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CURRENTS
Issue #42
December 1, 2006
Advent Column
Front Page

It's December.

I work retail, and I firmly believe that holiday music is a detriment to my health. Hearing the bad soft-rock and pop remixes of the time-honored classics is like having a ice pick jammed into my aural cavity.

But that's enough of me. Thanks for stopping by. There's a massive column right below you, and nothing but a scrollbar/scrollwheel/Page Down key keeping you from reading it. So go, already.

Ad on the MTBA

The Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories controversy (previously noted here) coasted to a halt this week; a letter from Daniel Grabauskas, head honcho at the Massacheusets Bay Transport Authority, outlined what appeared to be the final word on the controversy. The subway advertisments (pictured left) for Rock Star's latest M-rated installment in the GTA series stirred up controversy across the city, with outrage from police officers, politicians, and prostitutes.

The MBTA refused to annul the ad contract and allowed the billboards to run until the contract was over. In a November 22nd response letter to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Grabauskas claimed that the MBTA had "no choice" but to allow the advertisements to remain. Current guidelines on advertisements do not control the products that are hawked from the sides of trains; Grabauskas indicated in the letter that this would be changing, and the MBTA will amend their policy to bar advertisements for all games rated "M" or "AO."

Grabauskas proved the pen was mightier then the panic with some carefully-chosen words for the Campaign:

While violent video games may be a contributing factor, they are certainly not the only factor in the rise of violence among young people... By overplaying the importance of this not-most-important factor... you have not addressed the more important root causes. In fact, you have done a disservice.
 
I expect that you will now be about the business of taking on the other challenges causing violence in our City and in our Commonwealth with equal zeal... I urge you not to be too smug with the result. There is no victory where there was never a battle.

A similar controversy shook down much differently in Oregon this week. In response to outcry over the same ads in Portland, TriMet cancelled their contract and removed advertisements from 15 trains. They claimed that the ads encouraged illegal behaviour and could be subject to removal. Further, they claimed that they were not informed of the game's nature before putting the advertisements up, which is code for "covering our behind." Removing the GTA ads cost TriMet $71,000 USD.

Sources GamePolitics | KPTV

As discussed last week, the survival/horror game Rule of Rose was self-censored by would-be publisher 505 Games prior to release in the UK (despite the general of the Video Game Standards Council in the UK directly attacking the critisism as "nonsense"). At root of the controversy is Franco Frattini, the mayor of Rome and the justice commissioner for the EU's executive. His collegue, Viviane Reding, the commissioner for information society and media, blasted him for stepping out of line and speaking without having all the facts.

In a letter to Frattini, Reding clarified the role of her department and the purpose of the rating system. She explained that the PEGI operates to provided "informed adult choice":

This is in line with the Commission's view that measures taken to protect minors and human dignity must be carefully balanced with the fundamental right to freedom of expression as laid down in the Charter on Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The Register also reports that the controversy has prompted some intelligent debate over giving children access to adult video games. Many European countries (Italy included) do not have rules preventing retailers from violating PEGI standards. It goes to show that controlling who has access to adult media and by ensuring people are informed about rating systems helps industries operate without controversy (well, less controversy). Some good may have come of this mayhem after all.

Source: GamePolitics

Microsoft and Nintendo fired potshots at Sony (and each other) in unrelated media interviews this week. Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America president, labelled their competition "arrogant" at a meeting with MTV in Manhattan. Elsewhere, Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft's entertainment division, critisized Sony's attempts at competing in multiple markets; "spread too thin," in his own words.

Fils-Aime's interview with MTV offered a treasure trove of information, in addition to the tongue-lashings. He stated that Nintendo would consider packaging the nunchuck attachment with the basic controller if consumers begin to purchase the two in equal quantities. Also, Mondays are going to be a special day for Wii owners; one to five new updates to the virtual console will be added every week. He suggested that 20 games will be available for download by year-end (30, in Japan). Fils-Aime also offered a glimpse into Nintendo's release schedule strategy:

If there's a month where we don't have a fantastic lineup of Nintendo-packaged software, that's where I want to release a great SNES game or a great N64 game to maintain the momentum.

Shrewd. Also, over the holiday season, Nintendo will be giving "surprise bonus material" to Wii owners whose systems are hooked to the internet, although he was coy with further details. On the "arrogance" of his comptetitors, Fils-Aime stated:

I do think that highlights a difference between us and our competitors: We're not arrogant. We don't view success as a right. We feel we need to earn success every day. And we're going to do that by being true to the gamer.

Bach, of Microsoft, was less upbeat in his comments:

I think Sony, frankly, suffers a little bit from this problem, which is they're spread really thin across all these areas. And trying to do PSP, competing with Nintendo, PSP to DS; competing with us, 360 to PS3, I think it does strain - it would naturally strain any organisation.

He emphasised that Microsoft's main focus is on reducing cost on the Xbox 360. (Check last week's NUMB3R CRUNCH1NG for why.) Bach emphasized that the XBox 360's cost structure is lower, and he believes Microsoft will be able to achieve economies of scale faster than Sony. This holiday season, Sony will (without a doubt) sell every PS3 they can make and ship. As time goes on, and price competition sets in, Bach believes the XBox 360 will outperform, since "...we designed a box that was fundamentally easier to manage on costs."

Sources: MTV News | Eurogamer

Three states are reading up on the First Amendment as a triple-dose of smackdown is laid in favour of the gaming industry (in one way or another).

Illinois
GamePolitics has the skinny on what went down in Illinois. Last year, a District Court Judge struck down legislation that would have required "explicit" games to have a 4-inch "18" sticker by reinforcing the fact that games are protected under the First Amendment and could not be regulated as such. Governer Rod Blagojevich tried to appeal portions of the bill, but the US Court of Appeals supported the original ruling this week, labelling the legislation as unconstitutional (we should have a big sticker for that).

The judge was presented with evidence in the form of games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, and The Guy Game: Uncut and Uncensored. The defence presented God of War as a counterargument, which the Court described as a "...benign game which was unconstitutionally criminalized by the law," since God of War, which featured a single scene of nudity, would be slapped with the uber-sticker; despite the fact that it roughly retold the Homeric epics. The Court went on to reaffirm that children have First Amendment rights, and that the state has historically had too much power when controlling media given to minors.

It was further noted that: "a state’s ability to criminalize the distribution of obscene materials only extends to those which 'taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.' See Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 24 (1973)." The Court went on to dissect precedent in the area, stating conclusively that indecent material cannot be prevented from disseminating if it is of literary or social value.

It came down to the fact that the bill was overly broad in its scope and overly aggressive in its solution. The Court upheld the defence's argument that other, less restrictive, actions could achieve similar results. A parental-education campaign on ESRB ratings, for example. The placement of a big "18" sticker on games would be a subjective judgement on the part of the state, not factual information regarding content. Thus, the sticker would not accomplish the goal the legislation was set out to achieve, namely, that parents are informed of sexual content.

Louisiana
Jack Thompson's attempt at legislating games in Louisiana hit a hiccup last August, when Judge James Brady granted a temporary injunction on the bill, preventing it from being enacted until it could be reviewed. The bill would have blocked the sale of games deemed especially violent or sexual to minors. The State had argued that regulating video games was more akin to the regulation of conduct, like smoking or drinking. Judge Brady found that claim to be erroneous, since the reason the State argued for the ban is the supposedly innapropriate message that games contain; a clear indication that the First Amendment is in play. Judge James also ruled that video games are no more interactive than a book or photograph in terms of expression of ideas, and could not be subject to unjust censorship. Finally, he ruled that preventing children from accessing violent games does not protect them from harm; since "The First Amendment forbids governmental restrictions on speech based on the provocative or persuasive effect of the speech on its audience."

The temporary injunction was elevated to a permanent one this week, and has been ruled officially unconstitutional. Judge James made his ruling from the bench, instead of the customary deliberation that usually follows such proceedings. In a terse, one-and-a-half page ruling, he cited his discussion on temporary injunction instead of elaborating further. To read between the lines: owned.

Michigan
Taxpayers will be footing the industry's bill for their most recent and now-unconstitutional attempt at regulating violent games. The bill? $182,349 USD. Doug Lowenstein, ESA kahuna, had choice words for politicians who choose this path in the future:

States that pass laws regulating video game sales might as well just tell voters they have a new way to throw away their tax dollars on wasteful and pointless political exercises that do nothing to improve the quality of life in the state.
Doug Lowenstein, President, ESA

The ESA can add this newest settlement to the $1.5 million USD they are to be reimbursed for similar incidents. I sense some NUMBER CRUNCH1NG:

Who Owes the ESA? (thousands, USD) [Joystiq]
Illinois
$510
Washington
$344
Indianapolis
$318
St. Lois
$180
Michigan
$180
Sources: GamePolitics | Joystiq
Nintendo Wii

Nintendo released preliminary sales and revenue figures for the Nintendo Wii. Since its release last week, Nintendo has moved 600,000 Wii consoles, outstripping Sony by a long shot, and selling (in eight days) 10% of what the Xbox 360 has sold in the last year. Nintendo also announced that they've reaped $190 million USD from sales of the Wii and peripherals.

Also of note, Nintendo has sold 450,000 copies of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which means that 75% of Wii owners are hanging in Hyrule. In Canada, Nintendo sold just as many consoles as they did Zelda; 100% of Wii-ers are helping Link save the world.

A study, authored by radiologist Dr. Vincent Mathews of the Indiana University School of Medicine, was presented to the Radiological Society of North America this week. The results are notable: kids that play violent games experience different brain activity then those who play non-violent games.

The study was comprised of 44 teenagers 13-17 years old who played one of two games for 30 minutes. One group played Medal of Honor: Frontline (dubbed "violent" by the study's authors), and the second group played "non-violent" Need for Speed: Underground. After the half-hour, the subjects were asked to perform a series of tasks and puzzles that tested their concentration and subjected them to emotional stimuli. During these tests, they were subjected to magnetic resonance imaging to record changes in metabolic activity in the brain.

The results? The gamers who played the war game demonstrated increased activity in the amygdala (which indicates an increase in emotional arousal) and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for focus and contentration; talk to Dr. Kawashima about that one), when compared with the Need for Speed players.

I want to hear from you on the subject. What do you think about the results? How long before someone gets Dr. Mathews (or any other respectable researcher) to testify in a landmark case against the video game industry somewhere?

Source: Yahoo! News

I have a double-dose of science for you today. Your second helping is a tasty dish from Mark Griffths, professor at the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. He administered a questionnare to 7,000 online gamers (mostly male and in their early 20's), and tabulated the results. To nobody's surprise, online gamers exhibit behaviours comparable to drug users. Read on...

One in nine of Griffiths' subjects displayed at least three signs of addiction, as per the WHO's guidelines for symptoms of dependence syndrome. Such symptoms include cravings, loss of control, and a neglect of other activities. Further, he separated the gamers who exhibited signs of addiction and compared the data to the rest of the test group, and found that the "addicts" played for longer and were more likely to display withdrawl symptoms.

Although I think genuine addiction is fairly low, the thing about online gaming is that the game never stops. With a stand alone game you can switch it off and come back the next day, but with an on-line game it's very difficult to log off when you know half the world has just logged on. Many gamers play excessively and display few negative consequences. There is nothing wrong in itself with doing something excessively, unlike gambling gaming has little or no financial consequence. However, the 24-hour a day never-ending online games may provide a potentially addictive medium for those with a predisposition for excessive game playing.
Professor Mark Griffiths
Source: Daily Mail
Sony

There were massive shakeups in Sony's game division ths week. Most notably, Ken Kutaragi, the "father of the PlayStation," will no longer head up operations in North America. But that's not all that went down, so here's a handy bingo-sheet on Sony's corporate musical chairs.

The shakeups come at a pivotal time for Sony. Struggling with the PS3 launch, reeling from the battery recall, and in the midst of massive downsizing, the corporate shuffle is a sign that Sony's looking to turn their fortunes around.

Name Previous Post New Post
Ken Kutaragi ·Head of US Operations
·Chief Executive
·Chief Executive
·Chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment
Kazuo Hirai ·President and Chief Executive of SCEA ·Head of US Operations
Jack Tretton ·Executive VP SCEA ·President and Chief Executive of SCEA
David Reeves ·Head of European Video Game Division ·VP of Sony Computer Entertainment
Source CBC News

If you clicked down from the top, shame on you. Go back up and read your way down. If you're looking for more crunching, I gave the ESA's legal reimbursement the crunch above.

Here's some Q&A style number crunching for your enjoyment.

Question: If you put 1,000 XBox 360's on sale for $100, how fast will you sell out?
Answer: 29 Seconds. Amazon put the consoles up for sale last Thursday, and the traffic was enough to bring Amazon's server to its knees for 15 minutes. [Yahoo! News]

Question: How much does Sony's revenue change when the Yen moves against the Euro?
Answer: Y13 billion up or down for every Y1 change between the two. The weak Yen could save Sony's PS3 from huge losses during it's European release next fall. They currently lose Y30,000 per unit on North American and Japanese units, but the weak Yen means that Sony could lose as little as Y3,000 per unit sold in Europe, analysts suggest. [Financial Times]

Question: How any PS3 games does Sony need to sell to recoup the loss of one PS3?
Answer: According to one analyst, 30 games. By comparison, the PlayStation 2 was subsidized by a factor of eight games. [Financial Times]

Question: How many PS3 games does Namco have to sell to break even?
Answer: 500,000 copies. They sold 22,000 copies each of Ridge Racer 7 and Mobile Suit Gundam on the PS3's launch weekend. Check out this story from last week for similar analysis from THQ. [Eurogamer]

It was a busy week in gaming, and I'm glad you stopped by RPGamer to get your fix.

So what do you think of Sony's shakeups? Will Hirai do a good job at the helm of Sony's US operations? It's always worth looking into the physiological and psychological effects that video games have on people; if you're going to spend dozens of hours weekly playing games, you might as well know what it's doing to you.

Until next week, play safe.

//Sometimes, I do dishes;
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Theo Litowski

 

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