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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Jeff Freeman: SOE Developer & Parent

Jeff Freeman is a game developer and blogger who has a history with gaming that includes BBS door games (that's when modems had baud rates with three digits, no decimal points, kids), pen and paper role-playing games and most recently the massively multiplayer online Star Wars: Galaxies. He was a major advocate for Dungeons & Dragons around the time that watchdog groups were decrying the game for causing suicidal tendencies and really bad movies with Tom Hanks. He's also a parent of two. In our continuing series of interviews with people who can give a first-hand and in-depth perspective on both gaming and parenting, Cathode Tan sat down for a chat:

How long have you been developing games and how many kids do you have?

Jeff: I've been developing games professionally for 4 ½ years, and "unprofessionally" for ah...longer than that. :)

I have two boys, ages 13 and 15. Come to think of it, I was just about my younger son's age when I got my first home computer, a TI-99/4a – and the very first thing I did with it was to make a game.

Not a very good game, but still. It's interesting (to me, probably not to anyone else) that was my motivation for getting a computer to begin with. Rather than wanting a computer so I could play games, I wanted one so I could make them.

My sons are just the opposite: they want a PC, Xbox, PS2, GameCube, DS, PSP and whatever comes out next so that they can play every game that anyone ever makes for anything.

Do you find that while developing games you have to consider whether or not you kids would play the content?

Jeff: My kids are pretty hardcore when it comes to games – there's not much that they don't play. Unless I were making a Mature or Adult Only game (and I'm not), my main thought would be that they are going to play it, so what will they think of it? "This is cool!" Or "Ew, this sucks." They will tell me.

As far as worrying about whether the content is appropriate for them – That's just not really an optional thing given the current state of the industry: We can make things that are definitely not for kids, or we can make things that are definitely for kids. There's very little middle ground, there.

Your defense of Dungeons & Dragons is a matter of Internet record, do you feel any similarity between the attempt to convince parents of the dangers of paper role-playing games and the current media coverage about violent crimes and video games?

Jeff: Sure there's a similarity: it's a futile attempt because no one is listening.

If parents believed that violent video games were bad for their kids (and not just, you know, other people's kids), they'd stop letting them play them and that'd be the end of it.

One the one side, you have people yelling how bad games are and grasping at anything they can find to hold up and say, "See! I told you so!"

And on the other side you have – I guess – some people saying that those people are wrong.

But the parents aren't even listening to this debate. Kids still play rated-M games. Somehow they're able to play for hours and hours and hours without their parents knowing about it. And what, the store clerk should have stopped them? (Like, "I can't stop my little children from playing 37 hours a week of Baby-Killer 3, because I don't understand this little letter on the box it came in!").

I get the feeling that a big part of the problem is that the parents do hear the "video game violence is bad" side of the argument, but they don't believe it. They're probably the ones who bought the game to begin with, and they still will.

This isn't all "bad parenting" or confusion over video game ratings. The parents don't believe the accusations, and you can't make them.

And this latest brouhaha over the GTA 'hot coffee' mod is especially funny. How can anyone possibly be worried that their little kiddo is going to download a mod, from the internet, which unlocks in-game sex? Internet. Sex. Download. Your kid's downloading what from the internet? Oh Thank God! It's just the GTA hot coffee mod! *whew*

Apart from all that, the charges against Dungeons & Dragons were a little different, in that they were mostly carried along by the "Satanic Panic" of the 80's (thank you, journalists – that was great. Let's do it again sometime). That eventually transformed into the "violent games make violent people" nonsense that this debate seems to be entrenched in, and then after a while no one cared any more because all those young D&Ders grew-up (and even before then: The D&D players in high school were the violent ones? Naaaah!).

Guess what I think is going to happen to this debate.

From BBS door games to a global MMO running on a 3D engine ... how much has technology changed the experience of gaming online? Have these changes happened too quick for us to know how much of an impact it can have on the culture around us?

Jeff: Well there's no question technology has had a big impact on the experience: more people – and especially a more diverse group of people – are sharing their experiences with one another, demanding more accessible games, and more entertainment-oriented rather than challenge-oriented game play and so on.

In a lot of ways though, the 3D graphics and the commercial parts of the equation have forced steps backward in terms of functionality, game play, and the individual player's ability to have a meaningful impact on the game world.

Not that we won't eventually get back to where we were, with the nifty 3d graphics, but we do have some catching-up to do just to get back to where we were with text MUDs years ago.

This reminds me of how telephone technology changed over the years. The first phones you could just pick up, say the name of the person you wanted to talk to, and you'd be connected right to them. We're just now getting back to that.

As a developer, how well do you think the ESRB works as an aid for making reasonable solutions about games? Are there improvements to either the process or the ratings that might help?

Jeff: I think the ratings are so vague and the criteria by which games are rated is so broad that we'd be better off putting stoplight symbols on games: RED, YELLOW, GREEN. And that's it.

Sometimes less is more informative.

RED: Don't buy this game for children.
YELLOW: Don't buy this game for grandparents.
GREEN: This game isn't any fun whatsoever.

Some politicians and lawyers are pushing various measures and laws to "protect the children". Is this the kind of protection kids need these days? Do you feel fines against store clerks and larger labels are part of a solution to help parents?

Jeff: Uhm...No.

I don't even believe "helping parents" is the real motivation for that. I think the real motivation there is to try and stop other people's children from playing games that those kids' parents don't mind them playing.

And...maybe to get some votes, or possibly even because going around raising a fuss about video game violence beats working for a living.

But you know, I'm real jaded about this sort of thing.

I like to imagine a world in which games are considered in the same light as books and film: Some of them are for kids, and some of them aren't, and no sane person really has a problem with Deer Hunter (the movie) or The Godfather (the movie) being inappropriate for 8-year-olds.

But I also realize that we don't live in that imaginary world.

That is unfortunate – we'd get more meaningful games if we were allowed to explore areas that elicit emotional responses beyond just "Ewww! That was bloody!"

I mean, if you want to make a game that people remember, there aren't a lot of tools at your disposal. Largely that's due to the perception that video games are for kids, period. Adults can play them, but they're for kids, so there's sort of a national outcry if you put anything in a game that isn't 100% kid-friendly.

It's not as if we're all sitting around thinking, "Oh man, we wish we could do this totally depraved thing that has no redeeming value, no artistic merit whatsoever, but The Man won't let us!"

It's more like we're wishing we could do more meaningful things, and "The Man" says "I can't sell that. Who am I gonna sell that to? Get out."

Well, but there is one ironic exception to that: If you do it so over the top that there's just no mistaking that the game is inappropriate for children, then you can get away with it.

If Hollywood were in this situation then they'd only be making rated-G movies and rated-X movies and nothing in between.

Increased aggression. Addiction. Low attention span. There's more than a few charges against allowing kids to play video games these days. Are any of these things issues you see with your own children? Are there any specific warnings or words of advice you'd give to other parents?

Jeff: They are definitely more aggressive now than they were when they were babies, but somewhat less aggressive than when they were toddlers.

I have seen them latch onto some new thing – be it a video game or the fad of the month – for long enough that I don't consider either one of them to have low attention spans, but not for so long that I start thinking they're addicted.

Heck, they watched Lion King about 900 times back in the day and I never thought to send them to rehab. Kids just do that sort of thing.

As far as advice for other parents...No! What do I know? Raise your own kids. Or let store clerks do it. Whatever works for you. Heh.

Enough of the bad. What are the positive aspects you feel games have on kids, and do you have any specific examples with your own?

Jeff: In our case, the most positive aspect is that it gives us a common interest. So we get something that we're all interested to discuss, compare and contrast the individual games that we like to play and so on.

I'm not sure what we'd have in common if it weren't for games. I might have had to start watching, ugh, anime.

Are there any games you play with your children? Any suggestions for parents of games that would work well for the ages of your kids?

Jeff: When it comes to actually playing games, our interests are a bit too diverse to actually play together. I've played MMOs with son#1, but mostly he wants to play in PvP competitions that I'm not, uhm, "interested in" (let's say) enough to actually play.

Son #2 is more interested in console games (and sims, for some reason), of the sort that you don't generally play with other people. So I mostly just watch him play, and he shows me all the cool stuff that I'm too old and slow to get to myself.

And they give me great game reviews, like this (old IM conversation):

Q: Did you like it?
A: nope

Q: Why not?
A: bad customization options

Q: How do you mean?
A: can't make ur own models
A: and the ones provided suck
A: especially monsters
A: and lame battle cinematics
A: I want to see my little characters fight!
A: save your money and download and RPG maker on the internet

Q: RPG Maker 2000?
A: yeh

Q: There's no English version of that!
A: uhh
A: well, not my prob :P

And when the kids are away? What gets your attention these days?

Jeff: Work work work...and I play pretty much every shiny new MMO (or even just MO) that comes out.

But otherwise? I watch a lot of movies. I especially like Romantic Comedies.

Thanks again go to Jeff for his answers, who like any good developer gave them during the graveyard shift Monday night.

If you like this sort of thing, check out the GamerDad interview.


Thomas said...

I really enjoy these interviews. Thanks!

Troy Goodfellow said...

Another great interview. Keep 'em coming.