Monthly Archives: July 2014

Opinion – Discrimination in the Data

Fighting social injustice, WITH NUMBERS

I should note, all information referred below speaks to US numbers. The survey was much weaker on other locations.

Gamasutra’s 2014 salary survey came out this week (link) and provided one of the few sources of survey information on the gender disparities in the video game industry. Plenty of people have talked about the problems and shared their own stories, but few have taken a systematic look at the issue. To be sure, the Gamasutra survey only looked at it as a side effect of a broader discussion, but information on gender issues is in such short supply that the survey can’t be ignored. What Gamasutra found is both disturbing and sadly incomplete. The survey gives us a hint of some of the issues, but its structural flaws prevent us from making stronger conclusions. This is a shame, because the industry really needs hard data on this.

The survey showed what many have long known to be true: that the video game industry is male dominated. No position studied had anywhere near gender parity with the closest being producers who were only 78% male. It gets way worse, and quick, from there. In addition to being a sausage fest, the video games industry pays men substantially more than women. Though there is considerable variance, women made 86% of what men made across all positions studied. In some areas, such as design or QA, the pay has reached near parity, but others, such as art design or audio professionals, women are paid sustainably less. The average female artist makes approximately $20,000 less than her male peers. Unfortunately, this is about as far as we can go with this survey. As interesting as the data is, the poor presentation of it detracts from the conclusions we can make.

While I certainly understand that gender was not the sole goal of this survey, it could have had stronger things to say with just a little tweaking. Consider the salary information above. While the survey notes the substantial differences in pay, it does not mention the differences in position. Many of the pay differences could be explained by position, not wage discrimination. In the case of programmers and artists, the pay differential almost mirrors the difference in pay between the ranks of professionals with 3-6 years. It’s quite possible that the problem is not wage discrimination, but rather position discrimination. Other positions don’t have quite a neat match up as those two, but the objection still stands. Without knowing the seniority of the individuals surveyed, it’s hard to know where the disparity actually lies.

For those seeking to undo gender discrimination, this matters greatly. Company policies mandating equal pay for equal work won’t fix the gender disparity if women aren’t being given a chance at the higher paying work. This is the reason why the gaming discussion on gender so desperately needs more hard data. Too many commenters are caught up in the anger and sadness of the anecdotes that raise the profile of the issue to figure out where the actual discrimination lies. The industry must take a thoughtful, systematic, and data-filled look at itself if it is to identify the problems surrounding gender and come up with useful solutions.


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Opinion – The Conflict of Game and Story

Your collectibles are killing my chase scene.

Sheppard is on an asteroid hurtling towards a Mass Effect relay in a desperate bid to slow the Reaper invasion.  The indoctrinated Doctor Kenson is attempting to overload the asteroid’s engines and blow it up before Sheppard can ram it into the relay.  Sheppard must stop Dr. Kenson’s plan and get through the relay and time is short.  Well, shortish.  I mean, yeah, Sheppard probably should stop the core meltdown, but there are resources to collect.  After all, who actually likes that planet scanning minigame?  And look!  Tech!  I’ve got to upgrade my armor.  And why won’t these enemies just die?  It feels like I’ve been fighting them forever.

Wait, what was I doing?  Oh yeah, asteroid.

The situation I described occurred in Mass Effect 2, but is fairly common throughout the video game universe.  Developers consistently introduce new and interesting scenarios only to undermine the tension they’ve created with conflicting gameplay elements.  Consider the situation above.  The story is that Commander Shepard has limited time to save the universe.  The base is detonating, Dr. Kenson is shouting about fulfilling her evil plot, and there’s a giant counter ticking down to collision.  This is a world communicating urgency, but the gameplay isn’t on board.  Rather than encourage the player to quickly make his way through the level, the player is incentivized to take their time.  Look for free resources!  Make sure you check every hallway for secrets!  Don’t forget to have a long shoot out with several packs of enemies.  It’s hard for the player to both buy into the story and the gameplay without one or both suffering.

Collectibles aren’t the only culprit.  Games undermine their stories in a number of ways.  Consider difficulty.  In only a few game narratives does the story include death or failure.  When the player does not succeed at his task, the result is a break and restart from the narrative.  On the most basic level, the death of the player is a contradiction of the idea that the protagonist is in danger.  After all, die enough times and it’s hard to say that any given death had greater meaning than any other.  The player will simply revive at an earlier point and try again.  For some of gaming’s most common narratives and settings, that of the unstoppable hero, the act of death is even more poisonous.  Unstoppable heroes are notable for the distinct lack of death.  Constant failure against the very objects said hero is supposed to surmount suggests that the unstoppable hero is anything but.

On some level, this is unavoidable.  Collectibles are fun to find.  Many players need the threat of failure to enjoy the challenge of a game.  Furthermore, individual players will always push the boundaries of the world through their actions.  There is nothing the developer can do to prevent Solid Snake from dry humping every corpse in the level.  Player skill is also an uncontrollable variable.  A brutal, narrative breaking brawl for some players may be a cakewalk for others.  Creating a feeling across the myriad of players and play styles is quite difficult.

That being said, there are things developers can do.  One of the most obvious is the difficulty setting.  Let skilled players dial up the pain while not so skilled players kick it down to enjoy the story.  Establish a pattern of streamlined gameplay in sections that need to focus on the story and tone.  Incorporate as many gameplay elements as possible into the world of the game.  This reduces the barriers of communication and helps the player enjoy the world as the developer intended.

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Opinion – Youtube is a force for good

I hate it when people give me free advertising.

I sometimes think that developers don’t understand anything outside of their own bubble.  That they exist in a preserve of self-indulgence where the only voices they hear are the ones that tell them how awesome they are.  And then I see something like the argument over people posting videos of games on Youtube and I know I’m right.  Thanks guys!

The growth of Let’s Play videos, where the user posts a video of their time with a game, should be a boon for developers.  Afterall, the developer’s biggest fans are playing their game in front of an audience while showing said audience exactly why that game is worth playing.  This serves to show perspective buyers what they’re missing and all the fun they could have if only they’d buy Call of Manliness: Wolfwrestler.  To be sure, some of these videos are negative.  Some gamers, particularly reviewers, may post uncomplimentary reviews about a game and use the visual medium as a way to more accurately show the described faults.  As I will discuss, going after the video makes no sense, yet this is what some companies are doing.  They demand Youtube pull down videos with their content or insist on getting a cut of the profit.  In short, developers are demanding people pay to advertise the developer’s games.  It’s ridiculous.

The most extreme version of this argument is articulated by Phil Fish of Fez fame who claims that Youtubers making money off of a game is stealing from the developer.  The assets used, be they images, music, or narrative, belong to the artist that created them.  That artist deserves a slice of any profits derived from their work.  The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize both a) the contribution of the Youtuber and b) the value of a game.  To address the first point, Youtubers add value through their play and commentary.  They build up fanbases by cultivating online personas and creating slick productions that people want to see.  They provide unique content beyond the simple act of uploading a game.  Don’t believe me?  Compare two videos: one with a likeable personality and one that just shows gameplay.  See how many views each has.  Chances are, the Let’s Play video with the Youtube celebrity not only has more views, but it has substantially more views.  The mere showing of game footage is not enough to generate the massive views that a popular Youtuber can.  People want more than just a play through of a given game.  They want the content added by a dedicated personality.

For point b, the answer is even more obvious: video games are far more than a given Youtube video can convey.  The greatest strength of the medium, interactivity, is completely absent no matter the production values of the video or the charm of the Youtuber.  Gamers cannot interact with a movie.  It’s why the medium is so effective for advertising.  It shows the player all that they could be doing, but denies them the chance to do it.  The best way to acquire that experience is to go forth and purchase the game.

As mentioned earlier, some videos contain critiques of the games being played.  Unsurprisingly, some developers pull these negative reviews in hopes of preventing others from being dissuade in purchasing the developer’s game.  Unfortunately for such souls, the internet is a big place.  Attempting to pull all negative reviews from one area (Youtube) does nothing to stop negative reviews in another (the rest of the internet).  Furthermore, reviewing sites can undeniably rate a game negatively without a threat of credible legal action.  In short, word will get out about how terrible your game is.  Word will also get out about your attempts to stifle the negative reviews which, in turn, further poisons your potential audience against you.  Developers need their fans to give them feedback to improve their games.  Attacking dissent doesn’t actually stop dissent, but it does encourage fans to focus on a game where their thoughts are appreciated.

Youtube is an incredible tool.  Arrogance and entitlement are incredible hindrances.  Developers like Fish need to back away from the belief that everything associated with their game is theirs and appreciate the great advantage of enthusiastic fans who are providing free advertising.  If not, then I imagine Youtubers will find someone who does.

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Truth – Of Hamsters and Spaceships

The truth, revealed.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the post I wanted to write, so I’m instead going to share a little theory I have concerning the excellent Mass Effect series: Mass Effect is the prequel to Baldur’s Gate.

It all begins with a miniature giant space hamster with Boo.  For those who recall BG, they will remember the great duo of Minsc and Boo, man and hamster.  The warrior Minsc claimed that Boo was none other than a space hamster who counseled him on important matters.  BG and the developer, Bioware, wanted us to write off Minsc as a fun, deranged fighter and Boo as an item slot sacrificed for giggles, but, dear reader, Boo was far more than that.  When the player clicks on Boo in Minsc’s inventory, Boo makes a distinctive and pleasant squeaking noise.  In ME, Commander Shepard also acquires a hamster that makes the exact same noise.  It is reasonable to conclude that we are looking at Boo, the space hamster.

Now, the question arises how did Boo get to BG?  After all, Mass Effect happens in a far flung future and BG is a technologically primitive and magic existent universe.  Furthermore, how does the magic of BG jive with the science of ME?  Simple.  In the final scenes of the original ending of ME3, the Normandy crash lands on an unknown planet with much of the crew surviving.  I hold that this planet was actually BG’s Forgotten Realms and that Boo escaped when the ship landed, freeing him up to join Minsc for the events of BG.  As for the magic, ME’s biotics act very similar to BG’s magic.  They can cause elemental damage, push people and objects, and create shields.  Furthermore, we know that biotic gifts are caused by exposure to element zero, the required fuel of the Normandy.  The mages of BG could have been exposed to element zero from the Normandy (or any other crashing ship) and so gaining biotic, not magic, powers.  To the technologically ignorant population, they wouldn’t know the difference.  There are other connections.  BG’s ruins of lost civilizations could easily be space ships, the various monsters could be ME’s alien races, and the Big Metal Unit could just as easily be ME tech.  There are many connections.

See that Bioware?  I’m on to you.

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