Violence Is Killing Our Creativity

Whenever you see a report on video games in the mainstream press it's usually about one of two issues; violence or sex. While every form of entertainment will bemoan that he media picks out the worst of their industry to report on, I'm of the opinion that we as gamers really do this to ourselves. Those shock pieces that Fox news (news?) ran about ultra violence in games used to be a poor representation of the medium I enjoy. It seems that I have less and less of an argument these days when people tell me games are nothing but killing for the point of killing.

Call of Duty : Black Ops is the best selling game on the Xbox 360. The story is an attempt at a story, but mainly a vehicle to move you from one explosion or shocking moment to another. What do I remember about the storytelling, the directing, or the presentation? Jack shit, really. There was something about numbers and a guy who puts on his sunglasses at inappropriate times, and I think I killed Hitler or something but then it was ACTUALLY Hitler it was a body double or some bullshit. What exactly do I remember about Black Ops? I remember pulling a Vietcong out of a boat into the water, plunging a knife deep into his throat and nearly decapitating him. His head hung by a few sinews of muscle as blood poured into the river. It was fucking disgusting. I felt dirty for playing it.

That's just 30 seconds from just one of the top games out there. Gears of War? Guns with fucking chainsaws on the end of them. Apparently shooting a dude just doesn't get it done with enough style.

I'm guilty myself of putting literally hundreds of hours into the Battlefield series. I don't even bother to play the story mode, either. I just jump straight into the multiplayer, grab an mp5, and start shooting. I've been known to spend 8 hours straight trying to kill enough people to unlock a new gun, just show I can keep killing people quicker.

I'm not some sheltered soccer mom. I understand that we are the descendants of Vikings and Gladiators. The reason we are alive today is because our ancestors were ruthless, merciless killing machines. They wiped out every competing civilization and sent their seed down through the family tree. It's in our blood to kill. Our culture is saturated by blood from movies to music. You can't escape it and, in moderation, it's healthy. We need that release. Every day I put on an ugly polo shirt and stand in a small room pushing buttons. The animal instinct in my is suppressed in the name of civility. That's a good thing, but there's an animalistic side to all humans. It builds up in us and we seek out those forms of entertainment that turn our release valve from dancing to horror movies. Give me an hour on Battlefield 3 setting fire to the earth to reset my stress level. A new gun unlock and I'm ready for another day wearing an ugly polo.

But with movies I can watch a violent slasher film, sure, but I can also watch a comedy. There's a pretty even distribution I feel of genres so we can explore every side of escapism we need. Every movie released isn't a gorefest. I can go to the art gallery and see gruesome depictions of hell and suffering from a renaissance painting, or I can get lost in the psychedelics of at abstract piece to ponder god. WIth games, my options as a core gamer are mainly limited to violence.

I've already touched on the AAA titles that have little story to back up their bodycount, but even the games that have stories that elicit real and earned emotions are usually about putting a bullet in the bad guy. The Uncharted series has better storytelling and pacing that most summer movies, but I struggle to find the series protagonist, Drake, the relate-able every-man they are going for seeing as by the end of the game you've mowed down hundreds of rent-a-cops. I will freely admit that on more than one occasion the Mass Effect series succeeded in bringing tears to my eyes, but the main goal still was to blow up a race of invading space robots. Hell, even Mario is about smashing a giant turtle to save your girlfriend. No romantic comedies here my friend.

But would a Jennifer Anniston RomCom be fun to play?

The difference between art and movies and games is that a game has to be fun to interact with. To an outsider Medal of Honor and Call of Duty look identical, but to a gamer we know it's all about how that game feels in your hands. How smooth does the character control? How satisfying is the feeling you get from pulling the left trigger? When I push the B button is the resulting action on screen good enough to release the dopamine I so desperately crave? In the case of Battlefield, pulling the trigger and watching the enemies' jet go down in flames it is a yes......a definite yes. But would pressing the B button to serendipitously get into the same taxi as Kate Beckinsale be just as good?

We've seen limited but cult success in the games industry for games not featuring violent conflict as the main draw. The Sims series is probably the best example of this. Most everyone is familiar in one way or another with the Sims, the quirky 'life simulator' in which you create a family and simply live their lives for them. Everything from taking out the trash to getting up early enough for work is in your hands. It allows us to explore the 'what if's' in every day life. You can sleep with the man at the bookstore or tell scandalous lies about your boss to usurp the throne. You can even start a life of crime or become the next president of the free world. Everything is essentially what you make of it. So go ahead and create Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, hijinks await!

I'm a huge fan of the Harvest Moon series. They all start pretty much the same - a distant relative has passed on leaving you the family farm in their will. So you, a city boy/girl, pack up and move to the country. The mayor of the town shows you your new farm (which is more of a dump than you could have imagined) and gives you a tour of the nearby town. From their the game is about managing the daylight. You try to fit in as much planting, milking, picking, sheering, and clearing as you can into one day without passing out from exhaustion. Maybe today you want to take it easy on the farm and go into town to balance your frienships you've been forming over the years. The townspeople usually reward you with interesting stories and gifts as you become more of a member of the community. Love and marriage can bloom eventually, giving your character a much needed morale boost as he comes home to his spouse at the end of the day.

Animal Crossing lets players experience the trails of home ownership and relationship juggling as the only human in a town full of eccentric anthropomorphic animals. You'll dig up fossils, wish on stars, and collect sets of matching furniture in your quest to pay off the slumlord Nook the Raccoon.

While these games tell stories of human drama and relationships, none of the match the level of a Benjamin Button or Shawshank.

We're working on it, though. Heavy Rain, while ultimately the video game version of Seven, had some very quiet and emotional moments. Controlling a dad as he played with his kids in the backyard gave the story so much more kick when said kids later meet horrible fates. I was the one that pushed my son on the swing set, and now that I have to crawl through a tunnel full of broken glass to save him, I'm that much more invested. Trying to not go too far into spoiler territory, Heavy Rain managed to balance story telling and action in a way games hadn't seen before. As Ethan, you don't kill countless no name baddies on your way to save your son, instead your put through awful trials by a serial killer to see how desperate you are to see your son again. At one point your asked to cut off your own finger in under two minutes or he'll kill your kid. You desperately scramble around the room looking for something, anything to cut your finger off. I spent all my time gathering up medical equipment such as gauze and realized I was quickly running out of time to find an actual implement of amputation. Less than 30 seconds left to start my stomach churning task, I ran to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of whiskey and a pair of rusty poultry scissors. What followed was the most haunting piece of gaming I've ever played as I chugged the whiskey and balanced my button presses between hacking away at the bone and trying not to pass out from the pain. Sure, it was violence, but it was violence other than chainsawing a billion space aliens. It was human drama. A man going over the edge to save his son.

Games have a long way to go before games like Heavy Rain sell as much as Call of Duty, but I believe as the medium continues to evolve we could see a higher level of maturity being asked from our biggest game companies. Violence doesn't have to be sensless. Thankfully we're starting to see more and more examples where the point of the game isn't that killing is fun, but that violence is sometimes necessary to serve the story. One bullet can be more meaningful and impactful than the millions I've spent in battlefield as long as there is a well developed human pulling the trigger. We will get there eventually. I just hope all this violence doesn't kill the creativity in the process.

As far as sex in video games......well, we could always use more of that.

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Microsoft Press Conference thoughts

It's the last day of E3 2012 and today is my first real chance to sit down and mull over everything that happened the past few days. Other years I'd say this was a problem. If I was trying to blog about E3 2004 after the fact I would have had to be pouring over vast tomes of notes and reactions as I scribbled down each revelation. This year not so much.

I'm having to reach for things to say about this year. What can you really expect from the last stretch of a console's lifespan? I knew we were up for a load a filler, but there were some interesting things to consider about where we could be headed.

I speculated that Microsoft would be fully embracing that two different camps of gamers (core and casual) and letting sinew of their entertainment catalogue hold it all together. The conference opened with a long demo of Halo 4 that seemed to really impress people. I've never cared that much for Halo, but it makes a good weekend binge, and I didn't see anything here that caught my attention. The visuals were striking but the gameplay seemed to be largely the same as it has been for a decade. Before things even began I was feeling sequel fatigue. Follow that up with more annual sports game, teasers for Splinter Cell and Gears Of War and I'm just feeling tired.

The games industry is even more 'new-a-phobic' than the movie industry. If it's not a sequel it generally doesn't get green lit. It's better to shoe horn your new idea into the shell of an older game and tack a 2 onto the end than it is to actually present a publisher with fresh new characters. Here we have truly hit that moment where you're so full you just have to pass on your sixth serving. Uncharted 3, Halo 4, Gears of War Judgement, Splinter Cell Blacklight, Assassin's Creed Revelations.....all these games could/should have been skipped and the series would be better off taking a breather. Even if they have jammed in Kinect voice commands it's just not enough.

More interesting to come out of the show was Smart Glass. The name, to me at least, conveys in no way what the project actual is or does, but after a while I got the gist of it. Smart Glass is essentially and app for your phone or tablet that acts as a remote control. I've spent way to much time navigating Xbox's clumsy menus trying to find something on netflix or a piece of DLC for one of my games. Smart Glass is going to make is as simple as typing 'Lost' on my phone to bring up the series Lost to stream. Beyond that you can use Smart Glass as a way to enhance a game, such as having an always on map for Skyrim that takes out the hassle of switching to the map screen every few minutes in game.

What Smart Glass hopes to do more than anything is make the Wii U look outdated. You alreadyhave an Ipad, right? So why would you by a brand new system with a tablet controller when you could just get an app for what you already have? It's a low blow, but at the same time Nintendo needed to learn that it can't just rely on gimmicky controllers these days.

NHL, NBA, and all day live ESPN are coming to the Xbox, along with a newly redesigned Zune marketplace. That was about the list for new entertainment options other than noting that the Xbox can now understand Spanish and other languages. I was surprised that there was no Skype announced since Microsoft recently purchased them.

What Microsoft was offering me as a core user was boring me to death, so I was actually looking forward to the parade of fake families playing Kinect games. I could at least make fun of them and that's better than feeling unimpressed. Even on that front Microsoft didn't unleash any bangers. Usher, yes that Usher, came out and danced for a minute. He wasn't actually playing a game or anything.....he was just dancing. Cause....I haven't got a clue. No children petting virtual tigers or adorably squealing at virtual Cookie Monsters, just Usher talking about wanting to get me naked.

The Usher dance sums up everything nicely into one word : unnecessary. You can't really skip an E3 press conference, although it may have done Microsoft some good to go dark and let the rumors of the next gen system build up some mystery. Instead of intrigue we just have rehashed sequels and a remote control app.

Here's to next year.

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Feel the electricity - E3 2012

A debate starts every June. Is the Electronics Entertainment Expo - E3 - Too much pomp and not enough substance?

For time in memoreum the video game industry has been trying to present itself as something more than a violence market, and for the most part we've gotten there thanks to the success of the Wii breaking into the mainstream. People working in the industry bemoan that E3 is a pimple on the newly accepted backside of the gaming culture.

On the outside it does little to garner much interest. No soccer mom, no matter how many B.O.B cd's she buys to fit in, will have it in her vocabulary to say to her child, 'I saw that dope new Call of Duty, child. Can't wait to get my prestige on!'

So if E3 isn't for the people who actually make the games or to attract the people who are only casually interested.....then why bother? What purpose does this breast filled, swag swollen, dubstep laden mess really serve at the end of the day?

They do it for me, you see.

Forget what you've heard about Arbor day, E3 is truly the most glorious time of the year. Sure, Comicon may be more restrained and well organized mixed with some dry humping. DragonCon may tackle a wider swath of nerd natures and certainly contains its fair share of bondage. But E3, yes, E3 is a 'get to the point and drop your pants' orgasm of gaming bliss. Every 5 seconds some developer somewhere is shoving something so pretty and shiny in your face that even Ben Stine would have ADD. Oh, you thought that new handheld you just saw was cool? Well ours has glasses free 3D AND CAN RAISE THE DEAD!

The penis metaphors continue unabated as billion dollar company and indie darling alike compete to show your just how big theirs is. Game developers of legend are dressed up and paraded out on stage to whore out some new kinect piece of shit you don't give a damn about and I still cheer anyway and I'll probably rush to preorder whatever it was. Three days later you wake up in your underwear walking bowlegged and loving it.

E3 is disgusting, dirty, and essential.

Microsoft

While I'm definitely no fanboy, the Xbox is my gaming platform of choice. It just works, unlike the ps3 that updates every 5 minutes and I don't have to buy a new video card every week like the PC. Most of my attention during the press conferences is paid right here.

That's why the past few E3's I've been a little let down as Microsoft has chosen to focus almost solely on the Kinect. Now, it's just fine for dancing and working out, but people only really want one dance game and one workout game. What they end up doing is cramming more advanced games into the Kinect and praying to God that the tech doesn't break on stage while they are doing it. Or worse, they film people ahead of time using the Kinect so people in the audience are left to guess at how broken the final product really will be.

I've been caught up in the magic before. Microsoft is damn good at parading some hella cute little kids out on the stage and making them pet adorable virtual bears. When I saw that little girl debut the Kinect by playing with her 'tiger', I thought I was watching the future right there. A year later when I played the same game in my store I fussed with the set up for 2 hours before the Kinect finally gave up and so did I.

Last year was all about making the kinect appeal to the core gaming audience. Projects like Fable Journey were shown and people the game was aimed at kept asking the same question, "Why would I want to play a watered down, broken ass motion game when I can just pick up my controller and play something that is actually half decent." Microsoft failed hard'core' (get it?) with their gambit last year, and I think they have learned their lesson.

This year I expect them to fully embrace the two different gaming camps of 'casual' and 'core' and understand that there doesn't HAVE to be overlap there to be successful. They don't have to try and get me to play a game with my grandmother to get me to give them my money. The key thing that brings us together is the Xbox itself. My fiance uses the xbox as much as I do, but not for games. Netflix and Zune are the things that bring the casual and core together and my household is the perfect example of that.

We will see two waves at this year's conference. A new Gears of War has already been announced, and (omg omg omg omg) Alan Wake 2 has been teased very recently. Halo 4 of course is on the docket along with plenty of surprises I'm sure. Then we will see the long line of fake families brought out to dance in front of a fake kinect to show you that gaming isn't all about murder.

I think the main focus, though, is going to be on what takes place outside of the game. The Xbox Live Gold structure is in need of some major renovation as it's offered the same package for over 6 years. With the recent changes to Playstation Plus, Xbox no longer offers the most media options for the money. For a subscription to Playstation Plus you get free games and movies, along with added speed and connivance. On Xbox Gold, you get to play your games online....that's it. There's no rewards besides the console doing what it should do anyway. Give me a free arcade game, give me higher quality Netflix streaming, make it worth it for me to give you my money instead of to Playstation.

All in all, Microsoft's conference is guaranteed to be the most boring. Lots of sequels to series that have gotten way to long in the tooth. Gears of War just ended, do I REALLY need a prequel?

Oh, the Xbox interface is getting ANOTHER tweak, great.

I don't expect any jaw dropping moments here. This is the filler year until the next gen system drops next Christmas. And I guarantee that next system is going to blow everyone away.

Sony

Sony I'm most interested to see as they have the most to prove. Financially they couldn't be in a deeper pit. The Playstation Vita was, by any definition, a failure and the company has delayed so many of it's high profile titles that gamers don't have much faith games like Last Guardian will ever see the light of day. Put simply, if they don't pull a rabbit out of their ass this year Sony will no longer be a threat in the US. (Sony dominates in Europe)

Microsoft is a ham sandwich, nothing fancy but the job gets done. Sony is a lobster dinner, you have to wait forever and pay out the nose but it's worth it. Recently the service has gotten lax and the waiters are spitting in the food, but what would it take to get back in the good graces? Forgive me for saying this, but be less Japanese.

American and Japanese sensibilities when it comes to technology are opposed. Games Sony makes don't have a development deadline, instead they are given to game design 'royalty' and then given free reign out of a culture of respect. Now that is all great and lovely, but when it has taken Team Ico 7 years and we still haven't seen gameplay of The Last Guardian, something isn't working right. Naughty Dog has release the entire Uncharted trilogy in that time and it was phenomenal. Sony has to hold their teams to some actual standards, because when a ps3 exclusive does finally make it to shelves it usually changes the industry. Uncharted forever altered how third person shooters are paced. Heavy Rain rebuilt the adventure game. The Last Of Us is looking to be one of the biggest paradigm shifts in game design in the last decade. With such great things to say about Sony it's so sad to see that they are bleeding out in front of us.

If Sony trots out the stillborn that is the Move I'll be greatly surprised. It elicits only chuckles every time it appears and I don't even want to talk about it to be honest.

The key to Sony's success is going to be embracing what they used to be - innovators and gourmets. The Playstation is a collection of games as art, but they are constantly trying to sit with the cheerleaders and its ostracizing them. I don't think this year will be any different. It's going to be hard to watch, but Sony will continue to be boring instead of enlightening. If they had any clue how to not loose millions, they would have done it by now.

Nintendo

Last year Nintendo announced the Wii U and everyone shrugged. They did a terrible job of showing that the Wii U was an actual brand new console. Instead, it looked like a tablet controller add on for you existing system. Many of the 'casual' groups shown the Wii U didn't show any interest as their Wii was already hidden under a mound of dust bunnies. Their main goal is going to be to really strengthen the Wii U as something new and amazing. They've lost the core crowd and show no interest in getting them back, and they are okay with that.

The Wii U is going to be marketed as a must have accessory for your living room. The spin will be that Wii U isn't for games, Wii U is to enhance your life. It's a very Japanese sensibility, but unlike Sony's drabness, Nintendo succeeds because they offer Americans cleanliness and simplicity. The reason the Wii U box wasn't shown last year was to emphasize that this isn't about the technology but how it makes your life more clutter free.

I'm at a loss to what they'll be showing. Will it be the Wii U as a media box? An Ipad like hub for your home full of weather and the youtubes?

Will it be a top of the line gaming machine for the core? (No)

Will it be the next leap for the casual gamer? Does the casual gamer even want a next leap?

This year we're going to find out if Nintendo has made a mistake or not. The Wii U is a terrible and terribly confusing name, and no one actually wants one. Can Nintendo show us just what this thing is and who it's for? I'm excited to find out.

______________________________

I'll be writing about all the other conferences after they happen. I could make some predictions like Beyond Good and Evil 2 or that Assassin's Creed III is going to be the most talked about game of the show, but it's the surprises that make E3 worth being a part of.

This E3 more than ever will be about the divide in our culture now that my Mom playing farmville is finally considered as much as a gamer as I am with my 80 hours in Diablo III. I'm happy about that, no culture should ever exclude other groups - that's how you end up with North Carolina. Let's just see if the industry can handle the two different extremes without falling apart.

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