The End of Rendering: Zoic Studios’ Aaron Sternlicht on Realtime Engines in VFX Production

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/6/2010.

Zoic created this Killzone 2 commercial spot entirely within the Killzone 2 engine.

The level of the technology available to produce computer graphics is approaching a new horizon, and video games are part of the equation.

Creators in 3D animation and visual effects are used to lengthy, hardware-intensive render times for the highest quality product. But increasingly, productions are turning to realtime rendering engines, inspired by the video games industry, to aid in on-set production and to create previz animations. Soon, even the final product will be rendered in realtime.

Aaron Sternlicht, Zoic Studios’ Executive Producer of Games, has been producing video game trailers, commercials, and cinematics since the turn of the millennium. He has charted the growth of realtime engines in 3D animation production, and is now part of Zoic’s effort to incorporate realtime into television VFX production, using the studio’s new ZEUS pipeline (read about ZEUS here).

Sternlicht explains how realtime engines are currently used at Zoic, and discusses the future of the technology.

“The majority of what we do for in-engine realtime rendering is for in-game cinematics and commercials. We can take a large amount of the heavy-lifting in CG production, and put it into a game engine. It allows for quick prototyping, and allows us to make rapid changes on-the-fly. We found that changing cameras, scenes, set-ups, even lighting can be a fraction of the workload that it is in traditional CG.

“Right now, you do give up some levels of quality, but when you’re doing something that’s stylized, cel-shaded, cartoonish, or that doesn’t need to be on a photo-realistic level, it’s a great tool and a cost effective one.

We’re going to be able to radically alter the cost structures of producing CG.

“Where we’re heading though, from a production standpoint, is being able to create a seamless production workflow, where you build the virtual set ahead of time; go to your greenscreen and motion capture shoot; and have realtime rendering of your characters, with lighting, within the virtual environment, shot by a professional DP, right there on-set. You can then send shots straight from the set to Editorial, and figure out exactly what you need to focus on for additional production — which can create incredible efficiencies.

“In relation to ZEUS, right now with [ABC’s sci-fi series] V, we’re able to composite greenscreen actors in realtime onto CG back plates that are coming straight out of the camera source. We’re getting all the camera and tracking data and compositing real-time, right there. Now if you combine that with CG characters that can be realtime, in-engine rendered, you then can have live action actors on greenscreen and CG characters fully lit, interacting and rendered all in realtime.

“People have been talking about realtime VFX for the last 15 years, but now it’s something you’re seeing actually happening. With V we have a really good opportunity. We’re providing realtime solutions in ways that haven’t been done before.

“Now there’s been a threshold to producing full CG episodic television. There has been a lot of interest in finding a solution to generate stylized and high quality CG that can be produced inexpensively, or at least efficiently. A process that allows someone to kick out 22 minutes of scripted full CG footage within a few weeks of production is very difficult to do right now, within budgetary realities.

“But with in-engine realtime productions, we can get a majority of our footage while we’re actually shooting the performance capture. This is where it gets really exciting, opening an entire new production workflow, and where I see the future of full CG productions.”

What game-based engines have Zoic used for realtime rendering?

“We’ve done a several productions using the Unreal 3 engine. We’ve done productions with the Killzone 2 engine as well. We’re testing out different proprietary systems, including StudioGPU’s MachStudio Pro, which is being created specifically with this type of work in mind.

“If you’re doing a car spot, you can come in here and say ‘okay, I want to see the new Dodge driving through the salt flats.’ We get your car model, transfer that to an engine, in an environment that’s lit and realtime rendered, within a day. We even hand you a camera, that a professional DP can actually shoot with on-site here, and you can produce final-quality footage within a couple of days. It’s pretty cool.”

How has the rise of realtime engines in professional production been influenced by the rise of amateur Machinima?

“I’ve been doing game trailers since 2000. I’ve been working with studios to design toolsets for in-game capture since then as well. What happened was, you had a mixture of the very apt and adept gamers who could go in and break code, or would use say the Unreal 2 engine, to create their own content. Very cool, very exciting.

“Concurrently, you had companies like Electronic Arts, and Epic, and other game studios and publishers increasing the value of their product by creating tool sets to let you capture and produce quality game play — marketing cameras that are spline-based, where you can adjust lighting and cameras on-the-fly. This provided a foundation of toolsets and production flow that has evolved into today’s in-engine solutions.”

It’s truly remarkable how the quality level is going up in realtime engines, and where it’s going to be in the future.

How has this affected traditional producers of high-end software?

“It hasn’t really yet. There’s still a gap in quality. We can’t get the quality of a mental ray or RenderMan render out of a game engine right now.

“But the process is not just about realtime rendering, but also realtime workflow. For example, if we’re doing an Unreal 3 production, we may not be rendering in realtime. We’ll be using the engine to render, instead of 30 or 60 frames a second, we may render one frame every 25 seconds, because we’re using all the CPU power to render out that high-quality image. That said, the workflow is fully realtime, where we’re able to adjust lighting, shading, camera animation, tessellation, displacement maps — all realtime, in-engine, even though the final product may be rendering out at a non-realtime rate.

“Some of these engines, like Studio GPU, are rendering out passes. We actually get a frame-buffered pass system out of an engine, so we can do secondary composites.

“With the rise of GPU technology, it’s truly remarkable how the quality level is going up in realtime engines, and where it’s going to be in the future. Artists, rather than waiting on renders to figure out how their dynamic lighting is working, or how their subsurface scattering is working, will dial that in, in realtime, make adjustments, and never actually have to render to review. It’s really remarkable.”

So how many years until the new kids in VFX production don’t even know what “render time” means?

“I think we’re talking about the next five years. Obviously there will be issues of how far we can push this and push that; and we’re always going to come up with something that will add one more layer to the complexity of any given scene. That said, yes, we’re going to be able to radically alter the cost structures of producing CG, and very much allow it to be a much more artist-driven. I think in the next five years… It’s all going to change.”

Read Zoic Studios’ ZEUS: A VFX Pipeline for the 21st Century.

Ripomatics and Animatics: Storyboards for the 21st Century

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/11/09.

A screenshot of a “test” animatic produced by Zoic.

In the beginning was the storyboard, a series of illustrations displayed in sequence to pre-visualize a screenplay or teleplay, and to map out such elements as camera moves, blocking and effects. The modern storyboard was pioneered by one of the entertainment industry’s greatest innovators, Walt Disney, specifically for traditional cel animation. But the technique soon moved into feature film production, and later television, commercials, interactive media and video games — even web site design.

The next evolution in previsualization also came from animation. An animatic is a series of storyboard illustrations arranged on film or video, incorporating timing, simple movement, and sometimes dialogue and music. By making editing and story decisions at the animatic stage, animators can avoid the wasteful process of animating scenes that would eventually have been edited down or cut entirely.

More recently, ripomatics have evolved to help filmmakers design and express the look and feel of a project before any shooting or animating takes place. Originally developed in the commercial production industry, ripomatics are like animatics, but assembled from elements of previous films, television shows, and commercials; plus still images and other preexisting assets. A ripomatic for a television commercial might be composed entirely of clips from other commercials for similar products, combined with new music and messaging. They are often used to pitch projects to clients.

Zoic Studios is pioneering the next phase in storyboard evolution, offering a new kind of animated storyboard that lives halfway between existing animatics or ripomatics and a full 3D animated previsualization.

Zoic Studios compositor Levi Ahmu says “ripomatics were originally designed to make a moving storyboard. And when I got here [to Zoic], I thought it would be cool if we could enhance it a little bit.

bullet_630x354A screenshot of an animatic created by Zoic for a commercial,
for Guerrilla Games’ Killzone 2, entitled “Bullet.”

“The problem with storyboards and making them move [is] the storyboard is very flat. By cutting up the storyboard into layers, you can give 3D motion to it, which is what you’re eventually going to be doing anyway. It gives artists and clients a better sense of what’s going to happen. It also helps you time things out better; you have actual motion in the storyboards, so you can get a more relative frame count of what the product will be.”

But even these animatics gave only what Ahmu calls a “vague representation” of the final product. “So what we ended up doing was creating these 3D environments in a 2D setting. We’re taking 2D cards and arranging them so they’ll represent a room or a street or any kind of environment; then having a virtual camera move through that environment. You can take the 2D actors from the storyboard and put them in this environment; and the advantage of doing it this way is you’ll be able to have a [virtual] camera, with lens properties and animation curves that are more easily equated to what the 3D artists will wind up having to do.

“It’s all being done in Adobe After Effects, which is not at all what the software makers were intending. But the cool thing about doing it in After Effects is that you can put in particles, stuff you would never get in traditional previz, that enhance the experience. “

Some more elaborate ripomatics prepared by Zoic have included 3D vehicle models composed from 2D drawings; rough motion capture; and dialogue, sound effects and music.

Zoic executive producer Aaron Sternlicht, head of the studio’s Games Division, has supervised Ahmu in the production of a number of advanced ripomatics for a variety of clients over the last several years.

saboteur_630x354A screenshot of a ripomatic created for Pandemic Studios’ The Saboteur.

“It’s kind of like a 2½D ripomatic or animatic,” Sternlicht says. “We actually do all of our storyboards so that they’re laid out in layers, which actually allows us to get into production a lot more easily. We’re able to have an edit that is exciting, entertaining and really good to look at, for our clients to view within a few days, as opposed to having a rudimentary gray-shaded previz or just edited storyboards.

“The big reason we like working this way is that we’re able to have clients pretty much sign off on shot design, composition and pacing of camera work in 2D before we ever go to 3D. That allows us to be a lot more efficient once we go to 3D, and [to] give our artists a real clear path of what they’re supposed to be doing once we start building the scenes. So it’s a tremendous tool for us.

“Clients love it because they quickly get to see a massive leap from looking at storyboards to really understanding what the quality of the piece is going to be, the timing, and how exciting it might end up being. So we’re pretty psyched by the whole process.”

Ahmu agrees that clients are benefiting from the new technique. “As opposed to a traditional previz, which is all gray-shaded, and doesn’t have very much ambiance to it, a ripomatic the way we’ve been doing it can have stylized textures, rough animation, that will get the point across in such a way that it’s not like previz where it’s the first step. This is our goal, to have this motion, with these effects on top of it. You can get a rough idea of what the whole thing is supposed to be.”

falling1_630x354Another screenshot of a “test” animatic produced by Zoic.

Sternlicht is quick to point out that advanced ripomatics not only better represent the final product, but also save both Zoic Studios and its clients time and money. Even a complex animatic composed of multiple, animated elements can be produced in only a few days. And because the client is able to sign off on so many elements of the final product while still in the 2D stage, Zoic saves time and effort, and can pass that savings along to the client.

Zoic has applied the technique to video game and commercial projects, and plans to offer advanced ripomatics to its feature film and television clients where appropriate. “We have just had more opportunities for video games to implement it,” Sternlicht explains, “because we often are responsible for direction and creative.

“I think it’s already being used [in TV and feature work]. The technique we’re using is a little more advanced than what is commonly done. But we’re really pushing our ripomatics more towards motion comics, than necessarily your standard edited storyboard. So, full animation of characters, full animation of vehicles, full animation of camera, full animation of effects. It’s really kind of the whole package.

“It’s part of our service. It’s part of working with Zoic and being creative.”

Ten Tales of Videogame Terror – Part 2

Originally posted on GGL Wire on 10/25/07.

And now… the final five tales of videogame TERROR:

Saw V

Nooooooo! Not House of the Dead!When Brittany awoke, every part of her lithe, tanned body ached. She tried to move her hands and feet, but they were immobile. Terrified, she opened her eyes.

She had never been inside the shack, but she recognized it from hiking through the Schwarzwald. It sat alone in a dark dell full of stunted, black-skinned elms. She had assumed it belonged to some local poacher, but now she realized the terrifying truth.

Brittany was bound hand and foot, strapped to an ancient dentist’s chair. Various implements of torture were hanging from the walls – specula, knives, drills and other shiny stainless-steel horrors of unimaginable purpose.

She vowed not to scream.

The door swung open, and a man entered – short, stocky and balding, his face hidden behind a mask which amplified the raspy wheeze of his breathing. He closed the door.

“Let me out of here!” Brittany yelled.

The man laughed, low and quiet. He walked over to a television set with built in DVD-player that sat against the wall in front of Brittany.

Slowly, with relish, the man slipped a scratched and mottled DVD into the player.

“What are you doing?” Brittany demanded.

The man spoke with a thick German accent. “Soon you vill know a horror unlike any other,” he hissed.

The screen came to life. It was a movie. Brittany didn’t recognize it at first. Was that the chick from Terminator 3? And the guy who played Ghandi?

The realization crashed down on her. Someone was screaming, screaming at the top of her lungs; and it was a moment before Brittany realized it was her.

The movie was BloodRayne. The man was Uwe Boll!

“Oh god please don’t do this to me! Why? Why?” she screamed.

Brittany had the will to survive. She made it through BloodRayne and Alone in the Dark. But by the end of Postal, her lifeless body had slumped in the chair, her face contorted into a permanent rictus of terror.

Boll dumped her body in the peat bog, and went back to lurking along the hiking trails, watching for hapless young people to kidnap and torture. So the madness continued.

The Pits of DespairThe Pits of Despair

Bobby always wanted to be a game tester, and now he had his chance.

The campus of Electronic Arts was a beautiful cluster of buildings in Playa Vista, a stone’s throw from the Pacific. Bobby’s heart tintinabulated with excitement as he parked and was checked in by security.

“So you want to work in QA?” the woman asked. She seemed pleasant enough, just another ordinary HR drone.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then sign here and we’ll get you started.” The woman pushed a complicated-looking form across her desk.

Bobby reached for a pen, but the woman handed him a strange silver implement with a sharp tip. “Use this?”

“What do I use for ink?”

The woman took the implement and jabbed Bobby in the finger.

“Sign in blood,” she demanded.

Well, that’s weird, Bobby thought, as he bled onto the silver pen and scrawled his name across the bottom of the page with his own sanguineous humours.

The woman snatched the paper away, and locked it in a steel man-sized safe that lurked in the corner of the office. “Come with me, she said.”

Bobby followed her through the offices and down a long hallway lined with paintings of Mediterranean scenes. At the end of the corridor was an ancient freight elevator, the kind with the iron gate. That’s funny, Bobby thought, this building looks only a few years old.

They stepped into the lift, and the woman pulled the gate closed and flipped a giant electrical toggle switch.

The elevator car plummeted at an alarming rate. The sides of the car were open, and Bobby first saw several floors of the EA offices, then a long stretch of dank bedrock. The further down they went, the hotter and wetter the air became.

Suddenly they came out in a massive chamber, an ancient rent in the uttermost depths of the world. Strange gasses spewed from lava-filled rivulets. The whole cavern was lit from above by massive fluorescents that buzzed audibly. The pale white light gave Bobby an instant headache.

“Where are we?” he asked tremulously.

“QA,” the HR woman replied.

The lift hit the floor of the chamber, and two burly shirtless men in turbans grabbed Bobby forcefully and dragged him toward a cubicle. They wore cruel-looking whips on their belts.

“What’s going on?” Bobby screamed.

“You will work 20-hour days,” the HR woman intoned, like an ancient Druidic priest offering a human sacrifice to satiate a bloodthirsty deity. “Eight a.m. to 4 a.m. No bathroom breaks, no weekends, no vacations.”

Bobby wriggled, panicking, as the guards wrapped a red-hot manacle around his ankle. The cooling metal melted his flesh, and he wailed in agony.

“We’re two months behind schedule on Mail Order Monsters 2,” the woman continued, “so we’re withholding gruel and water until you catch up.”

“Let me go! I don’t want this!” Bobby cried as he was forced into his work chair.

“You signed a contract,” the woman replied coldly. Then she leaned in, and spoke with more feeling. “Besides, if you ever want to be a game designer, you have to work up through QA. Don’t you want to be a game designer?”

“Yes.” Resignedly, he put his hands on the keyboard and mouse. He cried out as a guard lashed his back.

“Get to work, slave!” the guard bellowed.

Bobby never saw his friends or family again. And it was years later, his crippled frame wracked with years of labor, he realized the truth – they would never promote him out of QA!

Hello? Anybody home?The Last Man

Robert Frisco boarded his flight in Philadelphia, eager to begin four days of fun, sun and gaming in beautiful Southern California.

He would return to his small Pennsylvania hometown impoverished – between the cost of the flight, the hotel, and the convention passes, Frisco had very little money left. But this was E for All, the biggest event of the gaming year.

Frisco was never able to attend E3, but this trip would make up for all those disappointing years reading about all the E3 action on the Internet.

The first sign that all was not as it should be came when the plane descended over Los Angeles.

The city was burning. Massive fires poured plumes of reddish ash into a sky already choked with car exhaust fumes. What had happened while Robert was in the air? Why hadn’t the pilot made an announcement?

But it’s when Frisco approached the actual convention center that his panic began.

The place was EMPTY.

E3 got 30,000 visitors a year! Where were the people? Was it a terrorist attack? Famine? Plague?

Frisco stumbled across the convention floor, looking for any sign of life. No Xbox, no Sony. Nothing at the Nintendo booth of interest but Super Smash Bros. Just a pitiful few survivors playing RockBand, undoubtedly to drive from their minds the horror of whatever cataclysm befell this place.

Something shambled at Frisco from around a darkened corner. He gasped – it was a booth babe, or what was once a booth babe, shuffling forward in her high-heeled shoes, wearing little but a tight t-shirt and skin-tight short shorts. She languidly offered Frisco a flyer for some no-name videogame resale site.

“H-haaave a flyyyy-er,” she groaned.

Frisco ran, as hard and as far as he could. He burst through a black curtain and into a vast unused space – the remainder of the convention floor that the E for All organizers couldn’t sell.

“Why?” Frisco called out to whatever foul gods still hearkened to the prayers of men. “Why????”

Alone in a vast and empty space of total desolation, Frisco fell to his knees. The despair was too much for his fragile mind, and he slumped to the floor, dead.

The Red Ring of DEATH!The Red Ring of Death

Angrily, Susan finished packing her brand new Xbox 360 back in the box. After only two days of playing Geometry Wars, her console overheated; and the button on the front lit up with the dreaded Red Ring of Death. Now her console was completely bricked, and she would have to wait weeks for Microsoft to repair the damn thing.

She left the box on the porch for the FedEx man, and went back into her apartment to watch TV. But when she pressed the “On” button on her remote, she was greeted by a terrible surprise.

At first, the TV wouldn’t some on at all. Then the screen warmed up, and an image appeared. It took Susan a moment to realize the image was not from some television program.

It was a giant Red Ring of Death.

But how is this possible? Susan asked herself. My TV shouldn’t have a red ring!

She went to the phone to call her brother, the tech expert. But when she picked up the receiver — there it was again, the red ring! The phone was otherwise dead, no signal.

Suddenly, the lights went out. Looking up at the ceiling lamp, she saw the red ring, glowing brightly in the near-dark.

Susan ran for the front door – but the red ring shone out from the doorknob. She tried to open the door, but it would not budge. The door had been bricked!

Losing her mind with terror, Susan ran into the bathroom, where natural light from outside made it possible to see. She struggled to catch her breath – there was a red ring on the bathroom scale, one on the shower faucet, even one on the bath mat. How do you brick a bath mat?

Susan turned to look at herself in the mirror, and the monstrousness of what she saw there drove her mind over the edge of insanity. There in the mirror staring back at her was herself – with two giant red rings around her eyes.

She dropped to the floor, dead. She had been bricked.

The Coral Gables SlasherThe Coral Gables Slasher

Dawn broke through the tiny cellar window, and Brendan decided to try opening the cellar door. Still clutching the tire iron he found, he moved the barricade of boxes and old furniture away from the door.

It had been hours since he last heard the Slasher, pacing in the kitchen above, muttering to himself and occasionally singing bits of hymns. Brendan hoped and prayed the lunatic had become tired of waiting, and left.

Brandishing his weapon in one hand, and fiercely clutching his copy of Manhunt 2 in the other, Brandon nudged open the cellar door. Morning light illuminated the dust motes in the stairwell leading up to the kitchen. He heard nothing.

All his friends were dead. Nikki and Elijah, strangled and burned while playing Grand Theft Auto; Clancy was found hanged, with his smashed copy of Quake 4 lying at his feet; Tim and Monica were stabbed and shot with arrows, their eyes sliced out using a broken CD of Bully.

Brandon slowly climbed the stairs, straining his ears for the slightest sound, the tiniest evidence he was not alone. Forcing himself to continue despite his terror, Brandon reached the top of the stairs to face the horror of the kitchen.

There was blood everywhere, especially on the center island, where it looked like a boar had been slaughtered. But Brandon knew it was Corinne’s blood – Corinne, the beautiful French exchange student, whose only crime was bringing the unrated French version of Indigo Prophecy into the U.S.

“Japanese videogames are the next Pearl Harbor!”

Brandon spun around to find the voice. There he stood, the Coral Gables Slasher, his absurd white hair stained with blood, his cheap suit ripped apart by the clawing human hands of his victims. His eyes burned with insanity, or at least with a serious personality disorder. He held a machete in his had.

Holding aloft his tire iron, Brandon tried to back away – but the Slasher stood in the only exit door (there was no way out through the cellar, or Brandon would have escaped hours ago).

The Sims 2 contains nipples, penises, labia, and pubic hair!” the Slasher hissed.

“What?” Brandon could not understand the old man’s ramblings. He looked about the kitchen frantically, hoping to find a better weapon.

“God is in this battle, and I am privileged to be a foot soldier!” The Slasher leapt forward, chasing Brandon around the bloody central island of the kitchen.

Brandon tried to make for the door, but The Slasher was too fast. He caught Brandon across the face with the machete, and a crimson spray shot across the wall. Brandon slipped and fell, and then the Slasher was in top of him.

“I love the smell of burning gamers in the morning!” The Slasher cried as he raised his machete for the kill.

Suddenly the front door burst open, and in seconds the kitchen was filled with armed police officers.

“Alright, what’s going on here?” one cop demanded.

“Thank God,” Brandon cried out. “This lunatic killed all my friends! Get him off me.”

To Brandon’s horror, the cop laughed. “I guess you don’t get it. We’re with him.”

The cop turned to the Slasher. “Will you finish this one up, Mr. Thompson, or shall we?”

In answer, the Slasher plunged his machete through Brandon’s neck. The last thing the young man saw before death was the Slasher smashing his copy of Manhunt 2 while the cops laughed and laughed.

Note: all Coral Gable Slasher quotes used in this story are real.


Read Part One
.

Ten Tales of Videogame Terror – Part 1

Ten Tales of Videogame TERROR!

Originally posted 10/23/07 on GGL Wire.

Greetings, friend. That most terrifying of holidays, ancient Samhain, which the ignorant call “Halloween,” is almost upon us. Across the globe, the walls between the lands of the living and the dead will fall, and the souls of the slain return to wreak their terrible vengeance on the living.

And people will dress up like Spiderman or a Naughty Nurse, bob for apples and tell ghost stories over an open fire.

Few know there are tales of horror unique to the world of videogaming. Here are ten blood-curdling tales of gaming horror and the macabre. Read on — only if you dare!

The Mobile Phone Game From Hell!The Curse of the Mobile Game

The kiosk stood alone and forlorn in the food court of the old abandoned mall. As the young boy approached, a crone appeared, her cackling laugh splitting the boy’s ears like a knife through rotted cauliflower. She bore a small silvery object in her hand, and held it aloft to glint in the sickly red moonlight.

“It’s a cell phone, boy,” she lisped through splinter stumps of ancient teeth. “And it plays games.”

The boy pulled out his cash, his fingers sticky with the sweat of terror. It was his mother’s dialysis money, but who cared? This cell phone played games!

The crone snatched the cash from his hand and bit down on it, chewing greedily on the brittle tens and twenties. Slowly, almost regretfully, she released the glinting cell phone into the boy’s shivering fingers.

He ran, as far and as fast as he could, and hid in the cellar of the old wheelhouse. Clutching his new prize in the dark, the boy held down the red key – it was sticky with some nameless ichor – until the screen spasmed to life with a sickly pale glow.

He scrolled through the games – Pac-Man, Galaga, Metal Gear Solid Mobile, Destroy All Humans. Crouched in the damp, fetid darkness, he began to play.

Soon, the horror of realization sent chills down the boy’s spine. These games were slow, awkward and ill-conceived! They bore too little relationship to the original game! The controls were clumsy with lousy responsiveness! The graphics were terrible! And the games tore through the phone’s battery life!

A low steady moan from the back of the boy’s throat rose sharply into a scream of eternal terror that rang out across the moors to awaken eldritch creatures better left slumbering. And over it all, the cackle of the evil crone drive mad those men unfortunate enough to hear it.

The Dreamcast of Unknown KadathThe Dreamcast of Unknown Kadath

“He’s quite mad, you say,” quipped Dr. Bent as he followed Dr. Whithers down the grimy hospital corridor.

“Quite,” the elder physician replied. He held an ancient linen scarf to his nose, as scant protection from the twin odors of antiseptic and human effluent that permeated the halls of St. Lucius’ Rest Home for the Mentally Deranged.

Ahead in the dim light of a single electric lamp stood the last door on the ward; Room 101. The steel-reinforced isolation room was reserved for only the most dangerous patients, and this one was the worst yet.

Dr. Whithers peered over his spectacles at the medical chart in his hand. “Charles Mooncalf, age 22. Murdered 16 persons in a rampage at his local Babbages. No known motive.”

The two medical men stopped outside the oak-and-iron door, which was featureless but for a small sliding window and a latch barred by an enormous padlock. Confidently, he pulled the window open and peered inside.

A whispered cant emerged from the darkened hole, a low guttural voice repeating over and over, “Tap on the glass. Make the Seaman dance. Tap on the glass. Make the Seaman dance…”

“What does it mean?” Dr. Bent inquired. He rose up on his toes to view the patient through the tiny aperture.

“No one knows,” Dr. Whithers replied with a sad shake of his head.

Mooncalf sat in the center of his cell, cross-legged, clutching a plastic box in his skeletal hands, scratching at it with his four-inch-long nails. Perhaps the box was once white, but now it bore the patina of years of filth and neglect.

“He beat an elderly woman to death with something called a ‘Samba de Amigo controller,’” Dr. Whithers said.

Whither’s voice roused the lunatic from his babbling. “They cancelled it,” the patient hissed. “No more support, no more new games! They cancelled my dreams!” His voice rose to a high-pitched wail.

Sadly, the doctors pulled closed the window, and continued on their rounds. There was nothing that could be done for a man whose Cast of Dreams had become a Cast of Nightmares.

Holiday of HorrorsHoliday of Horrors

Stanley was nine years old in 1982, the year his father disappeared forever.

It was the most anticipated Christmas in young Stanley’s life. That Summer, Stanley and his father had gone to see the greatest movie ever made, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The film’s message of love and acceptance built a special bond of friendship and affection between Stanley and his father.

And now, for Christmas, there would be something even better – the Atari 2600 game based upon the movie!

For a month, Stanley had lain awake nights, wishing the holiday could come sooner. But now it was here – Christmas Eve, when young Stanley could choose one present to open in anticipation of the next day. And Stanley knew exactly which one to choose – the small flat package wrapped in cheery Santa paper, the exact size and shape of a 2600 game box.

Neither Stanley nor his father could ever have known the terrible truth – that the Chinese factory where the game cartridge was manufactured lay upon an ancient American Indian burial ground, where laid the desiccated bones of slaughtered Navaho tribesman who became very lost on their way to a powwow and were massacred by Chinese Imperial soldiers. Their angry spirits cried out for revenge.

At his parents’ bidding, Stanley tore open the wrapped gift – it was indeed what his heart wished for, an E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 cartridge! Cradling the treasure in his young hands, he excitedly pulled the cartridge from the box and, yanking out the copy of Breakout currently in the slot, pushed the game into the 2600’s cartridge slot.

The game came to life on the screen of the Sylvania color TV. An electronic version of John William’s beloved E.T. Theme came wafting from the speakers. Stanley was beside himself.

As Stanley began to play, a look of horror slowly crossed his father’s face. Stanley was too excited to notice it, but across the living room, objects began to move of their own accord, being slowly pulled toward the television screen.

“What is going on?” Stanley’s mother asked. Then one of Stanley’s other presents, a baking kit for making plastic bugs out of hot molten goo, flew across the room and into the television screen, as if it were a portal to the deepest levels of hell rather than a piece of convex glass.

The mother screamed as more objects were pulled into the TV screen. Stanley’s father yelled at him to stop, but the boy was trapped – certain he could complete the first level, unaware that this was impossible.

“Stop, Stanley! Shut it off!” the father screamed as gifts, furniture and decorations whirled around the room in an orgy of violence before disappearing into the demonic video game.

“Just a minute, dad – I have to levitate out of the pit!”

“What is going ooooooonnnnnn??? The mother screamed, clutching the chaise lounge for dear life.

“Don’t you understand,” the father cried above the din, “the game SUCKS!”

Suddenly, the family Christmas tree came loose from its base and flew towards the TV. The father leapt to grab it, and Stanley looked up in time to see his father, tree and all, sucked forever into the TV screen.

Stanley shut off the Atari 2600, and never turned it on again. But it was too late. His father was gone forever, drawn by a terrible curse into a world where delightful children’s movies became suckfests of dull incompetence.

Men from the government would come, close down the house, and take the TV away for study. The company that made the game would shut down, but Stanley’s father would never return.

The Death By A Thousand CutsThe Death By A Thousand Cuts

Claymore stood at the edge of the lake, poring over the ancient map. It was night, and he could only read the fading characters by the waning light of a gibbous moon.

It’s here, he thought. The holy grail of gaming. The free MMO. And all I have to do, he thought, is cross this lake.

Claymore stuck his toes into the black, brackish water, and his feet at once were freezing, despite his heavy leather boots. The water was colder than sin, cold like the murkiest depths of the bottomless ocean trenches, where eyeless beasts swam in a darkness too complete for even the eyes of God to penetrate.

I must cross, he said to himself, and with a deep breath, plunged himself into the chill lake.

The cold took his breath away, but he began to swim, remembering always his goal, the long-fabled free MMO. But halfway across the lake, he felt a nip, like a tiny bite, upon his knee.

Stopping for a moment and treading water, Claymore felt for the tiny wound, little more than a bug bite. Looking down into the dark liquid, he realized he could see the culprit – just below the surface, a tiny bug-eyed fish, like a piranha but much smaller, luminescing from within with a pale green light.

It’s almost cute, Claymore thought. But there’s no time. And this fish can hardly harm me.

But then Claymore felt another tiny bite, and another. Suddenly, the little fish were everywhere, hundreds of them, thousands, nibbling at his clothes and skin. He flailed his arms and kicked his legs, but the tiny predators ignored his efforts to dispel them.

Panicking, Claymore tried to swim away, but the damn creatures were everywhere. Now they were on his face, and in his mouth. He screamed, and cold water choked his lungs.

The pain of the tiny bites became torment as whole swaths of skin and muscle were relentlessly stripped away. Within a minute, only Claymore’s bones remained, his body eaten alive from inside and out – with only his bugged eyes, strangely unmolested, left to stare lifeless at the water-logged map that floated upon the stagnant water.

There, in an evil hieroglyphics that predated the first writings of Men, it warned in an eldritch tongue forgotten in these days, “BEWARE OF MICROTRANSACTIONS.”

Dialup of the DeadDialup of the Dead

Inspectors Wong and Chen found the body, sitting upright, in a chair at the Internet Café, just as the owner had reported it.

“He came in three days ago, and never left,” the woman said. “Never left the computer, never even to go to the bathroom. He just sat. And played.”

“Which game was he playing?” Inspector Chen asked, as he searched the man’s papers.

“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “One of those MMOs. The one with the little anime wuxia characters.”

Oh, Wong thought to himself sarcastically, that one.

This was the third addicted MMO gamer to drop dead in an Internet Café in the last month. Wong’s superiors at the Ministry were concerned, and ready to enact sweeping new rules that would effectively cripple one of China’s fastest-growing economic sectors. If Wong could prove the gamer were not to blame, it could give his career quite a boost.

The coroner’s office was located in what had been, before the Cultural Revolution, a mausoleum. Ancient Buddhist deities still looked down from the ceiling as Inspectors Wong and Chen arrived to inspect the body of the dead gamer.

“Obesity, and an unhealthy fascination with these Western Capitalist computer games,” Chen declared the cause of death without any concern for the facts. “A healthy diet and a firm familiarity with the Little Red Book, and this man would still be alive.”

The coroner was a wizened old doctor, not out of place amongst the crumbling idols. He poked and prodded the corpse with a variety of instruments.

“I don’t understand why you waited,” the doctor snapped.

“Waited for what?” Wong asked?

“Waited to bring this one in. If you want the cause of death, I need to see them right away.”

For some reason, a chill passed down Wong’s spine.

“He died today. We brought him right to you.”

The doctor shook his head. “Nonsense… this man has been dead three days!”

But — the Internet café proprietor saw him playing – the online records confirm it – the terrible implications swam in Wong’s head. Staring in to the man’s lifeless eyes, Wong felt his sanity slipping away. These games were turning players – into the LIVING DEAD!
Read Part 2!

WTF? Play World of Warcraft with an Xbox 360 controller

Originally posted on GGL Wire 10/16/07.

Playing WoW with an Xbox controller.

The latest utility from Xfire lets you play World of Warcraft with an Xbox 360 controller.

Blue Orb, Inc. today announced Switchblade, a software package designed to allow gamers to play Blizzard’s massively popular World of Warcraft using an Xbox 360 controller. SwitchBlade is available today for download for free exclusively from Xfire.

SwitchBlade is an easy-to-use application that brings a fully configured game controller interface to any PC game. Once SwitchBlade is installed, it provides a console gaming experience for the gamer looking for a new way to play popular PC games. The first game supported by SwitchBlade is World of Warcraft. Preconfigured key bindings map the Xbox 360 controller buttons to the most commonly used World of Warcraft controls.

Now let me just say that it’s barely possible to control WoW with a keyboard and mouse. The WoW interface is very well designed, for an MMORPG — but it’s not precisely friendly to console controllers. Then again, EA was able to create a console version of the real-time strategy game Battle for Middle Earth II; I didn’t believe it was possible to effectively control an RTS with a controller, but I was wrong.

I decided to try out WoW using SwitchBlade and a wired 360 controller. Continue reading

Rating the Murder Simulators

Originally written in December 2006 for GGL.com; images updated March 2009.

This holiday season has seen two seventh-gen console launches, so video games are back in the news. Mainstream media outlets, particularly local television news programs, seem to be devoted to two, and only two, video game-related memes, regardless of whatever is actually happening in the video game world.

The first is the hoary old “geeks wait in long lines to get a toy” meme, which is closely related to “parents fight each other to buy their spoiled kids a toy.” I guess I can’t be too judgmental – we did it here at GGL this year as well.

The other is “video games will turn your children into raging, murderous psychopaths.” For every positive story about video game culture, there are ten that decry this imminent menace to our children’s very lives.

Scientific studies claim to show a connection between “violent” video games and violent behavior in teens and grade school children. Politicians espouse anti-games rhetoric, and craft laws policing or preventing the sale of video games to children – laws that have to-date been struck down as unconstitutional. Large retailers place restrictions on video games sales, in response to pressure from pro-censorship groups.

I have already discussed why a video game cannot be “violent” or “dangerous.” This absurd idea, that video games are harmful to kids, never seems to go away, or to even die down. For politicians and religious leaders, the allure of this demonstrably false claim is easy to see. In the Sixties, these same forces assailed rock music. But now those sixties rockers are the parents; so the “culture wars” crowd must turn to things parents are less likely to understand. Today, those things are hip hop music and video games.

The most pernicious claim made by censorship advocates is that first- and third-person shooters are “murder simulators” that desensitize kids to extreme violence and train them how to kill. Some studies show that video games can excite and agitate youngsters; but it’s a big leap from there to assume games train kids to be killers.

Therefore, I have decided to review all of the “murder simulators” in our society, including video games, but not excluding the others. I challenge censorship advocates to explain why, of all the items on this list, they focus on “violent” video games.

Grand Theft Auto 2. This doesn't look so very violent...Video games

In recent years, censorship advocates have most commonly targeted Grand Theft Auto 3, and have labeled the game a “murder simulator.” The GTA games are third-person shooters – I would think a first-person shooter, like Halo or America’s Army, would better train a person to commit murder.

A few FPS games, like House of the Dead, are played with gun-shaped controllers. But most employ standard game controllers for console games, or a mouse and keyboard for PC games. They do not teach the player how to hold, load, or fire an actual gun. And Back to the Future 3 notwithstanding, I don’t think a gun-shaped controller really teaches anyone anything about real firearms.

The “aiming” skills required for an FPS game are completely different from those required in real life. “Aim assist, “friction,” and “client prediction” don’t exist in the real world. Aiming a gun is all about the wrists and arms, while “aiming” in an FPS is all about the thumbs on a console, or the mouse hand on a PC. There is no such thing as kickback with a game controller. Games often try to simulate things like kickback, muzzle flash, and reloading, but these simulations are nothing like the real thing.

Forget the guns – existence in an FPS or TPS game has little to do with real life. Movement is unrealistically smooth and quick (or the game would become boring). Video game characters are nearly impervious to pain and injury, enduring “violence” that would fell a real person, or at least put that person into shock. FPS characters can leap and climb better than a real human being. They get “health packs” and “power ups,” things we could definitely use in the real world, but which are, alas, unavailable. And when you die in an FPS, you “respawn” somewhere else. Why are all these unrealistic things included? Because it’s a game, not a simulator.

But doesn’t the army use video games to train soldiers? Sure, but they aren’t teaching how to kill, they’re teaching tactics. Before video games, they taught tactics with books, then films; now it’s games. But no drill sergeant is going to let his soldiers sit through a few gaming sessions and then send them to Iraq. The games are a small part of an intensive training course (see below). So could the Columbine murderers have learned their tactics from Doom? Sure. If their victims had been maniacal Martian demons with rudimentary decision-making powers, I suppose they could have.

The pro-censorship forces will insist that I am avoiding the real issue. Do “violent” video games desensitize our youth to violence, making them more likely to commit violence? No study has ever demonstrated this. Kids may become agitated after playing a game, but they do not objectify other humans. They maintain their sense of right and wrong. I myself am concerned about media, whether books, movies, television shows, or video games, that depict casual murder. It’s bad storytelling, and I believe it does desensitize everyone, child and adult, to the atrocities they hear on the evening news.

But it’s a huge leap from media burnout to murder. Censorship advocates want you to believe this connection is self-evident. In fact, it is self-evidently absurd, if for no other reason than this – not every person under 35 is a murderer.

In conclusion, video games are not terribly effective murder simulators. They improve reflexes and teach hallway-combat tactics; but they fail to prepare the participant for actual killing. Let’s move on.

LARPers. It is NOT weird.LARPing

Some people believe that live-action role-playing gamers represent the lowest, most pathetic level of geekdom. These people have never meet filkers, furries or fan-ficcers.

LARPing is like regular role-playing (Dungeons & Dragons and the like), except the players go to a public location, often in costume, and act out whatever their characters are doing. Players called “storytellers” act as referees, guiding the overall story and arbitrating player combats and disputes. Like most other RPGs, LARPs revolve around science-fiction, fantasy or horror themes, and involve some of the characters trying to kill other characters.

What value does LARPing have as a murder simulator? A player puts on a real outfit, travels to a real world location, and plays face-to-face against other human beings, sometimes friends but often mere acquaintances or total strangers. In most (but not all) LARPs, real weapons, fake weapons, and items that could pass for weapons are not allowed, and players may not touch each other. But in-game altercations can turn very loud and emotional. And players may see a long-term, beloved character slain as an outcome of a combat.There is real human contact, unlike with a standard video game; and you meet your enemy face-to-face, unlike an online game. And you have to deal with real emotions when you “kill” another player.

So, as a murder simulator, LARPing is not terribly satisfying. There are no weapons, no acrobatics, no visual scenes of violence. But you do pretend to kill people, and those people are standing right in front of you, expressing either real or “in-character” dismay at their own deaths. And because of that one characteristic, I proclaim LARPing to be a superior murder simulation experience to video games; it provides a human element missing from any computer game, even an online or LAN game.

Paintball player.Paintball

Now this sporting activity can, in all fairness, be called a “murder simulation.” You put on real military gear, go out to the real woods, and use a real gun to shoot real people. All the things that FPS games fail to simulate – holding a gun, aiming, firing with kickback, reloading, dodging, hiding, running, jumping, keeping sweat out of your goggles, even the pain of getting hit – all these things are REAL. And in paintball, one shot and you’re down – unlike video games with their health packs and respawns.

Of course, nobody gets hurt – not seriously, anyway. That’s what makes paintball a murder simulation, not murder.

Searching online, I could not find anyone claiming that paintball will teach young people to kill. Any reference to a paintball ban I could find was based on paintball guns being used in vandalism or in hold-ups. Strangely, no one is concerned that the real murder simulation is being used to train killers.

Now someone’s going to complain that I hate paintball. I have absolutely no problem with this sport whatsoever. I used to participate in something similar using shinai in a local park. I do not believe for a second that some kid is going to be turned into a murderer playing paintball.

But one wonders how the self-appointed stewards of child safety can justify attacking video games, and doing nothing about the horrific scourge of paint-filled plastic balls shot from air guns.

Hunting. It's pretty classy!Hunting

I’m tempted to say that sport hunting isn’t a murder simulation, it’s murder. Tempted, but I will restrain myself from sounding like one of those asshats at PETA. Killing an animal is not murder (with perhaps a few exceptions). And whatever your views on hunting, it does not help anyone to equate killing a deer with killing a human. They are not ethically equivalent. At all. Not even close. Not even on same planet.

That said, as a murder simulator, hunting takes paintball and elevates it to the next level. Not only do you get a real gun with real bullets, but you do real killing. Not the killing of a human, but still.

If I were planning to actually go out and kill people, I would practice by going hunting. It creates the single most realistic environment to hone those murdering skills. In fact, it has everything but human victims. If I’m worried that any of my victims will fight back, I’ll just hunt boar.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any online complaints about hunting teaching kids to become murderers. Anti-hunting activists focus exclusively on the suffering of animals. Just for even suggesting a link between hunting and murder, I’m sure I’ll get nasty emails from the NRA and other pro-gun extremists. Fire away (heh heh). I’m not suggesting that hunting creates murderers. I’m suggesting that hunting is a much better way to learn to commit murder than a video game.

No, seriously, it's this long when it's flaccid...Military training

Now we reach the crème de la crème of murder simulations.  In the military, people who have actually killed people will give you a real gun and teach you to kill people. Not how to shoot targets, or to hunt deer – how to kill people. And they won’t stick just to guns, either. You’ll learn tons of fun mêlée and ranged combat techniques. You’ll go out to the real desert and shoot at real people with real bullets. And when you’re ready, they’ll send you out to commit real murder.

Oh, here we go. Suggest that what the military does is “murder,” and you must be a Commie pinko subversive terrorist. My argument has nothing to do with whatever it is soldiers do in the field; whether it is murder, or justifiable homicide, or self-defense, or peacekeeping. My only concern is, does military training teach you the skills to be a murderer better than a video game does?

Unlike any other type of training, military training teaches young people to dehumanize other humans. Whether this is justifiable or not is beside the point. The military teaches people to kill people, and to feel minimal remorse afterwards. End of story.

Whether or not military training is good or bad or both, whether or not a trained soldier is a good or bad person or both, that soldier is eventually returned to society, where there is not a Viet Cong or Iraqi insurgent around every corner. I’m not aware of any “untraining” to re-instill human compassion back in a soldier. It seems police officers sometimes have the same problem, suffering from the possibly unavoidable dehumanizing aspects of their work. And yet, should we lock up our veterans? Should we ban military training? Or should we create a kindler, gentler military?

I suppose we only need ask these questions if we are so concerned about the effect of murder simulations on our society. Will we prevent murders if we never, ever teach anyone how to kill, and never ever represent murder in the media? This is an open question, and a much more complicated one than some people would like for you to believe. But let me suggest that actually teaching people how to use a gun and kill people MUST be more dangerous than creating a game where people fake-kill fake-people.

Conclusion

So there we have it: five different murder simulators, all accepted by mainstream American society, but only is one under attack as detrimental to the moral hygiene of our youth. Strangely, only one is not traditionally associated with right-wing political values, but rather with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. And strangely, it’s the same one.

Is it possible that those who wish to censor video games aren’t really concerned with the safety of children? That the real goal is not to prevent children from learning how to murder?

If so, then I can’t imagine what the real goal of all this is. Even the U.S. Army created a video game, a “violent” tactical FPS, to promote recruitment, apparently with some success. Could the real goal, for politicians, be to get votes from Baby Boomers ignorant of gaming? Could the real goal for pundits be to get their faces on CNN?

Nah. That would just be cynical exploitation, not of the games industry, which can defend itself just fine, but of children. Politicians and pundits wouldn’t exploit children, would they?

There Is No Such Thing As A “Violent” Video Game

Originally posted 7/11/06 on GGL.com.

Augh!I am a pedant. I care about language and words, and how they are used. Use language with exactitude and precision, and one can convey deeper meaning with fewer words. In other words, eschew obfuscation.

What do the following six situations have in common?

1.) You are playing Grand Theft Auto 3. After enjoying the off-screen services of a prostitute, you beat her up and steal her money.
2.) In Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, your 1st level female Halfling rogue smashes open a wooden crate with her +1 morningstar, and steals a stack of gold coins.
3.) In Halo 2 multiplayer, you frag an opponent from a hidden position with a sniper rifle, putting a round into his head.

Or…

4.) Down on Hollywood Boulevard, you avail yourself of the services of a prostitute. Afterward, you beat her up and steal her money.
5.) In Beverly Hills, you smash open a store window with a crowbar, and steal some gold jewelry.
6.) At the urging of your adult male friend, you hide along Interstate 95 with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle, and kill an innocent stranger by shooting her in the head.

Any sane person will recognize that the first three scenarios are markedly different from the second three. Yet in standard American English, each scenario is described as “violent.”

If we can say that “shooting” an enemy in Halo 2 is “violent,” and shooting a real person with a real gun is “violent,” then what exactly does”violent” mean?

We do not have a word that means “depicting, or analogous to, violence.” Violencistic? Violentesque? Because of this, it become very easy to conflate “violent” (“marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”) with “violent” (“representing or describing a situation marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”).

So imagining or reenacting something that would be a violent act becomes a violent act, at least linguistically.

And as we can see from the media and political hyperbole regarding “violent” video games, many people cannot, or choose not to, discern the linguistic difference.

Let’s consider the difference between scenarios five and six. Is there no difference between violence against property and violence against persons? This question was debated heavily in the news media at the time of the anti-globalization riots in 1999. Many on the anti-globalization Left argued that violence against property was not the same as violence against people, and was therefore permissible as social protest. Many others disagreed.

Those who criticize video game and television violence have recognized this distinction in the past, to a certain extent. Think of all the video games and Saturday morning cartoons in which the “violence” is perpetrated against robots instead of people. Sonic the Hedgehog can smash all of Dr. Robotnik’s robots — that’s not violent, is it? Especially when he’s freeing all those little chicks and bunnies?

Today, however, the distinction between violence against people and against inanimate objects seems to have disappeared, even when talking about fictional or imaginary violence. Shooting a crate and shooting a person become conflated, just as imagining the violence and realizing it are conflated.

I become incensed whenever censorship advocates describe a video game (or movie or book or song) as “violent” or “dangerous.” Perhaps it’s too pedantic or simplistic to insist that a video game can not hurt you. Unless your Xbox 360 power supply electrocutes you or crushes you under its incredible weight, it can’t injure you. Unless it gives you a paper cut, a book can not do you harm. A movie never sent anyone to the hospital, unless the overpriced combination of Coca Cola and Red Vines gave them a stomach ache.

Yet when Senator Hillary Clinton released her guide for parents last month, it was entitled Media Safety. In addition to describing certain media as “age-inappropriate” and “offensive,” she decried some web content, TV shows and video games as “dangerous.”

Yes, parents, you must worry about your child’s “safety” from all these “dangerous” media. Dangerous how?

Can TV shows and video games be age-inappropriate? Absolutely. Obviously, children can be confused, frightened, even emotionally harmed by the adult themes implicit in images of violence, horror, and eroticism. Personally, I’m more concerned when a child views a scene of casual murder, even when the violence occurs off-screen, than I am about a scene of cartoon violence or of sexuality. But honestly, parents should be reasonably able to prevent their children from accessing media with adult themes.

Reasonably able. The effort to “protect” children from adult media absolutely can not prevent adults from producing and consuming media as they see fit. And certain kinds of media — video games, comic books, and animation — cannot be labeled “child-only.” The world is full of adult games and comics. Parents who can not discern the difference are the problem, not the producers of the GTA games or of Japanese tentacle porn.

Censorship advocates insist that exposure to violent images can induce violent behavior. Therefore, the logic goes, the violent image caused the violent behavior. This line of reasoning fails on many levels.

Studies vetted by the American Psychological Association demonstrate that children exhibit an increase in violent behavior for a period of time after exposure to violent images. First of all, we can safely assume that the behavior described by the researchers as violent did not include physical attacks on other children. If it did, the researchers would be guilty of ethics violations. We can assume the affected children were “acting up.”

Second, the APA has yet to compare the reactions of children to images of sporting events, or to actual participation in sporting events. The same people who believe you should not pretend to hurt people on a computer advocate that you should slam the hell out of a quarterback or punch your boxing opponent in the face. These activities are wholesome, healthy and non-violent? No, they are simply traditionally accepted in our society.

Let’s see the reactions of children to video games compared to their reactions to loud music, or a hunting program on TV, or an argument between their parents. Let’s study how various factors in a child’s life impact their behavior. That is a complex undertaking, and thousands of child psychologists and sociologists are hard at work on it right now. But these aren’t the people who put out simplistic reports linking video games with violence.

Third, let us assume that “violent” video games cause a certain amount of “acting up” in a minority of children. Would this justify a ban on sales of certain games to minors? Would this justify censorship of game content, even self-imposed industry censorship?

For a hundred years, shrill conservatives have blamed the mass media for the corruption of our children. First it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain; then Frank Sinatra and his Bobby-Soxers; then Elvis, the Beatles, television, movies, rap music and video games. Every one of these pop culture phenomena was described as a “danger” to our children, by opportunistic politicians and religious figures who prey on parents’ ignorance about popular culture.

Parents are bombarded with false “dangers” to their children (terrorism, razors in Halloween candy, stranger abductions, Satanism, school shootings). None of these is a real threat to your child — but what parent wants to be the one who did nothing, and their child is the one who gets hurt?

A video game will never hurt your child. It will not turn them into the Trench Coat Mafia. You have the right to tell your child what they can buy, and what they can play — but you do not have the right to tell me. Even if your child were in danger, you would not have the right to tell me.

But your child is safe. Pay attention to the media they consume, not just the video games. Try to keep on top of what they see and do in school and at their friends’ houses. Teach them what you feel is appropriate, and expect them to respect your wishes.

But see the video game “threat” for what it is — no threat at all.

Guardian: Will videogames create a two-tiered society?

Originally posted 7/20/07 on GGL.com

A blogger for Britain’s influential Guardian newspaper is asking, “Will playing games create a two-tiered society?” Writer Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian’s technology correspondent, writes in response to a Discovery magazine article touting the benefits of video game playing.

Studies have indicated that young people who play video games have increased abilities in reasoning, puzzle solving, and “forward thinking” (although it has been pointed out that kids who already possess these abilities may be attracted to playing video games.)

Johnson asks:

Given the increasing interest in virtual worlds and near-game environments, it’s not hard to imagine that some people will adapt much more quickly to a futurenet based around 3D – the kind of thing imagined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

But given the research mentioned, will we end up with a divided society? Imagine a future internet where games players have a massive advantage over ordinary users. Will we see a divide between the visually literate and those who just don’t (or can’t) get it?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one thing to have economic and caste inequities – but a medieval lord was no more or less intelligent than the average peasant (and not always better educated). The science of anthropology, invented in the 19th century to prove that some races were inherently better than others, instead showed by the middle of the 20th century that “racial” differences were shallow, and that intelligence has no correlation to race or ethnicity. Is technology moving us towards a world where one set of people is demonstrably more intelligent than another?

Science fiction has dealt with this question many times; Huxley’s Brave New World and Wells’s The Time Machine are the most famous examples. Technological enhancement of the human mind is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction; and as in Gibson’s Neuromancer, not everyone can afford these enhancements.

Video games don’t directly enhance intelligence. But they train the brain, and not just in ways that help a player use a computer. (And I don’t think there will be a 3D “futurenet” as described by Gibson. Why direct an avatar through a maze of pretty 3D representations of web sites, when I can just click on a name on a list? See what I mean?)

A well-designed game teaches critical thinking (the single most important intellectual skill), reasoning, prediction and communication. It heightens visual skills and the reflexes. And the game content can be as mind-expanding as any book, film or music album.

I’m concerned about economic inequities that will lead to technological and intellectual castes. But that seems to be an issue for 50 years from now. Right now, we’re seeing a large segment of society choose to limit their own intellectual growth, both technologically and otherwise, for what they errantly see as moral reasons.

My mind is so advanced, I have chosen to present my argument as a chart.

Intellectual Enhancement Counter-intellectual Response The “reason” for the response
It's-a Mario!
Videogaming.
Jack Thompson.
Banning games.
Klebold & Harris.
Games engender violence, crime, moral corruption and asocial behavior.
The World Wide Web.  Information Superhighway.  Cyberspace.  The Net.
Internet use.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The Internet is a series of tubes.  It's not a truck.
Internet censorship, tiered Internet, apathy.
Hey! I was looking at those!
The Internet is for porn, intellectual property theft, and plotting terrorism. It should be used only for business and profit. Also, it’s too hard to bother to learn how it works.
Stephen Hawking is smarter than you.  He could probably kick your ass, too.
Math, science, logic, & computer programming education.
George W. Bush wants you to know what he thinks of you.
No Child Left behind.
Shop class.  Well, carpenters and plumbers do make more than most physicists.  And more than most games journalists.
Schools should prepare kids for vocations; let the smart ones get scholarships.
Rock me, Amadeus.  Amadeus Amadeus.
Arts, music and history education.
Piss Christ.  If you don't know, look it up.
No funding; censorship of art, music, history texts.
The animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.  He never mentions that he opposed freeing the slaves for most of his career.
Why am I going to need to know this? And teaching real history is unpatriotic.
Timothy Leary.
Pharmacology.
Winners don't do drugs!  And FBI Director William S. Sessions is a winner!
Banning development of mind-enhancing drugs.
I took my Paxil today.  That's why I'm not in the EG chat, flaming n00bs.
It’s okay to use drugs to treat mental illnesses and neuroses; but enhancing the healthy is unethical.
It's a very, very small digital camera.  Very sneaky.
Photography, sound recording.
How dare you take a photo?  In a public place?  Whaddya think, there's a First Amendment or something?
Banning photography and recording in public places, businesses.
The Rodney King video.
Intellectual property protection, privacy.
You'd think discovering the Secret of Life would cheer you up a bit.
Evolution.
Yes, that's Jesus.  Riding a dinosaur.  Seriously.
Creationism.
Ted Haggard isn't gay. It's all a big misunderstanding.
The only way to be moral is to believe the Bible is inerrant.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Science.
Yep. Distilled water can cure anything.
Pseudo-science.
Ben Stein
If a scientific discovery doesn’t not fit with my political (global warming) or religious (cloning, physicalism, evolution) proclivities, it must be wrong.
Richard Dawkins.
Atheism, religious criticism, religious pluralism.
One of the Danish cartoons that can get you killed.
Political correctness, censorship, threats against authors and cartoonists.
Burning The Satanic Verses.
Criticizing religion is the same as oppressing the religious.

It’s one thing to have intellectual inequity forced upon you. It’s quite another to chose to hobble your own ability to think and reason, especially in a democracy. If your political, religious or ethical philosophy is rigorous enough, you should not need protection from competing ideas. If your lifestyle is successful, it should not require protection from new technologies.

If videogames were actually harmful, I would be the first to quit my job and come out against them. But I know from my own personal experience they are not; and as a writer I have carefully examined the arguments and studies for and against. The only way to believe videogaming itself hurts children is to be intentionally ignorant.

I call people who choose anti-intellectualism the “Stupid-American Community.” It’s a community that’s growing. And that’s the “two-tiered society” that worries me.

“Are videogames actually games?” and other stupid questions

Originally posted 7/6/07 on www.ggl.com.

I checked out an article entitled “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” for two reasons. First, it’s highly rated on Digg, which means it has to be good, right? And second, I was intrigued by the title.

This has to be the dumbest gaming article I’ve seen online, ever. And that’s saying a lot.The anonymous author’s point seems to be this: there are certain (largely imaginary) differences between videogames and “traditional” games. Therefore, videogames are not games.

Here are my point-for-point responses to the post:

1. Intimacy
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine… The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

This makes no sense to me at all. Whether traditional or hobbyist, any game is either played alone, or with/against other people. Every game is interactive; sometimes the player interacts with inanimate objects like playing cards or miniatures, sometimes with other people while using inanimate objects, sometimes with a computer, and sometimes with other people over a computer network.

I can’t see what the author means by “intimacy” here, unless it is exactly what he means by “immersion” below.

2. Stories are more important than rules
… computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

If this author is looking for stories and characters in non-videogames, I guess he’s right. They’re pretty hard to find. The only ones I can think of are: Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Champions, The World of Darkness games, and every other RPG ever written; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and many other plot- and character-based tabletop war games; Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game, and other plot- and character-based collectible card games; Illuminati: New World Order, Car Wars, and other plot- and character-based tabletop games.

But of course I’m cheating. All of the non-RPGs above were heavily influenced by RPGs, after AD&D became popular. I guess my point is that RPGs constitute a massive genre of story-based non-video games. And need I add that every single story-based videogame, from the earliest MUDs and MUSHes to World of Warcraft and Gears of War, is based upon earlier non-computer-based games? Of course I don’t.

3. Immersion
Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

This breaks down two ways. On the one hand, tabletop games can be as fully immersive and engrossing as any videogame. I don’t have to explain this to any actual gamer. If you’ve spent all Friday night and Saturday day playing D&D, without bothering to sleep, then you know that offline games are just as addictive as the online ones.

On the other hand, videogames can offer something that meatspace games cannot: virtual reality. Sure, it’s not the fully immersive virtual reality that William Gibson promised us 20 years ago; you’re still sitting in a chair staring at a screen. But there’s a world of difference between having a dungeon master explain something to you, and actually seeing it and interacting with it in World of Warcraft. In this sense, videogames are truly more immersive than offline games. LARPers try to recreate that magic, but let’s face it; they’re just playing D&D while standing up and wearing clothes from Hot Topic.

But I don’t see how virtual reality makes videogames “not games.”

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. … They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex.

Oh, come on! Do I really have to argue this? “Games are traditionally considered to be for children.” By whom? Poker players? There have always been children’s games and adult games, going back to the beginning of time. And I hate to break it to this author, but the vast majority of people still consider videogames to be exclusively for children, despite this being patently untrue. Unless someone out there is letting their 6-year-old play Rule of Rose.

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events.

This may be true for videogames in some circumstances, but it is also true for other games as well. The author does not try to defend his statement with examples, and I don’t blame him.

The author is once again appealing to the views of the general public, which is always a mistake when it comes to gaming. It’s true that most people don’t consider games to be “high culture,” but they don’t see videogames that way either, even when it’s warranted. Okami could be displayed in a museum; but so could the best wargame miniatures.

Granted, art and design are integral to videogames, and often marginal in traditional games. But look at any Games Workshop game, whether RPG, wargame, board game or card game – the perfect example of how excellent art can enhance a game.

I had more “life-changing” experiences while playing RPGs than I ever have had playing videogames. But that’s just me – I’m not holding tabletop RPGs over videogame RPGs or MMORPGs. I just can’t see why on is inherently better than the other.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable.

Ah yes, you’re perfectly right. Except for having it entirely backwards.

Computer games don’t just contain rules – they are rules. A computer program is just a long, complex series of unbreakable rules, with absolutely no wiggle room. Even a hack, cheat, bug or Easter egg follows the rules; they just mean the rules were poorly written.

Now, computer game rules are very complex, sometimes offering very many choices, some of them unpredictable. But the options are always finite – always.

In an offline game, the rules can be changed at any time; whether through unanimous consent of the players, or the authoritarian dictates of an RPG gamemaster, or even by good old fashioned cheating.

Here’s a good example: Risk. When playing tabletop Risk or Risk: 2210, players can create house rules, make and break alliances, bluff, argue and cheat. In computer Risk, one can do none of these things. A more advanced version of computer Risk might be designed to allow rules changes and alliances; but only if these functions are specifically programmed. And only to the extent that the programmers allow.

A traditional game will always have more options than a computer game; and an RPG will have the most options of all.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century.

This is true. But it doesn’t argue for the superiority of videogames. And it doesn’t argue that videogames are not games.

Our videogame culture is different from offline gaming culture, in that players demand exponentially increasing aesthetic technology, and publishers strive to provide it. Whether the advance of graphics and sound technology actually results in better and more compelling art is highly debatable.

Also, this need for increasingly beautiful games is not inherent to the videogame experience. It’s not the result of videogame culture. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented tech boom. Videogames, consoles and gaming PCs are very expensive, and people demand to get their money’s worth. If computing technology ever levels off, gamers’ aesthetic expectations will level off as well.

8. Persistent social context
To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

So, the “social context” of a traditional game ends when the game ends, whereas the social context of a videogame ends… when the game ends. Got it.

Some people argue that only a traditional game creates an appropriate social context, and they paint pictures of fat, spotty teenage boys playing WoW for 20 hours a day in their mother’s basement. I totally disagree. Even the spotty teen is, in fact, socializing, as long as he’s playing online. If he’s not playing online, then yes, perhaps he needs to get out of the house. On the other hand, maybe we should just leave him alone and let him be happy.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. … When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

Right. So you can’t lose in a deathmatch? And you can lose in D&D? Seriously, dude, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

Anybody who ever lost a game “…failed to accomplish a certain task.” That’s the very definition, whether the task is “achieve checkmate before the other guy” or “accumulate more kills than the other guy.”

Granted, in many video games, the player just attempts the same task over and over until they get it right. And yes, they may give up. How this is different from solitaire, for example, I have no idea.

10. Cheating is allowed
Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc.

If the game includes a cheat code, then it’s not cheating. The programmer put it in there on purpose. “Cheating” means violating the mutually agreed upon rules, whether those rules are set by a family playing Monopoly, or by the World Chess Federation, or by Blizzard’s EULA. Anyone, in any game, can cheat. But it’s never “allowed” — if it is, it’s not cheating.

As for the fun of “hacking” a game, making changes, enforcing your will upon someone else’s work – anyone can do this, in any game. And it’s much easier to do this with an offline game. You don’t need to learn coding, or own a dev kit.

In Conclusion

In my experience, both as a traditional gamer, and as someone who has been playing videogames since Day One, I have been struck by the deep similarities between videogames and other forms of games.

This is not just because so many computer games are based upon, or inspired by, traditional games. It is also because a game is a game. And no matter what medium you play in, the goals are the same.

The one genuine way in which videogames improve upon, and are different from, other games is in the creation of increasingly immersive virtual realities. One day, VR realms may become utterly realistic. In that event, whether a virtual reality constitutes a “game” will depend entirely on its purpose.

If the purpose is to challenge the user, in competition against other users, the programmers, or the user’s own talents and expectations, then yes, that reality will be a game.

The Top Ten MMO Excuses

Originally posted 2/28/07 on Avataritoria.

You’ve heard them all. Someone screws up a raid, or gets everyone killed at the end of an instance — but there’s always an excuse.

I’ve collected the top 10 MMO excuses, in the hope they can be retired forever. It won’t happen — but we can always hope, right?

If you’re going to screw up in a game, at least think of new excuses, rather than trotting out one of these lame old-skool justifications.

10. I’m a n00b.
This isn’t an excuse – if you’re in the proper n00bie areas, and paying attention, your stupid mistakes shouldn’t affect anyone but you. But if you’re not just a n00b, but a howard – some 12-year-old kid lacking the emotional maturity to play Wii Bowling, much less an MMO, well, that’s no excuse either. Go play Barbie Horse Adventures until you’re old enough to stop snickering at your own female avatar’s wiggling ass.

9. [Random Player] was supposed to give me [Random Buff] — and the aggro got screwed!
The truth is, not receiving the proper support from your party members may be a legitimate reason for failure, not just a lame excuse. If the healer isn’t healing, the buffer isn’t buffing, and the brick isn’t pulling aggro, then you may get kacked no matter what you do. But far too often, players try to blame their own weaknesses on others. Don’t throw stones – if you weren’t pulling your own weight, then the failures of others aren’t an excuse.

8. Someone was spamming trade chat, and it distracted me.
Oh, please. If there’s not a way turn off general chat without losing party chat, then learn to ignore it. It’s called “concentration” – you can Google it.

7. Someone was at my door / I had to go pee. (tie)
Ah, the “IRL Defense.” Most real-life interruptions are not major life-threatening emergencies. They can probably wait until the end of a combat. And if you’re involved in a giant raid – well, geez dude, just plan ahead. Or maybe you can take up a game that requires less of a commitment. Like Barbie Horse Adventures.

6. My character was so much more powerful before the update / before he got nerfed.
Well, boo hoo. If your character got nerfed, it was probably too powerful in the first place. It’s called “game balance” – and since the game is supposed to be fun for everyone, and not just YOU, maybe you should quit your bitching and learn to play your character under the new rules.

5. My computer / video card / monitor is crap.
Well then, you have two solutions to this problem. First, find a second job / sugar daddy / winning lottery ticket, and get a better machine. Or second, alter your game play to fit the capabilities of your system. Plan ahead – choose a character with ranged attacks and spells that do damage over time. Get buffs that help other party members. Avoid direct involvement in combat. Set yourself to “follow” other players. And if your system is too weak to play a game, then don’t play it at all. Switch to Barbie Horse Adventures.

4. “I’ve got chicken.”
When Leeroy Jenkins famously sabotaged a massive raid, his only excuse was “I’ve got chicken.” Of course, that’s not really an excuse; it’s more of a reason. He had chicken. That’s perfectly understandable, right?

3. I just wanted to see what would happen if I did that.
I’ve been overcome with the urge to do something monumentally stupid, just to see what would happen. And unlike say, climbing over the fence at the Grand Canyon or jumping down a garbage chute, conducting stupid experiments in a virtual world will not get you killed.

Just try your experiments on your own time, rather than when a party is depending on you.

2. That wasn’t me, my girlfriend was using my account.
Please. Like YOU have a girlfriend….

1. Lag!!!

If you have any other favorite MMO excuses, list them in the comments! There’s no excuse not to! Heh heh.