A Philosopher's Blog

Violence & Video Games, Yet Again

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2013
Manhunt (video game)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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Booth Babes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2012
English: Booth Babes from Eidos Stand at E3 2000

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the various technology trade shows and video game expos are supposed to be about the technology and the games, considerable attention is paid to booth babes. For those not familiar with the way of the booth babe, a booth babe is an attractive woman (the “babe” part) who works at such an event (typical in or near a company’s booth) in order to attract the attention of the predominantly male attendees and lure them, like sirens of old, to the booth.

The job of a booth babe is typically not extremely demanding: they tend to work in two or eight hour stints (depending on whether it is a product unveiling or a full show). Wages vary, but are generally decent. For example, a booth babe working at Computex in Taiwan might make $100-170 for an eight hour shift of smiling and being leered at by hordes of nerdy men. The pay can, of course, be worse at less prestigious events and better at bigger events.

While booth babes might be considered an odd subject for a philosophical look, they do raise some interesting philosophical issues. For those who are wondering, philosophy events do not, as a rule, have booth babes. Mainly just elderly professors in tweed jackets.

One obvious point of concern for any job is whether or not the pay is just for the work being done. As might be imagined, most booth babes would prefer to be paid more. However, given the extent of the babe’s duties, the pay does not seem entirely unreasonable. What is of greater philosophical interest are the treatment of booth babes and the question of whether or not there should be both babes.

As might be imagined, the sort of technology and game events that feature both babes tend to be male dominated. Also, to fall into some stereotypes, many of the men who attend these events are not accustomed to being close to attractive women. There are also, unfortunately, some strong elements of misogyny and sexism in these areas. As such, it is is hardly surprising that booth babes get leered at. They have also been the subject of what seem to be sexist tweets, such as the infamous Asus tweet regarding the “nice rear” of a booth babe. Booth babes also get plastered all over the net in videos and photos, put on display just like the products they are selling.

On the one hand, it seems wrong to treat the booth babes as objects and to employ them to lure men to the events and the booths. This seems to involve demeaning both the booth babes and the males. The babes are demeaned by being presented as sex objects to lure in males and the males are demeaned because it is assumed that they need booth babes to draw them in (and that they want to see the babes).  This seems to be morally wrong. After all, this is treating people as mere sexual objects used to sell products. Both Kant and the feminists would agree that this sort of objectification is wrong. While this view is very appealing (and almost certainly correct), there are some points well worth considering.

On the other hand, if the booth babes were not sexy and if males were not attracted to this, then there would be no jobs for the booth babes. Put another way, what seems to make the booth babe practice wrong also seems to be exactly what gives it a reason to exist at all. Obviously, if  average looking women (and guys) were hired to stand around the booths in comfortable clothing, then they would not attract people to the booths. If guys were such that they did not have an interest in seeing booth babes, then there would be no reason to have booth babes. As such, the profession rests on the fact that males are lured in by a chance to stare at hot women in person. From this, one might argue that the sexism and leering that people complain about is an intrinsic part of the practice. Complaining about it would be on par with complaining that people ask Starbucks employees to make coffee for them: that is, obviously enough, what they are there for.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that perhaps the booth babe profession should be eliminated. After all, the mere fact that the job seems to be inherently exploitative and sexist hardly justifies its existence. To use an analogy, being an assassin requires killing people, but that hardly justifies the practice. Of course, getting rid of booth babes need not entail a ban on attractive women. This leads to the second reply: attractive women (or men) could still be hired to work booths without the strong exploitative or sexist elements. The Pax gaming events, for example, do not allow traditional booth babes.Of course, some might complain that any use of attractiveness is morally suspect-but it does not seem any worse than, for example, using talented, friendly or witty people to attract attention.

A final point of concern is that while such events are male dominated, there are still females who attend, often as industry professionals. No doubt most of them do not find the booth babes appealing and some of them probably find the practice offensive and insulting. After all, the booth babes make these events seem like a boys’ club rather than a professional event.  There are also no doubt males who find this practice offensive as well. As such, the use of booth babes might have a negative impact, which is opposite of what the companies want.

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Story & Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2012
La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

All the roll playing you need.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics and a gamer, I find questions about games and art to generally be rather interesting. As I have argued elsewhere, I take the intuitively plausible view that video games can be art. However, even if that matter is considered settled (which can be debated), there is still a rich vein of philosophical issues to mine.

One topic that I and many other gamers often find interesting is the matter of the importance of story in games. John Carmack, who knows a bit about games, said  that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Folks who delight in story driven games no doubt disagree with this view and there does seem to be an issue worth discussing here. For the sake of this discussion, I will be assuming that games (specifically video games) can be art. I have argued for this in an earlier essay and hence will not repeat my arguments here.

Obviously enough, there are games that have no story at all and are still fine games. To use the obvious examples, Tetris and Asteroids are story free, yet fine games. Naturally, these are not the sort of games that people debate about when it comes to whether or not story is important. However, it is worth noting these sorts of games because they provide a relatively pure context in which to present two relevant points.

The first is that game mechanisms (that is, the purely game aspects of the game) are reasonably seen as being distinct from the art aspects of the game (that is, the game as art).  After all, while all games are games and some games are art, not all games are art.  This can, of course, be argued against. However, it does have enough intuitive plausibility that it is well worth considering.

The second point is that even the art aspects of a game that is (or contains) art can be distinguished from each other. For example, while Tetris and Asteroid do not have plots, they do have game artwork and sounds (which might be dismissed as mere sound effects rather than having any status as art). As another example, the music and visual art of Halo can be distinguished from each other in that one is music and the other visual art. This point seems reasonable certain.

The matter of the importance of story is most interesting when it comes to games that do, in fact, feature a story. Obviously enough, the story (or plot) of games have varying degrees of integration into the game. For games that have a story, in one end of the spectrum lives the games whose story have an extremely minimal role in the game. One excellent example of this is Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The game does have a story: an evil alien threatens earth and you, as Sam, have to travel in time and kill wave after wave of monsters. That is pretty much it. Despite the rather limited story, the game works amazingly well as a game-that is, it is fun to play. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are heavily story driven, such as Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars the Old Republic. These games are, not surprisingly, role-playing games. In these games the player takes on the role of a character and spends considerable time talking to non-player characters, making decisions and experiencing the plot unfold. As might be imagined, the story in such games seems to be rather more important than in the typical first person shooter. In the middle are games like the Halo series which have well-developed stories and unfolding plots, but do not actually have any role-playing elements. For example, in Halo your choices mainly revolve on what gun to use to kill which alien in what way.

As might be imagined, the significance of the story would seem to be proportional to its role in the game. After all, a first person shooter whose plot is rather lacking or poor would suffer less than a full blown story-driven role-playing game whose plot is lacking or badly done. That said, it could still be argued that plot is important.

It is tempting to compare a game with a story to a movie and, obviously enough, plot seems to be somewhat important to a movie (although Michael Bay, some might claim, endeavors to prove otherwise). The idea of plot being the most important aspect of poetical works (broadly and classically construed to include theater) dates back at least to Aristotle. To steal his argument regarding tragedy, the following argument can be given for the importance of plot in games that have a story element.

Games are not an imitation of humans (or elves, aliens, or dragons), “but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” It is, of course, the actions taken by people that  “make them happy or miserable.” As such the “the incidents and the plot are the end of” the game  and “the end is the chief thing of all.” Thus the story is important, at least on the key assumptions made by Aristotle.

For Aristotle, a key part of having a good plot is ensuring “that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity permits a change from bad fortune to good or from good to bad.” In more general terms, the plot must be such that the events make sense and fit together to form a coherent whole. In my own experience as a gamer, I have consistently disliked games in which the story fails to meet that basic requirement that events play out in a way that makes sense (except, obviously enough, for games that are supposed to not make sense). After all, if you are running around in a game doing things that make no sense for no apparent reason that leads to nothing, then that will tend to be a disappointing gaming experience (although it would be a fair approximation of life).

The rather obvious reply to this is that there are games that are rather weak in the story department that seem to be great successes as games, thus helping to support Carmack’s claim. This seems to be a rather consistent aspect of the top tier first person shooters-they tend to be marked by weak, implausible or otherwise lame plots but are top-ranked for game play, especially competitive multi-player. As I once jokingly put it, “I don’t really care why I am killing, I just care about whether I’m enjoying it or not.” That, I think, nicely captures the view of most gamers.

Interestingly enough, this view often extends into games in which story would seem to be rather important, such as role-playing games. While some people do enjoy going through all the dialog and getting into the story, my general experience has been that the main focus is on the game-play rather than on the story.  This even extends to my experience in traditional role-playing games, like AD&D and Pathfinder:many players are far more into roll-playing (that is, simply killing monsters in combat) than role-playing (that is, talking to the monsters before killing them).

Getting back to the point raised earlier, namely that the game aspects of a game are not art this does seem to suggest that the story is not as important to the game as the game aspects of the game. Alternatively, it could be argued that the game aspects of the game are still art, but they are a different sort of art than a story. After all, the name of the game is, well, “game” and not “story.” In the case of a first person shooter, the game is (obviously enough) about shooting things from a first person perspective. Story is thus secondary. Even in role-playing games, such as Pathfinder, all the actual game mechanism are about rolling dice, usually while trying to kill monsters who are blatantly and shamelessly holding the loot that rightfully belongs to the party. While the game can be augmented by art (acting, beautiful maps, and well-crafted stories) the core of the game is , it can be argued, the game mechanics. As my friend Ron puts it, “if you are not rolling dice, you are not playing the game. You are just sitting around the table talking.”

The idea that a game should be focused on the game is, interestingly enough, also consistent with Aristotle’s view: “each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it.”

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Diablo III

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2012
Deutsch: Logo von Blizzard Entertainment Engli...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most gamers, I’ve been playing Diablo III. Well, at least when the servers are up.  I do get that servers go down from time to time, such is the way of imperfect technology. I also get that when I am playing an MMO a down server means that I cannot play (on that server at least). After all, an MMO is the sort of beast that needs to be served up. However, Diablo III is not the sort of beast that needs to be so served. After all, Diablo II functioned just fine without being connected to Blizzard’s servers. I do, of course, “get” why Blizzard decided (or was compelled) to require people to be connected to the server to play. After all, it does help combat piracy-if people must be connected to a server and the server can verify the game being authentic (via the authentication key), then the game becomes very hard to pirate. Also, Blizzard also no doubt hopes to cash in on the real money auction house and this requires having tight control over the game-otherwise people some people would just hack to get items rather than spending real money to buy fake stuff. Being an author, I do get that it is important to protect and maximize that cash flow. Of course, I am also a consumer and I regard being able to use something that I have paid for as a reasonable sort of things. To use the obvious analogy, if people buy my books, but could only read them when my “book server” is up an running, then I better make sure that the server is up and running 24/7. After all, there really is nothing about a book that requires that it be served up rather than being readily available and book customers have a reasonable expectation that the book should be available. Likewise for a game like Diablo III.

Now that I have got in the mandatory complaints about the server problems, I can say that I otherwise really like the game.  As with Diablo II, I have been playing with my friends and we quickly fell into our traditional roles, although there were some changes in the classes usually played.

I generally look for the class that has just the right blend of holiness and destructive potential (or, as my detractors might say, viciousness). In Diablo II I played a paladin and in the expansion an assassin.  Not surprisingly, I ended up playing the monk. My friend Ron traditionally has gone for big melee fighters, but he has been on a “weird caster” kick in more recent years, so he ended up as the witch doctor. Dave usually goes for a caster, but he went for the barbarian. Despite the change in classes, we (as noted above) quickly slid into our accustomed roles.

Ron: “Where’s Mike?”
Dave: “I’m not sure. He ran off. Like usual.”
Ron: “Damn, I know he’s stirring up some stuff.”
Me: “I am so glad to see you guys again. I really missed you.”
Dave: “What? Are you talking to us?”
Me: ‘No, the monsters.”
Monsters: “Nooooo, the end of days is upon us! Run!”
Me: “Don’t run! You’ll just get evil sweat on the loot!”
Dave: “Should we help him?”
Ron: “Get back here.”
Me: “I can’t. There are still standing monsters in my field of vision. Plus my weapons get very sad when they are not coated in the blood of the wicked.”
Dave: “Monsters incoming!”
Monsters: “Hey, it’s Dave! Swarm him!”
Dave: “Not the face! Help!”
Ron: “Hmm, I wonder if these boots are better than my current boots? I can’t tell if this staff makes me look fat or not. I need to check the forums on that.”
Me: “Hey, Dave didn’t die this time!”
Dave: “Yeah, that’s why I’m playing the barbarian.”
Me: “Hell, the server is going down in five minutes! I don’t think I can kill any faster…”
Monsters: “Quick, cut those wires faster…we have to get the server down before they kill us all!”

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SWTOR Patch Notes

Posted in Humor, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2012
George Lucas

George Lucas (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

For those who play SWTOR, the Legacy Patch Notes:

- C2-N2 and 2V-R8 are now considered hostile and may be freely engaged and looted.
- Corrected an issue that caused weapons to display inappropriately beneath some Droid companions (like T7). The weapon graphics have been replaced with mechanical testicles, as intended. These mechanical testicles will be known as “droidicles” and provide two upgrade slots for droids. An upcoming patch will address female and transgender droids.
- Many gathering nodes that were spawning in unreachable places (such as underneath the world) are now reachable. However, they are now surrounded by level 50 champions, as intended.
-Light side and dark side mission results no longer occasionally display decimal values. They now display in Roman Numerals, as intended.
- License costs for Vehicle Piloting rank 1, 2, and 3 have been reduced. However, expensive mandatory emission inspections have been added to the game, as intended. 
- Players with a Legacy can now send unbound and bound-to-Legacy items to other characters on the same account via in-game mail (even if the characters are not of the same faction). Legacy items include only non-combat items, such as the George Lucas non-combat pet and transgender outfits.
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Darth VaPaula: Gender & Video Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2012
Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Gears of War 3: Planet of Steroids

Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on October 9, 2011
gears of war 3

Image by brandon shigeta via Flickr

I have been playing Gears 3 and mainly enjoying it. I can see why it has been well-rated and why it has an often vocal fan base. However, the game does annoy me in many ways which detracts from my enjoyment. I freely admit that my annoyance is based on my own views about how games should be and also based on what I enjoy. As such, I can accept that the game is regarded as great by others, yet is only good as I see it.

While games often have a distinct art style, the character style in Gears makes me laugh a bit: the main male characters are hulk-like steroid monsters with gigantic feet (or they are wearing space Ughs). To me, they look like D&D style dwarfs stretched out to human size. But, I can get over the weird feet and the fact that almost everyone seems to be on major steroids. After all, the violence is pretty awesome.

Being something of a “realist” in regards to gear, I do wonder why the guns and armor have glowing patches (aside from the fact that glowy is in). After all, the armor does not seem to have any powered aspects (shields or strength enhancement) but maybe it works like Bane’s gear: the guys are all puffed up by the armor power. In real combat, no one would want gear that glows-that makes a person an easy target. But, hey, it is a look that the kids presumably like.

Speaking of guns, the weapons in this game seem to be, well, lame. The Lancer, aside from the absurdly cool chainsaw, is a rather poor rifle design for a futuristic weapon. It seems to be on par with an AK-47 in terms of its capabilities. The shotgun is awful as a combat weapon (apparently automatic shotguns with decent range are forgotten in the future). The sniper rifle is like firing a musket in terms of its reload times, which is absurd. But, this is offset by the presence of some interesting alien weapons and the general fun of the game.

I am not a big fan of arcade style gimmicky boss fights. This is mainly because of years of being a DM have conditioned me to believe in a consistent set of game rules and to avoid mere gimmicks as a substitute for original and interesting ideas. The boss fights generally take the usual “the boss is only vulnerable in area X when Y occurs” and the boss attacks by overrun attacks. The berserker fight was, as  saw it, too much of a gimmick and a bit absurd. First, it stands up to a direct strike from a city destroying orbital weapon-but maybe the batteries were low or something. Second, it is only vulnerable when its chest pops open. Why? Third, it spends the battle leaking gallons of fluid that cover large swathes of ground-would it not eventually run dry? But, hey, some people love that stuff.

What I found most annoying was a factor that I am sure many people really like: the domination of the game by the story. While all such games have a fixed outcome and a script, Gears 3 was unable to make me feel that I was not simply following along with the script-I was painfully aware at all times that every event was set and I was just along for the ride. First, as my friend Ron and I were playing, we could predict pretty much everything that was going to happen (“okay, now we’ll just be forced to run back to the next area and defend that”) and it seemed like our actions had no effect. Obviously, games (like movies) are scripted. But a game (and a movie) has to make the audience feel that events are not pre-destined. Gears failed to do that for me. Second, the game only allows the player to make insignificant choices. For example, at a “choice point” I can go left or right-but it makes no difference since (in co-op) mode we just split up for a while and then are right back together. The vehicle combats also feel like being on an amusement park ride: I felt I was just going along for the ride towards a pre-set end. Third, while many of the cut scenes were cool, watching the game show cool things is not as cool as actually doing these things. In many cases it felt like we just fought to the climatic point and then the game resolved it for us with a pre-set cinematic. That served to take me out of the game. Fourth, the characters often made decisions that did not make much sense and went against what I would do and what they should do. For example, when Griffin demands that the player get the fuel for him and takes a hostage, it is absurd to think that the characters would just go along and not simply put a round into the back of Griffin’s head, whack his two minions and then shoot any of his scruffy followers if they got in the way. Of course, my dismay can be chalked up to the fact that the “decision” made by the game designers did not match what I would do-nor what the characters would seem to do given the setting and conditions. Some folks no doubt think that this behavior makes perfect sense and just go along with it.

Overall, Gears 3 is a good game. I don’t see it as great, but I can attribute this to my expectations and views of games.

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Are Used Games Theft?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on September 13, 2011
Heavy Rain

Image via Wikipedia

According to the French game developer Quantic Dream, the company has lost  between €5m and €10m due to the selling of used copies of its game Heavy Rain. This estimate was calculated by matching the sales figures of new games with the number of players registering Trophies on PSN. The company’s co-founder Guillame de Fondaumiere summed the matter up by saying, “on my small level it’s a million people playing my game without giving me one cent.”

While de Fondaumiere is not actually accusing buyers of used games of being involved in an act of thievery, the parallel to piracy seems to be an apt one to draw. After all, one stock argument against the digital  piracy of video games is that the piracy is costing the companies money via lost sales. However, the people who buy (and sell) used copies are clearly not engaging in piracy: the buying and selling of used property is well established and the burden of proof rests on those who would argue that the owner of a piece of physical property (in this sort of case, a game disk) cannot re-sell his used property. To use the obvious analogy, if I buy a house, then I have the right to resell it again. Imagine, if you will, a developer complaining that he is not getting a cut every time the house he sold is re-sold. Obviously, they would like such a cut. But, when it is sold, it is sold and the right to re-sell it goes along with the purchase (unless specified in the contract).  To use another analogy, when I do my job, I do not expect to be endlessly paid for the work I did (even when my students use what I taught in their careers)-I get paid for it and that is the end of it.

The matter become a bit less clear in cases of digital purchases, but Fondaumiere is discussing the re-selling of the actual games disks. As such, there seems to little foundation for his complaint, other than the fact that he is worried he is not getting every cent he thinks he is owed.

One obvious factor worth considering is that the reselling of a used game does not entail that a sale is lost. As a gamer, I can attest that there are games that I have bought used that I would not have bought new. As such, calculating the “loss” from used game sales would be somewhat tricky.

A second factor is that gamers sometimes wait for the price to drop on a game. For example, I bought Borderlands when the Game of the Year edition came out (with all the expansions included). It was much cheaper than the original version, yet it would be odd to say that my delay robbed the company (they did, of course, get some money from me).

A third factor is that when gamers buy games, they often factor in the fact that they can resell the game or pass it on to someone. Laying out $60 for a game is more palatable when you know that you’ll get some of that back or that you can give it to someone. While it is difficult to calculate the positive sales impact of the ability to re-sell or give away games, it would seem to be a factor worth considering. As such, the re-selling of games might not be a losing proposition for game companies. At the very least, this factor would mitigate any harms done by the reselling.

A fourth factor is that gaming stores generate significant income from re-selling used games (often over and over). While this has also been a point of contention, it does help retailers stay in business and thus be available to sell new copies of games.

However, de Fondaumiere  contends that the retailers will ultimately hurt themselves by selling used games. He asserts that game companies will think that they cannot make money via retail and will instead go to direct online distribution (which is already an option for many games), thus eliminating the retail game sellers by removing their access to products. From the perspective of retailers, this would be rather bad-after all, many retailers make their main profits from selling (and re-selling) used games. It is, of course, worth noting that the used record and CD retail industry took a severe hit with the advent of the digital revolution. The same could very well happen to the gaming world. While I have bought games via Amazon, it has been years since I bought a game at an actual physical store and I often buy download versions of PC games.  This trend might solve the problem of used games, at least how he sees it. Of course, this might also lead consumers to be more reluctant to purchase games on release-after all, being unable to sell them back or give them away does reduce their value for some customers.

My considered view is that the selling of used games is acceptable and companies have little grounds on which to complain of such losses.

 

 

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Diablo III & Selling Fake for Real

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2011
Demon Hunter [661]

"Cash or credit?"

While Diablo III will not be released for a while, it is already generating controversy. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the demons in the game but with certain features of the game. In a previous post I discussed the matter of Blizzard requiring Diablo III “owners” to be online in order to play the game. In this post I will discuss the auction house.

One new feature in Diablo III is the game’s auction house. While auction houses are nothing new in games (World of Warcraft and other MMOs feature them), what is somewhat new is that players can auction game items to each other for real money. As with a real auction house, Blizzard gets a fee with each transaction. There is also apparently a fee for cashing out the money for real money (but no fee for using the money to buy Blizzard stuff, such as games and in game items).

The selling of fake stuff for real money in games is also not new. Second Life has its own economy as do other games/online worlds. However, most of these involve participants selling virtual things they have made.  In such cases, the selling does seem to make sense. For example, if Bill designs an elaborate virtual house and sells it to Sally, this seems comparable to Bill selling Sally a drawing or photograph. However, in Diablo III, players will be selling loot that randomly drops from monsters which does raise a question about justifying paying cash for such items.

The obvious way to justify this is to argue that while the players did not create what they are selling (it is not like selling a drawing), they did put in the time playing the game to get the item. Of course, luck is also a factor-the loot drops are random, so getting good stuff that people will buy is both a matter of time and luck. As such, these transactions could be seen as comparable to the way prospectors found and sold random bits of gold or other valuables and then sold them. While the prospectors sold physical objects, the value of a flake of gold or a magic sword seem to be primarily in the mind. As such, there seems to be no problem with the selling of “fake” stuff.

One point of concern is that Blizzard would seem to be using players as laborers who mine Blizzard’s game for random items to sell to other players. Blizzard profits from selling the game and also profits from the game’s real money economy. This, some might contend, seems a bit shady. The obvious reply is, of course, that participation is voluntary: players do not need to buy or sell. Also, the players have a chance to make money while doing something fun-which makes this way better than most jobs.

Another point of concern is that this real money auction house will encourage hacking and item farming. Of course, the hacking is mainly Blizzard’s problem-unless people “hack” by stealing from players (as happens in Warcraft). Item farming is, fortunately, not a big concern. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can play Diablo III alone or just with friends. Hence, you do not need to worry about farmers showing up to ruin your game by grabbing up all the monsters. Also, by having a legitimate and controlled means of selling items, the auction house bypasses the black and gray markets that have grown up around MMOs. So, for example, rather than players giving their credit card numbers (or game account information) to people selling gold or leveling, players can just buy stuff through Blizzard’s auction house.

A final point of concern is the ethics of buying items in terms of fairness and in terms of what some might call the spirit of gaming. Being able to just buy items with real money is not cheating in the sense of breaking the game rules (since it is part of the game), but could be seen as cheating in the sense of violating the spirit of gaming. Among those who might be derided as gaming purists, there is a view that items and advancement in a game should be earned in the game. To simply pay cash is cheating since it yields by cash what should be earned by effort. To use an analogy, if someone could just buy a bike and be able to use it in a 5K footrace because she paid for it, then even if this were in the race’s rules, it would still strike runners as a form of “sanctioned” cheating. This is because an increase in speed should be earned and not merely purchased. Likewise, in a game like Diablo III, players should “earn” that magic sword or armor in the game, rather than being able to gear up their character because they have access to mom’s credit card.

It is, however, worth considering that Diablo III is not really a competitive game and, as noted above, players can chose who they play with. Going back to the bike analogy, if someone wants to hold a private race(and the times do not count for records, etc.), in which participants can buy advantages with real money ,  then it should not really be a matter of concern (other than to note that it seems a bit silly to pay money for such an “advantage” in such circumstances) to people who are not participating in the event. As such, my considered view is that it is silly for people to spend real money on fake stuff and it does seem a bit shady. However, if people want to do this, then so be it.

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Diablo III & Ownership

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2011
Diablo III

Image by Kimli via Flickr

Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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