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November 2007
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January 2008


Earth20marble As the dark evenings descend, some people's spirits are lifted by the thought of coming festivities, while others feel more vulnerable to their depression and despair. Whether being distracted from one's problems, or dwelling upon them, hope can seem a distant or even impossible prospect in the cold grasp of winter. Hope has always been a precious commodity, and its rarity renders it more so.

Most of the philosophy I write is about beliefs; religious beliefs, scientific beliefs, political beliefs... It's widely acknowledged that one should not talk about religion or politics, not so widely acknowledged in science even though similar problems apply. People have become inured to the idea that these topics are off limits, and they like to claim that the people who hold different beliefs can't be reasoned with. But in truth, anyone can be reasoned with on their own terms. The reason discussion of politics and religion breaks down is that people inadvertently treat such discussions as battles to be won - but beliefs aren't influenced in this way. You cannot win a battle of beliefs, but that doesn't mean we can't productively talk about beliefs, and learn about beliefs that are not our own.

People have become disenfranchised either because they have lost hope that change is possible, or because they have given up trying to affect change. But change is still achievable, even within our current political systems. The problem is not that there's no hope, but that there's not enough communication, and without communication we can't reach consensus -  and that is the most powerful tool for change. If we leave it to the politicians to work out what to do, we really will be in trouble, but that doesn't mean we can't get the politicians to do what we want when we agree. The challenge lies squarely at our own feet.

I work to change people's beliefs, and my method is written discourse. There are two specific beliefs that I seek to change.

Firstly, I want to persuade you to extend freedom of belief to everyone, irrespective of what you feel about those beliefs. Freedom of belief is freedom of thought, and if we don't have this then people can force their beliefs upon other people. This was horrific in historical Christendom, it will be no less horrific if we try to assert it again, no matter what beliefs are being enforced. We don't have to provide the freedom to act on all our myriad beliefs, but we must protect the beliefs themselves.

Secondly, I seek to persuade as many people as possible that there is still hope. Once we honour freedom of belief, we can begin to solve the real crises - poverty, hunger, employment, healthcare, the environment, even world peace - we can solve all these problems when we begin to work together. But we won't be ready to work together until we are willing and able to extend the freedom of belief that respects everyone's right to their own individual beliefs, whatever they might be.

I'm just one voice, and I can't change the world alone, but that isn't going to stop me from trying. I still have hope, and that hope is a precious commodity. If I can pass that hope on to just a few others then maybe, just maybe, it can snowball into a better world. You may think me naive - I don't mind. Even geniuses can be fools, and I'd rather be a fool with hope than a cynic with none. Hold onto hope wherever you find it, nurture it, let it grow, and pass it on. It's not too late to save the world. Isn't that worth hoping for?

Whoever and wherever you are, I wish you a Happy Solstice, Yalda, Shab e Cheleh, Eid ul-Adha, Yule, Hannukah, Swik, Kwanzaa or Christmas, and invite you to share in the hope of a better tomorrow.

Only a Game returns in January.

Coming Soon!

Coming to Only a Game in Gregorian 2008...

The End of the Ethics Campaign (finally!) ... Ethics of War ... Animal Rights? ... Population ... Plus An All New Game Player Model ... More ramblings about the videogames industry ... new game design methods ... intermittent reflections ... Learn to play China's most popular card game ... Open testing of our first commercial card game, Übergeek ... Also the political metaphysics of Michael Moorcock ... religion in popular science fiction ... the occasional angry tirade ... all new minigames! ... Not to mention even more nonsense the likes of which ye has never seen!

See you all in two weeks!

Civil Disobedience (3): Martin Luther King, Jr

MartinLutherKingJrLike Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr read Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience in college, and resonated with its central idea – that people should not obey unjust laws. The son of a Baptist preacher, King himself became a minister, and originally believed that the teachings of Jesus could only be put into practice between individuals. However, when King learned about Gandhi, his stance changed. He said in this regard: “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force...”

In Gandhi’s teaching, King began to find answers to the question that had vexed him for many years – how one could hope to bring about social reform. He was inspired by Gandhi’s words “Through our pain we will make them see their injustice”, and said of Gandhi’s satyagraha: “I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi... the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Contrary to the popular perception, King did not begin the civil rights movement that worked to liberate black communities from the insidious “Jim Crow laws,” that under the guise of a mandate for “separate but equal” treatment in fact delivered brutal oppression of blacks in the Southern region of the United States. From the 1920s, another Baptist minister, Vernon Johns, had used his pulpit to stir up his congregation to fight for justice.

Johns was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1947 to 1952, and delivered inflammatory sermons with titles such as “It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and “When the Rapist is White” in response to atrocities conducted in Montgomery, as well as leading protests. His outspoken attitude made many of his parishioners nervous of reprisals, and in 1953 the deacons of the church accepted one of John’s many resignations. A new pastor was brought in: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two years after taking over at Dexter Avenue, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to comply with the Jim Crow laws that required her to give up her seat to a white man. It was the tipping point for King, who took up a major role in the civil rights movement, and campaigned for more than a decade with protests, marches and economic boycotts. King was inspired in this struggle by his Christianity and, like Gandhi, found Jesus’ sermon of the mount (which contains the famous verse regarding “turning the other cheek”) to be a powerful call for a new response to injustice: neither violent resistance nor passive acceptance, but a middle path of non-violent resistance. Modern Biblical scholars such as Walter Wink confirm that this interpretation of the sermon of the mount is the most consistent with the nature of society at the time Jesus was speaking.

In 1959, several organisations (including the Quakers) paid for King to visit the Gandhi family in India, which had a profound affect upon him. On his final evening in India, King made a radio address in which he reflected: “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”

In 1965, King began to express his concerns about the United State’s role in the Vietnam war, and in 1967 (a year before his death) he spoke out publicly against the war in a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. King insisted that the purpose of the US presence in that nation was “to occupy it as an American colony” and further criticised his government as being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This speech turned much of the mainstream media against King, with Time magazine claiming the speech was “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,” The Washington Post declaring that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,” and The New York Times calling it “Dr. King’s Error”.

But King refused to let political expediency draw him away from the ethical path he had chosen to walk. In his speech against the war, he had said: “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Speaking of the cost of war, he observed: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” The war in Vietnam went on for another eight years, costing the US more than $100 billion, the lives of 58,000 patriotic soldiers, and causing the deaths of almost two million Vietnamese.

On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King delivered a speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He ended on these words:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. 

Martin Luther King, Jr awakened within the citizens of the United States a powerful passion for the liberty and freedom promised to them by their constitution. The spirit of civil disobedience kindled by his predecessor, Vernon Johns, and fanned into a blaze by King would go on to help provide equality and justice for other minorities. He seemed to have an instinct that he might have to die to achieve the justice he demanded, but had always claimed that “a man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”

When he first learned of threats to his life in 1964, he said: “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.” The tragedy of his death is lessoned only slightly by the knowledge that, by creating a martyr, those that engineered his assassination unwittingly ensured beyond a shadow of a doubt his ultimate victory. 

Next: A Theory of Justice

The Civil Disobedience Serial continues in January.

Comment Blues

To all those people unable to join the debate on the use of hemp as a sacrament because of TypePad's overzealous Spam protection, please accept my apologies. I have complained to TypePad and hope to get this issue resolved soon.

If you have tried to post a comment to that post and failed, can you please let me know in the comments to this post so that I can gauge the scale of the problem. Thanks!

New Poll: Death Policies in Multiplayer FPS

Sadly, the hectic pace of work in the run up to the Winter Festival has disrupted blogging this week, so all I can offer for Wednesday this week is a new poll. The subject is the death policy used in multiplayer first person shooters.

Some videogame modes follow the pattern of a typical LaserQuest/LaserTag game, in which players who are hit are knocked out for a short while, but then return to the game. We see this, for instance, in games such as the multiplayer mode of Halo and many other popular games. We can call this the respawning death policy, I suppose. This style of play tends to be frantic and chaotic, and favours players who wish to play in an aggressive, adversarial style.

However, some videogame modes follow the pattern of a typical Paintball game, in which palyers who are hit are knocked out of that round and don't return until the next. We see this, for instance,  in games such as Counter-Strike. We can call this the knockout death policy. The obvious cost is that players who get knocked out have to wait to get back to the paly, but this is weighed off against a more tense and exciting game (with possibly a greater fiero payoff for winners). Plus, one can play in this form on a lower difficulty in order to reach a flow state more easily (because play is not broken up with constant dying as in the respawning policy).

So, all you players of multiplayer First Person Shooters - which death policy do you prefer? Or, do you not mind about the death policy but have a preference for playing in teams or playing alone? You can find the poll in the sidebar, and I welcome discussion of the issue here in the comments.

Hemp: The Illegal Sacrament

Charas Does the prohibition of marijuana in the United States violate the First Amendment, which guarantees the free exercise of religion? For the many religions that believe that hemp is a sacred plant the answer is an unequivocal yes, but does their case bear up to scrutiny?

A great variety of religions make use of a sacrament, that is, a substance with sacred and spiritual significance. Perhaps most famously, Christians eat bread and drink wine as part of Holy Communion, in which the sacraments represent respectively the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Rituals involving sacraments, such as the Christian Eucharist, are central practices in those religions that make use of sacramental substances. 

Many religions hold hemp (that is, the cannabis sativa plant) to be sacred. In the Japanese religion of Shinto, hemp is used to drive out evil spirits, hemp seeds are part of the marriage ceremony, priest’s clothes and bell ropes are made from hemp rope, and many shrines burn taima (marijuana) five times a year as part of their ceremonies. Many Hindu’s also consider the hemp plant (or bhang) as holy, and devotees to Shiva sometimes meditate by imbibing a blend of hemp leaves and milk also known as bhang. Such sadhus walk around India search for spiritual oneness with Shiva, and smoking charas (marijuana).

Although it is not widely known, Rastafarians inherited the tradition of smoking hemp as a sacrament from Hindu culture. After abolishing slavery, the British shipped many Indian labourers to their sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and these immigrants brought the cannabis sativa plant with them. The Rastafarian term for hemp, ganja, is a Hindu word for the compressed buds of the hemp plant, and the small clay pipes used to smoke it are known as chillums (another Hindu term). Rastafarians smoke hemp communally and talk about God as a central ritual practice.

Despite the long tradition of using hemp as a sacrament throughout the world, it remains illegal in most countries. This is especially troubling in the United States of America, since the prohibition on the religious use of hemp clearly violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment (the second part of the sentence “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”)

The issue of intoxicants and religious ceremonies under US law first came to a head because of the use of the psychotropic cactus peyote in Native American religion; rather than deeming that this use was allowable under the Free Exercise Clause, a special law was enacted (the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1994 and 1996) that in principle protects the religious use of peyote by Native Americans. 

In 1989, the case of Olsen versus the Drug Enforcement Agency tested the waters on the legality of sacramental hemp. Rev. Carl Olsen is a priest of the Ethiopian Coptic Church of Zion, a Rastafarian sect whose central rituals draw from the Christian Eucharist, but replace wine with ganja, which they believe is the true Christian sacrament. Olsen petitioned for the right to use hemp in a religious context in 1989, claiming the protection of the Free Exercise Clause and further asserting that if the US government granted an exception for Native American use of peyote but not for use of hemp in the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church’s rituals, this constituted violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – since it meant the US was favouring one religion over another, which was precisely what the first half of the sentence quoted earlier was meant to prevent. The DEA refused to grant Olsen an exception, and the courts upheld this decision, citing “the immensity of the marijuana control problem in the United States” as a factor – in other words, because many people smoked help illegally, but few people take peyote illegally, there was a compelling reason to deny religious freedoms in this case. 

The situation changed somewhat with the enacting of the Religious Freedoms Restoration Act of 1993, which reinstated what is termed “the Sherbert test” (named after Adeil Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist who had been involved in an employment dispute over her religious right to refuse to work on a Saturday). This test first asks courts to determine whether the individual has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and whether government action places a substantial burden upon that person’s ability to act upon that belief. If this can be established, the government must then prove that it is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest” and that its actions were the least restrictive, or least burdensome, steps that could be taken.

In 1996, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Rastafarian defendants should be permitted to demonstrate that their use of hemp was for bona fide religious reasons in defence against charges of possession of marijuana. Despite this ruling, Rastafarians are frequently prosecuted in the United States on other charges, such as importation of a controlled substance, and in general terms the position is still upheld that the state has a compelling interest in denying religious freedom where the use of hemp as a sacrament is concerned.

Behind this legal quagmire is a cultural bias against the use of hemp which originates in Christian tradition, and thus arguably represents a violation of the Establishment Clause. Alcohol in the form of wine forms a sacrament for almost all Christian sects, and this in turn has lead to a bias in favour of this substance over alternatives (even when alcohol is used in a secular context as an intoxicant). In fact, during the prohibition of the 1920s and early 1930s in the United States, an exemption was granted in the case of communion wine. Christians have never had to deal with their own sacrament being a restricted substance, but have remained a key voice in blocking other religions from exercising their freedoms in this regard.

Repeated studies demonstrate that alcohol is a more dangerous substance than marijuana; while both substances have health risks associated with them, the health risks associated with marijuana are approximately equivalent to those associated with tobacco, while alcohol is considered to be responsible for 3-4% of deaths worldwide – five times more than illegal drugs taken as a whole. A report from the World Health Organisation in 1998 originally concluded that marijuana was not only less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, it was less of a threat to public health. However, this content was cut under pressure from US organisations who claimed this would play into the hands of people campaigning to legalize marijuana. Apparently scientific data is less important than upholding prior prejudices in approaching this issue.

There is some small hope of change. In 2006, four Nevada clergymen publicly endorsed a measure that would allow for adult Nevadans to possess small amounts of marijuana. Their motivation had nothing to do with religious freedoms, however, but rather the admission that prohibition against marijuana is an ineffective way of dealing with the issue. The Rev. Paul Hansen, senior pastor from the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Las Vegas, said in this regard: “On its face, our current marijuana laws appear to be moral, but it is a cosmetic morality. Our current laws are causing virtually unfettered access to marijuana. Marijuana is far easier to access than alcohol because drug dealers don't card.” In effect, the clergyman were arguing that decriminalising was the best way to protect children from substance abuse.

The decriminalisation of marijuana in the Netherlands demonstrates the benefits in ceasing to prosecute the possession of hemp (and indeed other substances) – saving the cost of enforcing prohibition laws, and bringing practices that otherwise take place out-of-sight into public scrutiny. Studies have shown that decriminalisation did not increase the number of marijuana smokers in the Netherlands, and furthermore than 90% of people who had tried smoking hemp had since quit. This is not to say that one cannot become addicted to marijuana, but the risk in this case is not significantly greater that that of becoming addicted to sugar, videogames, sex or even television shows.

Legal scholar Douglas Laycock, writing in 1989 about the peyote test cases in the US, observed:

In an important sense it is a greater violation of religious liberty to ban a ritual that is at the theological heart of a faith than to ban a peripheral celebration. But either act limits religious liberty. We should be uncomfortable with governmental bans on minor religious festivals, or with judges deciding which festivals are important enough to deserve full constitutional protection and which are not. A court that starts down that path might eventually convince itself that wine is not central to the sabbath or to the celebration of Passover, or that the use of wine is not central to communion. The government could acquire a de facto power to review theology and liturgy.

The denial of the right of religious minorities to use hemp in their religious rituals in the United States violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, and is thus unconstitutional. Those for whom hemp is a religious sacrament – including Rastafarians, certain Hindus and some Discordians (who cite Genesis 1:29 as evidence that God expressly permits the use of “every herb bearing seed”) are victims of unjust laws, and may have a duty of non-compliance with statutes which restrict their religious freedoms in this regard. Whatever one believes about the personal use of marijuana, no-one should be party to a legal system which persecutes religious minorities for consensual sacred rituals.

Scapegoat Politics

Does "evil" have tangible meaning, if no-one thinks of themselves as evil? Many people believe they and those they know are good people, but few people believe that they and the people they know are evil people. Evil is an accusation we level against others, not an identity we take for ourselves - except, perhaps, in a game.

A peculiar problem with modern democracy is that all too often we let our representatives hoodwink us with tales of who and what is evil, rather than focusing on how to work for what we believe is good. It's far easier to point a finger, than to make something happen; far simpler to start a witch-hunt than to solve social problems. Fighting evil is the modus operandi of a comic book superhero; it should not be the role of a politician.

Civil Disobedience (2): Gandhi

200pxgandhi_studio_1931 The son of a regional official from the Indian region of Gujurat, Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience while he was studying law in London. Gandhi resonated with Thoreau’s ideas, and agreed with Thoreau that people had a right to disobey unjust laws. However, he considered such action a last resort, and felt a great respect for the law.

After graduating, he accepted a position to work for an Indian law firm in South Africa. The discrimination against non-white people in the country horrified him – he himself was thrown off a train for refusing to move from first class (for which he held a legitimate ticket) to third class, and later in the same journey was beaten by a stagecoach driver for refusing to travel on the footboards to make room for a white passenger. These events and others like them marked a turning point in Gandhi’s life.

In 1906, when a law passed requiring Indians in South Africa to register, Gandhi began his first exercise in non-violent civil disobedience. He called upon his fellow Indians in South Africa to defy the new law, and suffer the legal punishments rather than resorting to violence. There followed a seven year struggle, during which many Indians (including Gandhi) were imprisoned and flogged, and in some cases shot dead. The public outcry against the South African government’s application of such harsh measures ultimately forced a compromise to be negotiated.

Returning to India, Gandhi began his campaign against the occupation of his homeland by the British Raj. He criticised the actions both of the occupying force, and those Indians who resorted to violence against them. The prevailing view of the British, in common with many colonial powers, was that they were bringing “civilisation to the savages”: this was a difficult preconception to overcome, especially since many Britains were making a lot of money out of ruling India.

Gandhi developed his own philosophy of non-violent resistance which he called satagraha (“grasping the truth”) saying of it: “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever.” He rejected the idea that ends could justify means, and insisted that the means themselves must be just. His satagraha philosophy contained many tenets, including nonviolence (ahimsa), truth, non-possession (i.e. poverty), fearlessness, equal respect for all religions and freedom from untouchability – a cultural segregation based on the Indian caste system that Gandhi considered an “inhuman boycott of human beings” and a corruption of Hinduism.

An important development of Thoreau’s ideas was Gandhi’s insistence that it was necessary to develop discipline, and to co-operate with the State and its laws as a prerequisite for resisting: “[it is] only when a people have proved their active loyalty by obeying the many laws of the State that they acquire the right of Civil Disobedience.” Thus even when disobeying a law in an act of non-violent resistance, it was important that other laws were appreciated and obeyed, otherwise activists could simply be dismissed as criminals or anarchists.

In 1930, Gandhi began a new non-violent campaign against the British, protesting the salt tax which had been enacted in 1882. Prior to the arrival of modern mining equipment, salt was a precious commodity, one that had been responsible for riots and uprising in other countries throughout history. (Before the widespread use of salt in processed foods, it was necessary for everyone to purchase salt, since lack of salt leads to fatal neurological problems). The salt tax greatly penalised the poor, and benefited only the British occupiers.

In March 1930, Gandhi and 78 of his satyagrahis marched nearly two hundred and fifty miles to a coastal village, to defy the salt tax and make his own salt by boiling salty mud in seawater. Tens of thousands of people turned out to greet him on route, and he gave dozens of interviews en route, making him a household name in Europe and the United States. Fully expecting to be arrested upon his arrival at the coastline, the British chose not to take action. On the morning of the 6th April 1930, after a morning prayer, Gandhi raised a clump of salty mud in one hand and announced: “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”

Encouraging others to make their own salt illegally, the British Raj ultimately imprisoned some 60,000 people in response. It was one of Gandhi’s most successful campaigns in upsetting British rule. In 1931, the British negotiated with Gandhi for suspension of the civil disobedience movement in India. However, Indian independence was still a distant possibility, and the outbreak of World War II further complicated matters.

After intense discussions with various Indian leaders, Gandhi declared that India could not support a war that was ostensibly about democratic freedom while that freedom was denied to India itself. Thus began the Quit India movement, during which Gandhi and his followers were repeated arrested, and Gandhi himself suffered repeated assassination attempts. When World War II ended, Britain was forced into the realisation that the age of the British Empire was coming to a close and, having required other nations to relinquish their territorial conquests, finally acceded to granting India its independence.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal of the British allowed other tensions in India to surface, in particular cultural conflicts between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Indian Muslims favoured partition so that they could have their own nation; Gandhi was vehement that they should remain one nation. However, he was unable to resolve the crisis, and convinced by his colleagues that partition was the only way to avoid an outright civil war, eventually acceding to the partition that created Pakistan as a separate nation. The partition created further tensions between the new independent states of India and Pakistan, and these tensions ultimately cost Gandhi his life at the hands of a Hindu extremist in 1948.

By demonstrating the tremendous power of civil disobedience, Gandhi changed the way the world viewed resistance – for perhaps the first time, non-violent action was taken seriously as a political tool. Influenced by Thoreau’s earlier writings on civil disobedience, and inspired by his own beliefs as a Hindu, Gandhi offered a new view of the relationship between religion and ethics - one that denied the insidious idea that religion could justify inhuman actions. As he wrote in 1921: “As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or [unrestrained] and claim to have God on his side.”

Gandhi’s philosophy of satagraha was to have tremendous influence throughout the world, and in particular stirred the heart of a humble Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia, who was destined to change the United States of America as radically as Gandhi had transformed India.

Next week: Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The New Gender Agenda

Gender_agenda Once upon a time, the issue of gender in games was tied up with the problem of getting women interested in videogames. But that time has long since passed – every survey conducted now shows that there are only marginally fewer female console players than male, and in the casual space there are more female players than male.

So why is it that high profile videogames are primarily designed for a male teenage audience, and marketed to this audience using highly sexualised and sexist imagery?

The answer to this question is not as simple as it first seems, so to begin with, let us air out some well established problems. Firstly, the games industry largely employs men. Partly, this is because women often don’t consider videogames as a career option, partly the inherent gender bias of the industry makes it difficult to attract or keep women employees.

Secondly, the games industry generally speaking does not understand games or play – rather, it employs people who have enjoyed videogames in their youth and who thus have beliefs about videogames based solely on their own prior play experiences, which in part because of the pre-existing biases represents a lot of teen boy fantasies of violence and power. This is what videogames mean to most people who work in the games industry, and it functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thirdly, the marketing departments of videogame companies only know how to market to male customers, which is a result of both of the first two issues, and since these companies are not making many products targeting a female audience (“pink games” excluded) there is little momentum towards changing this state of affairs. That game stores tend to “stink of boy” is the final nail in the coffin – even the retail outlets are not friendly to a female audience.

All this makes the videogame industry as a whole seem to be the unequivocal bad guy – but sadly, there are actually a few sound commercial reasons why we have dug ourselves into this rut. The principle factor behind this appalling state of affairs is so hideously simple it may even read as offensive: statistically speaking, women in Western society would rather buy a pair of shoes than a videogame. There are indeed a great many women game players – but the economic expenditure by this market sector is substantially less than male game players.

Of course, you can see this as an outgrowth of the same problems already identified – the games aren’t geared towards them, so why would they be interested? If you dig into the matter, however, you will find that even when female players are interested in games they are (statistically) much less likely to justify the expenditure of hard-earned money on a game versus some other purchase. Some even get boyfriends or relatives to buy the games they want – they don’t even want to be seen buying a game!

I believe this is more than just the by-product of the pre-existing biases in the industry. It is difficult not to notice that the majority of big game releases are built around the competitive play pattern – players experiencing excitement and anger as they face challenges which they eventually beat to earn fiero (the rush of triumph). This play pattern is extremely addictive in any player whose play style is compatible with it – and the players who are most attracted to this style of play appear to be predominantly teenage boys.

This is presumably why the games industry is so insanely geared towards making first person shooters and the like, even though the most successful of these games rarely sell more than about five million units or so (with a few choice exceptions), and other types of game can pull in two or three times these figures. Fiero-addicted players (mostly teenage boys) can’t get enough of the games that deliver this play experience, and it drives them to buy more and more of this style of game. Trouble is, because most publishers are so stuck in this groove, competition between these titles is fiercer than ever – and in the meantime, Nintendo and EA are pocketing a fortune reaching out to a wider audience with games like Nintendogs, BrainAge and The Sims.

What the games industry is waiting for is not a new age of “games for girls” (or games for women for that matter) but a new era of mature game design practices, in which the audience is understood as being diverse both in its play needs, and in the skills that they enjoy using. In such a game industry, games need not be thought of as being for male or female players, but rather designed reflecting wider concerns with significant benefits for players of both genders. A palpable first step towards this is hiring more female employees across the board – in development, in publishing, in marketing.

The new gender agenda isn’t “games for girls” but “games for everyone” – it just happens that, given the extent to which female players have been neglected thus far, they remain the chief minority group in terms of representation.

Unfortunately, this makes the solution to the problem seem far simpler than it is. Design without resorting to the competitive play pattern seems like it would work – and make no doubt that I do believe that there is a huge untapped market for games with no dying, less killing, more comedy, and more romance. (I’m convinced I can make a hit game adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, for instance).

But the budgets upon which console games are developed has grown to such an absurd size on the back of “farming” the teenage boy’s addiction to fiero, such that this mould is incredibly hard to break. EA and Nintendo can push past the problems through the application of substantial marketing resources (The Sims would have failed without this), but it’s not so easy for everyone else to make this change. In fact, publishers shy away from anything “Sims-like” on one of two assumptions: that The Sims is a fluke (which is naive) or that they don’t have the money to market against The Sims (which is shrewd, but depressing).

To make the games that don’t resort to the competitive play pattern commercially successful requires something to compensate for the absence of the inherent addictiveness of fiero – something that isn’t just massive marketing spend. And here we draw something of a blank, because nothing we have to offer seems to stack up against the easy sell of another shooter or racer, although a solid progression structure with many rewards helps considerably. So facing weaker commercial prospects, innovative games end up with smaller budgets, and thus fail to compete on visuals, or – more commonly – are never signed, and never made. (While ironically, a well made and well marketed innovative game can sell more than ten million units, and may face little or no market competition).

It doesn’t help matters that most game designers are obsessed with game design issues that are vastly out of step with the needs of a wider audience. It’s all very well complaining that the power consoles have focussed on graphics power instead of AI and other bells and whistles – but all that fancy stuff doesn’t provide as much of a commercial advantage as pretty visuals. Anyone can understand a pretty picture – it takes a highly literate player to appreciate the subtleties of more complex game designs. (Then again, I'm not convinced anyone in the mass market can tell the difference between the graphics on the Xbox 360 and those on the old Xbox, unless you actually put them side-by-side...)

Given all these problems, what is the solution? The only way forward seems to be the one I have already mentioned: hire more women to work in development, publishing and marketing. Until we reach some semblance of parity in employment we will struggle to break out of the gender-biased rut that the industry has fallen into. It’s not the cure to all our ills – it just happens to be the most practical way to proceed.

Games for everyone is the new gender agenda – a games industry where any player can find games they want to play, regardless of their gender or play preferences – but getting there is going to be a struggle of epic proportions.