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Does this game ban make my gov't look bloated?

(This was originally written for a more general audience, but I thought you might find it of interest.) As today's U.S. midterms come and go, what ranks among your most pressing topics in American politics? Health care? The surging national debt? Public education inequality? For far too many opportunistic representatives around the country, it's the scourge of video games. Politicians have attempted to ban video games, an evolving but stigmatized form of entertainment and literature, for more than a decade. And in a dozen or so cases, judges in Illinois, Washington, Alabama, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana and elsewhere have struck down politicians' efforts for offending the First Amendment. Have hundreds of wasted man hours and millions of flubbed taxpayer dollars changed their minds? Not at all. Fred Morgan is a Republican representative in the Oklahoma House, and he's the latest politician who wants to tell you how to live your life. Morgan concocted, the state legislature passed and the Democratic governor signed a "games-as-porn" bill to ban "obscene" games in Oklahoma. Morgan is an ingenious fellow -- the bill, HB3004, shamelessly borrows language from a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that uses "contemporary community standards" to judge obscenity and pornography. Knowing that other game bans have fallen due to First Amendment concerns, Morgan is framing his bill to withstand judicial scrutiny. Morgan told GameSpot it "was a way of setting community standards on what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. ... There are social issues that are bothering the American public. One of the things that came out in this debate is that we don't want Hollywood values being determined for Oklahoma." HB3004 was to go into effect Nov. 1, but a legal appeal by the game industry means a judge will decide the would-be law's fate. Remember in the mid-1990s when only Democrats, notably Connecticut Sen. Joseph Liebermann, championed the anti-game movement? Now pandering "values" Republicans have jumped on the bandwagon. If there is one thing U.S. pols can agree on -- one issue that can bring about bipartisan support in an otherwise polarized, post-Sept. 11 nation -- it may be restricting your right to think for yourself when buying a video game. Isn't it nice to know our leaders' priorities are straight? The 10th Amendment's states'-rights philosophy, which Morgan uses to justify his ban, should be a bastion of liberty. But for all of American history, politicians have perverted it to support wicked local "values" destructive to liberty, most notably slavery. Morgan's bill invokes states' rights and shifts the focus to violently and sexually explicit games as though they run rampant. But where are they? Not in the American marketplace. Since 1994, only 23 games in the U.S. have received the game industry's highest rating, Adults Only, according to the ESRB. Only 15 percent of all games sold in 2005 were rated Mature, the equivalent of the movie industry's R rating. Nearly all retail stores -- including Wal-Mart, GameStop and EB Games, which together control about 50 percent of the retail game market -- refuse to sell AO-rated games. Violence in video games is prevalent (as it is in movies and primetime network TV), but sex is not. And it takes more than a leap of faith to link video games with pornography than with movies, TV or books. Somewhere along the line, HB3004 will die a straightforward, predictable death at the hands of a judge who follows judicial precedent. Morgan's constituents -- who will end up footing the bill for the legal appeals -- should not forgive their representative. Why, then, are pols so eager to ban games? Morgan and others are stuck in the mind-set that games are for kids (much like Trix are for kids). But they're wrong. In 2005, the average game player was 33 years old, and 69 percent of all heads of American households played games, according to the ESA. The younger generations that picked up game controllers in the 1980s and ‘90s aren't letting go. But poor marketing on the part of video game companies has helped ingrain into Americans the biased idea that games are for kids. Take a trip across the Pacific to Japan or South Korea, where games aren't just accepted, they're embraced. Koreans treat a star game player like he's Michael Jordan. But Korea's glitzy, social acceptance is America's dorky underground. Here, fan conventions stock booths with comic books, sci-fi novels, games and other nerd media practically holding hands. It's easy to see why video games are the latest in a long line of repressed media. But that doesn't make it acceptable. Americans: Visit GamePolitics for a good summary of the politicans who face reelection today.

Reuters, statistics and ****

Since when have highly biased, voluntary, Internet-based polls been a valid source of statistics for a news story? In a story via Yahoo News ("Dad pulls gun on son's football coach," Oct. 23), a Reuters reporter cited an online Web poll (see "Hot Topic Poll 1") in a story about a father who pulled a gun on his son's football coach. After running down the man's charges, Reuters says parents' behavior at sporting events is coming under "scrutiny" lately, adding:
An Internet straw poll of nearly 3,000 by the U.S. Web-based Center for Sports Parenting (http://www.internationalsport.com/csp/index.cfm) found that 85 percent of the participants had witnessed parents or coaches becoming verbally abusive during games. Forty percent had seen physical abuse.
The poll on the Center for Sports Parenting's Web site is one that anyone using the Internet can vote on. It asks, "Have you, as a sports parent, ever witness (sic) another parent or coach becoming verbally abusive during game?" The poll had received 3,029 when I found it. According to the poll, 85.5 percent said yes and 14.5 percent said no. The same Web site features a poll, on the same page, in which nearly 90 percent of the respondents said student-athletes do better on their schoolwork because they participate in sports (see poll No. 4). Right. The Reuters-cited stat already cannot be considered serious -- flaws in the sample and selection amount its scientific validity to nothing -- but the response to poll No. 4 should confirm that this center's Web-based poll data is unreliable. Web-based polls are for humor or entertainment. Ino no way are they are fit for an otherwise serious news story.

This has nothing to do with video games, part 2

(This is another editorial I wrote for a journalism class. It has absolutely nothing to do with video games, so read at your own caution. It's about the banning of skinny runway models in Spain. Don't worry: A video-game-related editorial will come in a few weeks.) Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" may be the most well-known yet incorrectly interpreted American axiom in history. Applied correctly, and it guarantees what everyone has from birth -- natural equal rights. But irresponsible applications, holding that people should be equal, strip people of their innate virtues, rendering humankind faceless and featureless. In early September, the Spanish government chose to incorrectly apply the famous declaration. A regional government in Madrid banned female models whose body-mass indexes fell under 18 from taking part in Pasarela Cibeles, the Spain fashion week. The Anorexia and Bulimia Association in Spain urged Spanish legislators, if fashion designers refused the new rules, to pass state laws banning thin models from the government-sponsored show. While well intentioned, the government's dismissal of individual rights in favor of groupthink "protections" is a clumsy, broad attack on the liberty and free speech of fashion designers and women. Spain said the thin-model ban will "help ensure public opinion does not associate fashion" with eating disorders. At uncritical glance, that reason seems legitimate. The Ministry of Health said the nation was experiencing an "epidemic" in 1999, when 100,000 14- to 24-year-old girls in Spain had an eating disorder, or were likely to develop one. Never mind that that number only implicates 0.5 percent to 2 percent of all 14- to 24-year-olds in Spain -- well below epidemic proportions. Never mind that that the inclusion of the group of girls "at high risk of developing" an eating disorder, which cannot be calculated with certainty, involves a subjective assessment that could only inflate the total. Anthony Pernas, a Spain fashion week designer, didn't lambaste the ban, even though it forced him to replace 18 models at his Madrid show. "It gave us problems, but look, this industry sets an example to young women," Pernas told Reuters. "We want to project a healthy image, so I'm not against the measures." Of course he is not. Now that Madrid's government sets the rules, it is like a dictatorial referee, able to change the rules when it wants; it could oust Pernas or any other designer from the fashion economy's largest event. The extent of the damage is irrelevant, because a government rarely gives up power once it has seized it. The fashion industry, instead, should have the right to outlaw from their shows those who break the rules, not those who look like they break the rules. Like sports athletes, models must work to condition their bodies for professional competition. For athletes, cheating is steroids; for models, eating disorders and illegal drugs. Allowing designers to control their shows maximizes everyone's liberty -- not a superficial governmental umbrella, eerily similar to racial profiling, that punishes both the abusers and the innocent. Luckily, there is good news in Europe, when organizers of London's fashion week rejected the government's call to invoke a similar ban. Madrid can learn a thing or two from the English capital: London's fashion week, like others in U.S. cities, is controlled by a non-profit, non-governmental body, the British Fashion Council. (Most American shows are run by for-profit marketing companies.) Had the show been in the "people's" hands, however, British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's urging that "organizers of London Fashion Week (should) do the same" as in Spain could have been enough to warrant censorship. It was in Spain. The counter-examples in London and Madrid should guide designers to distance themselves from government, or face censorship. There is another side to the argument. Critics argue that the fashion industry glorifies the unattainable, encouraging impressionable girls to go to drastic measures to look like the fashion idols. But if such a small percentage of young girls, let alone the entire Spanish population, are affected, why is action necessary? If the words of Pernas, the fashion designer, are genuine, then it is an encouraging step a designer is taking toward social consciousness. But he shouldn't be forced by the government to do so. Despite the good intentions, the bans are more a restriction of freedom of expression than anything else. Some may not like the "speech" of a fashion show, which highlights who is wearing the clothing as much as the garments themselves, but it must be allowed, as other unpopular opinions such as Nazism and racism are. Unfortunately for the Spanish government, not everyone is the same. The Madrid fashion week bans are simply the latest extension of the equality-versus-freedom political conundrum. If diversity makes humankind beautiful, it should be embraced -- and fashion designers should have the liberty to choose who wears their clothing. Ideally, designers would be more responsible about whom they deem beautiful, yet they also shouldn't have to by law. Among the controversy, there is one constant: Unless the fashion industry wants its liberty revoked in the future, it should get its business away from government.

This has nothing to do with video games

(This is an editorial I wrote for a journalism class. It has absolutely nothing to do with video games, so read at your own caution. It's about Indiana University-Bloomington's problem of overbooking residence halls this semester and a critique of the university's response. This is what I do when I should be working on homework due tomorrow.) In late August, 67 Indiana University students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, thought that reserved, paid dorm rooms awaited their arrival to Bloomington. Instead, they found a university's bungling excuses. Overbooking, IU said, was why the students would have to live for weeks in "temporary housing" -- floor lounges, each holding several students -- until permanent dorm rooms became available. Three weeks later on Sept. 15, the crisis ended when Residential Programs and Services, the on-campus student housing department, said it had found permanent rooms for the last 22 students. The university, it added, would reimburse displaced students at a rate of $2.69 a day. IU's tactics should be questioned -- overbooking rooms, knowing some may end up room-less, is unethical -- but they aren't illegal. Rather, the university's reluctance to pay for its misjudgments hurts IU most. The overbooking debacle was a problem of miscommunication and money, said Residence Halls Association President Matthew Jarson. If IU wants to avoid the problem in the future, he said, separate university departments should coordinate their efforts with one another; a systemwide database of enrollment statistics "could have avoided the whole situation." And more money to build a new dorm on top of the demolished Ashton complex will "make sure overcrowding is a great story, not something we actually worry about," Jarson added. But a new dorm is unlikely to prevent future overbooking in the long run: Would IU not simply continue to overbook to fill the dorms' expanded space? And the university's incentive to remedy overbooking, at least in the short term, is low. New undergraduates are most likely to be affected by overcrowding, yet they are the least likely to do something about their misfortune. Freshmen, by IU requirement, are barred from living anywhere but RPS's select few. Sophomores, already with their first year of college under their belts, are less likely to transfer if overcrowding rubs them the wrong way. After finding rooms for the final 22 displaced students, RPS announced a rate of $2.69 a day to pay them back for their inconvenience (about $55 total for those displaced for three weeks). But the university's rate is inadequate, pity reimbursement to students. About 230 academic days make up IU's fall 2006 and spring 2007 semesters. Forest Quad and Briscoe Quad share a $3,304 yearly rate for a shared, two-person double room -- a popular choice for freshmen and sophomores -- which runs more than $14 a day to live in those dorms. At Teter Quad's rate of $3,760, that's more than $16 daily. Many students opt for more privacy without a roommate: In Forest and Briscoe, a single is about $4,400 a year, $19 a day. Teter ups the price to $4,848, a $21 daily cost. In short, it has cost students paying for a single in Forest or Briscoe, the cheapest of the above plans, at least $300 since the year began. Students assigned to pricier dorms or single rooms have paid more. That's hardly $55. Displaced students seem indifferent to the low discount, according to those interviewed by the Indiana Daily Student, but that could be because they're not paying for their rooms. Indeed, the lone parent interviewed by the IDS said the $2.69 rate didn't cut it. The displaced students should have received a heftier reimbursement, Jarson conceded. "It was the mistake of the university for various reasons," he said, "and we should have done a little more to make up for it." A public overcrowding debacle at a given school can "absolutely" convince prospective students to spend their college years elsewhere, said Mike Marshall, the chairperson of the National Association of College and University Resident Halls. Still, he said, a few weeks living in temporary housing doesn't significantly affect students' college experience. "I wouldn't say that they'd be missing out on opportunities to gain leadership experience on campus or anything like that," Marshall said. Once it knew overcrowding was inevitable, IU didn't do a bad job quickly coordinating living arrangements for the displaced, despite its excuses and laughable reimbursement rate. Many of the students interviewed by the IDS said they enjoyed, or at least didn't mind, the physical infrastructure of their lounges. "It's comfortable for now," sophomore Greg Grier told the paper. "... At least they're trying to do something." The wait may be over this year, but not necessarily in the future. "In big banner years when everyone wants to come to IU, we may face this issue again," RPS's Sara Ivey-Lucas told the IDS, "and that's just a part of the cycle of what happens." In a typical dorm environment, "trying to live with another 50 people on the same floor and sharing a bathroom teaches you a lot of things," the RHA's Jarson said. IU's bad press should teach prospective students one thing -- to look elsewhere for their schooling. Maybe it will force the university's administration and housing departments to pay their fair share when the inevitable "cycle" of overbooking strikes again.

What is wrong with this picture?

Case 1: Manhandling the computer at its highest difficulty level in Capcom vs. SNK 2 for the PlayStation 2 is a regular occurrence for me. Case 2: It takes me several continues to beat the computer in Street Fighter Anniversary Collection when playing Street Fighter II at its easiest difficulty level, usually just before I decide to plunge my arcade stick through my television screen. Seriously, the computer in Street Fighter II cheats so bad. Not only that, I'm much better at Street Fighter II than Capcom vs. SNK 2. Grr. One of the biggest part of the former's gameplay -- anticipating what move your opponent will make and when -- is thrown out the window because the computer can react instantly to counter whatever it is you are doing.

I love George Lucas

Why? Because he can release crap like this, this and this -- individual DVDs of 30-year-old movies for $30 each -- and is sure to make millions. Two weeks before they come out and, in order, the latest editions of the classic Star Wars trilogy sits at No. 63, No. 70 and No. 86 on Amazon's list of top-selling DVDs. Take away the dozens of ridiculous TV box sets -- I'm flabbergasted by how many there are and how well they sell -- and the sales of those repackaged Star Wars movies is even more impressive. Invariably, the movie nerds are up in arms. "How many times we can buy a movie?" says one Amazon user in a [sic]-filled "review" of the A New Hope disc. "I plain buying it one more time, but not now. I'll wait when George Lucas releases them in a high defention format. I'll set back a wait until one format kills the other." Sure. The Star Wars trilogy box set was a No. 1 seller on Amazon, and I'm sure the VHS set would have been too if the Internet had been more popular then. Face it: Millions of people have bought the Star Wars movies, and millions more will buy them, whether it's on HD-DVD, Blu-ray, standard DVDs, VHS tapes or Sony UMDs. (OK, maybe not that last one. No one can be that stupid, right?) The movie nerds complain, but who cares? Lucas knows re-releases will make him another bundle, and for that I commend him. You're the man now, dog.

Mario for the win (FTW!)

Slowly but surely, each new Nintendo action RPG has become a beloved game of mine. It started many years ago with Super Mario RPG on the SNES. I never become a Final Fantasy fan until the PlayStation days, so Mario RPG (and Zelda) were the go-to games for some epic gaming experiences. I never played the N64's Paper Mario, but the GameCube's Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of my favorite games ever. Ever. After about 2 1/2 hours of Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time on my shiny new DS Lite, it seems to be straddling the line between the accessibility and difficulty well. I'm surprised by its challenge, particularly with combat but also in puzzles. Now that its predecessor, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, is a steal at $20, I will be buying it again. (I once owned it and a GBA, but in a moment of stupidity sold them both.) The only problem -- if you can call it that -- is Partners in Time's emphasis on gameplay over story. Whereas The Thousand-Year Door had a great story I played for tens of hours to seek resolution, the DS game only seems to take the classic Mario-must-rescue-Princess storyline one short step further. And unless I'm mistaken, each of the latest Nintendo consoles have only seen one entry in the Mario RPG games: the original on the SNES, Paper Mario on the N64, The Thousand-Year Door on the GameCube, Superstar Saga on the GBA, and now Partners in Time on the DS. Luckily we're coming up on a new generation, and I have high hopes for an entry on the Wii. In other new-game news, I bought The Ship via Steam last night. The first hour, I hated the game; the graphics aren't up to Half-Life 2's snuff, and it took a while to grasp what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Now that I do understand the mechanics, however, I realize this game represents a truly innovative game experience -- certainly within the barren realm of first-person-shooting innovation. I'll probably make a later post on The Ship, though.

The uninformed

Some Old White Guy on C-SPAN just called it "Grant Auto Theft." Seriously, how? It's named after the felony, grand theft auto. That said, Book TV on C-SPAN 2--and a lot of C-SPAN's non-"let's watch Congress on TV!" programming in general--is one of my favorite TV shows.

A few thoughts after Sony's conference

--Sony definitely took the last year's cut-scene Killzone criticism to heart. So two of its bigger PlayStation 3 titles, Eight Days and that one 1950s-era FPS, really emphasized the in-game-playable-trailer aspect of their demos, which is good. Still, let's hope they're more than just fancy graphics. --Luckily, Sony ditched the boomarang controller in favor of a classic Dual Shock 2 design, and it's wireless to boot. That means all three consoles will feature wireless controllers. I'm don't care much about the 6-degree motion crap--if you're going to swipe someone's (Nintendo's) idea, you might as well go full throttle. The Wii's functionality sounds superior in every way, whereas Sony's reaction seems cheap and tacked-on. --Will the $500-to-$600 PS3 suffer the same fate as the 3DO? Probably not, thanks to name recognition alone, but I'm definitely not buying a PS3 anytime soon at those prices. Without a killer app, I doubt many others will, either. It's ridiculous--I'll take a Wii and 360 instead. Assuming the pre-E3 news from Time magazine and other outlets about the Wii is accurate, is Nintendo's cat out of the bag? If so, Microsoft has suddenly become my most anticipated conference! Whooda thought? (A few hours ago, they were No. 3.) Although I didn't go to any of the press conferences when I attended E3 in 2004, I must say roaming the show floor, talking to developers, and spending quality time with games is much more exhilierating than watching those press conferences. But let the real games begin. Enough conferences. Show floor time, baby. Ah yeah. Diggin' it. Whachoo gonna do when the Hulkster comes after you? (Et al.) Whatever.

Thoughts, reflections, and an expose on Resident Evil

Resident Evil 2 was the game that finally persuaded me to buy the original PlayStation back in 1998. By that definition, it was a system seller. And for that it forever holds a place in my gamer heart, as I am (a self-described) Resident Evil whore. What better then, coming off the shotgun-induced high that was Resident Evil 4 (see my previous entry), to replay that classic this weekend? That’s what I thought--nothing! The mood Friday night was good. A super cell of intense thunderstorms and tornadoes were rampaging their way across the Midwestern United States. Lightning bolts struck and lit the entire sky, and my house’s foundation shook without the help of a subwoofer this time (thanks, thunder). Sounds like good ol' Raccoon City already. A lot has changed since 1998, but after two back-to-back gaming marathons playing each, I now see that Resident Evil 2 and 4 stack up quite differently in what each is as a video game and what each expects of the player. Resident Evil 4, as has been widely reported, ditched the frustrating puzzle and adventure elements of the original games. Instead it favored hard-nosed gunplay and action more akin to a first-person shooter. Yes, there were a lot of shooting, maiming, killing, and other good-natured bloodshed in the original games, but it was mostly removed from the player. Guns aimed precisely at enemies' weak points with the touch of a button, without any player effort. It was more a struggle to reach those enemies, traveling through the games’ labyrinth locales, than to murder them when you found them. While I'm glad to see the regressive components--set number of saves, small inventory system, awkward control and camera setups--gone, I still have a soft spot for those clunkier aspects. Don't get me wrong. I love the new-style Resident Evil 4. I’ve invested scores of hours into it, and the upcoming Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sequel is easily my most anticipated game of the next generation of gaming. But Resident Evil 4 can be seen as a marked regression from the earlier games, both in what it demands from and values in the player. Consider what each game commits the player to. RE4 commits the player to killing the enemy--and not much more. A bit of very straightforward item-gathering and puzzle-solving, perhaps, but not much. Progression in the game seldom means exploration, thinking, or planning, but instead running from clearly visible point A to clearly visible point B. The earlier games also demanded, of course, the player kill the enemy. But it was a killing process developers downplayed, based on its simplicity, mentioned earlier. More precisely, you only killed zombies and other virus-infected foes in order to find rook plugs and serpent stones and vases and spade keys and red rubies and lab cardkeys. Only then could your goal be solved. You fought through zombies, not to them. Fighting was the means, not the end. In Resident Evil 4, when the bodies hit the floor, you’re done. In Resident Evil 2, you’ve just begun. We see this line drawn across the video game genre map all the time. It’s largely a distinction between strategy and action, planning and doing. Or, in specific game genres, between first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Do you want to be the military general calling the shots, or the soldier in the tank carrying out the orders? (Insert joke about the classic Resident Evils’ “tank”-style control scheme here.) I am bullying Resident Evil 4, and have only discussed its weaknesses, but it's a tough little game and it can take it. Already, it’s one of my favorite video games ever, easily deserving of GameSpot’s 2005 Game of the Year award. And in many ways, each new entry in the series has ramped up the action that much more than its predecessor did. Resident Evil 4 may be merely a product of its series' natural development. After all, one of Resident Evil 2’s biggest criticisms--even shortly after its release--was its emphasis on action over puzzles. Capcom’s latest is simply the culmination of the direction the series staked out, way back in 1998.
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