Series Info...Biting The Hand #23:

Catching Up

by Jessica Mulligan
April 16, 2002

The Game Developer’s Conference

This year’s Game Developer’s Conference has come and gone. In spite of the smog, the tiny airport that crowds up from two Boy Scouts and a lady in a wheelchair, the construction going on next to the convention center and just outside my hotel room and the incipient rain, I had fun this year. There were a number of reasons for this:

  1. Less congestion. Attendance was lighter than in previous years; there wasn’t a single session in the main conference center at which I had to fight to get a seat.

    This is a big change from 1999 and 2000 (I wasn’t able to attend last year, so no comparison can be made), when there were times I needed a crowbar and police assistance just to get through the corridors. And usually the Exhibitor Exposition floor is so packed you can’t move through the crowd sideways, but this year, no such problem.

    There was some speculation among the attendees as to why this was, ranging from the high cost, to management being tired of the expense of sending people to Headhunter’s Paradise, to the fact that there have been quite a few layoffs in the last year and the absent friends just might not be in the industry anymore.

  2. New friends and old. Even with the less congestion, some people I haven’t seen in a year or two where there and we had a great time schmoozing about the good ol’ days, when we designed games on foolscap using quill pens and coded them on an abacus on the dirt floor of our mud huts. Chris Crawford returned for the second year in a row, and Dave Arneson, co-creator of the original Dungeons and Dragons and now an instructor in design at Fail Sail, made an appearance. I swear that man looks like Santa Claus on his day off.

    I also had a chance to meet with John Neidhart, the editor of the book I’m co-authoring for Prentice Hall, and introduce him to the community, including taking him to the MUD-Dev dinner (which, I’m sure, was an eye-opener all by itself; we’re an eclectic group). List Moderator J.C. Lawrence picked a great German restaurant, complete with a crusty, old Prussian waitress who alternately chided the thirty-odd attendees for being impatient while referring to us as ‘my darlings.’ We tipped well.

  3. The online game sessions were better. In years past, the online track has either sucked or was mixed. This had much to do with the fact that some (and a couple years, nearly all) of the sessions were presented by people who had no business telling anyone anything about online games.

    With only a couple exceptions, including one massive multiplayer game design roundtable run by a guy who has never designed a multiplayer game, the online game sessions this year were in general quite good. The session by Rich Vogel and Raph Koster on Storytelling in the Online Medium was a tour de force. They showed a unique ‘cube’ diagram that describes the various methods of interaction and storytelling in a massive-multiplayer universe via context, control and impact. It clearly lays out the pitfalls of working in this medium and where the traps are. That alone was worth flying cross-country and being subjected to silly searches by minimum wage employees who will confiscate a tweezers because you might decide to go ballistic and poke someone’s eye out or give them an unsightly eyebrow arch, but not even give a second look to a metal-cased ballpoint pen.

    You can access the presentation on Raph’s Website. Select the Essays link and then scroll down to the bottom of the page. I recommend it highly; it is well worth a gander.

    Besides being a revealing and well-thought out session, Jonathan Baron’s Why They Won’t Let You Make Great Online Games won the BTH award for the Best Single PowerPoint Presentation Slide of All Time. I can’t describe it; you had to be there to have Jonathan set it up for you. That one slide had the audience on the floor; we were eating out of his hand. I think most of us also got the intended take-away from the session: The next major breakthrough in online games will be in design, not technology or budgets, but game publishers live by technology and budgets. If you want to make a great online game, you have to get your own people past that one point.

  4. Some of the other sessions were great. Chris Crawford’s Stories You Can’t Tell was a clear winner, demonstrating the difference between what today’s designers call ‘story’ and what is actually ‘dramatic context’ and why they aren’t the same thing. When he speaks, Chris has a passion that draws in a crowd and opens up the mind. You can see why he found the GDC some fourteen years ago; he just plain loves games and interactivity and their possibilities for being more than just minor amusements that contribute to strong thumbs and weak minds.
All in all, a pretty good con this year, even if not one person invited me to a strip bar. What’s this conference coming to, anyway?

Here We Go Again

If you haven’t heard by now, Shawn Woolley, a 21 year old epileptic diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder, who once consigned himself to a group home specializing in addictive behavior and who tended to play EverQuest for twelve hours a day, killed himself last year on Thanksgiving Day. Now his mother has engaged a bottom-feeder who poses as an anti-videogame crusader to sue Sony Online Entertainment because, she says, the game should have had a warning label that the game was addictive and she and her lawyer wants lots of money: “The lawsuit will not specifically seek to require game companies to place warning labels on games, but Thompson believes that a large verdict may cause companies to label their games out of fiscal self-interest.”

The invective and rhetoric that surround the suit are pretty much what you’d expect from nonsense such as this and much is being made of the satiric moniker of ‘EverCrack.’ There seems to be little objectivity on wither side of the argument. Here’s one of my favorite quotes concerning the issue, from an article objectively titled “Hudson mother seeks answers after son addicted to computer game shoots himself,” by soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winner, Joe Winter:

“For that reason, and to investigate the possibility of a class action lawsuit against the makers of the game, Woolley has tried to telephone his Internet friends, but they also are addicted and invariably hang up on her.”

I have much sympathy for any mother who loses a child to suicide; I can’t begin to imagine the heartache that must cause. It does not change the fact that the poor, benighted kid was not sane. Twelve hours a day playing EverQuest? Any single activity done for twelve hours per day, day after day, isn’t healthy, even if you are sane and like doing it. No one would argue that eating for twelve straight hours is good, for instance. Using wooden cooking spoons for twelve hours per day isn’t healthy, but they don’t have warning labels on them (I know, I checked mine). Heck, I don’t even want to have sex for twelve hours a day, but I sure as heck don’t have a label stamped on my butt warning my partner about it. The overwhelming majority of people in the world understand this concept. Those unfortunate few who are unbalanced may not.

A warning label wouldn’t have stopped Mr. Woolley in the first place; the poor guy was mentally unstable, an epileptic who would play until he had a seizure, then start playing again. He was out of control, even his mother admits that much. She couldn’t get him to take his prescriptions for the schizoid disorder, for heaven’s sake. It happens. All this is, unfortunately, is another distraught mother searching for sense where there is none beyond the clichéd “Bad things sometimes happen to good people.” She couldn’t put her son’s life on a meaningful track because of his illnesses and unwillingness to listen, no matter how hard she tried. And she did try, many times and in different ways, if the news articles are any indication. As would happen with any other mother, there is lingering guilt that maybe she didn’t do enough or try hard enough, no matter how Herculean her efforts on Shawn’s behalf. Now there is no closure for her and, in her grief, that guilt has become someone else’s fault, not hers. The reason she had no effect on her son was not that he was schizoid and refused to take his medicine; it was that evil, addicting game.

This type of guilt transference is an understandable, all too human reaction to a senseless tragedy (and I pray that this is the situation here and not the other, ugly motive of trying to blackmail deep pockets for a quick score). At some point, though, people have to be held accountable for their own actions, however, be they sane or not. Not everything is the fault of some faceless corporation.

While I doubt this particular situation will get very far in the court system, now you know why plastic bags have warning labels that they shouldn’t be placed over the head and tied at the neck.

Something to Think About

Not many read the works of Rudyard Kipling anymore. That’s a damn shame; the man knew what he was talking about, even if he lived in an age that didn’t have television and the Game Boy Advance (sarcasm alert).

Kipling’s poems tended to deliver messages of warning to his fellow Brits and The Old Issue, copied below from an online collection of his public domain works, was no exception. Jerry Pournelle, whose site I visit often, recently reprinted a version; this text includes a couple verses that were missing from that one.

I don’t often fall into the trap of trying to comment on social issues that don’t pertain to our industry, but if you can read this and not see a warning about what is happening to the US since September 11, 2001, you’re spending ‘way too much time playing games.

We aren’t there yet, but The Old Issue is always close at hand…

OCTOBER 9, 1899
(Outbreak of Boer War)
Rudyard Kipling

HERE is nothing new nor aught unproven," say the Trumpets,
    "Many feet have worn it and the road is old indeed.
"It is the King — the King we schooled aforetime !"

    (Trumpets in the marshes — in the eyot at Runnymede !)
"Here is neither haste, nor hate, nor anger," peal the Trumpets,
    "Pardon for his penitence or pity for his fall.
"It is the King! " — inexorable Trumpets —
    (Trumpets round the scaffold at the dawning by Whitehall!)

"He hath veiled the Crown and hid the Sceptre," warn the Trumpets,
    "He hath changed the fashion of the lies that cloak his will.
"Hard die the Kings — ah hard — dooms hard!" declare the Trumpets,
    Trumpets at the gang-plank where the brawling troop-decks fill !

Ancient and Unteachable, abide — abide the Trumpets!
    Once again the Trumpets, for the shuddering ground-swell brings
Clamour over ocean of the harsh, pursuing Trumpets —
    Trumpets of the Vanguard that have sworn no truce with Kings !

All we have of freedom, all we use or know —
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.

Ancient Right unnoticed as the breath we draw —
Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the Law.

Lance and torch and tumult, steel and grey-goose wing
Wrenched it, inch and ell and all, slowly from the King.

Till our fathers 'stablished, after bloody years,
How our King is one with us, first among his peers.

So they bought us freedom — not at little cost
Wherefore must we watch the King, lest our gain be lost,

Over all things certain, this is sure indeed,
Suffer not the old King: for we know the breed.

Give no ear to bondsmen bidding us endure.
Whining "He is weak and far"; crying "Time shall cure.",

(Time himself is witness, till the battle joins,
Deeper strikes the rottenness in the people's loins.)

Give no heed to bondsmen masking war with peace.
Suffer not the old King here or overseas.

They that beg us barter — wait his yielding mood —
Pledge the years we hold in trust — pawn our brother's blood —

Howso' great their clamour, whatsoe'er their claim,
Suffer not the old King under any name!

Here is naught unproven — here is naught to learn.
It is written what shall fall if the King return.

He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom's name.

He shall take a tribute, toll of all our ware;
He shall change our gold for arms — arms we may not bear.

He shall break his judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring
Watchers 'neath our window, lest we mock the King —

Hate and all division; hosts of hurrying spies;
Money poured in secret, carrion breeding flies.

Strangers of his counsel, hirelings of his pay,
These shall deal our Justice: sell — deny — delay.

We shall drink dishonour, we shall eat abuse
For the Land we look to — for the Tongue we use.

We shall take our station, dirt beneath his feet,
While his hired captains jeer us in the street.

Cruel in the shadow, crafty in the sun,
Far beyond his borders shall his teachings run.

Sloven, sullen, savage, secret, uncontrolled,
Laying on a new land evil of the old —

Long-forgotten bondage, dwarfing heart and brain —
All our fathers died to loose he shall bind again.

Here is naught at venture, random nor untrue —
Swings the wheel full-circle, brims the cup anew.

Here is naught unproven, here is nothing hid:
Step for step and word for word — so the old Kings did!

Step by step, and word by word: who is ruled may read.
Suffer not the old Kings: for we know the breed —

All the right they promise — all the wrong they bring.
Stewards of the Judgment, suffer not this King!

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