Games As A Part of Mainstream Culture - What Are We To Do?

Ever since I graduated high school, the mainstream acceptance of video gaming has given rise to a ubiquitous culture that revolves around games and gaming in general. Initially fueled by a handful of websites such as GameFAQs, IGN, 1Up, and Penny-Arcade and magazines like PC Gamer and Nintendo Power, the gaming revolution has exploded in the last year, producing pieces of shrapnel like gamer chairs, Gamer Grub, G4 TV and a gamer line of razors.

As games become a integral part of our culture and artistic expression, many people liken them to other cultural products like TV shows, novels, popular music CDs, and movies. But is this correct? Have games really achieved that level of status and cultural recognition? Is buying the new Madden game every September just as important as seeing a major summer blockbuster? Is Grand Theft Auto as popular as Britney?

Good games certainly have a pedigree, and throughout the short history of games there are ones that are looked on as iconic genre definers. Half-Life, Tomb Raider, Super Mario World, Pac-Man, GoldenEye, Mario Kart, Zelda : Ocarina of Time, Quake, Doom. All of these are classics of the video game culture; the Rockys, Star Wars, Gone With The Winds, and King Kongs of their genre. Regardless of production values, special effects, or story lines, gamers look to them as the hallmarks of good gaming.

And, just like movies, books, and music, games keep being made, released, and enjoyed by people all over the world. But isn’t their something different about games? On one hand they look like a movie, but they play through like a book. And there is always music on the background. A game encompasses a lot of other media forms, and delivers its content in a nice, programmed package. This should be good for us - after all, we now have film, story, and music on one package. But do we take games as seriously as all that? The trend in culture sure indicates that we do.

But where is the social aspect of gaming? Where are the gaming clubs, the dollar game nights, and the Nintendo discos? Why aren’t retro games as celebrated as classic movies or 1920’s jazz music? Why has it taken games longer to reach the majority of the population? I think there are several reasons.

The primary reason is that games run on specific hardware. Unlike movies that would all play in a VCR or DVD player, games were locked to the consoles that they were made for. The recent increase in popularity has a lot to do with more games going cross-platform. The same game is now available on more than one machine, and therefore is more accessible to a larger audience. Hardware tethering, incidentally, has a lot to do with retro games falling out of the public eye. As more and more retro consoles bite the dust, games that are still very playable have nothing to be played on, and thus sit around and collect dust. Retro game emulation and archiving has helped a lot in this area, and needs to continue if we want to save games as part of our cultural history.

Another reason is that games are interactive. They require time to learn and developers usually vary the control scheme from game to game, thus not guaranteeing that being good at one game means being good at another game like it. This can get frustrating. Being interactive also means that games take much longer to complete than a movie takes to watch or a CD does to listen to. Twenty to thirty hours is not uncommon, with some role playing games requiring upwards of seventy hours. This is a lot of commitment, and means that you cannot go through 10 games as quickly as you can watch ten movies.

Being interactive has an impact on the third reason, which is that gamers don’t necessarily like to cross genres. While some casual gamers play sports, racing, and action games, others may play only first-person shooter or real-time strategy games. Music lovers have CDs spanning many different genres, just like movie buffs have films spanning such classifications as action, romance, comedy, horror, or drama.

We are at a crossroads. On one hand, games are certainly a part of our lives, part of out culture, and part of our media. On the other hand, we’re not about to start dedicating spaces in public libraries to house game collections. We still see games as largely a juvenile, time-wasting, low-class art form. Some of you even shuddered when I called it an art form.

So what do we do when our companies are pouring millions of dollars into an industry that we don’t want to recognize as a legitimate repository of cultural value? If games are here to stay, why we don’t feel like preserving them and in doing so creating a visible historical timeline of where we have come from as a gamer culture? Will computer games just turn out to be a fad that eventually dies out? I don’t think so. We as a society have to find ways of making games that aren’t locked to hardware platforms, that are enjoyable for people of all ages, and, most importantly, are worth preserving.


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How the BitTorrent Protocol Works (and some stuff about copyright)

With popular BitTorrent sites MiniNova and The Pirate Bay both in the news recently over allegations of copyright infringement, today seems like a good opportunity to discuss the rise of the BitTorrent protocol. Since I know next to nothing about copyright law, I will instead talk about something I know a little about - how a torrent works.

BitTorrent, at its most basic definition, is a way to share files over a computer network. It is in an improvement on the direct peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs like Kazaa and LimeWire. These programs, enormously popular in the early ‘00s, downloaded complete files linearly from one computer to another and were great ways for people to share MP3 files, software, and maybe the occasional movie or two. Transfer rates of 50~60kbps were the norm (above 90 was excellent), and the biggest recommended file size was about 800-900MB. Most of this content was, and still is, copyrighted, making this sharing largely illegal.

BitTorrent, on the other hand, is a system that allows for files in the multi-gigabyte (1000+ MB) range to be downloaded at speeds of over 900kbps. This is accomplished through the use of a BitTorrent program, or client, and small “.torrent” files.

When a person wishes to share a file via BitTorrent, they create a .torrent file which contains data about the file that they wish to share (a target file). All the .torrent file does is take a picture of the data in the target file, break that picture into a bunch of pieces (like a jigsaw puzzle), and note the location on the target file on the user’s computer. The user then uploads the torrent file to a tracker website - a place like The Pirate Bay or MiniNova - where other users can then search for the torrent file on a tracker site and download it to their computer. Once they open the torrent file using a BitTorrent client (popular ones include uTorrent and Azureus), the client locates the target file on the original owner’s computer and starts to copy it onto the new computer. Where BitTorrent really shines is when you have a whole bunch of people download the same torrent file and start sharing the same target file.

Remember that the tracker file broke the file into jigsaw pieces? BitTorrent is so efficient because it doesn’t pull a file linearly from one computer to the other - it takes whatever pieces area available as soon as they become available. At first it might have a few corner pieces of a file, then a few edge pieces, and then, bit by bit, it completes the whole puzzle. Well, when there are a whole bunch of people downloading the same file, those pieces start flying in! The client sends requests for piece after to pieces to all the other people sharing the file, and the more people are sharing, the more likely the pieces are available, and the faster the complete file will download and assemble. Where there was a before a blank table, now there is a completed puzzle.

Unlike a puzzle, however, the number of pieces, or, in this case, the size of the file, doesn’t affect how fast the file downloads. What matters is only how many people are making their puzzle available, or seeding. The “health” of a torrent file, that is, how fast it is likely to download, is based on how many seeders (providers) it has versus how many “leechers” (coveters) it has.

In this way, people who torrent form a community. Everyone wants a file to download quickly, but the only way to achieve that is for the file to have a lot of seeders. Thus there is a lot or reciprocity, and it is considered good torrent etiquette to seed many times the amount that you leech. After all, nobody likes leechers who download the file and then close the client program - they aren’t giving back to the community that provides for them.

So we know that torrenting allows a very large amount of data (often copyrighted music, movies, and software) to move freely throughout the Internet, but how can the technology be used legally for something beneficial? I’ll give two examples.

Traditionally if someone, a music artist for example, wanted to give something away for free, they would have to host it on their website. Fans would visit the site and download the music for free, and everyone would be happy - except the hosting site. Since the music (say, 50MB worth) was hosted on the website itself, the sites bandwidth would be used every time a person downloaded the music. The bigger the music file and the more people downloaded it, the bigger the strain on the site would be. Not so with a torrent file. Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails recently collaborated with rockers Jane’s Addiction to release a sampler collection of six tracks called NINJA. The music in the torrent file that I downloaded (at 1340MB/s!) was 162MB large. If that had been hosted on a website, a lowly 10,000 hits would’ve resulted in 1,620,000MB, or 1620GB, of data that had to be transferred. Someone would’ve had to pay for that usage. But by releasing the music as a torrent file, Reznor effectively distributed his music for almost zero dollars.

OpenOffice.Org releases their OpenOffice productivity suite the same way. This collection of tools, including a word processor, spreadsheet program, and presentation software, also tips the scales at about 162MB. OpenOffice keeps their costs down by releasing it as a torrent as well.

Clearly BitTorrent has its advantages for sharing both copyrighted and non-copyrighted material. How the users use it is, or course, not something the creators have control over. As the illegal aspect of it makes the news, more and more people will become aware of it and start to use it. Since it has legal uses, the protocol itself cannot be deemed illegal. What we now have is a powerful tool for information dissemination that cannot be ignored. Rather we have to find more ways to use it constructively and, as a society, perhaps re-think our laws of copyright.


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