Category Archives: Politics

I Talk Games and Conflict at Blogs of War

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I appeared on Blogs of War’s Covert Contact Podcast to talk about games and warfare.

Discussion topics include:

  • How games (often erroneously) portray warfare
  • Call of Duty‘s strange evolution as the premier military series
  • The merging of video game tech and military hardware
  • How VR and gamification will change how we live–and how we fight

This was a great chat, and it looks like I’ll be returning to comment on games there from time-to-time, so keep watching my Twitter feed!


Extra Credits: Where Do Consoles Come From?

Once again, I’ve collaborated with the folks at Extra Credits on a topic I’ve followed for a while: supply chain problems in console manufacturing. Proud as punch serve as a co-writer with EC, and hey, is that Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame? Damn.

This sounds like a dull issue, but it’s increasingly important. Our globalized economy provides mind-boggling manufacturing power, but it also hides the people who actually make the objects we use in our everyday lives.

Give it a watch:


I’m at Playboy Discussing the Video Game Wars of the Future

I wrote an article for Playboy that included an interview with leading defense expert P.W. Singer.

Singer’s a brilliant guy, the type that you listen to when he talks. So when I found out his new novel, Ghost Fleet, predicts that video game technology will merge with military hardware, I thought it was worth asking him about it.

Military Expert P.W. Singer Predicts the Video Game Wars of the Future (NSFW, because Playboy. Do I really need to say that? I mean, there’s no nudity, but still, it’s Playboy.)

Wait, did you say you read it…for the articles?

Haha, so funny. You’re totally the first person to tell me that.


One Month of Critical Intel

As you probably know, I’ve been hard at work recently on Critical Intel, my new weekly column at The Escapist.  It’s been a great month packed end-to-end with work that makes me really proud.  Frankly, having a dedicated space each week has made me understand what it’s like when dogs go to a leash-free park.  First they stand there staring at their owners, blinking, as if to say: “What?  I can go anywhere I want now?”  Then they’re off like a shot, tearing over the scenery as quickly as possible, making giant leaps and running circles.

I’ve always had enough ideas about games to write an article every week, the two things I didn’t have were the time and the dedicated venue.  Of the two, the venue was the most difficult part (I can make time) and I can’t thank the good people at Escapist enough for giving me my own little corner of the web.

So what, exactly, is Critical Intel?  Broadly, it’s a column that examines the overlap between videogames and the real world.  That covers a lot of territory – one week I might be talking about an historical event or legend featured in a game, another week I might be discussing military or medical uses of game technology, while I finish up the month with an in-depth look at the trouble games get into overseas.  It will be always intelligent, always well-researched, and often international.  My goal is to take you a level deeper.

Just to give you a sampler, of the three articles that have come out so far, the first was about game censorship in China, the second discussed how games misrepresent the Mexican Cartel War, and the third addressed whether Assassin’s Creed III‘s DLC pack passes muster historically.  The fourth, out this Thursday, is about something entirely different.

Writing an article every week – while holding a full-time job – has been a real challenge, but the warm response all of you have given Critical Intel makes all the long nights and sacrificed weekends worthwhile.  Thanks to everyone for sharing this new journey with me, and I’m looking forward to showing you interesting new stuff every week – bringing need-to-know information to the people who need to know everything.


Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies (Video)

At PAX Prime 2012, James Portnow, Steve Watts, Elisa Melendez and I hosted a panel on the many issues games run into by portraying real events – especially in an age where games are played around the world.

Have a look:


Beyond Borders Reading List

We are in the midst of a sea change in the way games are made, marketed, and consumed.  Previously a product that was made only by Western and Japanese studios, and consumed primarily in Japan and the West, videogames are now a worldwide form of media with a presence on every continent.

One of the results of game globalization has been a backlash against the countries and groups of people regularly depicted as “enemies,” as well as a greater — sometimes disturbingly greater — partnership between game development, the military, and arms manufacturers.

At this year’s PAX Prime, we’ll be exploring this in our panel Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies.  Come see us on Saturday, September 1st, at 5:00 PM in the Unicorn Theater.

After our previous PAX East panel, Borders, Bigotry, and Body Dumps: International Videogame Controversies, enough people requested extra resources that I put together a supplemental reading list on this blog.  Now that Beyond Borders is going live, I’ve updated the list to reflect new developments such as the Oliver North/Black Ops controversy as well as the links between EA and arms companies.

If you have any questions, I will gladly answer them in the comments.

Increasing Crossover Between Games and Real Life

The Trouble with Call of Duty‘s Scary New War of the Future — An exploration of the problematic nature of Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II advertising.  It is especially critical of Oliver North’s role in the campaign.

Partners In Arms — The editorial which first pointed out that EA’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter is not only partnering with arms companies, but actively advertising their products on its website.

Hotel Oasis in Modern Warfare 3 — featured as Makarov’s hideout in the mission “Ashes to Ashes” — displays a striking resemblance to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai:

 

Representing Foreign Conflicts in Games

Ghosts of Juarez — My own article exploring the Mexican government’s reaction to Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 and anticipating the fallout from Call of Juarez: The Cartel.

Extra Credits: Call of Juarez: The Cartel — The Extra Credits episode I essentially wheedled/nagged/coerced James Portnow into making on the subject.  A well-done video on what’s wrong with the game, filled with quiet rage.

Guardian Article on The Castro Assassination Mission in CoD: Black Ops — Contains quotes from the Cuban government, including the best quote in the history of videogame controversies: “What the United States government did not achieve in more than 50 years, it now tries to do virtually.”

Red Cross Report on War Crimes in Videogames

You’re a War Criminal — This article by Steve Watts not only won him a spot on “Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps,” but is the most clear-eyed discussion of the topic I’ve found anywhere.

Representation of Foreign People in Games

Muslims in My Monitor — Writer Saladin Ahmed discusses representation of Muslims in games.  Saladin is also the author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is an example of someone taking active part in re-framing a problematic representation of a group of people (in this case, Middle Eastern people in Fantasy).

Dangerous games people play — an opinion piece from the UAE about Middle Eastern stereotypes in games and media.

The Ugly Paulistano — a Brazilian writer living in São Paulo feels that Max Payne 3 is a fair representation of the crime in his city.

(Also see the EC episodes on Race in Games and Call of Juarez, linked above and below.)

Game Development Outside of North America, Europe, and Japan

Is the Arab World the next hot spot for gaming? — Excellent article about gaming in Yemen, and references the development of Unearthed: The Trail of Ibn Battuta.  The Reuters article it was sourced from is worth a read, and can be found here.

Argentina’s video gamers take on the world — CNN article about game development in Argentina which quotes our own panelist, James Portnow.

Hezbollah video game: War with Israel — A good example of an unhelpful response to these issues, this CNN article is about the Hezbollah propaganda game Special Force 2: The Truthful Pledge.

Solutions

Extra Credits: Race in Games — The EC team tackles the difficult subject of how better to represent people in games.

A Renaissance Scholar Helps Build Virtual Rome — A profile of Italian historian Marcello Simonetta, who consulted on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Extra Credits: Spec Ops: The LineSPOILERS, OH SO MANY SPOILERS… The EC team discusses a game that is itself a criticism of how games depict warfare.


Game Journalism and the Scandal Cycle

In the wake of E3, there has been an avalanche of articles, blogs, and Twitter postings on the following topics:

All of these topics are important and I’m happy the game journalism community has given them the attention they deserve.  Even better, judging by the comments on these articles, a lot of people seem to understand the problem and would like to see a change.

However, reading all this made me feel like I was free-diving in sewer water.

Once you’re past the U-bend you’re homefree!

One of the greatest lessons of the Internet is that outrage is the only thing that sells better than sex, and controversies get hits, comments, Tweets, and Facebook shares. I’m not suggesting that gaming sites drum up controversies solely for hits–I doubt anyone could call the above concerns illegitimate, at least not in good conscience–but that social media users tend to be drawn to sharing stories that provoke an emotional response.  When shared on a wide scale, these stories create a sort of feedback loop where everyone in the community wants to join the discussion whether they’re a journalist, player, or part of the PR machine.  A PR gaffe turns into a news story on a news site like Kotaku, which is editorialized on a blog, which is Tweeted widely, which attracts harassing comments,  and those comments then become a story on Kotaku.  While this particular scenario is theoretical, anyone who spends time on the Internet understands what I’m referencing.

However, I would also suggest that these controversies tend to be chain-reactions.  Look at the list above and you’ll find two major themes: 1) the predominance of sexist thinking in games and game culture; and 2) the perceived stagnation of the AAA market through the over-emphasis on “dark,” violent games.

It’s no accident that these two memes are currently dominating the outrage circuit since one controversy tends to bleed into another.  Put simply, once one powerful article has been read and discussed at large, people have the tendency to see the world through the lens of that controversy.  For example, I absolutely believe that the Tomb Raider controversy wouldn’t have made as big a splash were it not for the Hitman and rape culture articles that preceded it, or even the negative tweets about E3 “Booth Babes.”  Each controversy lays the groundwork for the next, not only because readers still have unresolved feelings, but because thinking about and discussing problematic representations or exclusionary social norms makes the community more likely to recognize and share new examples of both.

And don’t get me wrong: This Is A Good Thing™.  The fact that we’re recognizing the underlying problems in gaming and discussing them at all is major progress.  Just like every nation, industry, religious order or hippie commune, the games community has deeply-ingrained issues we need to work out.  The representation of women in games and treatment of female gamers, for instance, is a problem that’s been building ever since women began to join the community in large numbers.  At this point in time, forty-eight percent of game players are women, meaning misogynist language is potentially alienating half of the community.  If we don’t combat the misogyny in the gamer population, we’re going to see fallout throughout the industry–it’s an appendix about to burst, and removing it is going to be a painful process.

That’s what we’re going through now: an appendectomy.  As painful as it is to trudge through tweets, articles, and blogs full of anger and justification, the end result will ultimately make us better.  Surgery hurts.  Drugs cause side effects.  Healing is generally a painful process that makes you feel weak and sick.  I’m not going to lie: opening the gaming community to women and minorities, as well as shaking AAA games from their current torpor, isn’t going to be a fast or fun process, but the end result will make it worthwhile.  By recognizing and discussing problems, we’re showing both the industry and our peers the kind of games–and society–we want.

But discussing that means exactly that: discussing, not preaching.  Read widely.  Listen more than you talk.  See a problem from someone else’s perspective.  When you understand what’s driving their concerns, you’re more likely to find common ground.  State your case with precision.  Use examples where games got it right, not just games that failed.  Avoid insults and condemnations.  When you condemn people, they’ll never agree with you–and that’s your ultimate objective, isn’t it?  Conversion, not conquest?  Let me tell you a secret: you don’t win an argument by telling your opponent “I’m right and you’re wrong,” you win by making your case so clear and compelling that your opponent links arms with you and says: “Let’s be right together.”

There’s another, crucial component to all this: positivity.  I mean really people, I feel like I’ve spent two weeks guzzling bile, can you give me something good to hold onto?  This stuff makes me feel so bad that I’ve actually had a hard time reading games journalism lately, and I’m a games journalist.  The danger of fighting and re-fighting all these controversies in such a short timeframe is we run the risk of succumbing to scandal fatigue, where everyone gets entrenched and reactionary, and is generally just spoiling for a fight.  I recall something I said during the Game Journalism panel at PAX East, namely, that games journalism tends to have a lot of negativity, and we need to resist the urge to snark.  Games are a medium full of wonder and possibility, but we spend most of our time harping on its flaws rather than celebrating the great things it can do.  Games take us to new places, bring us knowledge, and even help heal the sick.  Just because we’re elbow-deep in wrangling the uglier demons of our culture doesn’t mean we have to lose our sense of collective amazement and enthusiasm.  In denigrating the bad, we must not fail to champion the good–especially since building on positive success is what will ultimately let us transcend and overcome our bad habits.  Also, peppering in some positive news lets us relax a little, giving us the time to take our hands off each others’ throats and rebuild our community’s bonds of trust.

I know it can be hard to avoid the snark sometimes, but we have to try.  Take WonderBook for instance.  When it debuted at E3 I could barely contain myself.  The demo itself wasn’t the best of the show, true, but there’s massive potential.  We could design textbooks that contain 3D depictions of planets, moving physics models, cutaway topography maps!  Consider how amazing an Incredible Cross Sections book would be if you could strip layers at will–and imagine my disappointment when this peripheral was greeted with yawns and eye-rolling and “get-on-with-it”s from most of the gaming press.  I’m going to be honest–I kind of needed some enthusiasm and vision at that moment.  I think, after seeing so many guns and guttings and Booth Babes and arguments, we all needed to see that old gaming magic again.  At that moment, I felt like E3 had opened Pandora’s Box, and there I was searching through the bottom, wondering if they shorted me on Hope.

Make no mistake, these controversies are a struggle for the soul of gaming.  But we have to remember that even as we have our disagreements, we need to keep nurturing and celebrating that common soul we all share as gamers, that delight we feel interacting with a new and vibrant world.  We need to celebrate our successes just as much as we nitpick our failures, since it’s only by elevating the good examples that we find our way forward.  Because ultimately we’re all part of a community, and if we’re to integrate and co-exist, we also need to focus on our common values.

Let me suggest this as a start: We All Love Games.