by Jessica Mulligan
I don't know about you, but the holidays were a good break for me. I did some traveling, worked with my co-author to clean up some of the last pre-printer items for Developing Online Games, rested a lot and generally spent time cogitating on the world at large and playing some of the new persistent worlds, mainly The Sims Online, Asheron's Call 2 and ToonTown.
All in all, a nice vacation. Now time to dig and get ready for 2003. We'll start by cleaning up a couple issues left over from last year.
A Larger List
As was pointed out to me any number of times over the holiday break, some games escaped my list of 2002/2003 persistent world/massive-multiplayer games list as noted in the last column. Well, I said right there in the text it wasn't complete, didn't I? Hey, I'm nothing if not complete in noting my incompleteness, and no one can ever take that away from me.
In continuation of my vision quest for incompleteness, here is a somewhat larger list of new and/or still active PWs and MMOGs, plus those scheduled to launch in 2003. If there is a massive-multiplayer or persistent world game you think should be on the list, drop me an email at email@example.com.
Massive-Multiplayer/Persistent World Games or New Retail Add-On Releases for 2002:
Other MMOG/PW Games released since 1996 and still updating content regularly:
MMOG/PW Games expected to be released in 2003:
Though incomplete, that is still an impressive list, if only on sheer numbers. Quality, though, is something each individual player will have to determine. It is interesting to note that of the 24 released games on the list, the overwhelming bulk of the 4 million or so paying subscribers worldwide those games represent reside in just five games. There have been a lot of estimates on just how many hard core players there are worldwide; I've seen everything from a range of 6 to 8 million to a range of 8 to 12 million. I've said before that we aren't making games that even the hard core players want to play, and that little tidbit would seem to confirm it.
What to do about it? Ah, that is another column...
Violence in Games
While we were all slacking off in anticipation of the Christmas holiday, the violence-in-games issue heated up again. Gads, is it coming up on an election year already?
The National Institute of Media and the Family, that self-appointed moral center and watchdog of all things appropriate in all entertainment media for children from ages embryo to 17, is at it again. Just before 2002 closed out, the group issued its annual VideoGame Report Card. As one might imagine, Take Two's Grand Theft Auto and GTA: Vice City and Acclaim's BMX XXX came in for extra-special mention.
Here is the group's top ten list of games to avoid and top ten games found appropriate for minors:
Normally I wouldn't have a problem with such a list; no reason for a group with an axe to grind not to inform casual passers-by of games they find inappropriate for the younger set. It isn't as if any of us have to follow their recommendation as if they were written in stone or something. And when I think about it, I really don't have a problem with the list; I'd never buy Grand Theft Auto for anyone under the age of 18, for example. Heck, that game is so raw, I probably wouldn't buy it for anyone under the age of 40. And since I last wrote about the NIFM three years ago (See I Fear, I Fear! Volume 8, Number 42, reprinted at the end of this column), they've at least started paying lip service to trying to put their KidScore violence ratings in the context of the game. They still put more emphasis on "The media makes it impossible to raise your kids!" than they do on parental responsibility, and their soi-disant research' is still highly suspect (now they are claiming that normally non-violent kids become more violent than kids who are regularly so, all by exposure to videogames. Oh, my aching back!), but they do seem to be making some small progress.
What really bothers me is that all the usual political suspects are again jumping on the wagon for a free ride. I also have mixed feelings about Take Two and Acclaim. On the one hand, I curse them for turning out games which they know are giving ammunition to politicians and special interest groups who would love to have oversight of the industry and tell us what we are allowed to watch, read, hear and play. On the other hand, I have to applaud that they are willing to thumb their noses at people like me - I find GTA a piece of disgusting pandering for dollars; can't they take that wonderful technology and turn out a game that doesn't require appealing to sophomoric wet dreams? - and Lieberman and the NIFM. No, this wasn't what I had in mind when I asked the industry to be more willing to take risks, but so what? So they're doing it for dollars, not for 1st Amendment reasons; the issue of non-governmental interference with free speech doesn't become a non-issue because of that.
This issue bears watching, because I suspect it is going to be a huge one in the elections of 2004, at least in the US. It is pretty obvious that it will be a campaign issue in the US over the next two years and, with the European Union preparing to institute its own game rating system this year and the recent spate of violent acts in game centers in Korea and Asia at large and local reaction to them, it is fast becoming a world issue, too. And as liberal and leftist as the American press can be, it won't take much to keep the issue in the limelight.
I'm sure we can count on Take Two and Acclaim to keep it there, as long as there is a buck to made doing it.
I Fear, I Fear!
Volume Eight, Issue 42
First Published: Thursday, December 2, 1999
NOTE to the reader: Here is the column I wrote the first time I noticed the National Institute on Media and the Family and one of their press releases. It was also the first time I saw Joe Lieberman's name associated with the group and only a few short months before Ol' Joe went on to greater things.
Three years later, much of this column still applies; without considering the context, just bleating about violence or sex means nothing. More in the Post-Mortem that follows the column.
Is it election time again?
Two Democratic U.S. senators, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, along with a self-styled anti-violence-in-the media lobbying group, the National Institute on Media and the Family, have released yet another report on the supposed dangers of violence in games. Oh, joy.
The report says pretty much what you would expect such a narrowly focused, politically inspired, special-interest chop piece to say, especially less than a year before a national election. We can always count on politicians to jump on the "No excess is too great to save the precious bodily fluids of our children" bandwagon at vote-cadging time. This report is no different.
(Of course, the Institute's website goes to great pains to note that they don't believe in censorship, oh, no! This is just an education effort... backed up by two of the most powerful politicians in the country. In fact, Lieberman held a press conference in Washington which was attended by Doug Lowenstein, the president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, and in which Lowenstein described the steps the IDSA is taking in response to Congressional pressure concerning game violence.
But this isn't censorship. Really.)
More accurately, this is less about the report than the Institute's "report card" rating of some 78 games (as well as other ratings for movies and TV shows) for kids ages 3 to 17, assigning grades to each game. The rating criteria were... interesting. Here's how it was described on the Media and the Family website:
"KidScore is the innovative rating system that looks at the content of media products in terms of : violence, fear, harmful or illegal behaviors, nudity, sex, language, age appropriateness."
Well, I certainly couldn't pass that up; time to check up on a couple of last year's most popular (read "best-selling") games. I won't run the full rating for the games; you can check that for yourself at http://www.mediafamily.org/kids.html:
While the "some violence" part is pretty easy to locate (hey, it's a colonization and conquest game), try as I might, I'm having some trouble understanding the "illegal/harmful behavior" part. More on this later.
Now I'm a little confused. There is no more or less violence in Starcraft than Age II. And just what in this game has the " ability to cause fear?" The only thing I feared when playing was that some other player would find and crush me before I had my defenses built up.
I think my thoughts on this one should be obvious.
I tossed this one in for leavening. According to the Institute, children aged 3 to 12 probably shouldn't play this game. I mean, come on: is there any more law-abiding, do-gooding hero than Kal El of Krypton? Why wouldn't we want kids aged 3 to 12 to learn from Superman's morals and ethics? If there is any illegal or harmful behavior in this game, Supes is there to stop it.
Do you see the problems that I do with these ratings? Nowhere on the site could I find a definition of what "harmful or illegal behavior" was, or just how the ability to cause "fear" was gauged, nor just what defined "age appropriateness." In other words, once again we have well-meaning people using extremely subjective criteria to announce a supposedly objective result.
Under the criteria used, pretty much any book, movie, TV show or game with more content than Barbie's Magic Hair Styler can be branded as psychologically ill-suited for kids ages 3 to 17. For example:
The point to all this sarcasm? Just this:
You can't just rate a book, movie, game or TV show on the individual acts within. It matters just as much why something was done and the consequences of the act, as the plain fact that it wasdone. If you don't consider those acts within the context of the story/plot/game/whatever, they mean nothing.
At the end of the movie Old Yeller, for example, the boy shoots his dog, certainly a terrifying act guaranteed to cause fear in many children. But why did he do it? To save his friend and companion from hideous suffering, an act of extreme sacrifice and bravery. Yet the Institute and its political pimps would rate only the act, not the reasons or intention behind it, nor the result of it.
And, I would think, it is exactly these reasons and intentions, and the consequences thereof, we want our children to experience. Sure, applying the why criteria to acts within computer games might result in some that you wouldn't want your kids playing, with or without your supervision; at least that would be an honest evaluation.
And anytime you want your children to experience acts of violence, fear, harmful or illegal behaviors, nudity, sex, and bad language, just have them watch C-Span for a day. Now that's scary.
Post Mortem: A little less fear, thank you
As we now know, Lieberman was chosen the next summer by Al Gore as his running mate in the tawdry mess that ended up being the year 2000 Presidential elections. And as I write this post mortem, I thank God fervently that our Vice President of the US is not a man who has clearly shown he believes attempts at censorship by intimidation is OK with him. The polls also show that his chances of getting elected Prez in 2004 are lower than a used car salesman's morals, for which I am also thankful.
For all I know, Lieberman is a good man who loves his kids and country. His attempts to end-run the 1st Amendment by using his office as a Senator to intimidate media venues into changing content to suit his ideals, however, damn near made me a one-issue voter in 2000. The man is highly educated, a graduate of both Yale College and Yale Law School; I can't believe he doesn't know the difference between the depiction or description of a violent or sexual act and understanding such a depiction in context. He also must surely understand that the Supreme Court would never stand for laws that attempt to circumvent the 1st Amendment, hence the Senatorial cajoling.' That makes his efforts to use his office to browbeat media (using the hideously cynical "for the kids" rallying cry) a ploy for re-election votes, pure and simple, something that scares me even more than someone who is sincere about the issue. Unfortunately, such emotional rallying cries in the face of everyone else's rights often work with voters with big hearts and soft heads.
I also found it tiresomely typical that he and Gore both used the September 2000 FTC report on violence and marketing to cadge over $10 million in campaign donations at fund-raisers in Hollywood less than two weeks later, after which the whole violence and media issue dropped off the Democratic Party radar faster than an airliner with four dead engines.
I'm frequently asked about this issue and whether I believe it will be an issue in Congress between now and 2004. My reply is that I believe it will, as long as certain Senators and Representatives believe there is at least one more campaign contribution dime to be squeezed from Hollywood and other entertainment media moguls. At that point, the issue will disappear into voluntary standards' until they politicians need reelection money again.
Yes, that is a jaded and cynical outlook; it is also based on recent US political history, which never fails to amaze one in its unending search for campaign funds.