Archive for the 'family' Category

Quasi-Censorship – Effects of Ratings on Online Games

Just today it came out that Blizzard actually self-censored content in Europe as part of an event that happens annually called Brewfest.
This event has been around for a few years now and it is very common that players across regions, specifically between US and Europe, as their content releases within a day and are fairly close culturally, compare their content.
It was noted early on that two quests as part of the event were available in the US but not EU. After long speculation by players in Europe that this is a bug, a CM of Blizzard finally spilled the beans:

The Brewfest quests ‘Pink Elekks On Parade’ and ‘Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!’ were removed to ensure that World of Warcraft contains content that complies with regional game rating requirements.

http://forums.wow-europe.com/thread.html?topicId=10921022886&pageNo=1&sid=1#12

So these quests were not included for European players because Blizzard wanted to protect its rating.

Now players are confused because the quests in question seem quite innocent:

Pink Elekks on Parade
Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!

and have been available in previous years. The confusion is exasperated by the fact that many players can easily come up with range of
content that is much more objectionable than these two quests, including depiction of murder, torture of humans and animals, scenes of temporary suicide and more.

So what happened here? Well for one the PEGI system is much younger than the American counterpart ESRB. The endorsement of the EU parlament for EU member nations to adopt PEGI only went out in January of 2009 (i.e. this year and after WoW Wrath of the Lich King launched).
WoW’s ESRB rating is T for Teen and WoW’s PEGI rating is 11/12+ (11 in Finland). So let’s have a look at the rating texts of these two of the current and the next higher category in the rating:

ESRB:

TEEN (age 13+)
Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

MATURE (17+)
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

PEGI:

PEGI 12
Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.

PEGI 16
This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16+.

The crucial distinction here is that ESRB does not make a distinction in depiction of drug use (legal or illegal) at Teen rating, while PEGI does.

Posters in the WoW forum have various reactions, calling PEGI broken, or blaming Blizzard.

I am not really interested in this, rather I’m interested in the dynamics and how to handle this differently.

For example WoW does contain a quest that asks the players to torture baby gorillas. I personally find this more objectionable than the zapping of pink elekks while drunk for a 13 year old. Yet oddly Blizzard feels that self-policing on the latter is more crucial than the former, but let me back off for a second.

The way rating systems work is that they are meant to be self-imposed by the industry (hence not censorship). Critics of this, going back to the parental advisory controversy of the 80s always felt that the problem is that it is effective censorship or self-imposed censorship.

This example illustrates this nicely. All European players are barred from seeing this content, even though it is not objectionable for a large section of the gamer population, and indeed within their age bracket it would be allowable within the system. But because the rating system defines a high barrier applied to everybody it will block content that would be fine for certain eyes.

Blizzard does not really have a full choice here either. They could say “screw PEGI” but these self-regulatory bodies come with penalty mechanisms for companies that do not comply to the rating they have gotten. And clearly not having a rating may not get the game shelved at all!

Originally the idea of these self-regulatory labels were to give Parents a choice whether or not they want their kids exposed to this. Now in this case clearly this is not what is happening. In fact the choice is removed for everybody, more lenient parents, grown-ups and so forth. The content is indeed fully censored to comply with the rating system.

Certainly it is bizzare to not be able to zap pink Elekks but have it be OK to kill, torture and enslave humans. This too goes back to the arguments brought by people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver advocating against the parental advisory labeling. Where the line is, can be up to interpretation and this interpretation can have rather odd, unintuitive outcomes. For example Dee Snider was confronted in the Senate Hearings on the topic with supposed Sado-Masochistic content in lyrics of a song of his band Twisted Sister. In fact the lyrics were about the surgery experience of a group member. Dee Snider stated that in fact the S&M interpretation was in the mind of Tipper Gore, a parental control advocate, rather than actually in the lyrics. The same interpretation pitfall applies here. Which content is indeed appropriate for kids. The right answer likely is, that for the most part that should be up to parents, and labels are meant to advise them what to expect in the content.

Whether this is effective censorship, politically or otherwise is a discussion for another time, perhaps for other people.

Online communities have the worst situation possible. They try to cater to a wide audience, 12+ year olds as well as 35 year olds. Content that is fine for one is probably not necessarily for the other. So how to handle this?

One possibility is to actually commute parental advisory into the game. If you get close to brewfest, the censored content in WoW, parental advisory appears on the screen. This would fulfill the warning function without censoring the content.

Another possibility is to have age-based signups. If a 13 year old signs in, then brewfest is simply inaccessible, while the content does appear for players in the 17+ range. This would be censorship, but less broad. Still parents who think it is no problem that their kids zap Pink Elekks do not get to allow this option (unless they are willing to lie about their kids age).

Labeling content is much easier for off-line games. No player will randomly throw up curse-words, or pretend to be drunk, for example.

In many ways this is a new thing to happen in WoW and it does raise a range of questions. Is this the intend of PEGI? Is this suitable for online experiences which in many ways are closer to real-world encounters than to solitary gaming? What are good and practical mechanisms that inform parents of content while allowing grown-ups to experience content that is clearly fine for them? Would you allow your 12 year old to get drunk in an online game to zap pink elekks or would you find it worse to see them torture a human character?

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Social and family gaming #2: History – How Dani Bunten Berry has said it all already

Well I am kind of sorry for the overly flashy title of this entry. But to be honest I am kind of sad how the gaming industry has developed with regards to social gaming.

Today one really has to look long and hard for game designs that put the social relating of gamers in the foreground. This is an odd critique because I’m sure many people will tell me that we are in the exploding age of “social games” which is “casual games” + “social networks” and surely a social network is nothing but social relating!

Well, yeah, but that’s not what I mean. I do cheer for these developments. But these developments happen kind of away from the mainstream gaming industry, or if they relate to the mainstream, are newly formed satellites to tapped a newly discovered market. Because “social games are exploding right now“, it’s 2008. But it is another reason to be said, because “social games” with another definition already made a kind of splash back in the 80s.

Dan Bunten aka Dani Bunten Berry is a very prominent figure in the history of game development. Surely loads of people know her, and if not loads know games of her. And there is a persistent thread through her work: social and multi-player gaming. 

I’ll be quoting or loosely refering to loads of sources. Most notably  the charming laudatio as part of the CGDA Lifetime achievement award (1998, she died shortly thereafter from lung cancer). Pre-AIAS hall of fame induction interviews  of industry colleagues (2007). Essential late speeches with the titles “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time or Why Online Games Suck” (1997), “Game Design Memoir“, “Online Multiplayer Games” (1996), a Salon article/tribute (2003), the Halycon Days interview, Interviews on World of M.U.L.E., 1-UP’s “The 50 Essentials – 19 M.U.L.E.“. I’m sorry for the heavy sourcing.

Dani Bunten Berry’s most frequenlty quote is this:

“No one on their death bed ever said, I wish I’d spent more time alone with my computer.”

She was a champion of what today we would call multi-player games. In fact she was the main pioneer of the notion in the form we know it today. But I’d argue she also pioneered “social games” in the sense that social relating of gamers was important.

In this sense the quote is to be understood, but it actually goes deeper, it not only talk to the need to having spend time with other people being important (and more important than high-scoring solo) but also it at the same time is a catchy one-liner for what she believed to be “what gamers want”. It’s quite radical if one traces the mainstream gaming development since the 80s. But it really shouldn’t be.

If one traces the chain of games she released you’ll find indeed this one persistent thread. Multiple people play the game. It binds multiple people to a joint activity. The first game she released “Wheelers Dealers” shipped with a button controller for 4 people. This was the first ever multi-player controller and it was a flop at the time (1978 for AppleII).

But the game Bunten is most praised for is M.U.L.E., a multiplayer economy game with action elements. The game uses resource competition and market auctioning to create a competitive setting but already contains other elements as well, such as random disasters or rewards. Despite it’s aweful graphics, even fit the time (1983) it was an instant classic. In MULE the player’s decisions interplay with other players decisions immediately. It’s competitive but it has a subtle (and possibly often missed) cooperative layer.

After commercial solo-play smash hits (7cities, heart of africa) Dani Bunten Berry left solo-only games competely (1986) and produced probably the first multi-player only game in “Robot Rascals”. What’s so interesting about this project is that she spoke about the importance of accessibility here already, she discovered how one can make the process, discovery and learning skill interesting (something that later devs would not know of and hence call the “journey an f–ing lie” mostly because of a lack of ingenuity how to make the journey interesting). She said she wanted to think of it as a “family game” though realized that people weren’t looking for family games back then. Hence once certainly could give her also some credit to have pioneered that concept!

Further innovations, like the first commercial modem game in “Modem Wars” (1988) followed. Like other innovative concept (Rascals, Wheelers Dealers) it was a commercial flop, way ahead of its time. Two more model games followed with more success, and Global Conquest (1992) introduced what today we would call RTS.

Bunten was an innovator on many fronts, but I want to keep with the social, because not only I but many other commentators do see this as the common thread. The 1997 CGDA award laudatio says this:

Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors, bringing people together.

This again is a deep quote. Because it begs the design question: What would bring people together to play?

Let me take this question as the operative definition of what I mean by “social games”. If you replace people with “family” you get “family games”. This is of course different from the newer definition that “casual games” + “social networks” = “social games” but bear with me… I think this is the richer and more immediately constructive definition.

So what did Dani Bunten Berry have to say about game design?

From her 1997 keynote:

I started out my career as speaker [..] in 1990. I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we’re going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers.

Be “people focused” not “thing focused”.

What kicked me into motion was a conversation with a “marketing specialist” at a recent online game conference. He said something innocently grandiose about how great it is that the online service he worked for has got the full gamut of games to cover all possible demographic groups.

You have no clue about demographics even if you say otherwise.

There were (and still are) numerous possibilities for social interaction and interesting play with the shared computer kind of design. However, there were a number of logistical issues related to getting groups of people playing games around a single computer (such as, it’s not usually centrally located and people need to be “invited”). Online games “fix” these problems while still offering several of the social advantages of multi-player games.

It’s nice to share in front of one game, but networking lets remote people share it too.

What I mean in my title, “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time”, is that for nearly all intents and purposes the current crop of games (and even the next crop that I’m aware of) have simply taken standard computer game genres from the pre-online era and replaced the AI opponents with humans.

Industry assumtion is: PVP solves tuning problems and dumb AI. She observes: You haven’t designed an inherently multi-player game.

If you’re playing one of those games, your interaction with those humans is at the same level as it was with the AI ones. What we’re experiencing now is just the fact that people make better opponents. They will do more interesting things than any algorithm. Those of us who have been pushing multi-player games for years have known this part.

PVP is trivial, you make the opponent into the proxy for the AI.

It’s just that this is such a tiny aspect of what having human playmates can mean. People can make you feel welcome and accepted. People can teach you and share with you. They can touch you emotionally.

Being a playmate is about bonding, about the ability to share and teach. And the ability to be emotional.

She goes on to critique why solo play ends up designed against human preferences. The argument goes roughly like this. AI is hard and dumb. Human choices need to be limited to what the AI can react to algorithmically. Replacing the AI then with humans has limited the interaction to the algorithmical and not the sensory-human. Rather compelling train of thought.

Another opportunity that I believe the online medium offers is a new demographic landscape. Although to look at the “successful” games online at this point you’d think we were stuck with the 18 to 35 year old male audience that populates the CD games world, it ain’t so. The demographic of web-browsing (see “Online Magazine”) has an average age of 33 and is 31% female. They come primarily from educational and computer-related occupations. Almost 60% have a college degree or better. They are information consumers and have an average household income of $59,000 (these two numbers make advertisers excited).

The original subtitle of this blog entry was “How Dani Bunten Berry lost to testosterone”. I decided to ditch it for a less edgy one. But this quote gets to some of this. If I look at many current online game announcements, they still are the 18-35 male audience demographics, onlineified. Anyone telling me the thought of highly educated tech savvy females when coming up with Age of Conan or Warhammer? Anyway, Bunten was very much attuned to the fact that even in 1997 the online demographics wasn’t the canonical CD buying one. Most of the industry must have slept through it though. Or they were 18-35 year old males themselves, making games for themselves.

She goes on to give specific design recommendations. Let me pick out a few more unusual ones:

* “Zero sum” is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is “I win and all the rest of you lose”. Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked “winners” rather than “A winner” with a bunch of losers are all options.

Don’t turn people into losers. We can today ask if PK/PVP achieved this and why designers didn’t hear this? Player-looting PK is violating this badly. But why have it? Bunten implicitly knows that promoting one winner too badly is bad for everybody. People don’t play to lose, they play to play!
Strutting your win is kind of anti-social.

* Strategies need “wiggle room”. People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it’s great to let them “do it their own way” rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.

Allow diversity! People are different, let the play regardless. Don’t punish people for their differences.

* Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player’s interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment — like taking an “apprentice” might be the only path to “master rank”. At the very least try to make starting as safe on player’s egos as you can.

Make it easy to enter, but Bunten’s vision also includes: promote helpful attitudes and make it social to enter as well! Not what one sees entering many MMOs today.

* Use time limits. Whenever possible design your game so it can be played within a fixed time limit. This will allow people to schedule their involvement. A game you can play a couple of times in an evening would be a good design goal. If you can’t end the game at specific times try to at least facilitate a graceful exit opportunity such that a player quits while they are having fun and not after they’re so exhausted they’ll never come back again.

Respect people’s time and schedule. And their desire to take a break/quit to RL.

What specifically she meant is elaborated more in an online article:

When possible, end the game after a certain amount of time. Time limits let players schedule their involvement to fit their schedules and their budgets. Games that drag on and on will let players lose interest and drop out (a disruption to the players) or they finish this game but don’t play again (a disaster to the designer). It’s better to have players finish a game and ask for another play than to go away exhausted and not come back. Games that last 30 minutes is a good goal for a single play and 2 hours should be considered a maximum.

Hmm 30 minutes at a time, and no more than 2 hours max. I guess the 4 hour raid marathons of WoW could learn something here. In fact respecting people’s time and make them come back often but stay on shorter is the standard idea of what today we call “casual games”. The idea to worry about people’s time in game was already there with Bunten in 1997.

* Include chance. Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don’t know it but we’re offering them an excuse for when they lose (“It was that damn random event that did me in!”) and an opportunity to “beat the odds” when they win.

Randomness is there not for varied difficulty only and less predictability. More so it serves a social function! Not making people feel too bad about losing by giving them a neutral and uncontrolable reason for failing!

* Allow handicapping. Let players handicap themselves if they want. Some players are willing to play with one hand behind their back so let them. (The most common use of this will be parents and kids playing together).

Again note the direct reference to “family play”. Again Bunten realizes that people can be different but the goal should be to allow them to sensibly play together. I don’t see this used much at all.

Basically Bunten displays an array of important things to consider when social play is at stake: Don’t allow anti-social outcomes (don’t let one persistently be and feel like the “loser”), promote ability to play together (either via time, or via handicapping), promote helpfulness and positive social play. It may be a tad extreme to say that she has said it all already, but certainly she has said a lot more than one sees in a lot of contemporary designs.

Social and family gaming #1: Preamble

I wanted to write about social gaming for a while and in fact if you look back you’ll find some on social gaming in various guises already. The following comment by PurpleCar caught my interest:

I am the Mom. I have a lot to say about this. In fact, I could go on for hours about how I feel that the gaming industry is ignoring me and my family. For one thing, my husband and I, both in our mid 30’s, have a hell of a time trying to find an E or Teen rated multiplayer quest game to play with our 7 year old girl (we’ve played every playstation 2 game there is that remotely fits that description). For another thing, I have no real games of interest for me. Sims was too un-end-user friendly, and generally stupid/boring. The rest have too much fighting, which is again, boring.
Don’t give me that crap that there ‘isn’t a market’ for me and my family. I’m not the only mom out here who grew up in the arcades and see nothing wrong with a little family game play. And don’t tell me to buy the Wii – we don’t want tennis. We want more shrek, teen titans, spongebob, etc. 4 player adventure games where we work as a team against bad guys and not against each other. And throw in a few games for just me, ya head-in-the-sand-prejudiced-blind-stupid-arrogant fucks.

(sorry, that last bit wasn’t very ‘mom’ of me. I’m seriously pissed off, though)

while the debate this was contained in focused only on the multi-hyphenated explicative, I’m more interested in the parts that I set in italics.

See a lot of dev discussion takes the assumption about some “core” market. And in a way there seems to be the notion of that “core” market being the end-all of what keeps you afloat, while the casuals are a great way to add growth and sales. But the “core” is what will pay subscriptions, shell out extra cash for collectors boxes, and buy all expansions.

Looking at 2006 PC game retail sales, two francises dominated: World of Warcraft as a single title, and Sims2 as a game with many expansions. WoW courted the casual market at least initially, while Sims2 is by no means a traditional “core” game, yet people bought expansion over expansion in 2006. The PC retail market grew for the first time that year, after steady declines the years prior. (Note that these numbers don’t include subscription sales, and online downloads, they also don’t contain any alternative business models, “casual games” or browser games).

The data is from NPD, analysts who track many markets, including game retail markets (console and PC separately).

So given the Mom’s complaint above it really got me thinking. Why do I not know that many family-friendly but high production value retail games? Yet I can name many war games, many RPGs, FPS even adventure games, sports games and RTS. I know so-called family games, but they don’t jump at me as filling massive shelf space at my local game stores.

But independent of family. Where are the games that focus on social, joint play. That focus on collaborative gameplay, rather than emphasize solo or competitive gameplay. WoW certainly is all this: solo (lots of the leveling), collaborative (group PVE, instancing), and competitive (PVP, competitive instancing). But in marketing competitiveness is often emphasized. Recent MMO titles like Warhammer are advertised as PVP heavy.

I always liked games that are about playing together to achieve a goal. I never really liked games where I beat up on my friends. It’s certainly a personality thing. But given that I’m attuned to games that allow one or the other and I can’t help but claim that collaborative models are underrepresented compared to solo and competitive models.

It may be rather shocking in a way that only last month NPD released a press-note with the following title: “PLAYING VIDEO GAMES VIEWED AS FAMILY/GROUP ACTIVITY AND STRESS REDUCER – New Study Busts Myths on Attitudes and Behaviors of Various Gaming Groups“. Well, OK the title isn’t such a shocker. What is shocking is that this title busts myths about attitudes and behaviors! Anyone surprised that people play games to reduce stress? And it certainly isn’t shocking for PurpleCar, as she’s been looking for more family-friendly games all this while for NPD to announce this as an analyst-discovered need at the brink of 2008.

Let’s see what they say:

while heavier gamers are much more inclined than lighter gaming groups to prefer playing games alone, both groups are equally inclined to enjoy playing games as a family, group or as a party activity, and both groups value gaming as a way to bring their families closer together.

Now that is a shocker. How many game devs seriously put into their game description: “We thought long about how that game looked to a whole family playing it.”? I don’t know but I haven’t read many articles for sure!

What a shocker too when people want to bond and unwind together, rather than, what some devs promote as fun, be constantly challenged and brought to moments of failure and competition?

Family gaming amplifies the picture because the question is not only “how social is a game, how can a game be played together”, but also, “is this the kind of message I want my kid to receive?”

In future additions to this sequence I want to try to carve a little bit at these questions.