Mass Media Effect

I’m coming late to this one, and what’s worse, I’m going to begin with a cliche.

An old saying goes, conservatives worry about sex in the media, while liberals worry about violence. Recent blogging on the game Mass Effect serves to underscore this point.

Mass Effect is an adult-market science-fiction role-playing game created by Bioware, a company famous for making some of the finest role-playing games to ever appear on the PC and X-Box platforms. Because the game has a 17+ M (mature) rating, the creators have the flexibility to include graphic violence, some profanity, and a little bit of sex. These mature elements add to the realism of the story but they’re not what the game is actually about. I’ve played through the game once and intend to play through it again, not for the sake of titillation but for the enjoyment of watching my character grow and develop.

Now, I stressed “a little bit of sex” for a reason. In Mass Effect, like most Bioware games, the player is given the option to pursue a romance with one of the game characters, and in an almost cliched fashion, that character will give you a chance to consummate the romance before the final battle. (This is one of the few weaknesses in Bioware’s storytelling.) Since Mass Effect boasts excellent graphics and animation, the non-interactive 30-second love scene* is more realistic than most games that came before it, but it’s tame compared to movies or even network TV.

Yet, as I noted at the onset of this piece, conservatives stereotypically get their dander up at depictions of sex in the media. Since the right has pretty much given up on fighting the good fight against sex in movies and TV, the topic of sex in games — which might be played by kids! — is still an open battleground. And for the last couple of weeks, Mass Effect has been a casualty of this (little) culture war.

The incident is also a good example of how Internet memes can filter over into mainstream media in a very short time. It all started when Kevin McCullough wrote and blogged about Mass Effect online, spreading rumors that the game was an alien sex simulator. In turn, talk radio hosts began bashing the game, only to be followed up by negative news coverage on Fox. The curious thing is that after each escalation of the criticism, many of the critics, including McCullough, backed down and admitted the game wasn’t nearly as racy as they thought. Yet that didn’t stop the momentum of Mass Effect criticism — it just kept rolling and rolling through the media with a life of its own. However, after the Fox segment, it will probably die down unless an opportunist politician picks up on it.

Note that if Mass Effect does fall into the political crosshairs again, it might be for the violence rather the sex. As I said in the beginning, liberals tend to criticize violence in the media, and videogames are no exception. Several prominent Democratic Congressmen led a crusade against violent videogames in the late 1990s, with the end result being the more stringent rating system in the industry today. More recently, the left-liberal Internet blog Think Progress went after the US Army for including the violent but phenomenal game Gears of War in a videogame tournament, labeling it a “chainsaw massacre video game” (it makes the phrase “alien sex simulator” seem quaint, doesn’t it?).

So could Mass Effect be attacked by the usual suspects for being violent or antisocial? When Mass Effect was coming to market it was dubbed “Jack Bauer in space” by the gaming media, and like the fictional hero of television’s “24,” the protagonist of “Mass Effect” is a government agent whose world is painted in shades of gray. While the game simulates no torture — the element of “24” that seems to trouble liberals the most — the player, if he or she so chooses,** is able to lie, threaten, steal, murder, and do other nefarious acts while pursuing the game’s villain. He or she can even — horror of horrors — run over space monkeys with an APC. (Just wait until PETA hears about this!)

Then again, the possibility of left-wing criticism of the game is all hypothetical. Right now, it’s just the right wing who is speaking out against Mass Effect and, in so doing, reminding me that the people who make it hardest to be a conservative are often the conservatives themselves.

* This in a game that lasts about 40 hours if the players explore everything. That means that sex is approximately 1/4800th of the game experience. Compare that to Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed Lust, Caution, which is 10% sex, and Mass Effect seems like a ripoff. Perverts should stop playing games and go to the video store.

** It’s sad but to be expected that critics of Mass Effect report that the game is a “role-playing game” without actually knowing what “role-playing” means.

So I Bought a PSP…

…after my X-Box 360 succumbed to the infamous Red Rings of Death and after trying out an iPod touch at the local Apple store.

To begin, I should note that the 360 isn’t out for the count just yet, though as far as the people I bought it from were concerned, it can’t be repaired. The problem here is that X-Boxes aren’t sold commercially in most of China, so Microsoft Tech Support is unavailable. Thankfully, the shop I bought the PSP from says they should be able to repair it, so I’ll give it a shot this week. Such are the travails of a videogamer in China.

The PSP provides a stopgap method to satisfy my twitch reflexes, but it also gives me most of what the iPod touch has to offer.

Now, a serious iPod fanatic would scoff at the notion that a PSP-2000 could compete with an iPod touch. The touch (like the iPhone before it) features an absolutely mesmerizing interface, and that interface alone tempted me to buy it last week. However, setting aside the interface, the core feature set of the touch is — for the time being* — comparable to, or even less than, the PSP’s.

Let’s look at the details:

  • The PSP-2000 is only a little bigger and heavier than the touch.
  • The screen size (4.3 vs. 3.5 inches) and video playback are slightly better on the PSP.
  • Gaming on the PSP is better, which goes without saying.
  • The PSP lacks the minimal productivity functions of the touch, but I already have those on my cell phone.
  • Both feature WiFi, though web browsing is better on the touch thanks to the interface.

In fact, I might have bought an iPod touch instead of the PSP-2000 if I was in the States, but living in China adds a couple other considerations. First, iTunes is of limited use in China since my RMB denominated bank card account can’t pay for downloads. This cripples one of the coolest features of the touch — using WiFi to surf for and download music from the iTunes music store.

The second drawback of getting the touch in China is that, in addition to paying the “Apple premium” for buying the best Cupertino has to offer, Tianjin buyers also have to fork over an additional $100 on top of the $399 list price. The PSP-2000, conversely, has only a $30 markup, and with the 8 GBs of memory** and accessories I bought, it came to $281, as compared to $577 for a similar 16GB iPod package.

For all the beauty of the touch, I can’t ignore that bottom line.

* Obviously, come next year when Apple releases its SDK and developers can turn out legal, stable software, the touch will become considerably more versatile. Add to that a price drop and/or expanded memory and I may consider getting a touch next spring.

** Note that the memory is a Chinese knock-off product rather than real Sony memory. That said, a bonus for me is that I can use the same memory with my Sony Cybershot, increasing the amount of digital video I can shoot.