Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008
Ryan Smith takes a look at the sudden onset of political ads in video games.
Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.

Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.


Barack Obama has often lectured kids and their parents to “put the video games away” on the campaign trail, but if people insist on playing the stupid things, they might as well vote for him. That’s the message many are getting from the news that the Democratic presidential candidate has taken out ads in 18 games for the Xbox 360 that will feature on virtual billboards and other in-game signage. The games include EA titles like Burnout Paradise, Madden 09, NHL 09, Skate, NFL on Tour, Nascar 09 and Need for Speed Carbon. Of course, the ads will only be seen by gamers in the all-important swing states playing online (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin).


Evidently, both the Obama and McCain camps were approached by online advertising company Massive, but McCain’s campaign passed on the opportunity to put his message out into the virtual world—perhaps wisely considering the huge advantage Obama has in the 18 to 34-year-old demographic (though perhaps McCain maybe should have at least considered ads in a Republican-friendly NASCAR game). According to a poll of 100,000 Xbox Live users that asked gamers to select their nominee for president, 43 percent chose Obama, 31 percent went McCain and the rest were undecided or for a third-party candidate.


So maybe it’s not a bad move for Obama to ask Xbox Live users to hold off on another game of Madden long enough to get off their couch and vote for him—he certainly has the money to spare.


Image courtesy of destructoid.com.

Image courtesy of destructoid.com.


This does however beg the question of whether this convergence of politics and games is a good thing. Some gamers say they don’t like the idea of these types of real world invasions into their fantasy realms. But in reality, advertisements have been creeping into games for years now (anyone remember Marlboro ads in Sega racing games in the 80’s?). Does it really matter if it’s a giant corporation trying to sell us a product or a presidential candidate trying to grab our vote? An ad is an ad.


Also, I think an in-game billboard with Barack Obama telling you to vote seen while you’re speeding down a highway in Burnout is pretty inoffensive. If, however, Master Chief’s face got replaced by Obama’s when you turned on Halo 3—well, that’s a different story.


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Monday, Oct 27, 2008
L.B. presents the argument for having more provocative and interesting settings for video games.

Part of the inherent struggle for games to be taken seriously stems from the fact that they often don’t discuss anything serious themselves. Much of Call of Duty 4’s success comes from the fact that the topics it discusses are all relevant today: terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and modern warfare. These are all images and themes that are important to people today, as opposed to escapist fantasy or glorification of wars that ended long ago. Even going all the way back to Missile Command, which invoked the fears of the Cold War and Russia, the idea of making a relevant video game was being explored. People experience a much more profound connection with a game whose subject matter represents something that could spill over into the real world. What places and topics could games go into, particularly given their current FPS trigger happy state, that would be relevant and topical?


Let’s not beat around the bush, I’m talking about using violent video games to raise awareness of horrible real-life situations. So let’s start with the most popular genre: shooters. One of the tricky necessities of an FPS or basic action game is that you need a situation that involves a lot of combatants. Borrowing from action movies for a moment, what about Myanmar? Rambo 4 takes place in this country and also features the highest body count for the entire series by depicting over 260 people being shot or maimed. The radical oppression of the Karen people by the military is certainly a topic that can be addressed in a variety of ways. Indeed, outside of basic principles against violence, few seemed bothered by Rambo using a .50 caliber assault cannon to mow down dozens of soldiers. We’re not looking for an enemy that’s morally justifiable to shoot, we’re looking for one that’s morally repugnant to defend. At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about. The Croatian War would be another interesting subject and indeed many games have begun to take place in Yugoslavia-like countries without making specific reference. Stepping away from the tasteless goal of simply finding excuses to shoot people for a moment, keep in mind that the game design could also involve more humane activities. A game set in Rwanda could be about saving refugees, a game set in Mogadishu could be about acting as a peacekeeper.


 


Yet setting a videogame in a modern setting is still going to raise the issue of tastelessness. Proper writing, mature mission themes, and engaging in conduct that isn’t wanton destruction are all going to be necessary. If you’re going to talk about mature topics, you have to handle them maturely and hope that resonates with the audience. Another issue raised is simply why bother at all? Why set a video game in a modern global conflict or historical moment that could be a blatant glorification of violence in some atrocious setting? Because raising awareness alone is a laudable goal. Going back to Rambo 4 for a moment, the movie managed to accomplish several amazing things despite its incredible violence. It raised awareness of the Myanmar situation so that aid and care were given to an otherwise ignored problem. Karen rebels received an incredible morale boost from the film and even use one of the quotes as a battle cry. A less action-based example, Hotel Rwanda came out ten years after the event but its success forced people to learn about an atrocity that was otherwise ignored. How many teens, how many potential activists, could be informed and contacted by playing a video game about an event? No matter what they’re doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions. Yes, there is potential for abuse here, but there is also great potential for good.


 


As always with the indie world, many games have begun to do this with varying results. Super Columbine Massacre RPG handles its subject matter in a very interesting way: it works like a documentary. The first half of the game is just a recreation of those events using actual documents and recordings from the tragedy. It’s disturbing yet it gives you an intense window into the events that whether or not welcome, is definitely insightful. The second half breaks from this and becomes problematic as the two characters fight through zombies in Hell…which is either very clever if you look at from a Divine Comedy perspective or just offensively celebratory. The United Nations have created a flash game about being a refugee fleeing a repressive country and trying to gain citizenship in a new one. It’s fairly basic and mostly dialog, but it’s also very informative and even provides links to other sites for those interested by what they see. Nor do these games even need to involve violence or conflict, I’m just conforming to the popular genres. Countless games explore things such as teaching people how electricity is distributed in a city, economic simulators, or basic philosophy. A great place to find them, along with countless other indie titles, is at Play This Thing!.


There are just so many topics video games could go into. Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change. Why not set a Grand Theft Auto-style game set in New Orleans during Katrina? Players could see the city before and after the hurricane, learn about the FEMA response, and be more politically aware of circumstances when such an event happens again. There is already a flash game on the topic. Perhaps even more compellingly, they may be inspired to go to a disaster zone and volunteer themselves. A child with ADHD who can scarcely pay attention for thirty minutes could learn a great deal about Katrina in 8 hours of game time. There will always be the protests and complaints from the media, whether to jump on the bandwagon of blaming society’s problems on video games or bemoan people profiting off the suffering of others. I would heartily recommend any game about a disaster be willing to donate a significant amount of the proceeds to aiding the cause it represents. Publishers and developers interested in creating such a game will have to be motivated by the hope of improving their public image and the image of video games themselves when creating such a title. Which was, after all, the point in the first place.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Oct 26, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-10-27...

I have to admit, there aren’t all that many weeks that I can say this, but this week simply belongs to the PlayStation 3.  By my count, there are two possible contenders for Game of the Year, one new edition of a casual success story, and a sequel to one of the most well-received of the PS3’s launch titles.


I can’t help but start with Fallout 3, which will of course also be appearing on the Xbox 360 and PC this week.  I simply cannot remember when the anticipation for an RPG of any sort was as high as it is for Fallout 3.  Perhaps this is a lesson in how withholding a sequel can heighten the anticipation for it.  Specifically, we haven’t seen a new Fallout game since 1998, and the first two games in the series are held in such high regard that it will be nigh-impossible for the third to even approach the expectations that have been set for it.  That said, the thing looks incredible—the sheer amount of detail in the environments has to be seen to be believed, and who doesn’t like Vault Boy?


The other one, the game that’s kept me on YouTube for hours on end looking for any footage that I haven’t yet seen, is Little Big Planet.  Sackboy is destined to be an icon.  It’s a brilliant step of marketing to make what may be the most recognizable character on the most high tech of the platforms a low-tech, burlap…thing called Sackboy.  This is like the presidential candidate with nine houses across the United States convincing a good portion of the American population that he’s one of us!  This is the sort of bold move that could fix the PS3’s image, the one that says that it’s a system that we want; it’s not an overloaded behemoth two or three years away from a true public embrace, it’s the only system taking advantage of the here and now.  Or, maybe I’m just putting too much stock in a simple, charming platformer.  Regardless, this may be the game that finally convinces me to drop the cash for a PS3.


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f course, the new SingStar game and the new MotorStorm game (gosh, Sony certainly enjoys capital letters in the middle of their words, don’t they?) are going to get run over by those big ticket items, but there’s plenty going for both.


Elsewhere?  The PC has Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, which continues the long-running strategy franchise with some big names adding cinema-style pizzazz.  The DS has a little something coming out called Ninjatown that looks like it has no shortage in quirky, fun style.  And those who like to download (and who doesn’t?) get the second edition of the Penny Arcade RPG this week as well.


What are you playing this week?  Are you going to have to pull yourself away from Fallout to play SingStar?  Are you going to have to pull yourself away from The Wonder Pets! to play Go, Diego, Go!?  Let us know, and enjoy your Halloween!


(p.s…there’s a whole list of releases and a trailer for Fallout 3 after the jump!)


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 22, 2008
A Flash game that educates the user about New Orleans while providing a decent platforming experience.

It’s something of a personal fantasy (and subject of a blog post meant to be posted in 2 weeks) to begin pushing video games into relevancy by having them discuss topics besides escapist fantasy. Different games have struggled with this in different ways. My now excessive knowledge about World War 2 aside, most games opt to attain relevancy by discussing emotion or philosophical debate. Braid’s sense of the futility of pursuing goals, Planescape: Torment’s questions about human nature and how our conduct reflects it. Or, as the Global Kids Media Initiative has done, you can just set the game someplace important. Like New Orleans, the day after Katrina hit.


It’s always interesting to play an educational or informative game because you immediately recognize that their goal is not necessarily having fun. Instead, it’s fun with a side of vegetables. Video games, by their nature, are more engaging than watching a film or reading a book. I actively absorb information given because there is a chance it’s relevant to play. I pay attention to what’s going on because something dangerous might hurt me. Whereas a game solely about fun or accomplishment will fine-tune that into generating a sense of reward by delivering chunks of plot or quaint jingles, an educational game is instead using all of these elements while slipping in bits of information about a topic. You learn inadvertently as you progress, although there have not been too many games that delivered a true melding of these goals.


In that regard Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City succeeds with a good mixture of dialogue in a standard platforming game. Certain people that you speak to will give a mission of delivering bottled water or first aid. Others will relate a true amazing story about the aftermath of the storm, such as Jabar Gibson’s hijacking of a school bus and shuttling survivors out of the city before F.E.M.A. arrived. Your character is a survivor herself, re-experiencing the storm through a dream as she rushes around saving the people she wishes she’d helped during the actual events. Each level is set to a timer that is gauged by the setting sun, which creates a real sense of conflict as you realize that you can only help so many people per level. Some survivors must be abandoned in order to help yourself. And as you progress to each level, the broken levies take their toll and the waters slowly rise. The final person you rescue, your mother, is revealed to have passed in the storm at the very beginning of the game. It’s a clever analogy for drawing in people who were not personally involved in Katrina themselves: our dreams of helping the survivors during the disaster carries on into today. The website provides more information and suggestions on what other can do to help after you finish the game. It takes about fifteen minutes to play through and will leave you knowing more about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina than before you started playing.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Oct 21, 2008
A Dramatization of the Console War of 2008.


It was only a matter of time before I took a stab at the console wars with a satire. The trick with the console wars is that it’s a bit like making fun of narcissism in Baby Boomers. The target audience inherently does not find the topic funny. Yet one of the quirkiest aspects of the console wars is how much only gamers care about it. In several surveys with Baby Boomers on video games, many did not even understand why there was a difference between consoles. Why can’t you just stick one game disc into any particular machine? It’s not like a DVD player? Which made me wonder about how to best explain the differences between the machines and their quirks. What would be the best satire of the 7th generation of consoles that a broad audience could follow? So…uh…I wrote down the script to an episode of ‘Golden Girls’ and replaced all the key words with video game terms.


 


DS knocks and Wii answers the door. DS is holding a little cartridge,


DS: Momma, I just got a new release and I need you to babysit Call of Duty 4 for me.


 


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