Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Thirty years from now, we'll be arguing about holograms, or something

Following the recent resurgence in anti-videogame propoganda by Hillary Clinton and Jack Thompson, there've been all sorts of articles and reports about the GTA:SA Hot Coffee mod and so forth.

Now, the "do video games cause violence" debate is raising it's ugly, misguided head once again.

I was in a shop near work this morning grabbing some stuff, and of all magazines, The Economist cover leaped out at me, with this cover, which certinaly implies a much more negative view of the videogame industry than the article actually provides.

Chasing the dream
As video gaming spreads, the debate about its social impact is intensifying

IS IT a new medium on a par with film and music, a valuable educational tool, a form of harmless fun or a digital menace that turns children into violent zombies? Video gaming is all these things, depending on whom you ask.

Gaming has gone from a minority activity a few years ago to mass entertainment. Video games increasingly resemble films, with photorealistic images, complex plotlines and even famous actors. The next generation of games consoles—which will be launched over the next few months by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo—will intensify the debate over gaming and its impact on society, as the industry tries to reach out to new customers and its opponents become ever more vocal. Games consoles are the most powerful mass-produced computers in the world and the new machines will offer unprecedented levels of performance. This will, for example, make possible characters with convincing facial expressions, opening the way to games with the emotional charge of films, which could have broader appeal and convince sceptics that gaming has finally come of age as a mainstream form of entertainment. But it will also make depictions of violence even more lifelike, to the dismay of critics.

This summer there has been a huge fuss about the inclusion of hidden sex scenes in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas", a highly popular, but controversial, game in which the player assumes the role of a street gangster. The sex scenes are not a normal part of the game (see above for a typical image). But the offending scenes can be activated using a patch downloaded from the internet. Senator Hillary Clinton and a chorus of other American politicians have called for federal prosecutors to investigate the game and examine whether the industry's system of self-regulation, which applies age ratings to games, is working properly. Mrs Clinton accused video games of "stealing the innocence of our children" and "making the difficult job of being a parent even harder".

Overall, it presents games in a very positive light, and the quotes from the anti-game brigade make them come across as being incredibly badly informed, especially when they're accompanied by ratios about gamer demographics and crime statistics that show a decrease in violent crimes since the PlayStation was launched in the 1990s.

There's also a pretty good editorial on the subject, that's "premium content" (read: you have to pay for it) on their site. Forunately, I'm at work and extremely bored.

Breeding Evil?
There's no solid evidence that video games are bad for people, and they may be positively good

"It is an evil influence on the youth of our country". A politician condemning video games? Actually, a clergyman denouncing rock and roll 50 years ago. But the sentiment could just as easily have been voiced by Hillary Clinton in the past few weeks, as she blamed video games for "a silent epidemic of media desensitisation" and "stealing the innocence of our children".

The gaming furore centres on "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas", a popular and notoriously violent cops and robbers game that turned out to contain hidden sex scenes that could be unlocked using a patch downloaded from the internet. The resulting outcry (mostly from democrat politicians playing to the centre) caused the game's rating in America to be changed from "mature", which means you have to be 17 to buy it, to "adults only", which means you have to be 18, but also means that big retailers such as Wal-Mart will not stock it. As a result the game has been banned in Australia; and, this autumn, America's Federal Trades Commission will investigate the complaints. That will give gaming's opponents an opportunity to vent their wrath on the industry.

Scepticism of new media is a tradition with deep roots, going back at least as far as Socrates' objection to written texts, outlined in Plato's Phaedrus. Socrates worried that relying on written texts, rather than the oral tradition, would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves." (He also objected that a written version of a speech was no substitute for the ability to interrogate the speaker, since, when questioned, the text "always gives one unvarying answer". His objection, in short, was that books were not interactive. Perhaps Socrates would have thought more highly of video games.)

Novels were once considered too low-brow for university literature courses, but eventually the disapproving professors retired. Waltz music and dancing were condemned in thew 19th century; all that twirling was thought to be "intoxicating" and "depraved", and the music was outlawed in some places. Today it is hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. And rock and roll was thought to encourage violence, promiscuity and satanism; but even today grannies buy Coldplay albums.

Joystick junkies
The opposition to gaming springs largely from the neophobia that has pitted the old against the entertainments of the young for centuries. Most gamers are under 40, and most critics are non-games-playing over-40s. But what of the specific complaints - that games foster addiction and encourage violence?

There's no good evidence for either. On addiction, if the worry is about a generally excessive use of screen-based entertainment, critics shouls surely concern themselves about television rather than games: American teenage boys play videogames for around 13 hours a week (girls for only five hours), yet watch television for around 25 hours a week. As to the minority who seriously overdo it, research suggests that they display addictive behaviour in other ways too. The problem, in other words, is with them, not the games.

Most of the research on whether video games encourage violence is unsatisfactory, focusing primarily on short-term effects. In the best study so far, frequent playing of a violent game sustained over a month had no effect on participants' level of agression. And, during the period in which gaming has become widespread in America, violent crime has fallen by half. If games really did make people violent, this tendency might be expected to show up in the figures, given that half of Americans play computer and video games. Perhaps, as some observers have suggested, gaming actually makes people less violent, by acting as a safety valve.

Neophobes unite
So are games good, rather than bad, for people? Good ones probably are. Games are widely used as educational tools, not just for soldiers, pilots and surgeons, but also in schools and businesses. Every game has its own interface and controls, so that anyone who has learned to play a handful of games can generally figure out how to use any high-tech device. Games require players to construct hypotheses, solve problems, develop strategies, learn the rules of the game-world through trial and error. Gamers must also be able to juggle several different tasks, evaluate risks and make quick decisions. One game, set in 1930s Europe, requires the player to prevent the outbreak of the second world war; other games teach players everything from algebra to derivatives trading. Playing games is, thus, an ideal form of preparation for the workplace of the 21st century, as some forward-thinking firms are starting to realise.

Pointing all this out makes little difference, though, because the controversy over gaming, as with rock and roll, is more than anything the consequence of a generational divide. Can the disagreements between old and young over new forms of media ever be resolved? Some attitudes can change relatively quickly, as happened with the internet. Once condemned as a cesspool of depravity, it is now recognised as a valuable new medium, albeit one where (as with films, TV and, yes, video games) children's access should be limited and supervised. The benefits of a broadband connection are now acknowledged, and politicians worry about extending access to the have-nots. Attitudes changed because the critics of the internet had to start using it for work, and then realised that, like any medium, it could be used for good purposes as well as bad. They have no such incentive to take up gaming, however.

Eventually objections to new media resolve themselves, as the young grow up and the old die out. As today's gamers grow older - the average age of gamers is already 30 - video games will ultimately become just another medium, alongside books, music and films. And soon the greying gamers will start tut-tutting about some new evil threatening to destroy the younger generation's moral fibre.

But that quote of Clinton's is very telling, too - "[videogames are] making the difficult job of being a parent even harder". Parenting is hard, but having to take responsibility for the games you buy your impressionable six-year-old is part of the deal. If a parent buys an M-rated (or, 18-rated in the UK) game for their child, it's the parent's responsibility if something goes wrong, not the game company who branded their product as unsuitable for under-17s. Games ratings are there for a reason, and while it wasn't surprising to see politicans call for enforcement of the rules, most of the time store clerks don't sell GTA San Andreas to any underage kids - they sell it to the over-18 parent who's buying something for their spoiled brat and doesn't even bother to check the game's content before they use it to raise their child instead of doing some actual parenting.

Like rock and roll in the 1950s, games have been accepted by the young and largely rejected by the old. Once the young are old, and the old are dead, games will be regarded as just another medium and the debate will have moved on. Critics of gaming do not just have the facts against them; they have history against them, too. "Thirty years from now, we'll be arguing about holograms, or something," says Mr Williams.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Free vs. "Free" (wink wink)

I've spent the last few months trying to move away from the less-than-legal software I use on my laptop, mostly for website stuff. I've dumped DreamWeaver in favour of PSPad for HTML and PHP coding, and replaced PhotoShop with The GIMP for image manipulation. I use a legally-licensed version of CuteFTP now (have done for aages, though), and a freeware SSH client for MySQL database management. I've not used Internet Explorer at home for more than a year thanks to Firefox, and all my email lands in Thunderbird. I run my own local SMTP server through PostCast. I use OpenOffice.Org in place of Word and Excel.

A couple of days ago, someone asked me why.

The free software I use now does pretty much exactly the same job as the "free" (wink wink) stuff I've been using for years, and in a lot of cases I have to get used to an entirely different interface before I can get the stuff to do what I want. The GIMP was the longest transition - took me forever to figure out how to stroke text, after Photoshop's three-click version.

Generally speaking, the software isn't free for me either; I usually donate between $10-20 to the developers behind these applications. Granted, even $20 is a steal compared to the $600 they charge for a new version of Photoshop.

I guess I just like supporting the little guys who code these fantastic pieces of software for free. There's something more satisfying about using a program created by a group of people doing it for the enjoyment of coding, rather than something churned out by the Beast Of Redmond or a bunch of rip-off artists. Nothing against the developers, just their corporate masters.

On top of that, I can get the newest versions of the free stuff without having to hunt for a (possibly virus-laden) installer for the "free" (wink wink) stuff, then trying to get an install code that'll validate the thing properly. Plus, I get the support from the group that released it if anything goes screwy.

I'm a big fan of the idea that information should be free, especially on the internet, and I like to support the idea that if a piece of software is good enough, people will pay you for it. That's a much better idea than charging an extortionate amount simply because you produce the "industry standard" program and can get away with ripping people off to the tune of $600. There aren't anywhere near $150(times however many copies they'll sell)-worth of improvements between the two latest commercial releases of Photoshop either, so there's no excuse to charge people that much for the upgrade. The download version should have shipping and packaging costs stripped as well.

But yeah. Free software is good - and what's more, it's worth paying for.