There's a game developer named Acclaim. They're a somewhat uneven game developer. Sometimes they do good games (the first two Nintendo 64 Turok games come to mind), but more often than not, their games aren't very good. They're especially notorious for the "quick cash-in licensed game". Every South Park game has been terrible and Acclaim did them all - Comedy Central, who owns South Park outright, just told Acclaim to come out with some games and quickly. South Park's creators publicly criticized the games - didn't matter, they sold well anyway. Acclaim is also the maker of any bad Batman game you ever rented by accident.
Recently Acclaim has embarked on some rather questionable advertising practices. For all the criticism of the American audience, most of these techniques are practiced in the UK, where people are supposedly even less easy to enrapture. For the game Shadow Man 2, Acclaim bought advertising space - on headstones in cemeteries. To promote Turok: Evolution they offered the first five people in the UK to change their names to "Turok" $1,000. The hundreds that came in late probably weren't too thrilled. For their game Burnout 2: Point of Impact, they offered to pay the speeding tickets of anyone who was on their way to buy the game. I wonder - if you speed on your way to get Burnout 2 and die, will they advertise the game on your tombstone?
Of course, what they really have here is the cheapest (and some would say lowest) forms of advertising possible - press coverage. I would guess no one at a cemetery is interested in becoming aware about a video game where you kill other people, but the mere mention in newspapers (along with a mockup of what a tombstone would look like with the ad on it) got Acclaim tons of free publicity. I presume Acclaim never actually took out the ads on tombstones - who would they pay for it? The same thing for the other promotions - there's no such thing as bad publicity, don't ya know? I view Acclaim as the Troma of the game industry - more known for their hype and bad product than their actual contributions.
But now they've got a game coming out called BMX XXX. When the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater clones starting coming out from all over, Acclaim came out with a game called Dave Mirra's BMX which was a servicable but hardly revolutionary game. For the sequel they dropped Dave Mirra (who dropped who from what is in dispute) and decided to go for a more "adult" feel - namely nudity and profanity. I'm not completely sure how it works (if you have to unlock the boobs or what) but it appears this game will have more in common with a Motley Crue video than a sports game. Much the same way PC Accelerator decided that "titties sell" (and other magazines, like Total Movie, still adhere to), Acclaim is going for that mature audience that's still a bit juvenile.
My first reaction was this: this cements the notion that Acclaim is pretty much a turd in the game industry pool. My second reaction was this: this stupid game might actually sell. Worse than that, it might spawn off a long list of copycats. We're just now seeing the end of the trashy tunnel that was the Deer Hunter legacy, and now this.
However, despite the fact that the game will carry an "M" rating, many chains, including Target and Wal-Mart, refuse to carry the game. Best Buy is carrying a cut down version of the game. The part of me worrying about the game selling well and creating a trend were allayed. But then I started to wonder - how is this game worse than a violent game? Or a violent movie? Or even a pornographic movie? Best Buy sells lots of violent games, violent movies, and even dirty movies (not that I know anything about that). I don't think Wal-Mart or Target carry "dirty" movies, but they do sell violent movies and games, plus they already have systems in place to keep "M" games and "R" movies from being sold to minors. Hell, Wal-Mart even sells guns and ammo.
And the "dirty game" isn't unprecedented, either. No sooner had pornography made its way to the Internet than people started making pornographic games. The only place I can think I've seen them for sale is at Hastings (who, to their credit, doesn't seem to discriminate at all). The ESRB system even has an oft-unused "AO" (Adults Only) rating. Some 21 games have used this throughout the years, most from one particular company trying to make their works seem more legitimate - most games worthy of an AO rating don't bother with ratings. Story goes the game Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh, a game from the FMV-fad era featuring frontal nudity, was set to be the first game from a major publisher to garner an "AO" rating, but then Sierra decided to go for the RSAC rating, which used 3 "meters" for sex, violence and language. Bizarrely, subsequent re-releases of the game label it as "M".
Now Acclaim is crying to the press that they're being falsely discriminated against. My gut reaction was: this needs an "asinine" tag from FARK. I mean come on, you made a game that was not only extreme for the sake of being extreme, but then you complain that you ventured into uncharted territory and got hurt. Of course, that was a trap - they want people to think that. They want the media to cover the story. They want the media to cover the story that is Acclaim complaining about the story. And the game is going to sell. Like the out of the way theater that shows the movie you want to see, people will now go out of their way to get this game.
But then I got to thinking - what if all of this is real? I mean, what if Acclaim wanted some controversy and clamor over it, but what if they realized what they were getting themselves into? I mean, no Wal-Mart sales is often seen as a death-knell. Wal-Mart is so big that these guys are the ones who demanded and got smaller game boxes. And these are the stores they make "non-stickered" versions of albums for. Since Best Buy is carrying the pared down BMX XXX obviously such a version exists, but Wal-Mart, Target, et al declined even that.
So how is this game worse? I mean, we have all these systems in place - the rating system, the enforced ages, the precedents in the other products in the stores. How is BMX XXX worse than an R-rated movie? I mean, as far as I know there's no death or actual sex, just some swearing and some naked bikers. Perhaps it's because of the "XXX" in the title - if you don't carry "real" pornography then you could make the point that it falls into that category. But then again we're about to have a movie called xXx hit DVD, so there goes that argument. Perhaps they want to keep it out of the hands of children, but they do that already. Perhaps they don't want the bad publicity, but then again people protest Wal-Mart for selling (or not selling) abortion pills, guns and bad maps, so they're used to controversy. Plus when you have as many stores as they do, someone slips and falls in your store and sues you several times a day. I can't believe that they're scared of one video game.
The bottom line in all of this is that Acclaim ventured into uncharted territory and not only looks to be getting a bit stung, but now they can become more than a game developer. My gut reaction was "they shouldn't be able to do that!". I have had similar opinions of other games (Postal 2 and the Hitman series come to mind). I figured for sure I'd feel the same about Grand Theft Auto 3 but not only was it a good game, it wasn't any worse than the Godfather series or Payback, violent movies where you root for the bad guys. I realize I'm no better than the people who say that all violent video games should be banned, or those people who want art to be censored. Acclaim is going to wind up a free speech martyr. I'm not sure if this means we'll look on them more or less fondly, but then again we made a movie about the struggles of Larry Flynt.
But then again, Luther Campbell was an exhonorated free speech martyr but that doesn't mean the 2 Live Crew was any good...
Before I dig in, here's my Tip of the Day: what I've found is 10x better than using blogger.com or thar blogger tool in Mozilla (which, it turns out, sucks ass) is w.bloggar. Somewhere between an HTML editor and a word processor, it's what I use these days to make the posts. I realize of course this kills the point - the idea behind Blogger is that it doesn't tie you to one platform and here I go, tying to a platform (Windows) but I don't care - it's not like you have to go 100% one way or the other. I want productivity, I don't care about the principles (of the Application Service Provider, in this case).
Right, so there's this guy in the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. area and he's killing people. He's clearly a sniper. He kills with one shot. He hasn't killed anyone since Friday, but he's been on a spree of sorts. If he keeps going they'll catch him. If they catch him he's gonna be executed. Of course the media is going nuts with this and I can't say I blame them - this story has actually taken Iraq off the front pages. The WTC I could deal with - perhaps I'm naive but I don't see myself being in any buildings important enough to blow up. Anthrax I can also deal with - I don't think I'm important enough to get it sent to me and I don't handle important people's mail. But these people are random, unconnected people pumping their gas. I think if I were in Maryland I'd just stay indoors, or at least I wouldn't get gas for a while.
But then our local NBC Affiliate whose news staff is full of incompetent idiots, goes on to run a story about video and computer games where you can be a sniper. Suffice it to stay, this got me steamed, but I couldn't help but laugh. This was clearly a story quickly pasted together to cash in (so to speak) on the recent events and, akin to the quick turnaround on the notion that the 9/11 terrorists used Flight Simulator to train, was in very poor taste.
Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm hardly an unbiased source, but the way this story was assembled was just asinine. They frequently used the word "children" to describe the target audience. They (of course) alleged that these games can be used to properly train would-be snipers. Then they go to interview the 17-year old jerkoff working at the game store in the Waco mall - he didn't help the cause at all. And I love how the images they used for the little intro graphic were from Wolfenstein 3-D (the original) and DOOM - very old games in other words (probably the same graphic they used when Columbine hit). And they presented it as damning that they contacted game makers (publishers and developers I would assume) but never recieved a call back. It left you with the notion (if you didn't know any better and I would guess that the majority of the people watching the news at 10:00 on Friday night wouldn't) that these games were designed to be "ulra-realistic" so that children would play then and then become an army of assassins.
So, let's address this one piece at a time, shall we?
Myth #1: Video and Computer Games are realistic. Here's the skinny on games: on the whole they are not realistic. Write this down: Video and Computer games are the antithesis of reality and realism. There are some exceptions to this - flight simulators strive to be realistic for training purposes and some games (the Sim series comes to mind) strive to become models of reality, but ultimately the games anyone cares about in this regard are about as far from the truth as possible.
Witness the physics of it all. In most FPS titles your character can run forever, never needing to stop, never needing to catch his/her breath, never once collapsing from exhaustion. The Quake series of games gave birth to "Rocket Jumping" - jumping whilst firing a rocket into the ground, to make you jump higher - try this in real life and you'll blow your legs off. Most games are designed to where the character has to take multiple bullet hits to deplete their life energy - how many people do you know that can take multiple bullets to the chest?
History is full of games that have been designed to be as realistic as possible, only to have the code ripped out when it kept the game from being fun. Imagine if Soul Calibur was realistic - one swipe from any of these weapons would easily kill the combatants - whats the fun in that? Racing games have been divided into two categories, "simulation" and "arcade". The simulation game strives for realistic physics, whereas the arcade-style game amounts to "make car go fast now". The arcade games are much more popular - despite the fact that people say they want a realistic car game they don't - real cars suck. What people want is to do is drive as fast as possible with little real consequence.
And that's the thing - people say they want realism but they really want anything but. This past fall there were two WW2 themed FPS games on the market, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The Spielberg equivalencies say that RtCW is more like the Indiana Jones series (more concerned with the weird things about Hitler - the obsession with the occult and armies of the undead) whereas MoH:AA is more like Saving Private Ryan. As a result, people were stoked about a PC game that let you play Saving Private Ryan. The developers promised an unprecedented level of realism, and to a large degree they delivered. However, many gamers were perturbed with the results. The one thing that sticks out in my mind is the blood. When you shot someone in RtCW, blood spewed on the walls and such, much as you might expect. However, in MoH:AA, "gray smoke" came from the shot soldiers. "Unrealistic!" gamers cried. However, as it turns out, MoH:AA was in fact more realistic than RtCW. Research and combat experience has shown that, when a person who is clad in tons of thick uniform (especially WW2-era issue) gets shot, the fabric of the uniform disintegrates into a mist (the aforementioned "gray smoke") and the blood doesn't spew out, it won't even make it to the uniform. The notion of blood spewing forth came from Hollywood.
People say they want realism, however they want anything but. Another thing people say they want is "realistic A.I." (so that they think they're playing against real people in a single-player game). A.I. is definitely something that can be done very well or very poorly, but what it really boils down to is "artificial stupidity". The game always know where you are, always knows where you're headed, and can always kill you. That wouldn't be much fun. Take PONG for example - the game always knows where the ball is headed and can always hit it. So then how do you win PONG? Well, in versions of the game featuring A.I. (the original 1972 arcade machine required two players - there was no A.I.) the game plays "stupid", and increasing difficulty levels just plays "less stupid". Same thing goes for Tic-Tac-Toe, but I'll save that for another diatribe.
Myth #2: Video and Computer Games can turn someone into an efficient killing machine. This has always irked me the most, especially since most of the time I see this in a news story on a major network - inevitably they point the finger to games and movies, never the violent shows on their own network (though often the violent shows on other networks). Lt. Col. David Grossman has made a career on this allegation - of course he also has a book to sell on the topic, so he's hardly an unbiased source, either.
So let's nip this one in the bud, shall we. First from a physical standpoint. Games are largely controlled with either a mouse/keyboard combo, or with a joystick controller. True, arcades do have "gun games" and there are home gun accessories, but few own them. In particular, the Columbine killers were known to play DOOM, which has no need of gun accessories. However, ask anyone who has ever fired a real gun versus guns in games and they'll tell you the two couldn't be more unalike. As for this sniper, remember he kills with one bullet, and has been successful in killing most of the time, and hitting his target all the time. If you're implying that someone who has soley played Counter-Strike or Soldier of Fortune could then get a sniper rifle and do the same thing previously done only with a mouse and keyboard, you should realize how ludicrous that notion is before the thought completes forming in your head. The person involved in the Maryland shootings has had training, possibly professional (i.e., he was a shooter for the Army or Police). Plus we all know who this guy is going to be once they catch him - he's going to be some 35 year old nut, white, single, grudge against the government, possibly mentally unbalanced from a war.
The most important thing to realize about the difference between controlling a game and a real weapon is that in the game you're relying soley on the precision of the controller. With a real weapon, you're relying on your own precision - and unless you've had training, your precision sucks. I know - years ago I qualified on a M-16 in the corps. I pointed the thing perfectly, but it was pure luck that most of the bullets hit the target, and that was on the third or fourth try. I sure as hell didn't get any of them on the bullseye.
And as for the argument that "gun games" make for better killers - the argument, though more difficult to refute, still doesn't hold up since it doesn't take into account physics. Real weapons have recoil - the fake ones don't. Also, in a gun game you have to hit the "general area". When you fire the zapper in Duck Hunt (for example), the screen turns black, except for where the duck was, which turns white. If your gun sees the white square, you "hit" the duck. I'm sure the principle behind more recent games is more advanced, but the next time you see people playing Area 51 at your local arcade, watch how many times they simply press the gun to the screen to hit something - not exactly training.
Myth #3: Video and Computer Games are aimed at children, and children in buy them in any store. Alright, let's get this one out of the way first: Not all games are meant for children. Same reason not all movies are meant for children. You wouldn't take, say, Aliens and say that it was meant to cater to children, so why allege that Soldier of Fortune is aimed at children?
I can see where this notion comes from - at one point in time games were for children. Not too many 40-year-olds picked up Super Mario Bros. Of course these children have grown up and as a result, they want their games to grow up as well. Even Nintendo has finally seen this - "M" rated games are on the GameCube in large numbers. Much like there are still cartoons for children, there are ones for adults as well (Akira, South Park). There are comic books for children and comic books aimed at adults as well (I'm not sure, but I think that the adult comic books outnumber the childrens ones at this point). Just because a medium was made for an age group doesn't mean it has to stay that way.
We already have a system in place for this - the ratings system. Here's how you can tell if a game is meant for adults - it's got an "M" rating for mature. Think of "M" as "R" in movies. A "T" (Teen) rating is "PG-13" and an "E" (Everyone) rating is akin to "G" or "PG" (there's also an "EC" (Early Childhood) rating that's more akin to a "G" rating). Today, most retailers worth their salt do not sell "M" rated games to anyone under 17. The major retailers (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.) do this as part of their corporate policy (they do the same thing with movies). I'm not sure what Babbage's/Etc. does but even when I worked there we wouldn't sell certian games (the Grand Theft Auto or Kingpin games, for example) to children.
I agree that "M" rated games should not be sold to children. I loathe to have a law on this sort of thing, since a unified retailer front would have the same overall effect (witness the number of people who think that the "R" rating is enforced by law - it isn't).
Parents - go through your children's room (hint - if they still live in your house and are under 18 they're children) and take away any game with an "M" on it. If you're not sure, look it up, but most game discs have the ratings on them. You're not invading their privacy or stealing from them - you own their room (and the house it's in) and the games were bought with your money anyway. Unless you can be convinced that the game is harmless or you trust your kids, don't let them have the game. In fact, have this policy mirror whatever your R-rated movie policy is.
Simply put, games don't have the impact we think they do. Game makers would like their games to move people in ways that movies do and I'm sure that some day they will - but most of them don't right now. The kid that killed himself after being robbed in EverQuest was mentally depressed and suicidal to begin with. The Columbine killers were already screwed up in the head from being bullied, and the six year old who killed a fellow first grader quite literally lived in a crack house.
I don't claim to know the answers to why someone in a white van gets his jollies off sniping people, or why people become violent. What I do see a lot of is complete misinformation about the game industry from people on the outside. The three myths above are the most annoying ones and while I know that, short of a handful of people, no one will read this, I just figured I'd get this all out of my head.