Sunday, December 26, 2010

Discussing the EMA Case with Senator Leland Yee

On Sunday, December 19th, my good friends Sean Patrick and Devan Patel, along with myself, had coffee with Senator Leland Yee. Yee was the author of the controversial ABs 1792 and 1793, which attempted to governmentally regulate the sale of mature games to minors. The bills were deemed unconstitutional by the State Court in 2005, and their constitutionality was again discussed in a November 2 U.S. Supreme Court meeting. I wrote an open-letter to the Senator with my particular objections to the bill, for which the meeting was called to discuss.

After spending a short time watching Sean play Obsidian's Alpha Protocol, we walked down to Starbucks to meet with the Senator and his aide. We introduced ourselves as Juniors from Stuart Hall High School and talked about our relationship with gaming (Devan and Sean being consumers and me being a writer and artist). 

Yee, a developmental psychologist, began the meeting by discussing the “Bobo Doll Study” regarding youth aggression, in which children emulated an adult model violently abusing a human doll. It is common knowledge among the psychological community that exposure to violent imagery causes desensitization to violence. The Senator thus did not contend that there was a causal relationship between game-consumption and real-world violence, a position that I strongly object to. Several notable anti-game critics have held considerably more theatrical viewpoints on the matter, Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton come to mind, such people have recognized Grand Theft Auto to be a public safety hazard. Yee thus held that the desensitizing effect of game justified the bill.

The Senator also held that it was the state's responsibility to protect children from harmful forces, likening his bill to laws passed in the early 20th Century outlawing child labor. Whether or not the desensitizing effect of violent games would be on the level of the atrocities that child coal-miners faced in the Industrial Revolution is debatable. Furthermore, he again acknowledged that games did not pose a public safety hazard, if this was so, then why would the law be necessary to protect children? Is psychological desensitization enough to justify the distinct treatment of violent games to violent film, comics and literature?

Yee also emphasized the distinction between what he considered “violent games” and “ultraviolent games”. Nonetheless, the disparity remained extremely vague. I brought up Sony Santa Monica's God of War III, a game so graphically violent that even I recoiled at the gore. Yee responded by saying that God of War III would not be affected by the bill because the subject of its violence was not human in nature, “creature violence” did not fall under the bill. Apparently, the genocide of thousands of harpies and minotaurs did not deserve recognition.

Senator Yee stated that the “ultraviolent” games that would be affected by the bill depicted violence between human characters in a patently offensive manner. While Gears of War would not be considered “ultraviolent”, considerably tamer games would be. Nonetheless, the distinction remains extremely vague. The T-rated Uncharted and Goldeneye feature shooting human enemies as their primary mechanic. Over the course of their respective campaigns, the player kills hundreds of pirates and terrorists. Nonetheless, the relatively innocuous nature of such violence is on a level infinitely lower than that of Manhunt and Soldier of Fortune, which feature human dismemberment as an option. Under the law, would Goldeneye fall under the same group as the far more disturbing Soldier of Fortune? T-rated games feature human violence as a primary mechanic, and under the bill's verbiage, such games would be grouped with the likes of Postal, even while sci-fi/fantasy games like Halo are not affected.

The Senator also held that the bill was ultimately intended to assist parents in determining what content their children can access and that parents can choose to opt out of the policy by purchasing violent games for children, thus, pre-informing parents about content. Thus, the bill would reinforce the measures that the industry already takes in order to police its own content. Built-in parental controls by console manufacturers, the ESRB, ID check at retail and the refusal of console companies to license AO rated games are such measures. By governmentally reinforcing the industry's standards, notable risks arise given the degree of power the state gains over it. This ultimately makes the bill redundant to the industry's already held policies, rendering it a rather unnecessary exercise of political power over content advisory and the medium itself.

Senator Yee then asked us about our own gaming habits and the degree of parental control that our families had over our play decisions. Despite our dissenting viewpoints, the meeting was ultimately respectful, interesting and productive.

Upon the conclusion of the meeting, we returned to Sean's house to celebrate the merit of games by playing many matches of Call of Duty: Black Ops. I came out with mostly negative spreads, but found respite in the AK74u, stun grenade and claymore. Devan and myself were involved in an epic tug-of-war over the central control point in Nuketown. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Explorations in Gaming: Year in Review

An interesting trend that I have noticed in the history of this blog is the constant evolution of the topic of the posts, thereby reflecting my own moral and intellectual growth. In previous phases of this site's development, I have written about pre-teen angst, Proposition 8, bioethical issues, adolescent sociology and now, video games and ludological studies. Previously interested in doing “Year in Review” posts, this in this post, I'll discuss such. In creating this site, I did not intend to create “just another online diary”, avoiding trends that I have seen in other teenage bloggers, this is essentially a journal of my own progress and explorations in gaming, a memoir of the experiences I've had this year with the medium that I have fallen in love with.

My year was spent mostly catching up on releases from the past two years and dabbling in some of this year's releases. Here, I would like to talk about some notable, meaningful or interesting experiences I've had playing games this year. The games I will discuss in this post will not necessarily be the best games I've played all year, but some of the the most interesting.

Entering the Community

I've been in somewhat of an upward streak in gaming for the past few years. In 2010, I spent more time and money on games than the past two years combined. My relationship with the medium reached new heights after participating in a video-game program at COSMOS, producing Tactile Cave and signing on to do spriting and animation with Studio C5 on the tentatively titled Platformertown. Reading Ed Halter's From Sun-Tsu to Xbox and Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, I was introduced to fascinating intellectual approaches to the medium.

Formally studying ludological issues in a classroom setting was a very enlightening experience, UC Santa Cruz's Expressive Intelligence Studio gave me the opportunity to learn more about code and creativity than I would ever be able to using online guides and forums. Meeting several current and future indie developers, I came to see the lack of innovation plaguing the current corporate industry and the need for increased accessibility for independent projects and lower prices. The EIS's research deals with Artificial Intelligence, not of the breed that shoots and takes cover, but the kind that can simulate human behavior and conversation. The creative potential for games to arouse powerful emotional reactions is inherent in this type of design, and discussed heavily were the art-games Portal, Braid and fl0wer (all of which I played this year). The studio's own studies and advancements, contained in their game Facade, exemplified fascinating new approaches to interactivity that would be integral to future WRPGs.

The Year of Metroid

2010 began with a grand playthrough of the entire Metroid Prime: Trilogy. My trek through Tallon IV and Aether was one of the most atmospheric and absorbing I've taken, the planets being some of the richest and imaginative virtual environments I've partook in. Retro Studio's attention to detail is incredible, and the Trilogy is a package that I gladly suggest to any gamer. Samus's scanning ability was ultimately my favorite part of the game, being able to analyze and study any part of the environment brought me into the game's world, making the planets feel real, their intricate histories absorbing and magical.

Unfortunately, the two other Metroid games I played that year were not as compelling as the Prime games. Metroid: Other M's emphasis on taking prompts from film to tell its story were disappointing, mostly because of the uninteresting characters than the intriguing plot. I also appreciated Super Metroid's compelling open-world design, but ultimately, the caves of Zebes was not as interesting as Tallon IV with its varied ecosystems or Aether with its rich Luminoth history, and thus, I was not motivated to complete it.

Catching up on Classics
If there was a theme for my gaming choices this year, it would be “modern classics”. I had the opportunity to play, for the first time, Resident Evil 4, Sands of Time, Portal, Knights of the Old Republic, Modern Warfare, Metal Gear Solid, Chinatown Wars, Soul Calibur II, Tatsunoko v. Capcom, Borderlands, Arkham Asylum, Fallout 3, Braid, Galaxy 2, Phoenix Wright, No More Heroes, Cave Story, Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2, Spirit Tracks, Final Fantasy IV (2007) and finally, StarCraft. I am somewhat embarrassed to have missed out on these games on their original release, and having the opportunity to play these games, beginning to end, was an immensely pleasurable journey.

Resident Evil 4 I held particular gripes with, while the environmental design was second-to-none and the combat, gory and satisfying, the story, while intriguing, was poorly told, shattering suspension of disbelief. Sands of Time I picked up upon hearing high praise on it, while I enjoyed the simple Arabesque story and its memorable ending, I was ultimately immensely frustrated by the linear platforming and the trial-and-error nature of the controls. Portal I easily recommend to anyone, the innovative physics based puzzles are of extreme quality, and in spite of its extreme brevity, Portal is one of the most memorable experiences that any gamer can have. While not a Star Wars fan to begin with, KotOR's absorbing narrative and great characters turned me into one, the plot twist ranking up near that of Inception.

Flashbang Reviews and Semtex Memories

The military game has reached Bieber-esque popularity in the past few years, and the nature of these games, I would admit, lacks particular nuance. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is onesuch example of such a game. Despite the potential for politically charged emotional moments in the game, Modern Warfare takes a rather tepid approach to its own subject matter, seldom does one question the motives of the slaughter he commits. Nonetheless, Modern Warfare did succeed in certain, non-action based moments, the AC-130 mission struck me as particularly cold, brutal and disturbing. The sheer indifference NPCs held towards the mission was shocking, and of course, the death of Paul Jackson left me speechless.

I disliked Bethesda's previous role-playing game, Morrowind, the sheer narrative freedom of the game was daunting, and the vastness of the options available was overwhelming and inaccessible. Fallout 3 improved on these flaws considerably. The ludonarrative freedom available to the player no longer felt overwhelming, but rather quite liberating. V.A.T.S gory, turn-based combat was not particularly compelling, but the options presented to interact with NPCs and the game-world absorbed me into the story of the Capital Wasteland.

Braid has been heavily cited as the most influential indie game of the past decade and the platonic ideal of the art-game. Much like Portal, it is a brief, single-player puzzle game. However, the nature of its challenges are of extreme quality, every moment of the short experience being worthwhile and satisfying, forcing the player to think in ways that would be physically impossible in our own dimension. Braid's four-dimensional gameplay permeated into my own world, and weeks after I was done with it, I still was contemplating the possibilities of altering time. The fact that the absolute and total mindf_ck of an ending stayed with me even when I was not playing the game makes Braid a game that I cannot recommend my friends to play, but demand them to.

To be as frank as possible, I felt that the hyperbolic praise that Super Mario Galaxy 2 was slightly undeserved. While I absolutely adored the game with its challenging levels and inspired artistic design, the superlative reviews it received did not describe the lack of amazement. The first Galaxy absolutely floored me with its unbridled fun, moving through space through the creative environments was one of the finest gaming experiences I had the opportunity of entering. Ultimately, Galaxy 2 felt to be more of the same, and while not a bad thing (more Mario is always good), I felt that the game failed to amaze on the level of the first game.

About that Open-Letter...

Some of my readers may remember my Open-Letter to Senator Leland Yee and the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the EMA case and the Assembly Bills that the case concerns. To those who supported me and signed the petition, I thank you immensely. I received a response from the Senator's office and had the opportunity to meet Senator Yee over coffee to discuss the bill and the ramifications that games have. More on that will come in the following weeks. Until then, Merry Christmas!  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Goldeneye 007 (2010) Review

I initially had absolutely no intention of picking up Goldeneye 007 for the Wii, doubtful that it would do the N64 game justice, I was cynical of Activision’s ability to replicate classic feel. Nonetheless, upon hearing many good things about the game, I decided to take a risk and purchase the game. After a seven-hour marathon session, I can profess with certainty that Goldeneye 007 does its legendary namesake justice, a modern shooter that feels like a classic. While it may not have the impact of the original, Eurocom’s remake takes creative liberties while preserving the original aesthetics of the game even through the addition of modern mechanics. The result is a fine and memorable campaign coupled with incredible local multiplayer worthy of the prestigious franchise.

Reverent Tribute or Blasphemous Desecration? Single-Player
From watching gameplay footage, one would predict that Goldeneye 007 would be a Bond-flavored Call of Duty game, and to a minor extent, this is correct. Aim-assist is present, levels are linear (though not to the extent of Modern Warfare 2), story is told through load-screen briefings, breaches are accompanied with a slo-mo effect and aiming down the sight is the key to success in combat. What makes this Wii-remake so special is how it delicately balances these modernizations to make the game both familiar yet fresh.
For one, much like the original, this is a stealth/shooter hybrid. Running and gunning leads to many deaths, and thus, enemy placement is designed to promote a stealthy play-style. Enemies are positioned so that tactical planning of attacks is necessary. A stealth-takedown move is preformed by maneuvering behind an enemy and following a motion prompt, allowing for the player to eliminate enemies unnoticed. This stealthy method of play is extremely satisfying and gives what could have been an overly generic shooter its own unique play style. While the N64 game was geared towards run-n-gun gameplay, it still was filed with stealth-sequences. Fans of the original will be pleased to see this style of play replicated in 2010.

Unlike the original Goldeneye’s short, snappy levels, Goldeneye for the Wii has a very lengthy campaign with some incredible set pieces. While the N64 versions levels could be completed in five minutes, the average Goldeneye Wii level takes about 25 minutes to complete, resulting in one of the meatiest single-player games in recent memory. Goldeneye’s weapon set also mixes Call of Duty and the N64 games dynamics to an excellent effect. Weapons feel powerful, sound great and are excellently modeled. Pulling off headshots with a high-powered Pavlov sniper is as fun as it was years ago, and while it might not have the spectacle that other recent AAA shooters are known for (read: Reach, Black Ops), Goldeneye’s campaign stands alone both as a modernization of the original and a new experience. Level layouts may be entirely different, but they differ to Goldeneye’s  benefit
Nonetheless, one innovation that this game utilizes that has been sorely underused in modern FPS games are multiple objectives. As the player increases the difficulty, new objectives must be completed, thereby changing the experience and adding a replay value rare in modern shooters (no pun intended). The original Goldeneye had this scaling difficulty system and not since the TimeSplitters series has this been used. Needless to say, the utilization of this difficulty system makes this modern game so much more honest to the original, and thus, so much more fun.

Ultimately, Goldeneye 2010 does indeed succeed in replicating the original games aesthetic despite its newer mechanics and is a worthy successor to the esteemed 007 title.Whether or not it can create as many fond memories as the original remains debatable. 

Graphics, Control and Sound
Goldeneye 2010 is by no means a good looking game compared to game like Corruption or Red Steel 2, and despite the best intentions of the art team, Goldeneye’s artistic direction feels generic in the face of the recent surge of modern-warfare inspired shooters. The game runs off developer Eurocom’s Dead Space Extraction engine, and thus, features some very impressive facial animation and lighting effects. Light sources are awash with ample bloom-lighting and reflect and bounce off beautifully off polished surfaces. Mo-capped and facially scanned character models are impressive in detail and react realistically.
Nonetheless, the graphics do fall short in certain areas. For one, some textures are rather blurry compared to other Wii games. Bullet-holes leave a noticeable decal and the frame rate drops slightly at busy times. Goldeneye’s engine might lack the sophistication of The Conduit’s Quantum3 engine and it might also lack the inspired artistry of Corruption, nonetheless, the framerate is solid almost all of the time and rarely drops and the texturing won’t get in the way of enjoyment.

Goldeneye’s controls, much like its graphics, pale in comparison to titles like The Conduit and Corruption. The pointer-based controls are excellent, without many problems. Nonetheless, I often wished for a quick-turn button which would allow for me to snap back to engage with threats behind me, as the default turning speed was too slow for my taste. Nonetheless, Goldeneye features extremely customizable controls through which every button can be remapped and the bounding sensitivity can be adjusted. In addition, the game also supports Zapper, Classic Controller and Gamecube support. Gamecube control, while functional, is not recommended as the C-Stick is too small and stubby to work well for long play sessions. Ultimately, the bundled Classic Controller Pro works best for this game, with button mapping being flawless.
Sound-wise, the game is excellent. Daniel Craig leads the voice-cast of the game as Bond providing a very authentic recreation of the events of Goldeneye. Music, while repetitive, remains reminiscent to that of the series and sets up the game’s tone and mood very well.

Narrative Problems
Nonetheless, a considerable problem facing Goldeneye is its story.While thematically, it is refreshing to have a fun espionage-themed shooter in face of the gritty war titles we have received in recent years, Eurocom’s attempt at modernizing the Goldeneye story falls absolutely flat in seven instances, leaving gaping plot holes.


For one, by moving the events of the game to occur in 2010, the writers have essentially made Treylevan’s motives for attacking the Bank of England useless, his motives seemingly become hazy. Also, the dam mission, now coinciding with the rest of the story, makes the relationship between Janus and Ouromov confusing and unclear. If Treylevan was working for the Russians under the guise of a MI6 member, how did he survive the gunshot wound and why did he kill so many Russian operatives. Goldeneye’s story is minorly tainted in this revival and is one of the weaker parts of this game.

Goldeneye 64 was known for its innovative split-screen multiplayer mode, which attracted a cult-following in the late 90s in college dorms and high-school basements everywhere. Surprisingly, the revival’s multiplayer is very robust for the Wii, while it may not necessarily cut into the TF2 time, the online multiplayer is both fun, responsive and addictive. While not as deep as the recent Call of Duty: Black Ops, one can appreciate the smaller maps and reduced player-count, leading to better balance, simpler gameplay and fewer infuriating spawn-kills and deathstreaks.

Structurally, Goldeneye is considerably simplified Call of Duty. Character customization is limited to three perks, a primary weapon, secondary weapon and a primary weapon attachment. Thus, success depends on reflexes and marksmanship rather than map memorization and camping. The low-player count reduces the risk of frustrating spawn kills and the lack of killstreak awards keeps things simple and controlled. The same simplicity is one of Goldeneye’s faults, and while it is fun to pop online for a few quick matches, online multiplayer eventually grows repetitive and the lack of voice-chat significantly reduces the appeal. Online Multiplayer fanatics might rather look at Black Ops or the upcoming Conduit 2.


Thankfully, true to the original, Goldeneye 007 features not only some of the best local multiplayer shooting on the console, but of the entire generation. While modern shooters have focused more on online play, seldom is excellent local multiplayer a focus for developers. Sure, there is Call of Duty, but one does get tired of playing Rust and Nuketown for the umpteenth time. Goldeneye 007 does an excellent job of fine-tuning its maps for raucous split-screen matches. While the fact that the pre-set loadouts does limit strategic depth, the sheer accessibility of the experience is reminiscent to the quality of the original N64 game. A bevy of character models and the large variety of control options allows the game to access a wide audience. The masterful degree of customization allows for a degree of rule-changing depth unseen since TimeSplitters 2. Needless to say, Goldeneye 007 offers a refreshing change of pace, and while the online multiplayer might not be as robust as other FPS games, the split-screen will give ample reason to leave the disc in your Wii for weeks at a time. Highly Recommended. 4.5/5

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Psychological Ramifications of the EMA Case

The law states that violent video games are ones in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being in a manner that's "patently offensive," appeals to a person's "deviant or morbid interests," and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." ~ Gregory Leporati

On November 2nd, 2010, the US Supreme Court heard a case named Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The case regarded a challenge to California’s currently held violent video game laws, respectively AB 1792 and 1793. Which were created by State Senator Leland Yee after the controversy regarding the Hot Coffee mod to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a fan-created hack that allowed the player to have sex with a female avatar. Under the challenged laws, any video game that would allow for violent acts to be preformed onto a human character would be cordoned off in a separate section of a store, require ID to purchase and bear a two-inch sticker warning of dangerous content, essentially placing video-games on the level of guns, pornography and alcohol. During the case itself, Justices Scalia, Sotomayor, Roberts, Kennedy and Ginsberg expressed skepticism towards Zack Morazzini, who represented California’s objections towards violent games. The Justices agreed that the laws posed a serious infringement on the First Amendment rights of game developers and that exceptions should not be made for content accessible by both children and adults, Kennedy stated that “You are asking us to create a -- a whole new prohibition which the American people never -- never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment." Nonetheless, Justice Breyer pressed the EMA representative on the psychological effects of violent games on children, questioning the notion that a First Amendment exception should be made for a different medium. Running With Scissor’s Postal 2 was brought up for discussion, a poorly selling sadistic action game which allowed for the maiming and abuse of children. The EMA took the position that “there is not a violence exception to the First Amendment for minors and there should not be". Ultimately, the courts were skeptical of the California video-game laws, believing them to be a First-Amendment violation, nonetheless, the psychological effects of gaming left the members ambivalent, as neither side had any solid evidence pointing to whether or not video games were indeed harmful to minors.


I chose to cover this article because it involves me personally as both an avid video-game player and an indie game developer. Writing an open-letter to Leland Yee ( a few weeks ago, I protested against California’s attempt at regulating an artistic community that I am very much part of. There is a considerable lack of solid evidence pointing at a causal relationship between video-game violence and real-world violence, leaving the relationship entirely speculative. In fact, surveys indicate that youth violence has decreased significantly in the past fifty years, while this may not be a causal relationship it is clear that video game consumption has rose in the last fifty years. While there is undeniable that media of any kind has an effect on its audience, and that young children are especially easily influenced by media, the notion that video games are more harmful than other media, say children’s cartoons or children’s marketing, is extremely shaky. For one, the belief that the play of first-person shooters leads to school shootings is entirely false and a gross oversimplification of social problems facing troubled adolescents, it is proven that a variety of other factors, such as parental and peer relationships (or lack thereof) are the causal factors of violent behavior in children, not game consumption. In addition, if a causal relationship were to exist, the rampant popularity of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises would have lead to the total annihilation of society, as no such thing happened, the causal relationship cannot exist. Furthermore, should the Supreme Court side with California and treat video games like pornography, guns and tobacco, games will essentially become a taboo hobby, their consumption being frowned upon socially. Having played games since three and recently helped in the foundation of an indie studio, I cannot allow this to a happen. I have recently received an email back from Senator Yee’s office, expressing interest in a meeting to discuss the matter and the ramifications that the case entails.


Leland Yee, the California State Senator who originally created AB 1792 and 1793, is a child psychologist. A considerable portion of the organizations filing amicus briefs in support of California cite the possible adverse effects violent games might have on children, the rest believing violent games to be mere obscenity. However, the professional psychological community is entirely split on the subject. Dave Grossman, a West Point psychology professor, holds that game publishers are essentially training children to use weapons and are systematically desensitizing them to violence, calling first-person shooter games “murder simulators”. On the other hand, child psychologist Lawrence Kutner wrote in his book Grand Theft Childhood that his studies indicated that children who did not play video games were statistically more likely to participate in violent behavior. A Texas A&M study published just this year concluded that there was no link between violent game consumption and school shootings. Nonetheless, another Iowa State University article linked video-game play to increased levels of aggressive behavior and thought. The lack of consensus within the psychological community leaves the veracity of the notion that game violence causes real violence questionable, and thus, requires further research and understanding to reach a compromise, if one is needed, between game developers and concerned parental organizations. Ultimately, if there is indeed an explicit link, the question will come down to whether or not such behavioral affects would justify First Amendment exceptions.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Sites 68

PUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDI I'm rather ambivalent about Facebook's most recent trend, changing one's profile picture to that of a nostalgic cartoon character for the sake of child abuse. While previous trends have been innocuous and fun grabs at personal fame for meme creators, this one has been disguised beneath the idea of a good cause, thereby dragging many into what is newly known as "Facebook Slacktivism". Nonetheless, I am participating out of interest in nostalgia. and while we're on the topic of memes, two new and interesting ones have surfaced in the past week, Jimmy Wales and PUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDIPUDDI Just try it out. Runs entered text through Google Translate multiple times to hilarious results. (thank you Sean White)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Platformertown Developer’s Diary (Part 1)

Hey readers,

For those of you who don’t already know, I participated in the foundation of a new indie game development studio along with some of the alumni of COSMOS UCSC Cluster 5 2010. Our first game is tentatively titled Platformertown, a 2D Java based platformer, on which I am art director. Our project wiki can be found here. Right now, here are some preliminary sprites and art assets to be found within the completed game (we’re going for a “it’s done when it’s done” approach).

150578_1755359930020_1419610922_31937503_2659252_n Logo (Credit: Marcus Goldschmidt)


Main Player Character (running)


Main Player Character (Jumping)


Signpost Enemy






MagmaMonster Boss

Well, that’s it for now. Come back later for more developer’s diaries as well as an upcoming review of the new Goldeneye.