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by L.B. Jeffries

14 Jul 2008

One of the biggest transitions occurring with gamers is the wide diversity of people playing video games today. A recent speech and blog post by David Hayward outlines the huge variety of gamers and personalities now playing. Architects, undergrads, casual gamers, women, and men are all active participants with a huge diversity of games to play. He cites a statistic claiming that 40% of the U.K. now plays video games, beating out soccer and cinema respectively. The people he references as gamers are all employed, sociable, and far from the negative stereotypes video games still sometimes hold. They’re also all in their 20s and 30s. From a cultural point of view, that’s awesome. From an economic point of view, that’s troubling. The issue is not what can we do to get more people playing games, it’s what can we do to get people with money playing games.

I don’t have the statistics of wealth distribution but it’s a safe assumption that the average young person starting their career (and maybe raising a family) does not have a lot of disposable income. It just takes time to get a steady job, pay for a family, pay off the mortgage, have free time, and start to have excess money. So although having a young consumer base creates a great image and culture, their capacity to spend lots of money on the hobby is somewhat limited. Enter the Baby Boomers. Unlike their children, this demographic generally has a decent amount of disposable income, lots of free time, and are up for spending those things on a hobby. This isn’t a very original observation either; if you’ve noticed the glut of film remakes and the general packaging of nostalgia in other consumer mediums, then you can see what I’m talking about. The movie industry long ago noticed that the ones with cash are the ones you make movies for, and have responded in kind. There are 78 million Baby Boomers out there and only 19% play video games. That’s a lot of untapped potential. The question now is…what kind of video games do Baby Boomers want to play?

Chris Miller at CNNMoney asked this same question in 2006 and outlined what games have made progress so far. Brain Age seems to strike a chord, Civilization IV works, and one grandma claimed that GTA was the only game out that really appealed to her. In other words, like Hayward’s examples of young gamers in the other article, it’s all over the map. There isn’t one game that will appeal to an entire demographic, but there may be one thing that’s drawing them to these various games. One of the more curious details in Miller’s piece is that one of the older gamers got into the hobby by participating in her son’s gaming website. It was a way for them to bond. Many other Baby Boomers made the same observation and have used video games to relate with their kids or grandkids. Lou Kesten with the AP wrote an article outlining the terse relationship parents have with this connection, noting that 43% of parents refuse to play games with their kids. The chief complaints are the lack of outdoor sports time or benefit to playing games as a hobby. There is a certain cultural barrier present here but it’s unlikely that this is actually based on the simple argument that games are a waste of time. We live in a society where a basketball player is paid more than an EMT, so people are certainly capable of assigning value to sport and play. The issue with these parents, many of whom are in their fifties and about to have the same financial status as Baby Boomers, is getting them to find value in time spent gaming. Having it be a way to bond with their kids could be the way to create that.

After putting together the basics for this gargoyle of a piece, I decided to take a novel approach to the question: I asked my Dad what kind of video game he wanted to play. He responded with the very helpful, “I don’t know.” So the next time I was in town I broke out the Wii and sampled as many games as I could with him. An avid guitar player, my first guess was Guitar Hero. He was excited about trying the game but after bombing a few levels he complained that it was too different from the real thing. Wii Sports went over well and we had a good game of golf together. Zelda never perked his interest, and I decided to avoid No More Heroes. The goal was to find a game that he would play on his own, not just with me, but nothing seemed to really click. The only time I can ever remember him taking an interest when I was a kid was when he saw me playing Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. He helped me figure out some of the trickier puzzles and after I beat the game he had me show him the ending. After trying out the Wii he did ask if there was anything like that available and I had to tell him no.

Many developers have already started experimenting with family-based video game concepts. The Lego games do a good job of creating a fun children’s game that gives adults something to engage as well. Many of the puzzles incorporate co-op with the specific goal of having the family work together while playing. But is there a way to get them to play video games like the younger generation does? To see them as a fitting distraction to do alone like you do with T.V. or movies? Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer notes the extreme lack of fathers or parental relationships in games, suggesting a game narrative that deals with these issues head-on. Epic fantasy may be fun for some but perhaps other topics may need to be explored to appeal to this audience. Playing time duration is also different for older gamers, who tend to just play in brief bursts, as exemplified by Sudoku or the Brain Age games. What’s key to all these different examples is that they are based on a different value system than the games we, the younger generation, tend to play. Making a game for a Baby Boomer needs to provide different sensations and values than a game focused on graphics, challenge, or complex systems.

Gamasutra did an excellent piece sampling a series of older gamers and discovered a variety of interesting quirks to entice play: bigger text, shorter play sessions, and proper manuals to explain the games were all major complaints. You also have to explain a lot of alien gaming concepts that most people take for granted. Crossing the generation gap won’t be easy when there are so many new ideas for the audience to ingest, but perhaps just a little encouragement to try is all that’s necessary. As the article notes, just getting them used to video games is really the best approach. After the gaming marathon with my folks I’d given up on ever getting them into playing games the way I play them. But my Dad called me the other day to tell me that he had finally found a video game that he liked. It had to do with guitars and he told me to check it out. It’s essentially a 3-D guitar player that you can zoom in and around that has very detailed finger movements. It looks like something out of Unreal. He uses it to teach himself guitar licks and loves being able to observe the complex finger work. There’s no interaction outside of the camera and I don’t think many people would even call it a video game. But I’ve got to admit, it’s a start.

by Nikki Tranter

14 Jul 2008

Got a spare 30 minutes? Head over to the Mail Online for the most delicious read of the week: a long excerpt from Christopher Ciccone’s Life with My Sister Madonna. Just make sure those 30 minutes really are spare, because once you start, you won’t stop. This is first-class juice. And not the sort of Andrew Morton, third-party, he’s-full-of-crap juice. This is horses mouth stuff! It’s like Rupert Everett’s book all over again. Sure, it’s slanted, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so damned enthralling.

Chris on Guy Ritchie:

Guy’s pride in his own heterosexuality swells noticeably when he’s in the presence of a gay man like me. And in his wedding week, with these after-dinner toasts seemingly aimed at underscoring his overt masculinity, he is in his element. I, however, am far from amused when many of the speeches trumpeting Guy’s heterosexuality include the word ‘poofter’, a derogatory British expression for gay.

Chris on the Madonna Mythology:

She is a middle-class girl who propagates the story that she landed in Times Square with just a pair of ballet shoes and $35 to her name. But that’s pure mythology and the further she progresses, the more mythological her life story becomes ... Far from being this lost and friendless little waif who didn’t even have a crust of dry bread to eat, when Madonna went to New York she had money in her pocket, plenty of contacts and a support system all in place.

Chris on “Mrs. Ritchie”:

In August 2002, Madonna invites me to her birthday party at Roxbury. The invitation is from ‘Mrs Ritchie’. When she was married to Sean, she never called herself Mrs Penn. Now she has relinquished practically the most famous name in the universe—just to make Guy feel better about himself.

So, you can see, he’s not pulling any punches. He doesn’t so much out his sister as a vicious bitch, but more a confused woman who’s spent so much time trying to remain relevant through so-called re-invention that she might not really know who she is. Ciccone appears to want to let us in on just how a tough-talking all-American chick from Detroit who represented individuality and personal freedom became an English castle dweller with fancy cutlery and a bigoted husband. This is the “great tale” he has to tell, Ciccone told Good Morning America. It’s not about revenge, he reckons, but revelation.

ABC Online also has a story up about Ciccone’s book. In it a family therapist is consulted to help us understand where Ciccone is coming from with his unflattering stories. The bottom line? Envy, as if we didn’t know. Marshall is quoted: “If [Ciccone] was on the Madonna gravy train and she cut him off, he could feel like he’s going to get his no matter what, one way or the other ... When people operate at primitive levels and get their feelings hurt or nose out of joint, they always want the other person to pay for making them feel neglected or like a failure.”

Either way, it is a great story. It’s all perception, though, and until Madonna has a go at her own book, it’s the best we’ve got. I wonder, though, if Madonna’s not secretly thrilled about the book, considering I haven’t cared about anything she’s done since “Cherish” and here I am reading about her, blogging about her, pondering her life choices. She’s relevant again and she hasn’t lifted a finger!

 

 

 

by Rob Horning

14 Jul 2008

Okay, that entry title makes no sense for a post about the impending Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae bailout, but I just wanted to make a pun referencing the funniest movie of the 1990s.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are in the business of guaranteeing residential mortgages, and not an inconsiderable amount of them—more than half, as economist Jared Bernstein notes here. Freddie and Fannie masquerade as independent companies, but investors have always assumed that they are really government agencies and therefore can never go broke. If a spate of mortgages they had guaranteed went bad, taxpayer money would simply be requisitioned to allow the firms to continue operating, since they clearly don’t have the capital on hand to deal with any significant problems. The wisdom of that assumption is now being put to the test, as Fannie and Freddie are spirialing into oblivion.

As mortgages became more and more subprime, they chose to keep up their market share, as Tanta at Calculated Risk details in this comprehensive post. Because of restrictions in their charters, they managed to avoid the worst of the housing bubble’s excesses, but, as Tanta argues, they therefore missed the opportunity to use their clout to impose some discipline on the subprime business, and instead it remained the wild west of financing, a place full of dupes, dishonest brokers, and fat profits to reap—as long as housing prices continued rising. That didn’t happen, as many housing bubble skeptics including Dean Baker and Nouriel Roubini had predicted at the time. To ease problems the credit crunch brought to the private-lending market, legislators pushed to expand Fannie and Freddie’s operations, a idea that investors are now seeming to recognize is a pretty bad one, likely to make their loan portfolios—already threatened by sinking home prices everywhere—become even worse.

With the companies’  insolvency looming, the government has to do something (without them, buying and selling houses in America could become well nigh impossible), but the Republicans in charge are loath to admit the necessity of nationalizing them, nor are they eager to stick it to Wall Street by letting all of Fannie and Freddie’s investors burn. So Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, confronted by a kind of ideological zugzwang, tried to gain a tempo by making an ambiguous speech (admirably parsed here by Felix Salmon). And that’s where things stand currently.

At the FT site, Willem Buiter has the best explanation of what’s wrong with all of this: it’s “dishonest socialism”:

There are many forms of socialism. The version practiced in the US is the most deceitful one I know. An honest, courageous socialist government would say: this is a worthwhile social purpose (financing home ownership, helping my friends on Wall Street); therefore I am going to subsidize it; and here are the additional taxes (or cuts in other public spending) to finance it.
Instead the dishonest, spineless socialist policy makers in successive Democratic and Republican administrations have systematically tried to hide both the subsidies and size and distribution of the incremental fiscal burden associated with the provision of these subsidies, behind an endless array of opaque arrangements and institutions. Off-balance-sheet vehicles and off-budget financing were the bread and butter of the US federal government long before they became popular in Wall Street and the City of London.
The abuse of the Fed as a quasi-fiscal agent of the federal government in the rescue of Bear Stearns is without precedent, and quite possibly without legal justification. The creation of the Delaware SPV that houses $30 billion worth of the most toxic waste from the Bear Stearns balance sheet (with only $1 billion of JP Morgan money standing between the tax payer and the likely losses on the $29 billion committed by the Fed to fund the SPV on a non-recourse basis) is the clearest example of quasi-fiscal obfuscation I have come across in an advanced industrial country. The decision by the Fed to ‘invite’ the primary dealers and their clearers to collude in the (over) pricing of illiquid collateral offered by the primary dealers to the Fed at the newly created TSLF and PDCF (by the Fed accepting the pricing/valuation by the clearers of the illiquid collateral) is another example of the abuse of the Fed as a vehicle for channeling taxpayer-financed subsidies to the primary dealers. This form of socialism for the rich is therefore well-established.

This is how oligarchs prefer the economy to operate: Privatize the gains, socialize the risk. And it seems to me that the obfuscation brought on by the sacredness attributed to homeownership—that anything is excusable as long as it helps “families” experience the indelible blessing of owning property—is what enables it.

 

by Mike Schiller

14 Jul 2008

Welcome to E3 Week, people!  Since nobody on our illustrious staff is actually going to E3, you’d probably be better off going to one of those other gaming sites if it’s comprehensive E3 news coverage that you’re looking for.  Otherwise, you can count on us to make occasional remarks on the big news stories and keep reviewing games.  You know, kind of like we always do.

McFadden is good and all, but he's no James Starks.

McFadden is good and all, but he’s
no James Starks.

I can’t imagine that most publishers think to themselves, “you know when a good time would be to release a game?  E3 week.  Nobody could possibly get too distracted by the overload of gaming news to forget about Big Release X, could they?”  Of course they could.  As such, there’s very little motivation to put out big releases this week, since the attention is bound to be diverted to other things.

Given the light and decidedly unimpressive list of releases this week, then, there’s only one thing that really sticks out as something I’d particularly like to play: NCAA Football 09.  Can EA put enough improvements into their yearly college football game to warrant yet another purchase?  ‘Tis the eternal question!  It is true, though, that I tend to welcome excuses to try and take my alma mater’s football program (University at Buffalo, and yes, they have a football team.  Kind of.) to a bowl game, since I’m relatively sure such an occurrence will never happen in the real world in my lifetime.  Um, Let’s go Buf-fa-lo!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

OMG! INVIZABUL RAIFL!

Up and around the rest of the release list, Southpeak’s Mister Slime actually has nothing to do with the Dragon Quest series (unfortunately!) but it still looks like a fun little puzzle game, and Her Interactive moves their Nancy Drew series to the Nintendo DS, where it seems like it would be a perfect fit for its female adolescent target audience.  We Love Golf! is, for obvious reasons, a perfect fit for the Wii, and there’s a PlayStation 2 exclusive (I had no idea those still existed!) called B-Boy, which is You Got Served!-style breakdancing action.  Given that my 4-year-old fancies himself a breakdancer of late, I may just end up with that.

The full list of releases, along with a trailer for NCAA Football 09, is after the jump.  Happy E3 week, everyone!  Try

not

to hit information overload!

by Timothy Gabriele

14 Jul 2008

“I think it’s an exciting time,” Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh recently told the LA Weekly. “I’m glad I got to be here to watch the record companies disappear.” I admit there’s a certain idealistic thrill at watching those quixotic majors slash and tumble on their way down after creating so many years of misery for their talent and their consumers. I don’t have to explain what they’ve done to deserve such bittersweet schadenfreude at this point. We’ve all read the Albini essay. The heads of music are like all those Bush appointees who spent their entire lives preaching against the superfluousness of the department they’ve now been selected to run. They don’t like music, musicians, or music fans. Just taking a huge margin off the top.

Of course it’s shameful, looking at the industry as a whole like a crumbling morass of cynical greed and perpetual ineptitude. It’s more like the toppling of the Saddam statue, being that those who will really suffer for these sins will be the low cats on the totem poll. All the executives sleeping in their beds full of dirty money will be just fine. They’ll make their mortgage payments and keep their swimming pools. For the rest of them, it’s back to Tower Records… er, Sam Goody… er, Wal-Mart? 

Still, even for an industry that took so many consistent wrong turns, the mainstream music empire has to be the most deeply out-of-touch monolith to ever sustain itself since the fall of Rome. Way back when people were still buying CDs, the record companies dealt with their wealth by raising wholesale and list prices, as documented by Bill Wyman here. The gratuitous litigation complex alone could probably snip a dollar or two off the list price of every disc. But as Wyman shows in a more recent post, we’re still having the conversation about pricing years later as physical music gets trampled by digital media in the pricing wars.

Nevermind that there are boatloads of music fans who don’t even get their music this way. If the record industry is going to throw all its efforts behind the traditionalist market like it’s still 1994, they might as well do it right. Half of all music sales are made at Wal-Mart not because they understand or even give a shit about music. It’s because they offer music at market values that may actually be worth the product they’re getting. Speaking strictly in terms of material value, a consumer “gets” far more out of a DVD or a video game than a CD, yet they’re paying essentially the same price for each medium’s back stock.

Even after displaying utter contempt for their consumers by suing and taxing their enthusiasm for the product, you’d think the record companies, radio, and/or print media might actually take time to find out who their buying audience is. With most big media divesting massive energy into public relations and individualized target marketing, the music industry has consistently tried to treat the lot of its consumer base as if they were a herd of sheep, limiting their options, doling out ubiquitous product, disengaging with technology or innovation, spewing disposable waste, and recycling faded heroes. Mainstream music hasn’t even been able to manufacture a lasting movement with a significant cultural impact since Alternative and Gangsta Rap, with the possible exception of American Idol. This has to be due in part to the fact that the industry buying and selling all this music doesn’t have a fucking clue who’s listening to it.

Theirs is a culture pre-branded with rebellion and individualism, one that thrives on, right or wrong, the listener being the center of the universe. It’d be common courtesy to try to find out what their wants and needs are. Yet the music industry consistently tries to manufacture these desires, not realizing how fragmented and polarized its audience really is. Not only do different listeners have highly specialized aesthetic tastes, but their preferences for how they experience, consume, interpret, and utilize music are as disparate as all those different listening subcultures.

Corresponding with music business’s mighty fall comes an era when its product is at its most omnipresent. You literally can not escape it. Popular music has seeped into every crevice of social and particularly consumer life. It’s coming out of speakers in cars, at work, in stores, in waiting rooms, on airplane headsets, in restaurants, and on alarm clocks easing us back into consciousness. It’s inundated behind television programming, advertisements, films, and video games. It shouts at you as you click on a website or a MySpace profile. It harasses you when you’re trying to ignore it. It intimidates you when you’re parked next to it. It finds you when you’re trying to ignore it. The government even uses it as a torture device, a kind of mass culture bomb to deafen, disarm, and dehumanize ascetic Islamists suspected of terrorism. It provides the soundtrack to the mundane for millions of headphoned wanderers on buses, trains, jogs, workouts, or long car rides. In universities, file sharing is a communal rite, allocated with the same philanthropic spirit of passing a joint. Peer-to-peer network have also increased the average middle-of-nowhere suburban kid’s musical acumen exponentially. I myself owe a great deal of my own musical knowledge to the access gained through my early college years and the ubiquity of Napster, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, and the Massachusetts-specific Flatlan software.

There are hit TV shows about performing songs, dancing to songs, knowing the lyrics to songs, and reminiscing about songs (“I Love The [Insert Decade]‘s”). This is not to mention the ease in which any one and their kid sister can make their own profession-quality songs on a standard grade laptop, post them on the internet, and win an instant fan base. Overall, despite the music industry’s failure and segregating its attentions, there are more people exposed to, interested in, involved with or knowledgeable about music than ever before. The quality of their relationships to the music is largely irrelevant in a market context. The fact is, regardless of what the broadsheets say, people have not given up on music.

In upcoming posts, I will attempt to profile the different types of listeners and how their habits and attitudes fit into the cultural marketplace, from the professional thieves to the perpetually loyal benefactors, in the hopes to convey the multivalence of a broad and increasingly unclassifiable strata of music fans.

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