Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Stupid Attacks

Geoff Keighley participated in a discussion of the "scandalous" Mass Effect on a Fox News program. The video of the segment is here (please watch it), but it's so astounding that I wrote up a full transcript (starting with an edited version from Game Politics, which saved me some time). Here's the full transcript.

Segment Title Screen: “Se"Xbox? New Video Game Shows Full Digital Nudity and Sex

MacCallum (host)

It's pretty amazing stuff, I was looking at a little bit of it this afternoon. It's a new roleplaying video game that is leaving NOTHING to the imagination. Mass Effect is what it's called, it's made for Microsoft's Xbox system,and it features, in some parts of this, you’ll see full digital nudity. Imagine! And the ability for the players to engage in graphic sex and the person who’s playing the game gets to decide exactly what’s going to happen between the two people, if you know what I mean. The game is rated "M" for Mature,however, critics say that Mass Effect IS being marketed to kids and to teenagers.

Microsoft responded to these claims and said that they were innacurate. They released this statement, that says in part, [reads statement by Microsoft]
"we actively support and abide by all video game rating systems...and provide built-in, industry-leading technology such as parental controls and a Family Timer that empowers parents and their caregivers to monitor their children's experience with video games notably with respect to content, online interactions and amount of time spent."

Cooper Lawrence is a psychology specialist, radio talk show host, and the author of the new book "The Cult of Perfection," and Geoff Keighley is a game expert with Spike TV. Welcome to both of you.

You know, Cooper, it really cracks me up, right here, when I hear these companies say that there are all these controls in there, that you can monitor the time, but basically, Pandora’s Box is open. I mean, kids have access to these things, and unless you're hovering over them every second, they're going to find ways to see this stuff on the Internet. How damaging is it, really?

Well, it's the whole concept that it's thirteen-year olds who have never seen Playboy because they're not supposed to. It's the idea that, let's talk about who the video game's FOR. It might be for adults, but if you look at the statistics, who's playing video games but adolescent males, not their dads. So that's the first thing.

The damage is this. We know that all the research shows that violence has a desensitizing effect. Well, sexuality does too, because this is when the developing mind is happening, this is when they're first deciding who they're gonna be, who they're going to be. This is when social development is happening. And here’s how they’re seeing women. They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.

All right, let's get Geoff in on this.

That’s completely incorrect. First of all, you can actually play as a man or a woman in the game. Cooper, have you ever played Mass Effect?

Lawrence (giggling):

Right, well I think the fact that, another thing you mentioned is that it has full graphical nudity, that’s completely incorrect. There’s no full nudity in this game--there’s the side of an alien boob which can be seen. It’s a small sexual situation in this game which is about two minutes out of a thirty-plus hour experience.

Jeff, let me ask you a question. I have not played this game. I went on the website today, I clicked on a lot of different trailers, I tried to learn as much as I could about it before we were going to do this. It's interesting, when you click on it it asks you your age--it says you must go through a scanning process. So I thought "oh, this is going to take forever." Okay, so I put in my age and then BOOM, you're in, no problem. So that is a pretty easy screen to get past. There's nothing graphic that I saw on the pages that I looked at on the Internet, but it does beg the question, you know, what it does to kids in terms of how they think about violence and sexuality, because you know, they're engaged and blowing people away.

Well, I think that's what's interesting about this. We talked about sexuality and the media. One of the great things about Mass Effect--people who have played it know this--it's sort of a choose your own adventure story. And it doesn't force you down any situation. You can actually play through this game without the sexual situation ever happening--

Lawrence (interrupting):
Right, and a young boy’s going to be choosing not to have sex. That’ll be what they choose. I mean, let’s be realistic here--

Cooper, it’s not a simple choice. You don’t turn on the game and it says, “would you like to have sex or not?” It’s through the evolution of a relationship with characters and the fact that this game has incredible artificial intelligence. You can actually fall in love in this game. It’s just like modeling your life, and I think that's a much more powerful form of media--

Lawrence (interrupting):
Darlin', I gotta go with the research. And the research says there’s a new study out of the University of Maryland right now that says that boys that play video games cannot tell the difference between what they’re seeing in the video game and the real world if they don't have a real experience.

You’re completely misrepresenting the game.

Thank you. Jeff, it was a completely fascinating game I was amazed by the artistry and what it looks like.

Let me at him, Martha.

It’s a fantastic game and sex is a small, little part of it.

Thank you very much, Jeff and Cooper, let's go very quickly to the panel and get your thoughts on this.You know when you buy video games, which I just had my first experience doing recently, because I swore them off until this past Christmas when I said 'Okay, I'm going to break down,' but you have to pick up the box and look at the back for the rating and then, I mean, you have to be involved in what your kids are looking at. What do you think about that?

Man digitally inserted from a 1950's newscast:
Absolutely. Just last week I bought "Princess Enchanted Bride's" for my six-year old daughter, and I'm not very good at these games. I'm like with this Princess Whoever, trying to get to the next stage, and you just have to figure it out. I'm never good at it. But I will say this. Look, who can argue, possibly, that,you know, Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas is a good thing. It’s not. It's just not good. And I’m definitely not going to let Mass Effect in my house.

And then the thing is, once it's in the house. There's a lot of grown men that love video games, let's be honest here, but once it's in the house, we live in a day and age where our children aren't always supervised. It's not the days of the Playboy magazine where a lot of moms were at home for the majority of the day. Many kids let themselves in after school, they have time--what do you think a young boy's gonna do? "I want to play my dad's video game while he's not here." And I think that's dangerous. We really have to watch this.

Female #2:
I’m not sure why it didn’t get an Adults Only rating. That’s the highest rating it can have. So, first of all, this board that rates them needs to have their head examine And this made me feel old watching this. What happened to Atari and pinball and Pac-Man?

This is incredibly sophisticated. It's like watching a full feature film, basically, it's incredibly sophisticated.

2nd Male Panelist:
But we have to careful here. Let's face it, there's all kinds of bad stuff coming through the Internet through video games. And the reality is, I would argue that the governement cannot and should not censor everything coming across the web and in video games. At the end of the day, it's just like Chet said--it's up to parents to control what their kids are seeing.

It is, unfortunately, and it makes being a parent a much harder job than it used to be, because there's such a flood, and also, you can access things on the Internet, and download them, so you're thinking "if I don't buy it, it'll be okay,' but there's all kinds of ways to access this, even on your phone to access this stuff. So it's tough to be a parent, but interesting.



It's a good thing Geoff Keighley wasn't in the studio, because if he had been, the overwhelming gravity of stupid might have compressed his lungs like a boa constrictor. Good grief, I practically get dizzy just reading this.

I'm not going to hit all the high ("low") points in the transcript, but let's look at a few. First off, it's clear that no one except Geoff has played Mass Effect. At all. And it's also clear that none of their assistants played Mass Effect and gave them any details on the game.

So where, exactly, did they get their information? That's an excellent question, and one I can't answer. But it's incredibly clear that none of these people, except Geoff, have any idea what they're talking about.

Then there's Cooper Lawrence. The pop psychologist flavor of the month has an interesting website, saying that she is a "relationship and psychology expert with a master’s degree in developmental psychology. She is currently finishing her doctorate in psychology at Fordham University."

Boy, I'd love to find out where she got her undergraduate and master's degrees, and whether she's actually taking classes at Fordham. Why? Because so many radio personalities who are "experts" have grossly inflated their academic credentials, and her utter lack of knowledge in the interview certainly made some alarms go off.

Yes, she was wrong about the demographics of gaming and about the content of Mass Effect, but what really should be embarrassing is that she absolutely butchered the Maryland study she mentioned as her triumphant trump card (after uttering a patronizing "darlin' " to Geoff). She said that the study shows "boys that play video games cannot tell the difference between what they’re seeing in the video game and the real world if they don't have a real experience."


Here's an excerpt from a Washington Post article about the study. Here's how it worked:
Killen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland's Human Development Department interviewed more than 100 college students, whose average age was 19, for 45 minutes each. They showed them images from a series of imaginary video games, each one modeled on a familiar genre in the gaming industry.

Here's an excerpt from one of the interviews:
..."The game doesn't make people violent -- it's just a game," said one subject, a 19-year-old woman, in a confidential interview with Killen's research team. "If they're violent, it's something wrong with them."

Here's another:
"You're not really going out and killing people," one 19-year-old man told his interviewers. "So, I mean, it's just like fantasy."

Those seem like remarkably reasonable perspectives to have on entertainment.

The researchers, though, are convinced that they're wrong.
Killen's research found that most subjects understood that the two over-the-top games depicted negative themes and harmful stereotypes. But they failed to see how that content could harm them.

In other words, the researchers say the content IS harming them, even though the subjects don't agree. It seems like the 19-year olds have a better understanding of "pretend" than the researchers.

Let's circle back to Lawrence. Does anything in that study sound like it's saying that boys cannot distinguish between video games and reality? That's exactly what they ARE doing--saying that video games aren't reality.

Well done, Ms. Lawrence. I'm sure you'll have a fine career in imaginary expert talk radio. Oh, and if you're really trying to offer an "intelligent, entertaining, respectful radio show for women to make them think," maybe you should try to understand that "snarky" and "knowledge" are not equivalent terms.

Then there's the "panel"--sort of the Buffoonquin Round Table, if you will. The first panelist, who looks like he was ripped right out of a black-and-white newscast from the Korean War era, came up with what must be one of the greatest lines in television history: "Look, who can argue, possibly, that, you know, Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas is a good thing."

Absolutely. Um, WTF?

I have no idea what this man is talking about, and neither does he. Again, this is a group of people talking about a subject that they know absolutely nothing about, so instead of offering actual information or intelligent opinions, they read their scribbled money shot off their notes and hope it doesn't go flat.

It's painful, and it's particularly painful if you watch the video, because most of them are tremendously patronizing and smug--again, being smug without actually knowing anything about what they're talking about, which is an ironic combination.

At the very end, there is one panelist who appears to actually be capable of thought, and he says that parents should be responsible for what their kids play.

Now THAT is a novel concept.

I could write far, far more about this, but really, it's not necessary. When stupid, uninformed people try to discuss something with smart, informed people (Geoff Keighley, in this instance), the stupid people are going to look, well, stupid.

Geoff Keighley, by the way, should get full credit for his preparation. He knew he had limited time in which to speak, and he immediately got to the point: that this imaginary controversy is over two minutes of content in a thirty-hour game, and that even those two minutes have to be misrepresented to create any controversy at all. He also immediately established that no one else in the discussion had actually played the game.

I've written this before, but the best response to stupidity, by far, is accuracy.

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