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Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Should College Athletes Get Paid for Appearing in Video Games?

A football sitting on a fanned-out stack of 20 dollar bills.

The bigger the business of college sports gets, the more the line between student and professional blurs. They already don’t make any money on jersey sales (though most schools just sell jerseys with numbers, not names). And they also don’t see a dime for having their name and likeness used in official NCAA video games.

That’s the official practice, but it may or may not be… technically speaking… legal. Starting with former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon, a total of seven college athletes have joined together on a long-brewing class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, Electronic Arts (EA), and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for licensing out their likeness without permission. This could become a major case, not so much because of what it means for videogames, but because the only way the NCAA has a case is to argue that college athletes should not be granted the same rights as professionals, that their work and their likeness are not their own property, but the property of the college they attend. If the NCAA loses, that sets a precedent for many, many more cases regarding the professional nature of the college athlete.

In the latest wrinkle to this story, the NCAA has decided to part ways with EA, mostly out of fear of the monetary damage this lawsuit could do. EA (which, it’s worth noting, has been voted the worst company in the world by Forbes magazine two years in a row) has in turn said, “Well, whatever, we don’t need you anyway. We’ll just go through the CLC and the individual colleges.” In theory, that just means their upcoming games will be titled things like College Football 2015,”instead of NCAA Football 2015. In practice, it could mean there are bizarre holes in the games’ conferences. What if EA can’t come to an agreement with some football powerhouse like the Ducks or the Wolverines? Will they just not exist in the world of the game? Or will EA try to plug the holes with imitation brand teams: the Mallards and the Weasels?

Back in 2009, EA announced that it would be putting its college basketball games on indefinite hiatus. At this point, the series was only selling around 600,000 copies per entry. (The NCAA Football series sells about 1 million more per entry.) Keep in mind these retail for around $50-$60 a piece, and each new yearly entry is basically just a roster update and one or two new interface changes. I can’t imagine production costs are that high. The licensing fees with the NCAA must be absolutely insane if selling half a million copies each year is considered enough of a failure to quit altogether.

And that’s excluding royalties sent to college athletes.

I can’t get behind the idea that college athletes should be paid for their performance. At that point, there really isn’t anything separating them from professionals. But using their likeness? I’m not sure what to think. I’d certainly want to be compensated if someone ever made money off a digital version of me.

In 2009, a court ruled that universities cannot claim ownership of inventions simply because they were made using campus resources. College athletes might not be inventors, per se, but money is still being generated because of their work. I’m not sure exactly what that ownership looks like, but I’m pretty sure that there is some ownership there.

Was This ‘Sweatshop’ Simulation Game Too Offensive for Your iPad?

Screenshot from "Sweatshop HD" game

One of the “perks” of getting apps through the App Store is that, unlike downloading desktop software from a random website, Apple screens and approves each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of available apps. For better or worse, that means Apple gets to decide what’s fit for consumption and what’s not.

Most of the time that means blocking copyright violations and pornography, but every once in awhile something will get flagged for reasons that are a bit more unclear.

A bitingly satirical iPad game called Sweatshop HD was recently yanked out of the App store because, according to LittleCloud, the studio that built the game, Apple was uncomfortable with the game’s themes. LittleCloud resubmitted the game with an added disclaimer that the game’s intent was primarily to educate people on social justice issues, and that it was designed with input from the Labour Behind the Label campaign. Apple still wouldn’t lift the ban.

I checked out the game myself (still available as a flash-based browser game) to see just how offensive, beyond the title and premise, this game could be. The game opens with a brightly animated and stylized opening, where customers swarm to grab “Le Shoes” designer sneakers. The camera then pans rights to the shoe warehouse, right again to a fleet of shipping freighters, and finally back to a sweatshop conveyor belt, manned by tired, dehydrated, injured, and underage workers.

You play as a member of middle management, who needs to hire and position workers to handle the flow of materials down the conveyor belt. You’ll routinely get yelled at by your boss to maximize profits and approached by a wide-eyed Dickensian child worker asking for basic things like water. Naturally, since it’s a game, your competitive side will encourage you to cut corners in any way necessary to get the highest possible ranking, usually to the detriment of your workers.

It’s all fairly tongue-in-cheek until you start completing levels. Each time one ends, you’ll be presented with two paragraphs or so or real-life information and statistics about life as a sweatshop worker. These jar you out of the fantasy of the game every few minutes, and set the project pretty firmly on the side of satire, not just gallows humor.

While developed by an independent studio, the game was produced in part by Channel 4, a British commercially funded, but publicly owned, broadcasting network. That fact lends a lot of credence to LittleCloud’s claim that this game was intended primarily to be educational. As a piece of publicly funded entertainment, this is basically Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

So why was Sweatshop‘s brand of educational satire considered inappropriate, but the casual, maniacal violence of, say, Grand Theft Auto III acceptable?

LittleCloud points out that Apple’s developer guidelines are somewhat vague, and grant Apple a fair amount of leeway on what it will and won’t allow. LittleCloud highlighted one line in particular from the weirdly casual guidelines:

“We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

I understand Apple’s need to give themselves carte blanche in making judgment calls, but personally, I find this statement more dismissive and offensive than anything in Sweatshop. The patronizing tone of “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book” is pretty bold insult to the countless game designers who’ve tried to make games with goals loftier than killing time.

Having games criticize real-world themes isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. Bioshock was a retro-futuristic sci-fi that doubled as a criticism of ObjectivismSpec Ops: The Line criticized the fetishistic way most games idolize modern warfare. Another browser-based flash game, Darfur is Dying, intended to spread awareness of atrocities committed in Sudan by letting you manage a virtual refugee camp.

The developer guidelines’ blanket condescension of games’ ability to address serious issues is entirely unfair to both the people who want to make, and to play, games about something more than, let’s say, throwing birds at pigs.

You can play the game and make your own call here.

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

Taking Advantage of a Great Deal (Just Because It’s a Deal)

A coupon saying "Was 149.00... now 148.99"

There’s a story my fiancée likes to hold against me from when we were first dating. We went into a Blockbuster (which might date this story right off the bat) to pick out a movie. She badly needed to use the bathroom, but figured we’d be in and out of there in a second, and my apartment was right around the corner, so she didn’t say anything. I wandered into the “4 for $20” section, and started browsing for the next half hour. I found three movies I wanted, but for the fourth, I could only find movies I’d pay money to not have to see. Meanwhile, the woman I’d later decide to spend the rest of my life with was doing her best to be patient with my indecisiveness. She said, “Look, just get the three you want and throw away the fourth. It’s still a deal!” But I still kept hunting for a worthy fourth. Finding nothing, I eventually gave up, leaving empty-handed. My poor girlfriend’s bladder was put through that ordeal for nothing.

Did I need those movies? No. Did I really want to see them? Maybe a little. But I wasn’t considering buying 4 for $20 because those were the movies I most wanted to see. I was attracted to it just because it was a deal. On the simplest level, that was it. Four for the price of one, more or less. The idea of saving money appealed to me first. The idea of what the entertainment was appealed second.

That’s something I tend to notice more and more, especially with digital access to books, movies, and games. The easier (and therefore cheaper) it is to get something, the more likely I’ll buy it. There’s less and less entertainment I’ll really go out of my way for. The more I pay attention to where to get the best deals, the more likely I am to just choose something based on whether or not it’s a good deal.

For example, Amazon offers 100 albums for a $5 each, and rotates which albums are available every month. Every month I find myself checking it out. Steam routinely offers huge discounts on downloadable computer games, sometimes as much as 50 or 75 percent. In both cases, I’m not going to buy something I’m not interested in, but I’m more likely to look closely at something that’s discounted, and more likely to make an impulse buy before the sale ends.

Companies like Groupon or LivingSocial work on the same idea. Nobody goes to those sites with a specific purchase in mind. They go so that those sites can suggest some sort of restaurant, activity, or outing. While browsing their deals, people usually aren’t thinking, “I sure hope I find a coupon for Ethiopian food.” People are thinking, “Wow! 50% off lunch at that Ethiopian place. Maybe I should get around to trying that out.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to entertainment, but sometimes I wonder if I am bogging myself down in the cheap and convenient, at the expense of the stuff I really want to read, watch, play, or do. My list of books I own and still need to read is massive and it tends to grow faster than I can shrink it. But it would be much smaller, and probably of a much higher quality, if I had to pay more for each book I bought. For example, I picked up Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., the other day because, first, it was on sale for 99 cents, and second, because it was the basis for one of my favorite horror movies, The Thing. I honestly don’t have any overwhelming desire to read it, but it seemed like something I’d enjoy having if I ever needed a new book in a pinch. I didn’t buy it because I wanted to read it immediately. I bought it to take advantage of some time down the road (kind of like a Groupon).

I’m still willing to drop everything when something I really want comes along. I didn’t skip out on The Avengers just because I had unwatched movies on my DVR, for example. When the latest George R. R. Martin book came out last year, I had no problem putting aside my current book to read that.

But every once in awhile, convenience starts to feel like a chore. I’ve got an unused Living Social coupon for wine tasting burning a hole in my pocket as I try to figure out some way to work it into my schedule. I’ve got a couple indie games that I picked up on Steam that I still haven’t gotten around to playing for more than an hour. And books? Definitely my biggest weakness in terms of both impulse buys and not knowing when I’m going to work it into my schedule.

Anyways, I’ve got to wrap this post up before it sounds like I’m really complaining about a world full of cheap and accessible entertainment. It’s just that sometimes I need to check myself before I get too caught up in a low price. It’s got to be rough for the truly impulsive.

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