Friday, March 23, 2012

Congressmen Propose Violence Warnings on Almost Every Game out There

[Article first published as Congressmen Propose Violence Warnings on Almost Every Game out There on Blogcritics.]

It’s always a good thing to see when Congress works hard to tackle the tough issues.  You know, economic health, unemployment, foreign relations – important things.  Then you see bills introduced that make you wonder why we pay them.  Rep. Joe Baca (D – CA) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R – VA) have just recently sponsored H.R. 4204, “The Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2012,” which is akin to its past iteration in 2009.  The passing of the bill would mean that all games rated E and above (that’s right, “E” for “Everyone”) by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board would have to carry with it a warning on the label, regardless of content.  The warning would read “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior” according to the language (see the bill here).

For those unfamiliar with the current Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system, allow me to give you a primer – games are classified into ratings by the intended audience, much how the MPAA uses their (broken) system of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.  ESRB’s ratings are eC (early childhood), E (everyone), E10 (everyone 10+), T (teen), M (mature 17+) and AO (adults only 18+).  So they’ve actually broken games down into much narrower bands than the MPAA has with movies.  And of course, these ratings are accompanied with reasoning (you can look games up on for ratings and rationale).  In my opinion, the classifications are, for the most part, dead on accurate.

So now that you’ve had your ESRB primer, let’s take a look at what this bill passing would mean.  Let’s take a nice, fun, family friendly all-ages game like Brain Age for the Nintendo DS.  If you’re unfamiliar with this game, it’s a series of puzzles based on numbers, like Sudoku, and math problems to find and enhance your “brain age,” the primary goal being to exercise your brain.  Passing the described bill above would mean that Brain Age, with its “E” rating, would carry the aforementioned warning on its labeling.

Because we all know mathematics is all about CRAZY levels of violence.  I’m surprised calculus students aren’t at each other’s throats as we speak, trying to bend each other into shapes defined by 3D integrals in cylindrical space.

Now that’s an extreme example, but Reps. Baca and Wolf are really just offering a SOPA-style solution to lump every game together into one large child corrupting cesspool, assuming that if one’s bad, all must be.  This kind of thinking would put the same warning on snowboarding series SSXFamily Game Night by Hasbro, and music games like Rock Band.  And none of these games hold a candle in terms of violent and adult themes that M and AO games carry.  How do I know this?  Because of their ratings.

Let’s make one thing clear – I am fully in favor of the ESRB rating system.  It provides a clear and concise way of warning parents or others purchasing games for young people what kind of content will come up when they start playing.  It’s how you should know not to buy your six-year-old the rated “M” God of War, and on the flipside how you know your 17 year old son may not enjoy “eC” rated Franklin the Turtle as much as you think.  Yes, admittedly many M and AO rated games do feature violence and adult themes, but that’s why they’re rated M and AO.  The rating itself serves as an efficient warning label, as a study conducted by the FTC shows.  The system works, and it’s not so easy for kids to get their hands on M rated games.  Hell, even at 30, in a shirt and tie coming from the office, I still occasionally get carded for an M rated game.

What I am not for is a system that labels every game with a warning that it will turn your child into a deviant.  In my personal experience, while I’m game shopping there’s a 50/50 chance that a total stranger will ask me whether or not a particular game would be good for a child of a certain age, at which point I explain the ESRB system and they go off on their merry, as well as educated, way.  As I find in most things, all it takes is a little digital education and problems, as well as the accompanying confusion, seem to disappear.

As for the Representatives’ claims that numerous studies link games to aggressive behavior, there are an equal number of studies that say the opposite.  One example is this report done by the Pew Research Center, stating that playing age appropriate games actually yield some benefits for young people.  While the scientific community is divided on the issue, our legal system doesn’t have any answers either.  Brown v. EMA showed that United States Supreme Court couldn’t find conclusive proof either way that such a link exists.  The thing is kids, science experiments only work when there’s a conclusion.  That conclusion can be turned into fact, but until then it’s just guesses – especially when it comes to the mind and behavior.

I agree with the Entertainment Consumers Association that this bill will be harmful to not only the industry, but parents and consumers due to misinformation and its undermining the ESRB.  Keep going with a system that works, and understand that anything in excess can have side effects.  Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Texas A&M put it best in an interview with Reuters when the American Psychological Association first released a warning in 2000: "Violent video games are like peanut butter.  They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems."

So please Congressmen, let’s focus on something more pressing shall we?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why I was Done with Soul Calibur V in a Month

[Article first published as Why I Was Done with Soul Calibur V in a Month on Blogcritics.]

I was seriously looking forward to Soul Calibur V before its release last month.  I’ve been a huge fan of the Soul series since their first entry (not counting Soul Edge), and have a ton of fun memories playing with my friends in a number of “loser passes the controller” sessions, starting with Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast.  So in this iteration there were promises of better combat and gameplay, amped graphics, better character customization, and finally a decent guest character in Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio Auditore.  All pluses in my mind.  I went so far as to order the collector’s edition with a gift card I had so I could get the art book and soundtrack (as I love me some game art books).  I should have noticed, however, that while listing all the great new features, a great story was not mentioned.  

So I cracked it open and the loaded up the story mode.  It opened with a gorgeous cinematic, which was great for one main reason –  and that was that the majority of what followed as “story” was not much more than sketched stills in sepia tones instead of full motion video between fights.  It follows the current story of Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, walking you through it as Patrokolos — Sophitia’s son, Pyrrha’s brother, and the new series protagonist.  You switch characters every few rounds.  This gave me some hope that maybe they finally did story mode right, forcing the player to get a taste of playing with every character, but sadly I was wrong.  After the culmination of story mode in episode 20, I had only played with Patrokolos, Pyrrha, (and their variants) and Z.W.E.I..  Sigfried and Nightmare acted as fightable NPC’s along with a slew of generic “custom” created characters.  The story is mainly driven by Tira, with cameos were made some of the other characters in one or two of the still shots and that is it.

 The 20 episodes of story mode can be done in well under a day after purchase.  Then you’re done.  No more story.  No more character explanations.  No more character at all, really.  What you are left with after story mode is a roster with absolutely zero back story and zero personality.  Which means you have a list of marginalized characters who don’t plug into the story ever.   Let’s take a look.  All we know about Natsu is that she’s Taki’s student, and fights kind of like her.  All we know about Leixia is that she’s Xianghua’s daughter, and fights kind of like her.  What about Z.W.E.I.?  He can summon a werewolf to fight for him.  What?  And Xiba is like a half monkey / half human version of Kilik.  Oh and he’s always hungry.  I guess that’s cool?  What’s going on?  Who are these characters?  Is Viola actually Amy?  What’s with the orb?  Where did they come from?  How did Ezio enter the picture? Just what in the infinite hells is going on here?

That’s how I felt.  Confused and cheated.  Story mode left me with hundreds of questions the game clearly had absolutely no intention of answering.  I have a big problem with that.  In my opinion, in a game that’s a continuation of a lore as rich and deep as it is in the Soul Calibur universe, it's owed to the player to provide a fleshed out story for all of the main characters.  Without back story and personality, the characters simply become empty.  There’s no depth or mythology to buy into.  That means the player's not going to care.  This isn’t an FPS where the player is just a guy on the team, or a sniper or medic — the Soul Calibur series has always gone into not only the characters, but the relationships between them.  This is a shame really, because with the amazingly fluid gameplay and combat this could have been a magnificent game.
I think part of what makes a game good, especially with franchise games such as this, is the world they’re set in and the mythology that they provide.  And a lot of what allows the player to buy into that is character development.  It’s the reason I became so entrenched in RPGs like the Final Fantasy and Xenosaga series.  But this trait isn’t reserved just for RPGs — series like Devil May Cry and God of War got it done in the action/adventure genre, and Namco themselves did it quite well in Soul Calibur III.

So what am I left with?  A game built for nothing more than online or versus play.  You can make your character, assign a fighting style to it (oh right, you’re restricted to only the main characters’ styles and less options than SCIV), then hit Xbox Live or the PSN.  I’ll call it the console fighter version of Unreal Tournament.  Now don’t get me wrong, that definitely carries some value on its own, being able to play with friends online or in your living room is part of what makes gaming fun.  In college my friend and I would play Edge Master vs. Edge Master to see who could win 99 rounds first.  We had a ton of fun (and as a fun and true side story: we once tied 98-98 with a double KO in the next round).

It’s still fun, but without the media gallery or single player story modes or really much of anything to unlock, the game is sadly a shadow of what it could actually be. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

FBI Arrests Hackers with Help of Former LulzSec "Leader"

[Article first published as FBI Arrests LulzSec Hackers with Help of Former "Leader" on Blogcritics.]

Just one time.

After being cautious about covering his tracks, all it took was just took one time logging into IRC without masking his IP address for the FBI to find where Hector Xavier Monsegur was.  Monsegur, also known as Anonymous and LulzSec member Sabu, had been stalked by Federal agents with no success since the public emergence of LulzSec last spring.  After a cliché good cop/ bad cop routine like we're all used to seeing on television crime drama, Monsegur finally gave in, leaving under the custody of Federal agents.  That was last summer, after a month long hack-a-thon that brought down a number of organizations in the financial sector, entertainment companies like Fox and Sony, as well as Federal Government agencies including the CIA.  Eventually in August Monsegur plead guilty to 12 counts of computer hacking and conspiracy, as well as charges filed in connection with the hacks at HBGary Federal, Fox Broadcasting, Infragard Members Alliance and PBS.  The guilty pleas of not only Monsegur but five other hackers was released today in a press release by the FBI, citing over 1 million victims and additional hacks against Stratfor and International Law Enforcement.

Monsegur's cooperation led to the arrests of the other hackers named in the FBI press release - hackers known as Topiary, Kayla, Pwnsauce, Palladim, lolspoon and Anarchaos were also charged.  After over a year of chasing their tails, this arrest was a tremendous victory for the FBI, who were under a great deal of pressure to find the perpetrators, themselves still nursing a black eye from multiple hacking operations.  According to Fox News, they had already subpoenaed his Facebook account, found stolen credit card numbers, and had enough to charge him with aggravated identity theft, carrying a 2 year sentence if convicted.  The FBI saw more value in him as an informant with his ties to LulzSec, so they dug in.  "They did a heck of a job in hunting down the ringleader and turning him around so they could go deeper into the stack," said Rich Mogull, an analyst at Securoris. "This is classic law enforcement."

While these hackers are mentioned as leadership in the hacking group Anonymous, Sabu himself being referred to as the leader of LulzSec, Anonymous maintains what they have always claimed - that they are an ad-hoc, leaderless organization that will survive and remain at full strength.  Taking to the twitterverse, @YourAnonNews and @AnonOps both had the following statement via tweet#Anonymous Is an idea, not a group. There is no leader, there is no head. It will survive, before, during, and after this time.
There's no telling how many more hackers or associates of LulzSec and Anonymous will be arrested thanks to Monsegur's help.  As such Barrett Brown, more or less the public face for Anonymous, branded him a traitor for cooperating with Federal agents.  In his words: "My apartment was raided this morning by the FBI. Feds also came to another residence where I actually was. Sabu is a traitor. #Anonymous."  On a pseudo-related comedic note, he did get so deep into his role as an FBI informant that he tried to pass himself off as an FBI agent to police.  On top of everything else, he picked up a second degree impersonation charge.

I don't believe for a second that this is going to be the end of Anonymous.  Even if their claims of being a leaderless organization are false, and Sabu did in fact hold some sort of leadership role, the contacts Sabu turned over to the FBI will only get them so far.  While the perpetrators of past crimes may end up being behind bars, that's no guarantee that future perpetrators can be caught before something else goes off.  Anonymous and other related hacking groups have a near-infinite pool of young bored technologists and disgruntled nerds with a great deal of skill.  So far this looks like just a black eye in return served by the Feds.