May 5, 2006

Two talks at GDX

by Michael Mateas · , 4:57 pm

This morning I went to GDX, a one day game symposium hosted by the Atlanta branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design. I caught a keynote lecture by Noah Falstein on serious games and a talk by Brenda Brathwaite on censorship challenges to games. Here are my relatively unedited notes from those talks.

Noah Falstein

Opens by saying “serious games” is a bad name. Implies that all other games are trivial or frivolous and that serious game aren’t fun. His interest is games beyond entertainment.

Why do we play? “Because it’s fun” just begs the question. Our urge to play comes from evolutionary roots, practice survival skills – “fun” is the emotional response to mastery of skills (Crawford). A number of designers, including more recently Chris Crawford and Raph Koster, have made this argument. Most popular entertainment is about hunter/gatherer skills (almost all games) and social interaction (MMO). “As human beings, much like our friends the dogs, we’re all about social spaces.”

“It is misleading to suppose there is any difference between entertainment and education.” – Marshall McLuhan

Middle-ware and mods make high-quality experiences cheaper to produce. Mentions recent work involving half-life 2 modding for treatment of phobias. People have been doing this with expensive vr setups for awhile.

Gave a number of examples of serious games, mostly the usual suspects:

Future applications:

Some possibilities:

Brenda Brathwaite

Censorship in videogames.

12% of games are M rated.
Less than 1% of games are AO rated.

Explosive growth in download of Hot Coffee downloads after media warnings.

Current legislation attempts are not using ESRB terminology, but are based on obscenity law which depends on community standards. So game developers either have to make 1000 different builds or descend to the lowest common denominator.

Attempts to do end-runs around first amendment protection:
California bill 1792 is trying to define video games as a harmful substance

Illinois House Bill 2414 defines games contraband. Here is the list of contraband as defined by the bill:
Alcoholic liquor
Cannabis
Controlled substances
Hypodermic syringes
A weapon
A firearm or ammunition
Explosives
Video games

Alabama House Bill 573
Trying to turn video game outlets into porn shops.

Banning individual titles
Australia
NYC, DC – has tried banning individual titles
Germany (ban on all violence in video games )
Greece (all games – has been corrected)
Afghanistan (all games, Taliban)

You can’t generalize the work of an entire industry from a few games that are talked about over and over.

Video games are a risk factor for an MIT education. Henry Jenkins did a survey of incoming MIT freshman – 100% of them had played games.

Games are not alone. The comics code, the Hayes Code of the 1930 (films).

All new media is dangerous. Printing press, film, television, comic books, VCR, internet, video games. The sex and violence is the same. The furor over depictions of sex and violence in games will die down as soon as the next representational technology comes along.

All parties (ESRB, retailers, parents, politicians) want to keep adult content away from kids, but no one is really taking ownership of this.

Parents assume games are for kids or “it’s just a game.”
Problems:
Lack of knowledge, apathy, 92% of all game purchases are made by adults.
Positive side effect of Hot Coffee – woke a bunch of parents up.

Politicians:
Assumptions: the industry is out of control, ratings aren’t working, not clearly marked, developers are a problem
Problems: Two developers were a problem (Oblivion recently rerated to M), poor knowledge of industry and games in general.

ESRB
Assumptions: our system is the best system (they need to engage in the same iterative design of the ESRB system that game designers do of their games), the industry supports us, we have done enough
Problems: defensiveness, lack of generational knowledge, lack of teeth, ambiguity of ratings

Retailers
Assumptions: Profits!
Problems: quotas (EB has a 53% quota on used games – they want 53% of the games they sell to be used – so people who buy used games are rarely carded), apathy, lack of training, recently instituted carding program

Industry
Assumptions: can’t fit “assumptions” into crunch-time schedule, first amendment will protect us
Problems: Apathy, hot coffee, hostile “outreach” to politicians

Option #1: Tone down violent and sexual content (but many great movies couldn’t have been made without sex and violence)
Option #2: Make laws that prevent kids from buying M-rated video games (but will end up with a crazy patchwork system based on community standards)
Option #3: Mandatory carding program
Option #4: Federal regulations to replace ESRB (too top-down)
Option #5: Put some muscle in the ESRB, play games before release (currently say they can’t because at the time a game seeks a rating the build is so buggy it’s unplayable),
Option #6: Educate parents
Option #7: Practice “safe sex” and declare all firearms (games should actually declare their content, to avoid Hot Coffee-like situations)
Option #8: Develop consistent rating benchmarks in the ESRB

A proposed solution:
Let’s start working together. We all want the same thing.
Use ESRB system with full disclosure.
Demand stepped up efforts at point of sale. Use political pressure.
Educate politicians.
Educate parents and demand they step up to the plate, too.