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Saturday, July 16, 2005

GameSpot's Hot Coffee Review

Given that the minigame is about as raunchy as an episode of Sex and the City, cannot be accessed without entering a long string of cheat codes, and takes several hours of effort to access, charges that San Andreas is "pornographic" may seem extreme to some. However, its existence does appear to contradict Rockstar Games' carefully worded statement blaming hacker mischief for the existence of the Hot Coffee mod.
-- Confirmed: Sex minigame in PS2 San Andreas

Except, of course, for the fact that without the hackers, the codes and flags wouldn't be released. So the existence is still very much the fault of the hackers.

And to an extent, this proves that Rockstar isn't completely lying. The Hot Coffee modders have clearly modified the code to swap out the naked textures and there are other modifications to the gameplay in certain versions of the mod to "enhance" the visits (unlocking all girls, etc.)

So like I had mentioned earlier, the truth is in the middle. What Rockstar left in, but kept locked, was a lame, unfinished and only semi-raunchy "sex" game with no nudity. The modders have enhanced this by placing naked textures and altering gameplay.

In the end, Rockstar probably should have just kept silent. I really doubt they are legally liable for the actions of other people altering their code. Nor do I see how the ESRB could have predicted this without doing the same level of hacking ... which the fact is quite advanced seems to have escaped just about everyone on this issue.

What's next? The ESRB going to get crucified if someone introduces a "blood" mod to a game? I mean, we all know bloodshed isn't as bad as fellatio, but I guess they better start hiring some hackers just to be prepared.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Forgot the Clue

Completely forgot I was going to give a clue to the COGIV puzzle.

So here it is:

You should look towards the source for some clues.

Dev Night Diary: Disparaging Thoughts

Haven't had a DND for a while, but there are reasons. I've been somewhat caught in my own dev quagmire. My first problem with UTC was having no idea of what I was doing. Unfamiliar with Torque 2D and clueless about C++ were fairly big obstacles. But now my problem is far worse. Now my problem is that my game isn't any real fun. I've tried ripping it up and putting it back together in various ways, but it still feels like ... at best ... a very derivative shooter with little longevity. The visuals are lacking and while the procedural textures are nice ... they aren't nearly efficient or powerful enough to do what I currently need.

There's something inherent missing or broken and it's hard to put my finger on just what it is. I may take a few steps away from the project for now and start on something else.

Rockstar has no worries. Mods have worries.

There's been a lot of foaming about the blood in the water for Rockstar. Hilary Clinton and a certain Floridian whacko lawyer have gotten together. Game developers are decrying Rockstar for making them look bad. Rockstar's PR efforts have been questioned widely if not simply openly mocked.

For the record, I think the truth is somewhere in between Rockstar's releases and the mod author claims. And it should be noted that all the mod author has to do is release his source code to publically solve this quandry. Why shouldn't he, it's not like he could sell it.

Some people might read that and say, why can't he? Well, that's because by installing the game he agreed to an End User License Agreement, or EULA, which almost certainly states that he can't profit on software related to GTA without permission from Rockstar. This agreement has been the legal barrier for the mod community since around the time mods began. You can play with the code, but don't try to act like you have a license to the engine.

However, the Hot Coffee mod may not even be protected by that. Simply releasing a tool to hack into the code may break the EULA, as has been in the case before. Eidos attempted to crack down on the notorious Lara Craft nude patch and Tecmo cracked down on nude DOA's under these auspices.

The point being that while it seems like the cannibals are swarming, Rockstar isn't in much hot water here. Every game shipped today has protections for hacks like this and wonderful laws like the DCMA only make them stronger. Even if Rockstar provided animations of big bouncing boobies, it's not their fault that a user broke the EULA.

So people like Hilary have no case. Which is fine for them. They don't need one. They just need soundbites and reasons to pound podiums for a while. It's not like they're going to actually have to do anything about it, other than win brownie points.

The real losers here will be the mod community. While people like Valve and Epic will undoubtably try to hold onto their cash cows and folks like Will Wright will continue to try and push forth "user worlds", most companies will look at all of this hubbub and at their next board meeting decide that being permissive with users and their content isn't worth the legal flak. They won't allow any dev time for mod tools and they'll double check their EULAs to allow crackdowns just in case.

And if these people who are currently lamblasting decide to turn their gaze towards the mod community being unrestricted, there will be real hell to pay.

New ESRB Ratings

It's going to go something like this, with a simple but strict delineation:

KIDS: Only cartoon violence is allowed.
TEENS: Violence may be prevalent and realistic, but there must not be any blood.
MATURE: Violence of any kind involving blood.
ADULT: Depicting that a man actually has sex with his girlfriend.

Oh wait, my bad. That's the current system. The fine line here is that any scene which actually visually shows sex is going way too far, but any auditory or other suggestion that sex occurs is probably OK. For instance, God of War features a rythm sex mini-game similar to what is in the GTA Hot Coffee mod, but the camera turns away just as a shipgirl is about to fellate Kratos. So that makes it OK for a seventeen year old to watch it.

If they showed that, you'd have to wait a year. But if Kratos' bloody evisceration of his foes were, you know ... just a little less bloody ... you could probably play God of War before you were able to drive.

Course since a lot of parents would buy it despite the rating, since the consumer advocacy groups have largely failed to convince them of a problem, that's all rather moot. Apparently the real reason to avoid an Adult rating for a game is that fact that Wal-mart won't carry it. So in other words, Wal-mart has video games with violence at any speed, but puts the brakes on any kind of sex?

Is sex really that much worse than violence? It hasn't been in my experience.

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Filled with filthy smut

Joy of Tech says what's in my heart.

Apparently Rockstar had created the fine line between pushing the envelope and setting kittens on fire in front of the White House ... at least from some of the reactions out there.


While the slight adjustment to CSS is nice, parents and the like should note that I've added a right bar section "For Parents", which much to my surprise already has four links. GamerDad we've talked to, NIMF we've talked about and the other two are new. GameFam comes Hunicke Approved, so it must be good enough for the rest of us mortals.

I'll say right here and now that on some of these sites might be opinions about video games I don't necessarily agree with ... but everything I've read on them is rational and well-thought out and merits attention. Especially if you're trying to raise chillin's.

Nintendo DS on top of old Smokey

People have probably already stumbled on this, but if you missed this interview with Everest Mountaineers abusing the hell out of their Nintendo DS's, it's worth a read:

GameSpy: But how much abuse did they actually take?

Neal Mueller: A ****load. Because the air is very thin, a lot of transistors just break. They literally implode. Also, the temperature can get to 20 below zero Fahrenheit, and wires and LCD screens can get very brittle at that temperature. But the DS is well-built, and it's built in a way that is less susceptible to the problems you have at high altitudes and low temperatures.
-- Mountain Men []

And don't forget, you can still try to win a Nintendo DS from Kotaku. Although I entered myself, so if you win one and I don't ... you owe me half.

That Sky Looks Like Ground

VGCats is really teh funny

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Mirror Image Living Log

On a positive note, my bit about Counter-Strike Porn and GTA got a mention on the German Spiegel Online network, although I have only a brief inkling of what they are saying. Babel tells me that I'm referred to as writing a Mirror Image Living Log and I'm not quite sure what to think of that but it sounds cool as hell.

Strange Reactions

I'm about to complain a bit. It will probably come out as attention whoring whininess.

I don't really care.

I'm normally a bit surprised that anyone wants to read my stuff, much less bother to tell other people about it or link to it. But I had expected a little more support from the GamerDad interview. I mean, when I got a developer from SWAT4 on the line, Blues' and Shack posted it as did several fan sites and Irrational themselves. Considering what a hot topic violence, kids and games are these days - why not?

Well games.slash rejected it in about a half hour. Blues and Shack ignored it. Evil Avatar posted it, but they decided to categorize it as such:

Yeah, that's right ... the site for "gaming news with attitude" considers an interview with a professional game reviewer wherein he talks about games and the game industry and kids and gaming and just a whole bunch of stuff about games to be totally off topic.

Which is sad. Because that means that if a crazy ass lawyer who probably hasn't played a game in his life gets up and makes a speech - everyone will hear it. But if a perfectly rational gamer who is trying to actually help parents make a decision about gaming gets up to the table ... well I guess sane people just aren't as interesting. So the people who know the least but yell the loudest will get center stage because they're entertaining. Rational dialogue is going to be the sideshow.

Avatar's explanation is that "We do not normally link to interviews with other webmasters. Webmasters, despite the hard work that they do, are not developers." Right, because the only news worthy of being posted comes from developers. And not marketing guys or reviewers or producers or anyone else in the game industry. Whatever.

However because I do love to produce offtopic material, I plan on continuing this kind of interview. I've already got one lined up and am hoping for a third to sign on by the end of the week. At least then we'll have it on record that these conversations have taken place.

Thanks goes to the various members of the blogosphere who linked up and to ConsoleGold News ... who by the looks of it never sleeps and gets just about every news bit out there.

Your Answers, Mosquito Edition

I'd like to quickly respond to a couple of mosquito related queries. Or at least try to.

Anime mosquitos do not actually exist. Not even fictionally. There is no recorded evidence to point to one. This is probably because they are very, very small even if they would have larger than normal eyes.

I'm not entirely sure of the answer to "what are the side effects of multiple mosquito bytes" ... The Girl suggests that there is probably always at least one itch you can't scratch. We're both a little confused, however, as to what kind of data storage is required for even a single mosquito byte.

Gosh dang, this query tracker is more fun than google ads.

Blast from My Sordid PDA Past

I blame gizmodo's soliciting comments about PDA's (that's me towards the bottom) for the dragging out of this URL from the closet:

One of my first forays into serving web content to the general public was hijacked, a fansite for Palm Pilots. I even had one of those pilots with 3Com branded on it. I wrote a PERL based CMS for it, setup sections for quick user feedback (think protobloggish), and I eventually moved to whole operation to it's own domain. Then I lost the need to have a PDA in my life, lost interest in updating the site, and then eventually abandoned the domain. Now it's one of those link farm things. Not to mention the name "hijacked" makes little sense with the name swapping Palm does these days.

Just weird, like lifting up one of the couch cusions and finding that old novel you never finished ... writing.

More Thoughts on WiFi "Piracy"

In the shower this morning I had an odd thought about the possibility of using someone else's public wifi network being illegal. Yes, I know how horribly geeky that sounds and I'm quite comfortable with it.

Anyway, if my neighbor sets up a public wifi network and I use it, then let's say for fun's sake that it's the equivalent of cracking his firewall, using a brute force password program to get control of his computer and running amuck on his system. Let's say his system had a share drive for his personal LAN to host movies, music, etc. for his whole house.

Now according to the "attacking my router" crowd, someone who has setup a public WiFi connection with publically available copyrighted material is in no way rousing the ire of the RIAA, because they're just being ... infiltrated? Something there doesn't really add up. And I'm guessing the RIAA would agree.

Seems if you don't want your material publically available ... don't make it publically available. Seems like Internet Common Sense 101.

GTA Earns Another Star

GameDailyBiz (beware of annoying popup links) is reporting that NIMF is alerting parents about the Hot Coffee mod in San Andreas. NIMF, or the National Institute on Media and the Family, also has parent orientated reviews, not unlike our friend GamerDad ... although they're even more obscure.

What's interesting about NIMF is that they're founded by none other than Dr. David Walsh. Walsh, who also goes by the moniker Dr. Dave (I don't get the first name doctor thing, always makes them sound like a cartoon character), has appeared alongside a certain wacko lawyer from Florida occasionally. Remarkably when removed from such trappings, Doc Dave sounds pretty rational:

It's not that every teen who plays Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is going to go out and pick up an Uzi. The real impact is much more subtle. The worst effect of ultra violent, sexually exploitative video games is the culture of disrespect they create. Whoever tells the stories defines the culture. What do we think the effect is when our kids' storytellers are violence simulators that glorify gang culture, celebrate brutality, extol crudeness and trivialize violence toward women
-- Teens like M Rated Games ... duh

But I guess that "won't pick up an Uzi" bit gets edited out when one is trying to, you know, crucify an industry for getting kids to pick up Uzis. To be honest, everything I've read of Walsh's seems pretty reasonable when it's not being used as kindling for the witch burning.

Jeff Minter on the the 360

This is a little old, but the Guardian Blogs have a great interview with Jeff Minter, the man behind llamasoft and so many pretty colors dancing to music, and his upcoming work with the 360:

Neon is controlled with up to four controllers simultaneously. Each user controls certain aspects of each effect using the analog sticks and the d-pad and buttons. Any layers not controlled by users are controlled by an audio-driven "autopilot" system. The 360 will be able to utilise a variety of different audio sources, and any of those sources can be used to drive Neon.
-- Jeff Minter vs XBox 360

Of course, I think it's so brilliant to develop gaming for the living room which is cooperative and casual that I've been working on it for a few months now ... so it's fascinating to read what a guy like Minter is doing about it.

Blogged Out

Gamasutra now has a column called Blogged Out, which chronicles the bloggery of various game professionals:

The IGDA's Jason Della Rocca suggests that we all read up on Modern Portfolio Theory for a better grasp of how diversification of investment might moderate investors’ fears and the damage risk aversion can cause to growth. Continuing the train of thought, Activision's Jamie Fristrom suggests that the real problem with risk-averse publishers is the near-breakout titles (he cites Treyarch’s cancelled Dead Rush) that will so often be canned before completion. How many games, he asks, could have been great, even if they weren’t to be the next The Sims?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Interview with a GamerDad

One of the more interesting aspects of all the mainstream coverage about how video games and their impact on parenting children is just how little we see of parents, gamers or children. When 60 Minutes covered the Devin Moore shootings, there was no Devin, there wasn't Devin's parents and there was scant sign of anyone who really played games (except for some brief clips so that Ed Bradley could scuffaw at more gore during GTA).

Cathode Tan suggests reversing this trend and kicks off the movement by sitting down with Andrew Bub ... AKA GamerDad. is precisely the kind of website which should be flashed at the end of any show covering this issue. It's a place where parents and gamers get together and talk about the industry, their children and how it all fits together. Very often, the parent and the gamer is the same person. So without further adieu, here's a few words from someone on the frontline of trying to help parents get information about the games their children might play:

Just for the record - how long have you been a gamer and how many kids do you have?

GamerDad: Let’s see . . . I first noticed Space Invaders back in 1978 or so and that’s when quarters became scarce in my home. Atari 2600, Apple IIe, Commodore, Sega Genesis, man, I really haven’t looked back since! I’ve been a professional freelance writer for the past 8 years. I have two kids and just had a vasectomy – so it’s likely to remain at two. My darling Maggie is 5, and little Henry is currently entrenched in the “terrible twos.”

You've been reviewing games for some time. When did the idea for GamerDad come about?

GamerDad: Part of it was the Internet bubble bursting. Part was turning 30 and wondering if I wanted to continue riding the frustrating freelance writer treadmill forever. A lot of it was the tech bubble bursting and my losing an alarming number of outlets in a short period of time. But mainly it was that I became a parent and a stay-at-home dad. The time I spent with Maggie made me less interested in the current blastfest du jour and more interested in how kids learn, how they’re affected by games. Since I’d written a couple feature articles about violence and gaming, and since I liked the topic, I decided to become a pundit – a voice – in that argument. Since most game review sites ignore the children issue, and since almost all of the kid-review sites are written from a “non-gamer” point of view, I decided it was time for the industry to have a more reasonable voice - A voice that was honest about content, kept up on BOTH sides of the “Games are Bad/Games are Good” argument. One that told parents which games to buy and which to avoid, but above all, one that argued from an “I like games” perspective.

It seems that the controversy about whether games are bad for kids has raged on since the days of Atari. Do you think there were notable moments where it escalated? The first person shooter genre perhaps, or the quick evolution of graphics?

GamerDad: Oh, I’m sure Pong scared the crap out of some parents! And Pinball always had a seedy reputation too. But the notable milestones are a coin-op called Deathrace 2000 (semi-based on a movie of the same name), one called Space Invaders (which launched the “addiction” concerns among parent’s groups, and of course Mortal Kombat. Then came Doom and Grand Theft Auto. It’s amazing really. There about been hundreds of thousands of games, but the mainstream really has only noticed a handful (it’s also amazing that they never noticed older crude games like Kingpin or Carmageddon).

Graphics are the most obvious cause for concern. I remember my dad being shocked at the “realism” of Wolfenstein 3D back in 1991, but now that game looks crude and inoffensive when compared with modern shooters. Doom too. But I’d argue the real escalator of the controversy boils down to content. With Deathrace it was concerns over driving over people, with Mortal Kombat it was the fatalities, and with Grand Theft it’s the complete freedom and amoral nature of the gameplay. (Please note that I used “amoral” not “immoral” here.)

Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto are often given as examples of video games, but games like Halo 2 are also rated in the same category of "Mature". According to some, the ESRB ratings are too soft ... but you've been quoted as saying games like Halo should be rated for teens. How skewed do you think the ESRB system is overall?

GamerDad: Whew, this is a really good question. Let me start by saying that I’m in favor of the ESRB. They have an impossible job (nobody knows that better than me and my crew) and they do a fair job.

What I don’t like is the disparity between TV and movie ratings, and videogames. Movies aimed at 13 year olds are FAR more violent than most videogames; more violent than Halo, for example. Y7 is the TV rating that says gunplay is okay for kids so long as it’s animated and nobody dies, but games get a T-Teen if a gun makes an appearance. I think the inconsistency between the ratings can be confusing to parents. Then there’s the other line in the sand – blood. Medal of Honor from EA is rated Teen despite having an extensive D-Day recreation that’s truly horrifying. It’s T because they removed the blood. Meanwhile the body count in a shooter like Halo 2 is much lower, but there’s purple blood. Blood = M. Violence does not. The ESRB has to do things this way, there are so many games released, but I’m not in favor of “line in the sand” ratings. I believe parents deserve as much information as possible. GamerDad isn’t an attempt to replace the ESRB – we’re here to enhance it.

In general, does the industry give parents enough information about games for purchases? Is the boxing informational or misleading? Will a big sign describing the ESRB ratings help?

GaemerDad: No. And the reason is described above in the size of the ESRB’s task. GamerDad lets me be more nuanced than the ESRB can ever be and we can provide more info that you can fit on a box. We’re the place to go when you want a clue why the ESRB rated a game a certain way. will tell you what’s in the game more specifically than the ESRB can.

I think the ESRB signs are helpful, I think a lot of parents could benefit, but I also think too often politicians and the industry figure its ignorance that prompts a parent to buy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for their 8 year old. Often, from what I’ve seen, it’s not ignorance, its apathy. Some parents either don’t care or don’t believe that violent videogames are harmful. Why? Well, how many Rated R movies did you read as a kid? How many adult books did you read? Did it harm you? Maybe, maybe not but there’s definitely a class of people who just expose their kids to anything and that’s where their involvement ends.

Is this a bad thing? GamerDad says no. Ultimately it’s the parents right to choose the media and intensity their kids experience. GamerDad is just here to encourage them to make informed decisions and to watch, or play, games with their kids. I believe that parental involvement is MUCH more important than mindlessly protecting your kids from anything controversial or disturbing.

As a parent, how do you feel about the way lawyers and politicians have framed violence in gaming? Does it seem like they are voicing real parental concerns or generating new ones?

GamerDad: It’s opportunism, pure and simple. Politicians know that their laws will be struck down as unconstitutional (FACT: Games are protected by Free Speech, they cannot be regulated by the Government) and the lawyers, man don’t get me started on them, they’re just looking for anything they can blame (read: sue) in the wake of real tragedies. This tactic works (it’s always worked) because when something horrible happens it feels good to blame it on something like Doom or a comic book.

Recently the mainstream media has made a lot of connections about violence and gaming. Do you think that in general this is being done with accuracy and clarity or does it just leave parents with a lot of very scary unanswered questions?

GamerDad: New York Times Headline from last year: “Bad News Parents! Games Might be Good For Kids”

I’ve spent a year thinking about that line and I can’t find any reason why that might be bad news – unless you hate games and hope they’ll get banned. Any other way of looking at it is positive. Has to be positive! This isn’t bad news and I think it takes a pretty unprincipled reporter and editor to write a line like that. Look, there’s a real bias against games in the media. Books like “Killing Monsters” by Gerard Jones are ignored against the latest anti-gaming screed. Statistics are ignored if they’re in favor, and the methodology of the studies that prove games are bad is never scrutinized. But it’s getting better, especially when they call on GamerDad to help with the article. (grin)

If a man (a completely random and nameless one, of course) arrived at your door and told you that the PlayStation was capable of loading your children with a cranial menu and manipulate them into being unwilling assassins, would you think he might be insane?

GamerDad: Yes. We all know that technology won’t appear until the PlayStation 3 hits shelves.

When it comes to influencing kids, how do you feel video games rank compared to other aspects of popular culture like movies, music or celebrities?

GamerDad: “Influence” is a tricky word here. I mean, everything is an influence and sometimes, often, influence can be a good thing. So I’d say “same, maybe less.” Games, being interactive, force a child to think, to be engaged, to memorize patterns, learn new skills, and when there are puzzles, to think outside the box – use logic – and to try until they succeed. I think these aspects of gaming influence kids FAR more than some digitized blood and violence do. Movies, games, comics, books, etc., can inspire interest in other subjects (a war movie can start a kid on a history reading binge, a football game might make a nerdy kid want to watch football with dad or mom), they can inspire humanity (Schindler’s List) or they can inspire interest in horror, gore, and military weaponry. They can all also inspire anti-social behavior and even violence, but I’d argue that this only happens in weak-willed or mentally troubled youth. And I’m sure we all realize that a trouble child or adult can be set off by anything. Catcher in the Rye, the Bible, Doom, The Passion of the Christ, Barney, you name it.

In general, what tips do you have for parents before they go purchase a new game?

GamerDad: Read GamerDad. (Smiles) I’m not kidding. We’ve got a search engine that lets you search for any kind of game. Say you want a game on the Xbox for a 5 year old. Enter in that information, sort by ESRB and/or GamerDad Seal, and you’ve got all our reviews aimed at your child.

Finally, what have you been playing lately and do you have any new recommendations for parents?

GamerDad: It all depends on the age of their kids, but I’ve been really into some of the more oddball games out there. Rhythm games like Donkey Konga (GameCube), Taiko Drum Master (PS2) and Dance Dance Revolution are excellent family games. So is Eye Toy (PS2) and any of the Mario sports games on the GameCube. These allow 2-4 players to compete and the game appeal transcends the typical testosterone geekery, complexity, and difficulty of most other games. I mean, everyone likes to bang on bongos, drums, and dance around like an idiot . . . right? Okay, well, kids like it fine. Trust me.

Of course after the kids go to bed I’m all about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Battlefield 2 baby. When the kids are away, then your friendly neighborhood GamerDad can really play!

Thanks again to Andrew for his time and answers. The URL is once again, Kids, if you're reading this ... do us all a favor and pass it on to your parents. Trust me, you'd rather have them reading Andrew than listening to lawyers on the television.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Counter-Strike Porn

Costik is all up in Rockstar's grill:

But--there are two problems with this. First, it lends aid and comfort to The Enemy, by which I mean censorious blue-nosed faux-Democrats like Lee, Schumer, and Clinton. Second, it's a violation of Rockstar's contractual relationship with the ESRB. There is no question that, had the ESRB known that this material existed on the disc--even without an in-game way to unlock it--they would have insisted on an AO rating. Which would have meant no Wal-Mart exposure.
-- Someone Bitchslap Rockstar

And I would argue that firstly we should be debating with The Enemy on the basis of logical and rational facts as opposed to giving into their knee-jerk reactions. And second I would ask - are you sure it's a violation?

Content gets hidden in various ways with games. For Unreal Tournament 2003, Epic left in a rather humorous vehicle involving a toilet. To find that, all someone had to do was look in the right place and make reference to it. Epic provides all sorts of tools for this with the game itself.

However, the "Hot Coffee" mod requires a code change. According to the mod author, Patrick Wildenborg, the gameplay, animations and textures were there - but there's a censor flag which blocks any of the material from being shown. To change this, you have to take a save game, manipulate the file with an external program to flip this flag, and then start up again. There's no way to directly reference the mature content without making an explicit alteration to the game itself.

So my question is ... where was all this hubbub when Counter-Strike was flashing pornographic images to thirteen year olds all over the world? Sure, Valve didn't leave behind naked tags that could be unlocked with a hex editor ... but they didn't need to - because they had created an extremely simple and user-friendly method of uploading your own. There have been naked mods for games since the beginning of mods, but Counter-Strike allowed a third party to inflict their pornography on you, without much but a server admin to block it.

The contention, I suppose, is that because this is Rockstar's own content, no matter how well hidden, that they should burn at the stake for it. But I go back to my initial point - let's look at this rationally. What's the difference in impact between creating a mechanism for adding porn and allowing the code to be alterable to unlock porn? If Epic had left pornographic material on the UT2003 disc, they'd be somewhat responsible on both fronts. They gave the content and the means to explore it. Valve may not be responsible for the content, but they sure were responsible for the delivery.

Rockstar may be responsible for the content, but it took some very creative people with a hex editor to make it public. This wasn't a code they could enter with a controller or a command line flag they could alter at startup. So what, precisely, are the critics of the ESRB expecting here? For them to hire some white hat hackers to delve bit by bit into code to judge whether or not some angry Disney animator left in a dirty animation that could be found only by swapping some 0's and 1's in a save file? Perhaps they'd like an extended rating system describing all the potential outcomes of user created content, so that when someone puts naked people in their version of Sims, they won't be surprised?

When people purchased San Andreas, it came with a rating. For the game they purchased, the rating was accurate. If they alter the game after that point, I'd say no matter how small of a change, the end user themselves have become responsible for the outcome.

And if the EULA on San Andreas doesn't clearly say that, then that is what I would be chastising Rockstar and Take Two about.