Archive for the ‘Moore, Ben’ Category

Video Games: The Package

For my package, I wanted to weave together three different stories using the violent video game Supreme Court case as a backdrop.  The first article acts as a sidebar, explaining the Supreme Court case and how it could impact the industry.  The second article gives a glimpse of local video game culture.  My goal with this article is to give an example of why games are so important to some people.  I was hoping to exemplify gaming’s social qualities and show how games can mean different things to different people.  The video that accompanies the article is meant to drive this point home.

The third article is supposed to be a snapshot of where video games are right now.  Not only did I want to include the positive things video games are doing, but also show some of the struggles the medium is going through.   Above all else, I want the package to show that video games could evolve into something great.  They certainly at least deserve the chance to.

The Current State Of Video Games

Where are video games at right now? Image courtesy of Tec-Knowledgy.

Since their humble beginnings in games like “Pong” and “Pac-Man”, video games have evolved a great deal.  What was once seen as the hobby of teenage shut-ins has now transformed into a multibillion dollar industry.  Even people who don’t play games understand what a Wii is.

“I think video games are to this generation what rock n’ roll music was to kids in the 60’s,” said Joe Baughman.  Baughman is a GameStop employee in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“The coolest things in pop culture are happening in games right now,” Baughman said.

Baughman has been playing games since the age of five.  The first game he ever encountered was “Super Mario Bros.”  The game’s bizarre world of warp pipes and magical mushrooms drew him in.

“It was just unlike anything I’d ever seen before.  It was crazy actually.  I loved it because it was so different and fun,” Baughman said.

Are video games toys?

Mario is fun partly because of how easy it is to understand.  The core concept of the game is to run and jump through levels until you reach the end.  Anyone can pick up a controller and “get” Mario.  However, the game’s simplistic nature has also allowed it to be perceived as something for children.

This is an image the video game industry has been reluctant to shred.  Even today, many older consumers consider video games to be toys.

“All I know is that my kids like them,” said Deb Gardener.  Mrs. Gardener is the mother of two teenage boys.  Both of them are obsessed with video games.

“I’m a little bit concerned.  It seems like the older my sons get, the more violent the games are becoming.  All they do is shoot things.  I know the games aren’t real, but isn’t there something healthier they could be doing?” Gardener said.

Gardener has never played a video game, saying that she doesn’t understand them.  When asked if she would ever be interested in learning more about video games, she politely declined.

“There are too many buttons on the things.  Besides, there aren’t really games made for me anyway.  I’m not that into violence and I’m too old to play with toys,” Gardener said.

Living in a boy’s world

Judy Eichler thinks that games can give her something that other forms of entertainment are not able to.  Eichler is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa and hopes to help design games someday.  She believes that being able to make choices is the most engaging characteristic about video games.  Although Eichler is passionate about games, she is saddened by the amount of sexism that is present in them.

“I really didn’t start getting interested in video games until they actually let you play as a girl.  Believe it or not, that wasn’t for quite awhile,” Eichler said.

Eichler’s favorite genre of game is the role-playing genre.  She says she enjoys them the most for their detail and how they involve the player in the world.

“These games give me a choice, unlike a lot of other games.  Maybe I don’t want to play as the scantily clad, male idea of a female soldier.  Maybe I want to play as a tough-as-nails chick who doesn’t take crap from anybody,” Eichler said.

Role-playing games have made the farthest strides in making men and women equal in the video game world.  Games like “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” not only let the player choose a female avatar, they also allow the player to fall in love with and develop a relationship with various men in the game.

“In nearly every other game I have to look at love and sex from a guy’s perspective,” Eichler said.  “How are video games supposed to get the respect they deserve if they can’t get rid of this sexist garbage?”

Eichler manages a female only online community where girl gamers can interact and play games together.  The group is called “Babes and Broadswords” and is currently sitting at 135 members.

“A lot of my girls don’t tell guys that they play video games, especially on the internet.  They act dumb about it.  Many of them say that they’ll just get harassed online or hit on by creepy jerks.  Judging by what I’ve seen, they’re absolutely right,” Eichler said.

Games are growing up

Bryer Day is of the mindset that video games are in a transitional period.  He is a contributing columnist to RipTen.com.  He thinks games are slowly growing out of an adolescent period and advancing into something greater.

“We saw the same thing with comic books and Dungeons and Dragons.  People ridicule new forms of entertainment at first and then they eventually come to accept it,” Day said.

Day makes parallels between video games and other forms of entertainment because he believes that we can learn where video games are headed if we look to the past.

“If you read about the history of comic books you’ll find that they were banned in a lot of schools.  Now, they’re teaching courses about them in college.  Movies are being made about super heroes like they’re great icons of our day.  The same thing will happen with video games,” Day said.

If games are ever going to get that chance, then they will need the freedom of expression.  That could be taken away if a current Supreme Court case passes.  The case would allow the government to regulate and decide what video game content is appropriate.

“This case is important for two reasons.  The first is that the decision of the Court could endanger the creativity of game developers.  Every video game publisher would want to play-it-safe.  They would all be afraid of being blacklisted by the government.  The second reason is that it would send a message.  If games are deemed protected by the first amendment, it would mean they would be considered equal to other art forms.  That would be empowering not only to games, but to gamers themselves,” Day said.

Violent Games Could Face Government Censorship

How do you feel about these people deciding the future of video games? Image courtesy of Hogue News.

Are violent video games as bad as pornography?  That is what the state of California believes.  On November 2nd, the Supreme Court heard opening oral arguments that debated whether or not video games are protected by the First Amendment.  The state believes that violent video games are a serious danger to children.  It argues that current rating systems put in place by the video game industry are not doing enough to prevent minors from gaining access to adult games.

If California is successful, then video games will be government regulated.  If a game is considered too violent or obscene, retailers would be fined up to $1,000 dollars for each copy of that game sold to a minor.  In addition, the violent game would be marked with a two-inch square label on the front of the box.  This label would be similar to the Parental Advisory stickers found on music albums.

Various cases about violent video games have been heard before.  Courts have always ruled in the favor of video games.  If California politicians change that trend, then the way games are created and sold will be altered dramatically.

Why California believes it has a case

California is arguing that some violent games can be considered obscene.  As it stands, any obscene media is not protected by the First Amendment.  Author of the law and California assemblyman Leland Yee is demanding that certain games should definitely fall into this category.

“We’re not talking about violent video games,” Yee said in an interview with MTV News.  “We’re talking about ultra-violent video games.”

The proposed bill singles out games whose violence causes them to “lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”  These games also need to contain violence that “is especially heinous, cruel or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.”

Yee argues that this bill is out of necessity.  “I would rather not do this. But enough is enough. Each year some of the stuff gets more and more outrageous,” Yee said.

Why the video game industry is worried

Some video game developers believe that if the bill passes, their creative voice will be silenced.  Ted Price thinks the bill could “sanitize” the industry.  Price is the founder of Insomniac Games.  Insomniac is a video game development studio that has been responsible for games like “Ratchet and Clank”, “Resistance” and “Spyro the Dragon”.

“…If the Supreme Court rules against the game industry, it could be illegal for someone under 18 to buy Resistance if the game is deemed inappropriate for minors under the new law. And as content creators, if there is a chance that our games will appear in an “Adults Only” section of game stores, we will have to restrict what we create to avoid going out of business,” Price stated via his blog.  “…In other words, this case is a very, very big deal.”

Violent games with a local twist

In a small gaming store in downtown Iowa City, it is certainly not hard to get a hold of violent games as a minor.  According to one of the store’s employees, why not sell violent games if it is not illegal to do so?  The employee wished to remain anonymous.

“We’ll sell Grand Theft Auto IV to a 4-year-old because it’s not against the law,” the employee said.  “Parents are the ones who need to be responsible for their kids, not us.”

The employee states that he often sees children come into the store alone, using their parents money to buy games.  He also claims that some parents have even come up to him that if their child wants an adult game, it would be ok to sell it to them.

“Video games don’t turn their kids into violent murderers.  Parents’ kids are probably going to be murderers for some other reason,” the employee said.  “Why don’t politicians start going after drugs and household abuse?  Those are the real things affecting kids.”

Jayson Gegner, a graduate from the University of Iowa and former online writer for BigFraggingDeal.com, is angry that the government is singling out video games.  He believes kids will find similarly harmful content in other media.

“This goes way past your local Best Buy electronics section.  Parents need to simply be aware of what their kids are doing.  This isn’t just with video games, kids can turn on the television and see something just as violent, if not worse,” Gegner said.

An Inside Look At Gamers In Iowa City

LAN parties are a great way for gamers to get together. Image courtesy of Digital Ecology.

The room is crowded and is being lit only by the glow of about a half dozen televisions.  Gun fire is loudly emitting from each set and yells of both victory and defeat are happening intermittently.

Employees of the Coralville Video Games ETC! are meeting for their weekly LAN party.  LAN parties are where gamers bring their own televisions and game consoles so that they can play over a local online network.  This week they’re playing the recently released Call of Duty: Black Ops.

“We’re pretty competitive players,” said Graham Gibson.  Gibson is a full-time employee at Video Games ETC!   He is also the organizer of the weekly LAN parties.  Most of them happen in his apartment in Iowa City.  Suddenly, Gibson is distracted as he gets stabbed in the back from a fellow player.

“Dammit!  I had finally found a good spot!”  Gibson said.

A slice of game geek in Iowa City

Empty cans of Mountain Dew are stacked in a corner by the door of Gibson’s apartment.  Everyone has some sort of snack or drink by their side.  No one is looking away from their television screen.  There is a lot on the line tonight.  The winner of the next round of Call of Duty gets a ten dollar Pappa John’s gift card.

“Sometimes I like to up the stakes a little,” Gibson said similing.  “It makes it more fun for everyone.”

Many of the players spend between 20-40 hours a week working at Video Games ETC! This depends on whether or not they are full-time.  All of the part-time employees are full-time students at the University of Iowa.

“All we do, a lot of us anyway, is play games.  I mean we do have homework, but it’s mostly games,” said Brian Albert.  Albert is a journalism major at the University of Iowa.  He is hoping to write about games once he graduates.  Albert says that the thing he enjoys most about the weekly LAN parties is the competition.

“I don’t do sports or anything like that, so it’s nice to come here and work off that competitive edge.  I like that everyone here gets as into it as I do,” Albert said.

There is a cardinal rule at the LAN party: don’t talk about work.  The attendees all agree that the party is the last place they want to bring drama into.  The weekly gathering gives them each a chance to blow off some steam.

“A lot of times you’ll have weeks where you run into a lot of bad customers.  It’s really easy to get stressed out.  This LAN party is something I know we all look forward to.  I want to keep it positive,” Gibson said.

Gibson plays games for about 40 hours per week.  He often plays with friends online and focuses on multiplayer games.  Some of his favorites include Halo, Street Fighter and Gears of War.

“It’s almost like a second job.  Except this one I actually look forward to.  I just get so much out of it.  I liked getting sucked into a world and exploring it.  I can’t afford to travel anywhere.  This helps me get that same feeling without spending a ridiculous amount of money.”

Local gaming hangouts

Video Games ETC! isn’t just a place that its employees like to escape from.  It’s also a meeting place for local gamers.  The store acts as a central hub, where the latest games are excitedly talked about.  Think of water cooler conversations in an office, only geekier.

“I come here [VGE] because these people actually know what they’re talking about.  When I go to Best Buy or Walmart the employees act like they’ve never touched a controller.  The folks who work here actually play games,” said Nate Feldmann.  Feldmann is a frequent customer of VGE.  He says he stops in at least once a week and has been doing so for the past two years.

“It’s cool because these guys play a variety of stuff.  We can talk forever about any kind of game,” Feldmann said.

Felmann isn’t the only one who enjoys talking game at VGE.  Chris Christensen is also a regular customer.  A part-time employee at the Hy-Vee next door, Christensen usually stops in during his breaks.

“They’re the only people that play the same games that I do,” Christensen said.  “Like anything else, it’s nice to be able to express to people what you’re passionate about.  I can do that here.”

Albert enjoys the customers, saying that they make him want to show up to work.  Working in a place where he gets to talk about games freely has been something he has always wanted to do.

“They make it fun.  Not only that but I feel like I’m actually helping them,” Albert said.  “I won’t lie to a customer and tell them a bad game is good just to sell it.  Nothing makes me happier than knowing they’re walking away with a game that’s really great.”

Defending their games

The Supreme Court has recently heard opening oral arguments about a case that could change the way games are sold.  California lawmakers want video game content to be regulated by the government.  These politicians believe that some games can be too violent for children and want to restrict those games.

“It’s crap really.  I would listen to them if they had actually played a video game,” Gibson said.  “How can you try to restrict something you don’t understand?  I guess that’s always how it works.  People trying to get rid of things they know nothing about.

It appears that the courts are siding with gamers on the issue.  During the opening arguments, California deputy attorney general Zackery Morazzini was interrupted by Justice Antonin Scalia.  Scalia reminded the deputy attorney general that video games are not the only violent form of entertainment in existence.  He sarcastically mentioned Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Morazzini.

“Are you going to ban them too?” Scalia asked.

Violent Video Games Under Attack

Should this be protected? Image from Valve Co.

Can violent video games be as bad as pornography?  That is what the state of California is arguing.  On November 2nd, California will get a chance to prove that argument to the Supreme Court.  The state believes that ultra-violent video games are a serious danger to children.  They say the current age and content rating system self-enforced by the video game industry is not doing enough to prevent minors from playing adult games.

If California succeeds with their case, then video games will have to go through a government rating sytsem.  Depending on the content of a particular game, the government may find it to be ultra-violent or obscene in some way.  If so, the violent game would be marked with a two-inch square label on the front of the box. This label would be similar to the Parental Advisory stickers found on music albums.  Retailers would be fined up to $1,000 dollars for each game containing the label that was sold to a minor.

Various cases about violent video games have been heard before.  Courts have always ruled in favor of video games, stating that they are protected by the First Amendment.  If California succeeds, then the way games are created and sold will be dramatically changed.

Why California believes it has a case

Some California politicians disagree with past court decisions. They believe that some games can be considered obscene.  Author of the bill and California assemblyman Leland Yee is one of these politicians.

“We’re not talking about violent video games,” Yee said in an interview with MTV News.  “We’re talking about ultra-violent video games.”

The proposed legislation singles out games whose violence causes them to

Yee is at the forefront of the attack. Image from GayGamer.

“lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”  These games also need to contain violence that “is especially heinous, cruel or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.”

Yee argues that this bill is out of necessity.  “I would rather not do this. But enough is enough. Each year some of the stuff gets more and more outrageous,” Yee said.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board currently reviews games and rates them based on their content.  There are  currently five different ratings the ESRB uses: EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone), E10+ (Everyone 10 and older), T (Teen), M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only).   Many politicians, including Yee’s chief of staff Adam Keigwin, do not think the ESRB is effective enough.

“…A federal trade commission study showed that well over half the kids 14-16 years old were able to purchase ultra-violent video games,” Keigwin said in an interview with Game Informer magazine.  “The ratings system itself is flawed.  They have an AO rating – they don’t use it even though the AO description says that it’s for extreme violence.  They’ve never rated a game AO based upon violence.  So why have it?  It sends the wrong message to parents who look at an M game and say: ‘Oh, well if it was so bad it would have gotten an AO rating.’”

Why the video game industry is worried

Many big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy refuse to stock games bearing the AO label.  Video game companies rely on these stores and consciously develop their games with this in mind.  Some games, like Manhut 2, have had to alter their content before being released to avoid the adult only rating.  Manhunt 2 was released in 2007 and featured executions the player could perform on in-game enemies.  The game was rated AO and delayed at the last minute so the game could be made less violent and rerated with an M.  To do this, the game blurred the brutal execution scenes.

Some video game developers believe that if California succeeds on November 2nd, they will have to tailor their games even further.  They are worried about losing creative liberty when making games.  Among these believers is Ted Price.  Price is the founder of Insomniac Games, a highly successful video game development studio.  Insomniac has made games such as Ratchet and Clank, Resistance: Fall of Man and Spyro the Dragon.

Price is worried about having to compromise his games. Image from Kotaku.

“As content creators, if there is a chance that our games will appear in an “Adults Only” section of game stores, we will have to restrict what we create to avoid going out of business. To me such a situation is tantamount to government censorship,” Price stated via his blog.  “If this law is upheld it could have a ripple effect across all other forms of media. Those who have sought to censor films, television, books, talk radio, and music will now have precedent to renew their fight against freedom of expression. In other words, this case is a very, very big deal.”

A local perspective

In Iowa City, an employee from a local video game store is very opposed to the California legislation.  However, he wishes his name and place of employment to remain anonymous.

“We’ll sell Grand Theft Auto IV to a 4-year-old because it’s not against the law,” the employee said.  “Parents are the ones who need to be responsible for their kids, not us.”

The employee states that he often saw children come into the store alone, using their parents money to buy games.  Parents had even come up to the employee telling him that if their child ever wanted a Mature rated game, it would be ok to sell it to them.

“Video games don’t turn their kids into violent murderers.  Parents’ kids are probably going to be murderers for some other reason,” the employee said.

Reverend Fitzpatrick believes video games "depersonalize" violence. Image from Iowa City Newman Center.

Reverend Edward Fitzpatrick believes that video games tend to legitimize violence.  Reverend Fitzpatrick is the Director of the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City.

“Violent video games isolate you from the effect of your actions,” Reverend Fitzpatrick said.  “It makes violence seem ok.  It depersonalizes it.”

The pastor believes that it is the interactive nature of video games that makes them so influential on a child’s mind.

“Being allowed to shoot people without the fear of actually being shot back conditions kids to think that they can do this.  They have trouble separating reality from fantasy,” Reverend Fitzpatrick said.

Jayson Gegner, a graduate from the University of Iowa and former online writer for Total Gaming Network, is angry that the government is singling out video games.  He believes kids will find similarly harmful content in other media.

“This goes way past your local Best Buy electronics section.  Parents need to simply be aware of what their kids are doing.  This isn’t just with video games, kids can turn on the television and see something just as violent, if not worse,” Gegner said.

What do you think?

What happens on November 2nd could change video games forever.  Is California’s legislation an encroachment on the First Amendment?  Should the government be allowed to mandate what games are appropriate for children?  The slideshow below shows some examples of the ultra-violent games California politicians are talking about.  No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the video game industry is in for a big event on November 2nd.

Putting Controllers In People’s Hands

Kasey Black took the brand new Wii and placed it in a plastic bag as he smiled at his customers.  He thanked them for coming into the store and then walked away chuckling to himself.

“They only wanted the Wii, but I also sold em’ five games and two remotes,” Black said gleefully.

These are the kinds of experiences that Black has on a daily basis.  He sells video games.  He’s the manager of a local video game store in Coralville called Video Games ETC. Black describes himself as very competitive, saying that he wants to set an example for his coworkers.

“Our main goal as employees is to provide a service to customers.  A lot of people are unfamiliar with video games and it’s our job to help them figure out what they want,” Black said.

Driven by a love for video games, Black enjoys not only getting to talk about games with customers, but also his fellow employees.

“There are a lot of people like me here,” Black said.

This passion for gaming started at a young age for Black.  When he was six years old he received a Super Nintendo for Christmas.  He would play it every day after school, regardless of the amount of homework he had.

According to Black, part of the reason the Super Nintendo was so fascinating to him is it fed his competitive side.

“I would practice every day at Super Mario Kart.  I had to beat my older brother, I just had to,” Black said.

Competition wasn’t what made gaming a passion however.  It was in-depth role-playing games that would keep him coming back to the controller for years to come.  Role-playing games focus on story and characters to draw you into a world.

“I remember playing Final Fantasy II on the Super Nintendo for the first time.  I had never encountered a game quite like it before.  It blew me away,” Black said.  “I love the feeling of getting immersed in a game like Final Fantasy.”

An element of role-playing games that Black said carries over into his work is problem solving.  On a typical day, he starts out with bookwork and then has to figure out how the store will be successful for the day.  Every day is different, he has to account for big game releases, or a new system launch, or even simply if a holiday is approaching.

Because some days demand more than others, Black says that he has to divide them into two different categories, training days and selling days.

“There are some days where there is just simply too much going on to try to explain new store polices, or make sure everyone is doing the right thing,” Black said.  “Some days we just have to get out there and push merchandise.”

Unfortunately pushing merchandise is also where Black thinks he encounters his biggest challenge, customer service.  Whether it’s people trying to talk him into lowering prices, attempting to sell stolen merchandise, or swearing in the store, Black says he always has to keep a close watch on what’s going on.

“The most difficult thing is trying to explain cash refunds to people.  If you open a product and use it, we can’t sell it as new anymore.  So we can’t give you your cash back,” Black said.

Another problem, and a thing Black said he would like to change, would be how the store handles their trade-in program.  Trade-in is something the store offers where customers can bring in their used merchandise for either cash or in-store credit.  Used merchandise is the most profitable thing at Video Games ETC. according to Black.

“We hardly make any money on new stuff, our priority and our specialty has and always will be used merchandise,” Black said.

If the store could be more discrete with what they take in, Black thinks they could be even more profitable with their trade-in program.

“We give too much for worthless old games and not enough on hot new games.  We have to do better at enticing people to trade-in things that will sell and discourage them from bringing in things that won’t,” Black said.

Even with offering lower prices by selling used merchandise, brick and mortar video game stores may not be around forever thanks to digital distribution.  Though in its infancy with games, services like Steam, Xbox Live, Playstation Network and WiiWare have proven that digital is the future.  Black agrees, and thinks that this is the way retailers need to start seeing the game market.

“Nobody likes change, but it is easier and more convenient.  It will probably be cheaper because of not needing raw materials to make the disc and case.  I definitely think we are moving towards and will eventually be 100 percent digital.”

 

Kasey Black audio interview

Google Instant Set to Improve Online Searching

Google Instant is a new development from Google that improves online searching by predicting search queries and showing results as soon as someone begins to type.

To localize this story, the first person I would talk to would be Sriram Pemmaraju.  Sriram is an associate professor of Computer Science at the University of Iowa.  He teaches the Algorithms course at the university and he also researches approximation algorithms.  I chose Sriram as a good source because he could perhaps give insight into how Google Instant may work, explaining the types of complex algorithms that would have to be used to make such a thing possible.  I found Sriram through the University of Iowa directory.

The second person I would talk to would be Barb Black, who is responsible for technical services at the Iowa City public library.  The reason I would choose Barb would be because of the reliance a public library has on technology.  A lot of citizens who don’t have computers come to the library and computers are needed to provide patrons an easy way to search for books.  I would ask Barb how Google Instant would change things for the library and the people who use it.  I found Barb by visiting the Iowa City public library site and looking at the “Contact the Library” page.

Jason Andersen

Jason Andersen is the Technical Director and  founder of Budcat Creations in Iowa City.

Budcat Creations is a developer of PC and console video games.

In 2008, Budcat Creations was acquired by Activision Publishing, one of the largest third-party video game publishers in the industry.

On their Facebook page, Budcat shows their employees at company events and they pose questions to their fans.

The reason I choose the links that I did is because of where the information was coming from.  Two of the links come directly from Budcat, and the third (the blog) was listed as an outstanding weblog on Forbes.com’s Best of the Web.  All three of the sites allow you to interact with the organization responsible for the online content.  The Facebook page and the blog allow for comments and the official Budcat website lets you contact them through email, Facebook or Twitter.  Each link also provides a timestamp for each new piece of content posted.