Archive for the ‘war’ Category

Is Call of Duty a danger to gaming?

November 7, 2011 3 comments

If you hear a lot of people (mostly young men) saying “dude” and “bro” more often over the next few days, it’s because it’s officially DudeBro Week. Also known as the week that the new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, hits stores.

Regular readers know I’m a big fan. I usually stay far, far away from playing video games online, firstly because they’re a giant time sink and secondly because if I wanted to hear incessant racist and homophobic babble, I’d hang out with my family (zing!).

Call of Duty games, however, are another matter entirely. Over the years, they’ve completely sucked me in with their crack-like addictiveness, to the point where I don’t even notice that it’s five a.m. and, holy crap, I’ve been playing for 12 hours. (The key is to immediately mute all those annoying players as soon as you log on.)

A little while back I started thinking about the Call of Duty phenomenon. With the games having sold more than 100 million units and grossed more than $5 billion, the war-themed shooter series is a bona fide entertainment juggernaut. Not many franchises post those kinds of numbers; Harry Potter, Star Wars and the like come to mind.

But the thing is, when an entertainment concern manages to rake in money of that scale, it usually has some sort of larger cultural impact. Star Wars, for example, has pretty much defined pop culture for a generation while Harry Potter has over the past few years spurred kids to read more and dress up like their favourite characters at Halloween. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Call of Duty has had any similar, larger effect.

When I was down at the Call of Duty XP fan convention in Los Angeles back in September, I thought that the answer might be yes. After all, the event attracted more than 7,000 DudeBros who paid $150 each for the chance to virtually shoot each other up and take in a horrible Kanye West performance. Also, at any point in time, there are seven million people online playing the games, an impressive number to be sure.

But is all of that enough to qualify as a cultural impact? For something to affect the larger culture, it has to have relevance outside its core audience, perhaps by spreading into other media or at least shaping and influencing the things we talk about.

I wasn’t sure, so I interviewed some of the games’ makers, then went and spoke with some games experts - academics, other creators and authors. The result was a story published on MSN over the weekend.

There was a lot that didn’t make it into that story, for length or thematic reasons. One of the experts I spoke to, Jane Pinckard - associate director at the University of California’s Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media - talked a lot about how Call of Duty has become the must-play game in any given year. That gives it some cultural heft.

“It becomes a game that you have to have because you are a 24-year-old male and it’s what you’re supposed to be consuming,” she said.  “When Lost is on, maybe you’re not watching but you feel like everyone else is, so you think maybe you should read about it.”

I also spoke with author Tom Bissell, who wrote Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, a critical dissection of several large game franchises and how they’ve affected his life. He had some good, but mostly bad, things to say about Call of Duty. Like me, he really enjoys the multiplayer, but he’s also very down on the franchise because its overwhelming success has effectively forced all major games to add online multiplayer modes if they are to be commercially viable, which doesn’t always fit the tone of the game. A case in point is the Uncharted franchise - the latest game has a really fun multiplayer option, but it’s completely unrecognizable from the main single-player game.

Moreover, as at least one of the speakers at the Montreal International Games Summit lamented last week, adding in these rich multiplayer features inevitably causes games’ budgets to skyrocket, which will eventually take a toll, whether it’s through higher prices on the games themselves or publishers green-lighting fewer titles. In the end, Bissell is right; it may be in everyone’s interest to reverse the trend propelled by Call of Duty and split up single-player and multiplayer games.

The other aspect Bissell touched on was the linear nature of Call of Duty’s single-player modes. The main storylines stick to a very tight script and don’t allow for much, if any, exploration or independent action on the part of the player. By forcing players down this “waterslide,” the games may provide a visceral thrill but they ultimately limit themselves in terms of long-lasting effect.

“Video game design should create a world that the player feels is his own. I can’t say I’ve ever had that feeling playing Call of Duty. That’s why they don’t create a whole lot of stuff for us to think about,” Bissell said. “I don’t think that’s what game design is or should be but we’re creeping closer to it with the unquestioned supremacy of these games.”

That’s definitely the case, if games such as Uncharted 3 and Battlefield 3 are any indication. Then again, there still are games like Skyrim that completely buck the trend. My review on that is coming Thursday…

Categories: video games, war

Military’s smart underwear will make camping easier

October 11, 2011 2 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I went camping with a friend in Algonquin Park, a couple hours north of Toronto. The weather forecast was nasty - rain, temperatures near zero and possible snow - and we were set to do back country camping, about five kilometers in from the nearest road. Rather than ditch our plans, we decided to go for it anyway.

I planned - and packed - for every eventuality. Rather than skipping in with a nice, light load, I brought along one of those big, battery-powered air mattresses, plus a giant, bulky fleece blanket (with dolphins on it). There was no way I was going to freeze, I thought.

In the end, I wasn’t too cold at night, even though it did snow, but I very nearly exhausted myself. Carrying all that stuff in was absolute hell. By the time we reached our campsite, and on the return, I was just about ready to cry from the agony. (We also lugged in another necessity: beer.)

It was with great interest, then, that I read about the latest project from the mad scientists at DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced technology division. The “Warrior Web” is a light-weight undersuit that is designed to prevent injuries and lighten the load of soldiers, who often have to hump a hundred pounds or more of equipment over long distances. As per the release:

DARPA seeks to develop an unobtrusive, lightweight under-suit embedded with a web of miniature sensors, functional structures and compliant actuation. The suit, for example, may automatically sense when to stiffen and relax at key body joints to help prevent injury, as well as augment the work done by muscles to help counter the negative impacts of fatigue on performance and injury.

There is still a ways to go before such a suit can be built, DARPA says. “Injury mitigation technologies; comprehensive representations of biomechanical processes; regenerative actuation technologies; adaptive sensing and control technologies; and advancements in potential suit human-to-machine interfaces” must first be developed. However, the agency believes that a suit would follow on from all of these in short order.

The Warrior Web under-suit sounds complementary to both the Iron Man and HULC exoskeletons being worked on by defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed, respectively, both of which are discussed in Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Having experienced that hike from hell, I can’t wait for any or all of these technologies to come to fruition. Then, carrying in my dolphin blanket will be a piece of cake.

(Image from Wired)

Categories: lockheed martin, raytheon, war

Answering my own Call of Duty

September 2, 2011 2 comments

I’m in Los Angeles for what will likely prove to be an interesting and perhaps bizarre weekend. I’m here for the inaugural Call of Duty XP event, a fan expo being put on by Activision for aficionados of the popular military-themed video game franchise.

There is lots in store for those attending. Aside from the video game itself - the latest installment, Modern Warfare 3, comes out Nov. 9 - there will also be live-action paintball, zip-lining, showdowns between NBA stars, supermodel hosts, something called “the Pit” and, capping it all off on Saturday night, a performance by Kanye West.

About 6,000 people are expected, all of whom will be shelling out $150 each for the weekend (they do get a free copy of the game when it comes out, though). Overall, it’s looking to be similar to BlizzCon, an annual event held by Activision’s sister company Blizzard in honour of its games: Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo.

It’s a little bit weird to be attending a convention devoted to just one game - after all, I was in L.A. only two months ago for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which showcases all games. Still, if any one game deserves special treatment, it probably is Call of Duty. Since its debut in 2003, the franchise has sold more than 100 million units and pulled in over $5 billion in revenue. That’s pretty big.

Amusingly, some are calling the event the “DudeBro Convention,” presumably because the large majority of adolescent males who play Call of Duty games have a penchant for calling each “dude” and “bro.” If the plane ride from Toronto was any indication, there will indeed be a lot of “dudes” and “bros.”

Regular readers know I’m something of a Call of Duty junkie; many has been the night where I’ve started in on the online multiplayer, only to look at the clock and realize in shock that it was 5 a.m. The first thing I do when I log on, however, is mute all the other players - I make a point of not talking to anyone when I play, thereby avoiding all the dudes and bros, not to mention all the other horrifically racist and homophobic banter that goes on.

I’ll therefore be covering the event from two perspectives: as a bemused and detached observer, but also as someone who understands how the game can insinuate itself into one’s soul. I’ll be interviewing various people involved with the series and from Activision over the next few days and will be sure to post the results. You can also follow me on Twitter for live updates from the show.

Oh, and for those who are interested, check back here at 3:30 pm Eastern today (Friday) for my take on the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer. We’ve been ordered to shut up about it till then.

Categories: video games, war

It’s time for some science on sports riots

June 17, 2011 4 comments

In watching and reading about the riots in Vancouver the other night following the Canucks’ loss of the Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins, many people probably shared my knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh look, there go those stupid hockey fans again.” The following day, there was all kinds of debate over who started the riot - were these people in fact real hockey fans or just idiots looking for any excuse to cause trouble?

I have to admit I’ve never been a hockey fan, or a fan of any sport really. Like many technology journalists, I do however possess a strange affinity for baseball. My suspicion is there’s something about the statistics that somehow attracts us; perhaps we like the sport for its similarity to product specifications? I dunno.

I do know that I like playing baseball, so I sometimes enjoy watching professionals who can perform the sport at a much higher level than myself. But that’s about the extent of my sports fandom.

Living in Canada as I do, I’ve seen plenty of examples of hockey fan stupidity. Indeed, Toronto probably has more dumb hockey fans per capita than any city in the world. The proof comes every year when the die-hards continue to sell out Maple Leafs games despite the team not having a hope in hell of winning the cup. I also remember walking down the street as a kid wearing a hand-me-down Montreal Canadians T-shirt, which was apparently enough to motivate some complete stranger to roll down their car window and yell “faggot!” as they drove by. What a lovely thing to say to a child.

The riot got me thinking about what kinds of people are sports fans - and why are they fans? I’ve always likened sports to religion, so my innate biases kicked in. As numerous demographic studies have shown, religion is more popular with less-educated, lower-income people. If sports is like religion, shouldn’t the same factors apply?

I looked for demographic numbers to back that up but couldn’t find any proper studies on the topic. I found a few sets of seemingly contradictory numbers that showed, for example, that the majority of sports fans were both young and had high incomes. That doesn’t seem possible - unless sports are extremely popular in Silicon Valley. In fact, the only reputable statistics that turned up in my search, from the Pew Research Center, showed that people who follow sports news come from all income and education levels. Without anything better to go on, and considering that I do know several highly educated people with high incomes who are also sports fans, it looks like my initial hypothesis was wrong.

The question remains, though: Why are people sports fans? The reasons, I suspect, are varied. Some people are probably like me - they appreciate seeing a sport played at its pinnacle level, the same way any beginning guitarist can marvel at the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen. Others may simply like getting out of the house and experiencing the spectacle of it.

A couple years ago, University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash tried to take a more clinical view and came to some interesting and provocative conclusions. Sports isn’t like religion, he wrote, it’s the opiate of the masses that has superseded the nationalism that used to pit countries against each other not so long ago. In that way, sports is like war, which is of course an intriguing premise to anyone having written a book on the topic.

The observer of spectator sports cannot help but confront the odd underbelly of this passion: the yearning to be someone else, or at least, a very small part of something else, so long as that something else is Something Else, large and imposing, impressive and thus irresistible. That dark desire for deindividuation was felt for millennia by the herring and the wildebeest, and perfected by human beings centuries ago: interestingly, not by sports franchises but by the world’s military forces…

…It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don’t get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.

In many ways, Barash’s article comes off as psycho-babble but he does raise some salient points. Given the frequent eruption of riots following sporting contests, there does seem to be a solid link to violence regardless of income or education.

Others blame such events on mixing booze with adrenaline, but that sounds too simplistic. National Geographic tried to explain it a few years ago by suggesting that people who get into a crowd think they’re less accountable for their actions because they’re tough to pick out. That rationale seems to be going out the window thanks to social media, where instigators are being identified by good citizens.

In the end, it is worth it to figure out scientifically why people are sports fans and what drives some of them to rioting after playoff games. Otherwise it might be time for cities to start wondering whether they ever want to field contenders in any sport. Without some conclusive science indicating one way or another, the question for cities now remains: Is having a winning team really worth it?

Categories: sports, war

Protesting the census’ military links is foolish

May 24, 2011 3 comments

Here’s an interesting one for the “things you probably didn’t know” file: did you know the census is run on software supplied by a military contractor? Moreoever, did you know that people are actually protesting this?

It’s true. According to Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter, the United States was the first to contract weapons maker Lockheed Martin for its census software in 2000. The U.K. followed in 2001, as did Canada in 2004. So far, Canada has paid the company about $81 million for its optic recognition software, which scans and catalogues the completed, mailed-in forms (I just sent mine in this weekend).

A number of people, including Porter, find this objectionable. As she said in her recent column: “That means when you fill out your census form and mail it in, you are unintentionally supporting a war machine.”

A bit of a protest movement has emerged as a result. One website,, urges people to not answer the census at all. A few individuals, meanwhile, have refused to fill out the survey and taken their protests to the courts.

Hoo boy. I’m not sure how to break it to these people. If they find that filling out the census is morally objectionable because doing so helps inadvertently helps support the war machine… well, they better start packing for a life of living in a cave because the census is really, really, really small peanuts.

If any of these protesters played a video game before 1990, they directly lined the pockets of a military contractor. If they’ve ever used Google or driven a car, they’ve directly supported companies that have ongoing, two-way interactions with the military. If they’ve ever eaten anything besides what they themselves have grown or killed, chances are very good they’ve given money to a military supplier.

There is no escaping it, which is what Sex, Bombs and Burgers is all about: industry and the military are inextricably interwoven. Is that right or should we accept it? That’s a topic for another day, but protesting the census on conscientious grounds is, in the end, downright silly.

Categories: lockheed martin, war, weapons

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