Tuesday, June 11, 2013

This Relationship Is Not Working

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching the Electronic Arts "press conference" at the G3 trade show in Los Angeles.

"Conference" is somewhat of a misnomer. This was an elaborate, carefully-scripted production that made the Academy Awards look spontaneous and unaffected. Like all game companies, EA was there to tout the forthcoming titles in its repertoire.

To be honest, I was looking for any rays of hope about the fate of Pet Society, the Playfish game for which EA paid $300+ million less than four years ago. But I also wanted to understand more about why a company would be so intransigent about selling an intellectual property, so eager to jettison the past and move on.

As I watched game after game highlighted on the vast convention stage, with thundering sound effects to match, I began to notice something. Where were all the women?

My son and his friends, now 40-somethings, have been gamers for the past 20+ years. The women in their circle, married or single, are just as into gaming as the men. But onstage, I saw only one woman operating a console, among several dozen men. There were two female figures onscreen: at least the fantasy woman of today is powerful and active, not a frail flower awaiting rescue.

Are women still invisible in this fantasy world for men who at heart are teenaged boys? Seriously. It's not 1980, when you expect the women to take notes and make coffee.

And the games themselves. Yes, they are brilliantly programmed with hyper-realism. They may be great fun for people who are just coming of age and don't have a lot of real life data to interfere with what they see onscreen.

For me, those shining towers crumbling will forever evoke the horror of watching the 9/11 attacks over and over, trying to grasp the terrible thing that was happening. The viewpoint of a character taking over a building somewhere in a desert climate: didn't I see that footage on news coverage from some intrepid photographer embedded with our troops?

And a game about wild driving. Oh please. Just get on the freeways in the Bay Area. Someone will inevitably whip in front of your car like a lane-splitting motorcycle because they've honed their driving skills on games like this. I had enough real-time driving adventure, thank you, hitting a metal object in the fast lane, shredding my tire, and driving on the rim across four lanes of traffic in Oakland. Real life delivers enough excitement for me. (But I'd gladly watch a program showing how their director made it happen; a short glimpse behind the scenes was quite interesting.)

Plants vs. Zombies is EA's idea of cute, which the plants are, in a perky, Pixar-like way. But when you've watched your loved ones turn into zombies, so to speak, under the depredations of advanced age, and dealt with their collapsing houses, zombies are hardly balm for the soul. Then there was a role-playing game set in the Inquisition. Torture and religious persecution, what's not to like! The irony of selling expensive games in which you fight for survival, running on equipment that many who struggle in life cannot afford, is not lost on me either.

It struck me, these dudes are stuck in their first chakra, so to speak. Where it's all about sex and survival. This is a normal place to be when you are a 15-year old guy. I've raised one, so I speak from experience. Those were the years when I often sighed that my son was going to wind up in M.I.T. or jail, and I wasn't sure which. Raising boys can be tough sledding. Kudos to both sides for surviving the teens.

There's nothing wrong with guys being guys, or loving sports, or honing your competitive skills. It's just that as humans, we are so much more than sex and survival.

In introducing a wrestling game, one presenter pontificated, "Fighting is the earliest universal sport." Historians and anthropologists might differ, with dice and early board games like Go, or throwing bones having a long pedigree. And what about the teamwork involved in taking down a hairy mammoth for dinner, or in discovering the ripest berries and herbs that won't poison the tribe? I suspect cooperation is even more essential than fighting for human survival, but we are stuck with the "fight" metaphor as a way of living.

Apparently EA has decided that only those who feed their inner 15-year-old boy are their target market. That's their call as a business, like Abercrombie and Fitch wanting to drive fat people out of their stores.   As a woman who derived so much joy from the fine product EA is now tossing out like old athletic shoes, I want to shout at them:

"There is so much more to human beings than the mere struggle for survival. Where are the games that stimulate other parts of your brain? That urge you to explore beauty and wonder and empathy? That let you express the odd mixture of love and frustration and play and exhaustion and loss and recovery that humans undergo every day, everywhere? Games that enhance our lives and increase our enjoyment of the world around us? Games that can appeal to people of any age, that transcend language? Games that don't need sex and violence and 3-D graphics to give enjoyment?"

Pet Society is one of the rare games that could be played with satisfaction by anyone, child or grandparent, sophisticate or rube, with people whose language you could not speak. I know I'm shouting into the wind here, but I don't care. I shout for those who have no language, no voice; for those who found refuge and hope in a simple game while recovering from illness. I shout for the small children who aren't really supposed to be on Facebook but who play with their relatives and are training to be the computer whizzes of the future. It's been a grand part of our lives, and we will stand by our pets as long as we are able.

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