September 2007 Archives

False Dichotomy

Building off a post by Mighty Ponygirl, what do you call someone who buys a video game console solely for one game, purchases few if any other games, and essentially does nothing with the console except play that game and its sequels?

If the one game they purchased the console for is Wii Sports, then they're a Casual Gamer, quite possibly one of the dreaded Alpha Moms, the idiot consumers with no taste who are ruining our beloved hobby and whom the industry is selling out to.

If the one game they purchased the console for is Halo (or Halo 2, or Halo 3, or Madden Insert-Year-Here), then that gamer is a Hard Core Gamer, the heart-and-sole of the industry, exactly the kind of consumer that all developers ought to care about exclusively.

In many ways, the XBox and the Wii aren't so different. The Wii's killer app is Wii Sports, the Xbox's is Halo. Third party developers for the Wii have built a cottage industry around trying to get non-traditional gamers who like Wii Sports to try other, similar products involving mini-games and motion controls. Third party developers for the XBox, and later the 360, have built an industry around trying to sell new First Person Shooters to Halo fans who've gotten bored with Halo.

Back in undergrad I had a grad student instructor for a class on the history of American constitutional law. I mentioned to him at one point that I enjoyed playing video games. He replied that he didn't really play video games, that he'd always thought they were a waste of time, but that over the weekend some friends of his had shown him Halo and he thought it was incredible. He still thought most games were pointless, but he loved Halo and would play it any time.

I think that by any fair assesment, Halo is a game with a lot of casual appeal, and it is primarily played by casual gamers (compare sales numbers for Halo 3 on its first day of sale to the sales for hardcore games like Bioshock through their entire sales lives). Yet this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom in most gaming media these days. Most media, in talking about Halo, treat it as the ultimate Hard Core game. Why is that? And why is the success of the Wii treated with sneers, while Halo's success is applauded?

I think there are a few explanations. First, I think members of the gaming media just like Halo and first-person shooters more than they like the sort of games the Wii has to offer. Since the gaming press is comprised of hard-core gamers, it follows that the games they like must be for the hard-core.

Second, I think there's an element of professional deformity. Members of the gaming press are accustomed to a fairly rigidly defined set of genres that all games either belong to our combine elements of. When new games don't fit those categories it throws everything off, and the inclination is to treat the games with suspicion and those who play them as outsiders. Halo is an FPS. It doesn't rock the boat, so it's safe to enjoy it and welcome its players into the fold.

Finally, I agree with Ponygirl that there's a strong element of sexism here. I am really, really sick of the term Alpha Mom being thrown around with a sneer to indicate "people who have no business playing video games." More women are playing games on the Wii so, whether consciously or subconsciously, the gaming media has decided that this means that Wii games aren't real video games.

Petty Tyranny

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Via Pandagon, I recently learned that a school in upstate New York has banned all student from carrying bags. This has led, naturally, to school officials inquiring about the state of their teenage students's menstrual cycles:

The girl was called out of class by a security guard during a school sweep last week to make sure no kids had backpacks or other banned bags.

Samantha Martin had a small purse with her that day.

That's why the security guard, ex-Monticello cop Mike Bunce, asked her The Question.

She says he told her she couldn't have a purse unless she had her period. Then he asked, "Do you have your period?"

The school has offered two justifications for the policy. One is clearly nonsensical: Students are developing back problems from carrying around heavy backpacks laden with books. The answer, naturally, is to ban the backpacks and make them carry their books in their arms. Problem solved! The other justification is also clearly nonsensical, but is far more likely to be the impetus for the policy. School officials are worried that students will conceal weapons in their bags, bring them to school, and start shooting up the place. Banning bags probably won't stop a shooting, but it does demonstrate to parents that the school cares deeply about the issue of school safety and is willing to force students to make any sacrifice and bear any burden to create the appearance of security.

The reasoning behind the no bags policy is pretty poor. But of course, no school official has ever met a stupid policy that they couldn't implement in an utterly asinine way. Once you implement any sort of rule you run into all sorts of inconvenient edge questions. Exactly how large can a bag be before it fits under the ambit of the ban? As anyone who's gone to an American public school in the last 20 years knows, the answer is to remove all discretion or thought from the hands of the enforcers and implement a zero tolerance policy. All bags, of any size or form, are banned, from luggage to back packs to clutches.

This is problematic for female students, who kind of need to carry bags to hold tampons, pads, and other devices to control menstruation. This has led to a slight policy modification that allows female students to carry small bags if they're having their period. Which led to the scene above.

Parents are outraged. Students have begun protesting by taping tampon boxes and pads to their clothes, which led to this fascinating exchange:

After hearing that someone might have been suspended for the protest, freshman Hannah Lindquist, 14, went to talk to [Principal Robert] Worden. She wore her protest necklace, an OB tampon box on a piece of yarn. She said Worden confiscated it, talked to her about the code of conduct and the backpack rule — and told her she was now “part of the problem.”

There's no resolution to the issue yet. The school and district administration have dug in and aren't talking to reports. My guess is that they'll ritually fire the guards who asked the question, blame the whole controversy on rogue enforcers, declare that they, of course, were right all along and that the policy is sound, then quietly stop enforcing the rule. Anything to avoid admitting that they may have been overzealous and open a dialog on the proper balance between security and freedom for students at the school; to do so would violate the canon of Administrator Infallibility.

I wonder if schools aren't having a greater effect than they realize on the political ideologies of then younger generations in America. I've read (and I can't remember where, so please feel free to dispute me if there is contradictory evidene out there) that most people's political opinions are largely set by the time they graduate high school. That is, for all the conservative hand-wringing about the liberal academy, very few students actually change their politics in college. But high school is different, because students are only then beginning to become politically aware and to develop the frameworks of belief through which they will interpret political events throughout their lives.

In that context, I wonder what effect zero tolerance policies have had the generations that went to high school in the 80s, 90s, and the present decase? A generation of students has grown up subject to a totalitarian and petty-minded bureaucracy, in which they essentialy have no rights and no voice. The Supreme Court has granted schools essentially unlimited power over the administration of the details of students's lives without regards to their freedom, based on the doctrine of in loco parentis, which holds that, because the schools are performing functions largely similar to those of parents, they should be granted nearly the full rights and powers that parents have over their children. Because the courts are loathe to interfere with family relations, they are therefore loathe to interfere with schools's exercise of power over their students. Student rights are of secondary concern.

Because the Supreme Court has eliminated most rights-based constraints on school policies, schools have reacted by enacting policies that are entirely unconcerned with the rights of students. Hence, the bag regulation. The school didn't weigh the slight increase in security against the constant inconvenience that banning bags would cause to all students and decide that the bag ban was worth it. It weighed the slight increase in security against . . . nothing at all, because the concerns of students are so insignificant that the don't matter. Of course they banned bags. The ban marginally increases security, and it does so at absolutely no cost to anyone of significance.

I wonder if zero tolerance and the idiocy it enables isn't teaching kids that authority is to be distrusted and despised. Students learn that if you grant anyone authority over someone else without placing any meaningful outside limits on it, it leads to ill-conceived policies and petty dictatorship.


There's a fascinating post over at Wired's Game|Life blog. The post itself is informative, but not anything particularly remarkable in and of itself. In it, Chris Kohler gives his impressions of Metal Gear Solid 4, based on a version he got to play at the Tokyo Game Show.

What's interesting is that this fairly innocuous article has led to a 41-comment thread that has almost nothing to do with the contents of the post. Instead, the Game|Life commenters are fighting a life-or-death battle in the Console Wars.

Kohler made the mistake of concluding his preview by saying that he thought Metal Gear Solid 4 seemed to justify the purchase of Playstation 3 all by itself. This, of course, was an unforgivable insult to all the partisans of the XBox 360, for whom nothing on earth could ever justify the purchase of a Playstation 3. Playstation 3 fans escalated the tension by asserting that Metal Gear Solid 4 would be the killing stroke that at last sealed the doom of the hated usurper console from Redmond.

There then followed about 35 comments of semi-literate hatred and vitriol.

I find this fascinating. What causes people to become so heavily invested in the fortunes of large corporations? You don't see, for example, CBS fans going on message boards to berate NBC viewers (actually, maybe you do and I just don't hang out on the right message boards for that sort of thing).

What's more, it seems less that these fans care about their console of choice than that they really, truly hate the disfavored console. Thus, for example, you're far more likely to see a PS3 fan expressing contempt for the Wii and the XBox 360 than you are to see him or her praising the Playstation.

And the differences between the consoles are so trivial! If you compare the 360 to the PS3, you'll find they share most of the same games, that those games play nearly identically on the two consoles, and that, when matched feature-for-feature, the two consoles cost roughly the same price.

I would imagine the similarity between the consoles partially explains the vitriol. As has been said about disputes within academia, it is because the stakes are so low that the arguments are so vicious. But that just begs the question; it doesn't explain why trivial stakes should lead to such vicious arguments.

I imagine there's at least some financial element. When you buy a product, particularly an expensive one, you want to convince yourself that you made the right choice. It's a sort of corrolary to buyer's remorse. Therefore, if you own a 360 and someone else suggests that the PS3 would be a worthwhile purchase, they undermine your confidence that the 360 was the right purchase to make.

This makes some sense, but I'm not sure what causes a person to tip over from reasonable mental defense mechanisms into irrational emotional investment in the infallibility of their favorite console.

Which, again, takes us back to the initial question: What causes people to become raving idiots when it comes to video game consoles?

Next Gen Consoles Do Not Want Me To Buy Them

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I am about to buy an XBox 360. This may seem like a momentous declaration, but it really isn't. You see, I've been about to buy an XBox 360 for the last 4 months or so, but I just can't quite bring myself to do it.

This isn't by any means a console wars thing. I do generally prefer Nintendo over all the other major players in the present generation, and I will continue to support it and wish it well in all things. But, at the same time, I'm pragmatic. There are a lot of games I'd like to play that are unlikely to ever become available for the Wii, and the 360 seems like the best mixture of price and exclusive games. So there it is, simple as that.

But it isn't that simple. To start, just around the time I became interested in buying a 360 in May rumors started simmering that the 360 was about to get a price cut. This made sense; it had been on the market about a year and a half and was due for a price drop. So I waited patiently.

The price drop didn't come until August.

I was ready to buy a 360 right then, when even more rumors bubbled up. Now, as you know, Bob, the 360 has some significant problems with defective units. There are no hard-and-fast statistics on it, but I would guess that if you buy a 360 there's about a one-in-three chance it will short out and stop working within a couple of years. Apparently Microsoft used some cheap parts when it designed the 360. As a result, Microsoft released a product that is. . . well, noone wants to call it defective, but it is nonetheless a product where a fairly large percentage of the units overheat and stop working as a result of normal use within a couple of years of sale.

So right around the time they cut the price, we learned that Microsoft's been developing a new chip, the Falcon, to replace the old 360 CPU. It'll be smaller, cheaper, and, presumably, less prone to crap out. The word on the street is that the new 360s with Falcon chips won't be defective in the way that prior 360s have been.

The problem is that Microsoft doesn't want to take the hit from recalling all of those defective 360s, so its "soft launching" the new Falcon-equipped 360s. That means they've switched their factories to manufacturing the new, non-defective 360s and they're slowly introducing them into the retail channels, but they're not removing the defective 360s from stores, nor are they putting any markings on boxes to indicate whether a given 360 is one of the older, defective models or one of the newer, non-defective models.

From a marketing standpoint, this makes sense. They want to sell those defective units because at least some of them aren't going to crap out and have to be replaced. But it's really hard to sell a bunch of defective units if you mark them as defective. Or even if you have a pile of the same units right next to them marked non-defective. Though that would make an interesting ad campaign:

"The New XBox 360: Now No Longer Defective! (Probably!)"

So: Defective 360s are no longer being manufactured. But Non-Defective 360s are only just starting to reach the market. When you buy a 360, it's a crapshoot whether you're getting a defective one or a non-defective one. But since defective ones are no longer being manufactured, the longer you wait the better your chances of getting a non-defective one.

So now it's a month later, and I have no 360 because I'm paranoid about buying a defective one.

It should be noted that the packaging on 360s has altered over time, and that there are certain things you can look for on a given 360's package that allow you to either 1. identify it as definitely from a defective era of 360 manufacture, or 2. identify it as being from the most recent package design period, and therefore significantly more likely to be non-defective. The problem is that 360s are relatively expensive and, since stores are rightly worried about theft, most game consoles are kept locked up in storage rooms. You can't look at the package for a 360 unless you tell a sales associate that you want to purchase one.

This is a pain. I'd prefer not to be That Guy at Gamestop. You know, That Guy who walks in and wants to buy the copy of Mario for the PS3, which they totally must have made because his friend Billy from the playground has a cousin who played it and it was wicked awesome, and also he wants an Xbox 360 with an HDMI port and the new Falcon chip, and no, he doesn't want an Elite because he totally heard from his friend Sarah that she read on-line that they make regular 360s with HDMI ports and super-radical new chips, and could you go look in the back for one?

And on top of that: This damn thing. Even if I get a non-defective 360, it doesn't have wireless networking built-in. The PS3 has built-in wireless networking. The cheap-ass Wii has built-in wireless networking. But the 360 only comes with an ethernet port and the opportunity to pay Microsoft $100 to turn the 360 into a modern console. That makes no sense. Compare it to the Wii, which has built-in wireless networking because wireless is both more convenient than LAN and increasingly prevalent, but also offers the option of buying a LAN adapter for a modest $25.

I actually need wireless internet access in my console if I'm to do any kind of online game playing (and online gaming is 90% of the sales pitch for the 360). My apartment has a very long layout, with the living room at one end and my room (the only room with internet access) at the other. I can't move the internet connection to the living room, so, short of running a 40 foot ethernet cable down the length of the apartment, which would set up a trip-wire in front of my roommate's door, it's wireless or nothing.

I was at a store today and nearly bought a 360. But then I started thinking about the chance I'd get a defective console. And then I started thinking about the added expense of a wireless adapter. And then I started looking at the PS3s and realized that, between the cost of the 360 and the wireless adapter, I'd be $50 short of a PS3, which can actually play Blu-Ray DVDs (the HD-DVD player for the 360 is a further expansion, which costs another $180). But then I remembered that there aren't actually any games I want to play on the PS3 and there aren't going to be any time soon, which defeats the entire point of the enterprise. And then I remembered how much all of this costs even without games and peripherals and necessary adapters and I got spilkis.

So: The system for which there are games I want to play is designed to maximize my inconvenience and make me constantly worry that I purchased a defective system. The system that has all the accoutrements figured out and wrapped in a stable package doesn't have any games I want to play. And they're both too expensive. I sat and stared for 20 minutes until my brain started hurting. So then I went home and played Adventures of Lolo on the Wii.

Good Vibrations

Via Game|Life, Impossible-to-find synaesthesia shooter classic Rez is coming to XBox Live Arcade. No word yet on whether you will be able to buy an XBox 360 version of the Rez vibrator.

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