Tag Archives: industry

There’s A Latinx Void At The Heart Of Video Games

A still from Life Is Strange 2
Image: Square Enix

I have been in mourning. Loss has followed me for weeks now, and I have not been able to give it a name.

It’s been almost two weeks since the twin shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The former, in particular, has troubled me, as its formless tragedy has taken on the shape of reported news: How the suspected shooter had both reportedly written a manifesto and confessed to the police that he was specifically targeting Mexicans, echoing white nationalist rhetoric. How he killed 22 people, including Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who died protecting their infant son. How that son was then used for a brazen photo opportunity with a smiling president.

I’m Latin-American, alive during a moment in American history where hostility towards people of my ethnic background is being stoked, encouraged, permitted. Where men seek to gun down people like me, and the government rounds us up, indifferent to the point that they regularly apprehend citizens. In the wake of a staggering hate crime against Latinx people, it’s hard not to go numb. Just shut down, you know? I try to keep moving, to not let that numbness take over. Art helps. It may seem foolish to talk about entertainment during a moment of crisis, but one of art’s many functions is to help process real human pain and tragedy, to help individuals sort themselves out as they find a way to move forward.

Latinx art abounds: I found music I could listen to, books I could read, movies I could watch as I put myself back together to face the world and do my part. Here’s what messes me up: I didn’t know where to look for that in video games.

It’s not that there aren’t spaces, people working towards making video games a more distinctly diverse place. There’s the Game Developers of Color Expo, the Indie Game Developers Association’s Latinx In Gaming special interest group; there are podcasts and fan communities for people involved in this medium to find each other. Latinx folks are out there.

Yet the video games that have broken into the wider public consciousness—in the biggest games and the biggest studios—do not seem to care all that much. On its biggest stages, the games industry still hasn’t quite figured out what it means by words like “inclusion” or “diversity.” Executives tout initiatives built around the idea that “video games are for everyone,” but it’s a marketer’s idea of “everyone”: amorphous, anodyne, and cold, akin to visiting EPCOT and calling it a world tour.

Image: Disney

In the games industry’s endless quest to appeal to everyone, to not turn away a single customer—hateful ones included—it hasn’t really welcomed anyone. Called them by name and made them feel at home. If Disney, an entertainment company that is nothing if not ruthless in pursuing universal hits, can produce Coco, Black Panther, and Bao—each an authentic expression of specific cultures filtered through the lens of fiction—it’s baffling that big-budget games have barely tried.

Playing a video game often means I have to leave my identity at the door, or give up on the part of me that cares about hearing Spanish on the train, about knowing where to get an empanadilla or recognizing Bad Bunny booming out someone’s window. Instead, I must become something neutral: Guardian, Warden, Champion, Soldier. Of what? Damned if I know.

It’s true that mainstream, big budget video games have improved by leaps and bounds in the kinds of people they depict. Their sci-fi futures are diverse; Anthem, Destiny, and Warframe are full of brown faces, with art styles that heavily reference cultures from around the world. Call of Duty games have quietly depicted some of the most diverse casts in blockbuster games, sometimes allowing players to choose between a male or female protagonist and including characters from all kinds of backgrounds. Play a big release like Days Gone and, although the protagonist is white, you’ll find a world populated by people of color, like Manny the mechanic, nurse Addison Walker, or your former partner Rikki Patil.

These are good things, but being present is not the same as being seen. This is what people mean when they say diverse games are nice, but diverse studios are better. It’s more important to have games made by people from different backgrounds who are empowered to make decisions that are felt in finished games.

Image: Electronic Arts

This is usually the part of an essay like this where the writer calls for an industry to “do better,” but I am not convinced that anything better will be done. I’ve written about this before, but to be Latinx in America is to be ignored. You are perpetually a talking point in someone else’s argument: Right-wing hysteria over migrants. Left-wing lust for votes. White opinions about the authenticity of a restaurant. Semi-regular debates over the service industry. Video games are not immune to this deep-seated ignorance.

It can fuck you up. Make you want to check out. Why care about a video game industry that doesn’t care about me? Or support other people like me?

I feel for the bold independent developers from marginalized communities, the queer, brown, neuroatypical creators laboring in the shadow of video games as a corporate monolith, working to prove that the medium is not limited by its biggest and loudest voices. And then I also feel for the Latinx folks who play games and have to figure out every day how to navigate a world where dipshits might yell at them for speaking Spanish. I feel for the Latinx people who, in the wake of the biggest hate crime to specifically target us, had to watch as the national media erased us from the story, turning it into another in a long list of scuffles the President has had with the public. There aren’t many places to look if you want some semblance of hope. Even fewer if you look to video games.

Like I said, I have been mourning.

Do not misunderstand. I do not need video games to merely adopt the trappings of my world. To go no further than providing a perfunctory reminder of who I am. To add a character my shade of brown to Overwatch, or to infuse soundtracks with Latin trap. What I ask is something simpler: just tell me why I shouldn’t leave.

Source: Kotaku.com

The Video Game Industry Can’t Go On Like This

At about this time next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next generation of video games will look like. New consoles will likely be shown off, bold new streaming initiatives will begin to launch, and we’ll see all the wonderful kinds of games they will bring us. All these new things will come, and we’ll close the book on a generation that saw the industry that makes games come under greater scrutiny than ever before, as studios shuttered, developers burned out, and toxic work culture fostered environments hostile to marginalized people.

These are not problems that have been resolved, but the wheels of the games industry keep turning, in spite of the strain. So how much bigger can video games get? Video games are only getting more costly, in more ways than one. And it doesn’t seem like they’re sustainable.

There’s the human cost, which Kotaku has chronicled extensively. Contract workers are continually undervalued and taken advantage of, as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 developer Treyarch is reported to do. Artists who work on gory cinematics integral to games like Mortal Kombat suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Unrealistic demands and lofty investor expectations lead to disastrous development cycles for video games like Anthem, which in turn leads to developer crunch. Every week, news breaks about the toll video game development takes on the people who make them, and we carry on as if it’s all going to be fine.

Mortal Kombat 11
Image: NetherRealm Studios (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

That’s only the start of it. When you adjust for inflation, the retail cost of video games has never been cheaper, and it’s been this way for some time. The $60 price point for a standard big-budget release has held steady for nearly 15 years, unadjusted for inflation even as the cost to make big-budget video games has risen astronomically with player expectations. (Here’s some math that gives you an idea of just how absurdly expensive games are to make.)

Since changing the price point seems to be anathema, we’ve seen the industry attempt to compensate with all manner of alternatives: higher-priced collector’s editions, live service games that offer annual passes or regular expansions a la Destiny, microtransactions, and free-to-play games. Then you have loot boxes, which in many cases boil down to slot machine-style gambling inserted into retail and free-to-play games alike—something that is coming under increased legal scrutiny that might potentially cut off what has quickly become a major source of revenue in the industry.

These aren’t all necessarily responses to thinning profit margins in the face of rising inflation. Game publishers are often publicly-held companies, with investors that need to be shown endlessly increasing profits that are then used to justify ridiculously large executive paychecks. Perhaps that’s a problem that needs solving, too.

Because of all this, $60 is often just the minimum buy-in, the ante in the pot, for some of the biggest releases. If you want every character in a game’s roster, or every map in its playlists, you’ll have to pay more, and increasingly, you have to. Big-budget single-player games that deliver a single-serving experience with minimal strings attached have largely disappeared from the lineups of major third-party publishers.

Sea of Solitude.
Image: Jo-Mei Games (Electronic Arts)

Let’s run down the Big Three. We’re more than halfway through 2019, and Electronic Arts has only published one single-player game, the indie Sea of Solitude. Last year was much the same, with two indies as its only single-player releases: Fe and Unraveled 2. Activision’s portfolio of single-player games looks even thinner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the only exclusively single-player, non-remake game that the publisher has released since 2015’s Transformers: Devastation—which itself is no longer available, thanks to an expired licensing agreement.

Ubisoft is an exception, regularly releasing entries in single-player game franchises like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. But it buttresses them aggressive microtransactions and extensive season pass plans. (And the occasional diversion like Trials Rising and South Park: The Fractured But Whole.) The big-budget single-player experience is now almost entirely the domain of first-party studios making marquee games for console manufacturers, which bankroll games like Spider-Man and God of War. The economics of first-party exclusives are totally different—they’re less about making money by themselves and more about drawing players into the console’s ecosystem.

This is worth considering, because as big publishers prioritize live, service-oriented games, the number of games on their schedules has dropped. If you look at the Wikipedia listings for EA, Ubisoft, and Activision games released by year, you’ll get a stark—if unscientific—picture of how each big publisher’s release slate has thinned out in the last five years, relying on recurring cash cows like sports games and annualized franchises and little else. In 2008, those three publishers released 98 games; in 2018 they released just 28, not including expansions.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Image: FromSoftware (Activision)

In short, the single-player game was not sustainable. So why should we think the current model is?

The smaller release slates make for a precipitous state of affairs where too much is riding on too little, a shaky foundation for big-budget game development to rest on. Granted, there are other publishers, like those in Japan, that are still very interested in single-player games. Independent games have also filled the single-player void and achieved greater visibility than ever before. But each of these alternatives face their own challenges in a volatile market, one where just five years ago conventional wisdom held the Japanese games industry was dead. Independent developers, meanwhile, continue to fight for the smallest slice of an impossibly crowded market. No matter where you sit on the games industry ladder, stability remains elusive.

That’s the present of video games. Let’s talk about the future. The intersecting trends of games-as-a-service and the increased emphasis on streaming mean an increased reliance on off-site computing with data centers and server farms distributed across the globe.

Microsoft’s Project xCloud wants to use the company’s data centers to provide high-end console and PC gaming to anyone with a good enough internet connection. Google Stadia is a service that pitches something similar if not even more wide-reaching, angling for the big-budget video game experience in a web browser. And Sony already offers a streaming service, PlayStation Now, which is likely to expand in the next generation.

A 2016 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives us an idea of the sort of things to consider in this arena. The outlook gives reasons to both be alarmed and also be hopeful.

The foremost takeaway is that while data centers are growing in number, their energy consumption is starting to plateau out of necessity, as the dramatic increase in cloud computing has actually forced tech companies to become more efficient. The biggest companies, according to the Berkeley Lab report, are actually remarkably efficient.

Data center efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is found by measuring a facility’s total power delivered divided by the power used by its IT equipment. Under this rating, the platonic ideal is a PUE of 1.0: power input and output perfectly balanced. Google, then, is in pretty good shape as far as this standard goes, with the average PUE of all its data centers currently at 1.11.

Efficiency, however, can remain good as power consumption increases, and consumption is going to remain a problem.

Data center energy consumption has been a concern for some time now, particularly in the United States, where data center energy consumption dwarfs that of the rest of the world at 1.8 percent of all energy used in the countrySmaller data centers, which estimates say make up 60 percent of data center energy-use, are inefficient compared to the biggest players, and with no legal standard or universal benchmark, there’s no way to ensure that efficiency gap is closed.

A Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Photo: Google

Making this problem even more dire is our current political climate, where developing sources of clean, renewable energy is an idea met with hostility by countries like the United States throwing their weight behind fossil fuels, even outside of its own borders. That doesn’t even account for the ways games contribute to the world’s electronic waste problem. E-waste is toxic, and only 40 percent of it is properly recycled.

And all that is before you even start to think about climate change, and the urgent action needed to avert a major crisis in our lifetime.

Video games cannot do this forever. If any of these things were to collapse—the people who make them, the economy they’re sold in, the ecosystem we’re all a part of—it would be catastrophic. All of them at once? That’s a disaster we need to talk about, openly. Because there are solutions to these problems.

Some of them are small, like making sure you know how to properly dispose of e-waste, should you need to throw out a busted console or peripheral, and doing what you can to live sustainably, even though climate change certainly requires the sort of large-scale action that only governments can enact To that end, you can take more involved action, like calling your local congressperson or government representative and asking if climate change and environmental concerns are on their agenda, and keeping apprised of any legislation up for voting in local elections.

Other solutions are harder to parse. How do we account for the data center sprawl of tech companies and their energy consumption? Is it ethically sound to use a service like Project xCloud or Google Stadia or Playstation Now, knowing all this? Should we push for a global green tech agreement of some kind, so companies that contribute to server sprawl and energy consumption do so in a sustainable way? A carbon tax seems like a good start, but this is a problem in need of many answers, not one.

Some solutions are thankfully, underway. Labor practices have come under scrutiny and developers are beginning to discuss organizing in earnest. Unionization is not going to solve every problem, but it can lead to meaningful progress in a lot of ways that trickle outward into other arenas. More equitable practices can mean the relentless pace of development is slowed down, which could make for fewer, better games and a course correction in supply and demand. Or it might only make things marginally better.

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have stated sustainability initiatives and reports, but these programs are all buried in corporate sites and paperwork—a better approach would be to make sustainability as big a talking point as load times or ray-tracing. Something we could look at and compare to the previous year, and make note of how better off we are.

These are big, insurmountable seeming problems, but like all incredibly big projects—like, say, game development—they’re things that can be done, slowly, a little bit at a time. We just have to start.

It’s unlikely that video games will ever truly go extinct. We’ll probably always have something called “video games,” but what those games will look like is still very much in flux. There’s no guarantee that the way games are currently made will remain viable for another 10 years—games aren’t even made today the same way they were 10 years ago. They will look different. They will change because they can, and because they must. Hopefully, all the ways games change will be on our terms—otherwise disaster will change them for us.

Source: Kotaku.com