Monday, June 24, 2013

Used Games

With the recent announcements of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, there has been a lot of attention given to the used games market, and what policies would be put in place regarding the ability to sell used games for these platforms.

It's well known that the major games publishers do not like the used games market, since they do not get a cut of these sales, and there have been various attempts at diminishing this market, such as EA's Online Pass program, which made each game ship with a single use unlock code for online access, and required a purchase of around $10 to unlock online features if that used copy was sold to someone else. Since EA has the policy of including online features on every title, this amounted to decreased selling value of all EA titles in the second hand market. EA has recently cancelled the program.

It's easy to paint the publishers as the evil entities in this discussion, particularly since they do a spectacular job themselves of constantly reminding us that they are only in the industry to make profit, with little to no interest in promoting the creation of good games for their own sake. However, it's important to acknowledge that games retailers have been a big part of the problem, with a track record of pushing the sales of used games (at often only a very small discount to the brand new copies), and making it harder for consumers to buy new copies. This results in higher profits for the retailers, but reduces profits to the publishers, and thus to the developers, putting an increased strain on the industry.

The third side of this triangle, that is generally overlooked, is the consumers. How much responsibility do we have for the current games sales landscape? After all, we cast the final vote with our wallets, and while that doesn't give us dominating power, perhaps we are more responsible for the current state of affairs than we like to admit.

When Microsoft announced that the Xbox One would not support used games (or more correctly, would allow publishers to define the policy for their titles, which in practice would amount to the same thing for most titles), there was a huge uproar from the community. Sony capitalized on this, announcing at E3 that they would completely support resale of used games. Microsoft was then forced to backpedal and announce the same.

But, while all this strong support for used games is happening on consoles, the PC gaming landscape is vastly different, and has been so for a while. Steam has grown to become the centre of PC games distribution, a hub for digital purchases, and increasingly for physical purchases. Several of the last PC games I bought, such as Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution, and Remember Me, all required Steam to play.

Why does this matter? Steam does not allow resale of used games. Every game purchased is tied to an account, and can never be resold. Steam has been going now for about 8 years, and this feature of the system has become embedded in the PC gaming landscape with very little resistance from gamers.

Why do console gamers care about their right to resell games they've purchased, while PC gamers have so happily given it up? The console market relies heavily on used games, as much as publishers don't like to admit it. It matters to teenagers and young adults that they can trade in their games towards the next purchase, effectively reducing the cost per game to these people, while older gamers with more disposable income are generally happy to purchase full price and keep their games.

The PC gaming landscape no longer has this feature. It used to be possible to sell used PC games, but no games retailer will accept them any more. Thanks to many of them being tied to a Steam key, they are useless to sell anyway. The physical copy you buy in the store is nothing more than a Steam unlock and physical data backup of a digital purchase, with zero resale value.

Given these facts, is it any wonder that piracy is so rampant on PCs? Sure, it's much easier to download an illegal copy of a game for PC than for a console (which requires a hardware modification), but creating a landscape of "full price or pirate" doesn't exactly help. Add to the fact that I can pop down to my local video store right now and rent any of the latest Xbox 360 or PS3 games for a couple of bucks, crank through it in a weekend, and return it, but I can't do this either on the PC.

We've created an ecosystem that heavily supports piracy on the PC, and we, the consumers, bear a lot of the blame. The allure of 75% off Steam sales is all that it takes for us to happily give away the right of first sale, not thinking about the long term consequences of our actions. PC gamers like to think they're a more sophisticated crowd than the teenage and dudebro console crowd, yet this console crowd seems to have a better grasp of consumer rights and maintaining a sales landscape that has a place for consumers of all income levels.

If we want quality PC titles to keep being made, and to stop the PC games market from being a 95% piracy afterthought, perhaps we need to question the unwavering support for Steam and trading our rights to buy occasional stuff on sale.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Damsel in Distress: Thoughts on Women as Objects in Games

I recently watched the first two parts of the web series being made by Anita Sarkeesian looking at the treatment of women in video games, specifically focusing on variations of the 'damsel in distress' trope. I recommend watching these as they are well made and contain a lot of food for thought and a lot that we in the games industry should probably be ashamed of.

There are plenty of good examples in these videos of women being used as simple objects, like trophies, as a prize for the male protagonist to win, with no will or agency of their own. And there are some pretty embarrassing examples of blatant sexism in video game advertising, such as the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time television ad from 1998 that contains the splash text, "And in the end, willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?"

I wouldn't argue for a second that Sarkeesian doesn't have a lot of good points or that the games industry has been a shining example of gender equality and female empowerment. However, I do have a strong suspicion that she is seeing games a little too strongly through a feminist lens and is not stepping back to consider other possible explanations for some of the things that she insists must be sexism and mysogyny at their core.

It is a common problem with people who are passionate about a particular cause to have a tendency to see everything through the lens of that cause. So you get feminists who interpret everything men do through a lens of sexism, racial minorities who interpret the actions of other races as racially motivated, or anti-religious people like myself tending to interpret the actions of religious people as always being religiously based. Being well aware of this flaw in myself and constantly looking out for when I'm overreaching, I also try to notice when other people do it, and point it out, even when I'm in general agreement with them, as is the case here with Sarkeesian.

Narrative Expedience

I think the fundamental issue here is that she is falling foul of a version of: "Don't attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence". Though in this case I think it's: "Don't attribute to malice what you can attribute to expedience".

Games, like movies and television, often have the need to set up characters and situations quickly, so they can get on with their main purpose. As a result, we often see characters that fit well worn stereotypes, and clichéd situations and character motivations. This is done so that the audience will be able to relate to the situation and get on board the narrative. In a medium such as novels, this is less necessary since there is more time to develop characters and circumstances, but when you're trying to quickly get things established and get the audience on board, tropes, clichés and stereotypes are the standard way to do it.

So, given that we know most games are made with men as the target audience, typically teenagers or young adults, it shouldn't be surprising that games will fall back on tropes that this audience will understand. Like action movies, a lot of games are primarily about the action and not focused on telling a deep story or fleshing out characters in any kind of substantial arc. You need a simple, quick to explain motivator for the main character that justifies his actions throughout the game/movie to follow.

The Protective Instinct

Most men have a hardwired instinct to protect, in the same way most women have a natural nurturing instinct. I'm not going to go into the obvious evolutionary reasons behind this; it should be fairly common knowledge. But men, particularly young men, also have the desire to gain respect, be seen as brave and heroic, and so many of our stories and tropes over the years have been based around this.

And this is where women fit in so perfectly. Having a woman in distress as the primary motivator in a story taps in to both the male's protective instinct, that need to save a woman in danger, and also gain respect and be a hero. Combining all of this together is a powerful motivator that most men understand immediately, which serves perfectly for a lot of games.

You could make a game about the hero trying to get back his stolen car, but it's just not going to resonate in the same way. Even the story about rescuing another man is just not the same. Rescuing a son will resonate a lot more than these previous two, but there's just something about protecting a woman that is different. 

Now, this in itself could well be an example of sexism in the sense that men have a tendency to see women as helpless or in need of protection, but it's based on a long evolutionary history of men fighting other men for the possession of women. We may not live in that kind of world so much these days (at least not in Western countries), but the instinct is still there. Removing it would be like telling a woman not to feel warm and fuzzy when she sees a newborn baby. These are some of our deepest instincts, evolved for good reasons.

One other thing to consider is that games often have the protagonist killing hundreds or thousands of people in a way that could only be considered psychotic in the real world. Like movies, they need to be heightened versions of reality to be satisfying, since they are experienced at a distance. We're not actually in the scene, but experiencing it through a screen. So, while in real life, experiencing shooting a single actual human being would be a traumatic experience, in a game or movie, we get to experience a taste of the adrenaline and badassery of being an action hero, without the guilt and trauma of reality.

However, we still need to have a believable motivation for our actions. Especially as games get more realistic, we need to feel like the character isn't going around killing people because his ice cream fell out of the cone. It needs to be reasons that resonate: saving a loved one, avenging a murder, saving the world.


In the end, I definitely feel that we should keep trying to increase the maturity of the games industry, producing games with more complicated characters and narratives, and giving women more to do than be a trophy. We can do this while still acknowledging that sometimes tropes are used simply because they allow a game to get to its primary purpose faster, and not with the intention to be sexist, racist, or any other -ist.

The Last of Us comes out in a few days time, and it's currently being heaped with praise in reviews because of its believable characters. I'm sure this praise is well deserved, and this will be one example of a game that tries to flesh out its female character beyond the usual clichés. But at its heart, it's a game about a middle aged man and a 14 year old girl trying to survive, and if you think they won't be taking advantage of the natural protective instinct of every male who plays this game, you're crazy!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

94% of Communication is Non-verbal? Actually, no.

I was recently reading the book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and in it the author mentions several times the statistic that 94% of communication is non-verbal. That is, the vast majority of information we transmit to others during face to face communication is non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on, while only a very small fraction of the information we transmit is the actual words that we speak.

I've come across this statistic several times in the past in various places, as I'm sure have most other people (if not the specific 94% number, then probably something very similar). So I finally decided to do a little research into where it comes from, and if it's actually true.

94% is fiction

As you probably already guessed, the 94% figure is not true (if it was, I probably wouldn't be writing this post!). The source of this specific figure is... Kramer. Cosmo Kramer. The character in the TV show Seinfeld. That's right, if you ever see the specific value of 94% mentioned in this context, it has almost certainly come from an episode of Seinfeld.

It's quite amusing to think that various serious books, communications workshops, etc. are using a statistic pulled from a fictional character, but surely this value came from somewhere respectable, right? Well, actually yes, but with some very big caveats that change the value of the statistic significantly.

93% is not much better

The original source of high non-verbal communication numbers like 94% is a paper written by Albert Mehrabian in 1972. In the studies on which the paper is based, he found a value of 93%. That seems pretty damn close, right? What the hell am I being so picky for?

Well, as it turns out, this value of 93% only occurred under very specific circumstances: when subjects were reading out single words with positive, neutral (ambiguous) or negative connotations in either positive, neutral or negative tone of voice, or with positive, negative, or neutral facial expressions. So, in other words, when saying a single word with forced (rather than natural) tone of voice or facial expression, people used the tone or facial expression to judge the overall content of the message much more than the word itself.

Or, to put it simply, circumstances that have absolutely no relation to people conducting natural conversations in the real world.

To be fair, Mehrabian never claimed that his studies were providing broad, general answers to this question. That has been done by other people since, who, in a fashion we see so often with the application of scientific data, have taken a paper's results way out of context and subsequently misled other people as a result.

So what is the answer?

It shouldn't be a surprise that there is no general answer to this question. The amount of information transmitted verbally and non-verbally in conversation is going to be highly dependent on the topic being discussed, the conversational nature of the person talking, and also on the person being spoken to. Some people are much more emotive with their tone of voice and body gestures while talking. Some people are better at reading body language and verbal cues.

As we've all learned by writing emails and SMSes, it's often necessary to provide extra markup to plain text (such as smilies or sarcasm quotes) in order to get intention across, so it's not surprising that non-verbal components play some role in communication, and maybe even a big role. But anyone who throws a specific figure at you or suggests that there is a single value for how much of communication is non-verbal, well, that person <sarcasm> is really clever and insightful </sarcasm>.