Hit the road, Jack

 politics, video games  Comments Off on Hit the road, Jack
Oct 022008
Schadenfreude and gloating pervaded the online gaming world last week when the news broke that prominent anti-gaming crusader Jack Thompson would be permanently disbarred on or before October 25. While Thompson has challenged this decision in Federal court (accusing the justices of the Florida Supreme Court of persecuting him), it seems unlikely that he can do anything to save his right to practice law in Florida. Some optimists in the larger gaming community seem to feel that Thompson will be gone for good after this, but grandstanders of his ilk rarely depart so easily. Legally, Thompson is still entitled to file lawsuits like anyone else, and because he has become so notorious it is doubtful that he will be pushed out of the public square. This is much to the detriment of the debate on video game violence, because he did, and does, far more to harm the cause of those concerned about graphic violence than he ever did to help.

Of course, the critics of video game violence are legion, but few, if any, of them could rival Thompson for sheer volume or nastiness. Like many such critics he had a tendency to play fast and loose with the facts, famously asserting that the Virginia Tech massacre had been inspired by first-person shooter games and holding to this view in the face of definitive evidence to the contrary. His partaking in the brain-dead excesses of conservative punditry was not nearly as troublesome as Thompson’s deep, almost disturbing lack of professionalism, good taste, and basic decency. His demand that Janet Reno tell him whether or not she was a lesbian is a well-known matter of public record. Less famous, but just as unsettling, was his conduct towards judges and fellow lawyers, carefully described in his bar trial (of which you can read selected transcripts at Gamepolitics). It is clear from the record that no boundary of decency or good behavior deterred Thompson from the pursuit of litigation based on the idea that video game violence caused real life violence.

That isn’t a completely absurd contention like creationism. The psychological effects of violent media (including video games) constitute a serious area of scientific study. While reasonable people can disagree on the quality of particular experiments and the proper interpretation of their results, there is no serious scientific disagreement that violent media produce at least short-term changes in feelings of aggression and attitudes towards violence. The long-term effects of violent video games on normal people are still disputed, and there are a number of moral, economic, and artistic considerations that have an important bearing on the subject. Nonetheless, it should be possible to have a rational, constructive dialogue about whether and how much violence in games ought to be acceptable to the audience, the creators, and yes, even the government.

But constructive dialogue is precisely the sort of thing people like Jack Thompson prevent. The bullying attack mentality at the core of his behavior turns the issue into an emotional one, making every side too angry to engage in a calm, rational assessment of evidence. Because of this, Jack Thompson got in the way of addressing the violence issue every time he showed his face. Admittedly, if the court has a remedy for your harm these tactics can pay off in some instances. However, suppressing video game violence through legal means has not been, and will never be, a viable strategy in America. Thompson’s attitude poisoned any chance that he could personally effect a change in the quantity of violence in video games. Even if he had been effective in recovering money from video game developers, the end result would have been an interminable process of swatting flies; attempting to punish the games industry for violence every time an exemplar showed its head. Profitable for a professional litigator, perhaps, but not a way to effectively change the industry’s attitude towards the portrayal of violence.

Thompson also poisoned the larger debate by being a kook and a villain. He made himself easy to hate, a figurehead for gamers to revile, and also did his best to demonize both gamers and his personal critics. In this way he brought a needlessly adversarial relationship to the various sides of the issue. Because his attacks were accompanied by distasteful personal behavior and a fundamental unwillingness to deal in fact, Thompson also made himself a ready caricature. He enabled gamers and game developers to regard everyone who held his position as being just as out of touch, hateful, and ridiculous as he was. Hatred and ridicule both have the effect of dehumanizing the other side, and ending any serious effort at consideration or collaboration.

So I’m glad that Thompson has been disbarred. I’m not glad because it hurts Thompson, and it doesn’t matter to me that the dignity of the Florida Bar has been upheld. I’m happy about this result because it discredits Mr. Thompson and is the first step towards removing him from the debate entirely. That’s the best possible outcome for gamers, game developers, and organizations that are genuinely interested in decreasing the violent content of games and keeping violent games out of the hands of children. Jack Thompson did nothing but harm to those efforts; it is to be hoped that in his absence a friendlier environment, in which the participants in the discussion seek common ground rather than mutual destruction, will develop.

Bailing into the lifeboat

 economy, politics  Comments Off on Bailing into the lifeboat
Sep 232008
A few weeks back, when I posted about the necessity of raising taxes and cutting spending in order to reign in the national debt, I did not anticipate that the market would force us to take such an enormous step towards insolvency. The bailout proposed by the Bush administration would cost us $700 billion, but many predict that its actual cost, after Congress adds its own trimmings and attempts to include some relief for homeowners in danger of default, will reach $1 trillion or more of money that we don’t have. The irony of paying for bad debt with more debt might inspire a grim sort of humor if we weren’t in such a big hole already. The plan as initially proposed is completely outrageous, but I have little doubt that Congress will find some way to make it worse.

The fundamental problem is that a mortgage-backed security is not a mortgage. The holder of a mortgage has the right to foreclose on the property (thus recovering real assets) if the loan is not repaid, but the holder of a MBS does not appear to necessarily have this right. The security spreads the risk from a pool of mortgages among a pool of investors; as such, no single investor can be said to “own” a particular mortgage (except in the case that he owns all the securities from a given pool). It’s not clear whether the owners of MBS own anything other than debt; it is possible that they do not own the underlying loans. And these are the simplest vehicles assembled from residential mortgages… the real value of more exotic derivatives may be impossible to assess. This has serious implications for the proposed bailout, because there is a very real chance that we taxpayers will end up paying billions of dollars for smoke and mirrors. Before we release one penny from the Treasury for this rescue effort we must ensure that what we purchase with our money will give us a right to the underlying property, as well as the authority to modify the mortgages so as to diminish the default rate. We must not be left holding a bag of air.

The uncertain relationship between the securities and the actual mortgages underscores the unseemly nature of the whole affair. People who did not have the wherewithal to own homes got mortages from unscrupulous lenders who should never have given them out. These mortgages were packaged into vehicles that were treated like gold by credit raters, and then purchased by investors who probably should have known better. Only a fool could have imagined that the housing boom would continue indefinitely. The push by credit providers to make bankruptcy declarations more difficult for individuals had the unexpected side effect of increasing defaults. Holding negative equity on their homes in a plunging market, homeowners simply turned off the lights and walked out. The invisible hand failed to reign in the cascade of short-sightedness, stupidity, and outright malfeasance, and the credit market landed on its head with an audible crunch.

This would be bad enough on its own, but it set off a chain reaction leading to ever more violent flailing on the part of the Treasury department and the market players themselves. Because the securities had been insured, AIG took a hit and needed billions of dollars of government money just to die quietly. The failure of Lehman Brothers left money market funds holding worthless paper; the Reserve Primary Fund broke the buck and skittish investors started to flee. With all business in danger of grinding to a halt because of the shortage, the Treasury insured these investments with the Exchange Stabilization Fund. Because this insurance is not capped, small banks are now worried that panicked customers may move all assets in excess of $100,000 into the money market, leaving them short on cash.

Keating Five member John McCain, long a friend to unscrupulous financiers and enemy to the kinds of regulatory oversight that might have prevented this crisis, has been difficult to pin down on this issue, in large part because his position changes every time the sun comes up. His initial position, that we should stop bailing out financial giants, is understandable and at least has the virtue of being consistent with his free-market philosophy. His later attitude, an acceptance of the reality that these companies must be bailed out in order to protect the investors who acted in good faith, was more realistic. Exposure to the toxic mortgage-based securities put the other assets of these companies at risk, and it would be unconscionable to destroy the investments of good actors as punishment for the deeds of bad actors who had already escaped on golden parachutes.

(In McCain’s defense, at least he said something, even if it was insane, and Joe Biden’s response tracked a similar trajectory. As for the other presidential candidate, Barack Obama couldn’t manage anything better than “I’ll get back to you on that.” Who will you choose in November: the madman or the slacker?)

Bailing out rich people stinks, but it stinks more when we don’t really have any money to do it with. Section 10 of the proposed legislation increases our national debt limit for the fiscal year to $11,315,000,000,000. Given the authority to hit that ceiling, I have no doubt that the Treasury department will do so, meaning that our interest outlay in the next budget will be even higher than previously anticipated. Every new program you’ve heard politicians mention during this election cycle has just evaporated. The cost of a bailout is a credit crunch on the government, at the worst possible time. I’ve already proposed the solution to the problem: we must increase income and cut outlays. Otherwise, we’re just bailing water from the yacht into the lifeboat. Specifically, the wealthiest Americans must be willing to pay higher taxes, because it is they that benefit most from the financial institutions the rest of us will be breaking the bank to rescue, and it was their exploitation of those markets that got us into this mess.

Of course, I haven’t yet gotten to the most malodorous part of the whole proposal. It’s bad that we don’t know whether what we’re buying will be worth anything, and it’s worse that we’ll significantly increase the national debt to do so. But the really despicable part of the legislation is this:

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

You know, at least with the absurdly-named Patriot Act these Republican pricks had some kind of flimsy excuse for their totalitarian actions. This is sticking a thumb in the eye of Democracy just to show you can. It was a lack of transparency and honesty that got us into this whole mess; we cannot get out of it by spending $700,000,000,000 at the sole discretion of faceless bureaucrats from an abominably opaque and secretive administration. The estimated cost of the Iraq War to date is around $582 billion, a massive number but still less than the amount proposed in this legislation. It defies reason and sense to insulate the choices made with this massive amount of money from oversight and accountability. The very request for opacity suggests that the whole operation is being undertaken in bad faith.

Bernanke and Paulson continue to insist that Congress must act immediately. Nothing in their past behavior, however, suggests that they possess the competence to make this analysis, or the honesty to accurately convey their analysis to the media or to the legislature. Clearly, something must be done, but handing out $700 billion to the same nitwits that got us into this mess, without anything even resembling appropriate oversight, is more likely to bring economic disaster than salvation.

Sep 102008

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible; avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue; that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

—George Washington, Farewell Address

The next President and Congress of the United States must raise taxes and cut spending.

The last time I checked, the national debt was about $9.6 trillion, but it’s probably higher now. The interest on this debt presently amounts to nearly 10% of the federal budget, which admittedly is less than half of we spend on defense, but still easily exceeds $200,000,000,000. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the interest outlay in 2007 could have covered the entire federal expenditure on supplemental security income, child tax credits, unemployment, food stamps, family support, child nutrition, and foster care, with almost enough left over to pay for veteran’s benefits. Of course, the magnitude of the debt (and the associated interest payments) will only increase when Medicare and Social Security payments start to exceed revenues. The federal government has run a deficit every year since 2001, and none of the people running for office now have done enough to stop it. Nor do they propose to do enough to stop it.

Instead, our candidates propose hosts of new projects, proposing no financing beyond the sunshine and rainbows that adorn their professionally-coiffed speeches. They shoo away the petty earmarks while the great consumers — Medicare, Social Security, Defense — gnaw the budget to the bone, unmolested in their gluttony. Most candidates who are willing to tax are unwilling to stop spending; most candidates who are willing to cut expenditures also want to lower taxes. Either way is insane, but many candidates want the whole pie: more spending, less taxes, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

It has become almost obligatory, especially among those seeking office for the first time, to blame the present excesses on fat cats in the capital, but simply pointing the finger at Washington doesn’t cut it. Irresponsible big spenders do not reach office by magic; they get there because we elect them. This is not a problem of other people in other districts who have bad judgment and choose lousy representatives. This is your problem in your district, and it is a problem because we have failed to do as George Washington asked. A man who tells you that our budget problems can be solved without any pain is either a fool, or a liar who thinks that you are a fool. But when a candidate gets up and acknowledges that taxes must be raised, that favored spending must be restrained, he is hated by an electorate that ought to applaud him for his honesty.

So the politicians lie. They cut taxes and spend more. They raise taxes and outspend that. And all along we grumble and complain about “Washington insiders” and “Beltway bandits”. Well, throw the bums out! That’s in your power, isn’t it? If you’re reading this post you have access to the internet. Find out how your congressman voted during his term. Read the text of the bills he voted on. Find out what questions he asked in committee and what speeches he made on the floor. Dig up the things that interest you, no matter how obscure. The behavior of state legislators and other officials is often more difficult to track, but these records exist. You as a voter have a duty to find and evaluate them, because terribly few politicians are honest about their record or intentions. Even if they are inclined to tell the truth, they dare not speak it because we voters are all too happy to punish harsh truths and reward pleasant lies.

Paying down the national debt is a personal obligation. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, not to leave them a country upside down on its loans. More than that, however, it is a patriotic obligation. We owe it to our parents and grandparents, our soldiers and our founders, not to let the country they worked so diligently to build and preserve crumble due to debt and dissipation.

The next President and Congress of the United States must raise taxes and cut spending. Any candidate for any national office who refuses to acknowledge this truth does not deserve your vote.

Jul 032008

“I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.”—Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.)

I’m finding it difficult to see why this statement is considered to be at all controversial, despite the firestorm it has ignited in the conservative set. It is not an attack on John McCain’s service nor is it a smear against him. I could almost find the outraged Republican blowback on this quote to be funny, if I didn’t have a memory. Instead, I find it positively revolting.

It amazes me that anyone has to defend this quote at all, as our history has amply demonstrated that military service has no bearing on Presidential quality. Yes, the Army gave us Washington and Eisenhower. It also gave us such perennial entries on the shortlist for worst President in U.S. history as Franklin Pierce and Ulysses S. Grant. Even successful leadership at the rank of General does not indicate that one will perform admirably as a President. For Clark, a military man (and former Presidential candidate) himself, to point this out hardly qualifies as a smear. It’s fair to say this comment is unnecessary, but absent any additional context, the histrionics of the McCain campaign are just unwarranted foolishness.

However, we are not without additional context, because in an amazing coincidence, one of the men delivering those histrionics was Bud Day. Yes, the very same Bud Day who was a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and appeared in one of their commercials. This man, who through ignorance or foolishness attacked Clark’s perfectly sensible statement, had the gall to follow it up with a defense of the Swift Boat smears as “the truth”.

That’s why I can’t just dismiss the McCain response as a good laugh. The outrage, feigned or not, of conservatives is positively revolting in light of the Swift Boat campaign. To see those who winked at the SBVT’s outright slander of an American serviceman treat Clark’s statement as some kind of blood libel is a repellent display of hypocrisy. For McCain, who claimed to repudiate the SBVT tactics, to employ SBVT members and take their money in this campaign only heightens my disgust. The maverick, the straight-talker, the man for whom I felt a good deal of respect all seem to have perished in the pursuit of the Presidency.

McCain’s experiences in the Vietnam War, heroic as they were, have no bearing on his qualifications for the Presidency. His reaction to Clark’s statement of this obvious fact, however, has me more firmly convinced than ever that he lacks the judgment, the restraint, and the integrity to lead this nation.

Feb 222008
Yesterday Kotaku put up an article about Barack Obama’s line in which he says people “…are going to have to parent better, and turn off the television sets, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children…” The particular editor at Kotaku clearly overreacted by seeing this as Obama using games a metaphor for underachievment. That’s clearly not the point. But if it were, it would be a largely valid point, and more importantly a point with which most Americans would agree for mostly correct reasons. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week knows I am not saying this because I believe games to be devoid of artistic content. Quite the opposite: I earnestly believe games have the power to convey stimulating stories and emotions in a uniquely powerful way. Unfortunately, most video games, and especially the video games that have the most impact on popular culture, fall far short of this ideal. True video gaming enthusiasts are not the only ones to blame for this problem. However, they are well-placed to do something about it.

The main features supporting Obama’s (and the larger public’s) view are pretty obvious. For the most part, games are not a physical activity, although the Wii is changing that to some extent. They generally do not convey enlightening or even interesting stories. Because they divorce themselves so totally from the science, history, or mythology on which they occasionally claim to be based, the vast majority of games are not even slightly educational. Indeed, in this regard they are usually so far off base they aren’t even wrong. It is at least possible, even likely, that shooters and gory games desensitize their players to violence (though not necessarily uniquely so), especially if those players are young. The majority of television and movies are at least as bad and probably worse. However, video games shouldn’t make a negative case versus competing media; they should try to stand positively on their own. This, at present, they cannot do, particularly not as they are perceived in the larger culture. Given what the average person knows, a parent promoting any alternative activity, be it reading books or playing with sticks, over video games would be acting reasonably. At least the sticks won’t make your kids dumber.

What makes this so upsetting to me is that it need not be so. Many games rely on critical thinking and problem solving skills. Games largely do not possess the “quick cuts” common in commercials and film that are suspected to adversely affect attention span and concentration. In fact, most games reward concentration and careful observation. And despite the generally grim situation, there are many games that include interesting and stimulating narratives. Even the first-person shooter genre, justifiably reviled for its generally awful writing, recently developed entries that featured a genuinely interesting story (BioShock) and an extremely clever and novel mechanic (Portal). Games like these, that favor inventiveness and storytelling over crystal-clear graphics of aliens’ heads getting blown to bits, are rare gems to be celebrated.

But why? Why is BioShock the revelation, instead of being the status quo? Why is Shadow of the Colossus the exception rather than the rule? The reason is that the low (intellectual) quality muzzle-flash-and-gore spectacles sell. They sell spectacularly, and the simple fact is that companies have not just a desire, but an obligation (to their shareholders) to maximize their profits. If cow manure sold like candy bars, you’d never see another Snickers vending machine. The reason gamers don’t get candy is that they’re willing to buy crap.

Why are there great artistic movies, despite the triumphant profits of summer blockbuster pablum? Because there are people that believe in movies as an art form, who support artistic movies, who tell their friends about the emotionally moving films they see and encourage those people to support them. Some of these buffs also enjoy the occasional schlock film, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with schlock films or watching them, as long as you don’t confuse Transformers with Citizen Kane. Look, Halo isn’t art. It’s got art—perhaps even really good art—in it, but hey, Face/Off had some great cinematography and set design. That doesn’t mean Face/Off isn’t schlock—nobody in film confused dual-wielding Nic Cage with Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Halo is great fun, but the perception of the broader culture is that we see Halo and Gears of War as the pinnacle of the gaming artform, while I think the genuine perception of gamers is that these are the easily-discarded summer blockbusters.

Game publishers appear to be content to let the public perception stand. Thus, it falls to the enthusiasts to help elevate the form. We can do that in many ways. The most obvious, and the one most likely to directly impact the choices made by publishers, is to shift our purchasing habits. When you come across a game that makes an artistic statement, buy it; when you want to play a game that doesn’t, rent (or ignore) instead. Stop pre-ordering games—require publishers to demonstrate quality and artistry before you buy. When it becomes favorable to a company’s bottom line to push artistry over flash, they will do so. Why? Because they love money.

In that same vein, reward reviewers (with your traffic) if they focus their greatest attention on the artistic merits of games. I know the initial reaction to this is to say that reviewers should review games for “what they’re trying to be” rather than focusing on the artistic aspects. That’s a bunch of crap. Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and that funny-looking guy from the Today show could all pan the hell out of the next entry in the “Michael Bay Blows Up” series (Michael Bay Blows Up Alcatraz, Michael Bay Blows Up Asteroids, Michael Bay Blows Up Your Childhood, etc.), and it will still make hundreds of millions of dollars. Game publishers and designers, as well as the purchasing public, need to develop a similar attitude towards bad reviews of schlock games, instead of insisting that review scores reflect popularity or ultimate sales. If Halo is bad art, give it an F, even if it’s a good time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as the audience is aware of your angle, as they are with Ebert.

The final thing to do is for enthusiasts ourselves to talk about games as art, and to focus on artistic games when gaming comes up in casual conversation. Enthusiasts must get in the habit of talking (or writing) about games as art, rather than purely entertainment. The earnest, well-articulated, public attitude that games are art will do a great deal to promote this view in others, even if they have no direct experience of artistic games.

Obama was right to say what he did, and the next politician to say it will be right, and the next one after that, up to the day you lose your teeth and your mind. Games will always be a juvenile, inferior medium unappreciated by the public at large unless those who love them most put real pressure on developers, publishers, and reviewers to transform the motivations and attitudes that inform game creation and media response. If dollars support the best art instead of the best gloss, better art will be made and supported by the industry, and if the public at large gets used to seeing games discussed as art, criticized as art, and publicized as art, they will get used to thinking of them as art.