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Are games too much like pornography? | 10 Years Ago This Month

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there’s a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what’s next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field’s history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Ten years ago this month, Trip Hawkins opened his 2014 DICE Summit presentation with a bold question.

“Do you ever feel like what we’re really doing is too much like pornography?”

Spoiler: it was a cheap question designed to grab the audience’s attention and not a concept Hawkins engaged with seriously, and I am 100% pulling the same trick right now by leading off this article with it.

So if you came here expecting some hot, hot games industry B2B discussion about pornography, I’m sorry to say all I have to offer you is a column about educational video games hype. Feel free to grumble about clickbait and be upset that the B2B video game industry website’s historical retrospective column isn’t as pornographic as you expected.

OK, for the rest of you who are still here, let’s get back to the porn talk.

“Yeah you feel that way,” Hawkins continued, pointing to one unidentified member of the audience. “That’s because what you’re doing really is pornography. But for the rest of us, it’s this undercurrent of bad feeling that the public, the government, the teachers… they think we’re a social ill. And we kind of are.

“There’s a whole bunch of side effects and problems that have been caused by games. And games have kind of taken over. Games are now monopolizing the attention of the digital natives that are growing up, so this is an issue.”

Tonally dissonant banter aside, it was an eyebrow-raising start to the session. Here was a bonafide industry legend – the founder of Electronic Arts, 3DO, and early mobile gaming mover Digital Chocolate – raising the question of whether the industry he helped shape had done more to damage society than to benefit it.

But rather than answer the question he had raised, Hawkins went on a digression about the necessity to approach game development thinking like a scientist, even as he was trafficking in dubious assertions about why Finland had successful mobile studios and saying Candy Crush was also “kind of pornographic if you think about it.”

(I have thought about it, but I still do not get why Hawkins thought Candy Crush specifically would be pornographic. If you think you have some idea as to what he meant, under no circumstances should you tell me. You keep that cursed insight to yourself.)

Halfway into his 20-minute presentation, Hawkins finally came to the main point, which is that games are perceived as a social ill because kids are too obsessed with them and it has ruined their ability to learn anything at all.

“Of course, the didactic model in the classroom where people are going to pay attention to what blah blah blah is coming out of the teacher’s mouth, and then they’re going to go home and do supplemental reading? At least it did work for a few hundred years. It had a good run. It doesn’t work anymore.

“Why? Because where is their attention? It’s right here,” Hawkins said, holding up his iPhone an inch from his face.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a decade since books and teachers stopped communicating information. RIP to some real ones, they did indeed have a good run.

Obviously Hawkins failed to back up his assertion of the ineffectiveness of lectures and reading, just like he failed to establish that the cause for this massive failure of the spoken and written word was because kids were glued to their smartphones.

Thankfully, Hawkins had a solution for this problem that may or may not actually exist, and as a bonus, the rationale behind his shiny new innovation was underpinned by some decidedly old-fashioned sexism.

“I would posit that here’s an opportunity as an industry to invade a whole new market, create a whole new market segment because for the first time in history, women are curating the content on these devices that’s going to be used in homes and in classrooms,” Hawkins says. “And they’re looking for things that have value, and there’s not very much out there.”

The baffling thing is that Hawkins was literally just talking a few minutes earlier about how his mom curated the content he was exposed to as a child, directing him to things with value by giving him books about athletes and a subscription to Sports Illustrated. Maybe that wasn’t happening on smartphones, but if that’s what Hawkins meant, it sure doesn’t say much considering smartphones didn’t exist for anyone to curate content on just a generation before.

Contrary to Hawkins’ assertion, parents (not just mothers) have always curated what their kids are exposed to, and it’s not uncommon at all for them to try to nudge kids toward what they see as edifying and decry the things the kids would pursue on their own as brainrot. It’s a weird thing for Hawkins to overlook given how commonly the games industry’s persecution complex rests upon being demonized in the same way as rock music, comic books, and other historical pop culture movements.

This is where Hawkins’ rolled out his own solution to the supposed problem: a new start-up, the frustratingly un-Googleable If You Can, which would make educational games to government curriculum standards that would supposedly improve kids’ emotional intelligence.

The company’s first project was the similarly SEO-hostile “IF…”, a game inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name that begins, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” and goes through a list of such conditional half-statements before finally finishing with the “Then” part: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Hawkins tried to tie the poem’s message of perseverance and steadfastness to contemporary educational trends, saying, “This has now been kind of reframed in a very politically correct, not religious, not ethnic way called SEL: social and emotional learning. And the government has really gotten behind this in the last few years to start a push because there’s a huge set of issues with school climate. And this is a skillset around managing emotions and building positive relationships that just got lost over the course of the last hundred years.”

Ah yes, who could forget the early 1900s, famously a time when children were experts at managing emotion in a healthy way, showing empathy, and building positive relationships, and not just kept obedient and compliant by a society happy to use corporal punishment to keep them in line, and with so little concern for their well-being that child labor laws (to the extent they existed and were enforced) allowed for them to perform dangerous industrial and agricultural work. If only we could go back to those halcyon days…

While Hawkins characterized “social-emotional learning” as a return to older traditions, it seems more obviously an attempt to correct some pretty harmful norms and teach children healthier ways of understanding themselves and others. It’s an effort to treat people better, or as such things have come to be known and railed against, it is “woke.”

That’s not an exaggeration. In 2022, Oklahoma Republican State Senator Shane Jett tried to ban SEL in schools, saying it’s real purpose is “to condition children to prescribed behaviors and ‘anti-racist’ training, social justice posturing and the sexualization of minors, all under the guise of affirming feelings.” Thankfully, the bill never made it out of committee.

As for Kipling’s poem being an appropriate embodiment of SEL, beyond the fact that the entire thing is framed as a guidebook for fulfilling a very specific and restrictive concept of masculinity, it seems to be just as compatible (if not more so) with managing emotions by harmfully suppressing them rather than understanding and healthily expressing them.

But I can see where Kipling’s words would appeal to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur like Hawkins, particularly the lines about betting a ton of money on something, losing every penny of it, and starting over without ever stopping to dwell on your mistake.

In a separate appearance around the same time, Hawkins went into more detail on society’s ability to raise children and exactly what caused that century of decline from the days when we had adorable little moppets losing their hands at the stamp press, saying kids stopped learning SEL tools that they used to get from their parents “in a religious or ethnic context.”

“About 100 years ago, all that started to break down,” Hawkins suggested. “And if you look at how much it’s declined now… Pretty much everybody’s living in a big city. And all the kids go to a public school, and all the religious groups and all the ethnic groups are cramming together. And these are kids who are not growing up alongside the parents because their parents are at work, or they’re missing. And they’re not going to religious services, and the schools historically didn’t teach this content.”

Ah, I see. Public school is bad. Living in a big city is bad, and religious and ethnic groups intermingling is bad. Children who grow up in such environments necessarily have neglectful and absentee parents, and the reason kids never had problems before (let’s just go with Trip on this one) is because they used to go to church.

If You Can disappeared from view about a year after Hawkins’ DICE session, but the idea behind it – a start-up that promises video games as a magic panacea to fix kids and an underfunded educational system – predated If You Can and has survived long after it. In fact, Hawkins’ whole angle – a gaming legend bemoaning what the industry has done to kids and trying to atone for it with an educational gaming start-up – had already been tried by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.

Bushnell has been big on “fixing” public schools with games since 2010, when he founded Brainrush, “a powerful game engine for learning” that looked to cross Zynga’s free-to-play approach and Wikipedia’s open-editing idea. (For the record, I like Wikipedia but think its success is a Nintendo-level aberration and trying to copy it and apply to other businesses – much less the public education system – is foley.)

“We’ve been in hundreds of classroom with 40,000 kids,” Bushnell said at the Cloud Gaming Conference USA in 2011. “We are currently teaching subjects ten times faster. We believe that when we roll this up to full curriculum we’ll be able to teach a full career of high school in less than a year. And we think we’ll be able to do that by the end of next year.”

And much like Hawkins, Bushnell mixed some sexism into the pitch, adding, “That’s a lot of time to chase girls and have fun.”

That quote was already good for a side eye, but Bushnell wouldn’t be satisfied until every peeper in the room was seeing the inside of its skull.

“If we can have a kid learn twice as fast, we can pay teachers twice as much,” he suggested, as if there were any reality in which that would ever happen. (Let us at least be glad nobody has dared to suggest this as a possible outcome for using generative AI in game development.)

While If You Can only took a few years to find out it definitely couldn’t, Brainrush itself actually hung around quite a while, pivoting in 2019 to some sort of blockchain concept where kids would be paid to learn. Hawkins also pivoted to blockchain with NFTs, but by that time he was shilling them not to kids but to retirees.

As of this writing, the If You Can website is mysteriously still up, but the most recent posts are about “Gutter Maintenance for Different Seasons” and test result dates for an Indian engineering exam.

As for Brainrush, earlier this month it was acquired by ExamCollection, a company to help IT workers prepare for certification tests.

You may have noticed that high school has not become a one-year process, and we don’t have a bunch of eight-year-olds getting their doctorates because they were able to plow through an educational career at ten times the normal speed. But Bushnell has started up another educational games company called ExoDexa that is making the same claims about helping kids learn ten times as fast, so I’m sure that’s going to happen any day now.

In the meantime, our children will need to endure the tyranny of teachers and books for at least a little while longer.

While games are great and they doubtlessly can play a beneficial role in an educational setting, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we not leave it up to a tech industry built on moving fast and breaking things, and especially not to serial entrepreneur pitchmen trying to make up for a lack of well-reasoned plans with a reputation and pie-in-the-sky promises.

What else happened in February of 2014

● The biggest news of the month was the unexpected arrival (and even less expected departure) of a breakout mobile hit in Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird. A forerunner to the hypercasual genre, Flappy Bird was a game where players tapped the screen to flap a bird’s wings, trying to keep it at the right height to fly through a series of Mario Bros-like pipes extending from the top and bottom of the screen.

It was also an overnight success, so much so that Nguyen was bringing in $50,000 a day in ad revenue alone from the game. But Nguyen found it negatively impacted his life and he worried the game was addictive, so he pulled it down.

While there’s no shortage of clone games on mobile, the original Flappy Bird remains unavailable. However, Nguyen did release an Amazon Fire TV-exclusive version of the game with multiplayer, Flappy Birds Family, which can still be downloaded.

After the Flappy Bird phenomenon, Nguyen formally established his Dotgears studio in Vietnam later in 2014. The company has produced games that are still available such as Ninja Spinki Challenges and Swing Copters 2, and even grew to have five employees.

That’s a pretty happy ending for the Flappy Bird saga as far as I’m concerned.

● Electronic Arts got a bit too meta with its new Dungeon Keeper free-to-play mobile game by adopting a comically evil monetization strategy, with an energy system that forced players to wait extreme amounts of time if they didn’t want to pay money, to the point it would take literal weeks to carve out a single room in a player’s dungeon for free.

EA also responded to the backlash with an in-game pop up asking players how they would rate the title. If they said 5 stars, it would take them to the Google Play store page to rate the game. If they said 1-4 stars, it took them instead to a prompt suggesting they email the publisher to say what could make it a 5-star game.

Points for thematic consistency, I suppose, but bad monetization with a wink and a nod is still bad monetization.

● Nintendo also unveiled its own approach to free-to-play, which was not so much the opposite to EA’s but something so fundamentally different as to defy comparison. That’s because Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball was a minigame collection in which users could buy additional games for $4 a pop, or they could haggle with the dog behind the counter, Rusty, in order to bring the price down. To get on his good side, players could give him nose hair trimmers or feed him donuts, or listen to him talk about his divorce and raising ten kids as a single father.

● We received our first word about the Minecraft feature film project at Warner Bros. Shockingly enough, that project not only appears to still be happening, it actually has an April 4, 2025 release date planned, and they just announced in January that Jack Black would be joining the cast (which also features Jason Momoa, Emma Myers, and Danielle Brooks). Fingers crossed they don’t finish the dang thing and then shelve it for tax purposes!

● Ken Levine pulled the plug on Irrational Games, resulting in the layoffs of all but 15 developers at the BioShock Infinite studio. Levine and those few remaining staff formed Ghost Story Games, with Levine explaining, “While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before.”

A decade later, we’re still waiting for Ghost Story’s debut game, Judas, which looks, uh, not all that different from BioShock.

And we’ve also had former Ghost Story developers going public with stories of Levine berating and burning people out, constantly changing his mind and throwing out finished work as a result, just like we heard from Irrational employees. So yeah, really not a very different kind of game after all.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: After the news about the closure of Irrational Games, analysts offered their thoughts on what it meant for Take-Two and the future of the BioShock franchise. One common prediction was that it would be a bit of a wait for the next BioShock game, with analysts predicting the next game to hit in 2015, 2016, 2017, or even as late as 2018.

Take-Two didn’t announce a new BioShock until late 2019, and even then, it wasn’t so much a “Hey we have a new BioShock game!” as it was a “Hey, we just started a new studio to make a BioShock game!” More than four years later, we’re still waiting to get our first look at the work that studio (Cloud Chamber) has done on the game.

BAD CALL: In an interview with us, Green Man Gaming MD Paul Sulyok defined the digital retailer’s market by exclusion, saying, “We focus exclusively on the 15 per cent who want to buy computer games, who spend 60 per cent of the marketplace. We don’t do female-friendly games. We don’t do family games. We actively avoid those sorts of games.”

Sulyok would backtrack on those comments when challenged, but the fact that an executive could promote their business by talking about how they actively avoid games for women should give you an idea about how sexism was just like background radiation in the games industry in 2014, something we’d all been stewing in for years and had been taken largely for granted. The remarks from Hawkins and Bushnell in the main section above should further establish that.

This will come up again in the August 10 Years Ago This Month column (if not sooner).

GOOD CALL, BAD CALL: Having left Epic Games and its Gears of War Xbox franchise in favor of the digital distribution-dominated PC space, Cliff Bleszinski said the old way of promoting games with a Game Informer cover and an E3 reveal is dead.

Ten years down the road, the E3 reveal part is absolutely dead considering E3 itself no longer exists, and the Game Informer cover doesn’t hold the same clout it used to. While Game Informer continues to run, its marketing value is somewhat less now that GameStop stores are no longer littered with physical copies of the latest issue. According to Game Informer’s customer service page, the only way to even get physical copies now is to order single issues from the GameStop online store and wait up to eight weeks for them to arrive.

So Good Call to Cliffy on that one. But we have to offset that with a Bad Call for his assertion that “I’ll never make another disc-based game for the rest of my career.”

Even if it was primarily a novelty release for collectors, Limited Run Games released a physical PS4 version of Bleszinski’s next game, Lawbreakers.

You might think that’s nitpicking on a technicality, but unlike some developers, we respect the letter of the law around here.

BAD CALL: In a DICE Summit presentation, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey proclaimed that “virtual reality could end up being one of the most important technologies in the history of mankind.”

Luckey backs up that sensational claim by explaining that VR is something people already understand. Unlike a product like a Fitbit, you don’t need to sell people on what VR is or how it can make their lives better, because the concept of VR has been in the popular consciousness for a long time.

If you’re wondering what the next step is that elevates VR from “a product with a slightly easier task on the marketing front” to “one of the most important technologies in the history of mankind,” Luckey’s got nothing for you.

That’s not just me giving a bad faith interpretation of his position to make a point. Go ahead and listen to that part of the presentation. There really is nothing else to it.

I have no idea how he thinks that would make VR one of the most important technologies in the history of mankind. I mean, The Clapper was a very simple product people understood, but I would not put it in the running for “most important technology in the history of mankind.”

The Clapper can’t hold a candle to candle-making, for one thing. The Clapper can’t touch the ten-foot pole with a ten-foot pole. It is not fit to carry the jock strap’s jock strap.

Between this and the Hawkins DICE session we started out with, I think maybe the lesson is that tech entrepreneurs’ bold claims in these presentations aren’t actually meant to be taken seriously, interrogated, questioned, or even considered for more than a fleeting moment.

These founders aren’t trying to engage in communication so much as they’re presenting a stylized approximation of the real thing, mimicking the broad functionality of an actual human interaction on a simple level but largely separated from the actual meaning behind the act for an audience that’s showing up in the first place more for the spectacle than the substance.

I wonder, do they ever feel like what they’re really doing is too much like pornography?

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