The Screams we're Used to Hearing

Because every respectable piece of gaming media calls Bioshock “the game that brings gaming back to its old glory” (and other such niceties), I decided to try out the demo. A few minutes into the game, I could see what all the fuss was about. The atmosphere is truly breathtaking and unique, and I hadn’t felt this urge to uncover something, something that feels substantial, since Half-Life came along.

A few more minutes into the game, SPOILER ALERT one of the splicers guts someone with something that looks like a pair of large fishhooks or scythes. The guy screams and drops a few vital organs. I didn’t think much of that, since I’ve seen worse in other games and this one is quite definitely marked “mature”. However, my girlfriend left the room at that point. And she wasn’t even watching, she was just listening.

Now this is something most gamers might never notice, but the screams (at least in Bioshock) are frighteningly realistic. Stomach-churningly so, for someone who has actually heard actual humans actually scream with pain before. And that’s the girlfriend connection — she is in the unfortunate position that she hears that sort of thing from time to time due to her job in a hospital.

So now, at least with Bioshock, but probably before, we have reached the point of realism in gaming where the screams of game characters can get you to the edge of vomiting. Just by being realistic! And all the time, this went past me like so much smoke. I didn’t notice anything special about it; previous games have had similar screaming, similar noises and nowadays they don’t even touch me anymore. I didn’t even think they sounded particularly realistic. Is all of this weird?

Should we ease off on that and go somewhere else? Would Bioshock’s intensity and atmosphere be possible without the death-screams, the violence etc.? It’s something I’ve been asking myself for quite a while: Is the violence necessary, the realism of it, in order to make a game work? Just after I gave up trying to find out, the question materializes again in my mind.

"Church" of Scientology Probably Being Prosecuted

I’ve always claimed that the “Church” of Scientology is a criminal organization (and I’m not alone with that impression), but now there is some more proof. From the article:

  • A Belgian prosecutor on Tuesday recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a 10-year investigation that concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization.
  • […]
  • “They also face charges of being … a criminal organization,” Pellens said in a telephone interview.

Also, the prosecutor recommends that other European countries go the same route and raise charges against the “Church”. If this goes through and the “Church” is found guilty, this is at least a small relief for its victims.

Deeply Flawed Report About Violence in Games

Recently, German state-run TV channel ZDF aired a consumer rights show that among other things included a report about violent games and children. ZDF claimed that the violence children see in games has a more profound effect on their own behavior than previously noticed, and that studies claiming the opposite are essentialy sponsored by EA Games and originate only at Cologne university. That’s a mouthful.

However, the report and the study were deeply flawed. Let me quote the program:

  • Our study found that children who play indexed games show a 20% higher probability of developing violent tendencies in real life than the control group that did not play video games.

Now hold on a minute. Children playing indexed games? Why do you let them play indexed games, you idiots? In Germany, it is illegal to sell indexed games to minors! It is illegal to advertise indexed games! It is illegal to publish reviews of indexed games! These children should never have seen these games in the first place! I hope you can see I’m upset.

The “index” is run by the German media censorship board. There is a reason Germany does not allow the sales of such games to minors: They are not for children, they are 18+. If your kid is playing such a game, you are either doing something wrong or you know fairly well that your child is mature enough not to be influenced by it. Did the people who ran that study break the law when they made those games accessible to children? I don’t know German law well enough to make a good guess there.

People, especially incompetent journalists, still seem to believe that games are something for children. When will they realize that a video game is no different from a movie, that there are some that are suitable for children and some that are not? Why is the gaming market still not taken seriously enough?

Final Preparations for the Bergtagung

I’m currently running around making final preparations for the Bergtagung. It’s a relatively humid and hot day here in Zürich. I’ll spend the next hour printing posters and flyers, finding a desktop projector for us to use and then sinking my teeth into a lovely Lebanese mali. Mmmmmh, mali.

You are welcome to join us at the Bergtagung, here’s the invitation. Get your arses up that mountain!

Youth, the Dumpster of Culture

Risking to sound far older and grumpier than I am, I’d say that culture today is something that’s completely wasted on our youth. I base this statement on a number of facts that I’ve been observing for quite some time now, but what encouraged me to write a little blurb about it was this conversation I heard on the train today. Picture two girls, perhaps 15, talking about their German exams. They appear to be reading Kafka right now. Keep in mind that we’re in German-speaking territory, so Kafka is certainly an ordinary read in school at that age.

We’re joining our pair as they are discussing probable exam topics:

Girl 1: “Well, with Kafka I would get a good grade! He doesn’t use so many foreign words!”

Girl 2: “Oh yeah! Hell, I know! That other guy uses lots of them! It’s so shitty, you don’t understand shit!”

Girl 1: “But people now keep telling me that I have to learn foreign words too. But then I think maybe I would get used to them, and I don’t want to, because then I’d start using them myself! And nobody would understand me anymore because you just don’t understand foreign words!”

German, if spoken even with the slightest hint of eloquence beyond the requirements for being a McDonald’s burger flipper, is chock full of foreign words. I’m quite sure that I cannot relay the shock I’m feeling about the above conversation into English properly.

All of this is not just an isolated incident, I think it might be a symptom of something deeper. One of Switzerland’s largest newspapers, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) has a writing style roughly comparable to that of the International Herald Tribune of the US. Several people my age have complained to me that they are not capable of understanding the NZZ’s articles, and that the NZZ therefore is “stupid”.

With that, I rest my case.

Sun's Seamless ODF Converter for MS Office is Finished

As Heise reports, Sun Microsystems has released their seamless ODF plug-in for Microsoft Office. That means that users of MS Office are now also able to use the ISO-standard format for office documents, which should lead to easy file exchange with users of standards-compliant office program suites such as OpenOffice.org.

Sun’s solution integrates into the file save/open dialogs of MS Office, thereby making importing or exporting uneccessary. This is a different approach than the one taken by Microsoft and Novell in their so-called “OpenXML/ODF Translator Add-in for Office”. Additionally, Sun Microsystems is the first to release a stable method of conversion, while Microsoft and Novell’s implementation currently lags behind in terms of features and stability.

Bergtagung 2007: Call for Entries and Invitation

Ever gave a talk while standing on a juicy, grassy meadow, in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night? Everything around you pitch black, ants crawling on your flipchart, a flashlight the only source of illumination? And all that in the Swiss Alps?

How about speaking in your own little classroom, talking about that FreeBSD-based fruit juicer you’ve invented, with your audience of geeks sitting on small wooden chairs made for six year olds?

Well, I guess now you can have that.

        ........ Introducing the BERGTAGUNG              ..
        ...... A Meeting of Free Spirits and Open Minds ...

        ..... Somewhere in the Swiss Alps             .....
        ...  Involving Beer    (and probably cows)   ......

                                     --[ bergtagung.org ]--

We’re so bloody open that you can dump the abstract of your talk in our wiki yourself.

Submit your talk to: bergtagung.org/wiki/Talks

Invitation

If your mind is reasonably open and your software predominantly free, you’re the perfect participant. If that does not sound like you, don’t worry. We have decent mind-stretching equipment and there will surely be some nerds around to fix you up with a liberated operating system of your choice.

Whatever you do, don’t stay at home!

Bergtagung 2007
(First Annual!)
July 20 – 22

Siat, Switzerland

Coming? Register at: bergtagung.org/wiki/Participants

Moo!

Japan Adopting Free Software, Norway Declaring ODF and PDF Mandatory

Japan and Norway are the latest countries to realize the benefits of open standards and Free Software. They are moving away from closed, proprietary and single-vendor solutions (with vendor lock-in), towards truly free, interchangeable systems.

This will strengthen both government’s sovereignty, in the sense reducing their reliance on e.g. foreign operating systems and productivity software.

Don't Ban Video Games — Start Using the Age Ratings

pegi_collage.png

It happens once in a while. In fact, it recently did, and the probability that it will happen again is rather high. Someone goes postal, kills or injures people, and in the aftermath the media start to look for scapegoats. Oh, the police say he always played Counter Strike! Oh, his friends say he liked GTA! He must have been a truly deranged individual, so let’s blame video games (that we don’t understand) for perverting our youth. Our poor children! Your evil games turn them into gun fanatics, drug addicts and antisocial Satan-worshippers!

At this point in the story, someone usually demands tough legislation to take care of the “problem”. Ban violent games. Heck, ban games altogether. But I want to tell you something: the games are not the problem. The problem is you, the parents.

Let me illustrate this with a true tale, as witnessed in one of Switzerland’s largest electronics stores a few years ago. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had just been released to much fanfare. As I walk down an aisle lined with stacks of CD-R spindles and backup tapes, my eyes meet the hand of a middle-aged lady, and it’s clutching something that looks like a game box. Sure enough, she’s carrying a copy of GTA: SA. Just as I finish wondering whether she plans to play that herself (and age is irrelevant for a gamer), I hear someone call from the other aisle. A boy perhaps eleven years old walks over, and the lady asks him “Here! Is it this one you want?”. She points at GTA. “Yes, mom, that’s the one!” replies a voice that is clearly pre-puberty. “Good then, let’s pay and go home.”

GTA: San Andreas is rated 18+. It’s not a game for children. It’s violent. It has bad language. Perhaps it is worth pointing out: you shouldn’t be buying your eleven year old child a game that is clearly marked as unsuitable for minors.

This is certainly not an isolated case. My officemate’s children were 12 and 15, respectively. What did they get as present from their father? GTA: Vice City. Can you guess? The game is rated 18+!

Now, how do you know that a game is not suitable for children? Obviously, many or most current parents grew up without video games, or in an era where the most violent scene on screen was an overweight Italian man jumping onto mean-tempered ambulatory fungi. But they don’t need to understand or play the games in order to judge them, because there are organizations that pre-judge every single title for them!

Especially PEGI, the Pan European Game Information system, makes it ludicrously easy to decide. Every game has an age rating right on the very front of the packaging, clearly visible in a rather self-conscious font. On the back, the rating is repeated along with symbols representing actual game content parents might find unsuitable for their kids. It’s split into “bad language”, “discrimination”, “drugs”, “fear”, “gambling”, “sex” and “violence”. Quite a sensible selection. The convenient scapegoat you’re always using (hint: violence) also makes an appearance and thus can be avoided conveniently and completely. I have used the official PEGI symbols to illustrate this article. I hope you agree that they’re easy enough to understand. If not, check out the PEGI website, the URL of which is also printed on every single game box.

The PEGI system is voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any games without PEGI symbols in almost four years — and PEGI was only established in 2003 to begin with. The ESRB system is also voluntary, yet I haven’t seen any North American titles without ratings in years. The game industry is doing more than enough. There is no need for yet more expensive legislation, there is no need to place the burden of parenting on the state instead of into your own hands where it belongs.

Parents, don’t cry out for someone to protect your children. The tools for that are already here, and they are free. But it is you who has to use them. Stop pointing fingers and face your responsibilities.


Digg!

Links

Update 1, 2007-02-16

First of all, thank you for the very valuable comments here and on Digg. I hope to go through them soon and pick out a few opinions that didn’t have space in the original article.

In this update, however, I would like to point out a very creepy thing. Only two days after this article went up, GameStop has purchased a full-page advertisement in USA Today entitled “Respect the Ratings”, essentially saying the same thing we say, just with the spooky waxlike head of Steve Morgan tacked in the lower left corner. Their wording is more politically correct, of course, the important bit being “We share your responsibility.”

Next to GameStop’s campaign, the ESRB are providing a new website at RespectTheRatings.com. Essentially, this is a rewrite of content that has been available for years at esrb.com, but the new site has a simplified layout and is targeted specifically at parents. The site prominently says “Making the Right Choice Means Looking on the Box” — I greatly enjoy the fact that all of us seem to agree on where the problem is.

As several commenters have pointed out, GameStop has introduced very strict measures to make sure the responsibility lies with the parents alone. Similar reports from other stores are trickling in as well. The industry is regulating itself, and it makes sure to let you know. I think this might be even better than legislation. The law might “only” be able to fine someone or send them to jail if they sell the wrong stuff to a minor without a parent’s consent, but the minutiae of your work contract can be a wholly more painful weapon. Like a morning star, or a flail, perhaps.

PEGI symbols are © PEGI, used with permission.

Tradefarm – Trade games for Animals, and Animals for games

Several years ago, I had the idea for a web-based game trading platform. Like most of my ideas, it was caged somewhere in the back of my brain and never managed to get out.

The good news is, also like most of my ideas, someone else had the same inspiration but actually followed through. There is now Tradefarm, a community of game traders based on a meta-currency called Animals. As your Animals account fills up, you can look for games you’d like and purchase them with the meta-currency, so what you are really trading is games for games.

Tradefarm has a rather slick interface that allows you to put your games up for trade by just searching for the title in the database, then adding them with one click. You don’t have to dig for pictures, age ratings, nothing. All of that is supplied by Amazon through Amazon’s API (there is also an Amazon buy link with every game), and I’m not yet sure whether that is good or bad. The point so far is that it works, and very quickly. It’s much easier to put your games into Tradefarm and let them wait for a buyer there than it is to enter them into an auction site.

It’s currently a free service and limited to Switzerland, but if this pans out, let’s hope they go international.

Update: I’ve just traded three of my old titles for a rather highly acclaimed new one (Wario Ware: Smooth Moves for Wii). Better ratio than e.g. Gamestop, where I would have had to bring three old games and pay CHF 29.90 (around EUR 20) in cash. Whee 🙂