WASHINGTON, D.C. – “What do we want?!? PRIVACY!” The third-graders screamed and waved signs. “When do we want it?!? AFTER RECESS!”
Tensions are high in one Washington, D.C. elementary school after children were fed the totally objective and unbiased information that the data from their time spent playing video games was – *gasp* – being collected by the boogeyman, Satan, and perhaps some various video game companies that make the former two bad guys pale in comparison.
If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, NPR recently released an article detailing how the scumbag video game companies collect your children’s data (never mind their souls). First, I’m going to rail on how poorly the article was written.
1. The picture spread across the top has a child playing MineCraft, made by the Good Guy Greg of indie game development: Mojang. Originally not multiplayer, MineCraft’s huge modding community and regular updates come at no extra cost to the player, and are inspired not by suspicious clandestine data collection, but by an actual grassroots support base that encourages development in a fantastic game that has had applications in every field from music to engineering. Saying it addicts kids to video games (while perhaps true…) and collects their data to make the game more addictive and convince children to spend extra money on it — although it was only implicitly mentioned by the article — is patently false, annoying, and ignores a huge third dimension of quality that exists in game development.
2. The next mention of video games comes with a parent who is unable to control their child’s video game intake. Sorry, your poor parenting skills aren’t newsworthy. If your child is 13 and playing 12 hours of Call of Duty every day on his Xbox, don’t blame the developer. Blame yourself. Blame yourself a lot, because I quite frankly dislike being called a faggot by him over voice chat every time I snipe him from my intellectual (and virtual) pedestal.
3. It goes on to group CoD (while implying EVERY OTHER VIDEO GAME is in the same boat) with the people behind Zynga’s freemium disasters and Candy Crush. It’s like grouping every burger joint with that one seedy McDonald’s in the ghetto where people go to distribute methamphetamines. And I feel like I’m insulting the meth dealers here.
4. Not only have you totally lost control of how much your child plays video games, but that tween Belieber you gave a smart phone to is now spending your money on microtransactions?!? And it’s the fault of the game developers. No. See number 2, only accompany it with the sound of my head hitting my keyboard in mind-numbing acknowledgement of your absolute failure to regulate your child’s interaction with… well, EVERYTHING. If your solution isn’t to take the goddamn smart phone away, then I have no sympathy for you at all. Let them cry. Let them wheedle and whine, but those boundaries are better set late than never, and believe me, if your child is (without your permission) buying things for Farmville or Candy Crush, you are LATE in setting those boundaries.
Okay, done with that nonsense. Journalists, let me make an unequivocal demand of you as clearly as I can: update your views of the video game industry. Talk to game designers. Talk to people who know a lot about games (as in not the people who play CoD for 12 hours). Talk to me. Do this before you write your article, and you will make much less of a fool of yourself than you currently are in this day and age. Stop being tonedeaf and learn a bit about the industry you purport to be reporting on.
The real purpose of this post wasn’t to pointedly point out the pointless points of this journalistic “epic fail,” however. The data collection of video game companies is an actual issue that needs to be discussed, and as a person with absolutely no credentials in marketing, formal debate or pretty much anything else, I feel qualified to deliver my opinion.
First of all: let’s take a brief step back from this whole “data collection” buzz-phrase. If you’re in the USA (or Germany… sorry, Germans) then you’re probably shockingly aware of the NSA’s breach of what many consider to be a fundamental human right: our right to privacy. I’m going to avoid using the word “Orwellian” (damn, just used it), because if you’ve read 1984, I’m sure the scenarios spring to your mind upon hearing this stuff. We get it. We’ve been violated as a nation, and as individuals. It’s in the forefront of our minds.
The reason I say to step back from it is because the sensationalism of this article and the reality that our data IS being collected is based mostly on the fact that our privacy feels “violated.” The fact of the matter is game developers are not insidiously collecting incriminating data on play habits; they’re simply following a more effective version of the tried-and-true marketing that makes us as consumers want to buy a product. That they’re marketing to kids is irrelevant, as long as you still have some control as a parent on what your child purchases. Am I really saying this? Am I really suggesting there is a lack of parental control in what a TEN-YEAR-OLD buys?
The third graders write about how addicting video games are (I’m temporarily suspending my crusade against the word “addicting,” as I’ve resigned to the fact that the perfectly good word “addictive” has been chucked into the meat grinder of illiteracy). They are naturally offended that their data would be used to fuel that addiction! However, I’m going to be brutally honest and say that our world is full of temptation, and it has been for thousands of years. A rare Bible quote from the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Zynga.” It’s a problem that we have to deal with. If you, the parent, in your smart-phone-buying frenzy, have opened your child up to a world of temptation, then it is YOUR job to teach your child how to deal with it in a responsible manner. If you give your 14 or 15-year-old alcohol, it is not up to your child to decipher how to not become an alcoholic. We do not accuse food companies of foul play when they do flavor studies on how to make their food the tastiest (even if it involves drowning our children in a sea of fat, sugar, childhood obesity and diabetes). But somehow the accountability has been shifted from parents to game developers.
The other half of this issue comes again with the two-dimensionality that journalists, parents, and even some gamers tend to think of the game industry with. The majority of PC and console games available today (not counting Xbox Marketplace or whatever the PS version is) do not involve microtransactions (aka buying with real money powerups, new skins, new weapons, or extra lives). This means that your child is spending 12 hours a day playing a finished product. Many indie game studios like Mojang update their game FOR FREE. Any data collection that goes on by these companies is for the purpose of gauging how well their game went, what parts are good and what parts can be improved upon. They are taking opinion surveys that you don’t even have to fill out. They are doing what every game developer SHOULD do, that every gamedev has a RESPONSIBILITY to do, even: paying attention to how people play their game. If you fail to do that, you are like a car company failing to consider how the driver will feel inside their vehicle. The very nature of the artistic medium in which you’re creating something in forces you as a game developer to recognize how your game interacts with players and vice versa.
Even if you’re from Zynga. Even if you’re trying to get people to buy lives in Candy Crush. Even if you’re just a nice guy trying to make the sequel to your game better than its predecessor. That data is much more valuable to you from a development perspective than it is to the third-graders who don’t like being addicted to games. Gamedevs aren’t the NSA. They don’t single out people, they don’t assemble profiles to incriminate players they don’t like, and they don’t collect data simply for the sake of having it. It’s a business, it’s marketing, and if you don’t think it’s facilitated games being created at a higher level than they would otherwise, I’d suggest you take a page out of the American government’s book and start collecting some data of your own.
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