problem with games journalism is not just that sites are just cogs in the machine, but that I know there are many talented people with great original stories to tell. Instead of recycling news, they should be blogging experiences. They should be thinking and feeling, not stifled by self-imposed conventions like the need to upload a reworded press release to a content management system because their site ‘does news’. I’m not talking about professional sites here, although some are guilty: I’m reaching out to everyone scraping together ad revenue from yet another games website. I implore you: find a niche and start mining.

I haven’t yet touched on the other issue floating in my mind: there are definitely more aspiring games journalists than there are paid jobs. That’s a sad reality of any job market, but perhaps a drive for original pieces will get better writers the jobs they deserve and the worse writers a wake-up call that they should just move to Oxford and get a job in IT. That hasn’t happened to anyone I know, of course.

One self-imposed convention that needs excised is the review score. Reviewers agonise over the arbitrary integer they assign at the end of the review, giving it this ridiculous gravitas. Freelance writer Dan Griliopoulos asked the Internet: “What games did you give maximum marks to, and why?”. My answer is on page two. This is an interesting question in itself, but perhaps he should have asked, “Why do we care so much about scoring games”? It can’t all be about getting your site on Metacritic. It’s bad enough when people are writing boilerplate text to justify an x/10, but worse when they feel the need to pigeonhole writing into sections like ‘graphics’ and ‘gameplay’ as if technical prowess directly translates to entertainment. As someone who has just finished Battlefield 3′s dull campaign, I assure you this is not the case.

You may have noticed this already, but review scores on Split Screen are gone. They undermine the writing we work hard to produce and they just don’t make sense, given the way we approach games. We review experiences, not washing machines. I had a conversation with someone the other day who thought Bayonetta deserved an 8/10 rather than a 10/10 (they’re wrong). This is the problem with the scoring system: you start arguing about numbers, rather than discussing something that actually matters. I’ll bet that if they read my review, we’d find a lot more common ground. Scores corral games into buckets of good and bad, but they’re not even good at that. Dead Island just had a Game of the Year edition announced, which flies in the face of objective reality.

I christened this column Reality Check because it intends to cut through the hyperbole and furore surrounding gaming, coming from a different angle to a unique conclusion. This week, you could say I had a reality check myself. I realised that I was drifting towards the bad side of the balance I mentioned earlier, that the scepticism was becoming poisonous. To my mind, gaming is first and foremost about fun: while examining games critically doesn’t make them any less fun, looking at the industry with a cynical eye certainly does, at least on a personal level. So while of course Reality Check will continue, in future I’ll aim for a more positive form of iconoclasm that’s about constructing better realities rather than demolishing the existing ones. You’re going to like it.

Or as someone said to me this week, if you’re cynical, “you’re always going to be one of the cranky old men in the balcony and never one of the Muppets having all the fun on stage.”



The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

The Value Of Nothing

The Value Of Nothing

The Value of Nothing

In for a penny.

Money makes the gaming world go round. Pre-owned prices, Kickstarters and Steam sales: I miss the days when Santa Claus brought all my games for free. He never complained about the price, but my Dad often grumbled on his behalf.

Many games can now be played for free: not just by copying your friends’ discs or getting your Xbox chipped, but because of funding from advertising. ‘Freemium’ games have also become popular, where the game is free but you can pay for extra features. Although it’s a relatively new concept for gaming, anti-virus companies AVG and Avast have used this model for years, and Dropbox operates on the same principle. There are many freemium success stories: World of Tanks has attracted over twenty million players since launch and continues to expand.

Freemium and ad-supported games reduce the entry barrier to zero; even your grandparents can have a go without investment. Yet, there’s a different cost here: as they become more popular, where’s the incentive to buy full-priced apps or retail games? Just like supermarkets have lowered our expectations of the cost of food to unrealistic levels, ‘loss leaders’ enticing shoppers at the expense of farmers and manufacturers, free games generate an unrealistic idea of their underlying costs. Free games aren’t made for free. Developers need to be paid for their time: even with free and open-source software, such as the Linux kernel, 75% of developers are salaried. Working for nothing is the exception rather than the rule, unless you’re writing about video games, of course.

Take the hit game Draw Something. You can download a free version with ads that display between rounds. In my experience, the only thing worse than my infantile scrawlings were the terrible videos popping into view after I’d sent them: after a few games, I bought the full version of the app. 70p for an ad-free game, and they even threw in some different coloured pens. That’s cheaper than a packet of felt tips!

Draw Something developer OMGPOP were purchased by Zynga, chief orchestrator of the social gaming apocalypse and shameful cloning outfit. OMGPOP CEO, Dan Porter, then made a massive fool of himself by drunkenly deriding an ex-colleague. All around me, the indignation was tweeted: “I’ll never play that game again; they won’t get my ad money!” But I had paid my money and made my choice.

Paying money and making a choice: that’s what separates the casual from the collector, the invested from the disinterested. Paying customers can complain about bugs in their game or Xbox Live downtime. If you’re getting a free ride, you have no grounds for complaint if Twitter deletes your messages or Zynga sends a plague of locusts upon your virtual farm. “You get what you pay for”, as the vapid old adage goes.

Without expectations, you get poor quality products. Ad-supported apps can often be terrible, but it feels wrong to complain over something that’s ‘free’. Yet no money spent doesn’t mean no cost: as the Verge report, ad-supported apps use your phone’s data connection to download more adverts while you use them. You’re paying with battery life instead of money.

Draw Something- a freemium successIs Dear Esther good value for money?Are we heading for a world without The Witcher?

If we can’t demand more from our software- bug fixes, feature enhancements and even rewritten endings- then we are doomed to inferior quality. It’s the iOS vs. Android argument again: iOS users pay more for their hardware and purchase (i.e. pay to download) more apps than Android users, leading to better quality apps and higher expectations. When iOS 6 is released, my iPhone 4S will definitely be compatible, but Android users can’t say the same of ‘Jellybean’. I’d be surprised if my three year old iPhone 3GS didn’t make the cut, either. When ever Apple make a mistake, people get annoyed and complain vociferously- paying a premium for a product creates an expectation.

One of the wonderful things about the current state of gaming is indie development. Fez was released yesterday for just 800 Microsoft Magic Beans; Dear Esther was originally a mod that became a commercial release through Steam. I played through Dear Esther in around two hours, which is slightly better value than a trip to the cinema in hours-per-pound. Yet, I feel… dirty thinking about it in those terms. Isn’t it ultimately self-defeating to try and pin a commercial value on an experience like Dear Esther? Shouldn’t we be looking at the quality first, regardless of price? Would you describe a music album as better value because you listened to it more than another one?

Despite this absurdity, we do it all the time- particularly with games. How many times have you read things like “I’ll buy it when the price is reduced” or “I’ll buy the Game of the Year edition with extra content” in review comments? Skyrim is better ‘value’ than Rez because one can be played through in an hour, the other closer to one hundred. Clearly, these experiences are not comparable: yet I paid the same amount for Rez on Dreamcast as Skyrim on 360. To me, Rez is worth much more than that.

Money doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Entertainment matters. Experiences matter. Advertising compromises that experience, draining our phone batteries and our enthusiasm, betraying our personal details, breaking the flow of everything from movies on television to albums on Spotify. In fact, advertising compromises the value of human culture, but that’s somewhat beyond the scope of a gaming opinion piece. Why do you think we removed adverts from Split Screen? They made the site uglier, slower to load and didn’t generate any revenue. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

Worse for games, freemium-ism disturbs the notion of egalitarianism that I find so appealing about the medium. I hate that you can buy a bigger gun that others ‘worked’ to attain, or when fun is locked out by a series of paywalls and promotions. I don’t want to think about a future where The Witcher doesn’t exist because the developers are unable to sell it for a reasonable price, because the value of software has been undermined. Quality software is worth its weight in gold.

Gamers know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It’s time we learned the difference.



The best of gaming opinion, editorial and iconoclasm every week on Split Screen: it’s Reality Check.

The Collector

The Collector

The Collector

Owned?

Used games: they’re great because they’re cheap. They’re bad because they’re killing the industry. They are awesome, deplorable, good and evil. Used games are certainly something, but we’re not sure what that something is yet. They are definitely tangible objects, but beyond that commentators and pundits have reached an impasse. My question is: why on Earth would anyone want to sell their games?

Since Christmas 1992, when I started with four games including my personal favourite, my game collection has inexorably built up. I have at least four hundred now. That’s not the biggest collection in the world, but it’s probably enough. As Trent Reznor said about being a collector, “things… they tend to accumulate.” One minute you’re deciding on the one game you can have for Christmas, the next you’re bidding stupid amounts of money on eBay for a copy of Burning Rangers and picking up Jedi Knight at a car boot sale.

I’ve only ever traded two games: I swapped Colin McRae Rally 3 for Colin McRae Rally 04, and I got rid of Blinx: The Time Sweeper because it was absolute crap. There are still plenty of clunkers in my collection, but most of them have sentimental value attached. To me, that sentiment is worth more than the financial incentive for trading them.

I don’t collect for the sake of hoarding. I don’t care much about the condition of the games, because their cellophane seals were made to be broken; I’m a collector of experiences, not plastics. Old games are more than just code on a cartridge: they’re like old friends. Emulation isn’t enough, because it’s just not the same quality as the original console. Sound samples are lost in the action, graphics are stretched to unnatural resolutions.

I'd forgotten I owned some of these!So many great titles...

Most of my old games now live in my Dad’s attic, but eventually I’d like to build a little library for them. Maybe one day my children will play them and we’ll have loads of retro fun; maybe they’ll laugh at my primitive childhood entertainment and return to their holovisors. Maybe I’ll die alone, shrivelled and emaciated, in a pile of old computer games. Yet I hate the idea of losing those games, and I feel kind of sorry for people who sell their old ones. You’re not playing them right if you’re not making that kind of connection. If that sounds narrow-minded and judgemental, that’s because it is.

That intimate connection is being eroded by trends like digital downloads. Steam presents a list of the games you “own”: mere rows of text, not real things with sights, smells and textures. They become a list of boxes to tick off as you finish them, gaming chores that must eventually be ‘done’. As we move from ‘AAA’ gaming and longer titles towards episodic games and bite-sized apps, games lose some of their emotional draw. It’s tough to be immersed and engrossed in something you’re playing on the toilet (Pokémon excepted) or where you can see everything in a single sitting. As much as I enjoy modern games, I feel little desire to play them more than once, which is the opposite of how things used to be.

Pre-owned games are great. I tend to buy new games where possible, and only buy pre-owned games where there’s either a substantial price difference or the game is no longer available. I’ll deliberately go out of my way to get something like El Shaddai on the day of release. My modus operandi is to get as many people into games as possible. As long as you pay for the games, I don’t care from where you purchase them.

For the collector, games are personal property to be resold as we see fit. The ‘End User Licensing Agreement’ is an unenforcable pile of legalese, only relevant because games are switching to always-on Internet services. There is a big push from publishers towards subscription based services: Rick Lane, everyone’s favourite one-time Split Screen collaborator, has written a great article for IGN which nicely summarises the issue.

P.S. I like Sega gamesSteam's version of a collection

There are big problems with digital distribution: you can’t lend games to friends, you can never give them away or sell them, many games require an active network connection, and your continued access to them is dependent on the continued existence of the merchant. Craig told me that when he went on a trip to Scotland and was sans Internet, only one of his seven (installed) Steam games was playable offline. That’s rubbish: it’s not convenient for consumers at all, regardless of how nice central friends lists and occasional cut-price sales are. One third of UK households have broadband speeds of less than five megabit, making large downloads painful, and what about soldiers living overseas or frequent travellers? Do you want to download Mass Effect 3 with a 3G dongle?

Digital marketplaces aren’t a great place for browsing, either. I remember skiving off school to buy Panzer Dragoon Orta and picking up Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance as well, then immediately swapping MGS2 for a copy of Shenmue II I’d spotted on the shelf. Digital distribution doesn’t let you change your mind, whether it’s thirty seconds or thirty years after your purchase.

Some of us have welcomed our new online overlords. In a world without used games, publishers might well lower the price of new games, claims Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. However publishers’ aims are to maximise revenue, not to act as benevolent distributors. Call of Duty Elite and online season passes are subscription cash cows, not programmes in place for our benefit. To say that publishers will somehow lower the price of new games as a result of digital distribution is naive at best and demonstrably false at worst: it’s more expensive to store digitally purchased games on a Vita memory card than to buy the physical cartridges.

For me, games fit into the same category as books: I like the physicality of the product, the material history that builds through interaction as well as the mental engagement. Manuals with passwords scribbled in them, blowing into the cartridges, dog-eared boxes from well-loved games and books, my rain-soaked copy of The Stand. There’s nothing technically different or wrong with e-books and digitally downloaded games; I just like owning physical copies that take up space on my shelves. Conversely I now buy most of my music digitally, because it’s a different kind of experience. CDs get ripped once and then disappear into a cupboard somewhere: there is no emotional connection with the physical media.

If the new Xbox and Playstation don’t support both optical media and pre-owned games, then count me out. I’m just not interested. There is no factually supported argument here, no further reading subtly embedded in hyperlinks. I like games in boxes and the memories they evoke, and I want to keep adding to the collection.



Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.

Split Ends

Split Ends

Split EndsSpoiler warning: in order to talk about endings, I’m going to talk about endings. (Skip to the jokes)

Do the means justify the ends?

Writing an ending is difficult. There’s a reason why your high school English teacher scribbled “NO! See me after class” when your creative writing essay finished with ”And I woke up and it was all a dream”. I know you thought it was really clever. I did too. You should never have asked for my advice. We were so young and naïve.

If the endings to your own fictions were bad, game endings were even worse: sometimes, you were just shown a black screen with the word “CONGLATURATION“, followed by a long credit roll. In other titles, if you hadn’t collected enough magical MacGuffins or didn’t play on Ultra Nightmare Hard difficulty, you wouldn’t get to see the ‘true ending’. The problem was that in arcade games, death was the only end to your story. Programmers are not writers, and it took a while for game developers to understand that stories needed proper care and attention.

Warren Spector’s Deus Ex was partially named after the dramatic plot device, hinting at his frustration with the terrible storylines that typified games of the time. It was the first game which allowed player agency to really impact the story through play: even if this amounted to mere alternate endings, it was an honest attempt at breaking the linearity of game narrative.

More than ten years have passed since Deus Ex. What has changed? Judging by the reception to the ending of Mass Effect 3, a hell of a lot. Stories matter more than they ever did: they can even raise thousands of pounds for charity, if players are sufficiently enraged by their lack of closure. I finished Mass Effect 3 last week and was pretty shocked by the ending, which certainly didn’t live up to my expectations. But considering how great the rest of the game was, it got me thinking: how much do endings matter, really?

Consider the Gears of War trilogy. The first game’s story provides the thinnest of excuses to kill lots of aliens: if the characters were unable to speak, it would be hard to differentiate the plot from an underground-themed twist on Space Invaders. In the second game, there was an attempt to flesh out the characters by embellishing their relationships, but it clashes with the universe established in the first game. I am fine with these people being meatheads. It’s alright for them to beat their chests and roar like a gorilla to mourn a friend’s passing; I wasn’t expecting them to quote W.H. Auden.

Yet Gears of War 3 is different. There is an sense of desperation throughout; a sobriety that doesn’t detract from the gung-ho monster hunting, but adds meaning to your actions. There are poignant (I never thought I’d use that word to describe Gears) flashbacks to memories before the war. Friends are lost, the war is won, but the end of the game simply shows Marcus Fenix looking out at an ambiguous future. Your victory of the Locust Horde is shown to be a somewhat hollow one, because everything you fought to defend is either flooded or incinerated. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a satisfying one.

Gears of War 3 isn't clever, but it is satisfying Deus Ex was a pioneer in multiple endings You're only alive because I chose not to kill you, Malak

Game stories don’t always need satisfying endings. Confession time: I have never completed Knights of the Old Republic. I’ve played the entire game, right up to the final boss. The first time I fought Darth Malak, I died, and had no desire to continue. This wasn’t because it was too challenging, or because I wasn’t having fun: I just knew how it was going to end. Kill the bad guy, save the galaxy, roll the credits. Yay Star Wars!

KOTOR plays its hand too early. Its story culminates at the halfway mark in a shocking revelation, and it’s hard to keep the player’s attention after that. From that point, you know exactly how this is going to end: with a Sith Lord impaled on the end of your lightsaber and John Williams’ theme booming from your speakers.

Bioshock is another game with a great story that peaks in the middle. By the time you’ve learned the true identity of ‘Atlas’ and confronted Andrew Ryan, it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen next. You expect more from Bioshock than a big bad at the end (personally, I was hoping to murder Ayn Rand), but neither a mutant freak nor a cheesy ending detracts from the overall story.

Still, better a predictably good ending than none at all. Halo 2 is one of the worst offenders, whose ending is Master Chief saying “IN THE NEXT GAME WE WILL FINISH THE FIGHT”. That’s why it is the least memorable game in the series: the first Halo ended with you detonating a spaceship’s nuclear reactor and escaping its exploding carcass in a jeep, by comparison. Fahrenheit (or, as it’s more boringly known in the USA, Indigo Prophecy) leaves out large chunks of the middle of the plot. One minute you’re hiding a corpse in a toilet, the next a Mayan sorceror is throwing fireballs at you. A good story could possibly connect these events, but no story can’t.

Game narratives are necessarily different to others: Dear Esther would make a pretty dull film, while Mass Effect just wouldn’t be the same without player involvement. The problem with games is that in order to derive satisfaction from most of them, the player has to be capable of winning. Since death normally causes you to reload a previous saved game, it feels like a cop out for your character to die at the end of the game due to “natural causes”. That’s why there are so many happy endings in games, which brings us back to Mass Effect 3.

The gamers who have expressed disappointment with how BioWare’s space opera ended are justified in feeling that way. To end one hundred hours of game with your choice of three coloured explosions doesn’t just undermine the central theme of player agency that is so important to the series: it actually makes our memories of the previous games worse. It reveals the man behind the curtain, sending out a message that your actions were ultimately for nothing. The problem with Mass Effect 3‘s ending is not that it’s an unhappy one, but that it is an unsatisfying one. It’s inconsistent with the game’s internal logic and the actions of the character you worked so hard to create.

I respect BioWare’s creative decision: it’s their story, even though they’ve done a great job of convincing us otherwise for the past five years. To say that they should change the ending is preposterous, especially since the damage has already been done. Rather than alienate readers who haven’t played the game even further, I’ll just say that we deserve something more coherent and less illogical. I hope BioWare make amends. More importantly, I hope they don’t charge for the privilege.

Yet the Mass Effect ending saga shows us that in spite of the denouement, it was an remarkable story: one that players really cared about, with decisions and relationships in which they were emotionally invested. That is such a difficult thing to do: most films and books don’t manage it, let alone video games. Of course fans deserved a better ending, but they wouldn’t have cared at all if it weren’t for the exceptional foundations.

While Mass Effect‘s story has ended, for better or worse, the real story of gaming narratives is just beginning.


Alan’s Mass Effect 3 Alternate Ending

Rather than wait for BioWare to ‘fix’ the ending of Mass Effect 3, I’ve written my own alternative ending. What choice will you make?

EXT. LONDON- NIGHT

It is the final push towards the Citadel. Shepard and her squad race towards the teleporter when all of a sudden HARBINGER appears. OH NO!

HARBINGER: I’ve waited a long time to rend the flesh from your bones, Shepard.

SHEPARD: I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you.

HARBINGER: Your planet is ash. Soon there will be nothing organic left in the galaxy to harvest. You have lost. You have no chance to survive… make your time.

SHEPARD: We’ll see about that, you rusting space lobster!

A BIG BOSS FIGHT ensues. Long health bars, repetitive attack patterns, cheap one-hit kills that will get you at least once. Once you’ve whittled down Harbinger’s health to nothing:

Harbinger charges his big eye laser. This doesn’t look good for our heroes… UNLESS Wrex is alive, who jumps out of a shuttle with a M-920 Cain and launches a missile right into Harbinger’s face. Wrex ex machina.

At this point, the story branches depending on your level of war readiness:

Readiness less than 3000

You’re toast. Illusive Man wins. ‘Bad ending’.

Readiness between 3000 and 5000

The combined galactic forces finish off Harbinger, but Shepard suffers a fatal injury.

Readiness greater than 5000

Harbinger is destroyed by the combined fleet, Shepard enjoys the fireworks.

If Wrex is alive, the game treats your readiness as greater than 5000, because Wrex is a badass.

INT. CITADEL

Shepard enters the Citadel’s central chamber. There’s a LOT of orange and blue lighting. Illusive Man appears, having a smoke as usual. Depending on whether you destroyed the Collector Base in Mass Effect 2, he’s either wearing a white or yellow shirt.

ILLUSIVE MAN: Shepa-

PARAGON AND RENEGADE OPTIONS BOTH FLASH ON SCREEN. THEY DON’T GO AWAY UNTIL YOU PRESS ONE.

YOU PRESS ONE.

No matter what you choose, Shepard:

  • Soldier- Draws a pistol and ploughs several rounds into him
  • Adept- Warps him through the window
  • Vanguard- Drop kicks him out the window
  • Engineer- Hoses him with a machine gun

SHEPARD: Didn’t you know smoking was bad for your health?

(If Wrex or Garrus is present, he shakes his head in dismay).

The Illusive Man has left a sinister looking device on the floor. You can choose to pick it up and use it, or not.

You ignore the device- Paragon Ending:

Shepard ignores that weird thing on the floor and activates the Citadel. All the Reapers explode: the explosions are blue, because that looks better than a regular explosion. If Shepard was injured in the Harbinger fight, she dies here and is carried out by her squadmates.

Shepard and her team leave the Citadel and are beamed back to Earth. The surviving armies cheer for them. There aren’t many left, but that doesn’t matter.

If Shepard is alive, your love interest appears (if they aren’t there already):

Love Interest: Shepard, what do we do now? How do we begin to rebuild the galaxy after this? So many lives have been lost…

Shepard: We’ll do what humans always do when the outlook is bleak: let’s get drunk and party until we can’t feel feelings any more.

MASSIVE PARTY. EVERYONE DANCES. IN-JOKES. ROLL CREDITS. THE END.

(If Shepard is dead, the party is not quite as riotous and your team just watch from the sidelines rather than having a boogie.)

“Continue Shepard’s legendary drinking skills in Mass Effect 3: The Hangover, coming as DLC this April”.

You use the device- Renegade Ending:

Shepard uses the Illusive Man’s device. THIS MAKES EVERYTHING RED. The Citadel activates and destroys the Reapers (these explosions are red, to signify that this is an evil explosion), but also kills the Geth, EDI, anyone wearing face jewellery, Biotics, and even Shepard herself.

Electricity crackles through Shepard, melting half her skin off so she resembles a Husk. If Shepard was injured in the Harbinger fight, she dies here. Otherwise, Shepard and her team leave the Citadel. The surviving armies cheer for them. There are very few left, some weeping over the bodies of their melted colleagues. Anderson appears…

ANDERSON: Shepard, what happened in there? What happened to your face?

Shepard’s eyes resemble those of the Illusive Man. She warp-blasts Anderson and kills him. Depending on who is alive, a Paragon squadmate (Garrus, Tali etc.) confronts Shepard:

SQUADMATE: What on Earth (ho ho!) are you doing?

SHEPARD (COLDLY): This was a difficult battle. There were so many casualties. It’s a shame we’ll never know what happened to Anderson.

SQUADMATE: But we do know! You just killed him!

SHEPARD (STARING THROUGH DEAD EYES): IT’S A SHAME WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

The squadmate backs down. Shepard smirks and watches smoke billowing from the Reaper corpses. The galaxy is saved and Shepard has become the only living Biotic- the most powerful organic in the galaxy. What a bitch.

NO PARTY. NO JOKES. ROLL CREDITS. END

Post Credits:

Shepard wakes up in a cold sweat. What was that terrible dream about? It seemed so vivid… she stretches and gets out of bed. Today is her first mission with the Alliance Navy. She tries to recall the assignment… something about a beacon on Eden Prime…


Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.

Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones

The fan game menace.

Final Freeway 2R, an ’old school’ iOS racing game, was released last week. It’s marketed as a homage to classic arcade racers like Out Run and Chase HQ, but where do we draw the line between inspiration and replication? What makes Final Freeway a tribute to the classics, rather than intellectual property theft?

The games industry has a long history of iteration at the expense of innovation. Craig and I have discussed at length the prevailing ‘Sequelitis’ that has afflicted game development. There are obvious examples like the Street Fighter series, but there’s more to it than that: Sega’s Congo Bongo was their answer to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong; Capcom sued Data East because Fighter’s Destiny bore a strong resemblance to Street Fighter, which was itself preceded by Data East’s Karate Champ. Like today’s smartphone patent wars, with everyone copying ideas from each other, it’s impossible to tell who infringed first.

Game developers of the 1980s and early 1990s played fast and loose with intellectual property rights, probably because gaming was a niche hobby and bloodthirsty lawyers had yet to descend from the shadows. Metal Gear‘s cover art is a retouched picture of Kyle Reese from Terminator. Out Run let players race across the country in a Ferrari Testarossa, but Sega didn’t license the car from Ferrari. Compare this to the recent OutRun Online Arcade, which was removed from Xbox Live Arcade after Sega’s Ferrari license expired.

One of my favourite Mega Drive games, Revenge of Shinobi, lets players battle against Rambo, Godzilla, Spiderman, Batman and the Terminator. The ninja on the box looked like actor Sonny Chiba. Subsequent revisions of the software removed those likenesses, except Spiderman who Sega licensed from Marvel and was patched to no longer morph into a devil midway through the fight. They just don’t make them like they used to.

Licensing became the norm. Some developers held out against the relentless tide of royalties, with Sensible Software cheekily shifting the players’ names in Sensible Soccer to things like “N BACKHEM”. As home computers became more prevalent and powerful, fan games grew in popularity: fans would make their own Sonic and Mario games using original assets, but didn’t charge for them. Fan games aren’t always seen as the sincerest form of flattery: Chrono Resurrection was an ambitious remake of Chrono Trigger that caused Square-Enix to issue a cease and desist letter to the developers. Yet, fan gaming communities remain strong: hell, even I made one back in the day.

Final Freeway 2R (2012)Out Run (1986)OutRun Online Arcade (2009)

Davide Pasca is a developer at Oyatsukai, the team behind Final Freeway. I asked him about the inspiration behind the game and its relationship to titles like Out Run. He said:

“Most people will associate it with Out Run, others with Lotus Turbo Challenge, Road Rash, Chase HQ, Cruis’n USA, you name it.

To me, these games are more about the experience. When I moved from Italy to Los Angeles, my first comment off LAX was: “this looks like Out Run“! To me that meant that Out Run‘s originality was in many ways the reflection of a real setting, accessible to anyone.

Suzuki-san himself was inspired by the movie Cannonball Run and other American and European settings. If you’ve been there, you know where it is.”

I don’t think Final Freeway is so similar to Out Run that Sega should be filing a complaint. Pasca is a developer who treats the source material with reverence; not everyone is so lucky. While I was researching this article, one developer had their game cloned and released on the App Store by a rogue company. Their reaction:

A developer is the victim of code theft

Some developers are the victims of programmers who reverse engineer their games and publish clones on the App Store. Others are the victims of ‘mere’ idea theft: recently, Farmville developers and third horseman of the casual gaming apocalypse Zynga ripped off Tiny Tower with their game Dream Towers. Nimblebit’s response is hilarious, but not everyone can afford to be so good-humoured. Capcom’s mobile team ripped off the cult classic Splosion Man in their game MaXplosion, which was later withdrawn from the App Store. But what about the games that don’t get removed?

Gameloft are a French publisher whose modus operandi is to clone popular games from other consoles onto mobile devices. It’s like they just can’t help themselves: any gamer will easily spot the inspiration in games like Nova, Modern Combat and West Coast Hustle. What surprised me were the mixed responses from gamers: on this site, some call the Gameloft titles “shameless”, while others comment “who cares if the games are good?”. There’s a sentiment that if the original developer hasn’t ported the game to iOS, then we gamers are entitled to a surrogate. If that surrogate crosses the line between inspiration and rip off, it’s the original publisher’s fault for not stepping up to the plate and delivering an alternative.

In the wake of the Mass Effect 3 ending furore this week, let me be clear: you are not entitled to anything. You’re not entitled to Half-Life 3, no matter how much you want it. You are not entitled to play a Pokémon ripoff on your iPhone: you can buy a DS or you can not buy a DS. That is the choice. While cloned games are bad for obvious financial reasons, I believe there’s a more important underlying issue as well.

Innovation and competition have given us so many fantastic games: Sonic was developed as a rival to Mario, embracing a different design philosophy. Sega didn’t make a platform game starring an Italian plumber scoffing mushrooms: they made something uniquely different. Unreal broke the Quake engine hegemony with adventures in vibrant, detailed alien worlds. Tekken, Ridge Racer, Forza Motorsport, Burnout, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Half-Life: these games took existing concepts and made them even more exciting, raising the bar. They weren’t completely original concepts, but to (allegedly) quote Picasso, “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. They take ideas, build upon them, and make them their own. I worry that game cloning will diminish the innovation that drives the industry forward.

In the 90s, the console manufacturers controlled software licensing. No one would have dared to attempt a brazen Sonic or Mario clone: that’s why there were terrible games like Bubsy the Bobcat that iterated, but didn’t innovate. The rise of the App Store and the Android Market have led to the opposite scenario: a digital Wild West, where clones and rip offs flood the marketplace. To be fair, with the sheer number of apps being approved every day, this is difficult to police. Yet Apple’s sheriff is slow to react to claims of IP theft, while Google don’t seem bothered as long as their adverts monetise the spoils.

More needs to be done by the market owners to protect developers, especially small ones. They need security to ensure their innovations will pay off, to allow them to thrive. Otherwise, we’ll be left with a regurgitated banquet of unappetising game mush. While I enjoy Final Freeway for the nostalgia it evokes, I can’t wait to see what Oyatsukai come up with when they’re freed from the shackles of history.

 


Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.

Scum and Villainy

Scum and Villainy

Scum and Villainy

Do, or do not.

After I wrote A Wretched Hive a fortnight ago, another gaming community ‘challenger’ appeared. This time, an ignoramus named Aris Bakhtanians hurled sexist abuse during a Street Fighter x Tekken tournament, leading to victim Miranda Pakozdi’s withdrawal from said tournament. Yet, what worried me more was a subsequent article by Keza MacDonald in The Guardian titled “Are Gamers Really Sexist?”

Before I get into this, let me be clear that this is not a character assassination. I think Keza does a great job at IGN and it’s becoming the kind of website I would actually visit, something I wouldn’t have said a few years ago. Yet it’s tremendously damaging when a well-respected journalist, and a female one at that, whitewashes over what is both an obvious and serious problem within the gaming community.

MacDonald’s article is a defence of the gaming community as one that is not endemically sexist, racist or homophobic: her argument is that yes, these elements exist, but the morons are in the minority. Unfortunately her argument is supported by anecdotes, not evidence: “[the Pakodzi incident] paints a picture of the gaming community that I don’t want to believe in, and that goes against the vast majority of my experiences. This is not what we’re like.”

The problem is that “we” in the preceding quote means “my friends and I”. By relying on personal experience, one’s sample is inherently selective and can’t be representative of the community as a whole. It is biased; it clouds our judgment. I imagine Keza’s gamer friends are similar to mine: same sense of humour, probably left-leaning, many university-educated and reasonable adults. Are all gamers like that? Of course not. Even games journalists aren’t all like that (sarcastic hyperlink deliberately withheld). The point I’m ineloquently making is that I don’t play multiplayer games with sexists and homophobes, because I wouldn’t be friends with those people in real life. I have made the choice of who I interact with: this says nothing about whether other, less pleasant types of gamer exist, or how prevalent they are in the wider community.

What happens when we have no choice over the interaction? To get out of the anecdotal frame of mind, I researched various gaming websites. I started with IGN: I am aware Keza MacDonald is not responsible for the content of the entire IGN network, but it’s the most visited gaming site and seemed a fitting place to start:

Exhibit A

On the front page of IGN.com, there’s a link to the ‘Top 99 Women of 2012′. This isn’t terrible in itself, but when we click the link to ‘IGN Stars’ (renamed from ‘IGN Babes’) we see the following:

Hmm...Dubious journalism!

This site is quite clearly aimed at male gamers, and I submit that it’s also sexist. The women in the image carousel are just like new video games, on display to be objectified and lusted after. These are not in-depth interviews with actresses and models. This doesn’t directly involve gamers themselves (I didn’t venture into the articles and their comments), so let’s look at Gamespot’s interview with Robyn Théberge from Bioware on Mass Effect 3:

Vocal Minority

Notice the comments by ‘properbo_’ and ‘Icaroz89′ are positively rated, not negatively as you would expect if these were the opinions of a vocal minority. It’s worth taking a look at the other comments on the video, too, especially the one from the person who has met Robyn Théberge and can personally vouch for the quality of her butt. Even my usual site of choice, Eurogamer, isn’t immune to suspect imagery:

She must be cold

To be fair to Eurogamer, that’s probably a PR screenshot (I hope it is) but its purpose is clear: to catch the attention of men. Objectification of women in video games ranges from the disappointing to the farcically perverted. Sexual harassment is so endemic in online gaming that the website ‘Fat, Ugly or Slutty‘ provides a compendium to name and shame the culprits. Geordie Tait has written an incredibly good (and incredibly long) essay on the subject. Of course, not all online abuse is sexist, but it is infamous nevertheless.

By claiming that sexism is not really a part of gaming culture, it diminishes and dismisses the issue, which is precisely what MacDonald says we should not be doing. We are on the same team here: neither of us wants the community to be like this, but saying “We are not like that” is counterproductive and could even be considered insulting to the victims of such abuse. Even a cursory glance at the evidence suggests that many gamers are like that.

As I said in A Wretched Hive, if people can’t play nice then we should take away their toys. If they harass people through voice chat, ban them from chatting. If they send abusive messages, remove their right to send those messages. I still don’t really care if they’re banned from playing online- I wouldn’t shed a tear for these fools- but my position has mellowed a little after many pub conversations with friends.

The really interesting question is this: why are sexism, homophobia and racism so prevalent among gamers? I think it’s because gaming has a higher proportion of white males: simple as that. Speaking as a white, heterosexual male, it’s impossible for me to truly understand what it’s like to be gay or a woman; but I do try, and that understanding leads to positive outcomes like not using “rape” as a verb or “gay” as a derogatory adjective. This understanding is the product of education, which is obviously aided by interacting with others.

Gaming is the perfect way to reduce these attitudes! If the gaming community was more representative of women and minorities, I absolutely believe attitudes would change for the better. It’s not exclusively a gaming problem: it reflects wider societal issues like the continued pervasiveness of ‘lad culture‘ and insultingly stupid justifications of homophobic prejudice.

We can’t change the world overnight, and it would be foolish to think so. Yet we can change the world incrementally, one small slice at a time. What better place to start than gaming? Perhaps the reason I am so offended and outraged by people like Aris Bakhtanians is because gaming has been my refuge from bullying and isolation: I love playing games, but they are historically the domain of people too feeble for sports and too intelligent for casual arson or vandalism. Gaming was there when real life friends were not: online friends were more pleasant and available, unconsciously screened and selected for common interests. To find out that this community has a larger, darker side, and that you were just floating along on the tip of an iceberg, is worrying and frightening.

Regardless of what the reality of the gaming community is, I want to make it a better place. MacDonald is right when she says “It’s important that we make our voices heard”, but the way to do that is not by brushing the issue under the carpet. It’s not just a few giggling idiots in the corner. The only way to tackle this wretched hive of scum and villainy is by acknowledging it exists, then doing something about it.

If you want to do something about it too, drop me an email. Or, just send me an abusive tweet: the choice is yours. But I do believe we have a choice. Let’s change the world.



Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.

End Game

End Game

End Game

Game over for Game?

What’s harder: writing about the imminent demise of Game, or coming up with a title that isn’t “Game Over”? I feel like I should save that one for the day when I finally wear my left thumb down to a stump and start a new blog about reading.

Game will not stock Mass Effect 3 due to supply issues, or any EA games for the foreseeable future. This will result in an estimated £2.5 million loss in profit. In a month when questions have been raised over Game’s inability to continue as a business, the attitude of most gamers has been one of ambivalence or schadenfreude.

Most gamers I know rarely set foot in Game. They would rather buy their games online, or even at a supermarket, which both offer cheaper prices. Game haven’t been competitive on price for a long time: I paid £43 for Skyrim on launch day, which was 15% more than the cheapest deal at Sainsburys. I’ve pre-ordered Mass Effect 3 at ASDA. Not only are Game’s new prices more expensive, but their older games aren’t much better: you’ll never get Child of Eden for a fiver, pre-owned or not.

Price should not be the sole determinant when choosing where to shop. I bought my camera from Jessops rather than Amazon because I wanted to try it before I bought it, and I wanted somewhere to take it if I had a problem. As I wrote in Requiem for Retail last year, there’s still a place for specialist retail. However, there’s also little space for generic retail.

Game are ‘specialist’ in name only: their staff are rarely knowledgeable, and if you disagree you haven’t met the chap in the Oxford branch who thinks the PSVita plays Android apps. I worked in retail before my current job: it’s not a fun job, and I sympathise with people who do it, but at least I knew what I was talking about! It’s a failure of management, not the people on the shop floor serving customers: a lack of staff training, a failure to respond and develop in a retail environment that is increasingly hostile, an insistence on staff taking ‘pre-orders’ for games that will never go out of stock.

Of course, digital distribution has also had an impact as Steam, PSN and XBLA provide viable alternatives to brick and mortar stores. PC gaming has transitioned smoothly to digital distribution: will consoles survive? Without the flexibility of multiple online stores, Humble Bundles and the like, I wonder if the Xbox Marketplace and Playstation Store might change from slick  shops to crowded market bazaars like the iOS App Store. Epic games require epic budgets, and without the accessibility of the retail sector few developers will be able to make a game with the scale of Skyrim or Mass Effect.

Gamers- the kind reading this- don’t shop in Game. It sounds like a damning statement, but it’s less significant than you think. Gaming enthusiasts know what they want: my brother’s birthday is coming up this month and I won’t need to browse or seek advice to choose a game for his present. Robert Purchese at Eurogamer points out that Game brings exposure to gaming. Gamers don’t shop in Game, but Joe Bloggs browses there. I know what I want; Joe doesn’t.

If Game close down, where’s Joe going to buy his games? He might try the supermarket, but they’ll only stock the top twenty games. He might look on Amazon, but that’s no place for browsing. The money he might have spent on a whim in Game won’t be spent on another game: maybe Joe will buy a couple of DVDs instead, maybe his money will be whittled away on coffee and pastries like mine.

The death of Game doesn’t mean the end of gaming, but it might well stifle innovation. Games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, Dark Souls and El Shaddai can benefit from browsing Joes picking them up on a whim, where they gain extra exposure that the Mass Effects and Halos of this world don’t need. They need marketing campaigns to gain big exposure; massive shop window displays proclaiming the latest releases. Joe needs to make a conscious connection between an advertisement and the product on shelves, because he won’t go to Amazon to actively seek it out. The death of HMV doesn’t affect pop music sales, but it might affect more niche genres like classical and jazz. Dan Brown won’t shed any tears if Waterstones go out of business, but fans of graphic novels might. There’s still a case for browsing and exploring to make informed decisions on a purchase: shopping isn’t always about buying what you want. Sometimes, it’s about trying something new as well.

I’m not saying we should all immediately go to Game and spend all our money there. This is a company with a lot of sins to atone for: it charges less on its website than in-store; their reliance on pre-owned games rips off both the customers who trade games in and the publishers who sell them. Yet I do feel a certain affection for the place: whether it’s as a place for men to stave off boredom while their partner browses somewhere else, or where you can find an unloved Rock Band keyboard and give it a new home. I remember the excitement of new games, but also browsing at all of the possibilities on offer. A world without those possibilities would be a sad place indeed.



Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.

A Wretched Hive

A Wretched Hive

A Wretched Hive Banner image from The Art of Jeremy Owen

Let morons be morons?

Last Monday morning, I left my flat to go to work. There was a man sitting in a chair by the front door, wearing only a dressing gown, having what I presume was a post-coital cigarette.

Long story short: I quit smoking four years ago. I don’t like the smell of stale smoke (even smokers don’t!). I particularly don’t like when it drifts under my draughty door frame, which had been happening for weeks. Here was the culprit! The bastard who had been offending my nostrils! I did what any British man would do in this situation: I said nothing, took my bike and left.

We gamers like to think of our hobby as an egalitarian pursuit, because anyone can be a gamer. “Jump in”. “Up to six billion players”. The name ‘Wii’ was conjured to promote inclusiveness, which is what makes the new ‘Wii U’ somewhat ironic. The rise of free to play games and inexpensive downloadable titles, whether through Steam or app stores, has made it cheaper and easier than ever to have fun.

Let’s shatter the illusion. Gaming isn’t as inclusive as you think. Just because the barriers aren’t visible does not mean they don’t exist: they are social instead of physical. Here’s a challenge for those who disagree: make yourself a fake Xbox Gamertag or PSN SEN account. Imply that you’re a homosexual, female Muslim who likes Call of Duty, but are an unskilled novice and so have a lower than average kill-to-death ratio. What kind of a welcome will you receive? I don’t even need to imagine the responses. They’re already on the bottom half of the Internet. They’re all over Twitter and Facebook, on YouTube videos and comments. They clog every forum and games website. They are the omnipresent layer of frothy scum floating on the surface of the Internet.

This week’s big scandal, for those of you who don’t circle Twitter like a vulture picking scraps to form an article every week, was when BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler was systematically bullied online- and even with phone calls to her home- because of some bullshit a troll made up. She was called “the cancer that is killing BioWare”. Even worse than the emergent campaign of targeted hatred was the nature of said hatred: she was accused of “screwing up Mass Effect by making Shepherd gay” (even though Hepler didn’t actually work on Mass Effect) and there was an implication that her ovaries denied her the right to speak about computer games authoritatively. That classic double whammy of sexism and homophobia.

Every gamer with more than one brain cell was disgusted and outraged at the whole affair. Notice that I didn’t say they were surprised, because who would be? This is the gaming community’s elephant in the room: it’s got an ejaculating penis and a swastika drawn on it. Susan Arendt of the Escapist wrote an excellent response to the harassers that I won’t quote extensively and risk taking out of context, but the take home message was this:

“You are sound and fury signifying nothing. You are intellectually bankrupt, small and boring.”

Let morons be morons. Let us ignore and ostracise them. It’s the same stance I took in No Comment regarding trolls on YouTube, but I don’t think it applies to gaming in the same way. Allow me to explain before I sound like a hypocrite and fool: I don’t think we can change YouTube. It’s a free service with an enormous audience. It is not a single community as far as I am concerned: it encapsulates all of them. I’ve watched everything from domino stacking to religious debates on YouTube. Two YouTube users can have nothing in common except watching low-bitrate videos. My response is to block the comments, which is admittedly cowardly, but if I ran the site I would eliminate comments entirely. Gaming is not like that: sure, there are sub-strata of interests, and gaming overlaps with other hobbies like animé and science-fiction, but gamers as a whole are not disparate. I was president of the Edinburgh University Computer Gaming Society (and I’ve heard all your jokes) and it was a great mix of PC and console fans, ‘hardcore’ gamers and people who just liked Wii Sports. Yet despite our different preferences, we shared a core love of gaming.

Is it good enough to say “let morons be morons”? Is it something we should have to ignore, or can we change their attitudes for the better? As someone who has been bullied and insulted online, and has bulled and insulted myself, I don’t think it is acceptable. We can’t just let morons be morons. No one pointed out to me what an idiot I was being online; I had to come to the realisation myself, but not before I’d said a lot of unpleasant things and probably upset a fair few people. That was the intention though: to intimidate and humiliate, to bring down other people because you had nothing positive to contribute. Ignoring those kind of people, like my younger self, cannot solve this problem. We should educate them. We shouldn’t be ignorant about a position that arises from ignorance.

Passivity solves nothing. It actually makes it worse, because it sends out a message that this kind of behaviour is tolerable. It’s an insult almost as gross as those directed at the victims of online abuse. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to play a game of Battlefield with complete strangers and know they would be friendly. Sadly the only online games with a great community, from my experience, were Phantasy Star Online and PGR2. It’s no coincidence that those are my two fondest online gaming memories.

Fundamentally, it’s a respect issue. It’s about acknowledging that everyone is different, and no one is right or wrong (unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist). The message we send out should be this: no one ever has the right to discriminate against someone on the grounds of racism, sexism or homophobia, and we will take away your toys if you don’t play nicely. Ban them from Xbox Live, PSN and Steam. One strength of perpetual online identities is that EA can ban assholes from games based on their conduct in forums- and why not? Who would miss them? I wouldn’t. We don’t let football hooligans back into the grounds even if they have paid for a season ticket. Your investment doesn’t give you a free pass to offend others.

Maybe I’m being cynical and things are actually changing for the better. Mass Effect 3 has a reversible cover with ‘FemShep’ on it (although perhaps FemShep should be the default cover, and perhaps we should call her ’Shepherd’ and not FemShep?). It’s interesting that Mass Effect was singled out by conservative bigots for its approach to same-sex relationships, since the Fable series has long given them equal weight. Looking wider, Xbox Live has a robust feedback and moderation system ranging from muting the morons to reporting them to Microsoft, which works up to a point but it didn’t stop me playing against a gamer named ‘Clabby Funt’ on Crysis 2 last night.

If we’re ever going to develop as a species, if we want to make gaming truly egalitarian and open to all, then we need to take a stand. We need to look that smoker in the eye and tell him to not to fill our homes with his toxicity. We need to tell him to take it somewhere else or put a stop to it. We’ll ask nicely at first and give him a chance to see the error of his ways, because that’s what civilised adults do. Then we’ll tell him to fuck right off.



Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.