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Media : Game Theory

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Baring it all for free speech

Defying industry speculation that developers had failed to meet their launch date, Bethesda Software recently launched The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to critical acclaim. It was widely recognized as one of the best role-playing games ever created for the PC platform, and more than 1.7 million copies were sold during the first month.

Yet, not everyone was a fan. In early May, an anonymous gamer posted a third-party modification (“mod”) that made it appear as if all female characters were topless. The Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) responded by changing Oblivion’s rating from T (teen) to M (mature), alleging that developers had shipped the PC version of the game with secret files containing nude skins. The ESRB also claimed that the company had misreported the extent of violent imagery within the game.

At first blush, this development seemed remarkably similar to the controversy that swirled around the infamous Hot Coffee “sex mod” for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Noting that Take2 Interactive was a co-publisher of both games, critics of the gaming industry suggested that Oblivion’s developers were trying to pull a fast one on American consumers.

The progressive California Assemblyman Leland Yee immediately leapt into the fray, arguing that “it was only 10 months ago that this game publisher deceived parents by first putting hidden sex scenes into their already ultra-violent video game and then lying about the fact that they allowed the content to be included.”

In a calmly worded statement, Bethesda Software declared that it would comply fully with the ratings board’s decision. Company spokespersons stressed that the game had not been shipped with nude characters that could be unlocked. Acknowledging that the game includes graphic depictions of violence, they reminded the ESRB that they had been up-front about this throughout the rating and review process.

Many Americans - even intelligent politicians - lack the fundamental digital media literacy skills required to make informed policy decisions about games.

The company was quick to differentiate Oblivion from less-sophisticated titles, arguing that the game “is not typical of mature related titles, and does not present the central themes of violence that are common to those products.”

The controversy was a sad reminder that many Americans - even intelligent politicians such as Leland Yee - lack the fundamental digital media literacy skills required to make informed policy decisions about games. Luckily, this is not rocket science. Almost anyone can form a reasoned opinion about the topic if they simply take a few minutes to consider the underlying issues.

A “mod” is a chunk of software code that makes it possible for players to insert new content and adjust underlying game mechanics. The changes can be minor (e.g. modifying character models to include a baldness option) or far more extensive (e.g. changing the first-person shooter Counterstrike into an anti-war game in which the goal is to cover walls with political graffiti). Designing new landscapes, inventive narratives, and unique game objectives, modders can create entirely new games on top of the original software engine.

In the early days, modders reverse-engineered software by carefully poring over the source code. Today, enlightened developers have deliberately opened up their games to facilitate third-party modifications. For example, in the case of Oblivion, Bethesda released a construction kit that gives gamers access to thousands of artificially intelligent non-player characters, and hundreds of thousands of three-dimensional objects.

Much of the recent press coverage assumes that there is something nefarious about the modding process. Journalists and politicians imply that Bethesda Software acted irresponsibly because they did not ban to access the game’s digital assets. Such criticisms fail to acknowledge the incredible gift that developers have provided to the community.

The Oblivion construction kit, along with similar applications released for other games, converts a $50 video-game into an enormous set of digital Lego pieces. Users with no experience in computer programming can dive into these kits and design their own games.

Not surprisingly, educators and artists enthusiastically support the movement as a powerful tool for creating educational video games. Modding technologies transform passive consumers into active producers, allowing them to try their hands at game design, digital art creation, and interactive storytelling.

Of course, these toolkits also enable the creation of offensive content. There is no way of stopping neo-Nazi youth from transforming the game Neverwinter Nights into a genocide simulator. Maladjusted individuals can easily recreate their high school or workplace in first-person shooters such as Half-Life 2.

This is the price of free speech. There is no surefire way of preventing people from voicing (or coding) objectionable ideas, nor should there be.


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