Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Month: March 2016

About that VR Talk

Last week, I talked about an interesting talk at GDC about Women, Harassment and VR.  Some commenters had some choice sentiments about the nature of this experiment.  Elizabeth Sampat had some choice words on the subject:

None of this is consensual: anyone who thinks that harassment isn’t affecting if you know it’s coming obviously has never been harassed before. Women don’t have some magical “sensitivity gene” that makes them more succeptible to harassment than anyone else, and the fact that you know you’re about to be harassed doesn’t make it any less powerful or any more okay. Harassing an unsuspecting woman and calling it an experiment is like holding up a bank, getting away with the money and then calling it performance art. The harm has been done, the boundaries have been violated, and no one has given consent.

None of this is news:  VR stands for VIRTUAL REALITY. There’s a game about tightrope-walking storeys above the ground, and video of people playing this game and of their abject fear already exists. It’s easy to extrapolate from all of these similar experiments in the medium that VR harassment would create the same autonomic responses as real-world harassment! A man is being applauded for discovering that women don’t like their personal space invaded, being shown phallic objects, or having their bodies touched without consent. How is that novel? How is that news?

None of this is brave: What a cowardly thing, to put yourself in the shoes of the abuser. How I would have loved a talk about how Harris designed a VR prototype in which you were a woman getting harassed on a San Francisco sidewalk or NYC subway. How brave and powerful it would have been to create an opt-in experience where people in positions of power could finally learn what it was like to feel small and afraid. What an innovative experiment that could have been! That’s a talk I would have liked to see. How boring and predictable it is to replicate centuries-old power structures, use an unwitting woman as your bait, and gather applause and acclaim. How sad it is to see from the company that made Papa y Yo.

I did not comment on this aspect of the test because, frankly, I don’t have enough information about his experiment – the Polygon article says that she was ‘unsuspecting’, but not having been to the talk, I’ve no idea HOW unsuspecting.  Did she sign a consent form?  Did she have a rough idea of what was going on?  I simply don’t know, and I haven’t found anyplace that discusses those possibilities.

Even if consent were given, history is full of social experiments that were incredibly useful to understanding human nature, and yet highly unethical and likely would earn utter condemnation if run today.  The Stanford Prison Experiment  and the Milgrim Obedience Experiments are both fundamentally important and useful studies, even if horrific in retrospect.  So while I do think this little experiment was probably prone to many of the complaints Elizabeth and other critics raised up, I do think the questions are vitally important to the science of Virtual Reality, and that researchers would be well-advised to find better ways to study this field, and figure out ways to educate the games industry about what I suspect would be their horrifying conclusions.

Nintendo Fires GamerGate Target for Bullshit Reasons

In the realm of corporate cowardice, very little compares to the utter cowardice that is firing a female employee because she is the target of an orchestrated hate campaign from reactionary assholes.  But that is exactly what Nintendo America has done.  The always excellent Jesse Singal gives the rundown.

For those seeking more background, check out this Kotaku article.

Multiplayer VR Experiences Need to Worry About Harassment Right Fucking Now

While I was at E3, Polygon published an article about a new, horrifying problem that to be honest, so far I haven’t even considered in my analysis of why VR has a bumpy road ahead, and that is that harassment in VR is likely to be way, way worse than in normal games.  A game dev at GDC demonstrated the problem on an unprepared participant, and made things clear that harassment is a lot more brutal when people are reaching towards your crotch directly.  Said the dev:

“It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” he warned, his tone becoming more grave.

This is crucially important, but the only people I’ve seen the article treat this as a serious, grave issue are MMO experts, including Second Life chronicler James Wagner Au and Scott Jennings.  Au is more skeptical, whereas Scott’s point of view mirrors mine – it’s definitely a solvable problem.  The question is whether or not developers will decide to solve this problem before launching their products.

This didn’t stop some incredibly naive and short-sighted commentary.

Nope, not kidding, and it’s not pearl clutching.  It’s time to get to work. This has the problem to be catastrophic for VR – at least for VR that involves connected experiences with strangers.  Here’s the thing – games earn reputations, and so do platforms.  And they earn that reputation right when they launch, usually, when stories of harassment break on the web.  If this isn’t solved before the ‘technology is out’, it could result stunting the growth of VR for years.

To put it in stark terms, if you’re a mom, are you buying yourself or your daughter a VR unit after Time runs a ‘Rape in Cyberspace’ type story and Fox starts villifying it?

I’ve written before about how important that it was that Ultima Online changed the culture of the game by aggressively moving to ban assholes.  This change directly is tied to the doubling of our subscription base.  However, we were never able to change the perception of the market that was formed on day one that the game was a cesspool.  If we didn’t have that baggage, we would have grown much, much faster.  On SWTOR, we built the infrastructure, tools and call centers at launch – it cost us millions of dollars – but as such, our online reputation was never nearly as negative as UO’s (WoW followed a similar path).

All this led to another exchange that was equally face-palming.

This is a lot of ignorance about League of Legend’s challenges with harassment from someone who purports to be a producer for one of the most significant LOL fan sites.  She seemed to think I was implying that League of Legends was not profitable before they started addressing harassment, and her other tweets imply that harassment has not had a significant impact on their bottom line.  The former point is misconstruing my point, and the latter is directly counteracted by evidence from the numerous discussion points from Riot Games themselves.


The simple fact is that Riot Games has invested millions of dollars combating toxicity and harassment in their space.  They have done multiple GDC speeches on their work (seriously, this talk is awesome, watch it), both describing the damage that harassment has done to the game, as well as how they’ve invented new technology, based on machine learning, in order to better police their work.  Jeffrey Lin’s conclusion is very similar to the theory of Broken Windows – i.e. that their inability to address harassment fast enough resulted in the perception that harassment was the norm.  Wired has covered these efforts multiple times.  The investment into fighting harassment is real, its expensive, and in the case of League of Legends, it’s actually working!   

But here’s what’s immediately relevant: despite the fact that League of Legends has clear data that shows that their world is far less toxic than it used to be based on their efforts, they cannot overcome the reputation they’ve already earned from their earliest days.  There’s much less toxicity than their used to be, but you now have an inherent bias as a player – you expect to see toxicity, so when you see it now — even though it’s much rarer than it used to be — it confirms that bias, and developers are given very little appreciation for the massive cost and work that’s gone into fighting the problem.  This leads to, for example, a community that  is 90% male.

THIS is why it’s important that VR starts thinking and worrying about this problem now.  If they wait until after people have a few rape-y encounters before they start taking this issue seriously, the damage will take far longer to undo.

I’m Still Skeptical about VR

The interesting thing about GDC was the fact that interest in VR is everywhere.  Monday and Tuesday had a VR summit, and lines were so long they have to use overflow rooms, and ultimately rearrange the conference to make room for it.  It reminded me a lot of GDC in 1996-1997, when the MMO talks and roundtables were being packed, despite the fact that no one knew anything about the field (the pre-EQ, pre-AC days where even I was considered an expert).

Back then, I had the benefit of being the subject matter in the thick of things – hell, the sheer lack of MMO designers at the time made me a world-class expert on the field.  Now, I’m just a cranky old man observer.  Still, I have a lot of hesitation – not so much about whether VR will conquer the world, but also about WHEN that might happen.  The issues are myriad, but only a couple do I see mentioned frequently:

  1. The vomiting issue.  The struggle is real and is well-known.  People have been telling me that it’s an urgent issue to solve for two years now, and I don’t know if anyone’s closer to it.  Most people that I’ve talked to say that this can be reduced by simply having games that have no movement in them.  Yay, Deer Hunter!
  2. The social virality issue.  The games with peripherals that do the best are highly social games that demo well at parties – think Rock Band or the Wii.  Both were compelling experiences that made observers immediately want to rush home and buy their own.  VR, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot to observers.
  3. The cost issue & market consolidation.  Right now, we have 3-4 major players, vying to be the major player.  And getting into the space is expensive – matching or exceeding the cost of a modern console, but with vastly less utility.  This choice will end up causing market paralysis -players are going to wait until one emerges as a clear leader.
  4. The Harassment issue.  I’ll probably write about this issue in a seperate post, but this will be a much worse problem for connected VR games than it ever was for MMOs and LoL.  This isn’t going to be a huge issue in single-player and shared-space VR issues for a while tough.
  5. The Setup Issue.  Millions of people have hardware peripherals they’ve played once, and then put on the shelf and never touched again.  That even extends to things like 3D television, which requires the incredible simple setup of… finding the glasses.  3D requires even more setup for a simple session – putting on a lunky piece of hardware, positioning yourself in a place you won’t trip over the coffee table, etc.

This is not to say that I think that all VR games are bad – I’m quite fond of several experiences, especially puzzly games like SuperHyperCube that don’t try to be realistic.  But I do think there’s going to be a lot more resistance to these experiences leaving the realm of early adopters to become truly mass market.  Trying to guess which one will win is a fun exercise – if I had to guess, I’d bet on Sony’s Playstation VR.

  1. They have gravity from all the PS4’s that already are out there in living rooms.
  2. The fact that they are in living rooms means they are more likely to make a good living room social experience that can go viral.
  3. They have experience making kid-proof hardware, and are priced competitively for the field.

Note that none of this has much to do with the games or the hardware itself.  That being said, the single most significant thing that the VR companies can do is find an experience that sells as much hardware as Soul Caliber did in the 90s.

But then again, I’m probably being a cranky old man.  But at any rate, I’m much more entranced with HoloLens and Magic Leap.  So maybe I’m just looking slightly further down the road to Augmented Reality, and putting my undue enthusiasm there.

Milo’s Pathetic Two Month Tantrum Reaches the White House

Milo Yiannopoulous, the pitifully preening thin-skinned neurotic meerkat that has self-styled himself as the Liberace of the Alt Right Movement Dedicated to Preserving the Right for Pathetic Manchildren To Be Abusive Shitheads in between bouts of acting as the Pied Piper of the #GamerGate movement, managed to worm his way into the White House Briefing Room today, where he managed to ask a question.

We live in perilous times.  The economy is being buffeted by Asia, ISIS is still dangerous, and both political parties are in chaos due to unlikely primary challenges.  So what does Milo want to talk about?  Apparently, he is still butthurt about losing his blue checkmark due to his self-admitted, utterly despicable habit of being generally a terrible person to anyone who dares to recognize his awesome brilliance.

Anyway, he just happened to wander into the White House Briefing Room, where he asked a question about how him losing his checkmark showed how conservative free speech rights are UNDER ATTACK!  The clip is amusing partially because the White House Spokesperson clearly thinks its about the stupidest question that’s been asked of him in his tenure herding these cats.

There are, of course, a few observations to make here.

  1. If you ask the leader of the federal government to Orwellianly stop a private company from policing their userbase to their likelihood, then your small government/libertarian credentials are about as authentic as a super secret circle that tells you to drink your Ovaltine.
  2. If you can still post on Twitter, you still have plenty of free speech.  The fact that Milo’s patented brand of abuse of the Twitter platform (and, frankly, of the concept of ethics in journalism entirely) has only cost him this vanity adornment and not gotten him removed from the platform so far is, frankly, a testament to both Twitter’s leniency – or stupidity, if you ask me.
  3. Complaining you lack free speech after having managed to sneak into one of the most exclusive media invites in America, and being able to ask the spokes of the opposition party – when you work for a media outlet who despises this president and virtually everything he stands for – is pretty much the height of being so self-absorbedly out of touch with how your so-called issues conflict with actual reality, it’s a wonder you haven’t taken over a Bird Sanctuary somewhere.

This sort of shit has been flowing fast and fierce from those who have tried to turn Online Abuse into a cause for cultural revolution.  A year after the CEO of Twitter noted that they suck at  dealing with abusive shitheads, Twitter has since gotten more aggressive about banning abusive trolls and obnoxious shithead Neonazis, with said trolls and shitheads insisting that this was about the silencing of the conservative worldview, despite the fact that millions of conservatives can and still post on Twitter.  It turns out the common thread is being a troll or shithead, particularly one that engages in doxing, dogpiling or direct threats.  In short, Twitter is following the most basic rule of community management: people who cost them more money or eyeballs than they grant them are, frankly, bad for business, and Twitter is under no obligation to support the fetid swamp feces that they claim is discourse.

But do go ahead and sue Twitter, Milo.  Because I could sorely use the material.

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