I Promise You, the Dawn Is Coming
For those that don’t know, the last few weeks have been rough in the video game industry. Developers and critics have been harassed and threatened to the point that they have had to flee their homes or leave the industry entirely. A bomb threat was called on a flight carrying the president of Sony Online Entertainment. A campaign of harassment has continued at unprecedented levels and has disturbingly seemed to target women. There hasn’t been a day that goes by in the last three weeks that I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed and seen another industry person accused of wrongdoing and sent hundreds of awful messages containing the worst examples of language, intent, and malice.
There is no winning scenario against such an onslaught of hatred. Fighting it makes it worse. You can’t reason with it because it is like a hydra; even if you convince one or two people that they’re mistaken several more are ready to go for your jugular. Both the people who write about games and the people who make them, especially the people with smaller outlets or who have gone the independent route, rely heavily on social media, it is a key tool that’s necessary for doing their jobs and paying their bills, something that many in the industry struggle to do.
In reaction to this ongoing behavior, a number of game critics and writers declared that the term “gamer” was dead, rotten to the core, or broken beyond repair. This had the effect of further alienating their audience. Those who had been participating in the campaigns of harassment felt justified in striking back at the industry that they felt had tried to disown them, while the majority of people who identify as gamers felt unfairly labeled as people who accept and participate in hateful behavior.
There are a number of great articles on the subject that I found to be helpful when trying to make sense of this entire situation and perhaps they can be helpful to you all as well. Devin Faraci over on Badass Digest, Jim Sterling on the Escapist, and Keith Stuart at The Guardian.
As for what I think about the whole affair… well, it genuinely makes me feel very sad. It seems to me that the core argument of the harassers is that the majority of games journalism and developers are corrupt and trying to in some way enrich themselves. I am in a position to know that many of the allegations of corruption aren’t correct. Sure, out there in the wide world it must happen, but most game journalists and critics get paid in beans. They do it because they love games and find them to be exceedingly interesting. Most indie devs aren’t in the business for the money, either. As anecdote to illustrate my point, a few months ago a gaming podcast I record on the side had on a member of the startup indie studio Tangentlemen as a guest. Their studio was working out of a garage and their financials were on the line. These were people that had worked at big studios and they gave up that life to work on games about which they thought were important. The people being targeted with harassment and accusations of corruption can’t afford to be corrupt because they are already paying the price of wanting to either write about games or make them without the backing of major publishers. Many of the people in this line of work could be very successful, but they choose to put their talent to work for a fraction of what they could make elsewhere because they love games.
I also find it alarming that so many of the people targeted have been female indie developers. Given that the games industry is mostly populated with men, it is disturbing to see that the brunt of the harassment has been experienced by women. Not only do these targets tend to be women, but they also have tended to be indie developers who have turned to services like Patreon or Kickstarter for financial support, making them more vulnerable than people who are a part of established organizations like EA, Activision, etc. I feel like that’s more than a bit telling that our industry still has a long ways to go when it comes to how women are treated both in-game and in the real world.
The entire situation isn’t right.
A small portion of the gaming community has been harassing developers, critics, and journalists for weeks, which has spurred some games journalists into defensively lashing out at the entire community. Naturally, this all begins to look like something that could become an ongoing cycle of ugliness. I believe that the journalists saying that the term “gamer” is dead are wrong. The word is widely used in the community to describe someone who enjoys playing video games. It might not be the most logical word (after all, how often are people who watch movies referred to as moviers or people who enjoy books called bookers?), but it is a useful word. The English language is one that prioritizes usefulness over logic; one of the reasons why our grammar is so strange and there are so many exceptions to rules and strange pronunciations. “Gamer” will be around as long as it continues to be useful as a descriptor and a cultural identifier. However, there is a slight catch. Every word has both a denotation, which is its literal definition, and a connotation, which is the spirit of the word or the ideas and feeling that the word invokes. Denotations tend to remain somewhat static, while connotations can change rapidly over time.
The term for this shift in meaning is called semantic change. There are many words that originally had positive and useful applications, but later became unacceptable. If a small segment of the gaming community continues to harass developers there is the possibility that the word “gamer” could come to have negative connotations. I think it is probably very easy to poison a word when a group of individuals associated with it are broadcasting awful things to the world in a very public manner.
I am sitting here and I don’t know what to do. I get on Twitter and see people like Jenn Frank leaving the industry because their years of passionate work is being rewarded with torrents of awful comments. I’m seeing some of the most interesting game makers and writers out there leaving an industry because a small group of people has decided that they are corrupt or a jerk or are in some way a threat. It makes me mad. It makes me sad. I want to open my window and shout down the street about how unfair the situation has become. But being mad or sad or shouting or complaining will actually fix the problem. Perhaps this so called “Gamergate” is symptomatic of the growing pains that the games industry needs to go through before coming more fully into its own. I think that’s a possibility. It is also possible that this isn’t an issue that will just go away in time.
I think that what I said two weeks ago still holds true: Be excellent to each other. With all your might, be excellent to each other. When you see people harassing an individual over social media, speak up for what is right. Discussion is great and criticism is encouraged, but hate speech, threats, abuse, and baseless accusations aren’t either of those things. Always remember that it is okay to disagree with someone while still showing them a modicum of respect and human decency. To anyone who might be participating in the harassment, remember that you are heaping an abuse on actual, living people. If you have a shred of empathy or good in you, please stop.
After all of this, I want to talk about the things that brings game journalists, developers, critics, and gamers together: Games. While the present state of the industry and its community might appear to be foul, the prospects on the horizon fill me with hopeful anticipation. Technology that several years ago could only be dreamed of is slowly becoming a reality. Thinking of the possibilities inherent in video games and how the technology could broaden their scope reminded me this week of why I love writing about video games in the first place. I thought I’d share a few of the technologies that gave me new hope.
Project Holodeck is basically a full-body virtual experience, or at least an attempt at one, aiming to have a feeling similar to the holodeck popularized by Star Trek. It consists of an Oculus Rift headset, a PlayStation Move, a Razer Hydra, and a Lenovo laptop attached to players’ backs. While the necessary equipment for Project Holodeck looks goofy on players, it is important to remember that the technology is still in its infancy. While the graphical quality of the demos that have been revealed so far is a bit underwhelming, the proof of concept is amazingly attractive. If a group of student developers could create something like that, what could an entire studio do? As rough as the tech appears and as silly as the VR equipment looks, it does actually work. That fact alone is enough to make me smile at the possibilities. Also it doesn’t hurt that their original concept video showcased Skies of Arcadia, one of my all-time favorite RPGs.
Another piece of technology that has yet to be fully explored in the realm of gaming is Leap Motion. Created as a gesture-based interface for computers, the $80 sensor tracks hand movements with astounding accuracy. While the initial peripheral released last year to a somewhat lukewarm response, it was recently revealed that there are plans to use Leap Motion tech alongside Oculus Rift. Basically, it would allow the VR headset to read hand gestures and track their movement before they moved into player view, expanding peripheral vision. It could also be used to perform simple tasks like picking up objects, opening doors, etc. in a way that is much more accurate than what the Kinect or Wii were able to accomplish.
Something else to think about is the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets like Sony’s Project Morpheus. Those are on their way, too! Regardless of whether you think the “gamer” is dead or still alive and kicking or if you are a journalist or just a normal person who plays games, this is exciting. It could be like the invention of talkies in film or the step into the realm of color projection. It is a big deal and it is coming no matter the outcome of our industry’s current dust-up. To me, that is something of a comfort. The idea that we could soon be fully immersed in digital spaces is insanely exciting and just thinking about the opportunities to tell narratives in that form is so dang cool.
Then there are the technologies that are a bit further out there. Augmented reality games that place digital creations in the real world might seem like a fantasy, but how many of you got excited at the prospect of a Pokémon game in the real world when Google Maps did their April Fools joke this year? Can we all just take a minute to imagine how unbelievably rad that would be? I just used the word rad to describe something, which speaks to the amazing potential of AR games. Right now, AR seems to be relegated to the realm of side-show oddity or relegated to apps. The 3DS has the ability to produce AR games, but not many people seem to be in the business of making AR games. If anything, the nearly 16,000,000 views and 120,000 likes that Google’s Pokémon AR goof has received is enough to show that there is definitely an untapped interest in similar experiences. All I know is that if something like this was actually made, I would finally go outside and see that “sunlight” thing that everyone keep yammering on about.
Finally, we get to one of my most anticipated pieces of technology that makes me look forward to the future of gaming. Four years ago, there was an Australian based company called Euclideon appeared. Euclideon claimed that had created a way to abandon polygons and increase visual fidelity to near infinite levels of detail without even taxing a traditional graphics card. After making the claim, the company went silent for more than a year, which caused many to shrug and assume it was some sort of scam. However, when Euclideon reemerged and broke its silence, it released a tech demo for an engine it called the Unlimited Detail engine. UD was supposedly a new way to generate visuals. Euclideon claimed that it used a search algorithm for each pixel on the screen and in this way it was able to create levels of detail so minute that individual grains of dirt could be zoomed into in real time. To give everyone a reference point, they converted the atoms of their tech demo into polygons. They claimed that every cubic meter of dirt was composed of over 15,000,000 converted polygons, which is more than the total number of polygons in any game at that time that didn’t use procedural generation. The bottom line was that Euclideon claimed that their Unlimited Detail engine could improve the graphical quality by a factor of around 100,000. Despite the tech demo, manydismissed Euclideon’s claims as impossible. Once again the company fell silent.
Last year, they resurfaced again, but not in the world of gaming. It turns out that the geospatial industry makes use of large amounts of data and has trouble rendering it all quickly and efficiently. It normally takes about a half an hour for a computer with sixty gigabytes of RAM to render ten billion points of data. Euclideon’s geospatial program that makes use of their Unlimited Detail engine demonstrates the ability to render twenty billion points in 0.8 seconds. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It can do this off of a USB 2.0 stick. It can shift into 3D. It is flippin’ incredible! You might be thinking, “that’s great, but a laser scanned map doesn’t seem much like a video game thing. Does working on a program for geospatial companies mean Euclideon has abandoned gaming forever?” That doesn’t seem to be likely. There is a video floating around the internet that was posted last year shortly before Euclideon’s geospatial program was announced when an Australian student visited Euclideon to tour their facility and interview CEO Bruce Dell. The tour shows the company working on creating animation models and game creation tools for developers. Some employees who were let go have also said that the technology does indeed work. In the interview with Dell, the CEO explains why no games have been made with their engine:
I know it is probably wise to take Euclideon’s claims with caution. However, I can’t help but watch the tech demos and interviews with the company that have cropped up over the years and feel myself growing more excited. Many people claim that Euclideon can’t actually make games with their engine, that interacting with the environment would be too much for any computer to process, that animating with such a system would be a nightmare, etc. Despite those logical reasons, I just can’t find it in myself to dismiss Euclideon’s claims. I’ve seen nothing that proves their claims are false, just that what they claim to have done has never been accomplished before. If their incredible assertions are real, something that is given more credence given their application of it in the geospatial industry, this will change the face of gaming technology forever.
All of this is to say that, yes, the industry is in a rough patch right now and that makes it is easier to lose sight of some of the more exciting possibilities that the future has in store. We could be seeing games that run on computers with a fraction of the RAM they currently require. Heck, we could see high-end games begin played on our phones. Technology that allows us to grasp virtual objects while fully tracking our movements. Digital creations invading the physical world. These are just a few examples of the technologies on which our future games will rely. What will those games look like? What sorts of narratives will they tell? Where will they take us? How will they change the world? These are things worth anticipating.
Ultimately, we all play video games because we enjoy video games. Many of us feel that they’re important to our lives. That goes for gamers, journalists, and critics. We are all in the same boat. No one in the industry deserves to be harassed out of their homes or jobs and as game critics and journalists my colleagues and I shouldn’t be painting their entire readership with the same brush as those participating in the harassment. When we attack each other, we’re drilling holes in our own boat and that doesn’t help anyone. The only way forward is by being excellent to each other, respecting one another, and bonding together through a mutual passion. Video game industry and community, the present might seem to be mired in muck and vitriol, but the future holds fantastic promises.
It was a bad time for us for computer games. The current consoles are ending (the interview was done before the release dates and prices for the PS4 and Xbox One were announced last year), not enough time for us to make the software development kit and for companies to make games. We had a few joint projects that we just plainly had to turn down saying, “it doesn’t work for us right now to make the SDK for the existing consoles.” They’ve lasted longer than we’d thought, no one was quite sure when the next Xbox and the next PlayStation was about to come out and we’d been dragging on for two years now and we thought we really couldn’t take that risk and it is too early to prepare for the next ones, so it is a bit of a problem right now for people going into the game engine business. We decided that we will come back to games, and we are doing things regarding games here, but that’s a surprise for the future, but we decided that we should go into another industry temporarily.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 09/05/14