Real Catholic Men Can Play Games

The 40 Year Old Virgin

“You know how I know you’re Catholic?”

A couple weeks back I read something by a priest arguing that Real Catholic Men should not play videogames. The article was pointless and ill-informed, and proved mostly that the author had not one single solitary clue about his subject matter and only the vaguest notion about “videogames” and the people who play them.

We were treated to the standard hand-wringing about man-children, wasting time, how people could be improving themselves rather than engaging in “pointless” activity, and so on. Honestly, the piece could have written itself by dropping almost any cultural artifact–rock music, comic books, TV–into a Disapproval-o-Matic and churning out the same hollow junk.

I want to just point out two of the main problems with these useless critiques: the assumption that playing a computer, mobile, or video game interferes with life, and the idea that it’s somehow unmanly and time-wasting.

Let’s look at the time factor first, and imagine two dialogs with the author, who we’ll call Fr.  Beaman.

A man in his 20s comes to visit Father for counseling. Part of their conversation goes something like this:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week following professional sports, and another 3-5 on my fantasy sports league and brackets. I also watch about 2 hours of TV a night.

FR. BEAMAN: Ho, ho! How about those (insert local sports team)!

Now let’s imagine a different exchange:

MAN: I spend about 12-15 hours a week playing Civilization V or Titanfall. I don’t really watch TV. I don’t like sports.

FR. BEAMAN: [curls his lip in disgust] And you call yourself a man?

Here’s the thing: I don’t follow sports, at all. Ever. I don’t judge people who do, but I think it is one of the most mind-numbing, pointless activities I can imagine.

If a man spends his leisure time in a complex and deep game world in which he takes an active part, while another man spends the same amount of time watching TV or following football (a fundamentally passive act), the second man is somehow judged to be more “manly” and not “wasting his time.”

This doesn’t follow. There’s nothing less “masculine” about playing World of Warcraft than there is in watching American Idol or Monday Night Football, or even going fishing. It runs afoul of none of the three moral determinants (object, end, and circumstance), and given the complexity of modern electronic gaming, it is not an empty or mindless activity.

Gamers watch far less television than non-gamers. One could even argue that gaming is morally superior to television because it can engage the intellect, stimulate the imagination, and require an element of physical interaction, whereas television renders the individual into a passive receiver.

If you’re a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, sure, I’ll give you extra “Man Points” if that’s important to you, just like I would if you were a soldier, fireman, ironworker, commercial fisherman, or longshoreman.

But if you just follow the Philadelphia Eagles? No. You’re just a guy sitting on a couch watching other men exert themselves for your amusement.

Beyond this, parsing who is a “real man” and who isn’t is a fool’s errand. Masculinity is not a set of things to be checked off a list.

The second criticism is the “you’re wasting your life” bit. We get the usual examples: you could be hiking! Learning a language! Deepening your faith! Helping the needy!

So one precludes the other? Why?

Here’s a partial list of things I have done in my life: camped, fished, sailed, fired a variety of weapons, built things out of wood and metal, painted and sketched, written and published books, learned to play several instruments, traveled to foreign countries, been in a fight, worked on a television series, earned the love of a good woman, made love to said woman, sired children, studied and taught the faith, volunteered thousands of hours, worked with the poor and sick, raised money for a charity, prayed daily, earned two advanced degrees (one of them in Theology), learned a language, raised and cared for a variety of animals, played a team sport, took care of my dying father, run a 6-minute mile, chopped a tree and made a fire, earned an income and supported a family, paid a mortgage, conducted pilgrimages, and earned a reputation in my profession.

Some of these I still do. Some of them I tried and do not enjoy, and thus will not likely do them again. I do not like camping, for example. My wife loves it. We’ve tried to compromise. I can take or leave fishing. I don’t oppose hunting but neither do I enjoy it. I’m not handy. And although my physical problems sometimes limit my ability to get around in the world, I don’t feel this makes me less of a man or my life less full.

Thus, this idea that all men who play games are living withered and incomplete lives is a fantasy. Some men indeed may be letting games interfere with a full life, and that is a problem just like any other disordered attachment. If Father had merely said “Men who overdo the gaming thing need to get out now and then and see the world,” he would have had no complaint from me. An obsession is bad regardless of the object.

But that wasn’t the point being made. Gaming was singled out as something no Catholic man worth his manhood should be doing.

Well, I’m a man, and like many other men my age (46), as well as men both older and younger, I enjoy computer and videogames now and then.

And that’s just fine.

Related

Tech Addiction:Technology & The Synod on the Family

Alienation: Technology & The Synod on the Family

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Child’s Play Charity Sets New Record

When the creators of the popular web comic Penny Arcade created the Child’s Play initiative in 2003, they had no idea how big it would get. That first year they raised $250,000 in toys and money for kids at the Seatlle Children’s Hospital to “make the holidays a little bit brighter for the kids in need.”

Every year the donations have grown, and they continue to work to get toys and contributions to kids in over 90 hospitals around the world.

This year, the take was $7.6 million.

“It’s absolutely mind boggling,” they wrote in an official statement, adding

Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have believed it possible. That’s more than the cumulative total for the first six years of Child’s Play, raised in the last 12 months. Not only have you been able to support our growing network of hospitals, but we’re also been able to expand our initiatives and benefit children in domestic violence shelters. In 2014 that program will move past the pilot program to encompass facilities across the country and provide them with vital resources to support the kids they see every day.

Child life specialists reach out to us every year, overwhelmed and amazed at the generosity of gamers. The iPads they use help distract and comfort kids as they prep for surgery. An Xbox will find its way to the community playroom for siblings to play together again. The movies, craft supplies, CDs, toys, and books sent from Amazon wishlists let kids just be kids for a moment: not sick kids, not hurt kids, not scared or lonely kids. Just kids playing like kids.”

The donations are almost entirely from gamers in small denominations, rather than large grants or sponsors. In 10 years they have raised a total of $25,196,670.

Go to childsplaycharity.org for more information.

The Retro-Cartoon Stylings of Cuphead

If this game plays half as amazing as it looks, we’re in for a treat. 

Cuphead in ‘Don’t Deal With the Devil’ is a side-scrolling action game hand-animated in the style of a 1930s Fleischer Brothers cartoon.

Here’s how the designers describe it:

Cuphead is a classic run and gun that centers around 1-on-1 fights (2-on-1 in two player mode). With Cuphead, we aim to evolve the genre by adding new features such as: super arts, infinite lives, a playable world map and hidden secrets. In addition to that, we will have refined controls, additional boss patterns on harder modes and balanced weapons to equip (that you don’t lose!). We plan to release 10-15 bosses per episode and end up with over 30 bosses. If all goes as planned, we will defeat the current “Guinness World Record for Most Boss Battles in a Run and Gun Game”[25 total]).

 

Which New Game System Should You Buy: Xbox or PlayStation?

I’ll keep it short: neither.

In a year, maybe, you can consider getting into the new generation of consoles by buying either an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4. From what I’ve seen, I’d lean towards the Xbox One, because I prefer the Microsoft ecosystem, it has better multimedia features, and Microsoft has a better track record with this kind of thing. In fairness to Sony, the PS4 appears to be a much more user-friendly machine than the PS3, and probably has the edge in pure power. It depends on what you’re looking for.

But unless what you’re looking for is a really expensive DVR/Roku/Blu-Ray combo that can play three or four unique games, skip it. The systems won’t be populated with titles for a year at least, and neither is backwards compatible. None of your old games will play on them. Neither is a good choice for family use right now, since almost all the titles are geared for older players.

There is more than enough out there on the existing systems to keep you busy. The final days of any console system tend to be a Golden Age, with a lot of strong titles made by people with long experience of coaxing maximum results from well-worn hardware. This new hardware will take time to master, and it will be a while before you really “need” one for playing unless you’re hardcore about getting a few new titles–like Killzone or Ryse–right now.

Now is the time to take a second look at the Wii U. It’s a family-friendly system, you can find some pretty good bundle deals, it’s had a year to build a library, it’s backwards compatible and will play all your Wii games, and Super Mario 3D World is out.

Save your money on the other systems. Look for the first price drop. There is no burning need to be an early adopter, unless you like to hurry up and wait.

These machines just cost too much right now. You don’t need it. Wait. Donate the money to Heifer or something and try again next year.

Iranian Games Weirdness

This video popped up in my news feed this morning, and it was odd enough to merit a share. (Sorry, no embedded video.) It offers a small glimpse into the world of Iranian game production, as filtered through the lens of Press TV, the official English-language propaganda wing of the Iranian ruling council.

 

It appears to be a fairly straightforward report on a young national industry’s annual awards show, but it’s just a bit … off, and it winds up feeling like those videos of apparently happy hostages reading out propaganda statements while they blink “help me” in Morse Code.

Western games are popular among Iranian youth, but Iran doesn’t care for the Western cultural influence that goes with it.

Fair enough. I don’t care for it either sometimes. And even though their efforts seem to be somewhere around late-1990s level in technical and design quality, that’s to be expected in a young industry still working to build up their technological and talent base. They’re to be applauded for trying.

The video is a report on the National Foundation of Computer Games 2013 awards. The NFCG was created by the Iranian government to develop and promote the national gaming industry and fight the influence of offensive western games on their culture.

That’s not unusual. There are plenty of similar organizations throughout the world, and a culture as rich in history as Persia certainly has a great deal to offer through a creative medium like video and computer gaming, as long as they’re not making Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ‘Let’s Wipe Israel Off the Map.’

In fact, there is a bit of that in Iranian games. Rather than the American military focus of domestic shooters, Iranain military shooters feature things like “Mohamad Marzoghi, an elite member of the Lebanese Hezbollah commando, sneaking through an Israeli military base on a mission to rescue a kidnapped Iranian scientist in the game Resistance (Tebyan, 2008)” and “a member of the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards attacking and finally subduing Iraqi forces in the fierce battle of the Fao Peninsula in 1986 in the game Valfajr 8 (Tebyan, 2007).”

There’s also non-mainstream, amateur fare like Fighting the Leaders of Sedition, a free game that asks you to shoot real-life Iranian reformers.

For the most part, however, Iran downplays Islamic elements to focus on their Persian heritage with exotic “Prince of Persia”-style action games such as Quest for Persia.

This short video report makes me wonder just what’s going on in Iranian game development circles. Though the report is produced by Western talent working for Press TV, much of it just odd. For example:

  • One of the guys on the stage helping out with the award presentations appears to be a living statue version of slain Libyan dictator (and foe of Iran) Muammar Gaddafi. Try to imagine a comic Saddam Hussein giving out awards at the 2006 E3 to get an idea of how wrong this is.
  • The organization is called the National Foundation of Computer Games, and everyone is determined to stick with narrative by calling the things on display computer games, even though everything being shown appears to be a video game. That’s not a minor distinction in gaming. (There’s also an Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation, which may or may not be related. Maybe it’s People’s Front of Judea thing.) 
  • The kids are all shown playing Western games.
  • The one winner interviewed is a sound guy. He’s wearing a shirt with a yin-yang symbol on it. Remember, this video is aimed not at Iranians (who will never see it), but Americans, which is why Cool T-Shirt Guy was chosen for the sole interview. Look how understanding Iran is! We even let this guy walk around free!
  • At the 34 second mark, one of the games looks like something my kids did in basic computer class in grade school. You can see from Quest for Persia that they’re capable of better (though still primitive) work. Why not show that?
  • Near the 1:48 mark a woman is shown briefly, and without comment, attaching sensors to a child’s head and finger. I imagine it’s some kind of brain-machine interface device, but without context, it just looks rather alarming.
  • The randomness of the clips accelerates as the story goes on. At one point, for no apparent reason, we see a group of joking boys poised to fight with each other. Hidden message: games make children aggressive!

An Iranian game called “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” is getting some international attention, but wasn’t featured in the report. Maybe a game named for one of St. Augustine’s most famous quotes was just to much for Press TV. In any case, it looks like a pretty good 2D puzzler, and one I’d like to try:

Little Kids Just LOVE “Call of Duty”!

And, as if on cue, Activision once again shows its utter tone deafness by releasing children’s toys based on Call of Duty.

The sets feature locations, figures, weapons, and vehicles from the games, which should not be played by anyone under age 17. These aren’t collectible action figures, which might be said to have an adult audience, but Mega Bloks, the Lego knockoff squarely and solely marketed to children.

Mega Bloks already had Halo, Warcraft, and Skylanders sets, but each of those games has a somewhat younger audience. Even though Halo has moved into M-rated territory, it’s nowhere near the hyper-violent experience of Call of Duty.

Those denials that the game industry doesn’t market mature product to kids are getting less and less convincing.

Right now, with headlines blaming CoD for the shooting, Mega Bloks has taken down their CoD website and scrubbed their site of references to the product line.

Smart move, but too late.

Can someone put the adults back in charge, please?

 

Call of Duty, Back in the Crosshairs

As details emerged about the killer* of 12 at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday, various camps began exploiting the tragedy for their agendas.

The first, of course, were the gun grabbers, with the always-nauseating David Frum (most famous for helping lie us into an unnecessary war) taking to Twitter before all the shots were even fired. With no knowledge at all about the shooter, his weapon, or anything else, Frum started attacking gun rights supporters, even adding preemptive mockery of anyone who might find his behavior ghoulish and inappropriate.

Next up: the game critics. An entire political infrastructure and corporate media machine–both dedicated to the almost-always-wrong idea that “Something Must Be Done!”–started digging into the life of the shooter and found the following details:

  • He heard voices and was medicated for mental illness.
  • He was known for his quick temper and anger issues.
  • He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after rescuing victims on 9/11.
  • He was paranoid and carried a gun everywhere, and would fire it now and then.
  • He said he was the victim of racial discrimination.
  • He hated America.
  • He claimed to have been screwed over by his employers (the US government).
  • He played Call of Duty 16 hours a day.

If you think the media led with any other fact than the last, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Call of Duty has drifted far from its roots. What was once a top-notch military shooter with a Teen rating has devolved into a sadistic blood-fest of mind-numbing violence.

I’ve written against the trend towards hyperviolence in games for a while now, even while 1) asserting the first amendment rights of designers to make those games, and 2) denying the direct linkage between violence in games and violence in the real world. There simply is no such cause and effect link.

The human psyche is a work of such baffling intricacy that we still barely understand its functioning. All the myriad influences, experiences, memories, dreams, thoughts, and biological elements that combine to form our consciousness create complex networks that make it extremely difficult to really trace a motive for anything, from love to racial animus to homicidal impulses. The mind can be at once amazingly resilient and distressingly fragile.

Does the troubled mind drift to violent entertainment to calm it, or does the violent entertainment create the troubled mind? The game industry is so afraid of possible censorship that it’s reluctant to ask the hard questions. Did violent games affect the mind of Navy Yard shooter?

Of course they did.

Perhaps for the better, by allowing an outlet for violent impulses, before those impulses overwhelmed him.

Perhaps for the worse, by allowing dark thoughts to feed on murderous fantasies and thus grow.

Be certain of this: they did something. It’s simply wrong to blame video games for mass homicide, but it’s equally wrong to wave away the possibility that there was no relation between a man playing Call of Duty 16 hours a day and that same man gunning down 12.

The games didn’t cause the man to kill any more than Catcher in the Rye caused the shootings of Ronald Reagan and John Lennon. They are, however, part of the total psychological portrait of a troubled mind.

The mere fact of playing a game for 16 hours a day is already evidence of a disturbed and wicked mind obsessed with violence. His gaming may not have been causal (the game didn’t make him sit there for 16 hours), but it was certainly diagnostic.

Yet the mainstream media will continue to batten on simplistic solutions—games bad!, gun control good!—to the extremely complex matters of human psychology and the real presence of evil in the world.

And the game industry does nothing to help their case when each new release tries to top the last for pure savagery. The same week the Naval Yard shooting took place, Grand Theft Auto V was released to huge sales and critical acclaim. In that delightful little slice of sadism, you can torture someone, even using the game controller to rip out his teeth and waterboard him in a series of minigames.

Just charming.

We don’t need this. No one needs this. It’s garbage. Adults should shun it on principle. And parents who let their children play GTA5 are just bad parents. Period.

Games can’t shoulder the blame for striking outbursts of violence, but it’s way past time that they clean up their act.

 

*I have a policy on this blog: I don’t use the names of mass murderers and spree killers. They commit their crimes to gain attention and fame. That is their primary motive. I will not help them with this.

BioShock Infinite: First Impressions

Since I’ve written about BioShock quite a bit, I’ve been getting a lot of questions here and on Twitter and Facebook about the newest title–Bioshock Infinite–which just released yesterday. I’m wrapping up an issue of Games Magazine this week, and only just managed to get about four hours of play in last night.

So, here are some loose first thoughts about it:

Rumors are circulating that it cost $100 million to make, and I can believe it. This is the first title from Irrational Games since the original BioShock in 2007 (Irrational didn’t make BioShock 2), and they’ve been working on it about that long. The game, which uses the Unreal engine, is not just gorgeous. That’s to be expected in 2013. The wonderful thing is the staggering amount of visual style and invention on display. This is a dazzling act of world-building. Just take a look:

It offers a world that is familiar in our imaginations–early 20th century, World’s Fair-inspired Americana–and adds equal parts steampunk and dystopia. Unlike the dripping, dark, decaying, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original BioShock, this is a sunlit paradise. Project head Ken Levine said they looked not only to the 1893 World’s Fair for inspiration, but to movies like The Music Man, and it shows. Men in straw boaters, ladies in long dresses, carnival midways, and barbershop quartets: there’s color and life everywhere, all seen through a nostalgic haze.

Are you familiar with the Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” or the books of Jack Finney? It’s like that.

Except … it’s not, because the entire city is floating. Buildings dock and separate, dirigibles dot the air, and skyway rails link locations.  The city of Columbia lifted off from America, announced its independence, and disappeared into the clouds. Some things connect our world to this one. At one point, an air barge drifts by with a quartet singing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It’s a wonderfully whimsical moment, but like everything in Columbia, it’s tinged with darkness: you soon learn that their idea of God isn’t quite ours, and that this idea has drives much of the madness that ensues.

Thematically, there is something to make everybody uncomfortable. Just like the original BioShock was built on a critique of Objectivity taken to its logical conclusion, so BioShock Infinite uses turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism taken to extremes.

Columbia was actually created  by the US government as a kind of floating world’s fair dedicated to spreading a Pax Americana. Unknown to many, it was bristling with weapons, which came to light after an international incident. America disavowed the city, and it disappeared. A power struggle ensued between radical racist theocrats led by a Joseph Smith-like figure and a group of resisters who started out with lofty ideas of equality, but soon descended into factionalism and violence.

When the main character arrives  (via rocket) in Columbia, “the Prophet,” Zachary Hale Comstock, has total control over the population, and preaches a twisted and blasphemous inversion of Christianity in which the Founders (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) are revered as a trinity of almost godlike figures. Trinitarian formulas crop up in several places, from a baptism at the beginining, to a group of Klan-like radical who worship … John Wilkes Booth. As you can see, they don’t think much of the Great Emancipator:

The game lures you into this dark world gradually. All appears to be relatively okay in Columbia, at first. It seems like a place you’d like to live, until you get to the drawing of the “lottery,” which you win. The curtain on the stage opens, to reveal … an Irishman (presumably Catholic) and his black wife. Your prize for winning? You get to be the person to cast the first stone in their execution. At this point, you have a choice: hit the couple, or the lottery leader. I’m not sure what happens if you choose the former, but I imagine the story takes a darker turn. At that point, all hell breaks loose and the people realize you are the False Shepherd warned of by The Prophet.

Comstock has been purging Columbia of undesirables. Blacks have been reduced to a slave-like servile class. “Papists, Gypsies, Irish and Greeks” must wear special tags to travel about the city.

This is powerful stuff. You’ll come across a black man washing a floor and complaining, in perfect English, of his sorry lot. When he spots you, he immediately goes into a servile “yes massah” routine and begins acting ignorant and happy. It’s a deeply disturbing moment, moreso because you have no doubt it’s grounded in the real experience of minorities in America at one point in our history.

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The game doesn’t flinch at these moments: it relishes them. Patriotic Americana is twisted to serve a dark and racist message. Automatons of George Washington are made to spout The Prophet’s message. Principles of American freedom are used to promote hatred and oppression.

Some gamers may see this as pure anti-American, anti-religious bigotry. I won’t make that call until I’m finished, but I’m not inclined to agree, yet.

This is imaginative alternate history, along the lines of “What would America be like if the English/Nazis/Commies had won?” Taking treasured and precious images and deploying them to make a point is risky business, and I’d be lying if I said I was wholly comfortable with it. At the same time, I know that’s the whole point. We’re not supposed to be comfortable with it. We’re supposed to think differently about familiar things.

What I need to see–and what I can only know after I finish it–is if there was really any point to it. Objectivism is ascendant, particularly in technolibertarian quarters, and radical individualism was worthy of critique. Is American Exceptionalism and antebellum racism really a pressing issue?

Obviously not, thus the critique must be about something else. Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe. Bush, and now Obama, were certainly looking to spread a Pax Americana to the middle east, if only to keep them from plowing airplanes into our skyscrapers. That it was, and is, a misbegotten mess doomed from the start doesn’t change the idealism undergirding it: liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore. Except it didn’t work, and never could.

Is it a critique of Occupy Wall Street? Ken Levine admits that the protests were an influence on the developing story, but to what degree remains to be seen. If the Vox Pop of the game are supposed to be an OWS proxy, I can’t see the OWS folks being particularly happy about it.

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If it turns out to be another tired anti-religious screed, I’ll be disappointed. Kicking religion is just about the lowest, cheapest thing an artist can do. People who start from that old lie about religion causing more misery and death than anything else in world history rarely have anything of interest to say, because they’re working from a false premise.

I find it interesting that Levine admits that one of his employees (described as “very religious”) played an early build of part of the game and immediately tended his resignation because of the way religion was treat. Levine, who admits to not being religious, welcomed the input, and says the employee (who stayed) gave him new perspectives that changed the game’s treatment of religion.

My response to that is: I guess I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve respected Levine’s work since his days with Looking Glass, which I covered quite a bit when I was lead writer for PC Gamer. I remember seeing an early version of a game called System Shock, and immediately started flogging it as The Greatest Game Ever in PCG and elsewhere. BioShock was a continuation and perfection of many of the ideas in System Shock, and I consider it the most profound work of interactive fiction to date. It tackled difficult ideas and situations with intelligence and style. And it was fun.

BioShock Infinite ups that ante considerably. The gameplay is a fairly direct updating of that found in the original, but the narrative, character, and thematic elements are far more explosive. In the original, you faced the decision of weather or not to kill children. The proper decision was clear, but you still have a choice. In this, you’re forced to choose whether or not to stone a black person on a stage in front of a mob of howling racists. That’s potent stuff. Dynamite, in fact. By the time I finish, I hope I have a sense of whether or not the developers were deploying it some effect, or just playing games.

You can buy  Bioshock Infinite here.

Halo 4 Goes Deep

Halo 4
Publisher/Developer: Microsoft/i343
Platforms: Xbox 360
Rated: M (Mature) for Blood and Violence
Parents should know (ESRB description): This is a first-person shooter in which players control futuristic super-soldiers who engage in military campaigns against alien forces. Players use pistols, scoped rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and futuristic weaponry to kill enemies in ranged combat; battles are highlighted by cries of pain, realistic gunfire, and large explosions. Stealth moves (i.e., “assassinations”) can also be used to attack enemies from behind (e.g., snapping their necks or stabbing/impaling them with bladed weapons). During one cutscene, a human character cries out as her body disintegrates, exposing layers of muscle tissue. Large blood-splatter effects occur when humans are shot; some sequences depict bloodstained environments.
Verdict: Safe for discerning teens and older.  I consider this a “safe M” game in that the mature language is minimal, there’s no sexual content, and the violence is not against recognizably human foes. Some parents will disagree. Those in doubt should watch some gameplay footage to decide for themselves. You can find the opening cinematic and some of the gameplay here and here.

In the current debate about gun violence in the wake of the Newtown massacre, videogames are back in the crosshairs as Public Enemy #1. Certainly, the industry could use a long period of soul-searching about the gratuitous content of some of the more hyper-violent games, but the idea that there’s a universal problem with “shooters”—-a popular genre in which players spend much of the time in combat, usually with firearms—needs to be checked. Some are a problem, some are not. Some, indeed, are capable of exploring complex and even profound issues in a unique, exciting, and even intelligent way. The Halo series is a case in point.

Halo is one of the most popular game series in history, and it puts to shame much of the tripe passed off as science-fiction in modern cinema and television. There is deep world-building, profound themes, superb storytelling, and excellent visual design, all of it wrapped in a fun and accessible interactive package. A movie has to cram characters, themes, and story into about 2 hours. Games have a more leisurely pace, spreading out to 10, 20, and even (in some cases) 100 hours of content. This provides a lot more room to work, if designers are so inclined.

Upon release, Halo 4 logged the kind of returns that would make Hollywood swoon: $200 million in 24 hours, and another $100 million over the next six days. Seven million copies sold, and a million people logged in to play online in the first 24 hours. Another million finished the campaign game in the first week, logging 31.4 million hours in that same week. And they’re not kids: the average age of a gamer is mid-30s, and 25% of them are women.

Halo 4 earns its following by delivering more than the tired run and gun action that characterizes the increasingly-tedious Call of Duty games. The gameplay certainly matters, and it remains quite good, but without vivid surrounding material, it’s unlikely people would keep returning.

The Story

Halo 4 marks the beginning of a new trilogy with a new developer. Bungie–the studio that created the games–has been split from Microsoft and is working on other things. Their last word on the Halo universe was the prequel Halo: Reach, and now new hands (343 Industries) are starting a new series (the “Reclaimer” trilogy) to continue the mega-selling franchise.

The first trilogy deals with the attack on humanity by group of fanatical alien races called the Covenant. These races worship an advanced alien race (the Forerunners), who in turn worship an even more advanced race (the Precursors), which share certain characteristics with angels. The Forerunners built the Halo Array: a series of ringworlds with orbiting circular superstructures designed to contain and study a parasite called the Flood. In the event of a breach, the Halo structures function as a superweapon capable of wiping out any life that might form a new host for the Flood. The idea was inspired by Larry Niven, but there’s also a bit of Tolkien in the idea of a “ring” which may be used for good, but is in fact a weapon.

Standing against this fierce array of enemies are the Spartans: engineered supersoliders represented by the greatest of them all: the Master Chief. A towering figure in full battle armor, Master Chief has become one of the most iconic figure in contemporary pop culture.

The new series brings us deeper in the world and story of the Forerunners, as Master Chief crashes on a Forerunner planet and has to confront an entirely new class of enemies.

The Themes

The game deals with the moral problem is at the heart of the Spartan program. These supersoliders were created in a controversial program that involved kidnapping and, essentially, brutalizing children. Halo 4 begins with an intriguing scene in which Dr. Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program, is interrogated about its morality, and the ramifications of creating super-humans. Indeed, the first line of the game is “Tell me about the children,” and we get a glimpse of the loveless lives young Spartans were forced to lead in order to defeat the enemies of humanity.

The interrogator later asks her, “Do you think Master Chief succeeded because he was … broken?” These questions about consequentialism are an interesting first step for the series. The name “Spartan” was not chosen randomly: these warriors are the product of eugenics and cruel training. Their “creator” sees them as “huamity’s next step,” and thus she becomes god: one of many false gods and God surrogates in the game.

Complicating the bioethical issues in the game is the existence of Cortana, an artificial intelligence who helps and guides the Master Chief in his missions. Cortana was created as a “smart” AI by cloning the brain of Dr. Halsey. She can not only learn, but also develop. This process has a limit, and as Cortana becomes more “human,” she begins to break down and die.

All of these issues provide an very deep thematic well that gives the game its resonance, in both ideas and emotions. The game opens with a scene questioning the very morality of the program on which the entire series is built. The emotional bond between Cortana and Master Chief, two broken products of science run untethered from morality, is unbelievably touching, particularly considering that one is a hologram and the other is never seen without a helmet. The writers are asking serious questions about the limits of technology, particularly in light of the ugly truth: without these engineered, brutalized soldiers, humanity would have perished. Was it worth the price? It’s impressive to even find such a question asked in a game.

Religious themes have always been part of the series, as you might well suspect from the name. The Forerunners are, of course, a God surrogate to the Covenant (obviously, a word with Biblical mean), but the Forerunners themselves had a God surrogate (the Precursors) who share the characteristics of angels. There are parallels to Daniel 11 in the plot of Halo 2, and the Master Chief’s full name is John-117, which is generally believed to be a reference to Revelation 1:17.  Brandon Vogt sees him patterning Christ in “taking the form of a slave” to save humanity in a cosmic struggle.

Also notable is the game’s extensive use of plainchant for its musical score, which evokes the deep belief held by the combatants in these wars. There’s even something of the holy warrior about the Chief: an isolated, presumably celibate crusader with a devotion to his mission.

The Game

One totally unexpected surprise in Halo 4 is the technical skill 343i brings the party. Nothing’s changed about the Xbox 360’s woefully ageing tech, but through some mysterious alchemy, the developer makes their game look twice as good as the last offering from Bungie. The lighting and texture work are a shocking advance over past entries, showing there’s still some juice left in the old 360.

Even better is the way 343i uses the tech to create grand new environments with long views over lush vistas, detailed jungles, stunning architecture, and beautiful animations. Halo has always been marked by terrific design work, but never anything as good as what we find in Halo 4. This new graphical prowess is on display from the first moments, with opening scenes showing off facial animations that are alarming in their lifelike detail.

While the artistry and tech reach new levels of excellence, the gameplay remains mostly true to the roots of the series. Doing your best to preserve the Chief’s armor while wielding a combination of guns, grenades, melee attacks, and special powers is still the heart of the game. (For those of you wondering: no, dual-wield has not returned to the game. Commence griping.)

Mixing up that formula is a new batch of enemies. The old Covenant forces are still around to give you a chance for that beloved pastime: Running over Grunts With Warthogs. But the new Promethean forces are what give Halo 4 that fresh flavor. They move and react differently, require unique strategies, and generally shake up the pacing and feel of combat encounters. The Knights are particularly formidable as they teleport around the battlefield, making them hard to handle with standard ranged weapons. Most of those weapons are familiar from previous games (and fans would be irritated if old favorites didn’t return), but a few new Forerunner items add some surprises to the arsenal.

The campaign game will only fill out about 10 hours of play time, so it’s in multiplayer that Halo games have their long lives. Four-person co-op campaign play is still a real treat, and this is being expanded by an ongoing series called Spartan Ops. These new episodes are free to download, and although brief they provide a nice IV drip of ongoing content.

Multiplayer has been tweaked a bit, with some modes renamed and finessed a bit. The only really new element is “Regicide,” which places a price on the head of highest-scoring player and rewards him with occasional powerups. “Dominion” replaces “Invasion” as a base-capture mode with a few new twists. There are more customization features and greater flexibility, including loadouts and plenty of MP options. It’s a strong suite of features that will keep H4 high on gamers’ playlists for a long time.

If there was any worries that a new developer would be unable to keep Halo running strong, Halo 4 blows that away with a game that may well be the best Halo experience to date. More to the point is that it uses action and sci-fi to explore complex themes.

Can We Put the Adults Back in Charge?

When I do reviews of products parents might be considering for their children, I usually point out anything that might be of concern. This helps parents make sound decisions.

But there are places where I never would have thought to look for “family unfriendly” content. One expects the adults in charge of some products and publications to show some rudimentary common sense, but that’s becoming less likely. For example, just recently, the largely family friend show Once Upon a Time has been adding sexual innuendo from the character of Captain Hook. It strikes a jarring note in a show that, although dark, often has a good moral message and manages to avoid mature content. It’s minor and fleeting, but still, it doesn’t belong there.

A more serious example is Songza: a music streaming app somewhat like Pandora, but with set playlists for certain times and moods: waking up, going to sleep, making dinner, dancing, and so on. I was setting up Songza to stream some relaxing music for my son at bedtime when I came across this:

“Getting High” and “Getting Lucky”? To hell with you, Songza. I’m sure they thought they were being cool and hip and edgy. What they were actually being was childish, irresponsible jerks.

Next up we have this story from England about a children’s magazine using images from hyper-violent M-rated games to create puzzles for kids under age 12. Here’s an example:

The pictures, from Cool Kidz Magazine, show the main character of Hitman brandishing guns and challenges the kiddies to spot the difference. Charming, no?

Cool Kidz is published by LCD Publishing and distributed by Hearst and Conde Naste, and had images from not one, but five different M-rated (an “18” in the UK) games: Hitman: Absolution, Call of Duty Black Ops II, Assassins Creed III, Far Cry 3 and Dishonored.

Screenshots appeared as double-page spreads, for use as posters, and were reproduced in spot-the-difference and other puzzles. Earlier issues also had images from 18- and 16-rated games.

LCD Publishing, which is based in Exeter, southwest England, said it took its responsibilities to young readers seriously. “We censor the images we use to ensure that there is no blood or apparent body damage,” owner Allen Trump said in an emailed statement.

He said the images used were suitable for children 12 or older, although he added the magazine was targeted at children up to 12 years.

The pictures printed depicted life-like computer generated images of men carrying weapons including assault rifles, Bowie knives, an axe, an anti-tank weapon and pistols.

Games firms contacted by Reuters said they were unaware Cool Kidz, which has been published for seven years, had been using their images.

Representatives for Japan’s Square Enix, publisher of the Hitman series, privately-owned Bethesda Softworks, publisher of Dishonored, and Ubisoft Entertainment, publisher of Assassins Creed III and Farcry 3, said they opposed the use but declined to say whether they would take any legal action against LCD.

Call of Duty publisher Activision declined to comment.

Read more. 

Isn’t it nice that they eliminated the blood and “body damage” from the images? Yet they still manage to ingrain these iconic images in the minds of the very young, where they take root and create a demand for games kids should not be playing. This continues to be a problem with the game industry in general, which has gotten slightly better about promoting M-rated games to kids, but still has a ways to go.

It used to be that adults had some common sense about what they put out there where children might encounter it. Adults used to watch out for kids. I remember being routinely disciplined by adults other than my parents, and even strangers, when I stepped out of line in public. Can you imagine if an adult today acted like an adult when he saw a kid doing something really wrong in public, and called him out on it? Nine times out of ten, the parents would raise hell at the adult who dared criticize little junior rather than junior for being bad.

Want proof? I heard a story recently about an anti-drinking/drug campaign that was making the rounds of a local high school system. Parents and kids were watching a Powerpoint presentation that started flashing Facebook pictures underage kids partying with alcohol in local homes, including photos of kids in that audience. The parents were indeed outraged, but not at junior for betraying their trust. They were angry at the presenters for embarrassing them in public.

Were the presenters out of line? Perhaps. Certainly there may have been some privacy violations going on, and I’m not sure if faces were blurred out or not. I only heard the story second hand, and with minors, you need to be careful about that kind of thing.

But they also delivered a powerful dose of public shaming, which is something society is sorely missing. We’ve been trained on generations of films and TV shows and novels to belief that all social pressure is bad, but in a civilization social pressure can have a healthy role in repressing our tendency to sin, or to just act stupid. The sexual revolution, the permanent counterculture, and now reality TV have all turned the lack of any shame into a windfall for the media, with the result that too many people really do “have no shame.” It seems like the entire culture is being run by people who never advanced past the stage of toddlers fascinated with their own genitals and excrement.

That’s actually the opposite of progress. It’s immaturity. The world–business, commerce, labor, politics–is an adult space that has to carve out safe places for kids. And that’s the job of an adult. Every adult.