When Miranda Pakozdi entered the Cross Assault video game
tournament this year, she knew she had a slim chance of winning the $25,000
prize. But she was ready to compete, and promised fans watching online that she
would train just as hard as, if not harder than, anyone else.
Over six days of competition, though, her team’s coach, Aris Bakhtanians,
interrogated her on camera about her bra size, said “take off your shirt” and
focused the team’s webcam on her chest, feet and legs. He leaned in over her
shoulder and smelled her.
Ms. Pakozdi, 25, an experienced gamer, has said she always expects a certain
amount of trash talk. But as the only woman on the team, this was too much,
especially from her coach, she said. It was after she overheard Mr. Bakhtanians
defending sexual harassment as part of “the fighting game community” that she
forfeited the game.
Sexism, racism, homophobia and general name-calling are longstanding facts of
life in certain corners of online video games. But the Cross Assault episode was
the first of a series this year that have exposed the severity of the harassment
that many women experience in virtual gaming communities.
And a backlash — on Twitter, in videos, on blogs and even in an online comic
strip — has moved the issue beyond endless debate among gaming insiders to more
public calls for change.
Executives in the $25 billion-a-year industry are taking note. One game
designer’s online call for civility prompted a meeting with Microsoft executives
about how to better police Xbox Live. In February, shortly after the Cross
Assault tournament, LevelUp, an Internet broadcaster of gaming events, barred
two commentators who made light of sexual harassment on camera and issued a
formal apology, including statements from the commentators.
Even so, Tom Cannon, co-founder of the largest fighting game tournament, EVO,
pulled his company’s sponsorship of the weekly LevelUp series, saying that “we
cannot continue to let ignorant, hateful speech slide.”
“The nasty undercurrent in the scene isn’t a joke or a meme,” he said. “It’s
something we need to fix.”
Mr. Bakhtanians, whose actions during the Cross Assault tournament were captured
on video, later issued a statement in which he apologized if he had offended
anyone. He also blamed “my own inability in the heat of the moment to defend
myself and the community I have loved for over 15 years.”
But the issues raised by the Cross Assault episode gained more attention with
Anita Sarkeesian’s campaign in May to raise $6,000 on Kickstarter to document
how women are portrayed in video games. Her YouTube and Facebook pages were
instantly flooded with hate-filled comments. People tried to hack her online
accounts. She received violent personal threats.
Ms. Sarkeesian responded by documenting the harassment, posting online the
doctored, pornographic images of herself that her detractors had created.
Supporters of her efforts, aghast, donated more than $150,000, further angering
her critics. A man from Ontario created an Internet game where players could
“punch” her, layering bruises and cuts on her image until the screen turns red.
“The gaming industry is actually in the process of changing,” Ms. Sarkeesian
said. “That’s a really positive thing, but I think there is a small group of
male gamers who feel like gaming belongs to them, and are really terrified of
that change happening.”
When Sam Killermann, a gamer in Austin, Tex., saw the reaction to Ms.
Sarkeesian’s project, something “broke through,” he said. A few weeks ago, he
began a campaign for “Gamers Against Bigotry,” asking people to sign a pledge
supporting more positive behavior. The site received 1,500 pledges before it was
hacked, erasing its list of names.
Like Ms. Sarkeesian, many women gamers are documenting their experiences on
blogs like “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” (whose name comes from the typical insults
women receive while playing against others online). It cheekily catalogs the
slurs, threats and come-ons women receive while playing games like Resident Evil
or Gears of War 3.
The blog publishes screenshots and voice recordings that serve as a kind of
universal citation in each new controversy, called upon to settle debates or
explode myths. For instance, many of the site’s recordings feature deep voices
captured from the chat features of online games, debunking the widely held
belief that bad behavior begins and ends with 13-year-old boys.
Jessica Hammer, a longtime player of video games and a researcher at Columbia
University, said the percentage of women playing such games online ranges from
12 percent to close to half, depending on the game type. Industry statistics
from the Entertainment Software Association say 47 percent of game players are
women, but that number is frequently viewed as so all-encompassing as to be
meaningless, bundling Solitaire alongside Diablo III.
Women report greater levels of harassment in more competitive games involving
strangers. Some abandon anonymous play for safer communities or “clans” where
good behavior is the norm.
In other game communities, however, sexual threats, taunts and come-ons are
common, as is criticism that women’s presence is “distracting” or that they are
simply trying to seek attention. Some have been offered money or virtual “gold”
for online sex. Some have been stalked online and in person.
Stephen Toulouse, who was the head of enforcement for Xbox Live from 2007 until
February, policed the most egregious behavior on the network, owned by
Microsoft. And women were the most frequent target of harassment, he said. In
that role, Mr. Toulouse experienced the wrath of angry gamers firsthand, who
figured out where he lived, then called the police with false reports about
trouble at his house (more than once, SWAT teams were sent).
If players were reported for bad behavior, they could be disciplined by being
muted on voice chat or barred temporarily. At least once a day, Mr. Toulouse
said, the company blocked a specific console’s serial number from ever accessing
the network again.
But policing the two or three million players who are active on Xbox Live at any
given time is hard. Just as on the broader Internet, there are people who
delight in piquing anger or frustration in others, or “trolling.” For trolls,
offensive language — sexist, racist, homophobic comments — are interchangeable
weapons that vary with the target.
“They treat the Internet like a vast game,” where offending others scores
points, Mr. Toulouse said. But the standard advice to ignore the taunts (“don’t
feed the trolls”) is now, in the wake of Ms. Sarkeesian’s treatment, being
accompanied by discussions about “how to kill a troll.” And many people are
calling for the gaming industry to do more.
James Portnow, a game designer who has worked on titles including Call of Duty
and Farmville, wrote an episode about harassment for his animated Web series
“Extra Credits.” In it, the narrator says: “Right now, it’s like we gave the
school bully access to the intercom system and told him that everyone would hear
whatever he had to say. It’s time we take away that megaphone.”
At the end of the video, viewers were encouraged to e-mail Microsoft’s Xbox
Live’s team, asking for changes to communication tools and improvements to
After hearing from gamers, Microsoft called Mr. Portnow and invited him to
headquarters. He met with a team of executives, including a vice president, for
four hours, and they discussed how Microsoft was developing better algorithms
for things like automatically muting repeat offenders. Microsoft confirmed it
was working toward improvements to its community tools.
“For the longest time, people have seen games as a children’s pastime, and we as
an industry have stood behind this idea,” said Mr. Portnow, who will be speaking
on a gaming convention panel later this month called “Ending Harassment in
“But that’s not true any longer,” he added. “We are a real mass medium, and we
have a real effect on the culture. We have to take a step beyond this idea that
nothing we could possibly do could be negative, or hurt people.”
Daydreaming is usually a solitary activity. But Adam Adamowicz
turned his daydreams into fantasy worlds that ensnared millions of video game
Mr. Adamowicz, who died on Feb. 9 at 43, was a concept artist whose paintings of
exotic landscapes, monsters and elaborately costumed heroes and villains formed
the visual foundation for two of the most popular single-player role-playing
video games of all time.
In Fallout 3, he envisioned a post-apocalyptic Washington; in the other, The
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, he co-created the look of a vast fantasy world.
Together the games have sold more than 15 million copies and earned more than
$900 million since they were released, Fallout in autumn 2008 and Skyrim in
His death, at a hospital in Washington, of complications of lung cancer, was
confirmed by Pete Hines, a vice president of Bethesda Softworks, the company
that created both games.
Whether sketching out a mutant-riddled, atomically ravaged downtown Washington
or a sprawling continent populated by wizards and trolls, Mr. Adamowicz was, in
a sense, the costume designer, prop master and set designer for highly cinematic
games. Other team members would render Mr. Adamowicz’s drawings on computers
once the writers and art director approved them.
“All of the designs evolve through contributions from the whole team,” he wrote
in an essay about conceptual design on the Fallout Web site. “I like to feel
that it’s my job to instigate the process with a cool drawing that inspires
everyone else here into making something really cool.”
Mr. Adamowicz (pronounced a-DOM-oh-wits) conceptualized virtually everything in
Fallout 3: locations like a crumbling Washington Monument and coin-operated
personal bomb shelters; items like the Pip-Boy 3000 — an electronic wrist
computer that serves as a player’s conduit to menus, maps and other vital
information — and the Fat Man, a weapon that launches miniature nuclear bombs;
and monsters ranging from mutated naked mole rats to 30-foot-tall super mutant
“He was one of the first people on Fallout 3 and he drew every concept image we
had,” said Todd Howard, the game director for both Fallout 3 and Skyrim. “We’re
talking over a thousand images, for years.”
Mr. Adamowicz worked with a fellow concept artist, Ray Lederer, on Skyrim, but
came up with the look and feel of the game’s marquee monster, fearsome dragons
that would intimidate Smaug, the venerable wyrm from “The Hobbit.” Skyrim is the
first of the Elder Scrolls series to let players battle them.
Adam Carl Adamowicz was born on March 9, 1968, in Huntington, on Long Island. He
received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado,
Boulder, in 1990. He studied oil painting, figure drawing and palette mixing at
the Boulder Academy of Fine Arts in 2002 and 2003.
Mr. Adamowicz worked as a freelance illustrator for Dark Horse Comics and Malibu
Graphics and held down odd jobs, like haunted house builder and erotic cake
artisan, according to his blog, before landing his position at Bethesda in 2005.
He is survived by his mother, Moira Adamowicz.
Fallout 3 is suffused with humorous touches of nostalgia for the time before a
nuclear war had ended the world as we know it. (For example, the Ink Spots’ 1941
song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” plays on the radio as a player
explores the radioactive rubble.)
Mr. Adamowicz actually had the wholesomeness of “Leave It to Beaver” in mind
when he imagined a post-apocalyptic world. The game really begins when the
protagonist escapes from a technologically advanced 1950s-style society that has
survived for hundreds of years in a huge subterranean bomb shelter.
“I have an interest in all things ’50s because I think there’s a certain
charisma with the music, with the automobiles, with the clothing style,” Mr.
Adamowicz said in an interview included as bonus content when Fallout 3 was
released. “So designing any of these characters and then throwing them into the
wasteland, the dark humor for me kicked in when I imagined Ward Cleaver being
pushed out of his bunker and he’s looking for fresh tobacco for his pipe and
then here comes a raider over the top of the horizon.”
I have played the future of mobile gaming. It is called Shadow
If you have an iPhone, you simply must try this game. Shadow Cities isn’t just
the future of mobile gaming. It may actually be the most interesting,
innovative, provocative and far-reaching video game in the world right now, on
That’s a strong, perhaps outrageous, statement. But it’s merited because Shadow
Cities delivers a radically fresh sort of engagement. Shadow Cities fully
employs the abilities of the modern smartphone in the service of an
entertainment experience that feels almost impossibly exciting and new.
The game’s basic concept may sound familiar: you are trying to help your team
take over the world. But we’re not talking about some fantasy realm or alien
planet here. In Shadow Cities you’re trying to take over the real world.
When you log in to Shadow Cities, you see your actual location, as if you were
using a satellite map program, which you are (using the iPhone’s GPS service).
If you are in a reasonably populated area, you will also see nearby “gateways,”
based on local landmarks. You then take control of those gateways and use them
to power additional structures that allow you to grow in strength and stake a
claim to control of your ’hood. When you log off, your empire remains, until
some enemy players come along and raze it.
Of course you’re not alone. Right there on the screen you will see other nearby
players in real time, and not all will be friendly. When you start the game, you
must choose between two factions, the Animators (nature lovers) and the
Architects (technologists). These cabals are locked in an eternal struggle, and
at any time you can zoom out and survey the surrounding area for miles to
determine which side is winning around you. More broadly, the game is structured
in a series of weeklong campaigns, with separate scoreboards for various
countries and states.
But why stay home when you have an entire planet to explore? The most
far-reaching (literally!) aspect of Shadow Cities is that you can set up a
beacon at your location for other players to visit from anywhere in the world.
So you may be tending your little fiefdom in, say, Paramus, N.J., when you read
an alert from another player that a big battle is brewing in, say, Paris. You
jump to a friendly beacon and the next thing you know, you’re lobbing spells
against enemy players from all over the world for control of the Champs-Élysées.
Or you’re in Rome battling for control of the Vatican, or in Washington sniping
over the Ellipse.
In the last week I have projected my consciousness through Shadow Cities to
locations ranging from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Plaucheville, La. I’ve explored
Cannes, France; Helsinki, Finland; London; Vienna; and San Francisco. I’ve
visited friendly bases all over the Midwest, not to mention Turin, Italy;
Honolulu; and Bridgeport, Conn.
Riding through Manhattan the other day, I asked my friend to pull over so I
could demolish an enemy base on East 71st Street. Landing in Atlanta this week,
I logged in to Shadow Cities, made common cause with a fellow Architect and set
up a temporary base at the airport for our layovers. Woe betide the opposing
Animators who got off their planes!
Perhaps best of all, Shadow Cities is free to play. You can spend real money for
potions that replenish your magic power and that can be redeemed for mostly
cosmetic upgrades, but the game rewards you with such potions through normal
play, anyway (though obviously at a slower rate than if you buy them).
Until now games on phones and tablets have basically used those devices as small
versions of traditional game machines; they did not allow you to play directly
with other users in real time and they certainly took no note of where you were
in the real world. Until now mobile games used the network to download a
program, and then you were on your own.
But in Shadow Cities the network and the real world it pervades become the game,
which is so much more powerful. (Though naturally, that means that Shadow Cities
is unplayable on an airplane or subway or anywhere else the network is not
Like the hugely popular Angry Birds, Shadow Cities was developed in Finland. It
is made by a company called Grey Area in Helsinki (per their Web site: “We see
cities as playing fields, neighborhoods as front lines.”) But unlike Angry
Birds, Shadow Cities delivers an engrossing experience specifically tailored to
both the abilities of modern phones and the ways we use them in the real world
(that is, while moving around).
Shadow Cities certainly has some rough edges, and there are plenty of obvious
improvements and additions just waiting to be made. For one, the game should do
a better job of telling you exactly where you are. As it is, when I landed in a
place called Montcoda i Beixac, I had to resort to Google to realize that I had
arrived in a town in Catalonia, a little north of Barcelona.
And when multiple players cooperate to take down a spirit or enemy tower, they
should all get credit for the operation (instead of only the player who lands
the killing blow). The game could also use more nuanced missions and richer
But this is tinkering. The game’s fundamental concept is so powerful and the
possibilities down the road so fascinating that I just feel lucky to have
discovered it so early in its development.
Play Shadow Cities. Take over your neighborhood.
I’ll see you on the battlefield.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down on First
Amendment grounds a California law that banned the sale of violent video games
to children. The 7-to-2 decision was the latest in a series of rulings
protecting free speech, joining ones on funeral protests, videos showing cruelty
to animals and political speech by corporations.
In a second decision Monday, the last day of the term, the court also struck
down an Arizona campaign finance law as a violation of the First Amendment.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for five justices in the majority in the video
games decision, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, No. 08-1448, said
video games were subject to full First Amendment protection.
“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games
communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary
devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features
distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual
world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment
Depictions of violence, Justice Scalia added, have never been subject to
government regulation. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” he
wrote, recounting the gory plots of “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “Hansel and
Gretel.” High school reading lists and Saturday morning cartoons, too, he said,
are riddled with violence.
The California law would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent
video games to anyone under 18.
It defined violent games as those “in which the range of options available to a
player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image
of a human being” in a way that was “patently offensive,” appealed to minors’
“deviant or morbid interests” and lacked “serious literary, artistic, political
or scientific value.”
The definitions tracked language from decisions upholding laws regulating sexual
content. In 1968, in Ginsberg v. New York, the court allowed limits on the
distribution to minors of sexual materials like what it called “girlie
magazines” that fell well short of obscenity, which is unprotected by the First
Justice Scalia rejected the suggestion that depictions of violence are subject
to regulation as obscenity. “Because speech about violence is not obscene,” he
wrote, “it is of no consequence that California’s statute mimics the New York
statute regulating obscenity-for-minors that we upheld in” the Ginsberg
The video game industry, with annual domestic sales of more than $10 billion,
welcomed Monday’s ruling.
“Everybody wins on this decision,” John Riccitiello, chief executive of
Electronic Arts, one of the largest public video game companies, said in a
statement. “The court has affirmed the constitutional rights of game developers,
adults keep the right to decide what’s appropriate in their houses, and store
owners can sell games without fear of criminal prosecution.”
Leland Yee, a California state senator who wrote the law, said in a statement
that “the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before
the interests of our children,” adding: “It is simply wrong that the video game
industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents
and the well-being of children.”
The industry had viewed the court’s decision to hear the case as worrisome,
given that the lower courts had been in agreement that laws regulating violent
expression were unconstitutional.
The justices had, moreover, agreed to hear the case just after issuing their
8-to-1 decision last year in United States v. Stevens, striking down a federal
law making it a crime to buy and sell depictions of animal cruelty like dog
That also suggested that at least some of the justices had viewed California’s
law as problematic.
But on Monday, the majority said the Stevens decision required the court to
strike down the California law. Only a few kinds of speech, like incitement,
obscenity and fighting words, are beyond the protection of the First Amendment,
Justice Scalia said, adding that the court would not lightly create new excluded
Stevens did not involve speech directed to minors, but the majority said the
California law’s goal of protecting children from seeing violence did not alter
the constitutional analysis.
“No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm,”
Justice Scalia wrote, “but that does not include a free-floating power to
restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena
Kagan joined the majority opinion in the case.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a concurrence joined by Chief Justice John G.
Roberts Jr., voted with the majority but did not adopt its reasoning. Justice
Alito said the California law was too vague. A more carefully worded law, he
wrote, might survive constitutional scrutiny.
Justice Alito said the majority opinion was too quick to dismiss differences
between current video games and other media.
“The objective of one game is to rape a mother and her daughters,” he wrote. In
another, “players attempt to fire a rifle shot into the head of President
Kennedy as his motorcade passes by the Texas School Book Depository.”
Soon, he added, children may play three-dimensional high-definition games
wearing equipment that will allow them to “actually feel the splatting blood
from the blown-off head” of a victim.
Justice Scalia acknowledged that Justice Alito had identified some disturbing
images. “But disgust,” Justice Scalia wrote, “is not a valid basis for
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer filed separate dissents. Justice
Thomas said the drafters of the First Amendment did not understand it to protect
minors’ free speech rights.
“ ‘The freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to
speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through
the minors’ parents or guardians,” Justice Thomas wrote.
Justice Scalia, who shares with Justice Thomas a commitment to interpreting the
Constitution in accord with its original meaning, parted ways with his usual
ally on this point. “He cites no case, state or federal, supporting this view,
and to our knowledge there is none,” Justice Scalia wrote of Justice Thomas.
Justice Breyer also dissented, saying the statute survived First Amendment
scrutiny. He relied on studies that he said showed violent video games were
positively associated with aggressive behavior.
“Unlike the majority,” Justice Breyer wrote, “I would find sufficient grounds in
these studies and expert opinions for this court to defer to an elected
legislature’s conclusion that the video games in question are particularly
likely to harm children.”
Matt Richtel contributed reporting from San Francisco.
February 1, 2011
The New York Times
By SETH SCHIESEL
Is there a place in mass entertainment for dismemberment,
dementia, wails of anguish and the infernal corruption of children? Is there a
place for a vision of future humanity in the grip of an eldritch religion that
sees salvation in alien mutation? Is there a place for titillation in the form
of gore, for human (and once-human) offal as an acceptable form of set
Sure there is. That place is Dead Space 2, the taut, chilling new action-horror
game from Electronic Arts. You could even call it engrossing, just as long as
you’re willing to put up with the gross part.
Which is, of course, the point. Dead Space 2 is not for the proverbial (and
literal) women and children who are driving the overall evolution of the video
game business. Dead Space 2 has nothing to do with families and social
gatherings of fresh-faced young professionals pleasantly playing casual party
games on the Wii or Xbox Kinect. Nope.
Instead, it is about turning off the lights, cranking up the surround sound (or
putting on headphones) and strapping in to mow down waves of pustulant space
zombies, while limbs and organs fly, blood splatters, and explosions detonate.
At that, Dead Space 2 is fabulous.
Whether or not this is your sort of thing, what you have to respect is that
Electronic Arts and its internal development group Visceral Games (previously
known as the company’s Redwood Shores studio) know exactly what they are doing
here, and that they have followed through on their vision with focus and flair.
Reviewing the original Dead Space in 2008, I wrote: “The one word that kept
occurring to me in playing Dead Space was discipline. Not over-cautiousness on
the part of the designers, but a discipline to stay focused on providing the
basics at a high level.” There is no sophomore slump here. Dead Space 2, which
is available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows (I played mostly on
Windows on a hunky rig from AMD), maintains the discipline of the original but
orients it in a slightly different direction.
If anything, the arc of the series so far resembles most closely that of the
classic “Alien” film franchise. In the first game, as in the first film, the
main character is tasked with investigating a gigantic marooned spaceship that
has mysteriously gone silent. In Dead Space you boarded the U.S.G. Ishimura as
the engineer Isaac Clarke, only to find that almost all of its crew had been
turned into “necromorphs” (just call them space zombies) by a foreboding alien
artifact discovered on a distant planet.
Like the original “Alien,” Dead Space relied on pacing and the gradual discovery
of the scope of the menace. By the end, you thought you had defeated the
creepy-crawlies and ensured humanity’s safety.
Not so fast, my friend. Of course one last zombie stowed away on your escape
pod, and now, in Dead Space 2, the infestation has spread to a human colony
called the Sprawl, orbiting Saturn. You are still Isaac, but now you know what
you’re up against — not only the zombies but also their venal human
collaborators. And so Dead Space 2 is akin to the sequel “Aliens”: less about
creeping dread and horrible discovery and more about straight-up, guns-blazing
science-fiction combat action.
So you have to take out necromorphs that crawl and necromorphs that fly,
necromorphs that creep up beside you and necromorphs that sprint straight at
you. There are big, powerful necromorphs and, perhaps most disturbing, packs of
infected children that swarm at you from all sides. Meanwhile, you are trying to
traverse the Sprawl, maintain your own tenuous sanity amid what is clearly an
insane situation and perhaps even make things right.
The great answers of the Dead Space cosmology are not yet revealed here (there
will certainly be a Dead Space 3), but the writers and designers at Visceral
have done an excellent job of humanizing Isaac and lending his narrative some
emotional weight. In the first game, Isaac never spoke, and his face was not
revealed from under his metal mask until the very end. That allowed you, the
player, to put yourself in his place, though it also made the character a bit of
In Dead Space 2, Isaac has found his voice and his face, and, especially toward
the end of the roughly 8- to 12-hour story, he reveals himself to be a character
deserving of empathy.
There is little to complain about technically here. The controls are even more
responsive than in the first game, the graphics are fabulous, and the weapons
feel suitably powerful. As in the first game, the combat mechanics are
distinguished from those of other games by forcing you to sever the limbs of
your foes rather than merely aim for the head or center of gravity. A fair bit
of the level design devolves into one corridor after another, but it is nicely
punctuated by a handful of memorable set-piece sequences, including a few that
make coherent use of zero-gravity environments.
It is a bit puerile but also perfectly appropriate that the main marketing Web
site for the game is Yourmomhatesthis.com. The advertising footage of
unsuspecting middle-aged and elderly women recoiling in horror from Dead Space 2
videos is priceless. The best moment is when one woman looks at the camera and
says, “This game is an atrocity.”
October 31, 2010
Filed at 10:23 a.m. ET
The New York Times
LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Before picking up any Wii games or downloading apps on
her iPhone for her two daughters, Lillian Quintero does her homework. She'll
first read reviews online and in magazines, then try them out for herself. If
she thinks the games are engaging and educational enough, 4-year-old Isabella
and 2-year-old Sophia are free to play.
"I know there's going to be a point where they get these things on their own,"
said the 35-year-old mother from Long Beach, Calif. "We're not going to be there
to monitor everything. That's why the most important thing is communication,
instilling morals and values in them and helping them to understand certain
boundaries. There's only so much you can do."
Quintero and her husband, Jorge, are some of the parents who support a
California law that seeks to ban the sale and rental of violent games to
children. The law, which has bounced around the legal system like a game of
"Pong" since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first signed it in 2005, was declared
unconstitutional last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday about the federal court's
decision to throw out California's ban on violent games, marking the first time
a case involving the interactive medium itself has gone before the Supreme
Court. It's another sign that the $20 billion-a-year industry, long considered
to be just child's play, is now all grown up.
California's measure would have regulated games more like pornography than
movies, prohibiting the sale or rental of games that give players the option of
"killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human
being" to anyone under the age of 18. Only retailers would be punished with
fines of up to $1,000 for each infraction.
The federal court said the law violated minors' constitutional rights under the
First and Fourteenth amendments and the state lacked enough evidence to prove
violent games cause physical and psychological harm to minors. Courts in six
other states, including Michigan and Illinois, have reached similar conclusions,
striking down parallel violent game bans.
Under California's law, only adults would be able to purchase games like "Postal
2," the first-person shooter by developer Running With Scissors that features
the ability to light unarmed bystanders on fire, and "Grand Theft Auto IV," the
popular third-person shoot-'em-up from Rockstar Games that allows gamers to
portray carjacking, gun-toting gangsters.
The Quinteros, like most supporters, believe the law will protect children from
buying such violent titles, while gamers and free speech advocates think
California's ban could lead to strict federal regulation on the content of games
and other media. All agree, however, that the graphically rich medium has come a
long way from 8-bit tennis matches.
The average age of gamers is 34, according to the Entertainment Software
Association, and many are paying close attention to the Supreme Court case. The
Entertainment Consumers Association, which lobbies on behalf of gamers, is
organizing a rally outside the Supreme Court building Tuesday as "a way of
sending a strong message and uniting gamers."
"It's not so much a video game case as a First Amendment case," said George
Rose, chief public policy officer at Activision Blizzard Inc., the Santa Monica,
Calif.-based publisher of the popular "Call of Duty" and "Guitar Hero" gaming
franchises. The gamemaker filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing
California's ban, which was never enforced.
Other allies in the fight include Xbox manufacturer Microsoft Corp., "Star Wars"
publisher LucasArts, The Recording Academy, Motion Picture Association of
America, as well as the Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment
Software Association, which sued to block California's ban, calling it
"unnecessary, unwarranted and unconstitutional."
Opponents of the ban have called the measure unnecessary because virtually all
major game publishers and retailers employ a universal voluntary rating system,
much like movie studios and theaters, that assigns one of eight age-specific
ratings to games, then blocks the sale of games that are rated M for "mature"
and AO for "adults only" to children.
The gaming industry has actually done a better job of preventing minors from
buying entertainment not intended for their age group than the music and film
industries, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In a report released last
year, the FTC found that 20 percent of minors were able to buy M-rated games,
down from 42 percent three years earlier.
In contrast, 72 percent of minors were able buy music CDs with explicit content
warnings, 50 percent were sold R-rated and unrated DVDs and 28 percent purchased
tickets to R-rated movies. The FTC noted there were gaps in enforcement of
age-based sales restrictions, specifically with the use of gift cards in online
purchases and unrestricted mobile games.
The Parents Television Council, which supports California's ban on violent
games, conducted its own secret shopper campaign this year with children between
the ages of 12 and 16 attempting to buy M-rated games at 109 stores in 14
states. The group found 21 instances of retailers, including Target, Kmart,
Sears and Best Buy, selling M-rated games to minors.
Leland Yee, the Democratic state senator and child psychologist who originally
authored the law, contends the gaming industry's rating system is not effective
because of the sweeping scope of games, which are longer and more intricate than
movies. Yee said he believes violent games are more harmful to children because
of the medium's interactive nature.
"This isn't an attack on the First Amendment," said Yee. "I'm a supporter of the
First Amendment. This is about not making ultra violent video games available to
children. Within the bill, the definition of a violent video game is so narrowly
tailored because of my respect for the First Amendment. This isn't to stop the
creation of violent video games."
Yee's position hasn't stopped the Entertainment Software Association's Video
Game Voters Network from targeting him. The group has asked gamers to write "I
believe in the First Amendment" on old or broken controllers and send them to
Yee. When asked about the joystick campaign, the senator scoffed and said that
any gifts he received would be returned.
The Quinteros, who practice yoga poses in their living room during rounds of
"Wii Fit," won't be sending their Wii Balance Board to Yee. While they believe
it's ultimately up to parents to police what games their children play, Lillian
and Jorge agree that they would feel more comfortable if violent games were
legally off limits from being sold to kids.
"It's one less way for children to have access to it," said Jorge, a 35-year-old
middle school teacher who recently bought an iPad. "It's common sense. You don't
pick a weenie off the grill with your hands because you know your hand will get
burned. We shouldn't let children buy something violent that they don't think
will affect them."
AP Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay in New York contributed to this report.
No new game company has been more successful over the past couple
of years than Zynga. From Mafia Wars to FarmVille, Zynga has essentially defined
the latest generation of games on Facebook. It almost goes without saying that
Facebook has become a ubiquitous, nigh indispensable element of so many people’s
social existence, and it is the rare Facebooker indeed who has not fielded
requests and seen status updates from a Zynga title. I played Mafia Wars off and
on for at least a year.
Now comes FrontierVille, in many ways Zynga’s most sophisticated project. Like
other Zynga games it is brilliantly designed and meticulously executed in its
ability to lure you onto a never-ending virtual treadmill. Hardly any electronic
code is more purely diverting than a game like FrontierVille.
But I don’t find it meaningful or rewarding. There is no mental stimulation or
biomechanical pleasure here. Rather, I find this entire category of games both
insidious in their appeal and annoyingly blatant in their attempt to
commercialize their users — to turn players into payers.
You see, FrontierVille and its ilk do not feel like games at all. Instead they
seem like lucrative business models that are being sold and packaged in the form
of a game. There is a big difference. When you talk to most designers of great
games they will tell you something along the lines of, “We make the kind of
games we would want to play.” That never feels like the case with Zynga games.
To me, a game like FrontierVille says, “We make the kind of games we think can
best attract and monetize the most number of people with credit cards who don’t
mind dropping $10 or $20 once in a while for a virtual tchotchke.”
Obviously, millions of people don’t mind at all, and FrontierVille taps into the
same veins of design and recurrence as earlier Zynga games. The setup is that
you begin alone in the forest with a couple of chickens and you must tame the
wilderness by clearing brush and cutting down trees before you can build a
cabin, plant crops, raise animals, attract a spouse, have children and build an
Old West-style settlement.
Like other Zynga games, FrontierVille is designed around a few core concepts:
keep players coming back multiple times a day, keep encouraging them to invite
more friends to the game, and keep giving them reason to pay a few bucks here
and there. You can play FrontierVille free and without badgering your friends to
come play with you all the time, but your progression will be slow and meager.
If you really want to feel like you’re getting somewhere you need to keep
inviting more friends or start shelling out some cash, or both. I paid $20 for
170 virtual horseshoes, which I used to unlock advanced farm animals like cows
and oxen and better flora like peach trees.
Whether you pay or not, FrontierVille is built to keep you coming back at least
a few times a day. You expend energy points to perform actions like feeding
pigs, chopping trees or whacking snakes. Once you’re out of energy points you
can wait a couple of hours for your pool to replenish or eat virtual food (from
your crops), or spend real money to get more energy. That real-time structure is
perfectly suited for how people use Facebook, which is to check in now and then
(or all day) on what their friends are up to.
In its infectious appeal FrontierVille borrows liberally from the sound and
visual iconography of games from Diablo to slot machines. Every time you clear
weeds or harvest crops or animals, little stars and loot pop out à la Diablo,
and your rewards are tied to how quickly you click to pick them up. The bloops
and beeps are straight off a casino floor. FrontierVille is very intelligent in
how it gets the player into a rhythm of clicking and receiving little rewards,
always with the possibility of hitting the jackpot with a rare item or piece of
a collectible set (like the oak-tree collection, or some such).
In the end all great games, like all great entertainments, involve a bit of
manipulation — doing things to consumers that they may not be completely aware
of on a conscious level. And perhaps Zynga games like FrontierVille are not
manipulative at all in the sense that they are so transparent about how they
With other games you pay upfront or with a monthly fee, and then receive access
to the whole game. With FrontierVille you never really have access to the entire
game. Instead, you continue paying here and there and inviting more and more
friends to keep seeing a little bit more of this frontier wilderness that you
will never fully master.
Federal court rules closure of public display
featuring the videogame, Virtual Jihadi,
Friday 12 June 2009
An Iraqi-American artist has been vindicated after coming under attack for
making a videogame in which players have to assassinate George Bush.
Artist Wafaa Bilal created the game Virtual Jihadi last year, in what he claimed
was an attempt to "bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians". But
the game, which involved an attempted strike on the former US president's life,
caused a storm of protest, including accusations that Bilal was encouraging
The controversy reached fever pitch when a public display featuring the game in
New York was closed down by local authorities amid claims that the organisers
had committed a number of infractions.
However, following accusations that the shutdown was an infringement of Bilal's
rights, a federal court has ruled that the closure was unconstitutional.
The court found that the reason for the closure – code violations cited by local
public works commissioner Robert Mirch – were in fact bogus.
"Mr Mirch abused his authority to suppress the free speech rights of people he
disagrees with, an unconstitutional act that must be challenged," said Melanie
Trimble, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued on behalf of
The artist, who fled Iraq in 1992 after the first Gulf war, is an assistant
professor at New York University's Tische School for the Arts and produced
Virtual Jihadi after his brother was killed in an American bombing raid.
He hacked and reworked a game called Quest for Saddam, in which players took the
part of a soldier in the Iraq war, in an attempt to show that the civilians in
the conflict were not merely stereotypes or characters in a virtual shoot-out,
but real people.
According to the game's website, Virtual Jihadi was "meant to bring attention to
the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and
racist generalisations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as Quest for
However the game caused outrage, and a show of Bilal's work at the Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute was suspended shortly after the institution was accused of
becoming a "terrorist safe haven".
Fri Feb 20, 2009
By Gina Keating
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled Friday that a California law
restricting the sales and rental of violent video games to minors and imposing
labeling requirements is too restrictive and violates free speech guarantees.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the labeling requirement
unfairly forces video games to carry "the state's controversial opinion" about
which games are violent.
The unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel could have a far-reaching impact on
efforts by other states to establish mandatory video game labeling requirements.
The court upheld a lower court finding that California lawmakers failed to
produce evidence that violent video games cause psychological or neurological
harm to children.
"Even if it did, the Act is not narrowly tailored to prevent that harm and there
remain less restrictive means of forwarding the state's purported interests,"
the court wrote.
Those alternative measures include the voluntary ratings system established by
the Entertainment Software Rating Board, educational campaigns and parental
controls, the court said.
State Sen. Leland Yee, the author of the legislation, said he will urge
California Attorney General Jerry Brown to appeal the court's ruling to the U.S.
"I've always contended that the ... law the governor signed was a good one for
protecting children from the harm from playing these ultra-violent video games,"
Yee told Reuters. "I've always felt it would end up in the Supreme Court."
Bo Andersen, president and chief executive of the Entertainment Merchants
Association, said the ruling vindicates his group's position that "ratings
education, retailer ratings enforcement, and control of game play by parents are
the appropriate responses to concerns about video game content."
Andersen and Michael Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software
Association, urged the state to abandon any further appeals of the case.
"This is a clear signal that in California and across the country, the reckless
pursuit of anti-video game legislation like this is an exercise in wasting
taxpayer money, government time and state resources," Gallagher said in a
The 2005 law, which requires games described as violent to carry an "18" label,
has been contested by video game publishers, distributors and sellers.
A lower court had barred the law from taking effect in 2006, and later
invalidated it. The state appealed that case, titled Video Software Dealers
Association v. Arnold Schwarzenegger (CV-05-04188), last October.
Entertainment Software Association members include Disney Interactive Studios,
Electronic Arts, Microsoft Corp, THQ Inc, Sony Computer Entertainment America,
and Take-Two Interactive Software.
(Reporting by Gina Keating;
additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco;
November 28, 2008
The NewYork Times
By SETH SCHIESEL
In these challenging economic times, it may come as a surprise that a
well-chosen video game can be one of the most cost-effective gifts possible.
Sure, the $60 price tag on some top games can be daunting, but when you realize
that the right one can wrangle dozens or even hundreds of hours out of the right
player, games can start to look like the smart entertainment investments they
But nongamers can get it totally wrong when buying for friends and family. Bad
gift-giving usually stems from one basic misconception: If it’s a video game, it
must be for children.
Every year, parents who would never dream of buying their children a DVD of
“Scarface,” “Platoon” or one of the “Saw” torture movies blithely buy them
violent gangster games, bloody war games and gross-out horror games. Then
they’re horrified when little Johnny or Jenny ends up spending Saturday
afternoon trading expletives with drug dealers and discussing the relative
merits of shotguns and flamethrowers. So please, if you would not allow your
children to watch R-rated films without supervision, do not buy them M-rated
games. Federal studies have shown that the game industry is at least as vigilant
as Hollywood in labeling products that are inappropriate for children. But the
system breaks down when parents ignore it.
That misconception cuts the other way as well. The average gamer is now about
30; the first generation to grow up playing games is now around 40. And your
35-year-old boyfriend is not going to be impressed when you show up with the
latest Pokémon or the new “Price Is Right” game. The best work being done in
games these days is in interactive narratives for and about adults. Engaging
with a current top-end game involves much more cognitive processing (a k a
brainpower) than merely watching hour upon hour of prime-time television. So
show some respect; your favorite gamer will adore you for it.
Here are some of the best games of the year, each of which could be the perfect
gift for the right person. The shrewd will notice no sports or music games on
this list. That is because those are easier to shop for: pick the desired sport
or tunes and go.
GRAND THEFT AUTO IV Ideal audience: well-adjusted adults who want to explore a
rich, intelligent, politically incorrect digital rendition of New York City. As
long as you can accept that a great work of modern entertainment can revolve
around criminals — something long assumed in television and films — then it is
almost impossible to deny that G.T.A. IV is one of the most compelling games in
recent years. The driving and shooting is fun, but the real star of the game is
the city itself, rendered with a loving sense of decay and populated with
perhaps the best cast of dysfunctional characters to grace a pixel. For Xbox 360
and Playstation 3 (PC version coming in December). Rating: M for Mature.
SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION REVOLUTION Ideal audience: families interested in
fostering an appreciation of both global history and strategic thinking; also,
commuters looking to upgrade from Tetris. Civilization is the top strategy
franchise in the history of video games. With Revolution the series moves beyond
PCs and arrives on consoles and the hand-held Nintendo DS. The premise remains
the same: guide a historical culture from the dawn of history to the space age.
Nothing feels better than dominating Genghis Khan and Napoleon at the same time.
For Xbox 360, PS3 and DS. Rating: E10+ for Everyone 10 and older.
Warhammer Online Ideal audience: massively multiplayer online gamers who cannot
satisfy their bloodlust in World of Warcraft. Don’t get me wrong; like more than
10 million other people, I love World of Warcraft. But great games can stand
some competition, and Warhammer Online, the new online version of the
decades-old British fantasy universe, provides it. Warhammer employs many
conventions from Warcraft but gives them a new twist in a game that focuses
largely on player-versus-player combat, rather than on battling
computer-controlled foes. For PC. Rating: T for Teen.
Wii Fit Ideal audience: couch produce of all ages. Nintendo’s best game of the
year is not really a game. It’s a light exercise system meant to take just a few
calories off. The most surprising thing: it works. For Wii. Rating: E for
LITTLEBIGPLANET Ideal audience: aspiring game designers and anyone else with
excellent eye-hand coordination. The breakout title this year for Sony’s
PlayStation 3, LittleBigPlanet is in some ways as close to YouTube as games have
come. In its essence it is merely a “platformer”: you navigate your little
beanbag character mostly by running and jumping. The secret sauce is that the
game allows users to create their own levels and share them easily with other
players online. Rating: E.
DEAD SPACE Ideal audience: people who like being scared. Dead Space is a
straight-ahead science fiction survival-horror experience. You, the player, are
trapped on a spooky spaceship with a horde of space zombies who want to eat you,
or turn you into one of them, or something. You wade through them while engaging
in what is charmingly referred to as “strategic dismemberment.” For what it is,
though, Dead Space is both conceived and executed at a high level. For Xbox 360,
PS3 and PC. Rating: M.
FALLOUT 3 Ideal audience: old-school role-playing gamers and anyone who wants to
see Washington in ashes. The return of the classic Fallout series is a sprawling
re-creation of the Capitol area after a nuclear war. The tone is darker and less
slyly humorous than previous Fallout games, but the sheer size and ambition of
the game impress. For Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Rating: M.
PROFESSOR LAYTON AND THE CURIOUS VILLAGE Ideal audience: puzzle fans. One of the
sleepers of 2008, Professor Layton ties together more than 100 beautifully
designed brainteasers with an endearing anime-style story. The puzzles
themselves are perfectly intelligible to nongamers. For Nintendo DS. Rating: E.
GEARS OF WAR 2 Ideal audience: testosterone-fueled core gamers who like chain
saws. When you think about the stereotypical video game, this is what you’re
thinking about: big guns, voracious alien bad guys, great graphics, huge
explosions, cardboard-cutout characters, silly dialogue and cheap thrills all
around. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. For Xbox 360. Rating: M.
FABLE II Ideal audience: emotionally mature children and most fans of delicate
entertainment design. This game is rated M not because it is especially violent
or profane. It is rated M because in between casting spells and swinging swords
you can have children, you can get married (and have affairs if you choose), and
you can buy condoms. Shocking, I know. For children who are comfortable with the
basic facts of life, there is no reason not to share Fable II. It’s a wonderful
game on its own, and it beats handing a child a virtual machine gun. For Xbox
He turned town planning into an art form with SimCity
and housework into a teenage obsession with The Sims.
Now California's most innovative game designer,
Will Wright, has turned his attention to evolution
and the universe.
Ajesh Partalay tries to pin him down
Sunday September 14 2008
This article appeared in the Observer
on Sunday September 14 2008
on p52 of the Comment & features section.
It was last updated at 00:05 on September 14 2008.
In Thailand last month an 18-year-old high-school student stabbed a taxi driver
to death. When asked why, he replied that it was to see if it was as easy to rob
a taxi in real life as it was in his favourite video game, Grand Theft Auto. The
Thai government banned the game amid talk of a 'ticking time bomb'. Just the
latest in a long-running argument about the damaging effects of violent video
To objections from the gaming industry, the UK government has just introduced
plans for a strict film-style classification system, which may allay parents'
fears about violence but seems unlikely to address their concerns about video
games in general: that they stifle creativity, hinder social skills and reduce
their children to gawping couch potatoes. Video games are back in the firing
Last Friday saw the release of Spore, one of the industry's most eagerly awaited
games. But parents can breathe a sigh of relief, because this isn't some
ultra-violent gun-toting gore fest. It's the brainchild of designer Will Wright,
which means, in all likelihood, that it will totally rewrite the rules on what
we can expect from a video game and prove as popular with parents as it is with
kids. Through his games Wright has revolutionised the industry and more than
once salvaged its reputation. With his latest he may well do so again.
Wright, now 48, is regarded with awe by his peers (even his company Maxis, I'm
told, is seen as 'mysterious', squirrelled away in Orinda, California for so
long when everyone else was in Silicon Valley), because he has developed an
entirely new type of video game. And out of the most unlikely material.
SimCity, his breakthrough, is about nothing more elaborate than building a city
and following the principles of good town planning. This in a market dominated
by fantasy and sci-fi role-play games, sports simulations and first-person
shooters. Released in 1989, SimCity (and its spin-offs) have gone on to sell a
staggering 17m copies worldwide. But this is nothing compared with his
follow-up, The Sims. Probably best described as an interactive doll's house, in
which you look after the inhabitants, The Sims boasts sales of more than 100m
copies, making it the bestselling PC game of all time.
His latest game, Spore, is as ambitious in scope as its predecessors ('How do we
deconstruct the universe?' Wright asked by way of introduction at a recent
conference). Spore is based loosely on the theory of evolution. Each player
starts off as a microbial cell which gradually evolves, through feeding on other
organisms and picking up 'DNA points', until it wriggles out of water on to dry
land. This creature then hunts and reproduces, eventually banding together to
make a tribe, which in turn grows in size and then either by conquering or
allying with surrounding settlements turns into a civilisation.
Finally you advance far enough to be able to send a rocket up into space for the
final stage, in which you jet about the universe in search of planets to
colonise and aliens to pester. From single-cell organism to intergalactic empire
in one game.
With his slightly nerdy haircut and glasses, Wright certainly looks the part.
Sitting in his office overlooking San Francisco Bay, he has one leg draped
jauntily over the armrest of his chair. Glancing round, there are pointers to
Spore everywhere. Pinned to his walls are images from the Hubble Space Telescope
(used to recreate star clusters in the game); over his bookshelf a poster of his
favourite film, 2001 (by way of homage, when players reach the final space
stage, they can drop a black monolith down to the surface of other planets to
freak out aliens); on his desk an entomology microscope. 'I've got one at home,
too. They're much more interesting than a telescope.' What does he look at?
'Anything. You could put your hand under there and spend an hour looking at it.
Fascinating.' In the corridor outside sits a battered doll's house, presumably a
leftover from The Sims.
Wright is telling me at great speed (he talks with considerable velocity) about
the inspirations behind Spore. What follows is typically recondite. 'It's
actually an idea you see repeated over and over,' he says. 'The idea of Powers
of Ten.' This is a short film by Charles and Ray Eames from 1977 that looks at
the universe on various scales, gradually zooming in from the galactic (a view
of the entire Milky Way) to the microscopic (quark particles in the nucleus of a
carbon atom). 'In fact, Powers of Ten wasn't the first one I discovered. The
original idea came from a Dutch schoolteacher named Kees Boeke. He wrote a book
in 1957 called Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. Boeke's version was
amazingly accurate for the time ...' On which he leaps up and snatches down a
copy of Boeke's book from the shelf.
Wright goes on: 'I remember explaining Spore to the execs at Electronic Arts
[EA, the software company that finances and publishes the game] before we had
anything to show. I was trying to explain the content, Powers of Ten and all
this. It was pretty clear they had no idea what I was talking about. But they
were like: "Sure, do it."'
Whether they understood or not, Electronic Arts has invested a considerable
amount in the game (reportedly $20m). This is not insignificant at a time when
the industry, though still thriving, is beginning to question the value of
spending millions on one game (a new title, too, not a sequel), particularly
given the growing popularity of cheaper, so-called 'casual games'.
Casual games include the lucrative field of internet and mobile-phone games as
well as PC and console games typified by Guitar Hero (a karaoke-style game) and
Dr Kawashima's Brain Training (in which you solve various puzzles to help
sharpen your mind). They are simpler in design, shorter in duration, and aimed
at a more mainstream audience. The Nintendo Wii console (with its
motion-sensitive remote) has been a particular hit, attracting a broad new
fanbase with its range of family-friendly titles. I ask Wright how important it
is to court this new type of player. 'It's probably the most important thing
happening in the gaming industry. We're seeing that with the Nintendo Wii. That
pressure to start serving the whole market rather than this little section.'
Does he mean appealing to more women? 'That's a big part, but also the
intergenerational market. Families. With Wii, you see kids, parents and even
grandparents playing together.' Wright already has a good record on this.
According to EA, 20 per cent of Sims players are over 35 and 50 per cent are
For EA, there's a lot riding on Spore (particularly since the company reported
losses of $95m earlier this year). At the same time, EA clearly has faith in
Wright and has granted him considerable leeway. A great position to be in, I
say. 'Yeah. Kind of,' Wright shrugs. 'For The Sims it was very different. I was
always having to convince people it would be fun. That was almost more
satisfying – as opposed to whatever stupid thing you say, everybody says: "Great
idea, go do it."' It has been six years in development; the big question now is
whether Spore can meet those expectations.
At this year's Comic-Con in San Diego, a conference for comic-book nerds, video
gamers and hardcore Trekkies, Wright gave a speech in which he said he believed
video games had a role in helping people understand sciences. Spore, he said,
would make science 'accessible and not academic'. It's a recurring theme in the
way he talks about his work: games as semi-educational.
How important is it that his games teach as well as entertain? 'I'm not sure
teach is the right word,' he says. 'Computer games and simulations are much more
powerful [as an aid] to motivate than to teach. I'd rather have a game that got
a person interested in the subject than tried to put a lot of facts into their
head. It's not a matter of sugarcoating education. Education when done right is
inherently fun. There shouldn't be a difference between the two. Our culture has
disconnected the ideas of education and fun – and if anything, I'm trying to
reconnect those two things.'
It goes back to the way Wright himself was taught. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia,
the son of a plastics engineer and an actress, Wright attended a Montessori
school up to the age of nine (his 'high point of education'). 'The basis was
that you wanted kids to discover principles on their own. Montessori designed
toys so kids could discover aspects of maths or geometry just from playing. The
kid made the discovery, and it was much more effective than the teacher coming
over and saying, "Here's Pythagorean theory," or whatever.' Wright has likened
his own games to 'modern Montessori toys'.
As a child, he'd immerse himself in pet subjects for months, reading everything
he could. Space exploration was a passion. Another was Harry Houdini (a rub-off
from his mother, who was an amateur magician. 'I learned how to pick locks,' he
says). The Second World War was an obsession, too. 'I had a friend down the
street – we were both into World War Two history and used to play these
elaborate historical video games recreating the Battle of Kursk or whatever.' He
also built a lot of models: 'ships, cars, planes, mostly from kits'.
When Wright was nine his father died of leukaemia and he moved with his mother
and younger sister to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There he enrolled in the Episcopal
High School and duly became an atheist. After graduating he took off to
Louisiana State University to study architecture, transferred a few years later
to Louisiana Tech for mechanical engineering, dropped out, drove a bulldozer for
a summer and in 1980 landed up at New School, New York, studying robotics.
Robots then led to computers: 'I got fascinated, totally dived in and learned
how to programme.' Video games were taking off at the time. 'I thought: people
are actually making money from these games. I'll try it. More as an intellectual
challenge; I didn't expect to make money.' Wright's first game, programmed on
his Commodore 64, was Raid on Bungeling Bay ('this stupid helicopter shoot 'em
up') which Broderbund, a small software company, brought out in 1984. It was a
fair success, earning Wright enough to live on for a couple of years. That same
year, Wright married Joell Jones, the older sister of one of his friends, and
two years later they had a daughter, Cassidy. (The couple have recently
While developing Bungeling Bay, Wright became fascinated by a tangential aspect
to the game. 'Underneath was a fairly elaborate simulation of factories and
towns, a whole infrastructure that wasn't apparent to the player. I was having a
lot more fun building that world than bombing it.' How about a game based on
that, he thought, where you build your own urban environment. He threw himself
into background reading. 'I uncovered the work of Jay Forrester, who wrote a
book called Urban Dynamics in 1969,' Wright tells me, before citing other
sources, including John Conway's 1970 Game of Life and the 'cell automata' work
of a little-known scientist named Liman Wang.
The prototype game Wright came up with was a radical departure in gaming terms.
In it the player would oversee the development of an entire city, laying roads,
building schools and hospitals, installing infrastructure, all the time
balancing a long list of interdependent variables (crime rates, population
levels, popularity ratings, taxes). Persuading software company Broderbund to
back it was no breeze. 'When I first showed them SimCity they were a little
confused. I got to this stage where I thought it was done, but they kept
expecting it to have this win/lose element. I kept saying: "No. This is the way
it is."' Broderbund ended up not publishing, and it sat on Wright's shelf for a
Enter Jeff Braun, Wright's future business partner. They met in 1987 at a
friend's pizza party in Alameda, California. When Wright showed him his demo,
Braun got very excited. Having previously developed fonts for the computer firm
Atari, Braun was keen to get into games. Here was the perfect vehicle. 'He's a
very bubbly guy,' Wright says of Braun. 'He said: "I want to play this – this is
great" and persuaded me to start this company with him to develop it.' Which
they did. Two years later Maxis published SimCity. Though not an instant hit, it
went on to earn $230m worldwide.
The idea for Wright's next game came when his house burned down in an Oakland
Hills fire in 1991. Forced to replace all his possessions – everything from
kitchen utensils to furniture, which he hated doing – Wright got thinking about
the value of all this stuff. Which sparked an idea: a game about running a
household. But how to make it work? Wright read extensively on human behaviour
and systems design: books like A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, A
Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow and Maps of the Mind by Charles
Hampden-Turner, which provided guiding principles for scoring the happiness of
players in the game he came up with.
The Sims, based in a suburban home, required that players tend to the various
needs – from dietary to social – of its family of inhabitants. That meant
everything from taking them to the bathroom and getting them to clean, to
cooking them dinner. Arguably Wright's greatest achievement was making housework
fun. Launched in 2000, The Sims was an instant hit.
Three years earlier, Maxis had been bought out by Electronic Arts for $125m.
Wright walked away from the deal with a reported $17m in EA stock. The Sims and
its spin-offs have since gone on to earn EA in the region of $4bn.
A month now before Spore ships, the pressure on the team at Spore HQ is easing
up. The main office – airy, wood-beamed and half empty today – is covered with
Spore flowcharts, storyboards and brainstorming sessions. For Wright, there's
time to pause, too, though not for long – an exhaustive promotional world tour
kicks off in a few weeks. 'I prefer to be making the game than talking about
it,' he says.
Does it bother him that video games are looked down on by so many? 'There are
two ways of looking at that. Yeah, this bias against this form of media causes
tension. But at the same time, there's some value in being a renegade. Like
rock'n'roll. Something that parents don't like, kids are much more into it.' But
if video games are rock'n'roll, I say, his games are more like the Beatles than,
say ... 'Metallica?' he chimes in. 'Probably. My games tend to be more
cross-generational. More accessible. I think parents would rather see their kids
play The Sims than Counter-Strike.' No wonder. The first is about family life,
the second a violent terrorist-based first-person shooter.
But Wright is quick to defend games like Counter-Strike. 'It's funny,' he says.
'If [parents] are just observing the game and not playing it themselves, they're
just seeing a surface representation: the pixels on the screen, the explosions,
the gunshots. But if you look at kids playing Counter-Strike or [another
first-person shooter] Quake, it's really more of a sport. They're very social
experiences; they're not antisocial at all. It's all about working together as a
team, getting their friends together – sometimes it's more like playing a game
of basketball. If parents could see what the kids were seeing on the screen in a
social sense, they would have a totally different perspective on it.'
Agree or not, it's Wright in a nutshell. The Montessori defence, you might say:
nothing beats playing the game yourself – and every game, violent or not, has
something to teach us. Providing we have a go.
LOS ANGELES — Ever since Microsoft waded into the video game wars with the
introduction of the original Xbox in 2001, the company has spared little expense
in attempting to establish its bona fides with hardcore gamers. From the
physical appearance of the first Xbox — hulking, extruded black plastic — to the
testosterone-laden, shoot-’ em-up essence of Microsoft’s signature game
franchise, Halo, Microsoft’s first, perhaps only, priority has been to reach out
to the young men at gaming’s historical roots.
Until now. In a significant shift for the company, Microsoft on Monday unveiled
a new strategy for its gaming unit that is meant to help the company’s Xbox 360
console appeal to the mainstream. Lured by games and consoles like Guitar Hero,
The Sims, World of Warcraft and Nintendo’s Wii, millions of consumers who would
never have thought of themselves as gamers have begun to play video games in
recent years. By some projections, the global game industry could approach $50
billion in revenue this year, propelled mostly by gaming’s soaring mainstream
So on Monday at the annual E3 convention here, Microsoft announced a collection
of new games and services for the Xbox 360 that are meant to appeal to the
everyday entertainment consumer.
“For the last few years we have consciously and continuously fed the core gamer
audience, and now we are reaching that inflection point where we have to reach
out to the mainstream consumer and bring them into the Xbox 360,” David Hufford,
Microsoft’s director for Xbox product management, said in an interview.
“Everyone plays video games now or has an interest in playing video games,” he
said. “So we have to appeal to the mainstream more than ever now. And what
really is appealing to that mainstream consumer is that social experience, in
the living room or online. Whether it’s the older consumer or the Facebook
generation, they see games not as a solitary experience but as something you do
with friends and family, and that’s what we want to deliver this fall.”
At the core of Microsoft’s new initiative is a new interface for the Xbox 360
that incorporates humanlike avatars representing each player. Users will be able
to customize their avatars and socialize with other Xbox users, even outside of
any particular game. Nintendo has been successful using a similar approach with
its Wii, where each person creates a more cartoony figure called a Mii. Sony is
also working on such a system with a new service for its PlayStation 3 called
In Microsoft’s system, Xbox users will be able to share photos with one another
across the Xbox Live network and also watch movies together in real time, even
if the consumers are thousands of miles apart.
In addition to the new avatar system, Microsoft announced a partnership with
Netflix, so Netflix subscribers can watch any of more than 10,000 movies and
television programs over their Xbox 360. Microsoft already offers some films and
TV shows for download and on Monday the company announced that its Xbox Live
service had generated more than $1 billion in revenue since the Xbox 360’s debut
Driving home the company’s new push for mainstream consumers, the company also
unveiled new family-oriented games including a new entry in its Viva Pinata
franchise and a madcap B-movie simulator called “You’re in the Movies.”
But a video game business cannot survive on family-friendly fare alone. To
appeal to more traditionally discerning gamers, Microsoft offered a
well-received look at the post-apocalyptic role-playing Fallout 3 and Gears of
War 2, sequel to one of the best games of 2006.
Perhaps of most interest to serious gamers, Square Enix of Japan showed a
lusciously beautiful trailer at the Microsoft briefing from its coming game
Final Fantasy XIII, which is scheduled to be released next year. Previous Final
Fantasy games have been available only on Sony consoles, but, in a major coup
for Microsoft, Square Enix announced that FF13 would also be released for the
Later in the day, Electronic Arts, the big United States game publisher, held
its own media presentation to show off its lineup for the holiday season and
next year. Predictably, Spore, the evolutionary biology simulator from Will
Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, looked almost frighteningly addictive.
Spore is scheduled to be released in September, and Mr. Wright said that players
had already created more than 1.7 million fictional species using the game’s
E.A. has long been a leader in appealing to casual gamers. To reinforce that
success, the company showed off a new game called SimAnimals, which appears
poised to do well among girls and children. The company also moved to reinforce
its credibility with core gamers which looks at Dragon Age Origins, from the
BioWare studio, and Left 4 Dead, a survival horror game from the Valve studio.
Both BioWare and Valve are among the most respected game developers in the
In a surprise move, E.A. announced a publishing partnership with id Software,
the inventors of the first-person shooter genre and the famous developers of the
seminal Doom and Quake franchises. John Carmack, an id lead programmer, showed a
brief snippet from id’s coming game Rage.
But the surprise hit of the E.A. news conference was a new science-fiction
horror game called Dead Space, which is scheduled to be released for PCs, the
Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in October. Not for children and not for the
squeamish, Dead Space takes place on a space station where something has gone
horribly, terribly wrong (the combat revolves around what was described at the
presentation as strategic dismemberment). The quality of the animation and the
evocative tension and fear of its presentation appeared to be of a very high
quality, as long as you don’t mind flying body parts.
Nintendo and Sony are scheduled to hold their major briefings on Tuesday.
If there’s a subject that’s as contentious as war itself, it might be a video
game about war.
It’s been just over a week since the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the
Patriots, the latest chapter in the popular video game series about a covert
military agent named Solid Snake. And already, fans are exchanging rhetorical
fusillades on the Internet, teasing out what the underlying political and
philosophical messages of Metal Gear Solid 4 might be.
Encrypted within this discussion is a more sophisticated argument about the
nascent medium of video games. Can it tell a story as satisfyingly as a work of
cinema or literature?
Is the Sisyphean mission of Solid Snake — to rid the world of a robotic nuclear
tank called Metal Gear — a parable about the futility of war or about its
necessity? A critique of America’s domination of the global stage? A metaphor
for the struggle between determinism and free will? If the creator of the Metal
Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima, has answers to these questions, he isn’t
“He doesn’t interview very much,” said Leigh Alexander, an associate editor at
Kotaku.com, a video game blog. “Sometimes he will speak about it, and other
times it’s left to the critical peanut gallery to disassemble what his
intentions might have been.”
Devoted players have no shortage of opinions about what Mr. Kojima’s games are
saying. The original Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 for Sony’s PlayStation
console, combined stealth combat with cinematic intermission scenes, full of
dialogue and imagery that directly invoked the bombing of Hiroshima and the
birth of atomic weapons. The game called attention to the scourge of nuclear
proliferation, and forced players to consider the morality of their own lethal
These messages were complicated by a pair of sequels: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons
of Liberty, released in late 2001, introduced a shadowy supernational group
called the Patriots, so powerful that even the president of the United States
answers to it. (A commentary on the disputed 2000 election? The cabal theories
of post-9/11 politics?) And Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, released in 2004,
explored the cold war origins of its characters, whose personal stories are
intertwined with the rise of the military-industrial complex.
“This is a just-off-center world that gamers can almost believe in,” said Rob
Smith, the editor in chief of PlayStation: The Official Magazine. “All the
important world history of the 20th century matches up in ways that say, ‘If
we’d gone down this path then, this is what we’d now be facing.’ ”
Metal Gear Solid 4, released for the PlayStation 3 console, further upends
traditional notions of heroism and villainy: in this game Solid Snake (think
James Bond meets Rambo) has aged considerably, as have several of his
archenemies; the forces he battles are not the soldiers of identifiable nations
but the mercenaries on the payroll of private military companies. “The issue of
good guys and bad guys doesn’t exist anymore,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s just:
here’s the guys.”
Even as gamers ponder what this symbolism means (an allegory of war in the era
of Blackwater Worldwide and stateless enemy combatants?), they are also debating
whether the story of Metal Gear Solid 4 is a satisfying one, and if its
storytelling techniques are used effectively.
“You get so caught up in just figuring out, Does this story need to be here?”
said Stephen Totilo, an MTV News reporter who covers video games. “That’s not a
question you wind up asking yourself when you’re reading a novel. Of course the
story needs to be there! Otherwise you don’t have a novel.”
Players like Shawn Elliott, the senior executive editor of the gaming Web site
1up.com, have criticized the game for its preachiness, and for its reliance on
lengthy cinematic interludes that can run 30 minutes or longer.
“It can basically become a movie for long stretches,” Mr. Elliott said. “It’s
not necessarily a game catching up with movies, but a game kind of cheating and
using a language that isn’t native to its own medium.”
Others object to the sheer density of the story, spanning seven games released
over 20 real-world years, that players are asked to master. “Let’s just say it’s
not something any of us gamers are nearly as used to doing when we’re playing a
game as when we’re reading a novel,” Mr. Totilo said.
Players can skip over the storytelling elements in Metal Gear Solid and still
play the game.
But unrepentant fans like Ms. Alexander of Kotaku.com argue that, coherent or
not, the narrative of Metal Gear Solid 4 is an inseparable part of the “package
experience” that makes it an evolutionary step beyond fare like Halo 3, a
first-person shooting game designed to soothe itchy trigger fingers.
Metal Gear Solid, Ms. Alexander said, “has the characters and the narrative, the
symbolism and the metaphors, and all of the lore that ties it together,” whereas
Halo is popular “not because of any of its peripheral elements or anything else
about it, other that you shoot people.”
In real life, dying is unavoidable and final.
But even though it's accepted that characters
die in videogames, is it really necessary,
wonders Kate Bevan
Thursday July 26, 2007
Dying in real life is - religious beliefs aside - the end, the last event you'll
take part in. Not so in computer games, where it's never worse than briefly
infuriating. In World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online roleplaying
game (MMORPG) that 8.5 million people play every day, your death just means you
have to spend several minutes trekking back to the point at which you died. And
your avatar is temporarily weakened. It's an inconvenience.
But why is in-game "dying" necessary at all? Alternatively, why isn't dying in a
game as final as it is in real life? In MMORPGs, the latter is in part at least
simply answered: it's economics. From Blizzard's point of view, if in-game death
were final, people would stop coughing up their monthly subscription. And the
vibrant in-game economy depends to a certain extent on death and regeneration:
when your avatar comes back to life, your weapons are damaged and need repairing
- for which you pay a fee.
In fact many games, both on computers and in real life, require you to leave the
field of play, for structural as much as for narrative reasons. In childrens'
playground games, team members have to be eliminated to determine the winner
before the end of the lunch break. In arcade videogames such as Space Invaders,
your skill determines how long you can play before giving the machine more cash.
Death puts a time limit on those games, just as it does for life. In other
games, "dying" means you have to go back to the beginning of a level and work
your way through it again; so death becomes an indication that you've not
reached a specific skill level.
But where's the fun in endlessly replaying a level? Gamers are unequivocal:
"Dying gives a game meaning", say posters on the PC Advisor forums. Markus
Montola, a researcher at Tampere University in Finland, takes this further: "You
have a motivation - to avoid being annoyed by dying. Motivation is what makes
the game meaningful."
Pete Hines - vice-president at Bethesda, the developer behind the role-playing
game Oblivion and its expansion pack, Shivering Isles - agrees. "Having your
character die or fail is important because your actions have to have some
meaning in the game, and to you."
But is the death of your character the right way to give a game meaning? Peter
Molyneux of Lionhead, the developer of Fable, Black & White and The Movies,
says: "A fight has to cost the player something, or it loses its meaning.
Previously, that cost was time and tedium [in replaying a level]. But is that
the right cost?"
Molyneux argues that designers should look to Hollywood for how to treat the
game's hero - ie you, the player. "Have you ever seen a film where the hero dies
and dies again? The tension in an action film almost always comes from hammering
a hero so hard that he almost dies - and then he leaps back up."
In a film, death is usually the climax, a cathartic event. The battle of
Thermopylae is depicted in the film 300; commentators remarked on how much like
a computer game it is, with its cinematic cutscenes and boss battles. However,
this film ends, as the real events did, with the glorious death of its hero,
Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and his plucky army.
Perhaps the difference between computer games and film or television dramas is
how we consume them. TV and film are genres that we consume passively: we can't
affect the outcome (though the popularity of voting in shows such as Big Brother
and talent contests might indicate that we like to). Roleplaying games, however,
challenge us directly by setting goals, and often one of those goals is to avoid
There are three types of goals in computer games, says Montola. Endogenous goals
originate within the game; exogenous from outside it. "Every game of chess has
identical endogenous goals, but the exogenous ones range from having fun to
humiliating the opponent to winning a tournament. Endogenous goals are always
about getting a checkmate, or at least not being checkmated yourself."
Diegetic goals "come in when you start to role-play," he says. "If you play
World of Warcraft and just grind to get better gear, you never think about this
dwarf hunter you're playing. But once you start with pretend-play, you have to
think 'what would Mr Dwarf Hunter want? What are his goals?' And those goals are
diegetic." Montola points to Eve Online, the space-trading MMORPG. "It is
particularly elegant in regard to diegetic goals. Everyone plays a space trader,
miner or pirate, so it's easy to understand that I'm a trader and I want to
maximise profit and live a peaceful life."
Eve, he adds, "is a game where you can lose months of work by being shot from
the skies. That game is given exogenous meaning by the extremely strong
endogenous and diegetic urge to avoid death."
Death has been part of computer gaming since its earliest days. Montola points
to Arkanoid, a clone of Breakout and a direct descendant of Pong. Dating from
1986, the game involves you moving a bat at the bottom of the screen to try to
prevent the ball falling away from the board. Says Montola: "You probably don't
think you can die in Arkanoid, even if you miss the ball. But your bat is in
fact a spaceship called Vaus, and it gets destroyed when you miss the ball, so
missing the ball means dozens or thousands of deaths ... depending on your
Reaching even further into the dark ages of computing, he says: "If you think
that an abstract bunch of pixels can die, you can trace this back to the
earliest computer games, such as Spacewar! from 1961. Since this predates the
earliest arcade games by a decade, it's fair to say that death has always been
one of the central punishments in digital gaming."
Reflect real life?
But do you need to die at all? Eric Zimmerman, a New York-based game designer
who helps run the studio Gamelab, says: "Dying in games is a strange artifact of
certain kinds of historical forms and content, and there is no good reason for
including it in many cases." Molyneux concurs: "If we were starting from
scratch, we wouldn't come up with this paradigm."
There are bigger questions, of course. In real life, death is more than an
annoyance. So should games reflect real life? Or should we redefine "dying" in
the context of games? Isn't it more like tennis, where you can lose a set but go
on to win the game? Or are there bigger lessons to be learned from games?
Says David Ewen, a 46-year-old gamer: "Kids need to learn that if they're
ambushed by a horde of self-regenerating laser-festooned killer robots on an
asteroid far from the main space trade routes in real life, they're not actually
going to end up getting teleported out to the local Starbucks for a nice
June 27, 2007
Filed at 11:09 a.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
CHICAGO (AP) -- The American Medical Association on Wednesday backed off calling
excessive video-game playing a formal psychiatric addiction, saying instead that
more research is needed.
A report prepared for the AMA's annual policy meeting had sought to strongly
encourage that video-game addiction be included in a widely used diagnostic
manual of psychiatric illnesses.
AMA delegates instead adopted a watered-down measure declaring that while
overuse of video games and online games can be a problem for children and
adults, calling it a formal addiction would be premature.
''There's no science to support it,'' said Dr. Stuart Gitlow, an addiction
Despite a lack of scientific proof, Jacob Schulist, 14, of Hales Corners, Wis.,
says he's certain he was addicted to video games -- and that the AMA's vote was
Until about two months ago, when he discovered a support group called On-Line
Gamers Anonymous, Jacob said he played online fantasy video games for 10 hours
straight some days.
He said his habit got so severe that he quit spending time with family and
''My grades were horrible, I failed the entire first semester'' this past school
year because of excessive video-game playing, he said, adding, ''It's like
they're your life.''
But delegates voted to have the AMA encourage more research on the issue,
including seeking studies on what amount of video-game playing and other
''screen time'' is appropriate for children.
Under the new policy, the AMA also will send the revised video-game measure to
the American Psychiatric Association, asking it to consider the full report in
its diagnostic manual; the next edition is to be completed in 2012.
Dr. Louis Kraus, a psychiatric association spokesman, said the report will be a
The AMA's report says up to 90 percent of American youngsters play video games
and that up to 15 percent of them -- more than 5 million kids -- might be
The report, prepared by the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, also
says ''dependence-like behaviors are more likely in children who start playing
video games at younger ages.''
Internet role-playing games involving multiple players, which can suck kids into
an online fantasy world, are the most problematic, the report says. That's the
kind of game Jacob Schulist says hooked him.
Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago's Rush Medical
Center, said behavior that looks like addiction in video-game players may be a
symptom of social anxiety, depression or another psychiatric problem.
He praised the AMA report for recommending more research.
''They're trying very hard not to make a premature diagnosis,'' Kraus said.
June 23, 2007
Filed at 9:05 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The decision by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. to suspend distribution of
the violent video game ''Manhunt 2'' could actually end up boosting demand from
curious gamers, industry analysts said Friday.
Analysts do not believe the move will harm the company's long-term bottom line.
And if the game ever sees the light of day, the current controversy could give
the title ''a lot more exposure that would actually benefit game sales in the
long run,'' said Colin Sebastian, senior research analyst at Lazard Capital
''Manhunt 2,'' initially slated for a July release on Nintendo Co.'s Wii and
Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2, depicts the escape of an amnesiac scientist and a
psychotic killer from an asylum and their subsequent epic killing spree.
Following bans by Britain and Ireland, as well as a ratings flap in the United
States, Take-Two said late Thursday it was reviewing its options.
''We believe in freedom of creative expression, as well as responsible
marketing, both of which are essential to our business of making great
entertainment,'' the company said.
The game received a preliminary ''Adults Only'' rating in the United States from
the industry's self-governed ratings body, the Entertainment Software Rating
Board, restricting sales to customers 18 and older.
More importantly, such titles aren't stocked by large retailers such as Wal-Mart
Stores Inc., and all three console makers -- Microsoft Corp., Nintendo and Sony
-- do not allow ''AO'' games on their systems.
Take-Two still could appeal the rating or craft a toned-down version that meets
the less-stringent ''Mature'' rating for players 17 and older.
It's a move anticipated by analysts, but no indication was given on the fate of
the title as of Friday. Telephone messages left with a Take-Two company
spokesman were not returned, and a spokesman for its Rockstar Games division,
which created ''Manhunt 2,'' declined comment.
''It's free publicity,'' Sebastian said. ''Consumer backlash is a risk but at
the end of the day if it's rated `M' the retailers will take it.''
Added Rick Munarriz, a senior analyst with The Motely Fool: ''If anything, with
this suspension there's going to be a demand for it because of the
Investors also seemed unfazed as Take-Two shares rose 21 cents, or 1 percent, to
$20.82 in trading Friday.
Take-Two and Rockstar still have a marquee franchise on tap for a fall release.
''Grand Theft Auto IV,'' the latest in a series of urban crime games, should
prove to be the real money maker when it is released on the PlayStation 3 and
Microsoft's Xbox 360 in October.
Previous versions have been top-sellers, and Sebastian said any financial hit
from ''Manhunt 2'' would be more than offset by the new ''GTA'' game.
''Relative to Grand Theft Auto it's a lot less significant,'' Sebastian said of
''Manhunt 2.'' ''Grand Theft Auto is the key driver. This is a second-tier
The previous game in the series, ''Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,'' was at the
center of a ratings controversy two years ago that sparked a Congressional
Rockstar was forced to replace its first edition of ''San Andreas'' after a
hacker discovered a password-protected game inside it that involved a sexual
This year has already been a turbulent one for Take-Two, which recently
underwent a shareholder coup that ousted its chief executive and nearly all of
The company said earlier this month that layoffs were likely as part of a
restructuring effort designed to cut costs by about $25 million a year by 2008.
Specific numbers haven't been released. Take-Two has about 2,100 employees.
It's not clear what effect the ''San Andreas'' controversy had on sales, as the
title had already been available for months by the time the hack was discovered.
In 2004, the year it was released, ''San Andreas'' was the top seller with more
than 5.1 million copies sold in the U.S., according to market analyst NPD Group.
Controversies like ''Manhunt 2'' are to be expected for a company with a
reputation for publishing edgy content, said Munarriz, the analyst.
''You have a company that's always lived in the gray area,'' he said. ''These
games are controversial and that's part of the allure.''
Players of the video game ''Manhunt 2'' would have assumed the
role of a scientist with amnesia who escapes from an asylum and then goes on a
bloody killing spree as he tries to remember his past. But consumers may never
see it on store shelves.
Following bans by Britain and Ireland, as well as a ratings predicament that
would have made it nearly impossible to buy in the United States, publisher
Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. decided that it might already be game over
for ''Manhunt 2.''
In a short statement Thursday evening, the New York-based company said it was
temporarily suspending plans to distribute the game while it reviews its
''We continue to stand behind this extraordinary game. We believe in freedom of
creative expression, as well as responsible marketing, both of which are
essential to our business of making great entertainment,'' the company said.
''Manhunt 2'' had been scheduled for a July 10 release in the United States on
both the Wii by Nintendo Co. and the PlayStation 2 from Sony Corp.
But earlier in the week, Britain banned the game because of the violent content.
Ireland followed suit a day later, and then Italian Communications Minister
Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday that he would seek to have the sale of the game
canceled there as well.
In a statement, Gentiloni called the game ''cruel and sadistic, with a squalid
environment and a continuous, insistent encouragement to violence and murder.''
In the United States, meanwhile, the video game industry's self-regulated
ratings board gave a preliminary version of ''Manhunt 2'' an ''adults only''
rating instead of the more lenient, and far more popular, ''mature'' rating for
ages 17 and up.
Slapping ''Manhunt 2'' with the Entertainment Software Rating Board's most
stringent rating would likely doom sales. Large retailers including Best Buy
Co., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. won't stock AO-rated games.
Rockstar was given 30 days after receiving the ESRB's suggested rating to
present an appeal or make changes to the game.
A spokesman for Rockstar declined to comment on Thursday's suspension, which was
announced hours after Take-Two issued a statement saying it was determined to
bring the title to market regardless of criticism.
Another issue had to do with the console makers: Nintendo and Sony disclosed
they have policies barring any AO-rated content on their systems.
Microsoft Corp. has a similar policy, but ''Manhunt 2'' wasn't planned for its
Xbox 360. There are no such restrictions on games for personal computers.
The suspension was the latest setback for creator Rockstar Games, which has come
under fire for its popular, critically acclaimed ''Grand Theft Auto'' series of
urban crime games. Take-Two is still dealing with the fallout of a shareholder
coup earlier this year that ousted its chief executive and nearly all of its
Rockstar and Take-Two have long been a focal point for debate over the effect of
video-game violence on children.
Two years ago, Rockstar was forced to replace its first edition of ''Grand Theft
Auto: San Andreas'' after a hacker discovered a password-protected game inside
it that involved a sexual encounter.
Tuesday June 19, 2007
James Orr and agencies
A violent video game with "an unrelenting focus on brutal slaying" has become
the first to be banned in Britain for a decade.
Manhunt 2, a sequel to the original and controversial game Manhunt, has been
condemned by authorities for its "casual sadism" and "unremitting bleakness".
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rejected the game after finding
it "constantly encourages visceral killing".
The ruling means the game cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK.
David Cooke, director of the BBFC, said: "Rejecting a work is a very serious
action and one which we do not take lightly.
"Where possible we try to consider cuts or, in the case of games, modifications
which remove the material which contravenes the board's published guidelines. In
the case of Manhunt 2, this has not been possible."
The original Manhunt game was given an 18 classification in 2003 and was later
blamed for the murder of a 14-year-old boy.
Stefan Pakeerah was stabbed and beaten to death in Leicester in February 2004
and his parents claimed the killer, Warren LeBlanc, 17, was inspired by the
At the time, the BBFC described the game as being "at the very top end of what
the board judged to be acceptable at that category".
Mr Pakeerah's mother, Giselle, said today she was "absolutely elated" that the
game had been banned.
"Manhunt represents a genre of games that are not, in my view and the views of
many other people, fit for public consumption," she said.
"We have been campaigning against these games for a long time and the BBFC made
the right decision. Why don't these companies invest their energies into
creating material that is helpful to society?"
Issuing a certificate to Manhunt 2 would risk the possibility of "unjustifiable
harm" to adults and minors, the BBFC concluded.
"Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its
unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which
constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or
distancing," said Mr Cooke.
"There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these
killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game.
"The game's unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack
of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different
overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission
from the original Manhunt game."
Manhunt 2, made by Rockstar Games, is designed for PS2 and Nintendo Wii
consoles. "To issue a certificate to Manhunt 2 on either platform would involve
a range of unjustifiable harm risks within the terms of the Video Recordings
Act," said Mr Cooke.
Paul Jackson, director general of the Entertainment Leisure Software Publishers
Association, which represents the computer and video games industry, said: "A
decision from the BBFC such as this demonstrates that we have a games ratings
system in the UK that is effective."
Leicester MP Keith Vaz, who campaigned with Mrs Pakeerah against the sale of the
game, said: "This is an excellent decision by the BBFC, showing that game
publishers cannot expect to get interactive games where players take the part of
killers engaged in 'casual sadism' and murder."
Last week, Tony Blair spoke out against another violent video game, Resistance:
Fall of Man, which features a shoot-out in Manchester cathedral.
He said of the video game industry: "It's important that people understand there
is a wider social responsibility as well as simply responsibility for profit."
The last game to be refused classification was Carmageddon in 1997 but the
BBFC's decision was later overturned on appeal.
Rockstar Games now has six weeks to submit an appeal.
LONDON (AP) -- The Church of England accused Sony Corp. on
Saturday of using an English cathedral as the backdrop to a violent computer
game and said it should be withdrawn from shop shelves.
The church said Sony did not ask for permission to use Manchester cathedral and
demanded an apology.
The popular new PlayStation 3 game, ''Resistance: Fall of Man,'' shows a virtual
shootout between rival gunmen with hundreds of people killed inside the
cathedral. Church officials described Sony's alleged use of the building as
''sick'' and sacrilegious.
A spokesman for the Church of England said a letter will be sent to Sony on
Monday. If the church's request for an apology and withdrawal of the game is not
met, the church will consider legal action, the spokesman said.
Sony spokeswoman Amy Lake told The Associated Press on Saturday that the
company's PlayStation division was looking into the matter and would release a
But David Wilson, a Sony spokesman, told The London Times: ''It is game-created
footage, it is not video or photography. It is entertainment, like Doctor Who or
any other science fiction. It is not based on reality at all. Throughout the
whole process we have sought permission where necessary.''
The Very Rev. Rogers Govender, the dean of Manchester Cathedral, said: ''This is
an important issue. For many young people these games offer a different sort of
reality and seeing guns in Manchester cathedral is not the sort of connection we
want to make.
''Every year we invite hundreds of teenagers to come and see the cathedral and
it is a shame to have Sony undermining our work.''
The bishop of Manchester, the Rt. Rev. Nigel McCulloch, said: ''It is well known
that Manchester has a gun crime problem. For a global manufacturer to recreate
one of our great cathedrals with photorealistic quality and then encourage
people to have gunbattles in the building is beyond belief and highly
During the game, players are asked to assume the role of an army sergeant and
win a battle in the interior of a cathedral.
May 16, 2007
Filed at 4:13 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DALLAS (AP) -- Legions of Master Chief fans can now mark their calendars for
Sept. 25. That's when ''Halo 3,'' the newest sci-fi video game saga and the
first specifically designed for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 console, is expected
to arrive on store shelves.
The first-person shooter is the latest addition to the company's popular science
fiction franchise in which an armor-clad human space soldier fights alien hordes
in sprawling single and online multiplayer battles.
Shane Kim, corporate vice president for Microsoft Game Studios, predicted sales
would surpass those of ''Halo 2,'' which the company claims reached $125 million
within the first 24 hours in 2004.
''In terms of great exclusive content this is the biggest weapon that we have,''
The announcement comes as a ''beta,'' or test version, of ''Halo 3'' is being
offered to consumers through June 6, allowing players to test out some of the
game's multiplayer features ahead of schedule.
The beta only shows the game's multiplayer online aspects, however. Details of
the single-player story remain a secret, Kim said.
''Halo 3'' will be available in three versions: a ''standard'' edition for
$59.99, a ''limited edition'' that includes features about the making of the
game for $69.99, and a $129.99 ''legendary edition'' that is packaged with a
large metal helmet that looks like the one worn by the game's protagonist,
May 12, 2007
Filed at 12:32 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK (AP) -- The tour was a whirlwind: dancing at a beachside disco in Spain
surrounded by scantily clad women, grabbing a seat at a lively pub in Dublin,
flying in a small aircraft above a lush, tropical forest. Time elapsed? Less
than two hours. With no tickets required, no money spent and no need to leave
your seat, touring in the virtual world of ''Second Life'' holds a certain
appeal for travelers willing to delve deep into the Internet to find their
Visitors need only download a free program, then log in. With the help of
elaborate 3-D locales designed and built by the world's residents, tourists can
watch their online embodiments -- known as their avatars -- lounge at the beach,
dine at a romantic restaurant, or go out dancing at a crowded nightclub.
Like in the real world, it's easy to get lost. Longtime inhabitants of ''Second
Life'' are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and even
publishing travel guidebooks modeled after those seen in the hands of confused
Of course, there are some glaring differences between your average Frommer's
guide and ''The Unofficial Tourists' Guide to Second Life,'' published in April
by St. Martin's Press.
''There are sections on how to fly and how to hover,'' said co-writer Paul Carr.
But despite such necessary adjustments, he said, ''it's very much like going to
a foreign country.''
With the ability to fly and even teleport from place to place in ''Second
Life,'' which hosted more than 1 million visitors in April, a vacation does not
need to be a lengthy affair.
As they travel to virtual Roman neighborhoods and fantastical worlds, visitors
can interact with other participants from all over the (real) world -- about
three-quarters of users are from outside the U.S., mostly from Europe, Brazil,
Canada, Japan and Australia.
In ''Second Life,'' even language difficulties are a thing of the past. Visitors
can pick up a free translation program and carry on typed conversations with
others speaking any of nine languages.
For those looking to get their bearings, one option is the guided tour. Virtual
travel agency Synthravels seeks to match up ''tourists'' and volunteer guides in
27 different online worlds, including ''Second Life,'' ''World of Warcraft'' and
On one recent tour of ''Second Life,'' Synthravels founder Mario Gerosa led the
way to a virtual representation of the Spanish island of Ibiza, stopping first
at a shop selling traditional flamenco garb, then at a disco surrounded by sand
and sea, where with the click of a mouse avatars can dance.
Next stop is Midnight City, where a flight above the skyscrapers shows the
moon's light reflected on the ocean's waves. Nearby, a simulation of a solar
eclipse allows Gerosa's avatar, Frank Koolhaas, to walk right up to a blazing
sun, standing on the fabric of outer space.
Also on the tour: Dublin, a popular hangout among Irish users, and an island
called Svarga, where a flying pod carries avatars above what appears to be a
rain forest filled with huge trees and giant mushrooms.
Like any guided tour in ''Second Life,'' though, this one carried its own
inherent difficulties. With both leader and led under their own power, it was
quite easy to get separated. Several times, Gerosa's avatar lost some of its
Like the Vatican in the height of tourist season, ''Second Life'' locations tend
to get especially crowded when it's evening in the U.S. or Europe, and the
resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.
And finding a guide, in of itself, can be a challenge. The Synthravels Web site
has connected guides and tourists more than 200 times, according to Gerosa, but
for now it does not charge visitors or pay guides, and finding a tour depends on
the sometimes-fickle interest of volunteers.
But with some persistence and a willingness to just walk up to knowledgeable
avatars and ask, there are guides to be found, Carr said.
''There are quite a few people in 'Second Life' who will offer a tour in
exchange for a few Linden dollars,'' said the writer, referring to the world's
currency, which can be bought and sold for real-world cash.
Those having a hard time securing a personal tour can turn to a number of
automated options. Many site creators post vehicles near arrival points and
program them to give visitors a tour of the location.
By heading to The Guided Tour Company of Second Life, where automated tour
vehicles ranging from hang-gliders to flying carpets are sold, avatars can
access a programmed tour of tours.
By clicking on the free guide, users can teleport to Icarus, where a giant
dragonfly carries them to a romantic dance floor surrounded by twinkling stars.
Clicking again brings them to Venice Island, where a gondola takes them to an
old church adorned with Renaissance paintings and an ornate, carved pulpit.
Another click leads to Cocoloco Island Resort, where a white hot-air balloon
ferries them around what looks amazingly like a Caribbean resort: beach chairs,
thatch cabanas, and a pool that -- with a few mouse clicks -- allows visitors to
float on their backs for hours.
At least for now, few people are charging visitors for such travel services.
Even a stay at ''aloft,'' a recently reopened virtual hotel by Starwood Hotels &
Resorts Worldwide Inc., is free. But the many entrepreneurs of ''Second Life''
may yet find a way to make travel pay, said Jeska Dzwigalski, a community
developer with San Francisco-based Linden Research Inc., which runs the virtual
She said she has seen the tours and ''travel agencies popping up that help
people and give them an experience they might not otherwise find. ... As we've
grown, that became a potential business for people.''
Karen Hemmes has seen the demand firsthand -- or at least through the eyes of
her avatar, Sierra Sugar.
A Gainesville, Fla., nurse by day -- and a DJ at ''Second Life'' events by night
-- Hemmes received a virtual hot-air balloon as a gift, and started taking
friends for rides. By the end of many of these tours meant for two, her balloon
was packed to capacity with passers-by who had asked to join in, she said.
Visitors can even capture a few photos or home videos to remind them of their
trip. Screen grabs of a virtual Times Square and videos of avatars surfing are
easily found on image-sharing sites around the Web.
For those planning to go, though, Carr suggests visitors don't follow his
''If you want to retain friends and not kill yourselves, then you need to take
lots of breaks,'' said Carr, who holed himself up in a London apartment with
co-writer Graham Pond in the final days of their research, subsisting on tinned
goods and bottled water.
One of this summer's big blockbusters
is a movie designed with one purpose:
to sell toys.
John Anderson looks at how Transformers
takes product placement to the final frontier
Friday May 4, 2007
'Some will come to defend us ... Most will come to destroy us." All of the
Transformers, however, will be coming to pick our pockets this summer, because
this is the season the robots-cum-vehicles will take over the world. Today sees
the rerelease of the 1986 animated movie, followed on July 4 (in the US - and on
July 27 here) by a multimillion dollar remake, combining live action and CGI,
directed by blockbuster specialist Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, The
Rock), and with Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer. A movie based
on a toy, and designed largely for the purpose of selling toys, might well
become the biggest box-office hit of the summer.
Product placement is nothing new to the film industry, of course. But the
history of using movies to sell toys is rather longer than you might expect,
dating back before the commonly accepted date of 1977, when Star Wars and its
accompanying range of merchandise were launched upon the world. "The first time
I ever remember anything like that was with the original Doctor Dolittle,'" says
Joel Coler, a former head of marketing for 20th Century Fox, who now runs the
Beverly Hills-based consultancy Rain Shadows Entertainment. "We got all kinds of
stores to do displays all over the world." But back in 1967, when movies cost
much less, there was less risk attached to a venture like this. "The biggest
problem today," says Coler, "is that, no matter what the movie budget is, the
marketing costs worldwide are so huge that in some cases they can be two or
three times the cost of the film. The advertising, the publicity, they're so
expensive that you're that much better off if you can get Hasbro or Mattel or
whomever to put everything together." And who makes the Transformers toys?
Transformers - with Spielberg reckoned by Hollywood observers to be very much
the power behind the film - seems equipped for battle both at the box office and
the aisles of Toys R Us. Last month, Hasbro revealed an entirely new line of
movie-linked Transformers. And in an effort to make the consumer's world "more
than meets the eye" (a longtime teaser for the toy line), it will have further
spin-offs in stores at the start of June, such as the Optimus Prime Voice
Changer Helmet, Optimus Prime Big Rig Blaster, and Starscream Barrel Roll
The commercial exploitation of this brand reads like a roll call of America's
biggest companies. Pepsico has done a deal with Hasbro to produce a
Pepsi-branded Optimus Prime figure that transforms into a Pepsi tanker (Pepsi's
slogan this year is "Transform your summer"), and General Motors has come on
board, with a tie-in to the car models into and from which the various
Transformers mutate - Bumblebee with the Chevrolet Camaro; Autobot Ratchet with
the Hummer H2, and Ironhide with a GMC TopKick medium-duty truck.
So it's easy to see the benefit to the toymakers and their partners of a film
such as Transformers. But why would a studio want to make the movie in the first
place? Because a large proportion of the marketing has already been done for it.
"It's a very simple thing," says Coler. "It's a matter of getting the name and
information about the film out. If it's done through a toy, a book, whatever.
From a marketing research viewpoint it's always been this way: they check the
numbers about who knows what about which films, and if it doesn't reach a
certain level of recognition the film won't open, no matter what happens. It has
to get past a certain number via the licensing, the advertising, the publicity,
the things being sold." And Transformers already has the recognition in spades,
given that kids who know nothing about the 1980s TV series still play with the
"The objective with the movie is to create an experience that's more exciting
than playing with the toys, which shouldn't be hard to do," says Mark Gill, a
producer and former president of Miramax, which, once upon a time, distributed
the product-pushing Pokemon: 4Ever. "And when you have the name recognition of
Transformers, you're well ahead of the game."
Coler's point about the things being sold, though, is at the heart of
Transformers. Researchers for Disney found that a preschool child will watch
their favourite DVD or video an average of 17 times before getting bored, which
means it's almost foolish for the studios not to use their product to market
toys to their viewers. Nevertheless, even merchandise-friendly movies such as
Toy Story were, first and foremost, movies. The true ancestors of Transformers
are the stream of toy-pushing DVD movies, such as the Barbie animated series. As
well as the huge profits on sales of each cheaply-made Barbie movie, Mattel took
profits of around $150m in increased toy sales as a result of each of them -
that's why you rarely see simple Barbie and Ken in toy shops, but movie tie-ins
such as Barbie Fairytopia, or Barbie: Magic of Pegasus.
Transformers, though, takes things to a completely new level: unlike the Barbie
movies, this is the big summer blockbuster hope of a major studio, in this case
Paramount/Dreamworks (which did not respond to several requests for comment).
Does anyone expect Transformers to be made with the same art as the great Pixar
animations? Are the bells and whistles starting to drown out the orchestra?
The thing is, though, that producing a cash cow on this scale isn't as easy as
one might imagine. "The big problem you run into with these things is so-called
'synergy', which they all preach but which I've almost never experienced," says
Bud Rosenthal, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive and one-time
consultant to both Warners and Paramount, whose film projects have included
Superman, Ghost Busters, Space Jam and Rugrats, all retail-rich movies aimed at
a youth market. "You're trying to integrate the whole thing, and some get it
better than others."
One fear for the makers of Transformers (both the movie and the toy) is that a
large part of its target audience just isn't there any more. "It would have been
a dream," a Hasbro spokesperson says, had it been possible to make a live-action
Transformers movie years ago, when the original hardcore fanbase - now 25 to 35
years old - was the right age to flock to cinemas and toy shops. As it is, the
nostalgia factor should bring some of those original fans into cinemas, while
the state-of-the-art computer technology - the visual engineering is by George
Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic - should seduce the mallrats. The assumption
has to be that Transformers will cross over, and back.
"One of the strengths is that 'Transformers' has been around for 20 years and as
a result there are a lot of fans," says Michael Verrecchia, Hasbro's director of
marketing for Transformers. "They're fans with a strong emotional connection to
the characters. They take it very personally and they have particular
expectations about how the Transformers will be portrayed. So when we called our
branding team together, we wanted to make sure we were the ears and voice of the
Transformers, he says, is directly analagous to the superhero movies. As with DC
Comics when its characters have been used as the source material for feature
films, Hasbro was very concerned, Verrecchia says, with maintaining the
"integrity" of the toy line. "There's never been a live-action feature film of
this magnitude based on a toy, but the time was right. What attracted the
studios to the project ultimately was the story, the lore. Once they saw how
that worked, they got it."
With the awesome power of Hollywood behind it, Transformers will surely succeed,
despite all the rumoured bickering among its many producers and the general lack
of critical enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Michael Bay. Oddly, though, the thing
that could make Transformers a success, and hence sell more toys for Hasbro, is
something very human. "I don't do much prognostication," said Paul
Dergarabedian, of the LA-based Media by Numbers, which tracks box-office for the
film industry. "However, I think the expectation for this have gone up since the
star-making performance of Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia. Transformers had a solid
cast, but didn't have a break-out star till LeBeouf. Disturbia has been No 1 for
weeks, and it's made a star out of him. So it's raised the stock of
Transformers. Paramount has got to be pleased.'"
As should, perhaps, the human race itself: wouldn't it be ironic - and
comforting - if the determining factor in the success of Transformers turned out
to be made of flesh and blood?
April 30, 2007
Filed at 7:48 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige
cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and
light saber. But this is no chintzy Halloween costume. It's a prototype, years
in the making, of a toy that incorporates brain wave-reading technology.
Behind the mask is a sensor that touches the user's forehead and reads the
brain's electrical signals, then sends them to a wireless receiver inside the
saber, which lights up when the user is concentrating. The player maintains
focus by channeling thoughts on any fixed mental image, or thinking specifically
about keeping the light sword on. When the mind wanders, the wand goes dark.
Engineers at NeuroSky Inc. have big plans for brain wave-reading toys and video
games. They say the simple Darth Vader game -- a relatively crude biofeedback
device cloaked in gimmicky garb -- portends the coming of more sophisticated
devices that could revolutionize the way people play.
Technology from NeuroSky and other startups could make video games more mentally
stimulating and realistic. It could even enable players to control video game
characters or avatars in virtual worlds with nothing but their thoughts.
Adding biofeedback to ''Tiger Woods PGA Tour,'' for instance, could mean that
only those players who muster Zen-like concentration could nail a put. In the
popular action game ''Grand Theft Auto,'' players who become nervous or
frightened would have worse aim than those who remain relaxed and focused.
NeuroSky's prototype measures a person's baseline brain-wave activity, including
signals that relate to concentration, relaxation and anxiety. The technology
ranks performance in each category on a scale of 1 to 100, and the numbers
change as a person thinks about relaxing images, focuses intently, or gets
kicked, interrupted or otherwise distracted.
The technology is similar to more sensitive, expensive equipment that athletes
use to achieve peak performance. Koo Hyoung Lee, a NeuroSky co-founder from
South Korea, used biofeedback to improve concentration and relaxation techniques
for members of his country's Olympic archery team.
''Most physical games are really mental games,'' said Lee, also chief technology
officer at San Jose-based NeuroSky, a 12-employee company founded in 1999. ''You
must maintain attention at very high levels to succeed. This technology makes
toys and video games more lifelike.''
Boosters say toys with even the most basic brain wave-reading technology --
scheduled to debut later this year -- could boost mental focus and help kids
with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and mood disorders.
But scientific research is scant. Even if the devices work as promised, some
question whether people who use biofeedback devices will be able to replicate
their relaxed or focused states in real life, when they're not attached to
equipment in front of their television or computer.
Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University, said
the toys might catch on in a society obsessed with optimizing performance -- but
he was skeptical they'd reduce the severity of major behavioral disorders.
''These techniques are used usually in clinical contexts. The gaming companies
are trying to push the envelope,'' said Goldberg, author of ''The Wisdom
Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older.'' ''You can
use computers to improve the cognitive abilities, but it's an art.''
It's also unclear whether consumers, particularly American kids, want mentally
''It's hard to tell whether playing games with biofeedback is more fun -- the
company executives say that, but I don't know if I believe them,'' said Ben
Sawyer, director of the Games for Health Project, a division of the Serious
Games Initiative. The think tank focuses in part on how to make computer games
more educational, not merely pastimes for kids with dexterous thumbs.
The basis of many brain wave-reading games is electroencephalography, or EEG,
the measurement of the brain's electrical activity through electrodes placed on
the scalp. EEG has been a mainstay of psychiatry for decades.
An EEG headset in a research hospital may have 100 or more electrodes that
attach to the scalp with a conductive gel. It could cost tens of thousands of
But the price and size of EEG hardware is shrinking. NeuroSky's ''dry-active''
sensors don't require gel, are the size of a thumbnail, and could be put into a
headset that retails for as little as $20, said NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang.
Yang is secretive about his company's product lineup because of a nondisclosure
agreement with the manufacturer. But he said an international toy manufacturer
plans to unveil an inexpensive gizmo with an embedded NeuroSky biosensor at the
Japan Toy Association's trade show in late June. A U.S. version is scheduled to
debut at the American International Fall Toy Show in October.
''Whatever we sell, it will work on 100 percent or almost 100 percent of people
out there, no matter what the condition, temperature, indoor or outdoors,'' Yang
said. ''We aim for wearable technology that everyone can put on and go without
failure, as easy as the iPod.''
Researchers at NeuroSky and other startups are also building prototypes of toys
that use electromyography (EMG), which records twitches and other muscular
movements, and electrooculography (EOG), which measures changes in the retina.
While NeuroSky's headset has one electrode, Emotiv Systems Inc. has developed a
gel-free headset with 18 sensors. Besides monitoring basic changes in mood and
focus, Emotiv's bulkier headset detects brain waves indicating smiles, blinks,
laughter, even conscious thoughts and unconscious emotions. Players could kick
or punch their video game opponent -- without a joystick or mouse.
''It fulfills the fantasy of telekinesis,'' said Tan Le, co-founder and
president of San Francisco-based Emotiv.
The 30-person company hopes to begin selling a consumer headset next year, but
executives would not speculate on price. A prototype hooks up to gaming consoles
such as the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.
Le, a 29-year-old Australian woman, said the company decided in 2004 to target
gamers because they would generate the most revenue -- but eventually Emotive
will build equipment for clinical use. The technology could enable paralyzed
people to ''move'' in virtual realty; people with obsessive-compulsive disorders
could measure their anxiety levels, then adjust medication accordingly.
The husband-and-wife team behind CyberLearning Technology LLC took the opposite
approach. The San Marcos-based startup targets doctors, therapists and parents
of adolescents with autism, impulse control problems and other pervasive
CyberLearning is already selling the SmartBrain Technologies system for the
original PlayStation, PS2 and original Xbox, and it will soon work with the
PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The EEG- and EMG-based biofeedback system costs
about $600, not including the game console or video games.
Kids who play the race car video game ''Gran Turismo'' with the SmartBrain
system can only reach maximum speed when they're focused. If attention wanes or
players become impulsive or anxious, cars slow to a chug.
CyberLearning has sold more than 1,500 systems since early 2005. The company
hopes to reach adolescents already being treated for behavior disorders. But
co-founder Lindsay Greco said the budding niche is unpredictable.
''Our biggest struggle is to find the target market,'' said Greco, who has run
treatment programs for children with attention difficulties since the 1980s.
''We're finding that parents are using this to improve their own recall and
focus. We have executives who use it to improve their memory, even their golf.''
On a recent afternoon behind Public School 127 in East Elmhurst, Queens, two
girls in jeans and parkas crouched on the ground, track-and-field-style, and
then skipped the length of the basketball court. Boys flung a ball back and
forth with maniacal energy. There was no reminder of the moment that passed here
a month ago, when one 13-year-old boy struck another on the head and the second
sat down, in pain.
But in two homes in East Elmhurst, that moment goes on and on.
On 100th Street, a family is mourning the boy who was hit, Guarionex Montas, who
died March 24 of a skull fracture and bleeding in his brain. Miguel Cepeda
cannot shake the memory of holding Guarionex, his nephew, that night, when
bloody foam began to flow from his nose and mouth so fast that Mr. Cepeda used a
roll of Bounty trying to soak it up.
A cousin remembers quieter things about the boy, known as Guachy (pronounced
GWA-chee): How he wanted to be a detective, how he had trouble pronouncing the
letter R. He was, she said, “the loved one out of the whole family.”
Ten blocks away, another family is frightened for their own boy, a gangly
seventh grader who faces a charge of third-degree assault. When he was arrested
and taken to a juvenile center, his uncle flew in from Los Angeles, and 20
supporters showed up for hearings in Queens Family Court. Borough President
Helen Marshall, a neighbor in East Elmhurst, was so concerned that she offered
to supervise him when he was released.
“Whatever happens, this child has to be cleared of this thing,” she said in an
In the coming months, the justice system will struggle to find an appropriate
punishment — if any — for an act that seems to fall into the murky area between
play and violence. Defense attorneys say the boys were engaged in slap-boxing,
an ordinary form of adolescent horseplay; prosecutors say the boy hit Guachy in
the head with a hard object and then threatened to hurt him and his brother if
they reported it. As the case progresses, East Elmhurst is torn along an
invisible line, with two large families mobilized in the name of their sons.
“This is a very tragic case, and also a very difficult case,” Judge Rhea
Friedman said at a hearing earlier this month. “It is distressing to have to
make critical decisions with so little information, frankly.”
The two boys were friendly, by all accounts. Guachy’s mother moved her four
children to East Elmhurst from the South Bronx a year ago, hoping to raise them
in a safer, more middle-class neighborhood. The family of the other boy — The
New York Times is withholding his name because he is being charged as a juvenile
— has lived in East Elmhurst since the 1950s, when it was one of the few
neighborhoods where black families could buy a house.
He gave the police his account of what happened on March 23. The afternoon began
with a trip to McDonald’s and a visit to a friend’s house to play Xbox 360.
After that, he said, the group “went to the handball court to slap-box.”
His uncle, a video producer and editor who lives in Los Angeles, said
slap-boxing, done with an open hand, is a longstanding and benign tradition in
“It’s part of how you develop a reputation for being able to stand up for
yourself,” he said. “It’s sort of like an entry into your teen years. It’s like
cubs fighting. Whoever’s the quickest tends to win.”
In this case, the boy told police, Guachy got hurt. He said he hit Guachy in the
temple, and that Guachy sat down, complaining of a headache. Guachy’s brother
Jose, a 15-year-old who attends the sixth grade at P.S. 127, said it was time to
go. When Jose went to fetch their coats, the boy said in the statement, Guachy
hit his head a second time, on a pole, but no explanation was offered in the
first court appearance as to why he did so. The boy also reported that Guachy
had been drinking alcohol.
Guachy’s uncle Casimiro Cepeda said Guachy did not drink, and noted that the
blow to the head came just an hour after school had let out.
Guachy and Jose walked five blocks to their apartment. Neither said anything to
their mother or stepfather about what had happened, but Guachy went to bed,
saying he felt sick. He woke up complaining of pain and swelling, so his
stepfather stepped out to buy Advil. A few hours later, Jose saw blood pouring
from his brother’s nose and mouth.
Hours passed in the hospital before the doctors gave the results of a CT scan:
Guachy’s skull had been fractured and a vein had burst, Mr. Cepeda recalled. He
was declared dead at 10 the next morning.
The family pressed Jose to explain what had happened. At first, he said the
injury had happened accidentally — a flying elbow in a basketball game — but
then he changed his story. Later, when the family was in the Dominican Republic
for Guachy’s funeral, Jose told authorities that the other boys had threatened
that he would be “stabbed or jumped” if he told the truth.
Now, Jose told them, he felt safe enough to say that the boy “took an object and
hit the decedent in the head,” as the city’s lawyer, Theresa Wilson-Campbell,
put it in court. Ms. Wilson-Campbell said that when the police executed a search
warrant at the boy’s home, they found a small black umbrella with a wooden
handle that the authorities believe might be the weapon.
Other boys at the playground gave “widely different accounts,” describing the
two boys as “playing,” said Melanie Shapiro, a defense lawyer, at the hearing.
Everyone described them as close friends, she said.
The boy who hit Guachy was one of the mourners at his wake in Queens on March
27; Guachy’s relatives remember that he dropped off a card and a stuffed rabbit.
On March 30, he was arrested.
Prosecutors for the City Law Department, which handles juvenile delinquency
cases, are not allowed to discuss pending cases publicly. But a typical
investigation would begin by seeking facts, said Laurence Busching, the Law
Department’s family court division chief: Where were the kids in relationship to
each other? How big or small were they? Were these “two kids who have been
playing all along and something just happened, or is there some motive and some
reason it changed from play to something else?” How much harm are they
physically capable of inflicting?
“Even though you have great emotional responses, you still have to put those
things aside and focus on what are the facts,” Mr. Busching said.
The charge at the boy’s arrest was manslaughter — which could bring a penalty of
18 months in a juvenile center — and he was detained. When the deadline arrived
to file, though, the city could present evidence only for two lesser charges of
third-degree assault, a misdemeanor that could bring a maximum penalty of a year
in a juvenile center. After a juvenile is placed with the Office of Children and
Family Services on a delinquency case, the agency can seek to extend the
placement year by year until his 18th birthday.
Kim McLaurin, the head attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens juvenile
rights division, said taking the boy from his home could prove particularly
“On the one hand, you do appreciate the fact that a child has died,” she said.
“But you don’t want to prejudge, because the stakes are high.”
In court, Ms. Wilson-Campbell argued that the boy had a history of being
aggressive, and said the principal of P.S. 127 was trying to remove him from
school because of discipline problems.
She also quoted from a notebook found in a search of the house, which described
him as the leader of a gang of 50 boys, and said that “they sent out their boys
when somebody messes with them.”
“It seems to be part fiction and part journal,” she said of the writings.
Judge Friedman seemed skeptical, and ordered the boy released to his mother,
warning him sternly against having contact with members of Guachy’s family. She
noted that his school records showed good attendance and did not reflect a
“dangerous or aggressive youngster,” and that he had no juvenile police record.
“I do not see the nexus between any alleged gang activities and, for lack of a
better word, dangerousness,” she said.
She found probable cause for one count of third-degree assault. “It is either a
terrible accident gone wrong, or it may be something that rises to the level of
penal law,” she said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”
The Cepedas buried Guachy in Villa Altagracia, a seaside city in the Dominican
Republic, where his mother grew up. They were still there when they heard that
the boy had not been charged with manslaughter, and it angered them to hear that
elected officials like Ms. Marshall had come out in his support.
Guachy’s mother and stepfather met on Friday afternoon with Councilman Hiram
Monserrate, who represents East Elmhurst. Edwin Hernandez, 33, a cousin, said
they believe the beating “had something to do with a gang in school, maybe an
initiation or something, where they take one of the weakest kids.”
“It is not justice,” said Mr. Cepeda, Guachy’s uncle . “You see people working
for the city trying to save this guy. You know the thing he did; he didn’t break
The other boy’s family and their supporters are, for their part, fiercely
“I don’t know where he’s going in life, but I’m going to make sure that he gets
there,” said Ms. Marshall, who allowed the boy to stay in her office at Borough
Hall for two days when he was released. Relatives are particularly angry that
prosecutors have said that he was affiliated with a gang. His uncle called that
“I know the kid,” he said. “He doesn’t even backtalk. He doesn’t have the
temperament for that.”
THE first thing I do when I arrive in my cabin is search the closets. I take a
hat, a pair of glasses and a straight razor, which I put in my pocket. Then I
walk out into the luxury cruise ship’s corridor, where men and women elegantly
dressed in 1920’s garb walk past Art Deco fixtures, eyeing me suspiciously. I
grab a fire ax off the wall and put it under my jacket.
I receive a message with my quarry’s name and most recent location. She’s one
deck below me in the bar, so I hurry down the stairs, carefully looking at each
passer-by. A woman in a ball gown pulls out a flare gun and is about to fire it
at a man in a top hat when a ship security officer grabs her. The top-hatted
man, realizing the woman knows his face and will be back, takes off his hat and
puts on a new suit and an eye patch.
My quarry has left the bar, but a new message says she’s out on deck. I hurry
outside. Is that her? I move closer. It is her. I walk forward, trying to give
the impression that I’m looking elsewhere so she doesn’t run, but as I’m about
to pull out my ax, a man pulls out a steak knife and, before I can even react,
stabs me to death.
That’s how it goes in Outerlight’s ingenious multiplayer game The Ship, in which
each player is both hunter and hunted.
The Ship is essentially a virtual version of real-life games like Assassin,
popular with college students, in which you have a week to hunt down people and
spray them with water. In The Ship, though, you have only a few minutes to take
down your prey.
Murder is made more difficult by the presence of security cameras, requiring
that your weapons be hidden, and survival is made more difficult by the
necessity to attend to basic bodily needs like sleeping, eating and showering.
At these times you are completely vulnerable, and it is quite disconcerting to
be stabbed to death while sitting on the toilet.
The Ship doesn’t explain why a boatload of fashionable men and women would try
to kill each other, but if you accept that odd premise, the game makes perfect
Human Head Studios’ new first-person shooter, Prey, is another matter; it is a
game almost entirely comprised of unlikely oddities.
As Prey begins, aliens have abducted a hot-headed modern-day Cherokee named
Tommy from a reservation tavern, along with his grandfather and girlfriend.
Escaping his shackles with the help of a mysterious person, Tommy grabs a slimy
alien weapon and heads out to save his loved ones.
The alien ship is a bizarre and entertaining place with mucilaginous corridors
and stinging tentacles growing from the floors and ceilings. Odd crab-like
creatures skittering across the ground can be picked up and used as grenades,
while a missile launcher contains an alien embryo wriggling in the barrel.
The alien technology in the game is remarkable. Crates contain portals to other
locations and gravity walkways let you go up walls. Individual rooms can have
their gravity changed by shooting sensors, allowing Tommy to drop to the
The ship is a deadly place where Tommy must battle aliens, dinosaurlike
creatures and demon ghost children. His only chance to survive is to regain the
spiritual powers of his ancestors. He soon acquires a falcon spirit guide and
learns the ancient Cherokee ability to become a shadow walker who can pass
through force fields and kill foes with arrows made of the spirits of fallen
If you’re wondering whether such a mélange of disparate elements can be tied
into a neat, consistent universe, the answer is, well, not really. There is no
apparent necessity for rooms with changeable gravity, nor is it clear why aliens
need ghost children. While good science fiction creates coherent, convincing
futuristic technology and explores its ramifications, Prey is simply built
around a bunch of neat ideas like wall walking and invisibility. This makes Prey
very bad science fiction, but the game works wonderfully as a surreal nightmare.
Prey doesn’t simply rely on its trippiness to entertain the player; the game’s
fast action and the clever design of the game levels keep things fun even after
the wacky tricks are exhausted. Combat is exciting, as are the occasional
sequences in which you must pilot an alien shuttle craft, although the game does
begin to feel a bit repetitive toward the end.
One of Prey’s most unusual features is that after a certain point it becomes
impossible to die. When Tommy is killed, he is transported to a spirit realm
where he heals himself by shooting magical birds. He is then returned to the
ship, where all the enemies he killed or wounded are in the same state he left
them in. This means it is impossible to get stuck in the game, and you never
have to replay sections. I love this, but those who prefer their games to be
grindingly difficult will be displeased.
In terms of story, Prey follows the same pattern as the Half-Life series, with
mysterious characters just out of reach, brief snippets of story interspersed
throughout the action and moments when you come out of cramped halls into vast,
stunning spaces. The action is broken up by simple puzzles, many involving
changing a room’s gravity to get to an otherwise unreachable location. There are
interesting moments, as when you find alien receivers monitoring a talk show
from Earth or suddenly hear the rock music that had been playing in the bar you
were abducted from.
Unfortunately, mediocre voice acting and a lack of character development work
against the game’s story; one moment that is intended to be wrenchingly tragic
comes across as just sort of sad. And as with everything else in the game,
there’s little attempt to create convincing motivation for the characters,
particular Tommy’s final opponent, whose plan, when revealed, seems as flawed as
the alien ship’s architecture.
Besides the rather short single-player mission, which speedy players report
finishing in seven hours (although it took me twice that), Prey has the
requisite online multiplayer mode. The best multiplayer levels take advantage of
the game’s eccentricities, as in one where each room has a different
gravitational orientation, allowing you to lob grenades at an opponent standing
on what to him is a floor and to you is a ceiling. But for the most part, Prey’s
multiplayer levels play just like those of dozens of similar games.
I’ve spent more than enough time running around alien ships indiscriminately
firing rocket launchers. Now I just want to put on a tuxedo, grab a golf club
and enjoy a civilized, seafaring afternoon of murder in cold blood.