Archive | April, 2014

Sandy Hook, Video Games and The Sun’s Incessant Hypocrisy

29 Apr

This article was originally published on 21st December 2012 on the now sadly defunct site Invert-On following the Sandy Hook tragedy. I am re-publishing it here as it tackles the Daily Mail’s latest attack on games (following the stabbing of teacher Ann Maguire at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds on Monday) far better than yet another article from me on the same subject ever could.

 

My heart sank as I’m sure it did for many other rational human beings across the land when they walked into their local newsagents or train station on their way to work on the morning of 18th December 2012. Video games and their creators, notably Call Of Duty and Treyarch respectively, were being implicated by the most widely read newspaper in Britain – The Sun, along with the Daily Express – in the previous Friday’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school of twenty children and six adults, and the gunman’s mother. Adam Lanza who carried out this atrocity, turned the gun on himself soon after.

The reporting of the story has been widespread, as one would expect. What happened on that sunny and seemingly normal Friday has ended, devastated or changed lives forever, and could have long lasting political ramifications for American gun owners. Unfortunately, some news outlets have taken it upon themselves to already start pinning blame on others, and in doing so, skirt around what the real issues are, such as gun control and the accessibility to proper mental health care. The Sun‘s front page headline of “KILLER’S CALL OF DUTY OBSESSION” with the two page spread’s headline “BLACK OPS BUNKER” are sad evidence of this; the use of attention grabbing headlines diverting readers’ attention from the real problems that we as a people face.

We have read this reactionary, kneejerk guff before, however. Anders Breivik, who carried out the infamous attacks of 2011 in Norway, provoked similar reactions from world media as they began speculation about what was the cause of such a terrible act. Like Lanza, Breivik apparently spent hours playing Call Of Duty, whilst using a “holographic aiming device”, an exercise which reportedly helped in real-life “target acquisition.”

Breivik’s case led to a hugely lengthy trial, which itself followed much to-ing and fro-ing between mental health experts as to whether he was sound of mind or criminally insane. At first he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and then, after a second assessment published a week or so before his trial, he was diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder. It was adjudged that Breivik was not psychotic during the attack.

This was an intelligent man, holding political ideologies very different from the majority of us, with a host of unchecked mental health issues. It is deeply saddening that in the case of Adam Lanza we will never know what his were. All we have to go on are testimonies from his brother who according to the Express, had not spoken to him for more than two years.

Fortunately, Pete Samson of The Sun informs us of what Lanza was like, and that he “fuelled his violent fantasies” by spending hours “playing bloodthirsty computer games such as Call Of Duty.” According to Samson’s piece Lanza lived in the basement of his mother’s house which local plumber Peter Wlasuk, having worked at the house on numerous occasions, described as “strange.” At no point does Samson deign to mention that Lanza was living with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism no longer listed on the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of guidelines for aiding psychiatrists in making correct diagnoses.

People who have Asperger’s tend to be characterised by their “social impairment.” They can be obsessively focused on one particular subject at a time and in some cases they can come across as lacking in empathy. Taking that into account, a 2008 study carried out by the University of Oregon found that, with regard to violent crimes committed by those with Asperger’s, over half already – or “probably” as the report says – had some other underlying psychiatric disorder(s) at the time of the respective offense.

As much as this is a gaming site, it is important we examine the evidence and other notable research on the matter if we are to make informed judgements (an awful word given the subject matter but you know what I mean) and not come across as ignorant twerps. Even if someone is diagnosed with Asperger’s, being violent is most definitely not one of its characteristics. There is more at play here than the tabloid press would like its readers to believe.

What makes this headline splashed across The Sun so galling however, is that if one takes the time to do a bit of digging around on the internet about Mr Samson, as I did, you will find this picture of him (printed below) with a frankly rage-inducing and grotesquely smug grin smeared across his face whilst pointing a magazine-less MP5 down the range.

This enraged me so much I tweeted it and then sent it to two people I respect hugely and who I and the gaming community know to be avid players and have big followings. Not expecting to hear anything, as most of us mere mortals do on Twitter, my phone beeped twice within ten minutes to tell me they had both RT’d it. The beeping that followed was incessant to the point where I had to switch my phone to silent. The picture of Mr Samson had now gone viral and The Sun‘s double standards and sensationalist agenda were there for the world to see. This dreadful and lazy piece of journalism had clearly twanged the public nerve.

The rank hypocrisy of The Sun in running Samson’s story without checking his previous articles manages to be staggering but not exactly surprising. In case you’re wondering where that picture originated, it is from a story Samson wrote last year on Rihanna and the “training” she went through for her movie debut in Battleship. The woman he is photographed with, Jackie Carrizosa, is the woman who put the pop superstar through her paces.

So why all this topical ranting on a gaming site? It’s simple. Because game developers, Treyarch being the main target here, are being indirectly blamed for the murder of twenty-seven people by a publication with a dubious record of reportage – Hillsborough can’t help but spring to mind.

It has happened before. Look at Columbine, Toulouse earlier this year, Norway last year, Aurora and now Sandy Hook. One can only wonder at the pain the victims’ loved ones go through, only to have it exacerbated by senseless and insensitive press speculation as to the catalyst for such brutality. Some in the media demand a scapegoat to pin this on and again, gaming takes another undeserved beating.

It would be incredibly easy to roll out the usual “gaming has been around for forty years!” and “violence since the dawn of time” arguments, or talk about America’s frankly ludicrous gun control laws, but it doesn’t help anyone or anything, not least of all those who just need time away from the public and media gaze to come to terms with their grief.

There are so many issues at play here: what triggers these outbursts – not just those involving huge loss of life but all serious emotional over-reactions across the board. We, as gamers, use video games as a means of escape from the daily grind of real life. For example, if we’ve had a particularly shit day at work, we might unwind for an hour blowing away a faceless goon online while playing Battlefield. We sometimes use these type of games as a form of catharsis.

As disturbing as that may sound, it is no different from other people cycling 100 miles for the same purpose which to me, borders on the insanely masochistic. Habits like these serve as a release and allow us to de-stress.

I have lived with depression for over twenty years and I honestly couldn’t tell you whether, without games in my life, I would be sitting at my desk writing this very article. Games have often been saviours in my life and provided me with joy when all I felt was despair and self-loathing. It is one reason why Super Mario Galaxy in particular, if you’ll excuse my sentimentality for a moment, holds such a strong place in my heart. It truly got me through some dreadful times.

It would appear that Lanza was not as fortunate as those of us, with a strong support network of friends and no doubt loving parents (which is not to say his own mother did not love her son, we will never know why he murdered her). We have plenty of other outlets, gaming being just one, through which we can vent our worries and inner turmoil. It would seem Lanza did not. He took it upon himself to let his mother and the world know just how unhappy he truly was, with horrendous results. Tell me again, what has Call Of Duty really got do with any of it?

At the heart of all of this there lies an enormous cultural problem – it is the culture of fear. Not just of there being guns in children’s hands (although that is a perfectly legitimate fear to have), nor of violent video games being played by our kids (again not without reason, but in this case Lanza was twenty years old). The real fears are of speaking amongst ourselves of our own problems, and of the stigma attached to such confessional openness, a stigma which has been perpetuated by the press for far too long.

Unfortunately, because of the general portrayal of mental health issues in the press, sufferers suffer in silence for fear of being labelled, to use an example in Samson’s story, a “maniac” or any other derogatory term for people who are on the face of it, merely ill.

So what can we, as gamers who love the medium, do to combat this gross stereotyping as peddled by redtop rags like The Sun? It is the simplest thing, and you don’t even need to play games to achieve it. All you need to do is carry on enjoying your games, relish the company of your friends and family and show respect to others. As Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” It really is as simple as that.

Let the families affected by what happened on Friday deal with it in their own time and don’t seek to blame this on anyone or anything. Let whatever investigations being carried out run their course and until we know the facts about Lanza, we should keep our mouths firmly shut.

 

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The Danger of the Monster Myth

18 Apr

White Ribbon Campaign

Tom Meagher

One of the most disturbing moments of the past eighteen months of my life was hearing my wife’s killer form a coherent sentence in court. Jill had been murdered almost six months earlier, and Adrian Bayley’s defence team were presenting a rather feeble case for a four-week adjournment of his committal hearing. Bayley appeared via video-link as I sat flanked by two friends and a detective. The screen was to my right, mounted high up and tilted slightly towards the bench. It was uncomfortably silent apart from the occasional paper shuffle or short flurry of keyboard clicks. I anticipated, and prepared for the most difficult moment of the day when Bayley’s face appeared on the big-screen TV, looming over the seat I then occupied. When that moment arrived, a jolt of nausea came and went, but the worst was to come, made all the more horrifying because it was…

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Star Citizen: How the biggest crowd-funded project ever could change the gaming landscape

14 Apr

When Chris Roberts, creator of renowned space-simulator series Wing Commander announced in October 2012 that he was to make his return not only to the stars but to the medium of games itself following a ten year break, he could never have foreseen the outpouring of support he has received from all over the world. For many, Star Citizen is the game that, if successful, could fundamentally change the way that games are made, financed and marketed. It is a project of breathtaking scope, endeavour and ambition.

Star Citizen is a space-sim, trading game and first-person shooter, set in a vast online universe – though it does also feature a 50+ mission single-player/co-op campaign known as Squadron 42 – where players can ply their trade and make a name for themselves; perhaps as a bounty hunter, or through mining and selling materials, resources and weapons to other players, or as a hotshot pilot. The emergent gameplay will be similar (but not identical for technical reasons) to EVE Online, another massively-multiplayer space sim albeit one that operates very differently. Imagine seeing a cruiser that you know has at least a five or six player crew on board, but has you and your squadron of fellow players outgunned. Well, try boarding it, killing the crew and stealing the ship for you and your partners in crime. Just be prepared to face the consequences.

Star Citizen. Needless to say, it's beautiful.

Star Citizen. Needless to say, it’s beautiful.

For many in their mid-to-late 20s and above, this could be the game they dreamed about playing ever since they first saw Star Wars. Who wouldn’t want to play an online game in a persistent universe where you could walk into a seedy bar much like Mos Eisley’s cantina, meet another player who then offers you a job, asking you to smuggle a shipment of contraband to another system for a hefty payment, or hunt down a player with a significant bounty on his head, then climb into the cockpit of your very own ship and take to the stars and explore the vastness of space in pursuit of your goal? Roberts himself has said pretty much exactly this, and technology is now at the point that he believes he can finally make the game he always wanted to play.

He’s clearly not the only one. Star Citizen is the biggest crowd-funded project of any kind having raised, at the time of writing, a staggering $41.9m. What this means for Roberts is that he will have the tools, the hired talent and the time to make the game that he envisioned, unhindered by publishers breathing down his neck, forcing him to meet a release date. The drawback of this of course, is that expectations, particularly amongst fans, are beyond stratospheric. This is not helped by the game’s graphics, which are frankly astounding, powered as they are by a heavily modified and expanded upon CryEngine 3.

Much as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have heralded a new generation of console hardware capable of pushing more polygons and adding more cinematic shader effects that once were the preserve of companies such as WETA Digital and Industrial Light & Magic, Star Citizen is pushing the more powerful PC hardware to its absolute limits. Of note is the game’s support of the upcoming virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, placing players inside this enormous universe and overcoming a fundamental flaw in flight sims – the inabilty to see where a passing craft is behind you as real life pilots can. The results of all of this are jawdropping.

Never was this more clear than at the Penny Arcade Expo that took place recently in Boston, US. Last Thursday gamers finally got to see something playable of a project that has spent approximately 18 months in development. Soon, those who have pledged will get to try it out for themselves and provide feedback in order to ensure that bugs are squashed, the combat is balanced and that the required sheen can be added to all aspects of it. What was shown at PAX was a demo not even in pre-Alpha, of what Roberts’ team at Cloud Imperium Games had made to show how basic combat and flight controls will work during dogfights. Littered with bugs, and crashing twice during the live demonstration – much to Roberts’ frustration, “This is bullshit!” – it was clearly a work-in-progress with plenty of spit, polish and embellishment still to be added, but it showed just enough to set the mind racing as to just how huge Star Citizen could be, as well as highlighting the enormous task CIG have ahead of them.

Simply put, it was dazzling.

Not that you’d know it, based on reaction afterwards across the Internet (and the less said about certain members of the audience the better). It is becoming seemingly endemic amongst the gaming population now, in an industry that is more open to inviting players to participate in Alpha or Beta testing, that they expect a game to be finished, or at least look the part, having no bugs at all no matter what stage of development it’s at upon being revealed. Sadly that is not how software development works.

Most studios would never have dreamed of showing off their latest creation if it was as bug-ridden as the dogfighting demo that Roberts unveiled, but to his absolute credit he has been remarkably upfront and open about the development process. A visit to the official website will provide ample proof of this. The process of making a game is incredibly arduous and challenging, particularly one of this magnitude, and we have been given access to the team attempting to overcome this mind-boggling task.

With the colossal amount of money that fans have pledged out of good will, there is a segment of the community that is hoping Star Citizen not only fails, but crashes and burns. A game this expensive, financed as it has been by the public, will always attract those hoping to wallow in the failure of others, which is incredibly sad and borders on tragic. Star Citizen could be an absolute disaster and leave Roberts’ reputation and career in tatters, or it could change the medium of games as we know it. What many are forgetting is that nothing of this scope and fidelity has dared been attempted before.

As children unsure of what we want to accomplish in life, we are encouraged to aim for the stars, that if we work hard enough we can achieve what we didn’t think possible. Chris Roberts seems to be taking this literally and I, along with over 400,000 others who have pledged our support, admire him for being brave enough to risk his reputation in order to fulfil a vision he has clearly had for the best part of three decades. It is this kind of ambition that games have sorely missed and I look forward to strapping in and heading off into the void.