Videogame reporting meets science reporting

 science, video games  Comments Off on Videogame reporting meets science reporting
Feb 272012

The slow rollout of Vox Games content continued today with Brian Crecente’s article on a recent paper by Douglas Gentile and his group, which I didn’t really care for. While Crecente did some things right, and notably improved on typical science reporting by actually providing a link to the paper (an unacceptably rare practice), I thought the article fell short.

The standard of success in science is whether research is convincing to peers. For this reason it is essential to get an opinion on the research from a scientist in the field not associated with the project. Crecente didn’t do this, even though there are some obvious options: Chris Ferguson, Wai Yen Tang, and Lawrence Kutner would all have been reasonable choices, though Ferguson is probably tired of getting the “contrasting opinion” call every time Gentile publishes. Crecente also could have looked through the citations in the article to find some experts to discuss it with. Fred Zimmerman is one possibility from this list, as he has frequently written on similar topics, but not co-authored any papers with Gentile. The point here is not to dig up any old crackpot who disagrees with Gentile’s conclusions, but to find somebody who can look at the research with a fair and critical eye.

The external perspective is particularly desirable here because Gentile is (perhaps unjustly) perceived as an axe-grinder. That Gentile has written numerous articles and books trying to link videogame violence with real-life violence and aggression, and that he was Research Director at the National Institute on Media and the Family, is something that Crecente might have noted.

In addition, external perspective might have prevented Crecente from both overstating and understating the implications of the research. The lede paragraph mentions a vicious cycle of reinforcement between videogames and attention problems, and also mentions a comparison with television. The former is good, and reflects the key finding. The latter isn’t really addressed by Gentile et al.’s paper. Crecente reports several ideas about how games might cause attention problems, but these come from the paper’s introductory material. Nothing in this research directly addresses any mechanistic hypothesis, but these speculations constitute a significant proportion of Crecente’s article.

The idea that reducing videogame exposure (VGE) could address attention problems seems an optimistic take on the results. A very simplistic analysis of these results indicates that VGE at any given time point explains 1-4% of the variation in current or subsequent attention problems (Table 1). That’s something, but it’s not much. The VGE-attention correlation grows stronger in the third wave of surveys, which may mean that newer games or systems are more likely to cause attention problems, or that the effect on attention grows stronger as a child ages. Or, this could simply reflect intrinsic noise in the data. Here an outside expert’s opinion would be valuable.

The path diagrams in the later part of the article are meant to illustrate possible causal relationships identified through mathematical modeling. They show that attention problems are a better predictor of future VGE than VGE is of future attention problems. However, there is a modest predictive relationship both ways, and Crecente understates the findings by failing to report that a causal effect, rather than just a correlation, was found (notice how some commenters missed this).

While the finding may imply, as Gentile believes, a vicious cycle of reinforcement, it may also signify that he has simply got the causal relationship entirely backwards, and that the power of VGE at wave 2 to predict attention problems at wave 3 is simply bleed-through of the (unmeasured) attention problems at wave 1 causing VGE at wave 2. The results on impulsiveness seem to argue against this, but there the predictive capacity is even lower. Or, there may be a third factor, perhaps related to parenting or genetics, that promotes both. In my opinion Gentile et al. are unjustly dismissive of this possibility, and Crecente does not even mention it.

With or without an external opinion, Crecente’s article doesn’t do a good job of putting the research in perspective. How surprising or novel is this finding? How does it fit with other things we know about children’s use of and reaction to media? Might cultural factors (the research was performed in Singapore) affect the causal relationships found here? What recommendations for parents does the research imply? On these subjects, Crecente’s article gives us less than we would have gotten had he merely reproduced Iowa State’s press release.

My point here is not that Crecente is a bad journalist, or even that this is a terrible article. As far as I can tell, it contains only one minor factual error (journal name), and the errors he did make are ones that happen all the time in science reporting. On the positive side, Crecente reports the research methods and central conclusion clearly and correctly, and he provides a link to the paper. That may sound like damning by faint praise, but in the context of the media’s chronic inability to accurately report science it is actual straight-up praise. However, the absence of an external opinion is a serious problem, and certain omissions in the article can mislead the audience. As science reporting in gaming media goes, it’s not bad (e.g. this), but Vox Games aspires to a higher standard.

APB’s blue wall of silence

 marketing, video games  Comments Off on APB’s blue wall of silence
Jun 192010

Well, we’ve just come to the end of what will probably be the world’s least productive week this year. Sports fans had enormous distractions: the NBA finals, the beginning of the US Open, and of course the World Cup, which is something I can’t avoid hearing about since I work with a Korean, two Germans, and an Italian. And that’s just the soccer-mad people whose teams are actually in the tournament! Fortunately, most of the lab computers do not have speakers, so I am spared the god-forsaken noise of the vuvuzelas while at work. If you’ve no taste for athletics, however, this week offered an alluring diversion in the form of E3. Between the various webcast events and the constant impact of game and hardware impressions, there was plenty to divert people’s attention from work. Apparently, Realtime Worlds took note of the deluge and tried to slip something in under it — a review embargo on their upcoming MMO shooter, APB. Now, there’s nothing unusual about a review embargo, but this one is notable because it ends on July 2, a full week after the game is released.

I heard about this at roughly the same time from Nukezilla (née Negative Gamer) and Rock, Paper Shotgun. Many of the responses to these posts indicate that the open beta has revealed a core game with some great customization but less-than-ideal gameplay (a widespread problem among games that allow a lot of user creativity). The natural conclusion from this starting point has been that this is a move by RTW’s PR staff to keep negative reviews of a marginal game off the air long enough to make a significant profit off the first wave of suckers. Obviously RTW doesn’t see things this way, and explained their decision to the RPS crew as being about making sure that reviewers get a veridical impression of the game, something that’s apparently impossible in the present open beta for whatever reason. This explanation strikes me as being only mostly bull.

I don’t generally play MMO games; I don’t have the time for it. But I do play games, and in most cases you can tell that a game is crap within thirty minutes of inserting the disc. Sometimes it takes a few hours, but for the most part a game that is really bad lets you know this early on. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a game has got painful graphics, or janky physics, or that the shooting is terrible. Once you’ve realized these things, more time with the game won’t help, unless you’ve got a serious case of choice-supportive bias. If a game is just plain bad on a mechanical level, or even sometimes on a writing level (everyone with any sense knew Warrior Within was crap before the tutorial ended), it’s obvious early on, and an additional week with the game won’t help things. I’m not aware of any game that offers a graphic upgrade once a player hits level 10.

But, a game isn’t just gears and scenery. The quality also depends on what it demands of you and the context it provides for those demands. Is the level design solid and varied? Does the story stay consistently interesting, or does it go off the rails? These questions take longer to resolve; we’ve all played games that go from a promising beginning to an abysmal end. More rarely, a game begins and ends well but takes a long detour through the doldrums (Red Dead Redemption, for example). Repetitive gameplay or uninspired design can easily remold a beautiful and fun game into a tedious and frustrating mess (Muramasa). And then there’s “Indigo Prophecy syndrome”, the tendency of a game with a good story to take a bizarre turn for the worst towards the end, that is the reason Yahtzee never gives a positive review unless he’s finished a game. Extending play sometimes reveals the hidden weaknesses of a game that seemed good, but the opposite rarely happens.

Of course it’s possible, especially with an MMO game, that the content available early on is less interesting than what the player can do later. Frankly, though, we should be well past the point where “kill ten rats” is considered acceptable design. I can do crappy little fetch quests in practically any game, and at this point many of them are free. If you’re asking me to pay for your game then it had better start popping within the first hour. If I can read an entire novel in the time it takes for your game to really get interesting then you are a professional failure.

So, the good folks at Nukezilla and RPS should be able to assess the quality and breadth of play within less than, say, 12 hours. What they cannot assess in that period of time is the game’s community. First of all, it takes time for a game’s player base to take shape, considerably longer than a week. Will APB tend to draw people who are just out to make random mayhem, or will it draw people who are interested in forming tight-knit crews? Perhaps it will draw both groups initially and only retain the latter after a few months. Even if the player base is established, timing plays a role. The weekend population of a game may not be the same as the one you find on weeknights. In any event, just one week won’t be enough to inform the reviewer (or by extension, potential players) just what it will be like to play the MMO game in question.

From the standpoint of writing a review this means there are two problems with the embargo. First, it’s not going to improve reviewers’ reports of the early experience. If the driving and shooting really are excruciating, then hanging around for seven days provides no benefit in terms of accurate description of the gameplay itself. Second, the only thing that can be improved by requiring a longer wait, i.e. the assessment of the game’s population, can’t actually be judged in a week anyway. For determining the quality of gameplay, a week is too long to wait; for determining the qualities of the player base, a week (especially the first week) isn’t long enough.

From a PR standpoint the embargo has a different danger. This embargo only applies to people you’ve given the gift of some free play, who presumably will at least be somewhat favorably disposed towards you as a result. Now, because they agreed to review your game for free, they have been put at a disadvantage relative to their competitors, who can get the scoop by just buying the game. Amateur reviewers and sites that didn’t play ball with you will produce all the early word on the street, meaning that you have completely ceded the message to people you don’t know. Granted, all those guys will have to pay you $60 for the right to produce their review, but is that $60 worth the loss of goodwill from sites you have a relationship with, plus the risk of handing over your message to sites you have no relationship with? Frankly, this approach strikes me as being insane. This is not to mention the perception that is created by doing the gaming equivalent of refusing to screen a film for critics.

Of course, RTW can respond to unfavorable early reviews by the now-standard mechanism of digging up a player log and complaining that the reviewer only played the game for X hours, where X is some number that a PR flack can argue is unjustly small. But this kind of protest is generally specious, for reasons I’ve outlined above. As a player, I don’t owe your game anything. I gave you $60, which means you owe me. If you’re not going to deliver on that investment unless I additionally spend hours doing things I don’t like, then I deserve to know about it. My time isn’t free, and if I’ve got to spend hours of it running stupid quests or fighting an awful control system just to get to marginally tolerable content, then I’m going to have to insist you at least pay me minimum wage for my trouble. If a reviewer has five horrible first hours with your game, then, as long as he’s honest about it, that is important information to me.

RTW has a valid point in that a review of their (or any) MMO game will not accurately capture its spirit if it’s based on a reviewer’s experience during a beta or in the first few days of the game being online. That being said, reviews sampling that period can at least let players know if the game, on a purely mechanical level, might be for them. Moreover, a delay of just a week will not suffice to let reviewers accurately assess the game’s society, as that will still be in a process of rapid evolution. In addition, this kind of a restriction will always be anathema to the first-to-publish tier of big-name review sites. Given the marginal benefits and significant costs, it’s difficult to understand why Realtime Worlds chose to take this approach rather than, say, offering sites additional free playtime after a few months to support a follow-up review focusing on the game’s community. Embargoing reviews after the release date can only serve to support negative perceptions and word of mouth.

Mar 312010

The lawyers for Evony have dropped their Australian libel-tourism suit against Bruce Everiss. In accordance with Australian law, they will have to pay his legal fees. In light of Evony’s advertising strategy, it seems only natural to celebrate this news with a picture of some boobies:

It remains to be seen whether their ongoing campaign of harassment against Bruce will cease now that the lawsuit is withdrawn. Speaking as a potential customer, this episode has reshaped my opinions about a company that, at one time, I was content to just not care about. Evony’s behavior during this episode has given me the impression that they are an unscrupulous company run by dishonest men, aided and abetted by the corrupt Chinese government. That they react to criticism with judicial harassment and threats of violence, rather than trying to address concerns through transparent disclosure, suggests to me that they have something they are desperate to hide. I would not play this game, even as a trial, and neither should you.

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.

Jul 262008
The gaming internets were buzzing the last few days about a widely-publicized report from Toward Freedom that civil war and ongoing militia activity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in part been fueled by the demand for coltan, a source of the tantalum powder that is necessary for capacitors in consumer electronics. Of course, this isn’t a new issue, just a new press release, in which the Playstation 2 in particular is singled out as a cause of conflict. This would be an excellent reason to dislike gaming consoles were it not inflammatory nonsense.

It would be foolish to deny the destructive effects of coltan demand, of course. Although the civil wars in the DRC had political origins, the conflict was sustained in part by demand for this mineral resource. Neighboring countries used militias in the DRC as proxies to ensure access to coltan, which they then sold to a number of foreign companies, which then resold it to various manufacturers, including many American makers of capacitors. Prices for tantalum spiked significantly in the years 1999-2000, providing an even stronger incentive for the DRC’s neighbors to seize its rich reserves of coltan. Conflict and deficiencies in infrastructure have at times limited industrial mining of coltan, meaning that it is often mined using less safe artisanal techniques, and often by children. While many responsible companies have taken steps to ensure that they do not use any coltan illegally seized from the DRC, monitoring any supply chain of this kind is very difficult and there are strong incentives for bad actors to lie. Moreover, the greatest damage was done by the ’99-’00 price spike; adopting supply controls now can’t undo what happened. The Toward Freedom article attributes the spike (and ongoing demand) to the Playstation 2. This is at best a highly selective interpretation of history.

Consider that as of 2007, the total number of cellular phone subscriptions worldwide was estimated at 3.3 billion, while the total number of PS2s sold to date is something like 150 million. According to statistics found at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association website, the number of cellular phone subscriptions in the United States in 2000 was more than 100 million. By 2003 the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States alone exceeded the number of Playstation 2 units sold worldwide in the entire production run to date. Keep in mind that those cell phone users are changing their phones regularly: the number of used and discarded phones in the United States (which has a low cellular penetration rate) substantially exceeds its human population. As such, we should expect that the actual number of cellular phones used by human beings since their introduction is significantly higher than the number of subscriptions, perhaps by a factor of two or more. Why blame game consoles for the coltan demand, then, rather than the far more prevalent cellular technology?

Of course, the demand for coltan doesn’t end with game consoles or cellular phones. Tantalum is used in virtually every modern piece of electronics equipment, including pagers, laptop computers, digital cameras, and inkjet printers, as well as artificial joints, film, and various tools. Why blame game consoles for the ongoing conflict when their sales and usage are completely dwarfed by these other applications? The turn of the century saw a massive expansion in the use of all manner of electronics, all over the world. All of these factors contributed to the tantalum price spike. Yes, the 2000 shortfall of PS2s played a role, but the 6-fold change in price that year could not have happened without an existing huge demand for phones and laptops, and serious structural problems in the tantalum market.

How, then, did this conflict come to be known as the “Playstation War”? Reporter John Lasker doesn’t provide any answers. He certainly doesn’t quote anyone on the subject and it’s not clear to me that the words “Playstation War” were used in reference to this conflict at any point before he did so in this article. In a fit of fairness late in the piece, Lasker acknowledges that the spike in tantalum prices that provided incentive for neighboring countries to interfere in DRC affairs was the result of multiple concurrent technology booms, but any good journalist knows that readers remember the lede. I don’t know why Lasker made the choice to put the console reference so high up in the story, but doing so was inflammatory, irresponsible, and counterproductive.

The world does not have vast and plentiful reserves of tantalum, and existing electronics that contain tantalum are, in general, not properly recycled. Continued strong demand for consumer electronics and the still-increasing penetration of cellular phones in the global market are combining to bring the price of tantalum back up. Thus, a rejuvenation of resource warfare in central Africa is becoming increasingly likely. The best defense against this scenario is for consumers to keep strong pressure on manufacturers and regulators to prevent “blood coltan” from making its way into consumer goods. The typical purchaser of a cell phone doesn’t know anything about tantalum or its uses, and in fact the typical American probably couldn’t tell you what continent the DRC is on. Awareness, then, is a precious commodity, especially for an advocate-journalist. However, awareness is diminished when you make game consoles into a scapegoat.

Even if you manage to heighten awareness of mineral wars in Africa with a piece like this, no good is done if the reader doesn’t make the proper connection with his own life. Can you imagine a person reading the lede paragraph on his laptop or cell phone and cursing those darn gamers for carelessly supporting resource wars? I can imagine nothing else. Calling the conflict a “Playstation War” allows the non-gaming reader to shift the blame onto those darn gamers and ignore his own contributions to resource scarcity and conflict.

Are gamers to blame for the sustained conflict in the DRC? Sure they are — to precisely the same degree as anyone who owns a cell phone, laptop, digital camera, artificial joint, anti-lock braking system, etc. All of us should try to be conscious of the origins (and destinations, you non-cell-phone-recycling jerks) of the materials in our electronics, and pressing the companies that make them to ensure that our sale price doesn’t subsidize war in Africa. Inordinately emphasizing the importance of game consoles in the financial origins of war in the DRC, however, lets non-gamers think they are off the hook, and amounts to little more than blaming the “other” for the sins of all. A putatively progressive organization like Toward Freedom should be capable of recognizing that, and ought to feel ashamed at having done so.