Digital Frontier: Net Neutrality

There’s many fires on the digital frontier, but one of the fiercest and most important battles is net neutrality. I tease a couple of you about the possibility of our lives becoming a few chapters out of Shadowrun. I standby it! If moneyed companies continue to have more influence over our lives than us, then we should just start decking or go to shamanism. Because that’ll be all they’ll give us.

For those out of loop, there’s basically been a sustained attack on the freedom of the internet for a few years now. Broadband companies want to charge customers extra for fast internet performance. One could argue that we’ve been losing this battle over the years. In the United States, cable companies commonly offer packages to customers which increase their internet speed. The difference this time is that those same companies want to get their hands in the pockets of the services which offer the content. Those Saturday night binges on Netflix would come to a screeching halt if Netflix suddenly had to charge you $50 per month for the service. Downloading music from Amazon would become a lot less appealing if the MP3s began to cost $3 a pop. These are the kinds of impacts we can expect if the companies win. That’s in addition to the real show-stopper for us content generators: I get relegated to the internet slow lanes along with every other independent writer and broadcaster. Some free services may no longer be free.

I don’t know how this works out for other countries. I’d love to know more so if you’re in a different part of the world, chime in.

For Americans, the end of net neutrality would really change the way we use the internet. We can take for granted our unfettered access to sites like XP Chronicles, but under the new laws this blog would have lower class status, my page loads would go up unless I pay up. No one is arguing for free services. We’re asking for neutrality. Comcast’s site shouldn’t operate at higher speeds because they’re rich. My site shouldn’t be slowed to a crawl because I can’t pay more than $10 a month.

I’d be wrong if I didn’t mention that this battle is part of a larger war for equality. Protests are still blowing up all over the USA about minimum wage. Middle class jobs are still dwindling and most of us are under paid. It’s gotten so bad that there’s actually college graduates arguing that if they can’t get $15 an hour, people who serve them food for a living shouldn’t either. I guess that just goes to show the quality of our current education system itself. Graduates should know better.

Layoffs in the games industry are steady as well, as usual. Game developers are still working job to job with insane hours. Indies are finding themselves barely staying afloat in the sea of games competing for a finite number of gamer dollars. Those of us at the bottom are being squeezed more and more each year to buy ever increasing goods (like internet access) with ever decreasing salaries. Something’s got to give.

I think the big internet push to get everyone to contact their politicians has been really great. I’m not convinced we’ll win this battle in the end, because winning this battle won’t necessarily win the war. Companies will find other ways to get what they want. I think we’ll hold out for as long as we can. Money tends to win in the USA. But I’ll gladly eat my foot if I’m wrong. With glee. While surfing the free internet.

The Repeater: The Digital Frontier Theory Advanced

The RepeaterThe Repeater is a feature in which important discussions are highlighted and linked from other authors to help the information get around to as many eyes and ears as possible. Relevant to video games? Maybe. Relevant to gamers? Definitely. Let these be your food for thought. (Image Source: http://www.devcom.com/)


It’s been a whirlwind two weeks for me with the topic of player’s rights being one of the most talked about in the Digital Frontier series. I actually never intended it to be a series, but it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of gamers, and anyway it always seems relevant to conversations about culture. Who knew I’d start the year with a topic that would provide almost a year’s worth of content!

The theme for this Repeater is just the Digital Frontier in general, as the cultural topics tend to vary quite a bit so far this Summer. That’s a good sign! I’ll start with “Virtual Conflict as Cultural Catharsis” (the impact of games and media on our perceptions of the world), a real think piece that does what most of us fail to do in writing about conflict in games: It builds a bridge from the real world into the game. It manages to make the point without making the point, which is an art with writing about culture.

The trajectory of tone and content in the ‘war is hell’ films from the 1970s such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter shifted dramatically to the restorative and cathartic films from the 1980s like Top Gun and Rambo. These films either painted the US military in a far more positive and victorious light or, in the case of Rambo, literally re-fighting Vietnam on-screen.

What is interesting is that in games after 9/11 this process moved in the opposite direction. The games that emerged in the first few years after 9/11 can broadly be interpreted as revenge power-fantasies. The largely tactical focus of these titles place the player in the position of a soldier with a ‘grunt’s-eye view’. This creates a space in which the player can rewrite history, restore agency and re-establish the ‘correct’ order of the world on an individual level; winning the battles AND winning the war. It is only in recent years that some developers have taken steps to question and critique what can be seen as a largely jingoistic and cynically simplified streamlining of complex geopolitical issues.

For a complex topic, the article is a quick read and well worth the time.

The New Yorker recently published a story titled “The Kiss That Changed Video Games”, in which it reviews the development of The Sims and how homosexuality was allowed into the game.

Barrett was asked to create a demo of the game to be shown at E3. The demo would consist of three scenes from the game. These were to be so-called on-rails scenes—not a true, live simulation but one that was preplanned, and which would shake out the same way each time it was played, in order to show the game in its best light. One of the scenes was a wedding between two Sims characters. “I had run out of time before E3, and there were so many Sims attending the wedding that I didn’t have time to put them all on rails,” Barrett said.

On the first day of the show, the game’s producers, Kana Ryan and Chris Trottier, watched in disbelief as two of the female Sims attending the virtual wedding leaned in and began to passionately kiss. They had, during the live simulation, fallen in love. Moreover, they had chosen this moment to express their affection, in front of a live audience of assorted press. Following the kiss, talk of The Sims dominated E3. “You might say that they stole the show,” Barrett said. “I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians.”

First, I loved reading this. I never knew how that made it into The Sims and it’s really easy to just believe that the designers sort of went about it in a natural sort of way, not forcing it, not making a big deal, just letting it be. To hear that that’s pretty much what happened, but that it was made possible because the team didn’t believe it would be released any way, makes this tale that much more revealing. Also, before I even read the article I knew that the Kiss mentioned in the title HAD TO have taken place between lesbian sims. I was trying to imagine what the reaction might have been if two men had kissed during the live simulation. Could The Sims have been shelved, never to be known to us today?

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In the Battle to Exploit Gamers (Steam Summer Sale), Steam met it’s match when Reddit took it on in an effort to even out the wins for the competing teams. Haven’t you heard? In Soviet Valve, Steam plays you! By all observations, the efforts of Team White seem to have worked, but there’s currently no way to really know. What we do know is that for the first 5 days of the sale, the teams were trading wins equally. But the Red Team (of which I’m a member) has been on a streak the past 3 days. Is it due to the rule change that Valve implemented? Is there some Gray Team which is throwing all it’s effort into Team Red? We may never know. The part I liked the most about the whole thing is that players organized something with relative ease and successfully altered the outcomes for players. I think  that’s a lesson worth taking to heart, because on the Digital Frontier we’re going to need all the inspiration we can get.

One more piece worth repeating is brought to you by Wundergeek at Go Make Me a Sandwich where she explains why it’s difficult to add women to games (this one’s for you Ubisoft!).

Hey, it’s The Repeater and that’s two pieces of Awesome at the end of what’s usually a brow furrowing series. Have fun sharing!

The Digital Frontier: Player Rights

14 years ago the highly regarded designer Raph Koster penned an essay titled Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. In it, he laid out the rights that players should have in virtual worlds. MMORPGs. I’m not sure of the impact it’s had on the development of MMORPGs, but players seem to have a sense of their right to exist within virtual worlds anyway. On the digital frontier, it’s interesting that Koster had the foresight to understand the implications of avatars on our physical well-being.

I’ve summarized the declaration:

  1. Avatars are created free and equal in rights.
  2. Avatars should be treated as people, not pixels.
  3. Authority of the virtual space must proceed from the community; server admins shouldn’t see themselves as gods or tyrants.
  4. Liberty is the freedom to do things which don’t injure someone else and should be defined in a code of conduct.
  5. The code of conduct should prohibit actions AND utterances harmful to the community.
  6. The code of conduct is the will of the community.
  7. Avatars cannot be unfairly punished and no one, not even administrators, are exempt from punishment.
  8. Punishments can’t be excessive.
  9. Avatars are innocent until proven guilty.
  10. Avatars have freedom of speech as long as the speech doesn’t violate the rights of others or the code of conduct.
  11. Avatars are responsible for their conduct and must be accountable for it.
  12. For the administration of the virtual space, some avatars must have special powers.
  13. Subscription fees are legit as long as they grant all avatars equal rights and no special privileges can be bought.
  14. Avatars have the right to know what administrators do to maintain the virtual space.
  15. A virtual community without a code of conduct is lawless.
  16. Avatars have a right to their digital data; it is their property.
  17. Avatars have a right to gather in great numbers, limited only by technical capacity.
  18. Avatars have a right to privacy and shouldn’t be deprived of it.
  19. This bill of rights shouldn’t be used to abuse avatars.

billofrightsThis frontier is critical. It’s here that the fate of societies for the next 100 years is being decided. We’ll either choose to make them exactly like current societies, or we’ll wake up and see this as the opportunity to do better.  Will the things which hold us back in the real world be recreated? Or will we see an opportunity to be free of them, not by ignoring, forgetting or pretending they don’t exist, but by remembering that they do? These questions are the reason talking about structural social issues are a huge deal in the gaming world.

MMOs tend to have codes of conduct published, but you can tell they’re written by the legal team and guided less by ethics than by the need to protect one’s pocket book.  But many games really do try to ban bad behavior because it ruins the experience for everyone. Blizzard has a rather broad, but shallow code which covers just about everything. Rift has taken the approach of grading violations by severity, which I find interesting. Wildstar has their own code as well. All three are pretty similar, probably a cut and paste of each other, but with modifications. That’s how similar in wording and spirit they are.

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn't this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn’t this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

None of them really speak in terms of player rights in the virtual space. Which is interesting for companies who want to sell their players on their virtual worlds. What rights do players have in the virtual space? All any company has to say about that is in the EULA and ToS, which often runs counter to what Koster envisioned (for example, companies deny that players own their digital selves). Don’t you find it interesting MMO developers have nothing to say about player rights within the game?

What distinguishes something like a bill of rights from rote laws is that they tell people what they are permitted to do. They’re like a statement of liberty, almost celebrating rights. The above codes are strictly designed to tell players what NOT to do, and they leave no room for talking about what players can and ought to do in game, and importantly what developers can’t do to players. Imagine if you visited a restaurant and the menu, instead of telling you what’s available to order, told you instead what you could not order. It would be an awkward place to eat, wouldn’t it? Maybe this explains the awkward interactions of players within MMOs, who these days require a tangible reason to interact (raids, dungeons, battlegrounds, etc). It’s as thought players can sense they’re not entirely welcome, like they’re guests in a strange world. How do guests act?

While Koster’s Declaration may have seemed absurd at the time, it was also kind of inevitable when we think about it. Gamers talk everyday about how we treat one another in our games. One of the most important rights according to Koster is the second one:

The aim of virtual communities is the common good of its citizenry, from which arise the rights of avatars. Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

We’re people behind the avatars. We should be treated as such by developers and fellow gamers alike. To see the next generation of gamers make the jump even further away from seeing their virtual selves as real shows that on the frontier, we’re not succeeding at advancing human rights. In fact, in the virtual space those rights are receding as players and developers see their behavior in games as insignificant and unreal.

bgs

The PvP debate rages on in MMOs between open world and battlegrounds. Yet battlegrounds are one of the best ways to honor player rights.

Will griefing and harassment still be seen as necessary evils in open worlds? Will the Tribunal of League of Legends evolve into a more complex and more successful tool for policing communities? Will representation finally be seen as important? That all depends on developers taking social issues within their games seriously. Few developers see their trade as a serious thing it seems. They sincerely believe “it’s just a game” and “game” means something completely unreal, inconsequential, non-life changing, pure shits and giggles. Yet they post a code of conduct for MMOs as if acknowledging the damage player behavior can do. So which is it?

MMO developers are slightly better than other genres in this case, but they also still tend to reduce players to mere pixels in their virtual worlds. Pointing out the lack of diversity in a game or discrimination are seen as making a big deal out of something that’s fake. Even MMO developers, in the end, adopt the stance that in-game experiences are ultimately not real. They therefore think trollish behavior a nuisance at worse, instead of seeing it as a very serious problem for their players. Emotions and experiences are never virtual.

And what about the rights of developers? Can’t they make whatever they want? I think a better question is should developers make whatever they want without regard for it’s impacts on players. And to me the answer is clearly no. They can’t do whatever they want any more than the rest of us can. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for plenty of creativity and freedom. I think that’s why many developers tend to err on the side of “its just a game” kind of thinking, because that line of reasoning is it’s own justification for doing whatever they want. It can always be written off as unreal and insignificant.

Still, I think the Declaration is only recently becoming more important. With VR well underway, we’re approaching the moment where our avatars will require digital rights in order to protect ourselves. If the digital frontier is to become anything relevant, it can’t be a place without consequence. On the contrary, it has to be a place of pure consequence.

Scree Tags: #playerrights #digitalfrontier #MMORPG

There and Back: Escapism and Fantasy

This week’s throwback article is left pretty much in tact. Reading again, I don’t think I’ve changed my views a whole lot and some of my questions about escapism remain unanswered. I did recently write an article about the power of our fantasies and the role they play in the design of our games and development of that community, which you will find even more relevant than what follows.


Original Article: http://www.trredskies.com/escapism-and-fantasy/

I read a passage from a book this summer with a quote that really got the wheels in my brain turning about socialization in MMOs. The quote?

But fantasy is not created from nothing; at least in a limited sense, fantasy is a “recollection” of a world we have lost. It is a psychoanalytic truism that what we lose in reality we recreate in fantasy.

This comes from a book titled The Gender of Desire by Michael S. Kimmel, and the subject matter is male sexuality. Being a gamer, any book that uses the word fantasy instantly triggers images of unicorns, elves, and dreamy landscapes.

What is it that I bring into my fantasies because I lost those things in the real world?

Escapism and Addiction

If the above quote can be true, then it’s a significant clue to understanding the nature of MMO escapism and addiction. I’ve had plenty of friends in my MMOs who seemed, to me, to be a little too attached to the game world. They lived in it, never logged out. In WoW’s heyday, I absolutely preferred logging in most evenings to going out. At that time in my life, Azeroth was far more pleasant, contained much more of what I needed than the real world did, which was filled with crappy circumstances that seemed out of my hands.

Escapism isn’t necessarily a negative or a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty healthy thing. Like most things, the context and extent to which it’s used determines whether it remains a healthy outlet for our minds and emotions. I believe game addiction is real, but I also believe most players aren’t addicted to their games. They’re using these virtual worlds to escape often dire circumstances, mitigating things like depression, which in turn gives them the reprieve they need to actually function day to day. MMOs can be therapeutic in that regard and in America an MMO is the cheapest therapy you can buy anywhere!

In these situations, does it seem true that what we lose in our real worlds we attempt to recreate in our MMO experiences? It definitely seems so.

Self Perception in Fantasy

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about sexism and male power fantasies. I followed that up with an article about male fantasies of women. Here, I think we can apply the question above to both topics. What are we (men) trying to reclaim in our power fantasies? What are we trying to recreate in our fantasies of women? Likewise, I’m curious to know the answers to these questions for women as well.

Many of us have responded to women, especially feminists who hold the view that men in general hold all the power in our society, with the remark that we don’t feel powerful. We say to them that women, in fact, have power over us. They control the sex, the marriage, the money, etc. We respond that we need permission from our significant others to do the things we want. Of course, many of us make these remarks half-heartedly with levity in them. But it’s generally true that the average guy doesn’t feel like they’re in control of anything in their daily lives and he may easily perceive the women in his life to have just as much control or more. We’re just sort of being swept along and even in those situations where we want to exert control, such as over our jobs or our homes, we often find that forces beyond us take that control from us as well (the boss can fire you and the bank can take your house).  It’s perfectly valid, and I believe true, that the average man is as powerless as the average woman in their daily lives.

But there’s a significant difference. It isn’t so black and white as that.

I think the average guy understands that he’s supposed to have a little more power and control — but men actually have access and that’s key here. Non-males and non-white ones especially, do not have that level of access. It’s why men are so assertive, or at least it’s socially acceptable (and expected) that men will assert themselves. It’s the assumption of power.  It’s also a source of frustration, knowing that as guys we’re given certain responsibilities and jobs as a matter of gender, but also knowing the expectations are impossible to live up to.  Grappling for that sense of control and power can be maddening because it’s so elusive.

…and what we lose in real life does seem we recreate in our fantasies. Men are paragons of power* in our games. It’s not merely a case of imagining ourselves with slaying dragons within Tyria, nor is the desire to transfer merely more control over the minutiae of our lives. Any examination of men’s power fantasies reveals a desire for domination, for achievement, for high social status. Now I’m not saying that all of us feel this way or have these particular fantasies. Rather, I’m speaking to the men’s fantasies that predominate our media. I’m personally starting to believe these are relics from a time past and that a lot of modern men don’t identify with those fantasies. Yet I meet guys on a daily basis who truly buy into those kinds of fantasies, truly believe that it’s a man’s nature to be in control, unemotional, and a winner while also believing that it’s woman’s nature to be …well …hysterical, out of control, emotional, and dependent. And what do we have in our games? Scantily clad women taunting us but who are easily subdued, NPC femmes who need to be rescued, or succubi who torture us, but whom we ultimately conquer.

This all reinforces my perspective* on the power of fantasy. It’s not just art or just games, but aspirations and desires. Our fantasies and our enjoyment of them is linked intimately with our wants and needs. They reveal what we value and yearn to possess.

How has fantasy impacted your life and how do you feel it interacts with your true desires?

 Edit: Links added for clarification wherever you see a *.

Scree Tags: #escapism #digitalfrontier #fantasygames