28 February 2010

[Conf] Software best practices: the Magic Gig?

Talk given by Kevin Kreitman on Friday, February 19. [My comments in brackets]

Only companies get CMMI, not people. [Interestingly, products don't get CMMI either. People get the "senior" or "lead" mention to distinguish them from the "junior" newbie, but that does not mean they are more skilled.]

Kreitman's conjecture: you can not control process and outcome at the same time. That is to say, the more you control the process, the more open you have to be about the outcome. [Open source projects are interesting examples to check this conjecture. Open source projects seem to be, a priori, controlled by no one in particular: the community decides which features should be implemented. But looking closer, it becomes obvious that committing into /trunk should only be allowed to experimented and familiar developers: novice or random developers unfamiliar with the project must not commit whatever lines they found interesting to add. So the control here actually prevents the project to collapse, narrowing the outcome. Does the conjecture apply to open source projects?]

A process solves a particular problem in a particular context thanks to particular resources. Hence a process that works somewhere may not work for your company. Imposing a process does not work. While in the middle of a project, do not change radically the process that has been followed for months. Instead, it can sometimes be useful to try, during 1h per week for instance, a new particular "process concept". For instance, a project was stuck because no one knew who to talk to or where to go. This visibility problem was solved when it was decided to try a "total transparency" hour every Friday morning. All possible information was available, and everyone could know which bugs had been detected when, which had been solved when, what were the next project deadlines, what were the current budget and resources, etc. [Game companies usually follow agile development processes with very short iteration cycles, so that the game can be tested, debugged and its mechanics adjusted as soon as possible. I wonder how efficient short breaks could be when applied to the kind of agile process followed in traditional game companies. Moreover, I feel like publishers, willing to control costs, may require more expensive projects to follow a kind of spiral life-cycle. Could a "spiral-break" be interesting/useful in game development agile processes?]

The iPhone IDE is an easy-to-use tool which lets the developer see what his/her app looks like quickly. The IDE contains many API and bundles, and it is really hard not to use it to develop an iPhone app. The reason is the Apple designers do not want their nicely designed product to be spoiled by poorly designed third-party apps, and Apple also wants to make money through the appstore. So they force the app developer to use their API to ensure third-party apps stay relatively user-friendly. At the same time, this API forcing also means the iPhone may contain functionalities that are not visible to third-party app developers. [Someone added "yeah it's kinda the same with Xbox Live Arcade"] [Giving a limited API to third-party developers sounds like developing add-ons for MMOG. Giving enough while not giving too much can get really tricky. The less you provide, the duller the UGC, but the more you provide, the easier for hacking or exploiting.]

26 February 2010

Mapping Marketers: Godin versus Goblin - 3/3

This post is the last of a series of three in which I am trying to map WoW marketer strategies to RL ones based on two marketer blogs. The first part deals with the methodology, I put the data in the second part and this last part contains the discussion, limitations and conclusion.


Most of the time, the two marketers have strongly different strategies. But it happens that they agree on particular domains such as niche markets or lay offs. Their opinions also often differ about general topics such as respect or misunderstanding.

Image and communication

Unlike Godin the RL marketer, Gevlon the VW marketer does not rely on his image to sell his products. This is particularly obvious when looking at the "Celebrity", "Offering Gifts" or "Donations" quotes, and when observing how they have decided to manage their increasing number of blog followers. At a certain point, managing their community has started to consume them a lot of (their precious) time. On the one hand, Seth Godin, careful with his image, disabled the comments on his blog so that he does not have to moderate or answer them. On the other hand, Gevlon stated he would stay quite involved in the moderation of his blog comments (I delete troll comments) and skim through his followers' mails (I'll have a very effective and anti-social mail policy [...] I know that I'll lose some readers because of that. But my own time is more important than reader count (especially when readers are in pretty large supply).). While Seth Godin keeps thanking his readers, Gevlon admitted that Most of my readers are not idiots and lot of them don't like me at all, they come here to bitterly argue and troll.

Moreover, while Godin promotes respect, tolerance and sharing knowledge, Gevlon pretends that business tricks are kept secret and he does not care about treating someone an idiot (see the "Sharing strategies" and "Respect" quotes). But actually, Gevlon shares if not all at least some of his strategies with his readers. So I think that both Gevlon and Godin have the same goal (keeping the blog followers), but they achieve it through different communication strategies (inspirational, pleasant and agreeable versus selfish, meritocrat and cynical).

Anonymous strategies

Back to marketer strategies, a successful WoW marketer does not own a loyal customer base. When they need a particular item, Auction House buyers take the cheapest and do not really care for the vendor's name. This particularity echoes the unique rules in WoW economy mentioned by Gevlon: WoW has no second-hand economy mostly because of soulbound items, and no cartels are dictating prices because avatars' needs are not matter of actual life and death. Consequently, I could only find basic "anonymous" economic strategies shared between the two marketers.

First, niches are considered as successful economic strategies for both RL and VW marketers. Niches are small by definition, but small is larger than tiny, and potentially pays more. Both marketers agree that even though they pay less than mainstream marketing, niches are free from competition and easier markets because the customer base relies on the (most of the time) single vendor's products.

Second, choosing to sell in markets where the supply does not meet the demand is another strategy shared between the two. Gevlon explains it very simply at the end of a post. Let us say one vendor has a monopoly and sells overpriced items. The possible reasons for monopolies detailed by the two marketers are very similar. The main difference between RL and VW concerning monopolies is that in VW, monopolists can be pushed out of market. In WoW, a smart marketer simply enters a market in flooding it with lower-than-monopolist's but still high-priced items. This flood forces the former monopolist to buy all his/her concurrent's items to keep the monopoly. This means, the newcomer is selling to the former monopolist, hereby making profit! Seth Godin explains that for "nice" RL items or services (eg luxury hotels), customers are ready to pay the intrinsic "extra" for the "nice", but vendors can still make huge benefits. This does not seem to apply in WoW: any marketer can jump in the gap between the median/normal price and the current higher price and make profit, ruining other marketers profits. This strategy and undercutting make it usually rare for marketers to gain on mainstream "nice" virtual goods (eg glyphs).

Third, both marketers recognize that the customer is king. It is useless to try to sell unappropriate products to your customers. It is even more difficult to sell to people who do not want to buy your products, more particularly in VW where drinking water is not a matter of life and death...


This study examined only two marketers. Even though each of them was supposed to be a somewhat representative sample of his respective marketer population, the samples' very small size raise obvious external validity issues. However, given the short time allocated to this study, I could only do with these small samples. I recognize that some WoW marketers disagreed with some of Gevlon's strategies, and Gevlon adressed some of them. While Gevlon does not hide his fight against "socials", Markco, a rival WoW marketer of Gevlon, claims his social side loud and clear: Don't Be Anti-Social says the left-wing panel of his blog. But at the same time, Markco wrote a book about how to make gold in WoW, and he certainly wants people to buy it. Yet another marketing blog used to effectively get customers ...

Still about external validity threats, I do not think this study relied on "perishable" materials (ie quotes that are not valid anymore). A few quotes from Seth Godin date from several years ago (2005) but I do not think that RL marketers change their opinion so quickly about efficient marketing strategies. As for VW marketer strategies, it is very possible that they change very often: one can use patches to make profit (buying in mass when cheap and selling after a patch when it becomes more interesting) and above all, one has to permanently come up with new strategies (because A single guy being aware of the trick can ruin it for you). However, all Gevlon's quotes but one are dated 2009 or 2010, so I think the collected quotes are still relevant today.

On his blog, Seth Godin has been talking about marketing for years, but he has also been effectively marketing (if not his company's products, at least his image). Gevlon has rejected advertising on his blog several times because he presumably simply wants to spread the goblinish widsom: Spreading goblinish ideas is a very selfish move: I convince people not to waste gold and time to M&S in the game. [...] "I want my hard-earned money to be mine. I don't want to support complete strangers just because they are poor." If enough people will say that, the world will be a much better place. As seen in the mapping framework, the motivations of the observed samples matter a lot. Indeed, keeping in mind throughout this study that the two marketers had somewhat different motivations helped me be particularly cautious when picking quotes, especially when dealing with the image and communication strategies.

The line was sometimes blurred between marketer strategies (the study interest), effectively marketing (eg "get my new book!") and blog followers management (eg "morons of the week"). This is a relatively small threat to reliability as I have been following these two blogs for over 6 months, and I have learned to detect when each of them looks for what. For instance, I realized that 2002 articles from Godin contain more links to/comments about external sources than nowadays's articles, and Gevlon's September 2008 articles had a less cynical tone and nearly each of them contained WoW everyday life screenshots. Even some of Gevlon's rants about bad groups were softer (well OK, World of Retardcraft was a particularly harsh post...). I guess people tend to speak more about themselves when they multiply by 100 their number of readers.

One can argue that me picking up myself particular post quotes to make my point introduces a severe bias. I think it was not: if we take a blog as a long and recurrent interview about various topics, quoting particular article lines was no different from selecting excerpts from traditional interviews. At the first glance, I found analyzing blog articles was a methodology that gave even more freedom to the analyzed individuals than unstructured interviews. Indeed, these bloggers have been writing spontaneously about what they want. I was definitely not obtrusive and there was no possible Hawthorne effect. However, there was no control of the data materials.

Finally, I have only considered the anonymous and somewhat basic Auction House trade chanel as it was the only one mentioned by Gevlon. I did not look at other possible trade chanels (friends, guild ...). I might be wrong, but I do not think that VW marketers can massively use other chanels than the one specifically designed for trading by the game designers, ie the Auction House for WoW. I agree that for Second Life, where people sell goods they created themselves to each other, one should not only take into account the B2C trade chanels, but also the C2C ones.


I have tried to keep in mind the mapping principle framework suggested by Williams throughout the study. Although the methodology of this short comparison of RL and WoW marketer strategies could largely be improved, I have found interesting mapping and non-mapping results in the direcionality VW to RL. Cutomer relationships do not exist in WoW because the current trade system was designed so that consumers can buy the cheapest item from any one at any time, independently of their previous purchase. However, some WoW strategies mentioned by Gevlon such as niches marketing seem to map to the RL strategies mentioned by Godin.

I do not pretend having done any top-research-quality work with this short study. Although I have tried not to spend too much time on this post, I have also tried to be as critical as possible, particularly concerning the methodology. Collecting quotes from blog posts was much more difficult than collecting data from interviews. Google Search mastery and Google Reader sometimes helped finding relevant posts, but this study took very VERY much time and did not bring that many satisfying results.

In the end, I think the mapping framework helped keeping in mind particular issues (eg motivations), but I do not think it should be taken as an article template to follow blindly.

Edit: Tobold, a WoW player, found in January 2010 that current posts from Gevlon contradict the ones Gevlon posted a year ago.

25 February 2010

Mapping Marketers: Godin versus Goblin - 2/3

This post is the second of a series of three in which I am trying to map WoW marketer strategies to RL ones based on two marketer blogs. The first part deals with the methodology, I put the data in this post, and the last part contains the discussion, limitations and conclusion.

I have found for each topic one quote from each of the observed marketers. These topics can be considered as my dependent variables, my independent variable being RL versus VW. I have divided topics into two broader areas: "Image and Communication" and "Anonymous strategies". I will refer to these areas later in the discussion section.

Image and communication

Topic Godin says Goblin says
Offering Gifts The key is that the gift must be freely and gladly accepted. [...] Plus, giving a gift feels good. in The hidden power of a gift In best case, giving gifts is just as good for the group as not giving. In the average case it produces some waste. In worst case: wastes all value. in Presents!
Donations I want to send you a copy of Linchpin (at my expense) three weeks before anyone else can buy one. [...] The first 3,000 people who make a donation to the Acumen Fund (at least $30) get one in Get a review copy of my new book all of the guys giving him [Kungen, a famous WoW guild leader,] gold are not premiere raiders wanted to get some tips [...] They were morons. in Celebrity
Celebrity Most marketers are opening acts. [...] Some marketers are rock stars. [...] I just went to see Keller Williams in concert. Without a doubt, he's a genius and a rock star. [...] If he was selling something, I'd buy it. in Opening acts and rockstars The celebrity followers are a masterpieces of stupidity. What does a goblin do if he sees a stupid? Takes his money! [...] The celebrity industry is a great indicator of human stupidity. in Celebrity
Sharing strategies Share your expertise generously so people recognize it and depend on you. from How to get traffic for your blog no one will teach you the recent business tricks, partly because you would use it against them, and also because they are usually immoral from Surgeons and goblins
Respect it doesn't matter who's "right". What matters is that giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating them with respect is not only more fun, it works better too. from You can always be mean later (respect works) I have no problem telling someone that "you are a useless dead weight and I want you out of my instance, idiot" from Women and hearts
Customer service Call your customers. Or write to them. [...] You'll end up doing a lot for your customers. Which is a wonderful privilege. Even for those that don't reciprocate. in Easiest cheap way to dramatically increase sales Standard M&S letter with the standard answer by Nicciter of Smolderthorn-US. Someone could make an addon to answer this automatically from Morons of the week
Misunderstanding It's almost impossible to communicate something clearly and succinctly to everyone, all the time. So misunderstandings occur. [...] If we're engaged with a stranger or someone we don't trust, we assume the worst. The challenge, then, is to earn the benefit of the doubt. in Benefit of the doubt he [another WoW marketer] offered a shady virus-ad [about WoW gold techniques], and when I declined that, he claimed that he's just been "misunderstood" [...] While this trick seems lame, I guarantee that it's not. Social people find it very hard to look someone's eyes and say: "you are lying!". They usually accept that "misunderstanding" happened. in No means no

Anonymous strategies

Topic Godin says Goblin says
Choosing a niche The reason you can make money in the niche pocket is that it costs far less to compete here. First, because there's less competition and the competition is less fierce, and second because it's cheaper and easier to reach your target market because they're choosing to pay attention. from The long tail and the dip The best things about niche markets is that no one cares for them. You mostly run without any competition. So you can list lot of items at once without fear for undercutting. [...] If you find a niche, go for it. It's all yours. from Niche markets
Niche size It's entirely possible that you will choose a niche that's too small. It's much more likely you'll shoot for something too big and become overwhelmed. When in doubt, overwhelm a small niche. from Make the world smaller If you need a better item, you may find a niche producer who sells a high-end product. Unfortunately they are extremely expensive, exactly because they have to make profit from a smaller customer base. from Premium products for valued customers
Monopolies There are three things that led to the monopolies we now enjoy:
1. The FCC limited the number of TV and radio stations in every market [...]
2. Copyright ensures that we can charge a lot [...]
3. The limited number of physical distribution outlets [...] guarantees that distributors with clout get more shelf space.
from Monopolies seven years later
There are some cases when the monopoly works.
* [...] If you are the only one on the server who have the recipe [...]
* The market is about to shift, usually because of a patch. This case the "monopolist price" is actually the "new market price". [...]
* Market of the fools: you can be a monopolist if your buyers are plain idiots.
from Monopoly
Unanswered demand if all I want, the only extra, is for someone to be nice to me when I visit your business, how much extra does that cost? [...] I think there's a huge gap between what people are willing to pay for nice (a lot) and what it would cost businesses to deliver it (almost nothing). Smells like an opportunity. from How much extra for nice? most of my profit comes from "top-scanning": seeking items that are mostly overpriced. If the auctions of item X are listed between 150% and 999%, then it's an item with increased demand. I find a way to supply to this increased demand. I find a way to craft the item in need and sell it in this boosting market. from Invisible Hand
Forcing consumers People don't adapt to what you make, they adopt it. They can't be forced to adapt, so they won't. from Five common cliches (done wrong) We must keep in mind that we are not needed. So we can't dictate prices. Our items may be wanted by players, but they can live without it. from Unique rules in WoW economy

You can read the discussion, limitations and conclusion here.

24 February 2010

Mapping Marketers: Godin versus Goblin - 1/3

This post is the first of a series of three in which I am trying to map WoW marketer strategies to RL ones based on two marketer blogs. This first part deals with the methodology, the second part contains the data, and the last part contains the discussion, limitations and conclusion.


Following my last post about the Mapping principle, I tried to use, throughout this entire post (and the next one), the framework suggested by Williams to map marketers' behaviors. A few obvious questions came to my mind very quickly. Could a successful RL marketer be also successful in VW? What about the opposite? If there is no direct mapping, are there similarities between the two? These questions are too wide to be magically answered in one blog article. In fact, trying to answer these big broad questions require a minimum of expert RL economists, VW social scientists, VW economists and a few years of journal publications. I do not pretend being able to play all these roles, particularly for a single blog post. So I decided to simply look at what RL and VW marketers say about their business. No better place than blogs!

Crawling all possible blogs from RL and VW marketers to collect data would have taken really much time. Also, I planed to write a post and not a whole 10-page research paper, so I have looked for one representative marketer of each kind. I have chosen to follow Seth Godin's blog for the RL marketer, and Greedy Goblin for the VW marketer. I have been following both of these blogs for at least six months. Both are intense bloggers - they post every day - which means they provide a lot of data to analyze.

To be more explicit about the directionality of this study, I tried to detect if VW marketer strategies map RL ones. That is to say, if the real impacts the virtual (direction is offline to online). To my mind, it is very unlikely that VW economic strategies have been mapped to RL strategies. However, there might be a very interesting bi-directional connection between some RL and VW consumer behaviors (eg impulse purchase or conspicuous consumption), but this might be the topic of another post!

In VW, and more particularly in WoW, a marketer (also called gold maker in WoW) has to react to other marketers' actions and price fluctuations at the Auction House (a server-wide Wall Street). Consequently, even though he/she has to care for other players, a VW marketer is the only one who chooses which strategy to follow. Hence I consider VW marketers can be treated as individual entities. As for the RL side, I have only taken into account the RL marketer's opinion as an individual, not as a company spokesperson or a member of a group of RL marketers. However, I think it could be very interesting to compare RL marketer teams to VW cartels.

I should also explain how I compared topics between the two marketers. From their blogs, I have randomly read articles of the past 6 months - this was done easily in Google Reader. When I found a relevant article on one of them, I searched the other blog for an article about the same topic. I also thought about traditional economic principles such as monopoly or niche markets.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin is a New-York marketer. He is considered as a celebrity/guru and as of February 22nd, 2010, his website is the 127th most influential according to Technocrati and has the first ranking of the top English-language marketing blogs in the world (as of February 22nd, 2010, and out of 1092). Roughly 15k people visit his website every day. Many other famous marketers, if they do not agree with Seth Godin, at least they talk about him and his marketing strategies. After the publication in January 2010 of his last book, Linchpin, Godin talked with dozens of marketers and economists. Godin has been regularly mentioning other marketers in his posts. Hence, even though I am certainly not an expert marketer, I found Seth Godin's blog to be quite representative of RL marketers.

In a January 2010 article entitled The 2.0 media tour, he wrote:

You know by now that I haven't gone to any traditional media for the launch of my new book - no pitches to newspapers, magazines, or television. Instead, I went directly to my readers and the many intelligent voices online. I sent review copies by request to my readers - who were generous and creative in their reviews, and now we'll hear from the bloggers and other online denizens.
-- Seth Godin, January 2010

Seth Godin has not only been using his blog to talk about marketing, but also as an effectively marketing place. His target population is his readers. This seems like the first reliability issue. Even though in Death of the personal blog? (2008), he explains that a blog's point is to start a conversation that spreads, to share ideas and to chronicle your thinking, he has disabled the comments on his blog since 2006, so they will not be taken into account in this study. Intriguingly, even though comments are impossible on his blog, a large number of people keep following it anyway.

Gevlon the Greedy Goblin

Gevlon is the pseudonym of a Hungarian WoW player born in 1977 - he uses freemail.hu and mentioned Hungary a few times. His blog about making gold and soloing instances in WoW, and bashing altruists and other idiots, has reached more than 4k readers in February 2010. In the last 7 months, he has doubled his number of readers. Interestingly, this particularly misanthropic character stands as one of the most recognized WoW marketers: many other WoW marketers or players keep mentioning him. His prowess as a skilled player were even mentioned at wow.com. Being well-connected in the WoW marketing blogosphere, Gevlon's blog list suggests he follows many other WoW player/VW marketer blogs. I guess if Gevlon was a charlatan, he would not be so followed and cited in the WoW blogosphere.

Like Seth Godin's, Gevlon's articles mix personal opinions and business strategies: making gold, soloing instances and bashing altruists and other idiots is the motto written on his blog banner as of February 2010. As his blog has been growing older, Gevlon has been talking more and more about RL economic issues such as National Debt Crisis or Underwater loans, or about more trivial issues such as how stupid he found a recent comment on his blog. Same threat to validity as Godin's articles.

But unlike Godin, Gevlon's motivation is to share his ideas to have them improved by his readers' comments. That is maybe why he sometimes answer comments.


You can read the data here.

21 February 2010

[Literature] The mapping principle and a research framework for virtual worlds

This paper was written by Dmitri Williams in 2008 (no date is written in the white paper, but this post at Terra Nova is dated from November 2008. Quotes and [comments].

Academic research has taken two distinct approaches to virtual worlds. [Academic research in sociology only! CS/SWeng, humanities, law or psychology academics follow other approaches] The first is understanding the virtual worlds populations and behaviors, and confronting them with traditional computer-mediated communiation. Examples are determining who play and why, how people perceive each other, how they collaborate, etc. The second consists of using situations that happen in VW to understand RL behaviors. For instance, virtual economies or the spreadth of a virtual epidemy are of particular interest. In this second approach, researchers can use VW as a petri-dish to conduct controlled experiments. Mapping is the extent to which human behaviors occur in virtual spaces in the same way they occur in real spaces. But no one knows whether these behaviors map or not. One of the reasons to be suspicious about mapping is that game risks and rewards (eg pain and death) really often do not map to reality.

Validity and generalizability are two key necessary conditions to establish mapping. Validity is the extent ot which an instrument measures what it is intended to measure, the instrument being here VW. Face validity is whether the measure appears to measure the phenomenon in question For instance, a violent MMO [such as 2Moons which is presumably violent] is better than Club Penguin to study violence in video games. Concurrent validity is whether the current measures are coherent with other measures of the same phenomenon. In the virtual case, this presents a new challenge: the virtual wold is often self-contained and therefore using a measure of the VW GDP to detect inflation might not apply very well. [Whether the GDP of Everquest can be compared to Russia's is a different question...] Predictive validity tests whether a measure relates to other measures. Its meaning is close to external validity: a result found within a virtual world that does not exist outside of it is nonsense. For instance, virtual inflation may not have the same consequence for players than RL inflation to consumers, and players' behaviors can not be mapped to consumers'. The key to external validity would be whether the people involved perceived the risks and costs to be as powerful as those experienced offline.. The biggest challenge for generalizability is Contextual and social architecture factors (see table below). [Nate Combs wrote in a terranova article, Virus!, that player behaviors in VW can be totally different (sometimes even the opposite of what is expected IRL) than their RL behaviors: when can you trust the players in a game? After all, to some of those spreading the virus the plague turned out to be much-about-fun and without real consequence those on the receiving end could shrug if off]

The framework, resting within the tradition of computer mediated communication (CMC) research, aims at answering the mapping issues. The framework relies on the four tables below.

Group size
Individual Dyads Small groups Large groups Communities Societies

Traditional controls and independent variables
Psychological profile Motivations Demographics Communications medium Network-level variables

Contextual and social architecture factors
World size Persistence Competitive vs. Collaborative Role play Sandbox vs. linear Representation Interaction affordances Costs of a behavior

Online to offline Offline to online Endogenous

A case study for the framework is provided as an example: The Proteus Effect series of studies conducted by Yee et al. Shortly, the studies report that some RL behaviors such as social distance, eye contact or the fact that the respect you give to your interlocutor is linked to his/her height are imported inside VW. Because the mapping of the results is not automatically applicable to any population in any context, this study is considered as an important baseline, or starting point.

  • The studies focused on dyads, but it is not sure that the results can apply to larger groups. Also, the studies involved both human- and computer-based agents, which is different than a total human-to-human environment.
  • As for controls and independent variables, the tests were not focused on the profiles of the users because the intent of the experiments was to establish the presence of the phenomenon, not to explore the nuances right away. Only gender was examined, but the authors could have looked at personality-based differences, whether the use of voice would change the outcomes or the position of avatars within some social hierarchy.
  • The Proteus studies were conducted between human-looking avatars. The results might have been different between penguins avatars in Club Penguin, between Orcs and Taurens [, between two gunmen in a MMOFPS such as Global Agenda, or even between two spaceships in EVE Online!]. The presence of game-based tasks (hunting a dragon or chating in a virtual bar) performed during the study may influence the results as well.
  • The directionality was only real to virtual.

Other considerations
Studies of different scale rely on different methods and suffer typical methodological issues.

  Large-scale studies Small-scale studies
Rely on estimates, surveys or sampling controlled experiment, participant observation or ethnography
Typically lack internal validity - the possibility to determine relationships external validity - the possibility to generalize results

In many MMOG, players choose a realm to play in - most of the time, there are a few thousands of players per realm. Williams remarked that there may be no totally independent draws from server to server [even if these servers are both PvP or PvE or PvPvE or ...].
Non-obstrusive logging methods [like the ones used by Ducheneaut] avoid any Hawthorne effects (subjects being aware of the researcher). However, the researcher has little chance to have an opportunity of control because VW are controlled by companies. As written in page 8, researchers can address validity issues if they can make the virtual world as similar to the real one as possible with regards to the phenomenon in question. [But are developers going to accept that? No, the game should be fun, not realistic!]
Even if the target populations happen to be virtual, researchers should keep the same level of ethics in their VW studies as in RL studies.
Finally, it is the norm that results from new methodologies will be ignored or attacked, especially if these results challenge some existing theory. Researchers have the responsibility to tackle flaws in methodology (with this framework, for instance) and be conservative with their results, otherwise journalists or novice researchers may make large and irresponsible claims to a public which may not know better.

20 February 2010

[Literature] Cyberpunk views of virtual worlds - Neuromancer and Snow Crash

I have read Neuromancer and Snow Crash in French, so I am not giving quotes from these books. However, I am giving quotes from Count Zero, the second book from the same trilogy as Neuromancer. As for Snow Crash, the quotes come from digitalspace.com (I did not check them, but I can remember having read many of them in French).

William Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1984. Neuromancer is the first book of the Sprawl trilogy, the last book of this series was published in 1988. Gibson's official website mentions With Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace. The cyberspace (also called "matrix" in the books) in the Sprawl trilogy is not accessible to everyone: only cowboys jacking-in with electrodes on their skull are directly linked so intensely that sometimes the feedback ate into his [a protagonist's] nervous system (Count Zero, p21-22). The visions inside the cyberspace are complex geometric forms inside a three-dimensional space, with planes, rectangles, lines and layers of ice protecting multinational companies' systems from cowboy - hackers ride a deck to enter the cyberspace (Count Zero, p104-105).

Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash in 1992. In this novel, nearly everyone can log into the virtual world, called metaverse: dating teenagers, business men and hackers. he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse. He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer. (Snowcrash, p35). The connection with the virtual world is less intrusive for the users because they only need to wear glasses to see what happens in it. What the virtual world contains is more a Second Life-like reproduction of a city with bars and houses than a geometrical representation of big companies' software systems. Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it. (Snow Crash, p24). Moreover, there is room for UGC: Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality (Snow Crash, p24-25).


The earliest cyberpunk vision of cyberspace is dated from 1980's - the term cyberspace was first coined by Gibson. Only few people access the cyberspace to hack systems. It seems that in the 1990's, the metaverse has become a more public place following the same rules as reality (eg gravity). I have not yet read cyberpunk novels dealing with virtual worlds and published in the 2000's. However, movies like eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999-2003), Avalon (2001) [see my post about some of the aspects these three movies share] or Paprika (2006) seem to have accepted that virtual worlds are accessible and comparable to the real world. Moreover, these movies have raised issues to the public: becoming locked/imprisoned inside virtual worlds, being able to make the distinction between real and virtual, or using the technology to achieve personal goals, whether morally good (helping clients solve their psychological problems) or bad (governing the world!).

18 February 2010

[Conf] Creative Writing in Video Games

Here are the notes I took at the last OC IGDA chapter. The title of this panel discussion was "Creative writing in video games". First, Steven-Elliot Altman from Acclaim introduced himself. Then the panel discussion started. In the panel were Chris Avellone, John Gonzalez, Anne Toole, Leonard Boyarsky, Dan Arey, Cameron Dayton and Steven-Elliot Altman. My comments stay in [brackets].

9 Dragons anecdotes by Altman

In 9 Dragons, the first authentic martial arts massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Altman created and animated The Hermit, a character in charge of many events in the game. Altman explained that The Hermit is like a rock star, but in real life I'm Steven! You have to reconnect to reality sometimes. Altman mentioned that 9 Dragons is F2P and that 6% of the players use the item mall (a RMT system - virtual items can be purchased for real money). Altman told the audience that The Hermit is the most powerful character in the game and can beat any others. [Interesting idea in a PvP game?] Altman decided to organize an event that would lead a player able to control a Dark Hermit, the ultimate killing Mob of The Land. Wielding a Sabre, he has all the power of The Hermit but will be bent on destruction. [On each of the 3 servers worldwide, the winner of a month-long rush-for-XP event in September won the Dark Hermit in January.] Following this rise of an extremely powerful player, other players feared to die and loose XP for nothing. So Acclaim decided to enable the Dark Hermit only between 4pm and 7pm (for instance) and increase the XP rate by 5 times during this period of the day. [Risky XP daily event.]

Random notes

[These notes are sometimes exact quotes from the panelists, sometimes a summary of what they actually said. I only kept the parts I found the most interesting.]

  • You have to be creative on demand.
  • Everyone, players or in the industry, share a common knowledge/common references about games.
  • Nearly all the panelists read comics and novel books.
  • But if you read the same thing and regurgitate the same thing all the time ... That's why you have so many Space Marines at the moment.
  • Be able to sit and daydream, ignite ideas.
  • You need to practice daydreaming.
  • Geek culture is a shorthand in discussions.
  • Game design and game writing were often put together in the discussion, people did not really make any difference between the two.
  • In a game, everything tells a story. Music, textures, level design and even game mechanics are telling a story.
  • Games are mimicking film conventions.
  • Kratos fights against himself to save his wife and daughter in the last level of God of War. So this game is actually not totally for 9-year-old skater kids who only want to bash and slash. [But we had a discussion about that after the panel. In Ico as well, the player protects a weak person that the hero cherishes. But in Ico, it is all the time, this entire innovative game is "poetic"/"artful". I argued that in God of War, the wife and daughter scene where Kratos has to take them in his arms to heal them was only a pretext for "kids" to slash, because in the end, which game sold more copies? 3.21M for God of War and apparently between 650K (original sources are dead ...) or 900K]. Die Hard was also mentioned as a true love story [but it is yet another pretext for action to happen.]
  • Writers have first to spend 10,000 hours before reaching a decent level and be recognized for their good work. [I hope this is a big exageration.]
  • I use Excel cells for 3x5 cards. I write molecule stories in them and I can move them where I want. [this reminds me of post-its used in affinity diagrams in HCI.]
  • [The panel consisted of 6 men and 1 woman but in college classes, I think there are usually more girls than boys in writing classes. So why are there more males than females writers in the game industry? I was told by a woman at this conference that the writing area has more girls in proportion than other areas of the game industry. But there are not many because group meetings look like fraternity meetings when you collaborate with a male development team. Hence, when you are a woman, you do not always grasp all the references, but you have to compensate with your own ideas.]
  • Merchants NPC should not have too much story/background because the player wants to talk to them quickly. [generally true, but I think including merchants in stories, or unlocking them through the story could be interesting]
  • If the player does not read the text, he/she looks at NPC faces
  • ["Video games as art forms" is a cliché I can not hear anymore. SOME video games are TRULY art, and not presumably and vague "art forms".]
  • Take a step back, think what a player expects at that moment
  • If there is one NPC that is permanently (verbally or any other way) agressive to the player, the player should always have the last word. [wrong in Pokémon Red/Blue with the repeated Rival encounters: even though he always loses the fight, he says he was not really trained, that is the reason why the player has beaten him, and the player is just weak, and bye looser]
  • [no game remembers the whole dialog tree to establish a psychological trend of the player and adapt the game possibilities to him/her. Crazy idea to use logging to anticipate people's behaviors ...]
  • You do not want people to hate a NPC because he speaks too much [I find it depends on the situation. I found Jaheira in Baldur's Gate II spoke really a lot, especially during her romance with the player's avatar. At first, reading the dialog is bearable. But being interrupted in a crucial room of a dungeon, about a random discussion topic such as the divine origins of the player's avatar or the good old time with Elminster, is the best way to make the player hate the character AI. But this same situation in a tavern would be fine. The Team Rocket always speaks too much, and I find that gives them a small humorous role when they lose the fight.]
  • You do not want the player to follow a weird track, you have to keep the control of the story [instead, why not having meta-stories that do not define the perimeter, but rather the types of possible interactions, stories being generated on top of the meta-story rules?]
  • Watching a powerful NPC fighting at your side is much more impressive than any dialog
  • Even evil choices should be satisfying for the players [Black and White!]
  • The illusion of choice: do not let the player think "what does the developer want me to do now?"
  • In 9 Dragons, some people did not want to join any clan. We did not expect that. So we started developing content for them, because after all, they pay for that!

13 February 2010

[Conf] Regulating Today for Tomorrow's New Technologies

Last Wednesday (ie on February 10th 2010), Han Somsen talked about "Regulating Today for Tomorrow's New Technologies: The Challenge of Connecting Regulation to Technological Realities" at the UCI School of Law. Somsen is a Dutch researcher at the TILT of Tilburg University and an expert in the areas of biotechnology and environment regulation. In his talk, he managed not to focus too much on bioechnologies but more on the regulation issues of new technologies in a broad sense. From a MMOG perspective, this (great) talk brought a lot of interesting points.
Do MMOG worlds need to be regulated? Unlike traditional single-player games, MMOG gather thousands of players in the same virtual places. Hence, in order to prevent their virtual worlds to collapse in chaos, I think MMOG need regulations. My comments are [in square brackets].

Regulators have three ways to regulate A (A = anything that can be regulated) [for MMOG: bots, trade, leading a guild, ...] [regulators can be Game Masters: hunting bots, game devs: implementing an anti-bot system, game designers: designing the game actions so that a bot can not do them, etc.]

What the regulators can sayWhat enforces the regulation[Examples in MMOG]
A is morally badsociety[bot, cheat, exploit, hack, corpse camping]
A is not in your interest
or A is useless/stupid
market and law[weird character builds, tradeskills, AH]
A is impossiblecode, encryption [or conceptual design][teleportation at will anywhere in the world, changing the public transportation destinations, destroying buildings, infinite inventory]

How can regulatees accept regulation? New governance can be a solution if adaptive mechanisms can be found to keep the machine running by itself and not crash. [As seen in the diagram, MMOG lack clearly-defined third-party actors. Are they game journalists? Add-on/Mod communities? Hackers??] [However: MMOG are games, and games can be artful. Art does not need third-party actors and new governance models at all, it is delivered to the end-user as it is. But MMOG gather so many people that they need a regulation of some sort.]

Conditions sine quibus none:

  • all parties have to agree on the goals [we do not want cheaters/bots]
  • Name and shame policies are unlikely to word, and sometimes regulatees do not have a reputation to loose [you never see "Dude987 was a bot!" in the news of MMOG websites for this reason, and also because there are too many bots banned at a time]
  • communities must be mature

Sources of regulatory ineffectiveness
Regulators can be unclear about their goals [why do you enable a certain add-on/macro API function if you know it might be used to automatize actions that should not be automatically done?]. Regulators have to monitor efficiently [is everything logged?]. If the system fails, regulators must have backup/repair procedures [can you use a load-balancer strategy to host the map servers?].
Regulatees can try to resist the regulation a priori or a posteriori, or they can or comply only in the spirit of avoidance (this quote is taken from the paper from Brownsword and Somsen entitled Law, Innovation and Technology: Before We Fast Forward — A Forum for Debate).
And obviously, external factors (ie neither regulators nor regulatees) can threaten the regulatory system.

Questions raised: Does the introduced framework connect all parties? How do we keep parties connected? If there is a disconnection, should we reconnect?
Hints: The more vague your words are in the law, the more breathing space justice has in court judgements. But this solution relies on courts and legal precedents, not on law. More formal laws need to be updated more often and consume much more time. We have to think about what happens if we change our laws or policies, and what happens if we do not change them. Cooperation, education and persuasion are more effective than coercion. The more you educate people, the more cirtical they become [WoW Threat Meter used to be an empirical add-on and became provided within the game by Blizzard with the 3.0 update]. Better say "I do not know" than nothing [hmm... I do not know if this one always prevails in MMOG].

Sometimes it is hard to subscribe both to global values (human rights, WTO) and local values (EU, cultural differences) [global = MMOG should be fun, local = Hardcore versus Casual, Asian may prefer XP grinding and hardcore PvP versus Western players prefer PvE? Asian and Western do not see virtual property the same way].

Edited on February 22nd 2010 to add regulatees sources of effectiveness

12 February 2010

Reactions to Moral Kombat - politicians, industry and academia

This post follows this first post and this second post. It is a bit long, so here is my
tl;dr: The Good (Henry), The Bad (attorney) and the Queen (industry) (and shake your head)

Movie premiere and Thompson-Lanning debate at VGXPO

The premiere of the movie happened at the Video Game Expo (VGXPO) in Philadelphia on November 3rd, 2007 (see page 12 of the press clippings). A panel was held shortly after the movie at VGXPO the same day: Jack Thompson was sitting to the left of moderator N’Gai Croal, with Lorne Lanning on the right (according to Gamelife). Maybe mentioning a little bit about Thompson and Lannings could be useful. Thompson is an attorney anti-violence in video games. He is supposed to be the "bad" guy in the story. His bodyguard first tells the audience that informed the crowd, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be putting up with any bullshit during this debate. Lannings is a game industry guy, so at VGXPO he was supposed to be the "good" guy. That is why some journalists suggested before the debate: we are about to witness a nightmare.

This event was largely covered by game journalists. In random order of popularity, Wired/Gamelife, thebbps.com, 1up.com and Joystick had journalists at the debate to take notes (they were first in the media line and then sitting together at the front where they chatted amiably). I think these 3 articles combined give a quite neutral and detailed report of the debate. qj.net refers to the article as a via Joystick so I guess no journalist from there was at the debate. Kotaku quotes some bits of page 12 of the press clippings, so I guess no one from Kotaku was there either. ripten.com fully quote Joystick for their coverage of the event. For the journalists who were there, they could only take notes as In the theater itself, no photography or filming is permitted, save the cameras already on tripods in front. [...] the panel's taping is planned as Moral Kombat's DVD bonus footage (source).

Gamepolitics.com collected some quotes from a post-debate interview of Lannings by gamesindustry.biz (second part of the interview). Gamepolitics.com also mentioned a motion filed to the Florida court by Thompson on November 5th, 2007. In this motion, Thompson who wanted to appear to the next Board of Governors' meeting put forward the fact that he went into the “lions’ den” in Pennsylvania. Thompson also wrote:

Because of the quality and coherence of my presentation, I was then asked by the GDC to reprise the Philadelphia debate, this time in February in San Francisco in a 5000 seat arena, as the keynote event.

There has been a big mess following this news: more than 500 comments such as:

  • Well well, THompson overinflated his self importance again
  • Allow me to offer you the first, "Heil Mein Furor," salute, JT. Heil Thompson!
  • What would be nice is if [Thompson] was able to debate without taking cheap shots at people and making gamers out to be worse than paedophiles.
  • I see the folly in debating Jack Thompson now. [...] So debating this man is not constructive; it just gives him a sense of position and authority to continue making the crazy claims once he's out of earshot of smart people.
  • Dear Manta: First of all, stop being a coward and use a real name. (comment from Thompson)

But finally, the GDC committee, surprised by this news, denied that the Thompson-Lannings debate would happen again at GDC, as is reported in gamepolitics.com: It is, perhaps, unfortunate, but given today's controversy it looks like any potential debate involving Thompson and GDC is a dead issue. Thompson answered to the GDC committee that Since this is how the video game industry treats its critics, no wonder it has a public relations problem with parents. I share the conclusion of gamepolitics.com: In the end, one has to wonder exactly what Thompson hoped to accomplish here. Had the deal been finalized, the GDC event could have been fascinating for attendees and beneficial to Thompson in an image sense. Very little, if anything, was to be gained by adding the prospect of a GDC appearance to the U.S. District Court record, which publicly exposed it to media scrutiny.

Thompson and the video game community

The selfish, childish video game industry accepts no harness. Their freedom is pure license. They are about to pay a wicked price, and I aim to make sure they pay it.
-- Jack Thompson, at cbsnews.com in February 2005
Federal regulation of your industry is coming because you folks simply can’t figure out why parents don’t trust you. Fine. When the regulation comes, and it will, don’t blame me.
-- Jack Thompson in a letter to the GDC Committee, November 2007, retrieved from gamepolitics.com

Thompson has been keeping a certain level of permanent buzz in the video game community (industry and players) since at least 2005. He is one of the principal opponents of the game industry lobby group. In this lobby group is the Entertainment Consumer Association (ECA). One of the websites of the ECA is gamepolitics.com, which contains more than 300 posts in its "Jack Thompson" category (which started in September 2006). As a comparison, the Obama category of gamepolitics.com only contains less than 120 articles (since January 2008).

While Thompson's warhorse only is violent video-games and not video games in general, many among the video game community have been considering him as the main video games opponent. Gamepolitics.com writes: To be sure, GamePolitics wasn't the only game site in Thompson's crosshairs. He filed a lawsuit against Kotaku in 2007. He threatened My Extra Life over a Jack Thompson Photoshop contest. He tried to get the Seattle Police to bust Penny Arcade, and when he found out PA isn't actually in Seattle (doh!), he called the FBI, instead. Interestingly, he has become the man who united gamers to the same cause. According to gamepolitics.com Thompson definitely helped to rally gamers together, even if, by and large, they rallied to oppose him. Indeed some gamers tried to launch grou protests, such as the United Gamers Against Jack Thompson (i started this band to see how many people agree. and Slogan: HUNT HIM DOWN!!!) or Gamers Unite to Stop Jack Thompson (United like this, we can stop him.). Meanwhile, other very famous politicians in the US and in other countries have taken strong stances against violence in video games. Hilary Clinton protested against the GTA:SA Hot-Coffee mode, Barack Obama about kids playing GTA IV and Hugo Chavez government outlaw the sale of video games (reaction of a player from Venezuela at boingboing). But none of them has been rallying gamers as much as Thompson did.

The reactions of industry leaders to Thompson's attacks have been very different. Doug Lowenstein had chosen to ignore Thompson. Lowenstein was followed in 2005 by David Walsh who asked Thompson to stop using his or the group's name to give people the impression that the NIMF supports his efforts. Thompson answered about Walsh's decision: A child psychologist who would give a heads up to Doug Lowenstein in such a matter without confronting me directly man-to-man is a person who has lost his way. Others like Hal Halpin have decided in December 2007 to reply to Thompson's pikes, finding that Lowenstein's strategy did not work: Turns out that the “ignore him and he’ll go away” strategy backfired... [Thompson]... is intelligent, articulate, passionate, and camera-ready. [...] It’s time to fight back!. In September 2008, Lowenstein sent a letter to Kotaku in which he asked for Kotaku not to give Thompson a platform he might not have had for as long as he did. Lowenstein wrote that Kotaku can help set the tone for mainstream media coverage and if you validate extremists you give license to the less informed to follow your lead, ie Kotaku should ignore Thompson for a while. Gamepolitics.com (publication of the ECA which founder is Hal Haltin, Spencer Haltin's brother) strongly disagreed with Doug Lowenstein's position: by refusing to respond, Doug dropped the ball. Thompson, finding no resistance from the top of the video game industry, was empowered to push harder.


I could not find a lot of reactions from the academia about Moral Kombat: the only articles I found are from terranova and Henry Jenkins.


Terra Nova actually mentions violence in video games a lot, but no coverage of Moral Kombat has been done. There was a shy attempt to mention Jack Thompson and game regulation policies in August 2005, and a joke about the ascendancy of Jack Thompson to Emperor in May 2006. Another note in December 2007 mentioning that Polemical rhetoric [...] taken too far, one diminishes one's credibility (Jack Thompson is a pro at this). The closest I could find to Moral Kombat was a report from Dan Hunter about the Canadian Red Cross asking video game developers to stop using their logo in games. In cause was the demonization of games and the whole "Jack Thompson and Hilary Clinton and Every Other Politician vs The Games Industry" Punch-and-Judy show, this quote being a link to a gamepolitics.com article. But this article was written in February 2006 ... So little about Thompson from terranova and nothing about Moral Kombat.


Henry Jenkins played himself in the movie so he surely has a reaction. Jenkins even reviewed the movie just after its premiere. The first article deals more with the content of the movie (ie violence in video games) but the second article praises the movie for its artistic innovations and creativity. The beggining of the first article is very straightforward: Spencer Halpin's Moral Kombat is perhaps the most important film ever made about video games and you should see it if you get a chance.

At the end of the first post, Jenkins wrote some quotes he found interesting from some participants. Put in a nutshell, some interviewees recognized there was violence in video games, others put forward that games are artistic, that parents should realize what games really are, and it was also mentioned that game designers are responsible for the content of the game. I already mentioned these points in this post.

Jenkins also explains that the media tend to polarize the debate into 2 clans while the contrast is more gray/grey. When I start to describe the film, most people want to know "which side" it takes. I see this as both a reflection of how polarized the debate often becomes and also how accustomed we have become in thinking about documentaries as a form of public advocacy. Moreover, the fact that longtime video game critic and trial lawyer Jack Thompson appeared to be a central focus poured kerosene on the flames. Having watched the trailer through a gamer and somewhat academic eye, David Sutherland commented that the movie smacks of sensationalized tactics often employed in arguments against video games. This could explain the hostile reactions of players to the trailer: death threats thrown to Spencer Haltin and people in the game community who wanted to censor [Spencer Haltin's] work because of what they perceived as its pro-censorship bias. But these reactions only followed the trailer put on Youtube, and Jenkins points out: don't judge this film by its preview because the preview presents such an unbalanced perspective on the issues. Finally, the researcher underlines that The absence of game designers in public discussions of game violence allows stereotypes about who they are and what they think to gain traction. One of the reasons why Jenkins paeticularly liked the movie is because game designers (such as Lannings or McGee) appeared in this movie and talked about their art. So Henry Jenkins is the "good" grey guy in the story.

Interestingly, Jenkins reply to a (supposed) comment from Thompson wanting to debate these issues on a college campus. Jenkins replied he could certainly see why a "bout" between the two of us would generate a great deal of buzz and hype around the issues -- a bit like a battle between a cheetah and a giant squid, say. This seems to indicate there have been (being?) frictions between Thompson and Jenkins.

11 February 2010

Reactions to Moral Kombat - Trailer and Players

This post follows my previous one introducing Moral Kombat.

Since the movie has been screened only a few times (once at VGXPO in Philadelphia, once at USC and once in few other movie festivals), the only material most people have had until now to appreciate Spencer Halpin's movie was its trailer.

I found the trailer, put on youtube in December 2006, was a mirror of the first 25 minutes of the movie: it focuses on the anti-violent video games side of the debate. Kotaku also found this difference between the overall movie and the trailer: The documentary seeks to provide unbiased views from both sides of the battle against violent video games, despite its own trailer which projects a definite anti-video game vibe. Even Henry Jenkins explained in November 2007, just before the movie premiere: I will admit to having had a crisis of faith when I first saw the trailer. It felt sensationalistic and one-sided. Jenkins also suggests: don't judge a book by its cover and don't judge this film by its preview That is why I understand it was badly received by the gamer community: 1.5/5 stars rating on youtube, more than 2400 comments for more than 240,000 views. Even Spencer Haltin admitted in November 2009 how a negative reaction (that) the trailer got on YouTube [...] from gamers who were concerned that the film would be biased. Most of the time, the Youtube comments came from players who wanted to write how much they disliked the trailer. Some examples (taken from the first page of the video comments as of February 2010):

  • god danm it!! old people are taking away our gamez!! (lol :D )
  • tl;dr- Sensationalist rubbish at it's very best.
  • yeah death to america
  • So when I play Borderlands I really am a Brick? What? Are you saying I'm dumb?

Some gamers even slightly misinterpreted the meaning of sentences pronounced in the movie. For instance, sk-gaming.net explained: Spencer Halpin's upcoming hullabaioo documentary film Moral Kombat takes on videogames violency and blames that videogames caused the 9/11 incident and lpcepxress.org reports According to a documentary titled, "Moral Kombat" by Spencer Halpin, violent video games caused Sept. 11. But the only mention of the 9/11 accident (at 1:20 of the trailer) is: they learned enough from a flight simulator to fly jets they had never touched before into the World Trade Center.

The comic above from pennyarcade was another reaction from players about the movie trailer (it was published in May 2007, far before the premiere of the movie in November 2007). As of 2009, this video of Q&A between Halpin, Lannings and game journalists shows that things seem to have calmed down a little.

10 February 2010

[Cinema] Moral Kombat

Moral Kombat is a documentary from Spencer Halpin published in 2007. Apparently, the movie could be free to watch for only 20 days (ie until the end of February) at babelgum.com, so hurry! The Video Info says

Moral Kombat takes a look into the controversial subject of violence in video games. Director Spencer Halpin shows the constant conflict between the game creators' first amendment right to make a violent game and the imminent threat that violence poses on the next generation. In addition, the film is full of the latest green screen and high-definition technology that allow watchers to actually envision the world of gaming. Filled with interviews from lead game designers, politicians, parents, and psychologists, this film provides a candid take on the influence games have on youth today.

Moral Kombat was the first movie made by Spencer Halpin. Still, it required $650,000 (Wikipedia says between $650,000 and $1M) and was entirely shot, edited and finished in HD.

I feel like it is more relevant to first detail which parts of the movie are about what. This might be useful for those who have not watch the movie and do not want to spend time watching it. I also write down, from time to time, the comments I had while watching the movie [inside square brackets]. So much has been said, written, debated and repeated, that the post-Moral Kombat reactions are worth another entire post. In this post, I will rather bring the quotes from the people [stars?] who were interviewed during the movie. You will see when I do not remember who said exactly what ...

Quotes and talks

The first 15 minutes introduce violence in video games with games such as Doom, Mortal Kombat. Virtual flesh and blood. Senator Lieberman, attorney Jack Thompson and head of Mothers Against Violence in America Pamela Eakes as well as some video game industry insiders mention how video games are violent. [idealist.org mentions mavia.org is the MAVIA website, but mavia.org looks pretty broken. Maybe it has been hacked, maybe MAVIA do not have any website?]. Lorne Lanning explains that since the early video games like Pong or Asteroids, it was easier to cancel things from the screen/system than adding things. [this echoes what Montfort and Bogost write in Racing the beam about their Atari VCS and the inherent game design of its games]. A publisher says if we as publishers say what is inside the product we have done our job.

Columbine: Pamela Eakes says that video games may have contributed to their deadliness [of the murderers], it's more to it than a video game. A voice [that I did not recognize, Thompson?] says when it came time for them to act out their anger, where did they get the ideas?. Other voices say lots of studies over the years have shown connexions between violence in the media and violence in real life, games have played a central role in killings, a kid became an expert shooter because of games. [Instead of forbidding games, forbid guns!] Jenkins report that there has only been badly designed research about violence in video-games and kids.

At the 25th minute, I found the tone changed, it became a kind of response of the pro-video game side and the game developers. Jenkins mentions that the 60's moral panic was comic books and that video games can become like movies, going up, or down like comics. [there has been a lot said in the last few months about comparing video games to other medias, both in the research community and in the industry; by the way, I do not really think comics are a lower-zone media than movies: some European or Japan comics are very deep and can be compared to movies]. Jason Della Rocca mentions the speech from Stephen Limbaugh Sr.: "video games contain no conveyance of ideas, expression or anything else that could possibly amout to free speech" and reacts: He had no understanding of games as an art form.

People talk about GTA. A publisher [was it John Marmaduke?] notices that since 7 million people have bought this game they may consider it acceptable. [poor defense...] Jenkins says we have not pushed this medium to ask what the role of violence in society is. Jenkins also adds that nothing suggests a normal kid is likely to become agressive simply because he played a violent VG. Nearly everyone seems to agree that our society is violent: we have a gun society, we need to see violence, we are naturally attracted by violence. [but no one says the utopic "why do we not change it with games?"]

Then about the Sims: from a genius are words that come back [but the background images are Picasso, Dali or Renaissance paintings ... there is not even any photo of The Sims' designer, Wright! That is a shame!].

An interesting part follows: there is a difference between your right to make something and your moral or ethical right to make something and As an editor, you have editorial responsibilities were said by a publisher. Jenkins continues we think of video games as violence only [while there could be one violent choice and another choice to solve the same issue in a game; there could be diminishing violence rather than decreasing]. Fable is mentioned. Hal Halpin does not think violent games are not a responsibility for designers, they are a responsibility for publishers: designers and developers want to create but publishers want money, and violence sells.

Then the discussion turns towards parents: someone says he would rather have his kid play a RTS with no gore than a FPS war game. [once again, the background only shows images from FPS war games with blood everywhere!]. A publisher [I think?] says the industry has to be honest with themselves. Pamela Eaks remarks that sex and violence sell and someone else reports wheteher it's a game, a movie, or music, the sales grow as violence grows. Back to GTA, Rockstar is gonna make the game that sells.

Retailers are in the spot light of the discussions [even though no one represents them among the participants] for a while: some retailers have seen it as part of their responsibility to keep inapropriate materials out of the hand of kids, other retailers have done absolutely nothing. But the parents responsibilities quickly come back: all we can do is talk with our child about the game. Maybe Michael Rich [good link?] compares games and other art forms and the parents' awareness of these art forms for their kids. FOr instance, parents will go out of a concert if it is bad for their children. So parents should play with their children, and if they do not, they have big problems and have no communication. If the child gets GTA from the parents, it is a failure of the parents, no one else. There is no silver bullet: it is parent's role.

Finally, the last words from Thompson: the industry needs to be careful. Eakes asks video game developers to face a mirror and ask "Am I doing something good for children?" all the time. [but not all games are for children ... It is not because in general older people do not play that only children play. Currently, youth often means video games, but the opposite is false.] Jenkins suggests we should grow up as parents, as government and as designers about what we can do with this media. A publisher wonders what is our responsibility as publishers? At some point, the line is going to be completely lost between what's right and what's wrong.


Looking back, I feel I have put too many comments above and not been precise enough. I have completely forgotten some people's names and not taken notes really seriously. But I did not want to spend 4 hours watching the movie. So once again, if you want to make your own mind about it, watch it. I apologize, but I have more to say about the movie making in itself.

I did not like the mise en scène. The background images were very complex, useless and above all irrelevant to the speaker's point. For instance, showing printed circuit boards in a transparent background when someone is talking, or replacing a Serious Sam monster's head by the speaker's head seem to emphasize on the urban legend grey goo-like fear that machines are going to invade our society insidiously and kill us all. Henry Jenkins seems to agree: Watching the film twice, I still struggle to make sense of the relationship between spoken words and images. In the same kind of low-level image-words matching, when someone mentioned hard science from university the background turned into E=mc²... The videos we see in the background of World of Warcraft or Serious Sam for instance are only the violent parts of these (not-totally violent) games. WoW early trailer and Serious Sam battles do not show at any time the exploratory side of the game, or even the stealth part.

In the speakers, there were politicians, people from nearly any level of the industry (lobbyists, game designers, publishers, journalists) and people from the society on a broader view (parents). But only Jenkins for the research community. Even though Jenkins is a cheetah and he is very good at what he does, I think one is not enough.