Up next: the Darfur game?
BOB is a new gadget that you hook up to electronic devices to monitor and control the amount of time kids watch TV, play videogames, or whatever. Of course, if you need a gadget to accomplish this, your parenting problems may not stop here.
I assume the marketing wizards who named this device never watched Twin Peaks.
I find the whole Second Life phenomenon fascinating (and possibly a little disturbing). It's been getting news coverage everywhere lately; NPR's On the Media had a good story about it this weekend. They talked with Mark Warner, the first presidential hopeful ever to make a campaign appearance in a virtual world, and also with virtual-embedded reporter Wagner James Au and real-world journalist Clive Thompson.
To streak entertainment with reality, DeLappe has turned "America's Army" into a war protest and a memorial to dead soldiers. Since the anniversary of the Iraq invasion this past March, DeLappe, chair of the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno, has been playing the game under the call sign "dead-in-Iraq," which is also what he calls his work of "performance art."
He logs on to the game and does nothing. While other online players around him simulate war -- and eventually shoot him -- he types into the program's chat interface -- typically used for gamers to strategize with one another -- the name of each service person killed in Iraq. As of Sept. 14, he'd entered 1,273 names of the 2,670 Americans killed there; he plans to continue until the war ends. "I'm trying to remind other gamers that real people are dying in Iraq," DeLappe says.
The military funded "America's Army" in part to interest kids as young as 13 to join the Army. The virtual rifle range (free to download) is also a training ground for real combat in Iraq. With 7.5 million users since its release in 2002, "America's Army" has become the main place where young people learn about the military, according to a 2004 marketing survey conducted for the Army. It's an "entertaining way for young adults to explore the Army and its adventures and opportunities as a virtual soldier," reads the game's official Web site, which links gamers to a military recruiter.
"It's probably the only game out there on the Internet, where if it draws you in and gets you to join the military, you could die," says DeLappe.
See also Joseph DeLappe's site, which has images from the game.
Yesterday I wrote that I was eager to see how people might defend the existence of "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!", a game enjoyed by the shooter who went on a rampage at a Montreal college on Monday.
Sure enough, Techdirt is on the case, with "Media Making Sure You Know That Montreal Shooter Played Violent Video Games". They never address the point I was wondering about, though; instead they focus on "anti-videogame lawyer" Jack Thompson, and go on to repeat their familiar speech about violence and games in "Dismantling The Research Being Used Against Video Games".
Their argument is irrelevant, though. It's a straw-man argument, even if there does happen to be at least one real character who fits the description -- this Jack Thompson, who I'm not familiar with. Most people who are concerned about ultra-violent games probably don't think they directly cause violence. Everyone knows that events happen in much more complicated ways. But that doesn't rule out the possibility that extreme exposure to violence can influence people -- probably in ways we don't yet understand, which is why this is a legitimate topic of study.
Denying the mere possibility that violent media could influence people is as absurd as saying that advertising doesn't influence people. (I owe this comparison to an article I read recently, but I can't remember where.)
Getting back to my original question, Techdirt doesn't answer why "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" should exist in the first place. I'm sure it's not illegal, but surely the game is in very bad taste, "artist statements" notwithstanding. I would hope that even the most ardent defenders of more mainstream violent games could admit that.
Whatever your views on video games and violence, you can't possibly not find this chilling:
A man with a black trench coat whose shooting rampage in a Montreal college killed one person and wounded 19 others before he was slain by police said on a blog in his name that he liked to play a role-playing Internet game about the Columbine shootings.
[...] he said he liked to play "Super Columbine Massacre," an Internet-based computer game that simulates the April 20, 1999, shootings at the Colorado high school by two students who killed 13 people and then themselves.
Link (SF Chronicle/AP): Montreal Gunman Wrote of Death, Hatred,
Updated story: Police say Montreal Gunman Killed Self
I'm interested in seeing how the technorati defend the existence of this game.
The other day Google launched the "Google Image Labeler," a site that invites you to come look at pictures and type in descriptive words. Users are paired up and their responses compared. The more matches, the better your "score" and the better the image tags for Google's image search.
Why would you want to do this for free? Apparently it's a game that derives from something called the "ESP Game," according to TechDirt, so for starters there's the amusement factor. I can't imagine that will last long, though. There's also the joy of seeing your name on the high score page at Google. Most of all, I imagine this appeals to the utopian "cult of information" that also drives Wikipedia and other online projects, including Google, whose followers believe that simply dumping and categorizing all the world's information onto networks will empower and enrich people. Google is still a hero for most of these enthusiasts, so it's not a concern that they're effectively being used as free labor. Imagine if Microsoft tried this.
Interestingly, it looks like people are gaming the system, judging by "today's top pairs" (see image). I'm not sure if that user is suggesting an effective cheat or is saying that most images on the web are in fact "tits" -- both seem plausible.
Previously in cheap online labor news: Human-Powered Artificial Intelligence (Amazon Turk).
Finally someone has found a way to combine two popular sedentary activities among today's youth -- playing video games and eating candy.
Nestle introduces WonkaZoid, a portable video game with a built-in candy dispenser. Win the game and it spits out candy. Load, play, eat, repeat.
I read about this in the latest Adbusters.
This strange line-up is some of what I've been reading recently:
The David Suzuki Reader: A Lifetime of Ideas from a Leading Activist and Thinker. Like most Canadians, I know David Suzuki best for The Nature of Things, the CBC TV show he has hosted for the past 30 years or so. This book shows more of his environmental activist side. Lots of folks are talking about global warming, but unlike others (I'm talking to you Al Gore), Suzuki goes deeper to the root causes -- our flawed economic system, and notions of technological progress and human superiority over nature.
The Essential Mary Midgley. Mary Midgley is an ethics/moral philosopher who is well known in the UK as a social critic. The main themes of her work are on human nature and ethology, on applying moral philosophy to current events, and on philosophy of science. She writes incisively about science and its mythologies -- how science isn't just this abstract mechanical method that produces inevitable knowledge, as we're supposed to believe. It's shaped by human concerns and beliefs that often fit the criteria of religion.
World, Beware! American Triumphalism in an Age of Terror by Theodore Roszak (buy it from the publisher, Between the Lines). There has been a booming industry in liberal books since Bush Jr. took over, and most of them are not terribly deep or surprising. Roszak gets beyond the trivial Bush bashing to tell what's really been happening in the past 20 years -- the neo-conservative agenda to realign the world to follow American corporate rule. The book did not find a publisher in the US, and this first English edition was published in Canada (you can make of that fact what you will, which the blurbage encourages a little too much, I think). So the book is couched as a warning to the rest of the world to beware of this emerging new colonialism. This might sound like shrill, conspiracy material, but Roszak isn't a crank; he's a well-established and respected social critic. His case here is intelligent, thoughtful, and convincing.
JPod: A Novel by Douglas Coupland. And on a lighter note... I read this over the holiday weekend. Despite the bad reviews, and never being attracted to a Douglas Coupland book before, I was drawn in by the subject matter -- video games and the lives of a group of cubicle computer nerds (described realistically as "mildly autistic"). This demographic is one I'm painfully familiar with. It's a funny, quick read, and held my attention better than I expected -- no doubt because the characters are (thankfully) far more interesting than your average nerds.
Last week my wife and I attended a Long Now seminar that featured Will Wright, creator of the Sims, and musician and artist Brian Eno. The Long Now's site has recordings of the event, a summary by host Stewart Brand, and a discussion board at Long Now > Projects > Seminars About Long Term Thinking.
In the first half, Will Wright showed powerpoint slides about generative systems, cellular automata, fractals and all that stuff, and Eno chimed in about how he uses generative systems in his compositions. This was all very geeky, and as a geek who works in computer graphics, I'm very familiar with these ideas, so it seemed a bit tired. It's easy to get caught up in this stuff, but to use it to make good art still requires a human touch, I think. It's a fine line, though -- I like most of Eno's ambient music but I know it leaves other people cold. I saw an installation of his about ten years ago that was all screensavers and computer-generated music, nicely presented on brand new Apple G4 Cubes, and this went over that line into coldness for me. I think I need to believe there's at least some human intention behind a piece of work, otherwise I don't feel it's worthwhile to listen. That said, I probably don't appreciate ambient music in the way Eno means it, as music you can enter and leave at any time. When I listen to Neroli I listen from start to finish, but then I'm strange.
The highlight of the evening was Will Wright presenting his newest game, Spore. Spore is like The Sims, but with creatures you design yourself and help evolve. The site describes it as:
From the mind of Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, comes SPORE™, an epic journey that takes you from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilization and technology and eventually all the way into the deepest reaches of outer space.
The game looks beautiful and very fun, but it encodes an incredibly superficial model of evolution. Your characters fight their way up an evolutionary ladder: Tide Pool Phase to Creature Phase, Tribal Phase, City Phase, Civilization Phase, and finally Space Phase. In the last and highest level, you get to colonize and terrorize other planets. (And presumably design and play superficial computer games to distract yourself from the havoc you're wreaking on the universe.)
Eno asked if you could choose your own path in the game, for instance staying at the level of a virus -- you can't. There were other audience questions along these lines. Wright makes famously "open-ended" games, and Spore, like the Sims games, is very unstructured compared to most games. But you're still bound by the imagination of the game designers. Smart as they are, their worldviews are necessarily limited, and can often be fairly basic and unenlightened. Spore's evolution science looks no more evolved than Spencer's "survival of the fittest" social Darwinism from over a century ago.
P.S. You can read about Spore on Wikipedia too. I love that the entry for "spore" admits that most people heading to that page are looking for the video game, not the biological unit. They know their audience.
Speaking of detox, from AP/Wired comes a story today about Europe's first detox clinic for video game addicts. Excerpt:
An addiction center is opening Europe's first detox clinic for game addicts, offering in-house treatment for people who can't leave their joysticks alone.
Video games may look innocent, but they can be as addictive as gambling or drugs — and just as hard to kick, says Keith Bakker, director of Amsterdam-based Smith & Jones Addiction Consultants.
Bakker already has treated 20 video game addicts, aged 13 to 30, since January. Some show withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking and sweating, when they look at a computer.
His detox program begins in July. It will run four to eight weeks, including discussions with therapists and efforts to build patients' interests in alternative activities.
"We have kids who don't know how to communicate with people face-to-face because they've spent the last three years talking to somebody in Korea through a computer," Bakker said. "Their social network has completely disappeared."
Douglas Coupland's new novel, JPod, is set in the world of video game developers. There was an interesting article about him in The Observer this week. Excerpt:
'I don't play games myself. Never. But I will watch people playing, especially if they're good. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is, of all the games to watch people play, the most fun. It's not like a race; you can take time off to just work for a while as a taxi driver, or visit a hooker. There's something interesting, fascinating actually, about watching someone take time off in a video game to go and visit a hooker. Games I do find interesting,' he says, 'for what they say about us, about what we wish for, about the programming. But let it stop there: don't listen to this rubbish about them actually being good for you, helping with hand-eye co-ordination or whatever. They're games. They prepare you for nothing.'
Now that video games have solved the crisis in Darfur and ended hunger in Kenya, what's left? How about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? That's the subject tackled by one game, an entrant in the Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games Competition. It's part of the new "serious games" movement. A CNET article quotes the project's manager: "I think the contest demonstrates that games can not only be entertaining, but beneficial to society on a grander scale."
You can't fault people for trying to introduce some meaning into games, but is this really a useful way to address such serious issues? Have we really reached a point where people won't pay attention unless they're entertained?
"While critics contend that violent video games can turn kids into tiny terrors, some government agencies and nonprofit groups want to harness the joystick to help churn out model citizens.
"To that end, competitions are under way that are designed to achieve such diverse goals as boosting America's profile overseas and drawing attention to genocide in Sudan. [...]
"Stephen Friedman, general manager of mtvU, is using the internet and his company's 24-hour college network to call students to activism through viral video games. The company, in partnership with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group, is focusing on the genocide taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan.
"The Darfur Digital Activist competition drew 12 viral game submissions from colleges across the United States. More than 15,000 students have played the three finalist selections hailing from Carnegie Mellon University (Peace Games: Darfur), USC (Darfur: Play Your Part and Stop Genocide) and Digipen Institute of Technology (The Shanti Ambassadors: Crisis in Darfur).
"Genocide in the Sudan has been going on for a year and a half and it's not being reported in the news here," said Friedman. "We decided to look at viral games to spread the word. Activism is being reinvented in this medium."
Pictured: a screen shot from Fetching Water: "In the 'Fetching Water' game you are a Darfurian trying to make it to the well to get water without becoming a victim of the Janjaweed."