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Dennis C Scimeca's blog

12:15 PM on 06.13.2010

Who is the gaming press speaking to?

In late April, I wrote a piece criticizing the insular nature of the video game media. I look back on it now as an expression of my learning curve in terms of how this industry works, and the economic realities of trying to make a living writing about video games.

The most important thing to come out of that piece, however, was a comment from a gaming buddy of mine. "I don’t think that Gamers actually care about Game Media – and never talk about it!" I took issue with that sentiment at the time, but this weekend has seen the release of a Neilsen Games study that speaks to my friend's argument.

This study is not a definitive proof of anything, but it suggests that the majority of video gamers really don't care about the video game press. I'd define "caring" in this context as "seeing the major headlines on a daily basis, even if the reader didn't delve into the stories." What other reasonable explanation exists for the ridiculously low numbers of 39% and 42% of active gamers aware of the upcoming motion-control systems for their favorite console?

Most of us with graduate degrees had to take a research methods course, and quickly learned how easy it is to make a survey say what you want it to say. Hopefully most of us walk away from those courses with a critical distrust of any survey conducted by anyone, but unless someone can tell me what Neilsen had to gain by constructing this survey to generate such low numbers, I'm willing to accept they have some validity.

We can safely dismiss the notion that the gaming press simply hasn't covered Natal and Move well enough. Anyone with a robust RSS feed from all the major gaming sites can attest to this in the time it takes to search either of those keywords. Even a basic level of awareness should have informed anyone reading gaming websites and magazines of the existence of Natal and Move. We're not talking about knowledge of the details of these systems, but merely the knowledge they were coming.

Back when I was part of the suggested 60% of gamers who really pay no attention to our press I'd pop onto GameSpot, go straight into the XBox 360 section of the site, and look up the review of the game I wanted to read about which would almost always be on the Top 10 list that day because the game was new. My eye would unlikely be drawn anywhere on the page other than where it needed to go to suss out the specific information I wanted.

If that were a normative experience for gamers then the Neilsen study makes perfect sense. If the study is valid, it throws a very stark light on the potential growth of the gaming press, and just how much opportunity there is for newcomers to the industry. This may be another truth that is just as obvious as my observations about the state of our media back in April. but for anyone new to writing about games it's important to register.

Over on my website, the biggest traffic spike we had was in response to submitting our Modern Warfare 2 review to N4G. I was shocked: hadn't all these gamers read plenty of MW2 reviews already? If product reviews are what justify the existence of the video game media, just how many sources for this sort of thing do we need? If it's about access to screenshots and trailers, why don't gamers just sign up for accounts at Gamespress and skip the middleman?

If the study is valid, it also would explain why the mainstream media just doesn't care about video games. There's no incentive to spend money covering subject matter that even the majority of enthusiasts can't be bothered to read. The other reasonable conclusion is that the study speaks less to awareness or interest in the gaming media, but more to literacy rates among gamers, something I would not dismiss out of hand given the quality of many of the comments I read on gaming websites (TL;DR).   read

9:09 PM on 06.08.2010

Vanquish ZOMG...really?

A bunch of news stories hit the press yesterday about the Vanquish trailer which shows gameplay that will "make mouths drop" (VG247), is "awesome" (GameSpot), and of course there's Jim Sterling's ("zomg") here on Destructoid.

I'm beginning to feel guilty when I make posts like these because it sounds like I'm being snarky for its own sake when that's not my intention because it's too easy...but really? ZOMG?

I'm not a huge fan of Japanese games anymore, I've decided. Dead Rising was fun for me because I'm a zombie nut, but the anime trope characters from Project Sylpheed and Lost Planet bored me to tears.

I do own a Sega Saturn and Dreamcast which I've held onto specifically for my large collection of import titles, and I never had any issues with Capcom when I was playing their games on the NES, SNES, or PS1. Perhaps it's just current-gen Japanese titles which are failing to grab me.

I look at the Vanquish trailer and I all I see is "Japanese game." I was aware of the plot back in February when I wrote some audition pieces off PR releases for the game, and it sounded very silly. Russians attack the United States with a bunch of robots, and the United States fights back with their armored suit. Red Dawn meets Gundam.

It's not the story which these commentators are lauding, but what are we really seeing besides a HUD which takes up too much space? When Jim Sterling references Gears of War, he's right on the money. It looks like we've done this before, now in Japanese style! Add in the silly dialogue from the mouths of characters I've seen a hundred times before in Japanese games that make it over to the West...

One of our writers over on GK reported on Cliff Bleszinski's statement that Japan can't keep up with the U.S." I think Cliffyb might be right.   read

10:36 AM on 06.07.2010

When games actually ARE art

Corey Arcangel is a Brooklyn-based contemporary artist who has made a name for himself incorporating digital technology into his work. I attended his show The Sharper Image back in April at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.

I'm not much for contemporary art, because it often seems too haphazard and for lack of a better word, easy. I had to walk through another exhibit to get to Cory Arcangel's and actually saw the following "pieces" on display:

- A row of four dots on the wall
- A slide projector on a table projecting...nothing
- Two copies of the Life Magazine Picture Puzzle on a shelf

When crap like this constitutes "art" I don't feel uncultured when I say to my wife, the only person I ever go to art museums with, that "I don't get it." Her usual response is that contemporary art requires context in order to understand it, and that if you already have that context it makes sense to you.

If that's the case, and my being a video gamer for 32 years, wouldn't contemporary art which incorporates modded Atari 2600 and NES cartridges and PlayStation 1 controllers as part of the work make some sense to me?

The first exhibit I saw was Space Invader. Arcangel describes the work on his website:

"Space Invader is a mod of the Atari game Space Invaders which has been turned into Space Invader (note: it's no longer plural...thus the white out over the last "s" on the cartridge) --> all the invaders have been erased except one."

The exhibit is interactive; I asked the nearby security guard whether I could actually pick up the Atari 2600 controller, and when she answered in the affirmative I snatched up the joystick with a huge, little-kid grin...and then promptly found myself holding only the rubber joystick guard while the rest of the controller fell down loudly onto the white bench on which the Atari console rested.

No one can say the exhibit isn't authentic.

I thought the game was stuck at first, but resetting didn't replace the lonely Space Invader with the horde I was looking forwarding to shooting up in a fit of nostalgia. Then I read the placard identifying the piece and thought "I get it. Clever." I always feel as though I'm meant to have some sort of deeper reaction to a piece of "art," however, and Space Invader left me feeling empty.

I did some reading about this exhibit online. I've cleaned up the text as the website I took it from looks like a product of Babelfish or some such translation program:

"Arcangel's work also distinguishes itself by demanding audience interaction. This usually ends in total frustration and thus delivers a critical commentary about the participatory strategies so very popular in the 1990s." So I looked up "participatory strategies" and found this:

"Participatory Learning & Action (PLA) is a practical approach to development which evolved and spread in the 1990’s. PLA enables people to learn, work and act together in a co-operative and democratic manner to achieve agreed goals."

I have trouble getting from A to B, here. The audience member plays the game alone, and this has something to do with criticizing people working together? It sounds more like Arcangel is just having a laugh at us.

I Shot Andy Warhol was much more amusing than Space Invader. From Arcangel's website:

"I Shot Andy Warhol is a modification of the NES game Hogan's Alley, where the gangsters have been replaced by Warhol, and the "innocents" have been replaced by the Pope, Flavor Flav (pre MTV show!!!!), and Col Sanders..." I got the high score in all three game modes, and then walked away with the same empty feeling that Space Invader gave me.

I was curious about what the piece was trying to say, so I looked up some criticism. I Shot Andy Warhol has been read as a tribute to Warhol, and inasmuch as Warhol was about being strange and walking down the road less traveled, this is acceptable to me. It didn't occur when I viewed the piece because I've never shown much interest in Andy Warhol. I lacked the context.

Super Mario Clouds is an old Mario Brothers cartridge modified to erase everything but the clouds. "The work's minimalist aesthetic reveals clear references to abstract monochrome painting." That actually makes some sense to me, courtesy of an undergraduate art history course.

Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games is three PlayStation 1 consoles with modded controllers that play the games by themselves, displayed on three side-by-side monitors. I found an interview with the artist and apparently this work is meant to be funny. Am I just being dense when all I saw were three PS1's playing a bowling game?

I've heard Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade speak a few times about his belief that gamers have a set of shared, digital experiences which help define us as gamers. I think Jerry would have enjoyed Totally Fucked. It's another hacked NES cartridge:

I burst out laughing in the middle of the dead-silent exhibit hall when I saw this. I can't find a video of this piece, but it's actually animated. Mario faces left and right alternately over and over again while the "?" block flashes.

I define art as something which inspires an intellectual or emotional reaction that is substantive and resonates. I may not have understood most of these pieces on an emotional level, but they did get me curious and wondering what they meant. By my definition, I have to call every one of these exhibits art, even if they are of the contemporary variety I normally have such distaste for.

Do these exhibits prove Roger Ebert wrong? I Shot Andy Warhol is literally the same thing as Hogan's Alley with altered graphics. Various Self Playing Sony PlayStation Bowling Games aren't being played by us, i.e. people, but they are certainly playing games. Space Invader has been hacked to be a terrible game, but it still has all the basic functionality and victory conditions it is meant to. I suppose it's possible that someone could actually fail to kill that lonely Space Invader before he marches to the bottom of the screen, such that they would lose.

It's ironic that the piece from Cory's exhibit which drew the most immediate and powerful reaction from me was the one exhibit which truly isn't a game anymore because it cannot be played - but that's the point of Totally Fucked.

I've argued that video games are not art, but when I think about these exhibits I'm not so sure. My favorite Penn Jillette quotation: "The definition of an intellectual is someone who can change their mind given facts …" Cory Arcangel's works are facts, real entities that exist to be looked at, interacted with, and contemplated upon.

Many of them are video games, and they literally are art.   read

9:50 PM on 06.03.2010

Pick a story, please.

I don’t always mind hearing “the company line” from a publisher. It takes balls to feed the gaming press something which the journalist and publisher both know is bullshit. It’s not comfortable for either of them, but serves as a “no trespass” sign to prevent the journalist from pressing too hard on territory he or she is not welcome to tread upon, which will lead to things being much more uncomfortable. And maybe the journalist not getting another interview.

What I can’t stand is when different corporate mouthpieces feed us different lines of bullshit, as in a pair of interviews MCV conducted with Electronic Arts. Their UK general manager Keith Ramsdale was quoted yesterday, stating in reference to Project Ten Dollar, "It all about the customer, about improving their experience. It's not a defensive measure against pre-owned or piracy."

EA Sports president Peter Moore is quoted today, defending the much-reviled EA Sports Pass initiative. “I look at the investment that we make in bringing digital experiences – building solid infrastructure, making sure servers stay up and offering customer support when needed. It all takes time, money and effort and we are at the cutting edge of that.”

So, in other words, EA is charging its customers more money so as to improve their experience of getting content that probably ought to have been included in the shipped copy of the game in the first place (Bad Company 2 V.I.P. maps, Kasumi’s Stolen Memory), or to pay for the sports game servers?

Either of those propositions might make sense in light of EA’s losing $677 million in 2009, if these were truly additional revenue streams; but Project Ten Dollar and the EA Online Pass only target purchasers of used games, not everyone else who throws down for new copies. I’d feel insulted if I honestly thought that these comments were targeted at consumers.

Executives at GameStop must read interviews like these and salivate so copiously that sump pumps have to be installed in conference rooms. Paul Raines, the recently-promoted chief executive officer of GameStop, stated in late May that his company not only supports the Online Pass, but are partnering with Microsoft to promote DLC.

If EA isn’t bullshitting gamers, are they bullshitting GameStop? Something along the lines of “No, we really, seriously, weren’t trying to cut into the used games market that you’re absolutely dominating to ridiculous proportions.” Considering what a huge distributor GameStop has become, if I were a major publisher I might not want to be perceived as trying to weaken their position, either, especially when the initiative to do so was blatantly transparent.

No one should blame EA for trying to recuperate money they feel the used game market is taking out of their pockets, regardless of whether it's an up or down year for them, and GameStop is adaptable. If these initiatives did start cutting into their profit margins I wouldn't put it past them to start bundling DLC cards with used EA games and find a way to maintain those margins.

EA might just be bullshitting themselves, putting a new spin on the "why" of Project Ten Dollar and Online Pass to cover up their miscalculation. In any case, I wish they'd just pick one line and stick to it. It's much easier to maintain illusions that way, and pretend we're not being bullshitted in the first place.   read

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