Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The Newsroom – A Quote for Right Now

Posted: January 17, 2013 in Opinion
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I just finished watching the third episode of The Newsroom, entitled “112th Congress.” Here’s the setup for a quote I’ve found so relevant to this week’s Dead Island Riptide human torso collector’s edition debacle. Sam Waterston’s character, Charlie Skinner, has been called to meet with the network owner, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda). It seems that Jeff Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy, has been making life difficult for management by plainly stating some inconvenient facts about Tea Party candidates.

Charlie:  “Facts are the center.  Facts.  We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them.  Balance is irrelevant to me.  It doesn’t have anything to do with truth, logic or reality.  He didn’t go on the air telling people to give peace a chance, but evolution?  The jury’s back on that one.”

One day, the jury will be back on sexism in the videogame industry once and for all. Until then, if this is “balance,” I don’t want it. There might be another side to the sexism conversation, and if there is one, there must be someone else more eloquent to put the best argument forward. The piece I linked isn’t it.

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I shopped for a gun.

Posted: January 16, 2013 in Opinion
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One of my Twitter followers responded to my piece about the gaming industry and gun violence, letting me know that he thought I was fanatical. While I took steps to balance my emotional response with hard facts, it seems that for some, I didn’t go far enough. I think it’s important to make one thing very clear: I am not opposed to gun ownership. A decade ago, I almost became a gun owner.

My wife and I were living in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 2001 riots. She came home the day after they started and told me that one of her classmates, on his way to soccer practice, had been nearly pulled from his car. He was surrounded by angry, violent protestors, and in an attempt to honor his oath to do no harm, he waited until the last possible moment to accelerate through the throng. My then-fiancee’s route between our apartment and school took her through the same neighborhood.

She grew up around guns and was taught proper safety. We were afraid for her well-being, and we didn’t know how long the violence in our city was going to continue. After a long conversation, we decided to go shopping. Business was booming at the small gun shop where we began (and ended) our search. We looked at a Taurus .38 with a fully enclosed hammer. I remember holding it in my hand, feeling the weight and discussing the pros and cons of purchasing this particular item (after getting the proper permitting, gun safe and trigger lock). We took the necessary paperwork home, and after sleeping on it, decided it wasn’t the right choice for us.

We were afraid, and it wasn’t the right time to buy a gun. We were in the wrong frame of mind. Ultimately, the deciding factor was that we knew we would want to get rid of it when we eventually had children (which didn’t end up being too many years later). Any number of these factors could have gone the other way, though. We could have decided that it was necessary. We may have opted for confidence in a safe and trigger lock. We went back and forth on all of these points, and it was as hard a decision to say “no” as it would have been to bring a firearm into the house.

I do not begrudge law-abiding citizens their firearm ownership. Hunting rifles, handguns and other types of weapons have their place. I object to the idea that high-capacity magazines are necessary. I find it absurd that anyone would object to background checks and stringent regulation of purchases at gun shows and conventions. Yet, the NRA has pushed and shoved against any attempt to even discuss restrictions.

I believe that we need watchdog groups. Our government is built on checks and balances, and non-governmental agencies that exist to help safeguard our freedoms are vital. The NRA is not the organization that should be tasked with protecting the second amendment. Their interests are fueled by funding from the gun manufacturers, and not the letter or spirit of this important passage in the Bill of the Rights. My hope is that the break between membership and the NRA leadership spurs the creation of a new, more centrist advocacy group.

Today, President Obama signed 23 executive orders designed to spur conversation and action on the gun violence epidemic. These include health care concerns, further funding for enforcement of and greater information availability for background checks and a CDC study on the causes of gun violence. These are common sense measures that pull in a broad range of sectors to help combat this problem. It isn’t about “taking away all the guns.” There is no vilification of violent media (though it should and will be studied by the CDC). These first steps are focused on the well-being of our society. This conversation is only just beginning, and it’s about time.

Pity the NRA Leadership

Posted: January 14, 2013 in Opinion
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Over the past month, our country has been trying desperately to comprehend the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. As I sat at my dining room table on the evening of December 14, 2012, my wife and I struggled to explain to our daughter how a man could enter a school and commit such a terrible act. It was, for us, the hardest moment of our healing process.

Perhaps that is why when the NRA pointed the finger everywhere except at themselves, I was outraged. The video game industry has been good to me. It has been the genesis of so many wonderful experiences, the first connection with amazing individuals from across the globe and even one way to bring my family together. How dare they lay the guilt at the doorstep of the entertainment industry while absolving themselves of any responsibility? How could any rational person advocate for more real guns in schools while decrying the fantastical depiction of firearms in adult-oriented media?

Then I realized something important. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and the other members of that group’s leadership simply are not acting rationally. My anger subsided, and it was replaced by something else.

Mr. LaPierre, I pity you. I am sad for you. For all of the guns you and your friends own, you live in perpetual fear. You are so terrified of the populace of the United States deciding to reinstate common sense restrictions on firearms that you cannot even risk a moment of introspection. You quiver, clutching your assault rifle close, because of some imagined specter looming just out of view.

As you waved your arms, demonizing film, video games and even the mentally ill, you created negative space. You colored in the picture so completely that what was left untouched could only draw attention. The prevalence of firearms in our country could have been shaded in just a bit, but you chose to leave a gaping void, with the podium from which you spoke at the center. Were you truly seeking a solution that benefits our society, you would have called for a broad investigation in which nothing was held sacred. As has been your tactic for ages, you positioned this important discussion as a life-and-death decision.

You might be surprised to find that I agree with you, Mr. LaPierre. This is a matter of life and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, 31,347 people in the United States died due to firearms (including 11,493 due to homicide and 18,735 due to suicide). The next highest was India with 6,219 total gun deaths. (Data courtesy of The Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney and GunPolicy.org.)

Click for more information.

Click for more information.

As a comparison, here’s a chart of gun ownership for those same countries. I’d suggest clicking on the image for a better look.

Click for more detail.

Click for more detail.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that there is correlation, if not causation, between the availability of firearms and gun-related deaths. However, it would be silly to consider this an open and shut case. There are lives at stake in this conversation, and we owe it to ourselves to make a full examination of the obsession we have with guns. This includes the film and video game industries rising to the challenge posed by the NRA.

Unfortunately, so many of us are looking at this the wrong way, even in the language we choose when discussing this issue. I’ve heard my peers—intelligent people—say that our hobby is “under fire.” We are “in a battle” with the NRA. The greatest hyperbole is that we are “fighting for our lives.” While much of our medium deals with fantasy violence (and, yes, I include Call of Duty in that), we need not resort to embracing these metaphors. Language matters, and we’re making the wrong choices.

We need not feel threatened by the NRA. Their motives are suspect, and they no longer faithfully represent the average American gun owner. A recent piece in the Washington Post illustrates a deep break between the leadership of that organization and its alleged constituency. The speech given by Wayne LaPierre in response to the tragedy in Newtown was no more than a child lashing out in fear. In this case, it was the stark terror of losing the significant portion of its $200 million annual revenue supplied by gun manufacturers (as indicated by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, on March 21, 2012, less than a month after unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by George Zimmerman).

While it is understandable that the video game industry and pundits, myself included, became defensive, it’s the wrong reaction. Just as with any infant throwing a temper tantrum, we should not stoop to the NRA’s level. We must, however, educate those whom the association hopes to sway with their smear campaign.

A reasoned, thoughtful and respectful education effort is critical. The video game industry and retailers have good mechanisms in place. The ESRB rating system is immensely useful, and an effort to make even more people aware of its existence and how it works is critical. Retailers are enforcing the ESRB ratings, but they can take a greater role in education, especially around the holidays and when it is clear that parents are purchasing M-rated titles for younger children. Ultimately, parents must be given a choice, but an understanding of the options will help. These tools can be improved, and involving a diverse range of consumers in the conversation will be invaluable.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that we need to be open to conversation. Our communication must come from a place of confidence. We have the research to back up our statements about a disconnect between video games and real violence. We have intelligent people able to have calm discussions. We need not be afraid.

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Yarrrrr, here there be spoilers.


The week before Far Cry 3 arrived, I took to Twitter and typed something puerile to the effect of, “Far Cry 3 is dumb, and I don’t care about it, so nanny nanny boo boo.”

OK. Maybe it wasn’t phrased quite so eloquently, but you get the idea.

I enjoy shooters, but at the end of a busy fall filled with high-profile games, I had no idea why I should care about what Ubisoft was dishing out. Nothing that I had seen during the many press events in 2012 justified the amount of marketing dollars spent (including hair styling stations giving fans mohawks in the style of the game’s poster character).

The total knowledge I had of the game at that point can be summed up in three bullet points:

  • I have never played Far Cry 2, but people I trust tell me that I would get more enjoyment from chewing on glass.
  • I saw the trailer with the “Insanity mohawk guy” (now known to be villainous henchman Vaas) and wasn’t terribly impressed.
  • I played the multiplayer at E3, and I had a good time, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a Left 4 Dead clone. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. It just wasn’t a huge selling point.

Against my better judgment, I was convinced (by the same people who explained to me the Far Cry 2 / glass paradigm) to rush out and pick up Ubisoft’s oddly timed open world jungle adventure. (Have I mentioned that I still can’t figure out why this game was pushed past Black Friday and out of the prime sales window?) I got home, put the kids to bed and sat down to… what the actual f&*k is this?

I have to hand it to Ubisoft. I have never been more turned off by a game’s opening cinematic than I was by Far Cry 3’s. (Keep in mind that I’ve recently played Resident Evil: Director’s Cut for the first time.) Imagine the young “stars” of one of Bravo’s nauseating socialite reality shows on an extreme sports vacation, defiling an island paradise. Toss in some expensive booze, drugs and casual sex. (Wait, that’s redundant.) If you haven’t vomited in your mouth yet, you have a stronger stomach than I. The only thing running through my mind was that I hoped to god that I didn’t have to actually interact with those spoiled trust fund kids.

Oh. I have to play as one of those lovely one-percenters. Goody.

Things started looking up quickly. It’s not uncommon for a villain to steal the show, but pirate leader Vaas (masterfully acted by Michael Mando, who also provided his likeness) is a true psychopath. Vulgarity isn’t an anomaly in M-rated video games, but it rarely serves a purpose. With Vaas, the language is in service of his psychopathy. His mood swings are unpredictable, and I found myself jumping just a bit when he unexpectedly, and suddenly, erupted.

Once I was in control of my character, I started to experience diametrically opposed emotions. I was thrilled by the escape from Vaas and his pirates, but put off by Jason’s simpering and whining. (Not that my reaction in a similar situation would be any different than his. If I’m ever captured by pirates and about to be sold into slavery, don’t watch the home videos… and delete my browser history, too.)

Vaas and his men decide to make sport of their young captive with a mock escape ending in a tumble down a steep cliff. Jason finds himself saved by the mysterious Dennis, who was also kind enough to give him a freaking tattoo (sorry, tatau) while the blue-blooded lad slept off his wounds. For whatever reason, Jason is cool with a guy randomly giving him tetanus (or worse).

From that point on, the story rapidly descends into a colonialist power fantasy akin to James Cameron’s Avatar (though Cameron is far more adept at storycraft). Man comes to foreign land, man is held up as savior of the indigenous people, man avenges all the bad stuff that happens to him and decides to stay behind because he’s “found his place.”

I should utterly despise Far Cry 3. I’m a “story guy.” It’s rarer than an albino crocodile that narrative isn’t the most important thing in a game experience for me. With the exception of Vaas, the island’s characters are insipid. This is no clearer than when Jason saves Oliver, the token stoner kid with the shiny label still on his hat. Even about to be sold into slavery, the idiot doesn’t fear for his life. He stands around gawking at the cool explosions and Jason’s sweet new ink. There is absolutely nothing about the narrative that is the least bit appealing or original.

Why then, did I see Far Cry 3 all the way through?

Put simply, the exploration. Roaming around Rook Island is addicting, largely because of the unintentional narrative created by the living world. Where the scripted story falters, the moment-to-moment experiences shine. Taking over the outposts (and thus converting them to fast-travel safehouses) were some of the more memorable bits. Experience bonuses are awarded for remaining undetected or, failing that, preventing alarms from sounding.

Even after I had acquired every skill and could no longer earn experience points, I still found myself skulking through the brush, using my camera to tag and track enemies. My favorite outposts were the ones in which the pirates and privateers were foolish enough to keep captive predators. It’s humorous to watch a bear or tiger maul foes, but the cackling really began when cassowary inhabited the cages. Those birds are vicious, and watching them peck a pirate to death while safely out of range made me laugh every time.  

Climbing radio towers (similar to viewpoints found in Assassin’s Creed), taking over outposts, collecting lost letters from Japanese troops, hunting animals to craft bigger, better gear and stalking enemies to kill with a knife (in the native tradition) all provided experiences that far surpassed any scripted dialog. The set piece moments stole the show. Escaping from a burning building, fighting giant otherworldly gods (I promise it almost makes sense) and even well packaged quicktime events are all the elements that drew me back to Far Cry 3.

I’m aware that Jeffrey Yohalem, the game’s lead writer, has expressed that we simply don’t “get” the story. He told the Penny Arcade Report’s Sophie Prell that gamers and journalists aren’t looking hard enough. Unfortunately, there are two sides of every exchange: the sender and the receiver. If there is deeper commentary in Far Cry 3, as Yohalem claims, one party involved failed. It isn’t the one that the writer would have us believe.

Far Cry 3 is a deeply flawed game. The story isn’t just forgettable; it’s offensive. It celebrates deep rooted imperialism that the majority of us have long come to recognize as harmful and disrespectful. The side quests are typically boring fetch tasks, with similar-looking natives (“they all look the same to me”) begging for help from the powerful white boy. In fact, every native, pirate and privateer seems to know what Jason Brody looks like (even behind the wheel of a quickly-moving vehicle), but a key element of the story hinges on the island’s warlord, Hoyt Volker, being oblivious to the appearance of the protagonist. Not only is this devoid of logic, it’s insulting to the player. While it is later revealed that Hoyt has caught on, it is never made clear exactly when that happens. Either Hoyt is a fool, allowing Jason to destroy his communications array and fuel reserves, or he is an idiot for being oblivious to the ruse.

When I had exhausted the supply of side activities, I reluctantly returned to the script to finish the main story. After over 25 hours of play, I wished I hadn’t. There are two endings, and neither provided me with any reason to invest in the story, the one piece of the puzzle that must be present for me to enjoy interactive narratives. After over two dozen largely enjoyable hours, I am left feeling like the part of the game I was supposed to play, those firm rails upon which the rollercoaster of a story chugs along, were the least meaningful. I am cognizant of the feat that the game play designers have accomplished, keeping me aboard despite my revulsion at the heavy-handed tale. I admire the skill they have shown in their craft, while simultaneously wondering how the two halves of the title could be so dramatically different.

But what redeems the experience and makes it worth purchasing and playing is what’s left after the shoddily written story is stripped away. The value is found in the moments when Jason is silent and forgotten; when the player inserts him or herself into the drama as it spontaneously unfolds. The unexpected events, whether from prowling wildlife or an impressively spreading fire, are what thrilled me, sunk hooks in deep and pulled me back time and again.

Narrative is deeply important to me, and I simply do not care for the one that Jeffrey Yohalem labored to tell. Still, Far Cry 3 is worth your attention. Just don’t play it for Yohalem’s story. Play it to create your own.