Game Regulation Article at IJOC

I have a new article up on video game ratings and sales regulation at the International Journal of Communication, titled “Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings: Content Considerations for Media Regulation.” This follows up and expands upon some of what I’ve been writing about here on Shouting Loudly (see posts here, here, and here).

For some additional notes on the background and thinking behind this article, feel free to hop on over to my solo blog, Geek Studies, where I hope to field comments and criticisms.

The Piracy Tax: Why Stop with Music?

Reihan Salam has an article up at Slate now on a scheme proposed by Warner Music Group to “tax” internet subscribers $5 each, right on the monthly ISP bill, to pay for unlimited music downloading privileges/forgiveness. Salam recognizes that some characterize this as “the music industry’s extortion scheme,” but suggests that “it’s not as horrible as it sounds.”

As Michael Arrington of TechCrunch argues, the inevitable downside to such an arrangement is likely that it would put the music industry into an even more powerful position to fix prices—why settle on a $5 “blanket licensing agreement” when that could be $7.50? Moreover, why should those who don’t buy or download music subsidize others’ media consumption habits?

Nevertheless, Salam reasons that “something like the music tax simply has to happen” because “piracy can’t be stopped”; it’s just too tempting, too much easier than going out of your way to pay for music. But a system that could “eliminate middlemen” would put more money in artists’ pockets than the current system, which makes piracy too easy to resist.

Two major forms of this proposed to date—Warner’s blanket licensing agreement and Apple’s recent suggestion for “all-you-can-eat iTunes”—still serve corporate interests better than consumers’. Salam suggests, with apologies to libertarians, that a superior alternative would be a government-mandated music tax (presumably like the blank media levy in Canada).

“What’s not to like?” Salam asks. Apparently, plenty. Readers commenting on the article seem overwhelmingly baffled or annoyed by this proposal. What’s the guarantee this money would actually go to artists? Why not a $5 internet news subsidy instead? And, again, what about those who don’t listen to music?

I will leave aside most of my quibbles with the details of Salam’s reasoning. (After all, hasn’t Apple proved that plenty of people are more willing to pay a buck a song than to go through the trouble of pirating?) The greatest remaining question to my mind, however, is: Why music?

Media sharing over the internet—legal and illegal alike—consists of more than just music downloads. A huge amount of torrent traffic is dedicated to downloading television shows, for example, not to mention feature-length films, computer games, and pirated software packages. The music industry has simply been the most vocal and aggressive of all these industries in insisting that it be compensated for revenue presumably lost to piracy.

Part of me suspects that Warner’s proposal will never go anywhere because of those who aren’t interested in subsidizing the download habits of others, if nothing else. (Being one who spends very little on music each year myself, and mostly buys directly from artists, it kind of rubs me the wrong way.) But then again, we certainly have plenty of extra fees and such tacked onto our broadband bills that most subscribers never think to question, so perhaps that would just be one more.

Moreover, the whole “music tax” approach is already more or less under effect at universities across the U.S. that have bought into blanket download services for students. I’m surprised that other content industries haven’t thought to ride such successes themselves, tacking an internet television fee onto tuition bills, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time—or perhaps everyone else is waiting to see how badly the music industry suffers in the long run under its own mismanaged public image.

The Measure of Technological Success

Over at Manifest Density, Tom has a couple interesting posts up arguing that the success of Blu-Ray in our marketplace should not be taken as proof that it’s a “better” technology than HD DVD, as many seem to have contended.

Megan’s right [as stated here] that I and a lot of my fellow nerds aren’t very happy about this outcome, but she’s wrong to say that “[e]very time there’s a format war, the losers complain that the inferior product won through nefarious methods.” I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. In this case I can admit that Blu-Ray is the technically superior standard. Many technologists didn’t like it because it seemed a bit more DRM-laden, because it didn’t seem worth the price premium, and because Sony has behaved very badly with respect to proprietary media formats in the past […]

It’s just that it’s frustratingly obvious that the factors determining a technology’s success frequently have little to do with its capabilities, price, performance or other innate attributes. Rather, they’re the result of quirks of the business environment into which the technology is born.

I don’t think I have much to add to this debate, but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing. I’m not convinced (as some of those in this debate have suggested) that all economists would argue that the “better” technology is the one that succeeds in the marketplace, and I disagree with the criticism that Tom’s idea of technological superiority is devoid of consideration of human and market concerns. I think (in agreement with Tom) that any technology has its pros and its cons in its design, but that these formal features may have little or nothing to do with what plays out in the marketplace in the long run thanks to the quirks of the business world.

It’s important to consider that “better” is subjective to group interests—better for whom? Arguably, Blu-Ray is better for movie studios in the short run view because it seems to offer better DRM. Maybe HD DVD was better for consumers because of less restriction in this way (which, some will certainly argue, would have been better for everyone in the long run, as the lack of rights management in audio cassettes was likely a boon to the music recording industry). We’ll never get to see how this plays out long-term in a real, idealized “market” scenario, though, because some major studios threw their support to one side early and made up consumers’ minds for them.

For my part, I wasn’t interested in committing to an expensive, high-def movie format right now. I must admit, though, that I appreciate the free bag I got from the Consumer Electronics Show much more now because of the HD DVD ad embroidered on the outside. In five to ten years, that will be about as hip as a Betamax t-shirt.

(This entry has been cross-posted at Geek Studies.)

The New “Direct Market”

The Register notes that while Manhunt 2 may have been effectively banned from distribution in UK stores by the British Board of Film Classification’s refusal to assign a rating (again), the game could still sell online, via direct download (link via Game Politics).

Sound familiar? If you’re familiar with the regulatory history of the comic book, another medium stereotyped as juvenile, it should. The direct market of fan shops (which was partially built on a network of converted head shops that had been selling underground comix). This is, as the previous Wikipedia link notes, the “dominant” channel of distribution for comics today. It’s also notoriously unstable and frequently resistant to reach beyond an aging group of superhero fans, rather than appealing to new readers. Comic stores also have a reputation (sometimes deserved) for being inhospitable to newcomers.

Would the “direct market” of digital distribution for games be more open and accessible than the direct market of comics? I’m not sure it would be, at least not at first. It certainly hasn’t pulled comics out of its own network of specialty stores. Despite proclamations that webcomics would be the future of comics distribution, able to reach whole new audiences, they are still overwhelmed by content aimed at geeky niche audiences. (And while I’m not sure that things will stay that way, it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been much of a move to suggest otherwise just yet.) While online distribution does get around the physical problems associated with specialty stores (such as infrequency or occasionally surly staff), it does still require a certain degree of technical aptitude. It makes retail locations destination stores, where hardcore fans could find what they want but newcomers and gift-buyers would be unlikely to tread. Moreover, digital distribution limits the kind of technologies one can use to consume content: Webcomics generally can’t be held in the hand and flipped through until converted to print, and downloaded games over a certain size would need to be on PCs, despite that consoles are the platform of choice for many.

Of course, we’re only talking about one game still—Manhunt 2—which hasn’t even been announced as being distributed digitally. The whole issue could be moot. I’m just very wary about announcing that direct downloading will be the savior of game distribution in the wake of overly restrictive industry self-regulation.

The Game Industry’s Anti-Piracy “Education”

Cnet reports on the Entertainment Software Association‘s “copyright education curriculum geared toward the kindergarten through fifth-grade set.” Game Politics, a blog run by the Entertainment Consumers Association, calls the idea “disturbing,” and further notes that “ESA president Michael Gallagher has come out strongly in favor” of the DMCA.

There’s no word yet on how successful the ESA might be in working their plans into curricula, and Cnet notes that the move isn’t unprecedented—the RIAA has a similar program, but for children no younger than third grade. One might think it wise to wait until kids are a little older to teach legal issues unclear to many adults, but the ESA is surprisingly blunt about introducing this as a moral, not legal issue. From Cnet:

“In the 15- to 24-year-old (range), reaching that demographic with morality-based messages is an impossible proposition…which is why we have really focused our efforts on elementary school children,” said Ric Hirsch, the ESA’s senior vice president of intellectual property enforcement. “At those ages, children are open to receiving messages, guidelines, rules of the road, if you will, with respect to intellectual property.”

Personally, I see a lot of value in offering early—though probably not kindergarten-level—media education. A comprehensive curriculum, however, would recognize the complexity of media use and policy, including fair use and policy controversies. Out of curiosity, I searched the ESA’s new Join the © team site to see what it had to say about fair use. It gets into slightly more detail in a PDF meant for instructors, but all it has to say in an actual lesson is brief and misleading:

Conclude this discussion by reminding students that the special rules for respecting intellectual property in school don’t apply outside the class-room. Students are allowed to copy short passages of copyrighted text, individual copyrighted images, and excerpts from other copyrighted material in their school work, as long as they credit their sources. This is called “fair use.” But no one is allowed to copy copyrighted material outside the classroom for any reason without permission.

What the ESA is doing isn’t an education curriculum but straightforward propaganda, pretty much by their own admission. I do recognize that our elementary curriculum is already embedded with various ideologies (e.g., learning about who “discovered” America), but I’m still somewhat shocked that the ESA would state outright that their goal is to change kids’ minds while they’re still most impressionable. Ideally, I believe teaching can be about giving students the tools to think for themselves, and for that reason, I’m pretty pleased that the ESA already has content online for its Join the © team campaign. I hope it doesn’t find its way into kindergarten curricula, but I think it might make useful reference materials in an undergraduate class addressing media policy and criticism.

Clarifying the Video Game Rating Process

Rumor has it that the uncut version of Manhunt 2 is available for download through torrent files online. You may remember Manhunt 2 as a PS2/PSP/Wii game that was slapped with an “Adults Only” rating by the ESRB, a self-regulatory industry body, until the publisher modified the game for a “Mature” rating. The earlier rating decision effectively denied the game distribution, as Nintendo and Sony refuse to allow AO-rated games on their consoles.

Whenever video game fan sites post any news about Manhunt 2, of course, the fans chime in with comments about how unfair the ratings process is. A number of these comments tend to be somewhat uninformed, blaming the government for banning the game, when in fact retailers are legally allowed to sell unrated or AO-rated games just as they can sell unrated and NC-17-rated movies. It’s the self-regulatory system maintained by the game industry that prevents equivalent content from ever reaching audiences—unless, of course, it finds its way on the internet.

In response to the above post, one Kotaku commenter and game industry professional clarifies the ESRB system based on his professional experience dealing with the ESRB. An interesting point brought up in the comment is that the ESRB will tell publishers what sorts of content will earn a game an AO rating, but won’t specify which content must be adjusted in order to achieve an M rating. On the one hand, this leaves creative control with designers and publishers; on the other hand, it may be somewhat confusing to only give vague feedback, but then again, it’s quite possible that some feedback comes in off the record. It would be interesting to see someone eventually compare the rating and re-rating process of video games with the analogous process in the film industry.

Update: IGN suggests the specifics of Manhunt 2 for an M rating.

The Problem with Game Regulation and Complete Playthrough

Game Politics reports that another video game sales restriction law has been overturned in court. This time, it was the long-awaited decision on California’s 2005 law, upon which some other (since stalled or overturned) bills and laws were built. Game Politics is also hosting a PDF of the judge’s ruling, which looks a lot like the other rulings from what I’ve seen so far (as described here; my explanation of strict scrutiny was a bit muddled then, but you get the basic idea).

Continue reading

Occasionally Free

Interesting article at the Independent about giving away free music downloads:

The record industry has reached a strange pass when it makes more economic sense to give away an entire album than to spend the money needed to persuade people to buy it. But, when it comes to the process of downloading, it seems that the cost of providing tracks and the profit margins from them are slender enough often to make giving music away the only worthwhile option.

Also links to Free Albums Galore, mostly featuring obscure bands, but also hosting the likes of a Smashing Pumpkins album that Virgin had refused to release.

The Other Hit List

Ars Technica reports on the MPAA’s “dishonor roll”, a list of the 25 colleges and universities with the most identified instances of unauthorized copying. Bill’s, Lokman’s, and my own school, the University of Pennsylvania, comes in at #2. Our own honor roll may depend on which schools stand up to bullies seeking to subpoena their students, or at least give students a heads up that it might be time to seek legal counsel.

As Ars points out, the MPAA’s list is mimicking the same tactic recently employed by the RIAA. Penn didn’t make it to that February list. The 2006 introduction of Ruckus access may have something to do with that, perhaps because it reduced P2P downloading or because adoption of the service was a token gesture to industry pressure. Tracks downloaded off Ruckus cannot be played on iPods or PowerMac-based Apple computers, and expire once a Ruckus subscriptions is cancelled (i.e., after graduation).

Thanks to Dan for the link.

Torture: As Seen on TV

Much media violence research focuses on at-risk populations, such as the imitation of violent scenes among children. The U.S. Army has recognized its own cadets as another sort of at-risk population, it seems, requesting that Kiefer Sutherland (Jack Bauer on TV’s 24) visit West Point to tell cadets that torture is not okay. Citing the New Yorker, Foreign Policy notes, “the motto of many of [retired West Point Professor Gary Solis’ former] students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: ‘Whatever it takes.'” Foreign Policy also points out:

The failure to temper future soldiers’ enthusiasm for the Bauer approach—in addition to reports that interrogators in Iraq plagiarize tactics displayed on the show—had previously led West Point’s dean to make a bizarre, on-set appearance before begging 24’s producers to be gentler with the show’s almost exclusively Muslim torture victims.

From what I’ve read of research on interventions designed to increase media criticism abilities, this kind of thing would work better in the short term than in the long term, but most researchers can’t afford to have actual celebrities show up in person for their studies. Best case scenario would be if such efforts are indicative of a broader push to curb torture in the military, and not just a cheap PR move.