Same-Sex Romance Comes to Star Wars

“Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”

Yoda’s observation about the Sith is about to take on a whole new kind of meaning, and let’s not even think about those long lonely nights on the Millennium Falcon. BioWare, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts are set to introduce same-sex romance to the Star Wars universe via their costly flop Star Wars: The Old Republic. In a desperate bid to attract players, the MMO went free-to-play in November following a precipitous drop-off in subscribers, but with some estimates placing the budget in the $200 million territory, the likelihood that it will ever be profitable is minimal.

In the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, BioWare will allow romantically suggestive encounters with same-sex non-player characters (NPCs: the characters a player meets who are not controlled by other gamers). This falls short of the promised same-sex “companion romances” BioWare had promised. (A “companion” is a more significant NPC who accompanies the player.) If precedent is any indication, what this will mean is that restrictions on gender are (more or less) eliminated, potentially making every non-companion NPC functionally bisexual.

Some will write this off as a desperation measure by BioWare and Lucas, eager to score some cheap free ink. I don’t see it that way. BioWare has been consistent in their efforts to put same-sex romance into their games whether it fits or not, in both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. We saw the same thing with Skyrim, with comical results like hulking brutes offering to court male heroes, marry them, and then sit around at home tending the hearth. It reminded me of this:

As games mature, we have to expect that more aspects of the human experience will be drawn into their narratives and design. There’s no reason to assume a fully fleshed-out Star Wars Universe might not include characters with same-sex attraction. The problem with current approaches is that–due to limitations of the medium–they tend to make everyone bisexual. The results are absurd, and role-playing games that include romantic subplots and quests can wind up populated with people who appear to be willing to hook up with anyone and anything. (Did I mention the alien-human romances of Mass Effect?)

If we’re looking (in the US) at a gay population in the neighborhood of 10 million out of a population of about 300 million, we’re looking at a very small population indeed. Let’s be optimistic and say that 500,000 people are still playing SWOR. If we assume that 3% of the population is gay or bisexual, that means BioWare is devoting money, time, and resources for a failing game to cater to about 15,000 gamers. By comparison, there are about 245 million Christians, roughly 78% of the population. If the percentages of the population mirror those of MMO gamers (and, by and large, they do), then that’s 375,000 gamers.

So, something else is clearly going on here, and it’s simply BioWare following cultural trends by catering to a very tiny category of gamer. I won’t fault them for the impulse: as creators, they are tasked with exploring the human condition in its many variations and permutations. The percentage of the population which is, say, Jedi or Wookie is even smaller than the percentage that’s gay. It’s clear that BioWare feels this is necessary in the interest of fairness, but more to the point: they’re being led by the current cultural moment which is placing gay issues front and center in all things, whether they fit or not.

BioWare says this is “broadening” the audience to include gays. Fair enough. I’d argue, however, that it’s narrowing the experience for much-larger audience which has no reference point for, or interest in, same-sex romance. It really wouldn’t take much to implement a “sexual preference” switch to turn-off these same-sex advances for straight gamers, rather than having to field a same-sex proposition and decline it. I somehow managed to get through 3 years at an art school in Greenwich Village in the 1980s without getting propositioned by a single gay person (yeah, yeah: keep your comments about my appearance to yourself), so we’re not talking about a universal experience. Must we assume that no one in the Star Wars universe (full of characters with all sorts of extraordinary powers) posses gaydar, or even a long ago and far far away version of Grindr?

The problem is that the scenarios are just absurd, as are most romantic subplots. Game romance–and game sex–has never risen above merely being awkward, and it’s usually just silly. BioWare has handled it better than most, but even they’ve created some truly eye-rolling moments of pure cheese. Most of the romance in Mass Effect (which included SSA) barely rose above the level of bad Mary Sue fanfic.

A bigger problem–and one not lost on BioWare and Lucas–is that we’re talking about Star Wars, a cultural touchstone. If Star Wars is perceived as “going gay,” that’s one more bastion that falls in the culture wars. In reality, romance in the Star Wars movies has always been either a minor feature (the old-fashioned Hepburn/Tracy romance of Han and Leia) or universally derided (the annoying Anakin and Padme courtship). This has very little to do with the dramatic integrity of the game or the Star Wars universe, or with catering to some kind of overwhelming consumer demand. It feels like yet another cultural “eat your spinach” moment in which we’re being schooled on tolerance for our own good. That’s certainly their right as creators, but could they give the rest of us the option to turn it off?

UPDATE: My wife thought my original title–Star Wars Goes Gay–was too flip and didn’t catch the tone of the piece, so I’ve changed it something more sober. My point–overlong, as usual–is that creating universally bisexual NPCs is bad design, that the majority of people don’t want to experience same-sex propositions, and that some sexual preference switch during character creation would be a welcome feature. There also needs to be content advisory for games that include same-sex romance.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown [Game Review]

I’m still kicking around the idea of doing one straight-up game review a week, with some material at the top with content warnings for parents. We’ll call it Fun Fridays and have cupcakes and lemonade! This week, we turn to a remake of the third greatest PC game of all time, a little something called…


XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer/Publisher: Firaxis/2K
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PS3
Rated: Mature
Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence
Details (ESRB):  This is a strategy game in which players must save present-day Earth from an alien invasion. As players manage resources, research weapon technology, and monitor alien presence, they can dispatch squads of soldiers to attack human- and insect-like creatures in turn-based combat. From a 3/4-top-down perspective, players use assault rifles, grenades, and other military-grade weapons to kill nearby enemies. Battles are accompanied by intermittent cutscenes that depict close-up (e.g., over-the-shoulder) instances of violence: soldiers getting impaled or beaten to death by alien creatures; realistic explosions that result in larger blood sprays. If an alien “implants” an egg into a dead human, the character will eventually explode amid additional gibbing effects. Some scenes depict dead or dying soldiers whose bodies are burned or mutilated. The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” can be heard in the dialogue.
Parent Verdict: The details sound pretty grim, but the nature of XCOM as a top-down strategy game makes the gore and violence a lot less intense than the same content would be in a first-person game. The battles are more like chess with bursting alien heads. The foul language is scattered and not all that prominent. Different parents will have different perspectives on the appropriateness of the content, but I have no problem with my teenage son playing it.
Version Tested: PC

On any list of the greatest computer games ever made, X-COM: UFO Defense is in the top five. I’d put it right behind Civilization and System Shock. The original is a turn-based sci-fi game with a beautifully integrated tactical/strategic design. You perform research, manage your base, and respond to threats on the strategic level, and then fly all over the planet taking on enemy aliens in turn-based squad-level tactical combat. It’s original, fun, challenging, clever, and memorable.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (couldn’t they afford the en-dash?) is a wonderful streamlining and updating. Fans expecting either retread of the original, or a complete betrayal of what made it special, are in for a surprise, because this is something else. Design has evolved in the past 18 years. Things that worked when the medium was fresh and we were patient just don’t work after a couple decades of gaming experience.

On the other hand, things that made PC gaming special (a more mature sensibility, better design, depth of play and control) are too often forgotten in the hybrid computer/console design world of today. And so Firaxis (the company co-founded by Sid Meier) has reached into the past to bring the special flavor of PC gaming into the present, and give it a fresh sheen.

And, boy howdy, does it work. I have no idea if I’m a good audience for this game or not, since I adored the original series and played it to death. I’d be curious to know what someone with no prior experience would think of it. But as an X-COM veteran, I can tell you that everything good about the series is here and better, and the few things that aren’t here are barely missed.

XCOM stands for “extraterrestrial combat.” Earth is being invaded by flying saucers and bug-eyed aliens, and the multinational XCOM team is given the job of protecting various locations around the globe, intercepting enemy ships, hunting aliens, recovering alien tech and corpses (and living aliens if possible) for research, and fighting off the alien hoards.

It’s a tough job, and your four man squad (which can be expanded to six with experience) has their hands full battling an array of alien types with different powers and weapons. Cryssalids, Sectoids, Thin Men, and more are all on hand to deal damage in a variety of unpleasant ways, and it’s your job to stop them. The tactical game borrows ideas from boardgames, dispensing with the time-based movement of the original by providing two actions per-soldier, per-round. An action can be move and shoot, shoot twice, or any variety of special functions, such as throwing a hand-grenade, firing a rocket launcher, stunning an alien so it can be taken alive, using a medkit, and so on. 

As your soldiers gain experience, they can choose from different skills in one of four different classes: assault, support, heavy, or sniper. The skills work like rules exceptions a la Cosmic Encounter. For example, in basic play. a heavy can only fire his rocket launcher without moving. Add a skill, however, and he can either move and shoot, or choose a “holo” attack that provides a +10 bonus to any allies attacking the same target.

These variations multiply and stack over time, creating an elaborate matrix of skills and abilities that allow you to fine-tune your approach to each map. As you collect alien gear and assign researchers to develop new tech, you begin to fell a storage locker filled with neat toys for soldier’s to use in the field.

Missions are tighter and more focused than in the original. Visually, it’s quite nice, with a good variety of views from elevated tactical down to over-the-shoulder shots of both friends and enemies as they execute their attacks. The environment is completely destructible, so that car your guy hides behind may just get blown up, and take him with it. The interface is a touch finicky at times, with some jittering around the edges for the hand-grenade targeting reticle, but it’s nothing serious.

The story unfolds at the strategic level as shadowy global forces order you all around the map to save people and places from menacing aliens. In this portion of the game, you monitor your research team (developing new tech and learning about the aliens), engineers (building facilities, ships, and objects), global map (expanding into new regions and monitoring alien activity), barracks (managing and training soldiers) and the rest.

You can expand these facilities by adding new labs and workshops, an alien containment center, and more. The trick is to respond to threats around the world in order to keep the regional panic level down. If a region gets too panicky because they feel you’re not paying enough attention, they’ll withdraw their support, which means you lose some of the funds needed to maintain your operation and research new tech.

It all comes together in a near-perfect package that blends the best ideas of the original with more modern approaches. There are some crash/freezing bugs being reported, but I haven’t encountered any real showstoppers. If you’re look for a new/old game that offers both fun and depth, XCOM is it.

Buy it here.

 

The State of Games

As I mentioned last week, late summer tends to be The Busy Season in long-lead media, since we’re working on our Christmas issues, which traditionally are larger. Ours contains our annual game awards and buyer’s guide. so I’ve been deep in the gaming world for a while now, looking at the whole range of mobile, video, and computer games and trying to find the little diamonds worth noting. This means that I face the same problem that any Catholic media critic faces: I’m exposed to a pretty steady stream of culture-rot. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s important to step back and look at just what’s being pumped into the culture by this important new medium.

Honestly, most of it isn’t that bad, as long as you look at things in context and understand that games are not just for kids. Once a game gets an M-Rating, it’s usually pretty safe to assume it has the same content as an R-rated movie, and usually a “hard” R, often well on its way to an NC-17. There is an “AO” (“Adults Only) rating beyond the M, but like the old X-rating, it’s never used because stores won’t carry the games. For more details, you can refer to my primers on understanding modern video games: “Videogames and the Family” and “Choosing the Rights Games For Your Kids.”

Not much has changed since I posted those a few months ago. There’s a tendency to push the content envelope, not always in a good way. This year, The Darkness II was one of the most obscene, excessive, and casually blasphemous things I’ve ever seen.  It was also brilliantly designed, well scripted, and even touching at moments. The Call of Duty series remains hugely popular among gamers both young old, but it’s become unnecessarily violent for a military shooter that was once teen-friendly. Games like Max Payne 3 show how extremely mature content can be handled in a creative way, but you just have to remember: not for kids. Parents need to get that through their heads. If you won’t sit your 14-year-old down in front of the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, then he shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of time on Modern Warfare 3.

In The Darkness II, you can kill enemies using a hell-spawned imp, who then urinates on his victims.

Parents need to keep in mind that this is a medium, just like TV and movies. It’s for everyone, with the same diversity of content. It’s the same as TV, which goes from Sesame Street to The Walking Dead, or film, which goes from Brave to Ingloureous Basterds.  The new generation of Gens-Ys and Millennials don’t see this as kids stuff. They were raised on games and often prefer them to television. TV, after all is, passive. Games are interactive.  (Except for Doctor Who, my teenage son doesn’t watch any TV at all: his entertainment is games.) Plus, the most popular games usually have a strong multiplayer element, meaning they’re social as well.

The creative aspect of gaming is still in it’s DW Griffith phase. We have yet to find our Orson Welles. But we will, and the format right now is populated by the same range of creative approaches that characterize movies: big studio projects for a mass audience, B-listers, small art house items, wholesome family entertainment, plucky independents, and weird and wonderful individual visions. It’s all out there, but like every other thing you let in your house, you need to be a discriminating consumer.

State of the Industry

Video and computer games are not in a happy place right now. Once thought to be recession-proof, the videogame industry has been rocked by plummeting sales over the past year. The numbers have been terrible since the beginning of the year, with sales off by about 25% from 2011. Compared to the same months in 2011, January 2012 saw a 37% drop, February: 24%, March: 26%, and so on, straight down the line.

When you add in aging hardware systems, aggressive competition from mobile platforms, a creativity deficit that’s causing developers to coast along on the successes of aging franchises, and a simple shortage of interesting titles, and you have bleak picture.

This will not be a permanent thing, but it’s pointless to blow sunshine at a point when the news is quite bleak. With the entire gaming landscape undergoing a radical shift into unknown territory, 2012 could best be characterizing as a lull between what was and what might be.

Here are some of the big issues of the last year.

Mobile

Apps are still going strong, and even gaining strength due to the ever-expanding installed base of mobile and tablet users. The big news has been the aggressive entry of big companies like EA into the microtransaction world of “free” mobile gaming, which is netting huge profits and causing a seismic shift in the way they do business.

Amazing Alex (iOS/Android) challenges you to solve increasingly complex puzzles by making Rube Goldberg devices

On the flipside, all of this seems to be accompanied by a bit of a creative lull from developers. Up until this year game-makers were hitting wildly innovative designs out of the park on a regular basis, with small, quirky, wonderful little games creating new forms of entertainment we’d never before imaged. Now mobile, too, has settled into a comfy niche of big franchises (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s the Water, Temple Run) and fremium games. We’re simply not seeing the same outpouring of creativity we did in the beginning, which is probably to be expected with a new format.

Mobile remains the most family-friendly platform for content, with very few games even rising to the equivalent of a “Teen” rating.  The most popular titles are puzzle-type games and social games. The puzzlers don’t have any content issues at all. As for the social game, just remember that it’s possible for kids to inadvertently connect to total strangers in some games. Most publishers limit the interactions so that no real problems arise, but it’s always a good idea to check out just what they’re doing. Draw Something is a cute little version of Pictionary, in which people draw clues to words. Unfortunately, some people (particularly in the PC version) must think every word can be guessed by drawing a giant penis. So … caveat emptor.

“Free” to Play

The mobile gaming world is thriving thanks to another new passion of the big publishers: free to play. Once thought to be the last stage in the life of online games no one wanted to pay for any more, free to play is being considered one possible savior of PC gaming. I covered this in more depth last week.

The Future of Consoles

All eyes are on Nintendo as they roll out their new Wii U, which we covered last month and which includes an innovative new tablet controller. Nintendo is getting most of the blame for the steep drop in game sales. Just like subprime mortgages and inflated real-estate prices created a housing bubble, so did the “Wii-effect” of drawing non-gamers into the gaming world create a “Wii bubble.” Wii scaled such heights that it had a longer way to fall, and when new and interesting titles started to slow, the resulting 50% sales drop dragged the entire industry down with it. Wii made a lot of new gamers, but they weren’t really in it for the long haul.

Nintendo’s new handheld also failed to build a strong US audience, proving that mobile handsets have permanently realigned the handheld gaming landscape, and not in Nintendo’s favor. Despite putting out a decent piece of hardware and some truly exceptional games, Nintendo just isn’t offering a compelling reason to own the 3DS.

Thus, everyone is holding their breath and waiting to see what the Wii U does. Can it repeat the success of the Wii? Since a rising tiding lifts all boats, the hope is that a Wii U success could kick off an industry-wide sales surge and set the stage for new consoles from Microsoft and Sony in the upcoming years. We should know by January.

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure [Game Review]

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is insidious. I almost hesitate to recommend it because of the potential cost should a child become seriously hooked on the game, but it’s hard to deny just how fun the whole experience really is. Activision took a huge risk with Skylanders, and it paid off with a unique game that the whole family can enjoy.

Skylanders comes in various versions for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC/Mac, and Nintendo DS. Some bundles have different figures, but all of them are essentially the same. At the heart of the experience is the game itself: a colorful adventure which involves exploration, fighting, some light puzzle solving, and plenty of funny characters.

If that’s all Skylanders was, then it would be a perfectly good example of a juvenile action/adventure game, and nothing more. But Skylanders adds toys to the mix create something fresh. Each starter set comes with the game itself, a “Portal of Power” base, and three little figures representing characters from the game. The portal attaches to the game machine either via a wireless USB receiver or a wired connection, then lights up. For a character to “enter” the game, its matching toy must be placed on the portal, whereupon it pops into the landscape.

Thus, every base package comes with three playable characters, each representing a different kind of elemental power: fire, water, air, earth, life, tech, magic, and undead. Only certain powers can unlock certain areas of the game, and here’s where the insidious part comes in. Although it is perfectly possible to play the entire main plot of the game with just the three basic characters, certain other areas of the game world are locked off, and can only be accessed by purchasing toys with a particular power.

Right now, there are 37 different characters representing the 8 different elements, and more to come. At $8 a throw, simply unlocking the entire game will cost as additional $40, and let’s not even talk about kids who want a complete compliment of figures.  And good luck even finding the figures. Since Skylanders was a huge Christmas hit, it is impossible to buy some figures without paying scalper’s prices that can go as high as $50.

But does this serve any purpose other than driving parents insane and separating people from their cash? Actually, yes, it does. Each character can be upgraded as he goes about his adventures, and that data is saved to the figure itself using an RFID chip. A child can then bring a favorite figure to a friend’s house and it will retain all its levels and progress. Even better, swapping out figures is not merely integral to the gameplay, it’s fun. Kids love developing their little characters, and then watching them warp from the real world and into the game world, where each has some skills that are necessary for different parts of the adventure.

A lot of the action involves traversing various landscapes, collecting things, opening gates, and fighting foes. The game functions equally well as a solo game or in co-op mode, and feel a lot like the Lego game series. Different characters function better in certain environments, so as you enter a wet area, for instance, the narrator will inform you that a “Skylander of the water element” will function better there.  There’s a straight path through each level, culminating in a sequence of arena battles that pit the player against waves of enemies, traps, and other Skylanders.

There are also plenty of hidden areas, bonuses, money, hats, and other items to discover, adding greatly to the replayablity factor for those who want to earn a perfect score. None of it is terribly hard, although some encounters may take a few repeat tries. If a Skylander is knocked out during a level, it can be replaced instantly by putting a different figure on the portal. Because of this, some levels (particularly late in the game) become wars of attrition, with the game who owns more figures able to last longer.

Some special expansion packages even come with “powerup” figures and whole new levels than can be added into the game. Thus, the Darklight Crypt ($20) includes Ghost Roaster (a powerful Skylander), the Crypt level, an hourclass figure that slows time, and a potion figure that heals characters. For example, if you place the potion toy on the portal along with Ghost Roaster, he’ll heal over time.

Production is remarkably slick, with a script by Toy Story co-writers Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen, and a musical score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Voice acting is very strong, and the script is often quite clever and funny. And, although Spyro’s supposedly the star of the show, you’d never know it. He’s one of the playable characters, but his name is never mentioned and he’s not particularly powerful.

Skylanders integrates the collecting/upgrading mania of Pokemon into the game realm using toys, which is a marketing trifecta. Parents may justifiably rage at the cash grab it represents, but kids (and quite a few adults) are just loving it. It’s just about the best game on the market for parents and kids to play together. If it wasn’t so darn fun, it would be unforgiveable.

Rating Summary

Artistic Quality: B+

Content: Cartoon Violence

ESRB Rating Summary: This is an action platformer in which players assume the role of whimsical creatures that must save their world from an evil villain. Each playable character uses elemental attacks (e.g., Magic, Water, Earth, Fire) to defeat robots, elves, and giant bugs; for example, dragons can spit fireballs, water creatures can shoot ice blocks, and plant creatures can fire pineapples at enemies that generally disappear amid puffs of smoke. During some sequences, players can toss “cartoony” projectiles at nearby enemies, resulting in small explosions.

ESRB Rating: Every 10+

Recommended for: Kids and families

UPDATED: Regular reader Victor posts a link to a Make interview with Skylanders tech engineer Robert Leyland that has some great pictures, including a base prototype made from sink and toilet parts. Make is a great publication and site.

Who is the Patron Saint of Gamers? UPDATED

Short answer: there is none.

However, searches for variations of that question brought a lot of people to my gaming blog, probably because the sidebar included a picture of St. Balthasar, the Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.  Since I lecture on Church history and have a sizable collection of hagiographic reference material, I thought I’d sort it out so people didn’t go wandering all over the internet getting half-formed ideas about saints, patronage, gaming, and related subjects. It turned out to be a remarkably popular post, so I’ve revised and updated it for God and the Machine, integrating some suggestions from readers.

St. Balthasar

St. Balthasar is frequently listed as the “Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.” I’ve taught the Saints to 8th graders for years, and I have to tell you: that’s one of the most mysterious things I’ve ever found. I have dug deeply in order to figure out how and why Balthasar got attached not to card playing or cards, but to playing card manufacturers. 

Balthasar, along with with Melchior and Caspar, is one of the magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. However, the Bible 1) does not name the magi, 2) does not say how many there were (they are usually depicted as 3 men because there were 3 gifts, but some ancient sources believed there were 12), and 3) does not say what they were (astrologers, magicians, kings, or simply “wise men”). Names of the wise men don’t appear before the 5th century.

We know nothing else about St. Balthasar. There are several purported tombs of the magi, but no one takes their claims seriously.

If there is some source or document that explains why St. Balthasar was given the care of people who make playing cards, it has thus far eluded me. Early cards were simply made by printers or artists.

In the absence of hard evidence explaining the Balthasar/card connection, the most obvious reason may be the actual answer. Balthasar was a “king.” Playing cards have “kings.” Ergo, it was natural to pick one of the Three Kings, and Balthasar got the job.

St. Cajetan

St. Cajetan (known as St. Cayetano in Spanish-speaking countries) is the Patron Saint of Gamblers. Cajetan, born in 1480, was a lawyer and the son of a wealthy family. Driven by a desire to reform the Church, he traveled to Rome, became a priest, and founded a religious order. He used his family fortune to create hospitals that served both the physical and moral needs of the poor. He also established pawn shops and credit unions to provide loans to the poor.

Cajetan’s connection to gambling is obscure. Popular lore says the people would ask him for a favor, and bet him a rosary that he couldn’t come through. Since he always came through, he was able to get people to pray more. Based on what I know of saints, this feels like a pious retrofitting of a reason to a patronage, and it just doesn’t sound likely.

It’s more probable that his loans helped people get out from under the predatory interest rates of loan sharks, and many of the these loans were the result of gambling debts. Then, as now, a compulsive gambler could destroy his family, so it seems more likely that Cajetan probably helped problem gamblers get back on the right path both financially and morally.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga

One of my readers, Mark Franceschini, had this to say: 

“I’ve always recommended St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568 – 1591), based on a story I once read. He was playing chess with some seminarians, and someone posed the question, “what would you do if you knew you had but an hour to live?” One said he would go to confession, another that he would pray before the Blessed Sacrament, but not Saint Aloysius. He reasoned that, since his superiors gave him permission to play the game, and he had no other pressing duties, clearly, this is what God wanted him to do. So, in his final hour, he would finish the game! Sounds like the Patron Saint of Gamers to me!”

St. Matthias

Another reader, Paul, remarked that St. Matthias should be added to the list since he was chosen to replace Judas by a drawing of lots, as we learn in Acts: 1:23-26: “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.”

Yes, they chose the successor to the betrayer of Jesus by rolling dice.

Okay, so they probably weren’t dice, although they could have been: dice date back at least 5000 years, and were used in ancient Greece and Rome. Casting lots was a common method of diving the will of God in Judaism, with a chief priest drawing one of two sacred stones from his breastplate in answer to a binary question. These were the Urim and Thummim. You can find some examples of lot-casting in 1 Chronicles 24 and 26, and, of course, in Jonah and Esther. “Purim” is the Hebrew word  for “lots,” as well as the name of the Jewish holy day commemorating the events of Esther.

The problem is that Matthias vanishes without a trace after this. (Perhaps that 12th apostle slot was cursed.) He may have been crucified in Ethiopia, stoned in Jerusalem, or died of old age. This last one is unlikely: few early Christian leaders died peacefully in their beds. Of the original 12 apostles, only St. John died a natural death.

Matthias is the patron for alcoholics, carpenters, tailors and … the town of Gary, Indiana.

St. Teresa of Avila

Richard Mehlinger tweeted to mention St. Teresa of Avila, who is already the patron saint of chess players. Like many patronages, which arise from popular devotion, this one isn’t always attached to Teresa, and appears to be based on the following passage in her Way of Perfection:

Do not imagine that a great part of my work is done. No, I have only been ‘placing the board’ for the game. You asked me to teach you the foundation of prayer, my daughters, although God did not establish me on this foundation, for I am almost destitute of these virtues; yet I know no other.

But, be sure that any one who does not understand how to set the pieces in the game of chess will never be able to play well, nor, if he does not know how to give check, will he ever succeed in effecting checkmate. You may blame me for speaking of a game, for such things are neither played nor permitted in our convent.

This will show you what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this ! Still, they say that sometimes the game is lawful, and how well it would be for us to play it, and if we practised it often, how quickly we should checkmate this divine King so that He neither could, nor would, move out of our check!

The Queen is His strongest opponent in the game, and all the other pieces help her. No queen can defeat Him so soon as can humility.’ It drew Him from heaven into the Virgin’s womb, and with it we can draw Him by a single hair into our souls. And doubtless, the greater our humility, the more entirely shall we possess Him, and the weaker it is, the more reluctantly will He dwell within us.

For I do not and I cannot understand how humility can exist without love, or love without humility, nor can either of these virtues be held in their perfection without great detachment from all created things.

Perhaps you ask me, my daughters, why I speak to you of these virtues: they are taught in plenty of books and you only wish me to write about contemplation. If you had asked me about meditation, I could have instructed you, and I advise every one to practice it even though they do not possess the virtues, for this is the first step to obtain them all: it is most essential for all Christians to begin this practice. No one, however desperate his case may be, ought to neglect it if God incites him to make use of it. I have written this elsewhere, as have other people who understand the subject, which, as God knows, I certainly do not.

Contemplation, however, is quite another thing, daughters. We fall into a mistake on this point, so that if any one thinks about his sins every day for a certain time (as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything but name), we at once call him a great contemplative, and expect him to possess the sublime virtues proper to such a state: he even thinks so himself; but he is quite wrong. He has not yet learnt how to ‘place the board,’ but thinks he can effect checkmate simply by knowing the names of the pieces—in this he is deceived; this King will not let Himself be taken except by one who is entirely given up to Him.

Thanks to Idle Speculations for posting this passage.

Summary

In the end, we’re still left with few facts and no current patron saint of gamers. However, I think St. Cajetan fills the bill pretty well. He has some connection with gambling, which can be an element of gaming. But he also has connections with banking, which is simulated in many games. He used his wealth to help others, and had a deep sense of compassion. He fought the clerical corruption of his time by being a living example of Christian charity and care for the poor, and seems to have have been an all-around good guy.

So, in the absence of another viable candidate, I’d like to nominate St. Cajetan as Patron Saint of Gamers. However, please continue to add new suggestions and I will update the piece.

Revisiting Bioshock

As details about Bioshock Infinite continue to emerge, it seems clear that the game is shaping up to be every bit as challenging and potentially controversial as the original Bioshock.

How serious is writer Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games about creating worthy sequel to one of the best, most intelligent, games ever made? Well, here’s one of the propaganda images from the upcoming game (due in the Fall), and here’s a tag attached to immigrants in the game world. (Note how the preferred “Partition A” includes anyone of European origins except for “Papist, Gypsy, Irish, Greek, Impaired or Sickly.”) With subject matter including eugenics, race, religion, politics, theocracy, nationalism, transhumanism, and more, Bioshock Infinite is shaping up to be even more provocative than the original.

And that’s going to be quite a feat, because even five years later, no one has come close to making a game that addresses serious issues so effectively. Bioshock was the game that finally got me off the sidelines and into the Catholic writing thing. I’d been thinking about using my long experience writing about games to cover the medium from a uniquely Catholic angle, much like my friend Steven D. Greydanus does for films. I just wan’t sure I had a “Catholic voice” after so many years of toiling in the secular media. I really didn’t know if I had anything to offer.

Bioshock changed that. It demanded serious coverage. It hit a sweet spot among my areas of knowledge: gaming, religion, philosophy, objectivism (I’m a lapsed Libertarian), pulp fiction, and transhumanism. I wrote the piece that follows in January of 2008 and gave it to my blogmother, Julie D., to use on the group blog Catholic Media Review. I used it to pitch the idea of continuing game coverage to the National Catholic Register, where the awesome and much-missed Dave Pearson took a chance and gave me a regular spot. That in turn became a regular gig as a Catholic journalist, and for those who knew me 10 years ago, that’s just … weird. But wonderful.

Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble on so as a simple introduction to a game review, but Bioshock was a turning point not only for games as an intelligent medium capable of conveying ideas and exploring morally complex issues, but also for me personally as a writer. As this blog continues to cover tech, gaming, and transhumanism, I thought it was worthwhile to have the entire review housed over here.

Bioshock

Rated: M
Content: Bioshock is a game for adults. It includes use of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes as a gameplay element; strong, R-rated language; blood and gore; intense violence; and sexual, religious, moral, and ethical themes. Not for kids.

When game journalists and editors sit down to hash out an annual awards issue, the “Best Game of the Year” Award usually takes a least a little conversation and debate.

In 2007, the conversation was short: “Does anyone think any game other than Bioshock is worthy of Game of the Year? Anyone?  Anyone? Let’s move on then.”

In a year flush with fantastic, smart, well-crafted games for consoles, computers, and handhelds, Bioshock stands out as one of the rare game games to transcend its format. Bioshock is a game, make no mistake: you run around collecting things, shooting monsters, enhancing your character, unlocking new locations, and performing all the other functions associated with a role-playing action shooter.  But there’s more here. Much more.

Narrative complexity, character development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game design, but Bioshock takes it further, probing issues of morality, bioethics, and the nature of the self, all within the context of a Libertarian/Objectivist Dystopia.

Those who follow computer gaming have been awaiting Bioshock for a long time. Its creators call it a “spiritual heir” to System Shock, a sci-fi game which remains one of the landmarks in PC gaming history. System Shock was a deep, first person experience that offered a vivid world and narrative, then let you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Bioshock’s developer, Irrational Games, is staffed with some of the original System Shock team, and several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game experience.

Bioshock begins in 1960, as a plane crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving only one survivor: you.  Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep like some Lovecraftian monolith. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the ocean, and a city of wonder hidden there.  This city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, who named it Rapture.

Ryan is a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia, He’s Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure.  Rapture is his monument to narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs by Albert Speer for an Art Deco production of Atlas Shrugged. These are not mere monuments to the ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering—his voice (acted by Armin Shimerman) blaring from loudspeakers, his mottos carved into stone—Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No! says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No! says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No! says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.”

What is the most vicious obscenity ever visited on mankind? To Ryan, it’s not slavery, the holocaust, Nazism, Bolshevism … it’s altruism. Altruism is the great lie that inverts the proper order of things. All the evils  of the world are brought on because people are conditioned to consider the needs of the other. In Ryan’s (and Rand’s) philosophy, they should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constrains of civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, where the only rule would be the Law of Thelema: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Ryan builds the city in secret, and populates it with his own special selection of handpicked “brights”. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos. When you finally reach it, it’s already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration. It’s a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock, and it works even better here.

Rapture’s collapse is an object lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic tampering, as people attempt to turn themselves into Gods with gene modifying drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to improve it. At the top of the crumbling pyramid is Ryan, with his Godlike delusions and warped philosophy. He sees Rapture as a New Eden. Indeed, two of the gameplay elements are “ADAM”, a mutagen which allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations. In order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these mutants without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love.

As you need more and more of these drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. You see, roaming throughout Rapture are a chilling pair of creatures: Big Daddy and Little Sister. Big Daddies are huge genetic mutants in heavily armed diving suits. Little Sisters are innocent looking little girls with ponytails, cute little dresses … and giant needles they use to suck the ADAM out of mutants after the Big Daddies kill them.

The Little Sisters are the work a female holocaust survivor, Dr. Tennenbaum, who creates them to produce ADAM. She thought the girls could be used without consequence, but didn’t count on them retaining their childlike characteristics. They’re still little girls, who sing, and laugh, and play. As Tennenbaum says at one point: “I look at genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. I could blame the Germans, but in truth, I did not find tormentors in the Prison Camp, but kindred spirits. These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination… my maternal instinct.”

Life will find a way, however. Dr. Tennenbaum’s maternal instincts win out. She turns into the Sisters’ protector, and find herself on the run inside Rapture. She forces the player to make a choice. As the character, we have been told to kill the Big Daddies and suck the ADAM out of the Little Sisters, a process that will kill them. Tennenbaum begs us to save the girls. Through her process, a smaller amount of ADAM can be extracted, leaving the girls alive and freed of the drug’s control. In return, she offers a vague promise of some reward down the road.

Which do you choose? It’s just a game, after all. The choices don’t matter. Expediency should win out.

But time and again, when I’ve spoken to people about it, they always say they left the Little Sisters alive. Since doing so changes the way the game unfolds (and ultimately ends), some may go back and harvest just to see the alternate ending, but most feel uncomfortable with it. (Both endings are easily found on YouTube.) There’s a strange feeling of rightness that comes from healing the Sisters. It becomes a part of the risk/reward cycle of the game. It also leads to an absolutely boffo “good” ending. (Killing the girls results in a “bad” ending, making it clear just where the developers’ sympathies lie.)

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. You can thus customize your character to approach the game in a variety of ways, with an emphasis on hacking, stealth, frontal combat, and so on. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this, and a simple listing of features always comes up short in conveying just how immersive and engrossing this game is. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. Narrative emerges through recordings and messages left behind, with both major and minor characters sketched through deft little clips pieced together along the way.

Bioshock shows us a stark picture of what Libertarianism and Objectivism would look like in the real world. I spent ten years supporting the Libertarian Party through votes and donations before I finally grew up. It is, and always shall be, a philosophy of children. Unfettered individualism does not lead to an Objectivist Utopia. It leads simply to Rapture, and the hell of a society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods. Bioshock puts you in the middle of that hell, and forces you to choose a side.

It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society.  Games just don’t get better than this.

Bioshock is available at Amazon.

Videogames and the Family

This is an expanded and updated version of a story that originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.

We all want to do right by our children: make them happy, keep them healthy, and raise them to be fine adults formed by the values of our faith. Having a nonstop spigot of toxic mass media sludge pumped into our homes 24/7 can make this a daunting prospect.

Catholic families really only have two options: either opt out of the media culture completely, or put a filter on that spigot so that only the good things get through. Neither choice is foolproof. We live in this modern society, and opting out of electronic media—movies, television, games, music, cell phones, computers and the internet—is not merely challenging: it’s probably unhealthy. For better or worse, this is a wired world, and our kids need some basic orienteering skills if they’re going to navigate it.

A recent Pew survey found that 97 per cent of children play video games. The Kutner-Olsen study (conducted at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and published as Grand Theft Childhood) revealed that children who didn’t play games of any kind tended to have more social problems. Parents may see games as a mind-sucking waste of time that turns normal people into button pushing zombies, but for kids they are a challenge, a bonding opportunity, and a topic of discussion. In contrast to the passive nature of watching television, gaming is active, putting the user in control of how events unfold through exploration, interaction, and problem-solving.

Like any other media, some games are good and some are bad.  And while we often talk about violent games because they are of the greatest concern, it’s important to remember that the majority of games are completely benign: sports, racing, strategy, puzzle, music, and arcade far outnumber those with violent content.

Maintain Control

The question is: do you even let games in your house? Many families already have a PC, which can also do double-duty as a game machine, but your kids would rather be playing a Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation3. Teens and adult gamers tend to prefer the Microsoft Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 because they offer high-octane action titles and superior graphical performance.

If you’re looking for an all-around family console, however, it’s hard to beat the Wii’s ease of use and large library of family friendly titles. Once you have a game console in the house, the most important thing is controlling access. In our household, we limit game time to Fridays and Saturdays during the school year, and maintain a 1:1 ratio of reading time to game time. (In order to earn an hour of game time, a child has to log an hour of reading time.)

When I explain our limitations on game time and access to parents, some are flabbergasted, often remarking that their kids “would never stand for that.” What a fascinating statement. If you do not have the parental authority to regulate your child’s access to media, then you have no parental authority at all.  The console should never be placed in a child’s bedroom, and kids shouldn’t have free access to it.

Fortunately, all three game machines have parental locking codes, which prevent them from playing titles with certain ratings unless a password is entered. Thus, you can bar all M-rated titles from your home, or lock the system so that you can approve when, what, and for how long your kids play.

Going Online

Another decision is whether or not to allow teens to have an online gaming account. (Don’t even think about it for younger kids, unless it’s a completely family friendly title like Club Penguin or Wizard 101.) This can be a subscription-based PC game such as World of Warcraft, or a general console connection service like Xbox Live. The important thing to remember about these account is that actual people are on the other end, and a significant portion of them are not playing with a full deck.

You have almost no control whatsoever of who your children are interacting with, and unless you lock down the communications controls pretty tightly, it is possible for complete strangers to make contact with your kids. It’s possible for people to “friend” your child in a game session, much like they would on Facebook. They can then send messages and even media files and back and forth via the console system.

Since most systems now integrate things like Twitter and Facebook support, we’re seeing a massive convergence of gaming and social networking. No one is quite sure what this all means for privacy and security, but it can’t be good. If you do allow your kids to have online accounts, you need to limit any personal information that’s included in their gamer tags, and definitely do not connect online accounts to social networking sites for minors. (By the way, your minors shouldn’t be on social networking sites anyway, but that’s a whole other story.)

One other thing to remember: most systems allow for in-game voice support, which means any gamer with a headset attached to his controller can be heard in your living room if they’re in a session with your child. Think about that for moment. I’ve heard what goes on in these sessions, and the language is about as bad as you can imagine. Just turn all voice support off. Period. They do not need to be talking to anyone anyway. If you’re savvy enough to lock it down so it’s “friends only,” and they only friend people they personally know, then fine. Otherwise, just turn it off.

Choosing Games

Picking the right game can be tricky, despite all the tools available for evaluating content. I It’s harder than choosing the right TV show or movie, since games are often large and complex, and may contain elements that are only seen in certain circumstances. Although there is no shortage of completely inoffensive games, many releases are awash in violence.

That violence has a fairly wide range of expression. At one end of the spectrum, you might bounce on a character who then disappears in a puff of confetti, while at the other end you can find mutilation and even torture. In between those extremes, you’ll find everything from mild mayhem to realistic and gruesome dismemberment. As a rule, sex and gore warrant an M-rating, but T-rated games are able to show a fair amount of violence as long as they keep the blood to a minimum. You can refer to yesterday’s post for more information on figuring out the ratings system.

In our house, for instance, we debated allowing our son to play military shooters in the house when my son was getting older Although the action primarily involves shooting enemy soldiers, the player is clearly a hero, the violence isn’t particularly graphic, and the entire experience is rich in historical detail. As series like Call of Duty drifted far from that formula, and started wallowing in nihilism and senseless violence, those games simply were no longer allowed. No teenager should be playing the Call of Duty series any more.

Each child is different and, depending upon his or her age, may or may not be ready for this kind of gameplay. On the one hand, it’s the modern equivalent of playing war, particularly since multiplayer modes allow people to compete against each other. One the other hand, parents may reasonably want to avoid any game which puts a young person in the role of killing another person, even an enemy. It’s not an easy call to make. Do you draw the line at non-explicit violence, or allow only violence only against non-humans (aliens or other creatures, for instance)? How can we reconcile games which include any depiction of killing with our faith? Wouldn’t we do better to avoid such things altogether?

Every parent has to struggle with these questions individually. Certainly, violence is part of even benign entertainment: there is no protagonist without an antagonist. Aristotle’s six principles of drama begin with mimesis (the imitation of an action) and end with katharsis (the purgation of excess emotions). Games function by the same rules: they engage our emotions, and then provide the release.

In the stormy world of adolescence, games may actually play a number of important roles, providing socialization, problem-solving, contained fantasy, and an outlet for tension and troubled emotions. Making the right choices for each child at each stage in their life, however, is challenging. There are tools—such as ratings, descriptors, content-rating web sites like commonsensemedia.org, and parental lock-out codes—that can help, but in the end, there’s no substitute for engaged parenting. Sit down, play with your kids, find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as gamer yourself.

Choosing the Right Game for Your Kids

A shorter version of this piece appeared originally in the National Catholic Register.

Video and computer games are an almost inescapable element of life for any modern child. Even parents who don’t have game machines and carefully control their children’s media exposure will, at some point, have to make some choices about games. Do you let your children play them? What kind? How much? How can you know what’s good and bad?

First, we’ll explore the information available to parents, and in a subsequent post, we’ll look at how to use it to make the right decisions for your family.

Games are, in fact, one of the most transparent media. Between the self-imposed rating system, game “descriptors”, and various parent- and values-oriented media sites, there is certainly no shortage of information.

What is the ESRB?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was created in 1994 in response to concerns and criticisms about violent game content. As with the motion picture ratings system, it is a completely voluntary system in which publishers pay to submit their games for a rating.

The rating board does not usually play the games, relying instead upon responses to a detailed questionnaire and video of all possible areas of concern. This process works most of the time, and major publishers do not attempt to deceive the rating board by hiding content. It’s a flawed system, but it’s still the best content rating system in existence.

There are 6 ratings: EC, (Early Childhood, age 3 and up), E (Everyone—no content worries), E10 (age 10 and up—may contain cartoon or fantasy violence and some crude humor), T (Teen, age 13 and up—may contain violence, crude language, minimal blood, some sexual themes), M (Mature, 17 and up—intense violence, strong language, sexual content), and AO (Adults Only, 18 and up—prolonged violence, strong sexual content).

Basically, E is “Rated G”, E10 is “PG”, T is “PG-13” and sometimes an “R”, M is always “R” and sometimes worse, and AO is “NC-17/X”.

Describing Descriptors

The ratings themselves are helpful at a glance, but the 30 descriptors are what make the ESRB system truly useful. Some may find them confusing at first, but a quick trip to ESRB.org will clarify the nuances and meanings among the various categories.
Every element that might be of concern is addressed: humor, lyrics, language, controlled substances (alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), gambling, sex, nudity, and violence. Each has various degrees of severity. Sexuality, for example, ranges from Suggestive Themes (innuendo and hints of sexuality) to Strong Sexual Content (explicit and frequent sexual behavior).

For instance, ERSB descriptors rate three kinds of blood: Animated Blood describes “discolored and/or unrealistic depictions”, Blood is a realistic depiction, and Blood and Gore is realistic blood with “mutilation of body parts”.

There is no mystery here. And although there is no hard and fast rule, minor amounts of realistic blood may be found in T-rated games, but gore usually earns an M-rating.

Adults Only?

The only place where the ESRB ratings have failed is in the distinction between M and AO-rated games. The AO rating is rarely imposed, and almost always reserved for titles that want the rating in order to appeal to an adult audience. Only 23 AO ratings have been issued to date, almost all of them for pornographic games where the AO rating is a badge of honor.

That Grand Theft Auto IV escaped an AO rating despite its extreme depiction of sex (including lap dances and prostitution) is one of the great failures of the ESRB, and it means that parents can no longer trust the distinction between M and AO ratings without further research. If a game is rated M, particularly for “strong sexual content” and/or “intense violence”, you must assume it is out of bounds for anyone under the age of 18.

Retailers will not carry unrated games, and most will not carry games with the AO rating. Worse for game makers, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have all barred AO games from appearing on their systems.

The AO rating is almost always reserved for sexual content. It has only been given twice—to The Punisher and Manhunt II—for “wanton and gratuitous violence”. Both games were slightly edited to receive an M rating, but the finished products still included torture and sadism as gameplay elements. Electronic Arts cancelled the AO-rated game Thrill Kill (acquired in their purchase of Virgin Interactive) only weeks before it shipped, because they felt that publishing such a “senselessly violent game” would damage their image.

Banning AO rated games from the Xbox and PlayStation may seem like good corporate citizenship, but it’s a mistake. (Since Nintendo values their family-friendly image, it’s hard to see them compromising on this point.) Although it sounds counter-intuitive, parents would actually be better served if the major console makers allowed AO rated games on their systems. Since parents can block such games from being played on their machines, it wouldn’t effect what comes into the home.

It would, however, make the AO rating into a valid category and give parents a far better sense of what’s in the box. As it is, games that should get an AO rating wind up being rated M. The ESRB is, after all, an industry group, and ratings and paid for by the company being rated. If an 800-pound gorilla like Electronic Arts wants an M for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, even though it features extreme content, the ESRB will let them slide as long as they add special warnings. (In the case of Modern Warfare 2, the notorious “No Russian” civilian massacre level was preceded by a warning of disturbing content that read more like a dare.)

Meanwhile, the retailer ban on AO games would force larger companies to moderate their content for big-budget releases. If the AO rating was viable and actually allowed on game systems, publishers would be forced to tone down their games to get into as many stores as possible. Game makers would then, almost certainly, have restored the more extreme content for an AO rated “Director’s Cut” limited to mail order and specialty retailers.

Thus, the most putrid aspects of Grand Theft Auto IV or Manhunt II would have been available to a hardcore adult audience, but kept out of most American homes. I know 10-year-olds who are playing this game because parents aren’t taking the M rating seriously enough. A valid AO rating might change what these children actually see.

Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The Deus Ex series, along with its cousin, Bioshock, is one of the most profound statements on transhumanism in any medium. The most recent version, Human Revolution, was released last fall, and it’s still well worth a complete playthrough. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in my review for Catholic News Service.

Human Revolution” deals with serious issues of ethics, politics, and society. Religious matters aren’t really on the radar, though. Perhaps the writers were reluctant to engage the complex theological issues involved in transhumanism. Or perhaps, like so many in the field of science fiction, they are simply not theistic, believing in a future without God.

Some religious elements do creep in, perhaps unwittingly. Adam’s name is not coincidental, and his relationship to the “JC” character of the original “Deus Ex” echoes Catholic understanding of Jesus as the New Adam. A pair of brothers named Isaias and Zachery feature as minor players, each acting in a somewhat prophetic role.

Read the whole thing. It has the usual weird syndication edit, but mostly it reads okay.

A slightly different version of my coverage, oriented more towards a gaming readership, can be found at my gaming blog, State of Play.

Rating Summary

Artistic Quality: A-

Content issues: Intense violence with gore, sexual themes, mature subject matter, alcohol use, drug references, strong language and implied prostitution.

ESRB Rating: Mature

Recommended for: Adults and mature teens