The Pointed Finger: Violent Video Games

By Max Gruber

I am a gamer. That should not come across anyone as a surprise to those reading this. I love video games as a form of entertainment. Since the first prototype of the Cathode ray tube Amusement Device in 1947 (simply put, the earliest example of a video game platform), many people began to grow an energetic fascination with the technology. “When we started making video games”, Pitfall Creator David Crane said, “We looked into the future and said, ‘This is going to be as big as television, or bigger, because it’s interactive.’” The landscape of the mass media industry has evolved so much since then, that trends begin to emerge—ideas are constantly shared and envisioned everyday.

Video games have hit a critical mass so giant, it’s begun enveloping other forms of media as they try to catch up to the latest trends. Movie studios like Warner Brothers jumped into the gaming landscape when they were getting their start, publishing titles like the Batman Arkham series, The Lord of the Rings, the recent Mortal Kombat, Bastion, Scribblenauts, The Witcher 2 (and the upcoming Witcher 3), and many more—all of which have been a tremendous success. Over the years, electronic gaming has become a phenomenon in and of itself. And, statistically speaking, they speak for themselves; video games gross more than the movie industry. With titles like Halo, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, and many other big named franchises driving the sales of the gaming industry.

As bright of a future as it seems, there is, unfortunately one obstacle blocking its path into the public consensus, one that threatens the very industry we cherish and love dearly: the controversy surrounding violent video games. But, as much as I want to jump right into the heart of the issue, we have to start from the beginning of this controversy, and that starts back in 1992.

The History of Violent Video Games and the ESRB

The history of this subject dates back many years, when video games were still a relatively unknown industry. I spoke with my mother, 54, about what gaming was like back in her time. While she never owned a video game console, she remembered a friend of hers (who would later be her husband, and my father) who was obsessed with arcade games when he was working at a bar.

“Whenever he would clock out or go on a break”, she told me, “he would go straight to the arcade room and would fancy himself with Mrs. Pacman. He was obsessed with it, and even got amazingly good at it, to the point that no one could ever beat his high score.”

Now, there were plenty of violent video games back in the day, and other, more… questionable and objectionable titles back then. But, all of this started back in 1992, with a game called Mortal Kombat.

The game featured scenes of intense violence in the form of Fatalities, an execution-style attack that could only be used when the adversary’s health was depleted twice. The Fatalities ranged from the mild (Liu Kang’s barrage of attacks, Sonya’s fiery kiss and Scorpion’s fire breath), to the absurd and over-the-top (Kano’s Heart Rip, Sub-Zero’s Skull and Spine Removal—pretty much everything else).

Upon seeing the Fatalities, the entire public went into a moral panic that led to various Congressmen speaking up to start a U.S. Congressional hearing on video game violence and the corruption of society to these forms of media. Leading the hearing from late 1992 to 1993, were, now retired, Democratic Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl. In the hearing, all of the involved parties were concerned with the portrayal of realistic replicas of human characters in video games, such as Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers. The hearing did not discuss the portrayal of cartoonish characters in violent video games, like Eternal Champions.

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Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the two men that would change the gaming industry for the rest of time.

Wikipedia

As a result of the hearings, the entire entertainment software industry was given a year to create a functional rating system similar to the MPAA ratings; one that would easily identify the content in the product. If they were unable to do so, the federal government would step in and create one. At the time, there were various rating systems created by various companies. Sega formed the Videogame Rating Council (VRC), but the rating system was mainly in place to rate its own games. Following that, the 3DO Company created its own rating system, the 3DO Rating System. Similarly, the rating system was only used for its 3DO Interactive Multiplayer console. The 3DO Rating System would later be discontinued after a certain rating system would be implemented in full.

In 1993, one of the various rating systems was pending approval from Congress: the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). In 1994, the Software Publishers Association formed the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Then, on July 29th, 1994, the IDSA’s rating system, known today as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), was presented to Congress and was approved. In September 1994, following the approval from Congress, the ESRB rating system was established, becoming the official rating system for American video games. Originally, a handful of video game companies like LucasArts, Sierra On-Line, and 3D Realms followed the RSAC system, but would eventually migrate over to the ESRB. Its impact is still shown to this day. Scour through your old library of video games, and you’ll see the rating at the bottom left of the box, and on the game disk/cartridge.

Initially, the rating system consisted of five ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. But overtime, it grew to seven ratings: Early Childhood, Everyone (replacing Kids to Adults), Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, Adults Only, and Rating Pending.

Ratings for a game work similarly to ratings for movies and television: the publishers send out a short film on a DVD containing footage of the most graphic and extreme content in the game. These can contain content related to the game’s context, such as the story, reward system, and anything that might affect the overall rating. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the content in the game, while paying a small fee—which is generally lower for games that have development budgets under $1 million.

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Today’s ESRB rating system.

KitGuru

After the ESRB was put in place, the world went on its merry little way; everything went on by, as if nothing ever happened. Of course, there was the occasional incidence of crime or violent behavior that is directly influenced by video games, but no one seemed to have a care in the world. That was, until recently, the video game industry would once again take center stage in the fiasco, this time, in Newport, Connecticut, on December 14th, 2012:

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

On December 14th, 2012, some time before 9:30 am EST, Adam Peter Lanza, 20, shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, four times in the head before leaving the house. He then drove five miles to Sandy Hook Elementary School. At 9:35 am, using his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, Lanza shot his way through a locked glass door at the front of the school and marched straight in.

Before he entered the school, Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were holding a meeting with other faculty members of the school. At that moment, when they heard the gunshots from outside, Hochsprung, Sherlach, and lead teacher Natalie Hammond left the meeting to see what the commotion was. As they left, standing before them was Adam Lanza, staring them down the hallway. One of the faculty members attending the meeting heard the three women shout, “Shooter! Stay put!” At that exact moment, Lanza opened fire and killed Hochsprung and Sherlach. Hammond fled to the meeting room and pressed her back against the door to keep it closed. Lanza fired into the door, wounding Hammond in the arm and leg. The sound of gunshots rang through the school’s intercom.

For the next twenty minutes, he moved from classroom to classroom, killing anyone that stood in his way. It was reported that he frequently reloaded his gun dozens of times, even when he only had half a cartridge left in his clip. When police arrived to the scene, he fled from them, and shot himself in the head with a Glock 10mm inside one of the classrooms he was in. In those twenty minutes, Adam Lanza killed six staff members, twenty first-grade students, and wounded two people in his rampage.

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A young mother discovers the fate of her child during the shooting.

KSBW

During an investigation of the massacre, detectives searched the Lanza’s house for any clues as to what happened. As they searched the house, they searched one of the bedrooms and discovered more than a thousand rounds of ammunition, and a trove of various rifles, including a .45 Henry rifle, a .30 Enfield rifle, and a .22 Marlin rifle. The guns were legally owned by Adam’s mother, who was described as a gun enthusiast. When they searched the basement for additional clues, they discovered a pile that contained “thousands of dollars worth of graphically violent video games”. When this tidbit of evidence was found, dozens of news outlets were in uproar that video games were involved in a mass shooting that claimed the lives of so many people. And then we move on to the present issue.

The News Outlets

In recent times, various news networks, like CNN, Fox, ABC, etc. have been on a quest of sorts to demoralize video games, because of the violent nature these video games are to others. They go out of their way to unjustifiably denunciate video games with the “fact” that they are a link-up to crime and violence in recent memory. Fox and Friends host Elisabeth Hasselbeck spoke to a group of panelists about the shooting in Washington D.C.’s Navy yard, and how the killer was known by a friend to have played video games. “Are more people susceptible… maybe more susceptible than others to playing video games”, she spoke, “Is there a link between a certain age group or [demographic] in twenty and thirty year-old men, perhaps, that are playing these video games than in their violent actions?”

Later in the discussion, she looked at the “possibility” of video games being monitored through frequency testing.

“What about frequency testing? How often has this game been played? I’m not one to get in there and monitor everything, but if this indeed is a strong link to mass killings, then why aren’t we looking at frequency of purchases per person? And also, how often they’re playing and how many—maybe they time out after a certain hour.” It seems like whenever news of a crime or murder occurs somewhere in the U.S., the news outlets will go out of their way to immediately point fingers at and shift the blame to video games. One reason why they may be doing this is because it’s easier to blame something big than to blame something petty and small, because it gets attention—and, sadly, that big, attention grabber is video games.

“People like to make a causal link and say video games cause violence”, Cliff Bleszinski, former Design Director of Epic Games’ Gears of War and Unreal Tournament said, “It’s like, ‘Well, let’s see. So, there’s more crime in the summer, and more ice cream has sold in the summer—therefore ice cream causes crime.’ That’s not how legitimate scientific research works.”

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Elisabeth Hasselbeck and two other men discussing violent video games.

Fox News

Sometimes, the news outlets would needlessly steer the narrative and comment that the video game was involved in the crime for the sake of garnering more hits. On August 26th, 2013, an article on CNN was posted about an eight-year-old who shot and killed his grandmother. The culprit? Grand Theft Auto IV—not the kid, a video game. When it was posted, the news article was immediately slammed by various commenters for contributing nothing to the story, and was nothing more than a blatant attention grab. One commenter, James Black, commented on the article, asking, “Why did an eight year old have access to a gun? Good job America and way to go CNN lets find anyone to blame but the people directly responsible.” Another comment was made of the same news article, this time from Seraphna on Kotaku, where they asked how an eight-year-old was able to play Grand Theft Auto IV. “So my two questions remain: 1. Why the hell was there a gun just laying around!? 2. Why was an 8 year old allowed to play that game?”

And it isn’t just the news outlets that do this; it’s also various talk shows that condemn violent video games. On May 2nd, 2013, Katie Couric, known for her work on The Today Show, Dateline NBC, 60 Minutes, and her talk show Katie, did an hour long exposé on the potential risks of addictive and, most notably, violent video games. The discussion focused on two specific events: the 2007 news story of Daniel Petric, a teenager who murdered his mother, and shot his father after they took away his copy of Halo 3 when they were worried that he had become addicted to the game, and Quinn Pitcock, the former Indianapolis Colts draft pick who gave up his career after falling into a bout of depression and compulsive gaming.

While it attempted to be rational and sympathetic about the subject, it boiled down to nothing more than shameless scare tactics meant to paint video games under a bad light. Kotaku journalist Chris Person described it as “essentially a maudlin, fear-mongering and clichéd piece of television meant to provide easy answers and scapegoats to very real, complicated problems.” The editors of Katie used every trite imaginable: Flashy edits, eerie and pensive music, framed shots of gameplay featuring a gun, and shots of someone’s hands violently wrestling and pounding on the controller in a very stereotypical manner.

Introduction to the aired episode.

Kotaku

A day later, Katie posted a tweet on her Twitter account (@katiecouric), asking, “Passionate gamers upset w convo whether violent video games can contribute to v behavior. Tweet the positive side of violent v games? Thanx!” When her tweet was shared to the world, it was met with marring comments that told her out—but not in the traditional gamer way of spewing pointless death threats: the comments ranged from the self-referential (“I'm a 40 YO college professor & dad. I play all games for mental stimulation and good stories. Violence is part of our world” –@casparnic, “Friendship and Comradery. The people I played those games with as a child remain some of my closest friends.” –@DeathbyHappy), the scientific and informative (“Studies have shown that certain games can help establish quicker reflexes, better vision, and also think faster.” –@SidtheKid323, “A lot of them involve a good deal of strategy; teamwork in multiplayer mode. And they're fun. Clean way to relieve stress.” –@UVaKareBear), and even very rational (“Many excellent stories do involve death and pain to add to the realism and emotional drama - why should games be any different?” –@TinyPixelBlock, “To the people who say ‘video games perpetuate violence’; please tell me what video games were being played 500 years ago.” –‏@IrregularDave)

Some even go as far as making wild and erroneous assertions and assumptions of video games by using buzzwords that get across their “points”. On June 21st, 2013, Fox Business aired a discussion on the John Stossel Show about the recent crimes that have been a result of people playing video games. On it, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and the CEO of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was discussing about Jesus (he’s one of those types of people), and how he “understands violence.” When he started discussing about violent video games, and how people are playing them and then grabbing their guns and go around, shooting people, John Stossel raised his hands to his chest, and motioned him to stop, saying, “Whoa whoa whoa.” He followed with this statistic:

“You talk about all this stuff… but crime is down; Youth offences are down. Maybe it’s good for kids! We don’t know!”

After that, Franklin responded with this statement (guess which part of the quote is the aforementioned “buzzword”):

“I would say it’s not good for anybody to watch murder. These video games, to me, are murder simulators, is what they are—and it’s very dangerous.”

I don’t want to swear, but seriously? What the fuck is wrong with people making these absurd statements? If they were really “murder simulators”, how come these publicly traded companies that make these “murder simulators” have not been arrested? How have they been publishing these “murder simulators” for over 40 years without any trouble from law enforcements?

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John Stossel, pictured left, telling Franklin Graham, pictured right, to stop.

Kotaku

Anyway, moving away from my utter diatribe, John continued with his use of statistics, this time pulling out a statistic showcasing the crime differences between North America and Japan, and how even though Japan has more video games than the U.S., firearm deaths in Japan is actually dramatically less there than it is in North America.

“In Japan, they watch twice as many of these video games, and the murder rate is a fraction. You look at crime per hundred thousand people—ten firearm deaths in the United States, less than one in Japan, and so on. There’s just no evidence that playing the games causes people to run around and shoot people.”

At this point, Franklin is simply faffing about, and even agreed with him, but he states that the President and Congress need to fix this country, and that violence is an epidemic. John, continuing his streak of pulling out information when it’s needed, discusses the similar treatment of video games today to comic books in the past.

“In the 1950s, the villain was the comic book. The Senate claimed comics were causing juvenile delinquency, and in one hearing, a so-called ‘Forensics Scientist’ said, ‘One comic promotes sadistic fantasies to kids.’ That comic was Superman.” John ended the discussion by saying, “I can’t imagine what more study we could have other than the fact that the games are more popular, and crime is down.”

Many people in the gaming industry have even come out and defended this industry with their own comments about the news industry demonizing video games for the sake of earning higher ratings for their network, and to earn higher profits in the process. In the still-in-production, crowdfunded documentary, Video Games: The Movie, many well-esteemed voices in the industry speak their minds in the segment about this very subject. One of them, Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard, discussed the very fact that there are violent video games out there, but it’s not what defines the medium. “There’s always a lot of media talking about violence in video games, and certainly, there are violent video games, but that’s not how you describe the medium of gaming.”

Many people in the industry have discussed back and fourth how all these people are blindly harassing video games, when the real problem is staring them dead in the eyes. “It’s weird how when you watch the people—they go to Congress, they’re angry and, ‘Our kids are being corrupted!’ Yeah, exactly—your kids”, Mikey Neumann, Chief Creative Champion at Gearbox Software said, “They’re your children; you should be not corrupting them. ‘I leave ‘em alone, ten hours a day and he’s getting corrupted by thi—’ well no shit, dude. It’s like finding your dad’s Playboys under the bed and then blaming Playboy.”

It’s so bizzare how these people have no idea there’s a rating system on the front and back of the box that highlights everything in the game. You can’t purchase a video game without being reminded of the rating on the box by the man/woman at the checkout line. What’s even more ironic about this is that the people who spite video games have probably never even played one at all—and here they are, calling them “murder simulators”. But, you know what’s more ironic than this? The Supreme Court is required to play video games to understand what they are, before they are ruled by them. It’s as if 1993 never happened…

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Do people not take notice of these very important letters on the box?

GTAforums

And while we’re back on the subject of the ESRB, Karl Stewart, Creative Director of Crystal Dynamics, addressed concerns that these video games are blatantly pushed out without reviewing the content in the product. He also mentions that they ensure that the game is confined to the rating the whole way through. “We put measures in place. ESRB are our guidelines. We make sure that we build our game to the rating. It gets checked on a regular basis.” Strangely enough, ESRB ratings are actually a better means of evaluating the content in the product than the MPAA ratings, because the box office doesn’t fully explain what’s played in the film—besides a letter and, maybe, a few numbers in there. And it’s even worse on the movie boxes themselves, as the front rarely, or never mentions the content in the film, and the back is just a cluttered mess of names scattered throughout.

“The interesting thing, I think, with games is that we actually have an even better rating system than movies”, Rob Pardo stated, “But there’s this misunderstanding with the elder generation that, somehow, all games are like Grand Theft Auto.”

But all of these media outcries are not solely pressed on video games. It was also a problem with other forms of media: Music was in the same boat for many decades. Many Christian parents condemned Elvis Presley, KISS, ACDC, and many others as being, “music from the Devil himself”. Television was also criticized for being “the lazy man’s entertainment”, and was the center of attention whenever a child would harm someone, because they watched the content on television and tried to reenact the events on the show. The news outlets would immediately point the finger at television and damn it all for causing violence. And who could also not forget the famous term, “Couch Potato Head”?

As discussed earlier, comic books were in a similar situation to video games. They were criticized as being too graphically violent for kids. Look back at the example of Superman. The man fires freakin’ lasers from his freakin’ eyes, has frost breath, super strength, and can fly! Yet, look at how iconic he is today, despite the controversy surrounding comic books. The moment you notice his blue suit, his red cape, boots, and tights, and the giant, red “S” with the gold background on his chest, you immediately recognize him. After all, he’s neither a bird, nor a plane.

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Don’t be cruel; you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.

Wikipedia

Sadly, our very existence is born from conflict. Our ancestors spilled their blood for wars and other battles, big or small. The very fact that every form of media has violence or conflict in some form reinforces our desire to pursue them as entertainment; you know why this is the case? Because conflict sells. I bet we wouldn’t be watching an action flic if the entire movie had the performers drinking tea the entire time. We’re always fascinated with violence, because we’ll never see it—or even attempt to do it. We’re interested. We get excited about it. We fantasize about it. “Violence, unfortunately, is a part of human nature”, Tommy Tallarico, Founder of Video Games Live said, “And last time I check, Cain didn’t bludgeon Abel with a Gameboy, Genghis Khan didn’t have an Xbox Live account, and Hitler didn’t play Crash Bandicoot.”

Perhaps the reason why video games have not yet been accepted as a form of entertainment is because they’re “games”. It’s a game to kill someone, even if it’s a virtual silhouette of a person. Perhaps that’s the reason why people aren’t yet comfortable with calling video games a form of entertainment. And maybe that’s why people are demanding that people should not play video games. “It would be like saying, ‘We don’t want anyone to watch movies, because all movies are violent’”, Rob Pardo said, “But people don’t say that, because everyone understands movies as a medium.”

Another aspect of video games that is seldom discussed is the involvement of multiplayer in crimes, and how the men in the suits rail on competitive multiplayer games for incentivizing killing people with small awards, such as, “DOUBLE KILL!” or, “KILLING SPREE!” While they have a good stance, my counter argument to this, is that the Gladiators of Roman times were of today’s equivalent. Gladiators would battle to the death to determine who was stronger; a sort of Natural Selection, if you fancy considering it artful. For Rome, the Gladiators were the Roman equivalent to American Football—or European Football: it was a national sport for them.

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The Gladiators of yesterday are no different to today’s competitive multiplayer gaming.

KidCyber

Solving the Real Problem That the News Outlets Don’t Understand

Let’s cut to the chase: There’s clearly a problem going on that is fundamentally at the heart of crime in America and other nations. It’s a widespread and universal acknowledgement that there’s something wrong with these people going out and committing these atrocities. We try so hard to find the real culprit to all this needless killing, but what we all do instead, is take two steps back and blame it on something petty and feeble. It’s time we stop dilly-dallying and find the true perpetrator and try to put a stop to it, hopefully once and for all—even if that sounds hopelessly optimistic.

I’ll start by saying what I think the real problem is. To start, it has nothing to do with gun safety regulations. The Second Amendment, The Right to Bear Arms, protects us as Americans. We are born with the right to arm ourselves, should our lives be in the path of danger. If someone chooses to do evil with their hands and arms, then they will be rightfully punished for their arrogance.

I’ll say it right now that video games are most definitely not the problem here. As discussed in the John Stossel Show, Japan has more people playing video games than the U.S., yet the crime there is practically nonexistent. If this entire Mindshare has not yet convinced you that video games are not to blame, I question your intelligence and every aspect of you as a gamer/hypocrite. You will also be the butt end of every joke made for the rest of time.

But, in all seriousness, the time has come to answer what is really the cause of the crime and violence in our country. What I’m about to say will be contentious for what it is, but, for the longest time, the problem has been of three issues: the psychological well being of an individual, poor parenting, and societal pressures.

To be blunt, America’s mental healthcare programs are terrible. The price needed to pay for services is ludicrous, with average expenditures of $700-$900 per day being the bare minimum for payment for services. Some even spend upwards of $50,000 for full mental healthcare coverage. It’s in no way surprising that people do not have the budget to spend on services like that, especially given the state of the economy. And, to that end, the people who can’t afford those types of services will probably be the ones you hear in the news somewhere down the road that commit these acts against mankind.

Everyone reading has probably heard of the saying, “Guns don’t kill people—people do.” The gun doesn’t kill someone; the person holding the gun and pulling the trigger on a person is the one that kills someone. Conversely, the video game doesn’t kill someone—or anyone for that matter. Sure, a video game can be a catalyst involved in a murder, but it’s not the sole perpetrator that killed them. And no, they don’t physically beat someone to death with the box of the video game—that’s just plain silly.

In the Sandy Hook Shooting, Adam Lanza was noted for not having a criminal background, but was noted for being “mentally ill”, and was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and sensory processing disorder (SPD). While neither of these conditions are in no way considered mental illnesses, it is still worth noting, regardless of the implications. Various students and teachers that knew him in High School described him as being, “intelligent, but nervous and fidgety”. He was known to not have many friends.

Conversely tying into mental illnesses, we have the nature of poor parenting skills contributing to the cause to violence. While I’m not a parent myself, I understand two important tasks a parent is faced with: knowing every little thing about what’s going on in their child’s life at all times, no matter what, and to keep them out of harm’s way. It’s imperative that parents understand what is going on in their child’s world, as well as ensuring that their child is not doing anything that could harm them or others—like the news article of the child who shot and killed their grandmother. She was sleeping with a fully loaded gun next to her that was in reaching distance to the child; she wasn’t being precautionary in keeping her grandson safe. Combine that with the naïveté of children, and you have a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.

It also has to do with societal pressures weighing us down every day. Thousands of years ago, if you were a Carpenter, you knew what your responsibility in society was: you made sure people were wearing shoes, and were living in homes. If there weren’t a Carpenter, then people would have a lot of foot pain. If someone was a Blacksmith, they knew their importance in society: they forged weapons, armor, home decorations, and, essentially, made sure that no one could breach the inner walls. If there weren’t a Blacksmith, the village/castle would have been invaded/destroyed with little trouble. I don’t even think we’re remotely comfortable living in a world with 6 billion people populating the planet. It’s hard to find a role in society when there are people who do what you do, and are probably five times better at it than you. Some people will eventually lead a life of crime, because they can’t think of any other way to live in this giant world of ours.

What Can We Do to Stop This?

We live in a corrupt and menacing world. The very thought of chivalry is a trait of ancient past. It may seem daunting, and otherwise impossible, but we can make a change. But, what we need to do is to be strong for ourselves, and to others that follow in our footsteps. We need to speak up and let our voices be heard. When news of a crime or murder occurs, and they begin pointing fingers at video games, we need to ensure that our voices are louder than theirs.

Go to Facebook, Twitter, whatever means of communication is possible, and speak up, tell them that video games are not to blame. Be rational. Be thoughtful. Be informative. Be honest. And for God’s sake, please don’t boil it down to death threats or angry ranting. If that happens, what are we but advocates of their ideas? We have to let them know that video games do not perpetuate violence, in a mature and reasonable manner.

And if we don’t? Well, we’re going to have this happen for the rest of time.

See you, Space Cowboys.

The Aesthetics of Play

Back in my discussion about JRPGs, I mentioned this little tidbit called aesthetics. Now, I only mentioned—and briefly—discussed about a few aesthetics in the Mindshare, and it served to broaden the discussion a lot more, but I thought it was high time to discuss them further.

This discussion really started with the 2 Chimps on a Davenport podcast. During Dan and John’s time at E3 2013, Josh Kowbel talked about how excited he was about Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3 (I nearly lost it when they announced KH3), and then John, displaying his ignorance and ineptitude for the matter, said this:

“What does Final Fantasy mean? Final Fantasy means nothing anymore, because the shit that they showed is not turn-based.”

I think that was him just using confirmation bias to support his claim, and I don’t think he’s ever read the M.D.A. in game design before. This is a topic I’ve really wanted to talk about for a while, because it helps in understanding the process of designing a game, as well as the fundamental desires that players have when they play a specific genre or game. It also shows us that we’re looking at game genres wrong. If you want to read up on it, here’s the link to the original paper. So, let’s get started.

If this is what people think when they play a JRPG, or an RPG in general, we’ve got some serious problems to address… Source: Extra Credits

If this is what people think when they play a JRPG, or an RPG in general, we’ve got some serious problems to address…

Source: Extra Credits

Back in the early 2000s, there was a paper written by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek called Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. It was an early attempt to formulize game design theory, and it’s important in looking at game genres. In this discussion, I will be giving a highly expanded view on the discussion within the first section of that paper, specifically the portion about the aesthetics of play.

A lot of people in this day and age seem to define a genre based on surface elements. This game is an RPG, because it has a leveling system. This game is an FPS, because it involves shooting in a first person camera. That game is a platformer, because it involves jumping from one ledge to another. This is a misleading step to take when defining a game or genre. What we really need to look at is the dissected parts of the game’s design.

So what are these three points in design? Well, not surprisingly, they’re already mentioned in the paper: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. The mechanics are defined as “the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.” This is represented by the code-base for the game’s design, like the math for how shooting works in an FPS, or the input lag between the time that a button is pressed, and when the action tied to that button is triggered in the game.

Dynamics are defined as “the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.” This is where a lot of people mistake the dynamics of a game with the aesthetics, which I’ll get to shortly. Dynamics can be defined, in the game, as specific actions and the mindset that you conceive when playing, like the run-and-gun gameplay in that FPS, or the slow, methodical strategies in a JRPG.

And finally, we have the final aspect to define: Aesthetics. The aesthetics are “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when (s)he interacts with the game system.” Aesthetics are the underlying, emotive reasons why you come to a specific genre or game in the first place. For example, the challenge, or the fantasy of being a Marine in an FPS, or the dramatic narrative in a JRPG; those are some examples of aesthetics you can experience in a game. The mechanics create the dynamics of the game, which all come together to shape the overall aesthetic.

One of the key insights mentioned in the M.D.A. paper, is that both designers and players will approach the spectrum from the opposite direction. Players will most viscerally experience the aesthetics of the game, the broad reasons why they’re playing it. But designers, due to the nature of production, have to start with the mechanics, and work their way up. Unfortunately, they can be so focused on the mechanics that they forget what the aesthetics for their game will be; or, worse, they think that specific mechanics always deliver specific aesthetics, which never works. For example, leveling up in a game like Borderlands serves a completely different aesthetic than leveling up in Call of Duty multiplayer. A lot of terrible clones were made when they thought that specific mechanics would create specific aesthetics.

Designers and players have a different perspective on how they approach games. Source: NorthWestern University

Designers and players have a different perspective on how they approach games.

Source: NorthWestern University

Simply defining a genre based on the mechanics and the dynamics is the absolute definition of going the wrong way, and both consumers and designers fall pray to it all the time. In fact, you can probably see it in today’s games. Some developer will see a successful game and try to recreate it using similar mechanics. They create a game that appears, on the surface, to be similar to that game, but it still manages to fall flat. It may share mechanics from that same game, but it just doesn’t seem the same as its doppelgänger. The reason why it fails is because they conflated the techniques used to create that game with the more important task of understanding why the player plays that game.

Now, before we start talking about what these aesthetics are, I need to talk about genres. This is going to take up a little bit of the discussion, but bear with me. When you pick up a romance novel, you’re reading that novel for fundamentally different reasons than you would if you picked up a comedy or a dramatic novel. This is the same for movies as well. When you’re watching an action flic featuring Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone, you’re watching them for completely different reasons than a comedy featuring Shannon Elizabeth or Jason Biggs.

By itself, movie genres aren’t defined by specific editing styles or different types of cinematography, or literary novels by formulaic plot tropes. Sure, you may see different genres utilizing those same camera angles or story conventions, but those don’t define the genre. Genres, in all things, are defined by what the audience desires the most out of the experience from those forms of media. Saying you watch movies for the editing, or playing a game for the mechanics, is like saying you read Maxim for the articles—and we all know that’s not why people read Maxim or Playboy.

 When was the last time you read an issue of Playboy for the articles? Source: Amazon

 When was the last time you read an issue of Playboy for the articles?

Source: Amazon

 Let me ask you: Why do we call Mass Effect an RPG, even though its combat centers on third-person shooting? Why are we so confident in giving Call of Duty the FPS label, even though it has a leveling system in the multiplayer? It’s because we’re defining them not by surface mechanics or camera perspectives, but because of the human desires, emotions and interests that the game delivers on, the underlying reasons we play a video game. Take the FPS genre. We’ve defined a genre based on the fact that it takes place in the first person perspective, and involves shooting. That’s ridiculous. What if we defined film genres that way? Fear Induced Scream. Close Up Kissing. Silly Boisterous Laughter. We always seem to break this term all the time. We may not be able to articulate why, but we all know that Portal and Fallout don’t fit well inside the FPS genre. Both take place in the first person perspective. They both involve shooting. They perfectly reach the requirements of being an FPS, but we all know they are not First Person Shooters. Why? Because they fulfill different desires. They may share mechanics from one another, but they could serve completely different aesthetics.

So now that that’s out of the way, what are these aesthetics? Well they’re all easy to define, and, in fact, are all written down in the paper. The paper has eight aesthetics defined properly throughout. Since then, developers have been able to add a few more, but we’ll be focusing on the main ones listed instead, and maybe one aesthetic that isn’t listed in there. But before we start talking about these aesthetics, we have to keep in mind the core aesthetics, the fundamental reasons you play, because you’ll find that a lot of games share elements of all the aesthetics, but that doesn’t give us enough information. The useful information comes from defining the core aesthetics that the game tries to evoke. Sure, Mario games have a narrative, but you’re not playing them for the deep, interpersonal drama between Mario, Peach, and Bowser, so that’s not a core aesthetic. When looking at a game, you have to ask yourself these questions: “Is __________ an element of this game?”, followed by, “Is __________ the reason I play this game?” This is an easy place for young designers to get lost.

Ok. Now we can begin discussing about those aesthetics. The first aesthetic is the simplest one to define, but also the weakest of these, and that is Sensation. This is defined as game as sense-pleasure. These are games that stimulate your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). So, if it’s a game you come back time and time again for the visuals, or the music, that game uses Sensation as a core aesthetic. Games like Child of Eden, Rez, El Shaddai, Okami, DDR, and Crysis deliver on Sensation as a core aesthetic.

As I mentioned earlier, Sensation is the weakest of these aesthetics, mainly because of two factors: the limitations of the hardware, and the game’s age—both of which are intertwined together. Today, the hardware for the 360 and the PS3 are so old, and the graphical limits have since exploded outside of those consoles, the games coming out on the current-gen consoles are not as visually amazing as they were midway through the console’s lifecycle. And this is especially true for older systems, like the original PlayStation, the N64, etc. For example, remember the first time Mario transformed from being an 8-bit sprite to a 3D character in Super Mario 64? That was amazing at the time. Today… not so much. The thing about Sensation is that, as technology advances, what we consider to be visually amazing becomes outdated very quickly, to the point that it’s shadowed by something far superior to it. A game like Assassin’s Creed, Final Fantasy XIII, or Crysis, right now, have absolutely gorgeous visuals, but what about ten years from now? It’s probably going to be swallowed by something bigger and better than them. We’re seeing this with the next generation of games like Destiny, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Watch Dogs, and Battlefield 4, all promising to show off the new hardware for the PS4 and/or the Xbox One.

As for the music, that’s a different matter. Considering how much YouTube and iTunes have exploded since the 2000s, we’re seeing less and less games focusing on Sensation in terms of music. I mean, when was the last time you came back to a game just for the music? Why bother, when you could just search for the soundtrack of that game on YouTube or listen to it on your iPhone? I mean, maybe it would work better in conjunction with the level it’s associated with, but it’s all moot when you consider that music is not, for the most part, holistic to the experience.

These games may have amazing visuals, but what does the future hold for us? Left: Guru3D. Right: ScrewAttack.

These games may have amazing visuals, but what does the future hold for us?

Left: Guru3D. Right: ScrewAttack.

The second is Fantasy. Fantasy is game as make-believe. And no, it doesn’t refer to orcs, elves, or the game’s setting. Fantasy is the ability to step into the shoes of an individual you could never partake in everyday life. When you totally feel like a badass marine, or a heroic knight, or a hardcore rock-n-roll god, that’s is Fantasy at its best. They take that idea, boil it to its essence and deliver it in a steady, successive drip. Games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Guitar Hero, NFL Blitz, God of War, and Halo deliver on Fantasy as a core aesthetic.

Fantasy is another weak aesthetic to use, but it can make for great experiences—if done right. When I say “if done right”, it usually means that Fantasy is backed up with another aesthetic, such as Expression, where the player can truly create the character they want to fantasize about. Many WRPGs focus on Fantasy, along with the role-playing nature of the games, because it allows the player to become the role, instead of being “someone”.

Become the God of Rock-n-Roll, brotha! Source: ShareCovers

Become the God of Rock-n-Roll, brotha!

Source: ShareCovers

The third is Narrative. This is game as drama. It’s all about the stories and the human drama you witness, rather than the fantasy you live through. Games that focus on Narrative as a core aesthetic try to evoke emotion from the characters to the player. Games like Final Fantasy, The Sims, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Infamous, Half-Life, Kingdom Hearts, and The Walking Dead all try to evoke emotion from its narrative.

This is yet another aesthetic that doesn’t hold up as well today, especially when you look at games like Mass Effect, Infamous, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock etc., where you are given choices for how the story unfolds. Now compare them to games like Final Fantasy, Half-Life, or Kingdom Hearts, where it’s just a straightforward progression of the story, regardless of how many conventions you take to try and change the story. Games that focus on Narrative as a core aesthetic are subjected to a lack of replay ability if there’s no sense of choice in creating a unique story to ones own liking.

Now, that doesn’t mean all narrative-based games need to have branching storylines. Sometimes, it can be a unique approach to storytelling, a completely novel way for the writers to create a story with the mechanics and the dynamics that are given to them. For example, have you ever noticed how in most JRPGs the main protagonist isn’t usually YOU? It’s multiple people with their own personalities, goals, and desires; and you’re more of a puppet master, directing their movements, actions and the actions of those around them. That division between the player and the characters is done by the writers to tell a very carefully crafted story, while freeing them from the constraints of a single, focused perspective. In short, if done right, Narrative can be a powerful aesthetic that will really make the experience that much more enriching.

At least Josh Kowbel understands why he plays a Final Fantasy game, John. Source: ZeroChan

At least Josh Kowbel understands why he plays a Final Fantasy game, John.

Source: ZeroChan

The fourth is Challenge. It’s defined as game as obstacle course. In games, you find this in engaging to overcome arbitrary obstacles. You’ll find this aesthetic at the heart of any Mario game, Call of Duty, Ikaruga, Angry Birds, Trials, Super Meat Boy, and Dark Souls. This is the hardest aesthetic to define for many people, because many designers define Challenge as “difficulty.” Now, difficulty can be a dynamic that might help deliver on Challenge, but it is not the same thing. For example, XCOM uses Challenge as a core aesthetic, especially in Enemy Unknown. The game is all about strategizing and outsmarting the enemy. Now, there are difficulty settings to help deliver that aesthetic, but even on the easiest difficulty, Enemy Unknown is still a challenging game regardless of what difficulty you’re playing on. Oh, and have fun with Ironman mode.

Not surprisingly, this avenue is rarely pursued by designers, because of the explosion of costs for developing games, and how much money goes into making these games. When you look at Call of Duty, they just reuse already existing assets, which in turn means that they aren’t spending as much money on developing it as they are just using what they already have. However, there is one caveat that many designers and publishers think is true: they believe that easy games sell more than challenging ones. This is 100% false. In fact, it’s so not true it’s to the point of it being silly. Making a game as easy as the recent Prince of Persia is NOT going to sell as well as something like The Elder Scrolls or Portal. Why? Because they know that their game needs to be challenging enough to satisfy the audience that love a challenge, and those who just want to play.

The simplest, yet most challenging game you’ll ever play. Source: Angry Birds wikia

The simplest, yet most challenging game you’ll ever play.

Source: Angry Birds wikia

The fifth is Fellowship. This is defined as game as social framework. These are games that give you the ability to work together to achieve a goal. Games that let you play in a pack or a group, that feeling of comradery, is used as a framework for Fellowship. Games like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress, Borderlands, Journey, and Dark Souls deliver on Fellowship as a core aesthetic.

In comparison to the next aesthetic below, Fellowship is a very, VERY powerful aesthetic to utilize, especially with the advent of the Internet. Fellowship can be a great way to experience a game with others. In the case of Borderlands, Team Fortress, World of Warcraft, Journey, and Dark Souls, where Fellowship is paired with another aesthetic to give the experience longevity, you can have a game with limitless replay ability.

We’re also seeing games for the next generation of consoles utilizing what may end up being the Fellowship aesthetic, like Destiny, The Division, The Crew, and possibly Watch Dogs, where they’re pushing online play with other aesthetics, some of which are discussed below.

There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Now bring some friends. Source: BioGamerGirl

There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Now bring some friends.

Source: BioGamerGirl

The sixth is Competition. Professional designers heavily argue about this, but I’m including this in here. In the M.D.A. paper, they mentioned Competition, but don’t formally define it. Many people define this as game as expression of dominance, bringing us together by dividing us against one another. There’s something evolutionary and innate inside all of us, something that demands us to express our competence and dominance to other members of our species. Games that let us express this use Competition as a core aesthetic. Games like Team Fortress, Street Fighter, League of Legends, StarCraft, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Demon’s Souls, and World of Warcraft all fit in this criteria.

Ever since the explosion that was Call of Duty 4, games have started incorporating multiplayer to compete against the titan—even if most of the ones that tried failed miserably. In this day and age, single-player only games have seen a dramatic decline ever since Modern Warfare 1 and, to a lesser extent, Halo 2 took off with multiplayer paving the way for the future of gaming. But, as mentioned above, many of these games fall flat, because they try to create a Call of Duty clone, in the same way that most MMORPGs try to create a WoW clone.

We’ve seen the numbers before, but single-player completion rates have fallen ever since multiplayer went big. But as sad as that sounds, I think we’ll see a unique approach to blending single-player and multiplayer into one. We’ve already this with Demon’s Souls, and how revolutionary that became with creating a multiplayer experience within the single-player, rather than just placing a tab in the menu saying, “Multiplayer”.

Prove who is the best amongst everyone! Source: Gamegrin

Prove who is the best amongst everyone!

Source: Gamegrin

The seventh is Discovery. This is game as uncharted territory. It’s all about uncovering the new. If you’re coming back time and time again to discover what’s left to find, that game uses Discovery as a core aesthetic. This can range from discovering new territory in The Elder Scrolls or World of Warcraft, recipes in MineCraft, discovering a new, shiny item in Diablo or Borderlands, or even discovering new systems, like new and emergent threats in Dwarf Fortress.

This is absolutely huge for games of tomorrow, especially with the next generation of consoles coming up. Discovery is 100% guaranteed to keep the player coming back for days, months, and even years on end. In this sense, we’ll be seeing a lot of games using Discovery as a core aesthetic, because it’s the most promising way to create a game that’s replayable, other than shoehorning multiplayer into the mix. Most games these days are always super linear and don’t offer much to replay it again. This was a big part of what happened to Remember Me.

A lot of designers believe that in order to create a game with tons of replay value, they have to create an MMO-like game, in essence, have it never end. In order to do this, they do things like creating procedurally generated loot, open-world environments, create an online experience for others to enjoy, etc. We’re seeing this with not only next-gen games like Destiny, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and The Division, but also current-gen games like Saints Row IV, GTA V, Lightning Returns, and Dark Souls 2. Every game I mentioned now are all open-world in some regard, with Dark Souls 2 being an exception.

One location down, another bazillion locations left. Source: ElderScrollsWikia

One location down, another bazillion locations left.

Source: ElderScrollsWikia

The eighth one is Expression. This is game as self-discovery. As human beings, we the innate desire to express ourselves. This is reflected in what clothes we wear, to the fact that we create art. Games can be a power tool for this. If it’s a game that allows you to express a small part of yourself, you’re fulfilling that need. Games like MineCraft, The Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex, Scribblenauts, Team Fortress, Fallout, and Mass Effect use Expression as a core aesthetic.

Another heavy hitting aesthetic, Expression is what many RPGs use to put the “role” in Role-Playing Game. Things like skill trees, the ability to respec your abilities, customization of gear, etc. are all vital to any RPG using Expression as a core aesthetic. But, it’s not just limited to RPGs. It can also be a part of other games too, like creating monuments or statues in MineCraft. That’s totally an expression of self, right there. Or customizing the way your character looks and plays, either to create a gameplay style that’s unique to you, or to make your character look the way you want them to look, is absolutely essential in creating an experience that gives players the tools needed to create something that they want to make.

You can build anything your heart desires. Source: DigieX

You can build anything your heart desires.

Source: DigieX

And finally, the ninth aesthetic: Submission. For the sake of brevity, let’s change this to Abnegation, because Submission is a really strange term to define this aesthetic. This is defined as game as past time. Have you ever had one of those days where you came home from a long day of school or work and you just slumped down on the couch and watched a re-run of an old, junk food TV series, or read a lame fantasy novel, because it was easy and didn’t require much from you? Or you look at your game collection and pop in that old RPG again, just to finish a quest or two. You’re in the middle of a great game, but you feel it would require too much from you and you’d rather grind a few levels. That’s the root desire known as Abnegation. In games, you find this in grinding; you find this in any Skinner Box game. Games like World of Warcraft, endless mode in Bejeweled, MineCraft, Final Fantasy, and Angry Birds use Abnegation as a core aesthetic.

This is a primary aesthetic used in any and all MMORPGs to prevent players from leaving the game and moving on to a new, shiny game. Combine that with the monthly subscription and/or microtransactions and you’ll have players paying you by the billions, as evidenced by WoW. They generally increase the amount of time needed to acquire a new, shiny piece of gear or drastically increase the amount of experience needed to level up once. It’s to keep them playing, while still making money from the people who are still playing their game.

But it’s not excluded to just MMORPGs. It’s also in games like Angry Birds, where you can just pull out your phone and just play to pass the time. For instance, you could be in a friend’s car and you could be playing Angry Birds while your friend drives. Or you could be on a lunch break and you could start playing it right there. It’s a great way to pass the time, and it doesn’t require much from you.

Wait. What time is it? Source: FanPop

Wait. What time is it?

Source: FanPop

So, now that that’s out of the way, what does all this mean, and what does this have to do with genres? Well, if you really think about it, you’ll find that almost every game can be defined by two, three, maybe four of these aesthetics. However, there are some games that can deliver on more; games that are so massive, they figuratively have multiple games bundled into one executable. For example, MineCraft can easily deliver on more than four aesthetics, and it’s one of the main reasons why it’s been such a great success. Sensation. Challenge. Expression. Fellowship. Discovery. Abnegation. All of these are core aesthetics of MineCraft. But there are multiple games inside MineCraft. The people playing in Creative mode are playing an entirely different game from the people playing in Survival mode.

And it’s important to realize that aesthetics aren’t there to articulate why we come to a genre or a game, but also in understanding what the game’s genre is. It’s the subconscious guide and reasoning that tells us that Portal is more of a puzzle game than a shooter. It’s what tells us that Final Fantasy is more focused on delivering a strong narrative than on the gameplay or the role-playing aspects. It’s what helps us describe why we play a certain game or genre in the first place, and I think we should talk about it more often, because when we start defining a genre based on mechanics, all sorts of bad game design will come out of that.

See you, Space Cowboys.

 

-Max Gruber

JRPGs: The Long Trudge Towards Relevance

JRPGs: The Long Trudge Towards Relevance

by Max Gruber

For decades, we’ve all cherished and even worshipped video games as a powerful form of media which can draw people together to not only watch a story unfold before them, but to take part in that story as well. For many people, and I mean many, video games are more than just interactive movies; they’re a means to become connected to the characters on a much larger scale. They allow you to participate in conflicts with the character(s) on their quest to rid the world of evil, from rescuing the Princess in the vintage Super Mario Brothers, decimating Ares from God of War, to something as simple as exploring the barren, desolate and coarse wasteland of Journey. Video games have become far more than a way to waste time on the couch, playing games while you eat bags of Doritos in your parents’ basement; it’s become a form of interactive storytelling with rich narratives and worlds, and very compelling plots tying all of it together. And there’s one genre of video games that have taken this concept and played with it for the longest of times:

JRPGs.

Note: My knowledge of menu/turn-based JRPGs is very limited to Final Fantasy. Though I have played other games within the subgenre before, my experience with them is lacking compared to what I know, so I’ll try my best not to turn this into a parade for Final Fantasy. Tell you what. Let’s have a drinking game, shall we? Every time I write “Final Fantasy ‘X’ number” in this piece, you have to take a drink based on the number of the game mentioned. Oh, and by the way, I’ve written Final Fantasy thr–excuse me, four times, so take four drinks.

Let’s look back at a time before some of us, myself included. Back in the 70s, video games were taking their first steps out of the womb of media and slowly grew interest in the minds of the people. But it was a very niche audience, and thus was overlooked by the many people who preferred movies, television, novels, music and theater over the new kid on the block. At the time, RPGs in Japan were not as popular as they are now, most likely due to video games having their origins in the U.S. It wasn’t until the 80s that RPGs would take their first step into the world with games like Wizardry, Ultima, Dragons Quest and Final Fantasy. Take a drink. Now the former of these games are what you would call Western Role Playing Games, and the latter two are Japanese Role Playing Games. There is a distinct difference between these two subgenres that forms a strong divide between them, and it’s the decisive factor as to why JRPGs have fought an uphill battle in the West ever since.

Mindshare_image_1.jpg

Doesn’t this take you back?

Image source: Wikipedia

Now the famous Internet show ExtraCredits had a long discussion about WRPGs vs. JRPGs and why the JRPG genre has fallen short ever since, so I’ll try not to quote them on everything, but the main point they talk about is this: The core reason you play JRPGs is for the narrative, while the core aesthetics of WRPGs focus on fantasy and expression, and this factor alone is the sole reason behind the current dominance of WRPGs. But, to discuss that, I’ll have to save it for later.

Since we’re talking about JRPGs and WRPGs, let’s look at games that fall into these genres, starting with JRPGs. Most JRPGs have, for the most part, turn-based combat. They were founded on this mechanic, and as of today many still contain menu-based combat. However, there are some JRPGs that are more “action role-playing games” that are a bit harder to explain. They retain the menu-based combat, but are not turn-based. Basically, you have a slew of abilities at your disposal, but you’re not restricted to turn-based mechanics. Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Kingdom Hearts are great examples of this subgenre. The more traditional JRPGs of today are, as I mentioned earlier, turn-based. They play sort of like chess or an old school card game like Pokémon, Yu Gi Oh, or Duel Masters. Games like Lost Odyssey, Pokémon, Ni No Kuni, Final Fantasy (take a drink), and Persona are some of, if not the best, examples of the more traditional turn-based JRPG.

With that in mind, let’s look at their weakest points. ExtraCredits mentioned that narrative is what makes the JRPG so great, and it’s at the core of the reason you play them. However, JRPGs are not without their own faults. The show crew asked this question: “What is habitually one of the worst parts of JRPGs?” And before you answer, it’s not the absurd number of buckles, the androgynous and/or extremely anime-centric characters. I know this is going to be very contentious for what it is, but they do have a point. The weakest part of JRPGs, for the longest time, has been their combat systems. Again, just hear me out on this. I’ll add to what they had to say about this.

Mindshare_image_2.jpg

Gee, I wonder who the “inspiration” for Cloud was…

Left image source: Final Fantasy wikia. Right image source: Hobbygen.

As I mentioned earlier, most JRPGs retain the old menu-based combat that was created in the 80s. Because of the limited and, by today’s standards, ancient technology they had access to, they were unable to create anything more complicated than what programmers today can make while unconscious. Therefore, they had to create something very simple, which was inspired by things like chess and tabletop games like D&D. And, if you think about it, even then menu-based combat wasn’t that engaging. Fights really boiled down to exploiting an enemy’s weakness and abusing it with the strongest version of that attack. “Ok, this guy’s weak to Fire! Enfire Enfire Enfire, Firaga Firaga Firaga, Flamestrike Flamestrike Flamestrike.”

And I do realize that there are people who want a deep, creative turn-based JRPG, but it’s never going to happen. Why? Two concise reasons: it’s not only a massive risk for the publishers—especially given the state of the global economy—but also due to how niche the genre is. You could gain as much of an audience as you might drive away. I remember a while back when there was so much buzz about Ni No Kuni coming to the PS3 in the U.S., and how it would revive the withering JRPG genre. While the game was very well made, it didn’t sell well. Last I heard, it only sold ~500K units in Japan alone. Maybe it was a bit more successful in the States, but you get the point. Unless there’s massive demand for a high quality, turn-based/menu-based JRPG, we’ll never see one surface.

But back then it didn’t need to have the most amazing combat the world had ever seen. At the time, the JRPG was the one place you could find a rich, compelling narrative with emotional characters. And, for a while, it was working really well. But what’s happened over the years? Well the… hold on a minute. I’m being told that I forgot to discuss what the strengths and weaknesses of WRPGs were, and that I am a complete idiot for missing them. Sorry guys, but the answer to the underlying question will have to wait.

Mindshare_image_3.jpg

An example of a JRPG, they tend to focus exclusively on narrative.

Image source: GameInformer

Now it’s time to look at RPGs from the West. I am very familiar with WRPGs, so this list will be easier to describe, and the games will be much more familiar to most people here than the games I detailed in the JRPG section. Firstly, let’s look at what they are. WRPGs, as I mentioned, are more focused on fantasy and expression. Expression is the ability to customize the experience you will be embarking on, like skills, weapons, what class you start off with, physically and aesthetically customizing your character to fit your tastes, and what play style suits you best.

Fantasy is the ability to become something you otherwise couldn’t be; to step into the shoes of an individual that you could never actually become. For example, being a rock-n-roll god in Guitar Hero, a super soldier in Crysis, a god-slaying Spartan in God of War, or a free running, backstabbing assassin in Assassin’s Creed. I could make a massive list of games that fit inside WRPGs, but I’ll constrain and limit it to a few games. The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Borderlands, World of Warcraft, and Fallout are great examples of WRPGs.

Mindshare_image_4.jpg

An example of a WRPG, they focus on the aesthetics of fantasy and expression.

Image source: PCGamer

Now for their weaknesses, something that ExtraCredits didn’t mention in the discussion. I believe that their weakest point is their narrative. While WRPGs have a decent narrative, it lacks one aspect that the JRPG relied on most: drama. I’ll use an example that I know everyone reading this will remember; something that facilitates my point that narrative is the kryptonite of the WRPG: Final Fantasy VII. Obvious spoilers, though I think I’m safe in saying this since it’s a sixteen year-old game. Also, take VII drinks.

Remember the death of Aerith by the hands of Sephiroth? Remember how shocking it was when he plunged from above, death carrying on his one wing, and drove Masamune deep into her abdomen? I bet everyone reading has seen this or even played it themselves. To many people, and even some gaming publications, that one scene has gone down in gaming history as one of the most emotional and shocking moments in any video game. A challenge, if I may add. Give me one WRPG—you know what, any game in general—that has stimulated as many emotions and galvanizing reactions from one scene as Final Fantasy VII did. Just. One. I’ll leave it at that. Oh, and by the way, drink seven more times.

Mindshare_image_5.png

The first time I watched this scene unfold, I was in tears. I was only ten years old when I played VII.

Image source: Wikipedia

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time we answer the perpetual question: In spite of these games being completely different in what the audience desires out of them, why are WRPGs wiping the floor with JRPGs? Well… it’s because they’ve become irrelevant. As I mentioned earlier, most JRPGs kept the menu-based combat for the longest of times, and, unfortunately, the old school combat system has gone out of style like the disco craze. Menu/Turn-based combat became hackneyed by how irreconcilable their combat was compared to what the West was coming up with. The JRPG genre has gone about like trains in America as a means of transportation: they’ve become vestigial.

As nature would predict, technology would advance and other means of narrative began popping up, like voice acting. Suddenly, JRPGs were faced with competition, in a space they had previously owned unchallenged. Not only that, but WRPGs began adapting the leveling system and quests that made JRPGs so great. Suddenly, everything you could get in a JRPG, you could get everywhere else.

Meanwhile, while the East was still doing its thing, the West was playing around with the notion that a game must allow the player to customize the experience they want out of the game. And, in order to do so, they experimented with the combat to come up with unique and innovative concepts that expressed the player’s freedom of choice. For example, in Fallout 3, have you ever gone through the game only fighting in first person? Were your perks centered on the V.A.T.S. system, such as Grim Reaper and Concentrated Fire? Depending on what your answer is, the first person shooting wasn’t implemented to convey the same emotional tension that you’d expect in a shooter. The V.A.T.S. system made it very clear that you wouldn’t be spending most of your time fighting in first person.

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Which one looks more innovative and has had a lot of thought put into it?

Left image source: MatchStickEyes. Right image source: Camera2CanvasAustralia

Rather, it’s a stark contrast between the two play styles, which makes the individual perks that much more distinct, thereby further reinforcing the player’s sense of expression. This is something that JRPGs really lacked. They were just interactive movies with a role-playing mini game, in the same sense—in a more satirical way—that Team Fortress 2 is a hat simulator with an FPS mini game.

As a result of this evolving genre, Japanese developers thought up different ideas to create gameplay that was pertinent to the games of the West, while keeping what made the JRPG so great. Because of this shift in style, games that came out of the East end up being “Western” RPGs that just happen to be made in Japan, with a Japanese audience more in mind. You know, games like Dragon’s Dogma, King’s Field, and its torchbearers Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, Nier; I’d even contend that the upcoming Final Fantasy game (take a drink), Lightning Returns, and the recent Persona games have taken a great many influences from the Western style, because they focus on expression by allowing you to be the protagonist, as opposed to operating one.

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Don’t be fooled. This came out of Japan.

Image source: TheBearAndBadger

As much as I loved the JRPG genre, I was weighed down by the realization that the olden days of the JRPG would be crushed before my eyes. But something happened that changed the view of my old childhood memories, a revelation that took my love for the JRPG and flipped it over. Back in 2008, I decided to pop Final Fantasy V (drink V times) into the old, dusty Playstation once more to relive my childhood days. I decided to load up from an old save I had when I last played; the save was some time before the first encounter with Gilgamesh. But something odd happened that day, something I couldn’t initially explain.

It started with the narrative. It shook me on the inside. Something was wrong with the narration, like it was altered from an outside party. It felt like the moment-to-moment dialogue was just… gray. “Ugh”, I dispassionately grunt, “This is so dull. Eh, whatever. I can at least enjoy the gameplay.” It was a bad omen from the start that things were going downhill because then the next, and hardest, realization hit me.

I kept playing on, determined to get some satisfaction out of playing an old game from my collection. But it didn’t last. I just snapped at one point while playing, entirely unsure why I couldn’t play it. It was the strangest thing to happen to me in a long time. Why am I even playing this? I turned off the PlayStation without even considering for a second to save the game. And then it hit me like a baseball bat slugging a baseball: There was nothing fun about the JRPG.

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Gilgamesh, you may be my all time favorite character, but your game just doesn’t cut it for me.

Image source: Final Fantasy wikia

If the narration was extremely childish, and the combat was analogous, what was the point of enjoying something that caters to kids—especially considering that most, if not all, JRPGs are either A) E rated or B) T rated—when I could be enjoying something far more enjoyable and mature than a genre that is meant for the young and naïve? That’s when I really started to appreciate the newer Final Fantasy titles a lot more (drink), because they were trying to do something different, not only with the combat but also with the narration. Now, I’m not saying that I hate Final Fantasy because of what I said (drink); I still love the franchise, I just think that they just need to move on and, like Alex mentioned in his Mindshare, grow up and accept the new trends in gaming.

I talked about this on the tenth episode of the Com-Cast, but I loved Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 equally. Why? Firstly, take twenty-eight drinks for XIII and XIII-2 combined. Secondly, but more seriously, because they did something different with the gameplay and narrative, as opposed to sticking exclusively to the old menu-based combat and making the narrative way too overdramatic.

I’m going to go on a short rant, but I know everyone is saying, “Ooh, why do you love a game that has been marred by the community?” That’s the thing. I don't mind linear games. I'm not some fussy fanboy who will only accept their own, very specific type of game that I'd expect a company to make. Sure, it wasn't very open, but the story was great in my opinion. I’d punctiliously explain how it is so, but that’s for another time. Then XIII-2 comes out and people bitch and moan about how TOO open it is and that they were making a sequel for a game that didn’t deserve to be made. See where I'm getting at here? The fans don't know what they want. It's because of THEM that Square Enix is on the brink of failure. So don't blame Square, blame the idiots persecuting them. And I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit your needs or standards, but all that bitching and crying that you expect from a ten year-old is going to get you nowhere, and it won’t help them make the game you want made.

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If you pay attention to the image above, you can get a great view of an everyday Final Fantasy “fan” moaning and contumely posting comments about why they want a Final Fantasy VII HD remake or the release of Versus XIII. These species are known as Inflexibilem auto-reflecteretur Capra.

Image source: Cotoznaczy

Now that my diatribe is over, as the title of this Mindshare astutely says, we have to talk about what it takes for the JRPG to become relevant again. All of these ideas are subjective, and are based on personal opinion, so you don’t have to agree with me on everything.

Firstly, they really need to focus on experimenting on the play-by-play combat, something that the West has been doing for so long. The major issue with the traditional JRPGs was that they never openly experimented on any new aspects of combat that had a shot at competing with the West on even grounds. JRPGs have been stuck in the past for long enough. It’s time for them to grow up and understand that the times have changed.

Second, make the worlds a bit more expansive. And by “a bit more”, I mean a metric shit-ton, like Skyrim sized. The player should be able to fully explore the world around them, while taking part in the story. That way, the player has multiple paths leading to the end, as opposed to going along a long, convenient pathway to the end boss. Many people in the gaming community say that games like Final Fantasy (take a drink), Mass Effect and Persona are open-world, but I’ve never bought into that. I always considered those games to be “guided exploration”, where you’re in an arena with multiple exits, with those exits leading to other arenas with exits leading to other arenas. Yes, you had side-quests you could embark on and had many ways to farm, but at the end of the day, you were on a linear path to the end of the game.

Third, they need less graphical fidelity and cutscenes, more drama and gameplay. I mean, come on now. It’s completely ridiculous, embarrassing even. I took the liberty of finding a video of every single cutscene in Final Fantasy XIII (take thirteen drinks) and tallying how many cutscenes, in general, was in it. I only watched about five and a half hours of the video before I said it was enough. Of those five hours watched, the video had a grand total of 19 CG cutscenes, 162 regular cutscenes, and 60 in-game cutscenes, totaling at 241 cutscenes. Yes, there’s more than that, but the data shown makes the message that much clearer. Japan, this has to stop. While I was completely blown away by how amazing the graphics were, and probably still hold up very well today, there’s no need to show us how awesome a game is by ramping the game’s graphical qualities to the max. Unless it’s Crysis, then it doesn’t matter.

And I know every ardent PC gamer is angrily pounding on their keyboards, declaring that graphics can make or break a game, but there’s a flaw with that thinking: They’re really not that important. Yes, a game can look pretty to add to the immersion, but that doesn’t make a game great; it’s the gameplay that matters, because these are video games, not video graphics. You could have a game with the worst graphics and it could have the greatest gameplay ever.

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This was the result of five hours, thirty minutes and twenty-seven seconds of my time tallying EVERY cutscene up to that point.

Speaking of gameplay and drama, we have the second half of the third point made, which is to add more gameplay and drama to the narration. As mentioned above, the role-playing aspects of JRPGs were very sterile, barren even. Yeah, you’re acquiring new abilities and upgrading your abilities, and then using those upgraded abilities in the next encounter, but that’s all it was. There was no depth, just upgrading or acquiring a new ability. It’s like Bioshock in that you aren’t really leveling up your character, but rather you’re upgrading your Plasmids/Tonics/physical characteristics. That’s not really leveling up now, is it?

There’s a reason why Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect have received so many high marks over the years. It’s because it combines the tense drama of the JRPG with the creative gameplay and role-playing mechanics you’d expect from a WRPG, without any of the drama feeling out of place or just flat out wacky. If JRPGs took a step back from their glamorous, ornate ivory tower for a while and decided to focus more on the narrative and gameplay, I can easily see the JRPG making a comeback in all this.

The fourth, and final thing that I personally believe the JRPG needs to do to be reborn anew is going to be extremely debatable, but I believe that they should try to focus on what made WRPGs so successful: focus on fantasy and expression, while retaining the narrative troth the JRPG promised from the beginning. This is going back to the Mass Effect discussion, but Bioware managed to give the player a bond with Shepard, without it seeming like you were operating him/her and your other party members—something that JRPGs did very well at the time to capture the drama of the group. I bet you were all devastated when your Shepard was obliterated during the Collector attack at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. I was.

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Mass Effect did a great job of balancing narrative and gameplay together.

Image source: Galeri

Just allowing the player to play as the character, rather than operating one, can impact how attached you are to the character you’re playing as, especially if the character in question is one that the player themselves can easily bond with. Giving you a sense of control, instead of playing god with three or four other characters, is an easy and effective way to get the player attached and engaged to the game, so why can’t JRPGs do the same?

With all that in mind, we should look at what games seem to be taking the initiative with these ideas, be it games already out or coming soon. Personally, two games come to mind, both of them I mentioned in this Mindshare. One of them has already been released, while the other is being released later this year. The first one that comes to mind is Xenoblade Chronicles. It does focus on expression by allowing you to play as a character with a sidekick tagging along to aid you in battle. What I really liked about Xenoblade Chronicles was how it was set in an open world environment, which really made exploring much more enriching to be free from the guided exploration that plagued the JRPG genre. While I enjoyed the game, I think it had too many knots on the JRPG leash of tropes, in that it didn’t really do much to experiment with the gameplay. It still felt like the traditional action-JRPG from the past, to be honest.

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Xenoblade would be the best competitor in the JRPG market, if not for…

Image source: Zero1Gaming

Now, the other game that appears to be doing this is actually a game I put on my list of “Most anticipated games of 2013” for the Com-Cast, and I really want to see more information of it—even though I already know so much about it from Famitsu and Gamasutra. Before I say what it is, though, I’ll let everyone get it out of the way. Drink thirteen times folks, because that game is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been reading along, but I am so eager to see what Square does with Lightning Returns. I love innovation in any industry, but this one is standing up for itself for the JRPG genre. While I acknowledge that it was in development during XIII-2’s development, which means that it was probably in conceptual standby/development in either 2010 or 2011, I’m still interested to see what they have to offer. For one, it’s set in a massive world with different environments and themes for each major city in Nova Chrysalia—which floats in a sea of Chaos, a thick, black, miasmic substance that can manipulate anything it touches, from time, to the environment, to even insulating an individual’s biological ability to age (I know! I’m a lore buff, so get off my back, will ya?!)

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There’s a reason why Lightning Returns is up there in my list of “Most anticipated game of 2013”, and it’s not just the character Lightning.

Image source: NovaCrystallis

Moving away from the lore of Fabula Nova Crystallis before I make someone’s head explode, the gameplay is really the highlight of Lightning Returns. Remember how in most JRPGs, you were accompanied by a group of characters fighting alongside you? Well, in Lightning Returns, its just Lightning, no one else. Well, except for Hope feeding information to you via earpiece, but you get the point. I really loved Lightning’s character design, both aesthetically and personality wise.

The game focuses on expression by giving you only three “paradigms” that are meant to compound a wide variety of garbs meant to fill in those roles with exclusive abilities that exist throughout the whole continent. I love this aspect so much, because you aren’t playing God with a massive list of abilities at your disposal; you’re very limited by what you can use, and the fights focus on whether you’re using the right setup or not, as opposed to exploiting an enemies weakness by spamming the strongest version of Firaga or Double Meteor in your arsenal.

And those abilities mentioned earlier are now applicable to the face buttons—X, Square, ∆, O, A, B, X, and Y—while maintaining the old turn-based combat, which I find fascinating. In addition to that, you can now move while fighting, which seems to have been adapted from Xenoblade Chronicles, but that could be me speculation. Along with that, they’re reworking the Stagger system into being a literal “Stagger” system, which means that enemies are not only weak against a specific element, but are much more prone to being crippled from an attack on a specific point on their body, kind of like Fallout.

I’d explain more, but I’ve reached my limits, and they have certainly been exceeded. But, in truth, if a JRPG manages to combine the strengths of WRPGs and the strong narratives of their past, there is huge potential for a truly amazing game. Perhaps even, dare I say it, a groundbreaking one? Actually, the word “breaking” in groundbreaking is a bit of an understatement. How about “groundobliterating”?

I’ll sign off with a quote that ties all this together into a neat package. See you, Space Cowboys.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein

Grand Theft Bribery

Gaming Journalism is corrupt. Here's why.

by Jonathan Tung

DISCLAIMER: Due to unforeseen consequences, I was unable to secure interviews with anyone related to anything in this article, although I was able to get in contact with a few bloggers and YouTubers who were covering this event. In addition, all information provided herein was gathered from various forum posts, news articles, and now-deleted Twitter messages. As such, the accuracy of the following article may vary. In addition, since this was originally written last year, some things have changed, and more opportunities have come up for me to expand on.

I'm a video gamer: I know a ton of folks who play the same stuff that I usually play. And when I play video games, I always make sure I only play the games that are deemed to be good. It's a funny thing: whenever we play a video game, we always assume that the ones we play happen to be fun. We ignore the cons and focus on the pros, often treating them as toys that can be replayed again and again. And in order to make sure people are playing the right games, we have people who review video games, often scrutinizing all the little details under the strictest rules and regulations in order to make sure that they are, in fact, fun to play. These form the basis for many web sites, some of which are devoted entirely to video games: websites such as IGN, Kotaku, Destructoid, Joystiq, Game Informer, the list goes on and on. And when most folks read game reviews, they expect the review to be of sheer quality, often providing honest opinion on whether or not the title they are thinking of getting is actually worth playing.

But in recent times, this is no longer the case.

Today, video game review scores are no longer based on playing the game, but instead based on how much money you are paid by a publisher to review such a game. Even worse, failing to provide a decent review to a much-publicized game can lead to dire consequences, such as the publisher threatening to pull all ad-support to whatever website they write for. In fact, several years ago, a GameSpot writer named Jeff Gertsmann was fired from his editorial position after publishing a scathing review of the video game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, trashing the title for it's sloppy artificial intelligence and poor gameplay. Ironically enough, around the time the review was published, the ENTIRE GameSpot website was plastered with ads for the game, going as far as to become a temporary site theme for a few days. Several days later, rumors began to swirl around the internet that Gertsmann was fired due to external pressure caused by the game's publisher Eidos Interactive (now Square Enix Europe).

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- Comic About Jeff Gertsmann (from GU Comics by Woody Hearn (http://www.gucomics.com/20071130))

According to CNET, the parent company of GameSpot, Gertsmann's removal from the company was unrelated to the game review; however, they refused to comment any further on why he was fired. Earlier last year, however, it was revealed that he was fired due to ongoing tension between the editorial staff and the new marketing staff that had recently been put in place. This climaxed when Eidos Interactive threatened to pull all advertising money from the website as a result of the negative review, thereby leading to his eventual firing on November 29, 2007.  

Since then, not much has happened in the gaming business, and the world went on it's own merry little way, with the occasional complaint here and there from various commentators and game bloggers about the way the game industry seems to handle the press. But it wouldn't be for another several months until the entire gaming press would find itself under the spotlight yet again, this time, due to a video on YouTube.

DORITOGATE

On October 16, 2012, Pixel Perfect Magazine uploaded an interview they recently conducted with Geoff Keighley, best known as the host for GameTrailers TV on Spike. Several hours after it was uploaded onto YouTube, the video was immediately slammed by various users as they believed that Keighley had unofficially sold out. Apparently, for the ENTIRE DURATION of the interview, Keighley was pictured with a bag of Doritos and four bottles of Mountain Dew, apparently part of an ongoing promotion Microsoft was conducting with Yum! Brands for the then-upcoming Halo 4.

Some of the responses that followed ranged from the sarcastic (“I can't see you Geoff with all those Doritos TM around you." - Anon Cross) to the more obvious (“He looks dead on the inside, poor Geoff.”- Narutoloser) to even the incredibly irrelevant (“This advertisement tells you all you need to know about a Mitt Romney future for Amerika (sic).”- flooblr). Eventually, a screen cap from the video was posted on the video game forum NeoGAF before being spread to other websites such as 4chan and Reddit. However, the picture would find it's way to the hands of Robert “Rab” Flourence, who would then use it as a jumping off point for an opinion piece he would then publish on Eurogamer, titled Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos.

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-The image that started everything. (photo courtesy NeoGAF)

In the article, Robert writes of a recent event he attended  known as the Games Media Awards, which he describes as an awards show where “Games PR people and games journos (sic) voted for their favorite friends, and friends gave awards to friends, and everyone had a good night out.” Of particular mention in this article were a series of tweets regarding the then-upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. But what made those tweets interesting was the fact that the person who wrote those tweets, Lauren Wainright, was a professional game journalist. Robert would then start to question Wainright's actual journalistic integrity, which would lead to Wainwright to threaten Eurogamer for libel regarding this specific incident. The following day, a disclaimer was tagged to Rab's article which said the following:

“Following receipt of a complaint from Lauren Wainwright, Eurogamer has removed part of this article (but without admission of any liability). Eurogamer apologizes for any distress caused to Ms Wainwright by the references to her. The article otherwise remains as originally published.”

Upon learning of the slight alteration, Rab quit his job, sparking a wave of surprise to the entire video game community. As usual, Wainwright continued writing video game articles, which included a so-called preview ofHitman: Absolution in the November issue of the British magazine MCV before disappearing off the grid completely.

Upon release, the article itself was immediately torn up by NeoGAF for looking like nothing more than a sales pitch instead of an actual preview of the game. But as it turns out that there was more to the story than everyone originally thought. Thanks to the brilliant detective work of various posters on NeoGAF, they were able to discover that Lauren Wainwright was at one point employed in the Public Relations department of Square Enix, the same company responsible for making both Tomb Raider and Hitman Absolution. In addition, further searching revealed that she was also able to get into the business thanks to some advice from her fellow friend Katrina Korina, who also currently works for Square.

Since then, Wainwright has gone out onto the internet to deny such claims; however the overwhelming amount of evidence against her was more than enough to force her to shut down her Twitter page once and for all. Both Wainwright and her employers at MCV could not be reached for comment regarding the incident, neither Rab Flourence; however, he has since come out and posted his side of the story on a blog belonging to Rock Paper Shotgun co-editor John Walker. In it, he blames the whole mess on Square Enix's PR department, not Eurogamer or Lauren Wainwright.

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- Lauren Wainwright (photo taken from her website, laurenwainwright.com)

“I want to clarify here that at no point in my column did I suggest that either Dave Cook or Lauren Wainwright were corrupt,” he explains. “Their public tweets were purely evidence that games writers rarely question what their relationship with PR should be. In Lauren’s case I made the point that her suggestion that it’s fine for a games writer to tweet a promotional hashtag for personal gain could make everything she tweets and writes suspect....There was nothing libelous in that column.” Walker himself also backed Rab: in a post on Rock Paper Shotgun, he announced that he is supporting Rab's dismissal from Eurogamer; in addition, he begins to question the ethics of the video game journalism industry and wonders if it really is that corrupt.

THE P.R. PROBLEM

As this strange tale has revealed, it is clear that the game companies themselves seem to have major influence over the entire video game press, much like a government-controlled newspaper. Jeff Green, the Director of Editorial and Social Media at PopCap Games, believes that the reason why Game Companies seem to behave like is due to the fact that they happen to possess one thing almost every gaming magazine and website craves: access to their games, both present and future. In a series of posts on NeoGAF, Green explains that in order to obtain access to information regarding upcoming titles,  the press must be able to get past the one group people that happen to represent the game companies themselves: their PR departments. The PR departments, as it turns out, control everything that the press crave, and would often turn down any offers should a magazine or website manage to offend them. “Piss off the PR departments,” he writes, “and say goodbye to your access.”

But even if the press manages to get past the PR, they still have to make do with whatever information they are given about the product, often in limited form. “Most game companies explicitly tell all their employees not to talk to the press under any circumstances,” Green explains. “In many (most) cases...it's considered breaking an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement), or violating confidentiality.” However, he continues, there are some companies that are less stricter than others in terms of access, such as Valve or Double Fine. “Some will let their designers speak a little more off the cuff....(and) some will provide a remarkable degree of candor, or a level of access normally not seen.” But, for the most part, they have little incentive to do so.

But despite the effectiveness of PR, there are also moments when they tend to go wrong. Such is the case of the recent SimCity reboot, which came under fire by various internet forums upon learning that the game was required to be always-online. While EA's PR department claimed that the Internet restrictions were required as part of some form of "cloud-computing" that the game required, it wasn't until a few days after the game's release that it was discovered that the Cloud-computing claim was nothing more than an excuse to utilize DRM. According to a video posted on Reddit by UKAzzer, he discovered that it was possible to play the game without having to connect to the internet through some clever code editing. This resulted in further backlash from the community, and could have been the cause of EA CEO John Riccitiello's recent resignation last week.

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- SimCity error message (taken by a friend on Steam)

In addition to Public Relations, game companies also throw all kinds of lavish parties which they refer to as “Media Events.” Basically, they invite a bunch of game journalists to a fancy nightclub or location where they test out the latest and upcoming titles from the publisher. Most of these events, such as Capcom's annual Captivate event or the Electronics Entertainment Expo (aka E3) are reported by the media and are usually the center of attention for most gamers.

Then there's public awareness. Nowadays, most game companies would often show up at major conventions such as San Diego Comic Con or the Penny Arcade Expo in order to showcase their latest wares. In fact, I have actually attended two such events over the past few years: an preview event hosted by Electronic Arts at the 2009 Comic Con, and the Pokemon Black & White Mall tour about two years ago. Both of those events usually feature demo stations that allow the public to get a hands on look on upcoming video games, in addition to offering special bonuses and incentives for attending (such as a free t-shirt or movie tickets for example). However, they both seem to be targeted not only towards video gamers but also to folks who have never even played a video game before (aka Casuals).

If conventions don't work, then the game companies resort to television, in this case the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Every year, millions of viewers tune in to this award show not only to see if their favorite video game wins, but also to watch “world exclusive” trailers of newly announced video games (most of which I assume probably got pretty decent scores) It is extremely looked down by the majority of the internet for being a disgrace not only to video gaming, but also due to rumors regarding rigged voting and the like. It is also the subject of constant ridicule on the video game boards of 4chan, where they have gone as far as to create a parody called the /V/GA's, or the /v/idya Gaem Awards. They've recently finished the second one, and I have to say, it was perhaps the most inappropriate two hours I have ever wasted; not only does the award show ridicule the Spike VGAs, it also criticizes and lambashes the entire video game industry for being a total sell-out, often targeting Electronic Arts for misleading the game industry with the release of Mass Effect 3, in addition to trashing on video games journalism itself.

Now the key goal almost every major game company strives for is for their games to get excellent reviews for their titles, which they believe will allow them to not only sell more copies, but also raise the value of the company by a couple of dollars or so. Most video game reviews vary, with some titles scoring extremely highly, while some of the lesser-known/unimportant titles score lower, somewhere around the 70-80 range. It appears that the reasoning the publishers are striving for high review scores is so that they could have a high overall score on the website Metacritic.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, Metacritic is a fairly popular website that aggregates reviews for movies, television shows, and video games. To do so, the website gathers reviews from various sources and averages all the scores together in order to come up with an overall score that represents the title being reviewed. As you can tell, this makes it easier for the consumer to decide whether or not a title is worth purchasing, viewing, listening, and so forth. However, the scores given have been known to influence the stocks of various game publishers in addition to sales. In fact, there are rumors going about that most games must maintain a decent score on Metacritic in order for the developers of the game to get paid, often with an additional bonus should the game score a 90 or higher. Even though Metacritic and the game companies has denied such outlandish claims, some critics and industry members say otherwise, among them, a NeoGAF poster/game journalist who goes by the username of Syriel. He believes that the influence Metacritic has over the entire video game industy is much stronger than one would usually assume. “Why do you see so many sites run the same review for multiple versions [of the same game]?” he asks. “Because [Metacritic] doesn't like it when separate, platform specific reviews are written by the same person...this presents a conundrum for all but the biggest outlets...”

The process of giving a game an actual score is quite simple: as usual, the game is reviewed and scrutinized by the press by grading the title on various factors, such as graphics, sound, gameplay, multiplayer, etc. However, the game industry had come up with various ways to bribe the reviews into giving their titles high scores. On some occasions, the game is delivered in a special package known as a press kit, in which a review copy of the game is packaged together with a small assortment of fancy memorabilia and trinkets from or inspired by the game being reviewed. Some of these press kits have been known to be collectors items, often fetching high prices on auction sites such as eBay. Other times, the reviewers are invited to play the review code in a undisclosed location: for the release of Halo 4, Microsoft invited reviewers to a special event in  New York City, where they would play the final version of the game for two days. One of the reporters, Tina Amini, did a write-up on the event for Kotaku, describing it as a rather interesting occasion: “The PR representatives only came into the room to announce that they’d set up a few lunch boxes for us if we were hungry,” she writes. “We’d take breaks and they’d ask us how we were enjoying ourselves.” She later gave the game a 9 out of 10.

But recently, it has come to light that there are some things worse than having to bribe reviewers: the Exclusive review. About a week ago, IGN announced on their site that they have been given exclusive rights by 2K Games to be the VERY FIRST INTERNET PUBLICATIONS to publish a review of Bioshock Infinite before anyone else can. This caused a bit of a rift to appear among the gaming community, with some users on N4G claiming this to be proof that IGN has unofficially sold out to game publishers. Some folks even went as far as to actually make fun of the situation: The day the exclusive review was published online, Kotaku released a joke "review of IGN's review of Bioshock Infinite."

However, there are some complaints that the game's overall review score does not actually reflect the overall opinion of it's own fanbase, something which has actually drawn criticism from various lurkers on 4chan's /v/ board. One such example is the controversy surrounding DmC: Devil May Cry, which was heavily criticized by most (if not everyone on the internet) for not only butchering the trademark speedy gameplay and story that the series was known for, but also reducing the main character to what one fan referred to as a "whiny emo tryhard that looks ALMOST EXACTLY like Tameem (Antoniades, co founder/chief design officer of Ninja Theory, DmC's developer)." After some lurkers came to the conclusion that the press were bribed to give the game decent scores, a whole mess of people decided to purchase the Devil May Cry HD Collection as an act of protest (with some PC users purchasing Devil May Cry 4 on Steam). Somehow, the protest sort of paid off, as it was later announced that DmC sold roughly a LOT LESS than Devil May Cry 4 (around 800k to be exact).

Average reaction to the new DmC game on 4chan's v board.jpg

-An average reaction to DmC on 4chan's /v/ board (from /vg/'s CURAYZEE general threads)

Since the events of what many now refer to as Doritogate, many news sites have gone public and announced sweeping changes to how they cover video games: VG247 for example, announced that they will no longer engage in any competitions hosted by game publishers and will give away any promotional materials received from the game publishers in contests and the like. In addition, Eurogamer released a blog post by their editor Tom Bramwell regarding Rab's article, attempting to apologize for the recent edit and the whole controversy surrounding Rab's sudden leave from the site. “...It is no exaggeration to say that....people from outside Eurogamer have screamed at me about publishing Rab's column,” Tom explains. “It was very unpopular with a lot of people who I have grown to know....It also obviously resulted in legal threats, legal advice, removing paragraphs and an apology. None of this was in any way fun.”

However, despite the entire debacle, there are some folks who believe that people should really take a much closer look at video game journalism in it's entirety, or better yet, simply reset it. Among them is video game blogger Benjamin Mazzara, who runs the website Musings on the Mediums. While he does agree with the opinions of  Robert Florence regarding the corporate nature of video game journalism, he believes that the people need to know the truth on what's going on. He credits two people for exposing such facts: Jim Sterling, the reviews editor for Destructoid and host of The Jimquisition, and Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, the host of Zero Punctuation.

“Mr. Sterling in particular has a reputation for exposing and commenting on EA's and Acitivision's shenanigans and convincing gamers that their behaviors should not be tolerated,” he explains to me in an email. “The fact that journalists in the video game industry can be bought is sickening and completely against their role in society." Mazzara continues by discussing various aspects of the debacle, going from the VGAs (which he describes as “a load of corporate crock”) to Game Informer, a magazine published by GameStop (“They used to comment on how used game sales can affect the industry. Now, they have to include asterisks and generally avoid condemning GameStop, but they still talk about it as much as they can legally.”)  In addition, he also reveals to me that he doesn't base any of his purchases through game reviews: rather, he bases them on player opinion, which he reads online over the course of the following weeks. “These reviews are too liable to A) be influenced by corporate bribes and B) be mediated to avoid fan backlash,” he explains. Mazzara bases the fan backlash reasoning on a similar incident that occurred last summer in regards to the movie The Dark Knight Rises: After a negative review for the film was published on the website Rotten Tomatoes, the site was immediately swarmed with negative comments and complaints from fans of the movie, along with the usual death threats to the reviewer (Ironically enough, the site that owns Rotten Tomatoes, Warner Bros, is also the distributor of The Dark Knight Rises). Such fanboyism, Mazzara explains, is quite common nowadays, especially on sites like Metacritic where people tend to post negative reviews regarding recent releases. This proves to be a stark contrast compared to the overall positive scores given by the press, further questioning the actual validity of said reviews.

As I am writing this article two days before the release of Bioshock Infinite, I get the feeling that this debacle is never going to end. Sure, most folks would assume that the video game journalism as a whole can be pretty terrible, but in the end, it's usually our choices and opinions that decide whether or not a video game is worth buying, not a critic. And besides, it's not our fault that we all happen to trust the media so much. After all, the industry is just the way it is (“or just one giant clusterf**k,” according to a fellow YouTuber). But as the EuroGamer incident shows, game journalism should no longer be based around what the game publishers say, but based on what the game reviewers think.  “Hopefully some people will listen and we can improve it,” says Mazzara. “If not...well, then, I hope you enjoy watching the Spike Video Game Awards.”