Category Archives: Poli-Ethics

Comcast, Walled Gardens, and Games

There’s a lot of talk currently about the Level-3/Comcast mess, where Comcast is demanding additional money from Level 3 (an internet backbone and current partner with Netflix for providing streaming media) before they will allow streaming media onto their network. Comcast’s reasoning is that Level 3 is acting as a Content Delivery Network (CDN), not just as an internet backbone, and thus no longer qualifies for the peerage agreements that would allow for traffic between the two networks without additional fees. Which is a bogus assertion, and feels like a money-grab: Comcast’s customers are paying for that bandwidth already, and making a legitimate request for the data being provided — all Level 3 is doing is sending the requested data. To then block the data that the customer has paid for (twice: they pay Comcast for the bandwidth, and Netflix for the content) directly violates the principles of an open internet.

This is a prime example of why there are concerns over the imminent Comcast-NBC Universal deal (for those who haven’t been paying attention: Comcast is trying to purchase NBC Universal from General Electric for $6.5 billion dollars CASH, plus investing an additional $7.5 billion dollars in programming), in terms of media consolidation and vertical control effectively creating a walled garden. To quote Senator Bernie Sanders:

The sale of NBCU to Comcast would create an enormously powerful, vertically integrated media conglomerate, causing irreparable damage to the American media landscape and ultimately to society as a whole.

This is hardly the first time Comcast has been caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, taking censorial action while claiming to be in favor of an open internet. Their behavior is antithetical to net neutrality on a fundamental and obvious level.

So, why does this matter to game development? A variety of reasons, actually. Regardless of what type of games you are talking about, modern gaming takes bandwidth: assets need to be downloaded, whether as a standalone game title, or even the casual, cloud-based games you find on Armor Games or Kongregate or even Facebook. If there is any type of online component, there will be regular communication between client and server. This sort of bandwidth costs money, and if developers have to start paying additional fees to be allowed into walled gardens, the cost may reach a point where it is no longer feasible for many developers to continue. Even already, a number of games are looking at solutions to mitigate the costs of hosting content, such as distributed downloading solutions like BitTorrent (yes, believe it or not, peer to peer isn’t just for illegal uses). While some price fluctuation is expected and reasonable as the market shifts and costs of hosting and bandwidth change, at what point do developers (including smaller developers without the resources of large publishers) have to start dealing directly with Comcast (or other gatekeepers) for the right to sell their own product to the public? One of the biggest benefits of the internet, open access, not having to go through a gatekeeper process and large publishers to share your work with the world, is already being challenged by device-specific gates, like the Apple App Store for the iPhone, and to a lesser extent the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare. (I say lesser extent because those networks are ones that ostensibly can’t reach the rest of the internet without additional effort, if at all, whereas the iPhone App store has no such issues.) We do not need, nor want, service providers blockading legitimate customers from our products.

“For Fun” Indeed

To say that games cannot do whatever other media can do, that they are “just for fun” and have no other purpose, is to betray a profound contempt for games. (Raph Koster in response to a comment that games are played for nothing more than fun)

Very succinctly stated and in my opinion spot on.  As is evidenced by the nature of the appeal in Minnesota, there are still quite a few ill-informed and misconceived notions about the medium that need to be addressed.  While there is a fair bit of understanding that video games are the “political tool du jour” in this election year, that doesn’t make their attempts to restrict the rights and freedoms of a fledgling medium any less dangerous.

I’ve discussed this in the past, but I’ll say it again: comics sadly let themselves be pigeonholed back when they first became popular, and have now had to spend decades fighting that image because they didn’t fight it then.  Regardless of whether you like graphic, violent video games, I hope that we can all agree that in order to defend our rights as a whole, we need to defend these now.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (H.L. Mencken)

The Cost of Enlightenment

There is an adage that states, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” It is meant to remind monks that true enlightenment is not something that can be purchased or even given, but must come from within. It is somewhat ironic, then, that we consider our society enlightened. While it is true that we have made significant advances in human wellbeing in the past century, it has come at the cost of the only true freedom that exists: personal responsibility.

Rather than holding the individual accountable for their actions, we mitigate and deflect that responsibility by blaming those actions on the ideas and words of something or someone else. This offense is further compounded by efforts to use the actions of the individual to dictate the rights of everyone. The moment a book, song, movie, comic, or game is censored or banned, we have sacrificed an essential liberty, and hammered another nail in the coffin of personal responsibility.

The logic behind censorship is fundamentally flawed:

  1. Censorship protects no one; ideas are rooted in the culture that spawns them, they cannot simply be turned off like a faucet.
  2. The only truly free society is an informed society: if you’re worried about a new idea taking over, maybe you should re-examine your own beliefs.
  3. Personal beliefs do not equal law: the sacrilege of one person may be the gospel of another.

Despite these flaws, people continue to try and censor others, with increasing success rates. We have found our roadside Buddha, and he’s offering censorship wrapped in the pretense of enlightenment. We need to collectively realize that it’s a false promise; cultural enlightenment, like spiritual enlightenment, begins and ends with the self. The true cost of enlightenment is personal responsibility.

Where is Our Frank Zappa?

Back in the early 80s, a conservative watchdog group lobbied for the ban or heavy regulation of music with explicit lyrics involving sex, drugs, or violence. There was a vocal outcry against this movement within the music industry, spearheaded by several prominent musicians, notably Frank Zappa and John Denver. It may seem like an odd pairing, but that served to help drive home just how unacceptable these restrictions were.

The Gaming Industry is now faced with a similar situation. Games, game developers, and even retailers are being targeted unfairly by lawyers and the media as the culprits for individual irresponsibility. Lawmakers are taking notice, but not in a positive manner: several states, Washington and California included, currently have bills in committee to ban the sale of violent games. Rather than finding other solutions, or viewing the larger problem that this is only a symptom of, legislators would prefer to restrict the rights of game makers.

There are several significant issues with the video game ban ideology, but from the reading I’ve done on the subject, most of their reasoning hinges around one fundamental flaw in their logic: games aren’t just for kids. The largest and fastest growing gaming demographic is the 18 to 34 year old age range; it is unreasonable to deny the ability to develop for that group. The game industry has voluntarily self-regulated by placing ratings on every game produced, indicating the content and suggested age range for view or play. This takes no more effort on the part of the parents (and retailers) than the movie rating system, and yet the industry as a whole is being blamed for violent games falling into the hands of children. Demanding that the game developers not make games with mature content is unreasonable on several levels, not the least of which is the violation of first amendment rights. What needs to happen is education. We need to educate parents about the systems that are in place to help them, as well as the need to pay attention to what their kids are doing. We need to educate retailers about sales ethics. We need to educate everyone about personal responsibility.

We need someone who can speak for the game industry as cogently as Frank Zappa and John Denver did for the music industry. The question is, who? Where is our Frank Zappa?