Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

The Best Offense

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Going around the ‘net in something of an afterlife is a video of the diffusion of an altercation on a 6 train between a Black woman and a man who can best be described as a creeper. The altercation is at least two years old at this point, but having been picked up by internet aggregators and the like, it’s become the subject of the usual “this is why the city is crazy” versus “this is why the city is awesome” bluster social media is practically made for.

It garnered the attention of the New York Times, which had decided for some strange reason to focus on the guy who whipped his phone out rather than the guy who broke up the fight. Indeed, the fact that it’s currently making the rounds on Buzzfeed and other aggregator sites splits the whole event into two stories. The first is Charles “Snackman” Sonder’s deft diffusion of the altercation. The second is Eitan Noy’s (and the internet’s) morbid voyeurism.

The first story is interesting in that it’s an unorthodox usage of public social protocol. The Black woman was being followed by a leerer nearly twice her age, and when he followed her onto the subway, she attacked him. She is not a large person by any means, and when he kicked her back, it was fairly clear that he had the advantage when it came to physical strength. Most people on the train stayed out of the fight, and for good reason: To enter into such a confrontational engagement is to antagonize one or both of the parties. “Mind your own business” is not just good advice for yourself, but also the primary means not to escalate a situation.

Charles Sonder did just that: He minded his own business. He’s also a former wrestler and all-around big galumph, so he decided to mind his own business directly between the two combatants. Effectively, he weaponized his own personal space, by making the creep have to go through him in order to further retaliate against the Black woman. His stature made the creep hesitate before continuing on, and his disposition forced the social situation to be “if you hit me or attempt to get by me, you are including me and then it becomes my business.” The Black woman, thus, gained a shield. This allowed another woman to advise the creep to leave the train, to which he could only impotently contend that the first woman hit him first. Seeing that he had no further recourse, he had to comply.

This is an inspired use of the social version of “negative space.” However, the Times story added another twist, which is how we get to the second story:

After that, the remaining combatant noticed Mr. Noy’s cellphone camera and asked if she could see it. “I didn’t know what she was going to do with it,” Mr. Noy said. “She could smash me on the head. I told her, ‘I didn’t really get anything.’ ” She persisted, he deflected, and then he got off at Grand Central Station.

[...]

About 10 days ago, Mr. Noy decided to post the video on his YouTube account, which he operates under his D.J. name, Eitan Noyze. For the first week, he said, it got about 400 hits. Then it started moving up on the Reddit Web site. As of Thursday evening, it was close to 900,000 hits.

That woman didn’t want to be taped, and Noy lied to her about his footage. While it’s legal for people to photograph and tape others so long as they’re in public, as there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” I dare say it is unethical to do so for an altercation in which that woman felt threatened. Her moment of distress became Noy’s internet fame, and while it certainly worked out for Sonder – whose actions are almost universally lauded – millions of views of that woman manhandling the creep may not necessarily be interpreted the same way.

Being an internet symbol of “people in New York are crazy” can’t have worked entirely in her favor, and the fact that the video is resurfacing means that her vulnerability in one front is traded for a vulnerability on another. Without the video, it’d be a New York moment – a teachable moment, perhaps, but one full of strangers that remain strangers. With the video, everything can be scrutinized and reassessed, and her time of distress becomes relived and reinterpreted by a broad swath of people who have seen her face and may not share the view that what she did was justified.

I could, of course, be over-stressing that aspect of the video, but what is clear is that such a result did not substantively influence Noy’s choice to publish that footage. Sonder willfully injected himself into an altercation, and so effectively consented to such celebrity. That woman was looking to get out of a situation, and ended up the subject of a bigger one. If Noy wanted to help, he could have offered to provide her the footage in case she wanted to make a police report. Instead, he decided that we can all leer.

Cisgendered

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I think a good benchmark as to how enlightened the video gaming industry is would be to take a sample of the line-up of new titles and apply Rule 63 to them. Rule 63, for those not enlightened to internet parlance, is:

For every given male character, there is a female version of that character. For every given female character, there is a male version of that character.

It is part of a meme called the Rules of the Internet, and means that, for any given work, somewhere, somebody has made fan fiction of that work where they have gender-swapped all the characters. It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you change nothing else besides the genders.

For instance, in the 1981 classic game Donkey Kong, Mario saves the Princess. Applying Rule 63 would mean the Princess saves Mario. In fact, it’s one of the first games in which this has actually been applied, where a programmer named Mike Mika hacked the game so that his three year old daughter could play as a female protagonist.

I have at times been concerned as to the tropes and biases in the games industry when it comes to gender roles, and there has for a long while now been something of a furor over how women, for instance, are depicted in video games and what is or is not palatable to the general gaming public. People like John Walker and Anita Sarkeesian have made the topic their causa belli and have caught flak for it from various sides, as have companies like Bioware, known for depicting strong women or canonically homosexual characters.

The dominant market demographic has a dark side when it comes to issues such as this. Bioware senior writer Jennifer Hepler quit her job because of the threats and hostility directed towards her and her family in part because of her sympathetic portrayal of homosexual characters in Dragon Age: Origins and her role as a woman in the industry. Gamers also targeted journalist Carolyn Petit because she dared call a game she liked - in this case, GTA V – misogynist. It regularly bubbles up to the fore like in a Capcom reality show in 2012 where male gamers openly defended sexual harassment by saying it’s “part of their culture;” that it really is their club, or a Blizzard convention in 2011 where performers felt no qualms in spewing homophobic epithets to a cheering crowd.

So, I say! Like the Bechdel test, let’s say we haven’t solved this problem until you could change the genders of the characters in a potentially controversial game and have everything be just as palatable as before. I’ll call it, unimaginatively, the Rule 63 test.

For this thought experiment, I’ll start with, well, Donkey Kong. Having Princess Pauline, as Mike Mika named her, save Mario is well enough, but we can go further. Mario is a pot-bellied, mustachio’d plumber canonically from Brooklyn, and Princess Peach is, well, a Princess. So I propose we have Maria: A rotund, middle-aged woman plumber with wispy facial hair and a Brooklyn accent. Basically, if you cast Roseanne Barr for the live action TV show:

She would save the dashing Prince Pear. In Super Mario Bros, she’d be joined by her sister Louise (played by Geraldine Barr), a gangly, awkward woman to serve as foil.

You can already see that some people would have problems with this. Some boys would have a hard time identifying with the protagonist, and would be positively repulsed by her assumed courtship with the prince upon saving him. What is kosher in the original becomes farce. Men can be any shape and size, but women must be attractive! A woman will fall for the protagonist regardless of her own feelings but men have standards! Or so we thought.

Let’s do another!

This year has seen the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, with one of the few famed female protagonists in video gaming: Lara Croft. This new Tomb Raider was a coming-of-age plot that tried to explain her motivations for all the other games, largely by torturing her. A lot.

Now she’s a he. He’s Larry Croft, teenage amateur spelunker who gets into very uncomfortable, tense moments with more than a little sexual implication under Russian mercenaries. He’s basically halfway between Tintin and John McClane, except he cries a lot and spends much of the ten hours of the game whimpering to himself. He has three mother figures, all of whom try to save him from his own incompetence and instead end up dying to protect him. By the end of the game, he’s a shell-shocked, traumatized wreck, which is exactly the sort of bold characterization that sells games to our dominant market nowadays.

It’ll be a hit.

Okay, one more!

I’m gonna pick on Bioware for this one, because they set up some of the more interesting storylines. If you play Dragon Age: Origins as a city elf, you meet up with violence, racism and classist oppression in the first twenty minutes of the game, along with some good ole’ rape thrown in to really motivate the player.

Well, supposing you start as a female city elf. If you’re a male city elf, it’s your bride-to-be who’s sexually harassed by the lord’s son and kidnapped to be raped, and it’s your job to save her and exact righteous vengeance. If you’re a female city elf, it’s you who are sexually harassed and kidnapped to be raped, and you have to defend yourself.

So, let’s just reverse the gender: The lord’s son now fancies you, a young male city elf on his marriage day, for a bit of rough and tumble, leading first with a good ten minutes of harassment, groping and unfavorable power dynamics. How long do you suppose the average dudebro would last before shutting the game down and firing off angry emails to the publisher, assuming he didn’t just send his fist through the computer monitor?

Oh man, I should go into games design. I’d make a killing.

THAT’S what the FTC cares about?

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The Federal Trade Commission’s running an anti-trust suit against Google on the principle that its practices are anti-competitive. Okay, that’s all well and good, except Google only has 66% of the market and there’s nothing forcing anybody to use Google. Every browser – including Google Chrome – has built-in access to competing search engines. My own browser, Firefox, has Google, Yahoo and Bing as part of the standard toolbar.

But that’s not where I’m concerned. The issue to me is the language:

For example, if Google were to program its system so that a consumer’s search for “washing machines” is more likely to produce as its top result a link to Google-related shopping sites, that could be interpreted as putting its competitors at a disadvantage.

The rest of the article throws out platitudes how “technology is transforming our society” but that’s really the heart of what the feds care about. That bothers me. It bothers me because there’s a fundamental disconnect between how they see the internet and how lowly peons like me see the internet.

To me, the internet is a font of information. To them, the internet is a playground of consumerism. They don’t care about the fact that Google’s been collecting data on users such that the Chinese government had to call shenanigans. They don’t care that Google has more access to personal information than a federal agent with a court order, with no effective oversight. They care that Google might favor this consumer product over that consumer product.

To that I ask, who the fuck cares? There are more important things to bust Google on. Like how it’s almost impossible for the feds to bust Google’s data aggregation issues because most federal agencies use Google Apps. Our priorities are ridiculously skewed. But then, I suspect they’re not gigging Google on this because they want to do the same thing.

What Fourth Amendment?

The ESA is the next RIAA

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The Entertainment Software Association, which is the video gaming industry’s version of the Record Industry Association of America, is similarly finding itself, with its support of the Stop Online Piracy Act, on the wrong side of business.

So what’s SOPA? In short, it’s an internet censor machine: Any streaming of any protected creative work – for promotion, for reviewing, for satire or parody – is a felony, and any site that is suspected of doing so or merely ‘harboring’ users (as part of its business model, like Facebook, or even on ancillary user forums) can be shut down pre-emptively – by DNS filtering enforced through ISPs – until it can prove its innocence. What this means is that file-sharing sites like Pirate Bay will move webhosting offshore and periodicals and content hosting sites like the Escapist and Flickr will suffer as collateral damage. It means that the advertising dollars that the internet relies on may dry up due to the Sword of Damocles looming over so many legitimate websites and many internet-based companies will be forced to drop employees – if they don’t just shutter altogether.

Suffice it to say, this is like stopping burglary by demolishing homes. Through the proceedings, congressmen admitted ignorance of the very things they were debating, and dismissed actual experts on the field, but this isn’t surprising because it’s at heart the last gasp of economic dinosaurs watching their model destroyed by a new dynamic. They’re lashing out at piracy in the most draconian ways possible when their original business model’s simply outdated, like the RIAA and MPAA did before them. In fact, they’re lashing out at it similarly to how the RIAA did, and with similar incompetency – which is to say, like current DRM, the bill will affect everybody except pirates, as previous attempts to block the Pirate Bay through the proposed measures have proved laughably easy to bypass.

Further, their arguments are, like the RIAA, for people they don’t actually represent: They claim that it will hurt artists overall, but artists aren’t hurting, their publishers are. Another way of saying that is if the artists are hurting, it’s by the publishers – publishers like Electronic Arts, Sony and Nintendo – just like musicians were being summarily screwed by Sony and Universal (…hey, I just mentioned Sony twice). Indeed, your average programmer for a game nowadays is likely to be laid off directly after release, no matter how successful the game proves to be, the games industry is one of the most exploitative industries today, and one of the ironies of the new internet business model is that the much greater ease and ability for self-publication in all fields of art and entertainment actually empowers artists.

In effect, it’s as if we learned nothing when the RIAA and MPAA fought this fight a decade ago: Piracy is just people fixing what is a fundamentally broken system by themselves, and piracy can be solved by giving people what they want: If piracy really destroyed movies and music, Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and Rhapsody wouldn’t be printing money right now. E. D. Kain of Forbes says this much, and Forbes had an interview with Gabe Newell of Valve doing the same for computer gaming with Steam. That said, despite Forbes’ generally progressive views, I’d like to go one further than Kain:

The entertainment industry is held aloft by piracy.

It always was. You think people become movie buffs, music fans or video gamers out of the blue? No. They ingest lots and lots of examples of the medium before that happens. Nobody buys collector’s editions without first becoming collectors, and starting such is prohibitively expensive. Drug dealers know the golden rule: The first hit is free. Every year in the gaming industry hold record profits, despite rampant, widespread piracy, because the people who swapped disks and cracked copies and exploited shareware twenty years ago got bit by the bug and are hooked for life. (Indeed, the median age of the PC gamer is 37, a number which rises by one year every year. That would place the average gamer in the current sales boom as somebody who was a teenager just when file-sharing took off. Funny that.)

As such, when senators like Roy Blunt (R-MO) argue that “business have lost $135 billion in revenue annually as a result of these rogue sites,” not only are they using the same specious “counting chickens before they’re hatched” arguments that the RIAA and MPAA did before, but are ignoring that the only reason people are aware of these products in the first place is due to that same apparatus, and fans wouldn’t exist to be exploited as customers were it not for such ‘rogue sites.’

The gaming industry will shrink overall if it’s allowed to shoot itself (and the whole internet) in the foot with its support for the bill. The irony is that, again, the gaming industry is having yearly record profits – despite the economic downturn – and is growing faster than any other entertainment industry today, so kill that goose, why don’t you.

Ghost in the Shell is Now

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One of the themes I found so intriguing in the Ghost in the Shell IP – the movies, the mangas, the TV series – was the idea of the re-emergence of a public censure (to say nothing of domestic terrorism) as heralded by the social zeitgeist of the internet. It was messy in that universe – ideas have a habit of morphing beyond anyone’s control – and it’s messy here.

I’m reminded of it thanks to the recent destruction of Ocean Marketing Public Relations Manager Paul Christoforo’s career. He, in a particularly unprofessional fit of pique, got into a heated exchange with a customer of a company his was contracted to represent, and got burned for it.

But let’s set the stage: The company, N-Control, which sells game controllers, got several times its expected holiday demand and could not fulfill orders in time. Its in-house marketing and public relations threw up their hands and it put Ocean Marketing to the task. Christoforo got put handling customer complaints, where one particularly irate customer and he escalated their argument to the point of name-dropping and threats. Said customer forwarded the exchange to the tips inbox of Kotaku, a gaming webzine, and directly to Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade, a gaming webcomic, and the whole thing blew up.

Within twenty four hours, Christoforo lost his job, his marketing company went belly up, his police record and personal life was exposed to the world, and the company he was representing was put in jeopardy, struggling with collateral damage when its flagship product got Amazon bombed.

In effect, by broadcasting the e-mail exchange, the customer – who is still anonymous beyond the moniker “Dave” – unleashed an online riot against the PR rep. The broadcasters themselves – Luke Plunkett of Kotaku and Mike Krahulik, the kindling to the Reddit/IGN wildfire – could fire their salvos with impunity, calling ignorance and denying culpability to the work of thousands of anonymous internet denizens who trawled the net for Christoforo’s Twitter account, scoured his Facebook pictures, hijacked his old Twitter account, looked up his Youtube videos, created parody videos of him, searched his work history, posted his police records, called his home and brought his family into the ordeal.

Suffice it to say, the internet has grown up. It’s now the preferred tool of public censure, and with the utter lack of privacy thanks to the humungous paper trail sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn offer, we live in the biggest small town in the world. Of course, stuff like this has happened before – 4Chan’s /b/ community loves reliving escapades of ‘Anonymous,’ its distributed wars against whomever – but it’s surprising the speed at which it manifests and does its damage, and that presents a huge problem.

Public censure is a nice way of saying “lynch mob,” and while Christoforo may not have been right for the job he was put in, lynch mobs don’t understand concepts like ‘proportionate response.’ Further, neither Kotaku nor Penny Arcade are willing to take responsibility for their efforts in fanning the flames. Owen Good of Kotaku gave a politician’s non-apology today, but Krahulik remains unrepentant: He practically crowed his accomplishments at destroying the man, citing outright malice, and in a just world he should be held legally responsible for that sort of grotesque harassment.

At this juncture, however, he likely won’t, which means that this monster has no boundaries. We have a system that nobody can corral, and that is a scary notion.

Sign Here at the Dotted Line

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Part of Section 9 of Electronic Arts’ Terms of Service – the End-User License Agreement that everybody signs after buying (or, rather, in the software world, leasing the rights to use) a product and before installing it:

EA may also terminate access to EA Services for violation of this Terms of Service (in its sole discretion) … You may lose your user name and persona as a result of termination. If you have more than one (1) Account, EA may terminate all of your Accounts and all related Entitlements. In response to a violation of these Terms of Service or any other agreement applicable to EA Services accessed by you, EA may issue you a warning, suspend your Account, selectively remove, revoke or garnish Entitlements at an Account and/or device level , immediately terminate any and all Accounts that you have established and/or temporarily or permanently ban your device and/or machine from accessing all EA Services or certain EA Services. You acknowledge that in such an instance EA is not required to provide you notice before taking action to suspend or terminate your Account, temporarily or permanently banning your device from some or all EA Services or selectively removing, revoking or garnishing Entitlements associated with your Account. If EA terminates your Account, you may not participate in an EA Service again without EA’s express permission. EA reserves the right to refuse to keep Accounts for, and provide EA Services to, any individual. You may not allow individuals whose Accounts have been terminated by EA to use your Account.

If your Account, or a particular subscription for an EA Service associated with your Account, is terminated, suspended and/or if any Entitlements are selectively removed, revoked or garnished from your Account and/or if your device is temporarily or permanently banned from accessing some or all EA Services, no refund will be granted, no Entitlements will be credited to you or converted to cash or other forms of reimbursement, and you will have no further access to your Account or Entitlements associated with your Account or the particular EA Service.

Part of Section 11 of EA’s ToS:

You may violate the Terms of Service if, as determined by EA in its sole discretion, you:

[long list of actions]

Specific EA Services may also post additional rules that apply to your conduct on those services.

In short: “You agree that we can cut our services to you with no prior notice or compensation if it should break rules that we can invent after the fact, as interpreted by us only.”

In shorter: “You agree that fuck you.”

This has come to light of late mainly because Electronic Arts’ forums are tied to the same account as their games – with their new digital download service named ‘Origin’ – which means that any disputes over forum conduct has ended up in the permanent suspension of more than a few people’s game accounts. In one case, a gamer used the word “badass” on one of EA’s forums and, being banned due to a word filter, found he was banned from every game he purchased from EA as well.

Now, the funny aspect of this, if you can call it that, is that Terms of Services and End-User License Agreements are largely untested, legally, and as such their status as binding contracts are currently dubious. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Section 20 of the ToS, which categorically denies customers the right to trial by jury and class-action lawsuits as well as severely limits the window of time in which they’re allowed to dispute anything at all, would be all that defensible if actually challenged.

Indeed, consumer rights legislation requires that, if a service is paid for, it remains available, and if it stops being available, a refund is offered. However, on the internet, the rules (seemingly in outsize response to piracy) have become fantastically draconian and currently exist largely because nobody’s taken the time to fight them yet. They’ve attempted to redefine products as services (for instance, a piece of software that you purchase for use offline is not a “product,” but a “service” that you lease the rights to use – a service that can be revoked), and now they’re attempting to redefine the parameters of services themselves.

Clearly this is just reality being a few years ahead of legislation, but it’s an incredibly sour note in the rather hostile relationship between corporations and consumers of late. At least, in the internet, nobody has yet and nobody likely will able to put a lid on piracy, so the consumers, for the moment, still have the upper hand.

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