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CounterstrikeYou know the old adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same‘? The same can be said for the videogame industry. I’m fairly certain that 99.9% of North Americans didn’t realize that August, 2012, marked the 40th anniversary of the first commercial videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Not only that, it marked the the 40th anniversary of the coin operated arcade machine Space War!, distributed by Nolan Bushnell. I vividly remember walking into a penny arcade on Government Street in Victoria, BC, Canada, when I was 12 years old in the the summer of 1972, inserting my hard earned quarters into that machine, and feeling supremely ripped off that it was too hard to play! I mean, the nearby Undersea Gardens aquarium had a Sega UFO electronic arcade shooting game that was much more satisfying because I could actually advance several levels!

Videogames have been around for 40 years, so you would probably think that everyone is used to them by now; they’re accepted as a legitimate form of entertainment. Well, hold onto your tinfoil hat, Sparky, because it just ain’t so. I never cease to be amazed by the controversies videogames continue to elicit from the general public after all these decades. Yes, decades. The latest episode took place last week, when a group of recent high school graduates from Port Moody Secondary School created an accurately detailed 3D level map of their school that could be played using the Counterstrike mod developed from Valve Software’s Half Life engine. Co-incidentally, Counterstrike was first created in Surrey, BC, (of all places) by Minh ‘Gooseman’ Li back in 2000. I’ve designed many 3D levels commercially, so I understand the mindset of where these young guys were coming from. In fact, they explained on their website that they built the level as a way of showing their school spirit. This was done with the intent of creating a virtual space where they could bond.

Unfortunately for these kids, they naively made the mistake of posting a video of this level on the Internet without thinking about how anyone who doesn’t like or understand first person shooters (and they exist in large numbers) might react to seeing their local high school being used as a battleground, especially given the recent tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, or the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. To the students’ mind, this was a Counterstrike map – no big deal. To their teachers, parents, and the RCMP, there was nothing entertaining or nostalgic about it.

Speaking as a former professional videogame developer with 22 years of experience, a long time gamer, and as a responsible ‘middle aged’ man, I think the reaction of some teachers and parents was completely overblown and utterly exaggerated. What I heard and saw were overly sensitive adults who don’t play or understand video games at all. They make up their minds based on sensational media stories that use large amounts of emotional hyperbole. These adults make emotional statements about a video game they have never played that have no basis in fact.

Given the current climate about shootings on school and post secondary campuses in North America, I understand why the police were asked to investigate this situation. But I believe it was unwarranted and needlessly contributed to public hysteria. In an increasingly paranoid society, the last thing we need are police investigating people who play video games as potential homicidal maniacs. Peer reviewed empirical research evidence shows that there is no causal connection between playing video games and school shootings. But many adults keep wanting to believe a connection exists. Thankfully, the police investigators recognized that the students were not planning something sinister. It’s too bad that some parents, teachers, and Port Moody municipal politicians were not as rational in their assessments.

Time and again I’ve heard people claim that first person shooter video games are literally the devil’s handiwork. If this claim were true, then I should be a raving homicidal maniac who would have decimated entire cities by now! I’ve played all the classic first person shooters for over 20 years and I can tell you that they’re masterpieces of art, music, and narrative for their times.

CBC Radio invited me to appear on their call in program BC Almanac, to discuss first person shooting games. I also appeared on a news segment for The National.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

When we last left the Doctor, he was attending Media – Jeunes 2010 inside the CBC/Radio Canada Mothership….

Children’s television production in Canada has not been spared from the ravages of the current economic climate. Just as video game production in Canada has suffered from a ‘perfect storm’ of economic and market driven events, the world of children’s television has suffered its own storm as well. Government and private funding for projects in the last three years shrunk dramatically – many companies laid off staff right across the country. The market is very competitive. Youth audiences are flocking to ‘live action’ series, which cost less to produce than an animated program. When you consider the success of shows like iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place, it’s not hard to understand their impact on animated programs. But there’s another issue as well – computer graphic animation. Many of today’s brightest and best young computer animators want to work for companies like Dreamworks, Pixar, or work for computer game studios like Blizzard Entertainment. Today’s technologies make it possible for young animators to strike out on their own and post their portfolios online. The hardware and software are not that expensive.

The issue is doubly difficult for French Canadian animators in Quebec. Creating content for a Francophone audience is dwarfed by the English speaking markets in Canada and the United States. I came away from the conference with empathy for what it must be like to create content for the Quebec market. Much of French Canadian animation is co-produced with European countries and some Asian countries for international programs, including China. The withdrawal of international funding is contributing to their dilemma. The Canadian federal government launched an initiative in 2010 called the Canada Media Fund to encourage more development of Canadian content. It was interesting to note that while a large amount of money was being allocated to different types of animation and new media, there were not many French Canadian projects listed. When you compare the growing success of the video game industry in Quebec this past decade and the provincial government tax industry incentives it provided to game studios, it looks very much like the French Canadian animation industry needs to consolidate and focus on new opportunities for funding and production. They need to create a strategic plan to compete in a very tough marketplace.

(The Doctor thinks to himself – how about Et Dieu Crea’ Laflaque for the English Canadian TV audience!)

It was interesting to see how French Canadian animation companies were looking at how companies like Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel were using the internet to establish a strong online identity for branding purposes, much in the same way that video game publishers use it as well. The research information from numerous sources like Nielsen, Pew Internet American Life Project, or Statistics Canada, makes it very clear that children and adolescents spend much time online as a place to meet and play. Virtual worlds like Club Penguin, Free Realms, and even World of Warcraft are good examples. In the marketing world, you need to be where the target audience congregates to get your message across. Building a strong virtual community is important. Having an online presence that encourages your audience to visit often is quickly becoming a crucial piece of the media puzzle. Or at least, that’s what the Doctor thinks.

Qu’est-ce que vous pensez? (What do you think?).

Doctor Arkanoid

Bonjour mes amis! Le Docteur est retournee’!

Yes! The Doctor is IN! Honestly! To quote Austin Powers “I’M BACK BABY, YEAH!”. Where have I been? Well, the truth is I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog so I could finish my Master’s thesis and complete my graduate degree. I’m happy to report that after two gruelling years of blood, sweat, and literature reviews,  the thesis is complete at last! I will do a write up for you about the nature of the research later. Today’s post is about the Doctor’s visit last week to the Media – Jeunes 2010 conference that was held at the CBC Radio Canada ‘Mothership’ in Montreal, Quebec on November 18th and 19th.

In early September, my graduate supervisor, Dr. David Kaufman and I were having our usual thesis review coffee klatch. David mentioned to me that the Alliance for Children’s Television (ACT) was holding their annual conference for 2010 in Montreal and were looking for someone who could contribute to a panel discussion about the positive messages provided by digital media, including video games. He felt that I might be a good candidate given my background and experience, so I contacted the conference co-ordinator and made a submission. After several e-mails and phone discussions with Sylvie Lamy from ACT, I was accepted as a panel member. I was very excited because I believe that the positive side of video games does not get enough discussion compared to the frequent media coverage of the ‘AAA’ 3D hyper realistic commercial franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, Halo, {insert your favourite ‘M’ rated 3D action/fighting/shooting game here}. I also thought that participating on the panel would give me an opportunity to understand the current state of children’s digital media in Canada. There was one other benefit – ACT would take care of my expenses. This was music to a starving graduate student’s ears!

Preparing for the conference was challenging because I wanted to be relevant to the audience of media and television people in attendance. Another challenge was trying to fit my presentation into a window of 12 minutes! The great thing about discussing video games is that there’s never a lack of useful material. The trick is to find content that is meaningful and relevant. I found a really nice trailer from PBS on Youtube for Video Games Live. I selected a clip from the first two and half minutes.

The members of the panel were an interesting mix. We had an opportunity to have a very scintillating conference call the week before. As the sole member from the Pacific coast, I had to get up on a Friday morning at 7:00 a.m.! But our discussion paved the way for a fascinating session in Montreal. Amy Friedman from Redhead Consulting discussed working with licenses in digital media through her involvement with Nickelodeon. She showed some interesting public service announcements about cyberbullying. Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner from Flickerlab presented interactive film making students did using her company’s software for the Global Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Dr. Judith Gaudet discussed media and health education using the series Ramdam. The moderator was Mathieu Baer, the producer of Zooville for CBC Radio Canada. All of them were very knowledgable digital media professionals. I felt a bit humbled to be sitting alongside these individuals. I also had the challenge of being the last member to speak on the panel. The mission became very straightforward – keep the audience entertained at the end. After all, video games are about fun and excitement, n’est-ce pas?

Tomorrow I’ll give a recap of the interesting issues I learned about at the Media Jeunes 2010 Conference.

Doctor Arkanoid

I LIVE!

Yes, the good doctor, contrary to rumours and the tabloid vultures at TMZ, is still very much alive and kicking! It has been too long since I last posted on the blog, and for that I apologize profusely. I have been greatly pre-occupied with trying to earn a living and complete my M.A. thesis at the same time. The good news is that I have almost completed the research phase of my work; the thesis has taken well over a year of effort so far. Thankfully, I should be completed by the end of April.

A few bits of interesting news. My first academic paper is now officially published! Today I received my copy of Educational Gameplay and Simulation Environments: Case Studies and Lessons Learned, published by IGI Global. My contribution to the textbook is a chapter called Video Games and the Challenge of Engaging the ‘Net’ Generation. It was a great challenge to sit down and write a complete chapter! Having one’s writing reviewed by a panel of editors was also a unique experience.

Last week the good Doctor was invited by CBC Radio to discuss a plan by DigiBC and the Washington Interactive Network (WIN) to collaborate on working together for the benefit of the video game industries in the Pacific Northwest. The industry has a history of being predatory and territorial. The current economic conditions and the increasingly competitive nature of the global game industry are likely catalysts for this situation.

CBC Radio DigiBC WIN Interview

There’s plenty of events and issues to catch up on. If only I had more minions to do my blog bidding!

Doctor Arkanoid

Kim Jong ilI’m fairly sure that I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going off the rails these days. Global recession, global warming, religious radicals, Kim Jong Il, Balloon Boy, Carrie Prejean self destructing on CNN Larry King Live – and now video game developers in Vancouver and around the world are being scorched by a firestorm of layoffs.  Echoing inside Doctor Arkanoid’s massive cranium, I hear the lyrics from the famous Phil Collins song ‘Land of Confusion‘:

Ooh Superman where are you now?

When everything’s gone wrong somehow.

The men of steel, the men of power,

Are losing control by the hour’.

On November 9th, the Reuters news agency reported that Electronic Arts announced a major round of layoffs affecting 1500 staff worldwide, including 900 game developers, 500 publishing support staff, and 100 administrative staff, with the Burnaby Studio being significantly affected. This is the EA mothership’s second major round of layoffs. In January, 1200 staff were laid off, including the closing of Black Box Studios, creators of the Need for Speed series. Reuters also reported that EA recorded its 11th straight quarterly loss for the period ending in October, 2009. This news attracted the attention of CBC Radio, who invited the good Doctor to provide a diagnosis of what’s currently happening in the video game industry.

CBC Radio EA Layoffs

EA isn’t the only Vancouver video game developer to lay off staff and close studios in 2009. Most people didn’t know that the cell phone giant Nokia established a game development centre in Richmond several years ago for the NGage portable media player. Nokia folded its operations and laid off 100 staff. With the merger of Activision and Vivendi Games into Activision – Blizzard in the fall of 2008, Radical Entertainment dismantled two of its four game teams, laying off 120 people. The South Korean game company Nexon, creators of the online game Maple Story, shut down their Nexon Human Nature Studio run by Alex Garden, former co-founder of Relic Entertainment. 90 people were laid off. Walt Disney’s Propaganda Games let go of 36 staff. Backbone Entertainment was closed, Hothead Games laid off staff, Relic Entertainment let people go, and Microsoft’s game studios in Redmond, Washington released several hundred people as part of an overall staff reduction.

According to the Canada Entertainment Software Industry Report released in March, 2009, there were approximately 5,842 game developers working for 61 game companies in British Columbia. While it’s hard to say exactly how many unemployed game developers are looking for work in the Lower Mainland, the Doctor is fairly certain that between 1500 and 2000 creative, talented individuals are anxiously seeking new opportunities. In fact, I was contacted this past week by two former game development students I worked with at the Art Institute of Vancouver. Both of them were recently laid off and trying to find another position with a game company.

In Hollywood, they say you’re only as good as your last movie. In Vancouver, you’re only as good as your last profitable video game.

Take it away, Phil Collins:

Doctor Arkanoid Doctor Arkanoid

AllianceThis week the good doctor observed that not one – but two – stories about video games caught the attention of national news media in Canada and the United States. The media frequently reports about video games and the the game development industry. Seeing two titles make the national news on the same day is a bit unusual and deserves special mention.

On Thursday morning, May 7th,  CBC Newsworld aired a two minute video segment on their website that discussed medical researchers studying the Corrupted Blood incident in World of Warcraft to learn about human behaviour in a simulated pandemic (Note: Could it be they listened to Doctor Arkanoid this past Monday on CBC Radio in Vancouver? Hmmm…)

CBC Newsworld Corrupted Blood

Six Days in FallujahIf you visit this blog regularly, then you’ll know that in Power Up 4! and Power Up 7!, I wrote about Konami Digital Entertainment cancelling the development of their upcoming video game Six Days in Fallujah, developed by Atomic Games in North Carolina. The title is based on the battle for this Iraqi town that happened in 2004.  Veterans who served in the Iraq War from the United Kingdom and the United States voiced their concerns about making a game based on this recent military event. The story was originally reported in Japan by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. On Thursday evening, May 7th, ABC World News broadcast a feature about the game and the controversy surrounding it.

ABC News Six Days in Fallujah

I find it interesting to see how one story presents a video game as being helpful to medical research; the other game is presented as insensitive to the emotions and experiences of veterans from the Iraq War. I don’t think the game review editor from IGN was a particularly good choice for that interview, but I’ll cover that in a future article.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

HakkarYesterday afternoon (May 4th), the CBC Radio program ‘On the Coast‘ aired a ten minute segment about virtual pandemics in video games and how they’re being studied by epidemiologists to learn about how people behave (or misbehave) during a large scale viral outbreak. The segment focused on the infamous Corrupted Blood incident  in World of Warcraft that took place September, 2005, when the troll city of Zul’Gurub was opened up and players faced off against the winged primal serpent god Hakkar. Thanks to a programming bug with animal pets used by the hunter class, players returned to their home cities infected with Hakkar’s Corrupted Blood spell. The result was a rampaging plague that killed millions of players across many servers. Blizzard Entertainment tried to set up quarantine zones; however, many players ignored them and deliberately infected others. This event provided an extraordinary opportunity for medical researchers to study how people behaved during an unexpected virtual pandemic.

CBC Radio invited the good doctor to join the discussion and share his extensive knowledge of Azeroth’s diseases. You can listen to the segment here:

CBC Radio Digital Flu

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Fifth Estate Top GunLast weekend, the popular CBC television program The Fifth Estate, aired an episode called ‘Top Gun’, which dealt with the death of Brandon Crisp; a 15 year old boy who ran away from home after getting into an argument with his parents about the amount of time and effort he spent playing the XBox360 title Call of Duty 4. Brandon fell out of a tree and crushed his chest upon impact.

The program interviewed the parents, a behavioural counsellor, Brandon’s friends, professional video game players from Major League Gaming, and a spokeswoman for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in Canada. I reviewed the episode three times and decided to write a letter to CBC television.

Here is what I wrote:

The Fifth Estate is well known for shining a spotlight on important issues that Canadians need to know about. However, I feel the level of investigation and research for this episode was shallow, resulting in a program that made Brandon’s family appear to be victims of the video game industry. Important questions were not asked of both parties, and you didn’t provide constructive information for viewers so they could educate themselves.


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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.