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Reviews After the Fact: Bioshock Infinite

It’s never too late to review a game; some of us just go at our own pace. “Reviews After the Fact” offers a critical look at a game, past or present, well after attention has subsided and people have moved on.

For my first Review After the Fact, I’m am tackling Bioshock Infinite.

Cover Art for Bioshock Infinite

Image Source: Wikipedia

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: the review to follow contains some MAJOR SPOILERS for Bioshock Infinite and some possible spoilers for Bioshock 1 and 2. If you want to read my thoughts on Bioshock 2, be sure to check out my earlier review.

BASIC OVERVIEW

Bioshock Infinite follows the story of Booker Dewitt, a former soldier turned Pinkerton guard turned private detective. With a heavy debt looming, a mysterious benefactor approaches Dewitt with a proposition: retrieve a woman and bring her to New York. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” explains a cryptic message. To find the woman he makes his way to the mysterious floating city of Columbia. Built by the American government in Columbia set off on a world tour, but faced flak after intervening in the Boxer Uprising.

Under the command of Zachary Hale Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet, Columbia seceded from the Union and disappeared into the clouds. There Comstock set up a community with a cultish devotion to America’s founders. Booker seeks out the mysterious Elizabeth, a woman with the ability to open “rifts” in reality, bringing in items from other dimensions or jumping to completely new worlds. Along the way, Booker grapples with the demons of his past. Is Elizabeth the key to his salvation, or is he already damned?

PRESENTATION

I was blown away by the initial trailer and despite the delays the finished product certainly did not disappoint. The presentation is one of the game’s strongest suits, pushing the graphical prowess of the PS3 and 360 to their fullest potential. Rapture, the setting of the first two Bioshocks, was a hauntingly beautiful environment-the claustrophobia of the crumbling underwater city is in my opinion one of the most memorable and striking environments in any video game. Columbia, by contrast, is a bright, vibrant world of striking colors and wide, expansive environments. The sights and sounds, from the penny-arcade film reels to the barbershop quartet singing anachronistic songs make for a vibrant world I wanted to explore.

Image of Columbia from Bioshock Infinite

Image Source: bioshock.wikia.com

The flipside is, like its predecessors, Bioshock Infinite is a linear game. Although the desire to find all the secrets may prompt you to sift through Columbia’s nooks and crannies, the game follows a fairly rigid path so don’t go in expecting a lot of open exploration.

GAMEPLAY

The game is full of fast-paced swashbuckling action, where one minute you could be having Elizabeth summoning an unstoppable mechanical Lincoln from another dimension (incidentally, “Summoning an unstoppable mechanical Lincoln from another dimension” will be the name of my autobiography whenever I get around to writing it); the next minute you could be commanding squadrons of flaming crows; or leaping along aerial rails to bash in enemies with what appears to be a mechanized ice scream scoop designed for faces. The combat was action-packed and damn fun. Combined with the vibrant steampunk locale, it made for me some of the best action of this gaming generation.

Bioshock Infinite Combat

Image Source: venturebeat.com

However, one of my biggest complaints about the combat is the focus on a more modern style of shooter. Part of what appealed to me about the first two Bioshocks was its use of some of the better elements of classic shooters like Doom or GoldenEye (fixed health/shields and a diverse cache of weapons at your disposal). Infinite is one of a long line of shooters borrowing from the Call of Duty and Halo model. You’re limited to two weapons at a time and have a regenerating shield (no regenerating health is the last bastion of the old-school model). It raises the question of what was wrong with the system in its predecessors?

Infinite’s version of the series trademark plasmids (called “vigors” here) are some of the best in the series. Wherein the first two installments I tended to rely on a small handful of mainstays (Telekinesis in Bioshock, Electro Bolt in Bioshock 2), the vigors offer a great deal of variety and the game encourages you to experiment with different combinations. An especial favorite of mine was attacking groups of enemies with murders of flaming crows or force pushing them with “Bucking Bronco” and chaining electric shocks like a string of levitating human Christmas lights. There are just so many unique powers at your disposal.

While the combat is great fun, I was bothered by the fact that the vigors did not play much of a part at all in Infinite’s story, aside from creating memorable crow-death related moments. This is such a stark departure from the first two Bioshocks. ADAM was the lifeblood of Rapture and the axis around which the story turned. It was the cause of the decline of the city and its inhabitants. Infinite’s Vigors do not serve a similar essential narrative function. Booker is apparently the only one (save one particular enemy) who ever considered actually using them, with most comfortable relying on traditional weapons with the occasional giant robot for flavor. And the game never really attempts to weave the Vigors into the fabric of Columbia’s ecosystem. What do people think about them? How has the introduction of superpowers affected the lives of its inhabitants? The residents seem to have no need for them, which raises the question of why Booker is able to find so many lying around (presumably because no one else wants them). The Vigors end up only serving the game’s run-and-gun style combat.

Elizabeth offers the other new mechanic for Infinite as she has the power to interact with rifts to other dimensions. This power can be called upon in combat to summon useful items like health, weapons, and ammo. Also at certain parts of the story, Elizabeth and Booker need to travel to alternate versions of Columbia. On a personal level, I enjoy alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, and am a big fan of the nineties sci-fi universe-jumping show Sliders, so I enjoyed the concept off the bat, and it certainly worked well in combat.

On the other hand, the Sliders-esque world jumping at times just felt like a crutch to hold the story up. Once the story hits a dead end, it just throws you into another alternate reality to allow the plot to move forward. Need to talk to a person with important information but they happen to be dead? No problem, we’ll just jump to a universe where they’re still alive! Why join the resistance when we can go to another world and join the revolution already in progress? Time and again I kept waiting for Booker and Elizabeth to return to the initial universe at the start of the game to see what if any implications their world-manipulation had but found myself disappointed by the end that there was no return to any of the other alternate worlds. This was especially true following the deaths of major characters. After Elizabeth unceremoniously kills two characters in a scripted scene, I awaited the chance to encounter each of them in another world, only to find that that was last time we get to encounter them.

MECHANICS

From a technical standpoint Bioshock Infinite is fairly solid, but there are some nagging issues ranging from irksome to game-breaking. For example, the subtitles that used to accompany playing the audio guides (called “Voxophones” in Infinite) have been removed, forcing a player to pause to read the transcript if they want to read along. For some reason, 2K decided to introduce an autosave feature, as opposed to being able to save anywhere, as had been the case in the first two Bioshocks. This now means that saves are tied to the system’s internal clock. The game will upload the save with the most recent date and time, which runs the risk of losing valuable progress if you do not maintain a constant online connection (I am not sure if this is an issue with the PS3, but it was a source of frustration during the early portions of my playthrough on the 360). Most aggravating for me was the most recent update for the 360 caused game-breaking freezes that rendered the game unplayable (the issue was fixed by uninstalling the update).

CRITICAL LOOK AT STORY

In terms of story, Infinite has a weaker overall narrative than the original Bioshock. So much of the story feels shallow with little substance below the surface. Aside from Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock, the characters don’t have much narrative depth or development. The original Bioshock led players through Rapture by exploring the characters who populated her, chronicling through audio recordings, flashbacks, and personal encounters the decline of Rapture through their experiences, from Andrew Ryan’s descent from objectivism to authoritarianism, to chief engineer Bill McDonough’s idealism to his efforts to wrest control of Rapture from Ryan, and the machinations of villains the likes of Frank Fontaine, Doctor Steinman, and Sander Cohen. In Infinite many of the characters we meet never evolve beyond shallow characterizations, the greedy robber baron Jeremiah Fink, the brutal revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy the grizzled old military man Cornelius Slate, and they come and go with such frequency that there is little time to explore them before they are unceremoniously shuffled off.

Infinite does continue the implicit theme that runs throughout Ken Levine’s epic of experimental cities and magic/science powers: choice is a myth. In my review way back when of Bioshock 2, I argued the underlying message of the Bioshock series has been the illusion of choice. In Bioshock 1 and 2, the moral choice system was undermined by the gameplay itself, namely how the material benefits, such as achievements, bonus ADAM and tonics, disproportionately favored the good path. When broken down to a reward system, there was no incentive to harvest the Little Sisters (aside from ripping slugs out of innocent little girls, you heartless monster). In Infinite, the story itself invalidates choice entirely. Carrying Infinite’s story to the end shows that a choice not made in the current in-game world is most likely carried out in another alternate world. The game itself demonstrates to the player that choice is an illusion on numerous occasions. Occasionally, the player is given a choice: heads or tails, bird or cage, kill or not kill. However, these choices end up having no impact on the game’s ultimate outcome. Even at key moments in the game’s story, the player more often than not is reduced to a spectator, such as during the deaths of Fink and Fitzroy. Even Comstock’s death at the hands of Booker is done in a cut scene.

Then there is Infinite’s ending. During an amazingly well-rendered sequence where the player sees an infinite number of Booker’s following and infinite number of Elizabeths to and infinite number of lighthouses, Elizabeth reveals the universe consists of countless alternate realities. All of these alternate realities (or probabilities as the Luteces explain earlier in the game) began with one defining event: Booker, following his atrocities at the Battle of Wounded Knee was faced with a choice–fall into a pit of despair, alcoholism and debt that led to him selling his infant daughter (Anna aka Elizabeth)–or experience a religious conversion wherein he took on a new persona (dramatic pause): Zachary Hale Comstock. This impasse set all the pieces in motion leading to the creation of Columbia and Booker’s ultimate confrontation with himself played out over millions upon millions of possible choices. However, despite the possibility of myriad variations between the disparate worlds, at the core some basic constants remain. As Elizabeth explains near the end: “there is always a lighthouse; there is always a man; there is always a city.” No matter how many times he has the chance, Booker always picks heads. He is always a man trying to redeem his violent past by committing more terrible deeds. And ultimately, the game rules that the only way to break the cycle is to remove Booker from the equation.

Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite with an infinite number of lighthouses

Image Source: Fandomania.com

Infinite’s story in its purest essence ultimately boils down to the holy trinity of Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock. The rest is window dressing and set pieces. It is the story of a man who has done terrible things who attempts to undo his past by continuing to do terrible things. It is also the story of Elizabeth’s lost innocence as she leaves her cloistered environment to enter Booker’s world of violence and brutality, a world that ultimately proves to be of his own making. The core characters, unlike the ancillary ones, do have a great deal of depth. Combined with terrific voice acting by Troy Baker, Kelly Marot, and Kiff VandenHeuvel , the interplay of Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock are by far the best elements of Infinite’s story.

GENDER

The issue of the representation of women in video games has justifiably attracted a great deal of debate lately. Much has been written on Elizabeth and whether she represents a positive or negative female character. Elizabeth is capable, intelligent and she is certainly one of the best AI support characters I have ever encountered. Yet, it is disappointing that Ken Levine needed to rely on the tired old Damsel in Distress trope. First, when Booker literally retrieves Elizabeth from her cell in a tower ala Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty and second when Booker needs to rescue Elizabeth from being kidnapped and tortured later in the game. I hear that Elizabeth takes a more active role in the Burial at Sea expansion, but I have yet to play it.

RACISM

A lot has been written and said about the racism in Bioshock Infinite. The player quickly learns that Columbia’s quaint slice of Americana is built upon a foundation of white supremacy, where non- and “lesser-whites” (a contemporary term for non Anglo Saxon Protestant whites, such as Irish and Italians) toil as an oppressed underclass who keep Columbia running.

Propaganda Poster from Bioshock Infinite

Image Source: GiantBomb.com

However, I noticed after the initial shock of turn-of-the-century racism subsides, Bioshock Infinite has very little to say about racism, either in Columbia or America. In the original Bioshock Randian objectivism was the foundation on which Rapture was built. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” a film of Andrew Ryan asks with player as they descend the bathysphere into Rapture. Rapture’s whole reason for being was based on Andrew Ryan’s dream of a place “where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the strong would not be slave to the weak,” and Bioshock’s story explores how the self-centered individualism at the heart of Rand’s philosophy breaks down. The free market creates an environment where Frank Fontaine can exploit the lower class people who make Rapture run; it also becomes part of Ryan’s tragic fall as he sacrifices his ideals for an authoritarian quest for order. The philosophy drives the story and shapes how Rapture’s characters interact with Ryan’s city. Moreover, the player sees the consequences of objectivism all throughout Rapture, from Ryan’s turn from laissez faire free-market capitalism to despotism, to the rebellion by the underclass, to the ethical debate over scientific progress.

In Bioshock Infinite I don’t see a similar approach. Sure there’s racism and racial violence and a working-class hero seeking to gain justice for the oppressed, but in the end Fitzroy is just as amoral as the Comstock establishment, launching a French Revolution-esque reign of terror, and by the second half of the game the Vox Populi have changed from scrappy resistance to antagonist, so much of the game results in the player gunning down blacks and “lesser whites” with the same amount of vigor (if you’ll pardon the pun) as Booker did against the white upper caste of Columbia. Racism as ideology in Bioshock Infinite felt more like thin wallpaper just covering the surface, a flimsy means to the end of finding more “bad guys” to shoot. It certainly made for some shocking moments, but in the end, turn-of-the-century notions of racial inequality are not really Infinite’s message, which really feels like a missed opportunity (especially in light of the more recent concerns over racial inequality in the wake the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner).

FINAL THOUGHTS

Tl;dr: Should you play Bioshock Infinite? Yes. If you like exciting run-and-gun gameplay with insane superpowers then Bioshock will be right up your Skyline-sliding, world-jumping alley. If you’re a longtime fan of the Bioshock series, the story may leave you a bit underwhelmed.

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Dungeon Keeper Mobile: A Game Greedy Companies Play

And the brouhaha around EA’s mobile Dungeon Keeper remake continues.

For those unfamiliar with Dungeon Keeper, it originally appeared as a PC game in 1997. The player assumes the role of a fantasy villain who designs and maintains a dungeon, protecting treasure against invading heroes. A sequel came out in 1999. Recently, Electronic Arts revived the franchise with a mobile version created by recently-defunct Mythic Entertainment.

To the dismay and outrage of Dungeon Keeper fans and game enthusiasts alike, the latest iteration in the franchise relies heavily on microtransactions. The game itself is available for free download; however in order to obtain the resources necessary to build and maintain a dungeon the game effectively forces users to continue to pay real money. Otherwise, players have to sit through exorbitantly long waiting times while resources are mined (Jim Sterling of The Escapist aptly described this model as “Free to Wait”) It is the microtransaction model taken to the Nth degree.

More like "Dollars.  Dollars. Dollars."

More like “Dollars. Dollars. Dollars.”

To make matters worse, Electronic Arts have stacked additional layers to the steaming pile, including blocking the ability to give the game less than a 5-star rating and deflecting criticism as just the nerd-rage of nostalgic longtime DK fans. It is the textbook example of the Free-2-Play business model at its absolute worst and has justifiably become the target of intense criticism. Even Peter Molyneux, creator of the original Dungeon Keeper, expressed his dismay over the direction EA has taken the series. In February he told the BBC: “I felt myself turning round saying, ‘What? This is ridiculous. I just want to make a dungeon. I don’t want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped.”

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority even recently told EA they could no longer market Dungeon Keeper as a free game.

An element of that debate hinges on whether or not Dungeon Keeper qualifies as a game at all, and there have been arguments made on both sides of the issue. For example, Mike Fahey at Kotaku observed that Dungeon Keeper was not a game for the “hardcore” game enthusiast but rather the casual mobile player accustomed to microtransactions and short play sessions (see also here and here for those who say no, and here for one who says yes).

If we follow the basic characteristics of games, I argue Dungeon Keeper and similar Free-2-Play games like Farmville and Final Fantasy: All the Bravest are in fact games. They are games in the sense they have clearly-defined players, rules, and objectives. However, the players are neither the irate “hardcore” game fans nor the casual mobile crowd.

The players in the Free-2-Play game scene are the publishers themselves.

Let me be clear that this is not the case in all Free-2-Play games. Jetpack Joyride is an entertaining free game on its own as is Tiny Tower. In each the player has the option to either earn coins for in-game purchases or pay real money to buy more coins. The choice lies with the player. These games make it possible to enjoy the experience without costing the player a nickel; instead offering it as an option to change or enhance gameplay. The pay model for players can also be a vote of affirmation to the developers, a sign they made something enjoyable and worthwhile.

Games like Dungeon Keeper and Final Fantasy and the rest of their ilk however fall on the opposite end of the F2P spectrum: they are games designed with the sole purpose of siphoning money to greedy developers who see these games as the direct means to the end of optimizing their cashflow by any means. In the metagame that is the Free-2-Play model, the objective is to develop a product that will quickly generate as much money as possible. The player uses all the techniques at their disposal to maximize their profits, including but not limited to downloadable content or paywalls barring users from effectively continuing without periodic admissions fees, manipulating review scores make their games seem better, or even leveraging the name of an established franchise to bilk fans into shelling out cash. In this game the user serves as the means toward the ultimate end of a larger bottom line.

In this model the end-user is no more a player than the Space Marines in Starcraft are players. They are pawns, means to the greater end of drawing in as much money as possible. To push the Starcraft metaphor even further, the users are SCV’s: expendable and interchangeable units designed to generate resources, mining their wallets to funnel cash into the publisher machine.

Now go out there and mine those minerals! Or alternatively go on GoG and buy the original Dungeon Keeper games: .

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Dissertation Notes: Put ‘Er, um, there: The Atari Secret Handshake

“Dissertation Notes” is the oh-so-clever name of my (semi) regular segment briefly highlighting the interesting, unusual, or thought-provoking materials I have come across while working on my dissertation.

Are you a true Atari fanatic?

A real one?

Come on, be honest?

Let’s put it to the test. Show me the handshake!

Video game companies and enthusiasts laid the foundation for our modern game fan culture during the early eighties by launching “fan club” magazines. Official fan club magazines, such as Atari Age, Activisions, Odyssey2 Adventure, and Intellivision Game Club News were basically extensions of the various companies’ marketing departments, but they represent the early cultivation of video game fan culture. They provided “insider” information on current and upcoming titles, sponsored contests (one of which will be the subject of a later “Dissertation Notes”), and encouraged readers to submit high scores and fan-created materials such as poems and fan art. None of the early magazines survived the Crash in 1983-4, but Nintendo picked up where they left off when it launched Nintendo Fun Club News (later renamed Nintendo Power) in 1987.

One of the stranger materials to come out of one of these fan club magazines appeared in the December 1982 issue of Atari Age (Vol. 1, No. 4): The Atari Secret Handshake.

According to an article dramatically revealing the secret handshake:

“We met recently with an Atari Vice President (who prefers to remain anonymous), and in the course of our conversation, she let slip the secret of the ‘official’ Atari handshake which has been making the rounds at Atari headquarters. It’s too good to keep to ourselves, so we’ll share it with you–but remember, we’re swearing all of you to secrecy on this!”

I’ll let the following diagram speak for itself:

The Atari Handshake, Atari Age, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Nov-Dec 1982), pg. 7

The Atari Handshake, Atari Age, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Nov-Dec 1982), pg. 7

So tell your friends, the secret appears to be out. See if they are a true fan as well.

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Mothers Month: Part 3 – Mother 3

“Speaking of waiting, next time we’ll wrap up the series with a look at Mother 3, a game that was in development for nine years.”

Little did I know nearly nine months would pass before I brought the last installment. It’s funny how your words sometimes gain new meaning over time. And so here it is, the third and final installment of my “month long” look at the Mother series. Watch them together and it will seem like they were all brought out around the same time.

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The December 9, 1993 Video Game Hearing, a Look Back

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the hearings on violent video games that led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Led by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, lawmakers and a panel of alarmed experts denounced video games for encouraging or desensitizing children to violence (you can view the entire hearing here).

The December hearing was the culmination of two major social and technological movements at work during the early nineties.

One the one hand, the late eighties and early nineties brought a wave of technological fads as various entrepreneurs attempted to combine the resurgent popularity of video games with other forms of established media, such as television and film, to create some kind of interactive supermedium.

This was the most fervent period of the VR craze. Led in no small part by Jaron Lanier. Lanier, a former programmer who had previously worked for arcade manufacturer Exidy, founded his own company–VPL–in the late 1980s as a virtual reality firm. Their flagship product was the DataGlove, a glove that allowed users to interact with computer environments with simple hand movements. Many readers may recognize the technology as that which inspired Mattel’s PowerGlove. The flamboyant Lanier took the DataGlove on the road, professing to the popular press of the coming of a technological utopia where people interacted with virtual worlds. He was by no means the only one. Even Timothy Leary, the spokesman of the wild sixties jumped on the VR bandwagon, demonstrating the technology at trade shows and news programs in the US and abroad. The world of science fiction crossed into the mainstream as words like “cyberspace,” “virtual,” and the “information highway” entered the popular lexicon.

The FMV or interactive movie game also had its brief moment in the sun. There was a wave of games utilizing live actors that promised to bridge the gap between video games and film. Initially introduced by Sega with Astron Belt in 1982, games that utilized canned film sequences fell in and out of fashion with various storage media. The success of Dragon’s Lair in 1983 brought a wave of “laserdisc games” that lasted through 1984; a few companies such as ViewMaster and Worlds of Wonder attempted VHS-based systems in the late eighties; and CD-ROM became the format of choice for the early nineties through systems such as 3DO, Cd-i, and Sega CD.

Hollywood also attempted to get in on the action with “I’m Your Man.” Released on December 18, 1992, by Controlled Entropy as an “Intervision” movie (company president Bob Bejan dubbed it a “cinematic game”) viewers could press one of three buttons on a controller attached to their seat to vote on actions that took place in the film, which the actors then carried out on-screen.

On the other hand, America was in a growing state of unease in 1993 as the country fell into the grips of a panic over violence. It is difficult to say what exactly sparked the controversy but Americans found themselves inundated by stories of violent crime in the press and declarations of an “epidemic of violence” among reporters, politicians, and pundits. In reality, statistics show that violent crime was actually on the decline (According to an FBI report, following a high in 1992, crime rates in the United States began a steady decline that continued through 2009); nevertheless, popular attention to violence reached frenzied proportions.

The popular press funneled in a steady stream of reports of random acts of violence into American living rooms. Stories that received significant airtime included the kidnapping and murder of Paula Claas and the December 7 mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train that killed five and wounded twenty-three. Following the Long Island shooting, the cover of Time ran a picture of a larger-than-life image of a handgun under the headline “ENOUGH!” Television specials aired throughout the latter months of 1993 and into 1994 on such topics as guns, drugs, and gang violence, such as MTV’s “Generation Under the Gun” which aired on December 9, 1993. In news stories the underlying questions were “Who/What is responsible” and “What is to be done?”

Congress responded with a wave of new legislation targeted at law enforcement and gun control. Two significant bills that came out of the panic were the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Signed into law on November 30, 1993, The “Brady Bill” called for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases pending a criminal background check. The “Crime bill” meanwhile was a broad-sweeping piece of legislation. Introduced in October 1993 and passed in August 1994, the 356 page bill instituted tougher penalties for violent crime and expanded the use of the death penalty among its numerous other provisions.

Activists branched out in all directions searching for a cause for the supposed wave of violence, including urban gangs, the proliferation of drugs, and gun culture. Invariably, others turned to moral issues. As is typical, some cited the outbreak to the decline of “traditional family values.” It should come as no surprise then that their efforts shifted toward the media as either reflecting violence in society or actively causing it. After a young boy set fire to his family’s mobile home, killing his younger sister, parents and law enforcement officials blamed Beavis and Butthead; in response, MTV removed all instances of Beavis’ “Fire, fire” catchphrase and preceded the show with a disclaimer. Others blamed the death of Pennsylvania teenager Michael Shingledecker on the movie “The Program,” arguing he was reenacting a scene from the film when he lay down in the middle of a busy street and was fatally run over.

It was in the midst of this environment that moral activists directed their ire toward video games. Sen. Joseph Lieberman emerged as their spokesman when on December 1, 1993, he held a press conference denouncing what he called “violent video games.” Flanked by members of the National PTA and former Captain Kangaroo star Bob Keeshan, Lieberman called out games for promoting violence and sex, especially violence toward women.

Lieberman singled out two games in particular: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Mortal Kombat was the breakaway arcade hit of 1992 with its use of digitized actors and its stylized violence, including the now-famous “Fatalities.” Acclaim released home versions for all the major systems on September 13, 1993 (“Mortal Monday”). Night Trap, meanwhile, was less of a household name. Developed by Digital Pictures, Night Trap had players portray a surveillance officer observing a slumber party through closed circuit cameras and protecting the partygoers from shambling black-clad vampires. Night Trap involved little skill beyond memorization, its live-action scenes were hammy and drawn out, and it came out for the Sega CD, an expensive add-on for the Sega Genesis. It is hard to determine just how Lieberman discovered Night Trap, and it is not much of a stretch to say had he not given it so much attention, it would have died in obscurity among Sewer Shark, Ground Zero: Texas, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, and the rest of the legion of bad FMV games from the early 1990s . Nevertheless, Lieberman set Night Trap up as the symbol of a video game industry threatening to corrupt America’s children and threatened legislation against the games industry.

The stage was set for the first of three hearings. On December 9, 1993, Lieberman, joined by Sens. Herbert Kohl and Byron Dorgan, denounced the video game industry for peddling violence to children. They pointed to Night Trap as the symbol of everything wrong with video games. He and a panel of educators and child psychologists described a game, as Lieberman described, designed to ensnare women (the objective in reality was actually the opposite), where women were strung up on meat hooks and had their blood decanted into wine bottles, neither of which were features available in the game. Experts cited conjecture and limited findings based on television violence research, including a controversial study by the American Medical Association which cited television as responsible for half the murders in America, as the definitive proof of the negative effects of video games on children. They pointed to the rise of VR as an example of how video games were becoming an even greater threat than traditional media and cited interactive movie games as the harbinger of dark days to come.

The representatives of the video game industry offered little resistance to the activists’ assertions. Howard Lincoln of Nintendo and Bill White of Sega brought their industry feud (epitomized by Sega’s slogan: “Sega Does What Nintendon’t”) into the halls of Congress. Lincoln, the former trial lawyer, successfully deflected congressional ire toward his counterpart at Sega, seasoned with some personal attacks directed at White, a former employee of Nintendo. He repeatedly cited Nintendo’s strict restrictions on content and their decision to not release Night Trap (which was probably motivated more by Nintendo’s lack of a system capable of playing the CD-rom-based game). White repeatedly found himself as the target of legislative outrage.

After the hearings, Lieberman introduced the Video Game Rating Act in February 1994. The bill called for an executive-appointed panel to develop a ratings system for the video game industry. Meanwhile, the video game manufacturers established the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), the industry’s first trade organization (now known as the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA), and developed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a letter-based ratings system present on all video game materials .

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Notes from the Game Presentation Circuit

PrimarySourceCode is not dead and neither am I.

Far from it, I have been making excellent progress on my research and I have been delivering talks on video games.

At the end of October, I had the privilege of speaking before the Delaware Valley Archivist Group’s “Archivists Being Awesome” on the subject of video game preservation (you can check out an interview I did with DVAG here). Bookending my talk were two excellent presentations: Lisa Gensel of the University of Delaware gave an interesting talk on emergency preparedness and how it relates to archives and Matt Shoemaker of Temple University’s Paley Library recounted his experience as part of a Kickstarter-funded history of Dungeons and Dragons.

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Cultural Association (MAPACA) to deliver a talk on my research into the 1993-1994 congressional hearings on video game violence. I was fortunate enough to be paired with a comprehensive project analyzing the moral panic against video games in the aftermath of last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A lively discussion of the role of video games in greater American culture followed the presentations. The two talks complemented each other extremely well and I was fortunate to be a part of it.

The following day of the conference brought a great set of game studies presentations under the heading “Gaming: New Frontiers.” Alana Staiti, a former UD colleague who is now studying at Cornell, gave a fascinating talk on the character design of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. Fanny Ramirez from Rutgers examined the ambitious crowdfunded game Star Citizen and the benefits and pitfalls of funding a game through nontraditional means. Robert Spicer and Karl Babij rounded out the panel with a survey of users of Zynga’s messaging system in Words with Friends. The discussion that followed was as lively as you would expect from game scholars.

With conferences over (for now) expect to find more quality video game and history material here at PrimarySourceCode. I have found some exciting materials I am eager to share with you.

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Saving Games: Code4lib Mid-Atlantic

Last Thursday I had the privilege to deliver a presentation for the August monthly meetup for Code4lib Mid-Atlantic.   I talked about the challenges facing video game preservation and what they mean for people in cultural institutions.  I want to thank everyone who attended for all of your great questions and feedback.  For those weren’t able to make the trip out to Temple University’s Paley Library, I have attached a copy of my notes along with a hopefully useful bibliography here (Impellizeri Code4Lib Talk).  I will also be conducting an expanded version of this talk at the upcoming October meeting of Archivists Being Awesome.

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