First Person [School] Shooter Videogames

First person shooter (FPS)  video games have been around for quite a few years. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve probably heard about Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Call of Duty, and Halo. While the idea of putting a virtual gun in the hands of young, impressionable gamers creates angst for parents and other adults, the fact that little Johnny is killing Nazis, monsters or aliens softens some of the objections.

FPS games played in more natural settings, e.g. inner cities, elevated concerns once again and games like GTA: San Andreas led to protests and calls for greater restrictions on content and labeling.

But it took a Colorado resident who created a video game based on the Columbine High School shooting to really fire things up. Danny Ladonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG in 2005 and a documentary about his experience a few years later.

In 2011 another video game based on Columbine was released as a modification for Half-Life 2 and received equally harsh criticism. School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 was cited in the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The 7-2 opinion established protection for video games under the First Amendment.

Most recently, a new release slated for June 6 is renewing the controversy around FPS video games in school settings. Active Shooter is designed to give players the option of the role of S.W.A.T. team or shooter. According to a news report,

Steam said in a statement on its site that the game does not promote any sort of violence, especially any sort of a mass shooting, referring back to the phrase dynamic SWAT simulator.

However, in light of recent and strong criticism the game maker is considering removing the option to take the role as shooter.

If you believe that FPS games set in high schools is a bad idea, sign the petition at Change.org

Regulation of Cyberspace

Social media, and by that I mostly mean Facebook, is a mess. We all know that it wastes too much of our time, makes us more agitated and irritable than we should be, and collects information about us and uses that intel to manipulate us. We’ve known most of that for some time now. But seeing the undercover Channel 4 video of the Cambridge Analytica executives has shaken people who had been fully in the techno-utopian camp when it came to the internet and Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly the brave new world of the internet doesn’t look so bright and shiny.

In preparation for teaching a unit on new media and regulation I was reviewing my notes about the history of regulation of the internet…which is pretty short. Not that there haven’t been attempts to regulate “cyberspace”…but as early observers already noted, the internet does not take kindly to outsiders telling it how to go about its business. The early credo, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” is testimony to the structural logic of the internet and explains the technical challenge of controlling something that was built to withstand external attacks.

Much of the early rhetoric was hyperbolic and now seems a bit silly. As the luster and new-car-smell has faded, we look back on those early utopian ideals as innocent and naive. Here’s an example from 1996. The speaker/author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is John Perry Barlow; a cattle rancher, techno-philosopher, and lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While many of the early attempts to regulate were focused on the content of the internet, e.g. the Communications Decency Act, other legislation focused on intellectual property and piracy, e.g. SOPA and PIPA.

The most recent piece of legislation, H.R. 1865 aka FOSTA-SESTA, if signed by President Trump, will modify the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 which has provided cover for internet companies and shielded them from legal repercussions related to the actions of users on their sites.

So, what does Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have to do with any of this? Simply that users are starting to question whether big internet companies can be trusted to do the right thing without oversight. (Others aren’t so sure).

But if it is time for regulators to tell Craigslist, Reddit, and Backpage (among others) to clean up their Personal/Massage/Dating ads in the interest of combating sex trafficking, perhaps it’s also time for regulators to tell Facebook when it is and isn’t okay to harvest and sell our data to political operatives.

No one naively believes that this will end the sex trafficking problem…just as no one believes that Zuckerberg’s promise to do a better job handling the personal data of 1.5 billion users will end the kinds of abuse exposed by last week’s investigative journalism. But it may be a start.

Update (April 9, 2018): Since this was initially posted, Craigslist has eliminated its Personals section as a response to FOSTA-SESTA. Also, the FBI shut down Backpage and charged its founder Michael Lacey. Backpage has seen strong growth after Craigslist closed its Erotic Services section if 2010.

Democracy, Data, and Dirty Tricks

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.

This is just one quote from an investigative report conducted by Channel 4 News in the UK. The person quoted above is an employee of Cambridge Analytica. You may have heard of the big data marketing company when their use of data harvested from 50 million Facebook users was revealed this week. The use of big data in political campaigns is not new, but it is being pushed to new heights by companies who appear to be unconstrained by established ethical norms. Here’s the entire Channel 4 video…

While opposition research is not new, there appear to be new efforts to push the limits of op research to include entrapment, bribery, and investigative reporting motivated by a political agenda. This is not just muck raking, but rather “muck making.”

Just to be clear, the use of Facebook’s data is not a data breach or hack. This is how big data works and everything you do online is being scooped up by someone who wants to use that information to advance their agenda. It might be selling you something like a new pair of socks, or maybe a health insurance policy, or maybe…a president.

Want to make sure that your data on Facebook won’t end up compromised? Electronic Frontier Foundation has you covered with this explainer on how to change your Facebook API settings.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the video above…just to make it clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

More at Nieman Labs.

Media Violence: Cause or Effect?

The age-old question about media content and make-believe violence comes up every time we have a horrific incident of violence in real-life. Movies, video games, and now fully-immersive VR are the focus when well-meaning crusaders attempting to explain, or reduce, violence and mayhem in our schools and streets.

An editorial by Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a professor in the Department of Communication, asks serious questions about modern mass media and its consequences. It is definitely worth a few minutes of your time before continuing with this blog post.

I just had a Facebook “discussion” with a colleague who is a Clinical Psychologist and his take is that the research connecting social learning theory with violent media exposure fails to draw a direct cause-and-effect line between the two. But I would like to suggest that this failure to provide significant research findings is more about the limitations of our research methodology and ethical restraints imposed on experiments with human subjects than it is about real effects. The fact that the military uses video games and VR to train soldiers is important, and it suggests that there is evidence that the newest technologies in video gaming and VR can make players more effective shooters/killers in real life.

Fully immersive VR with input control devices that mimic real weapons, and simulated virtual environments that can map the game onto real (not virtual) physical spaces (e.g. a 3-D simulation of a high school) could be a deadly combination.

If we’re serious about taking away “assault” weapons we might also consider taking away “assault” media. Or perhaps, as Bailenson suggests, video game companies should follow the lead of major retailers who are pulling certain products and increasing the age requirements for purchasing. Software manufacturers could avoid regulatory oversight by imposing their own restraints on what they make available on the open market. But I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath.

Facebook’s Fraught Future

Facebook’s failed attempt to foil Fake News while fortifying financial fortunes at the expense of friends’ futures finally finds itself facing fearless foes. Okay, I can’t keep that up but I hope you get the idea. After an amazing decade of growth and incredible buy-in from more than 2 billion users, Facebook is finally getting some push-back. Investors and executives who have since left the company are publicly saying what others have wondered for some time: is Facebook too big and too focused on monetizing audience members’ attention for our own good? Here’s what some are saying:

In response to the criticism Facebook announced a change to the algorithm that dictates the contents of your news feed. According to Facebook,

…we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

We started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

While some may criticize this change as too-little, too-late, others may question whether these are mere cosmetic changes simply designed to deflect criticism. But it is fairly clear that several things are going to happen as a result: time spent on Facebook and engagement will both decline, (resulting in lower revenue for Facebook), and media companies that have relied on Facebook to distribute their content far and wide will have to find other ways to reach their audience.

But look on the bright side: that change will provide new opportunities for media-savvy storytellers who know how to reach an audience with compelling content. And that person could be you!

 

 

Russia used Facebook to Try to Influence the 2016 Election

New reports are surfacing claiming that Russia was behind an effort to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Facebook itself is releasing information suggesting that it carried approximately $100,000 of advertising that was “connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies.” Using fake Facebook accounts, highly-targeted ads pushed traffic to websites designed to promote a narrative that was pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton.

Zuckerberg had previously claimed that social media manipulations were not responsible for the Trump victory, but these new revelations may reopen that debate. In response, some lawmakers are calling for regulations that would make political ad buys on social media more transparent.

Twitter has also indicated that it will look into Russian meddling that may have targeted their platform.

 

Selfies: Not just an American thing

I just returned from a vacation in Italy where we saw many wonderful sites. Seeing Saint Peter’s Basilica in person was truly amazing. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and the cathedrals in Sienna and Florence were highlights of the trip. Seeing these sites up close and personal was a reminder that a picture seldom does justice to the real thing. However, as the modern expression goes, “if there’s not a picture, it didn’t happen” …which leads me to the point of this post.

Present everywhere we looked was the ubiquitous selfie stick. And for those traveling with friends, lots and lots of cell phone cameras being used to document every step of the way. I didn’t take my cell phone but I did carry a camera…so I’m not above criticism.

Lining up the shot

But what surprised me a bit was the posing that seemed to accompany the act of documentation. Watching people paste on their smile or pouty lips just before pushing the button was a reminder that what we see on social media is a carefully curated version of our lives. We take multiple pictures until we’re satisfied with the shot that will be uploaded to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

Posing or praying?

To the right is a picture of a gal and her friend in the baptistry at the cathedral in Florence. Please forgive me if it appears that I’m judging her personal piety, but it did seem odd that she folded her hands just long enough for her friend in the dark blue dress to capture the shot.

Elsewhere I saw plenty of folks taking pictures of themselves or their companions in poses that shouted, “I’m having the time of my life in this very famous place!”

Something that has been a real game-changer is the low cost and instant publishing made possible by digital photography’s marriage to the mobile phone.

Digital killed Kodak

The irony of this struck me as I took a photo of a young girl having her photo taken with a Kodak sign visible nearby. Just a decade or two ago photographic film and processing required made photography a fairly expensive hobby that required delayed gratification (waiting for the film to be processed and printed) before you could even think about sharing the experience with others. Now the picture is taken, reviewed, and uploaded to a global audience in seconds, without any consideration of cost.

But it is not just digital photography that has changed the way we live our lives.

Video games are a constant distraction for young and old. I watched children and adults playing games on their portable devices even while on vacation in amazing locations. Playing video games and having a paniniMy wife calls it “playing Gameboy in the middle of the Grand Canyon” syndrome. This little guy may have been a local so perhaps he was just killing time the way youngsters do in nearly every developed country.

Digital media that connects us instantly to our friends across the room or around the world has changed us…whether for the better or worse is up for discussion. As we explore mass media this summer let’s remember to think critically about how our experiences creating and consuming media change us and those around us. Only then will we be “smart” users of our smart devices.

The News Media Bubble

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.

 

Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.

 

Looking for Someone/thing to Blame

Sorry, but this is another politically-themed blog post. I know that many of you have seen and heard enough after 18 months of political campaigns, debates, and negative ads; all of it adding up to what will likely be remembered as the most contentious election cycle in history.

But I need to take one more opportunity to discuss the role of the media in our democratic process. Our system of government depends on the participation of an informed electorate. Access to reliable information from non-partisan sources is essential to ensure a that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish” (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). According to Martin Baron, executive editor at the Washington Post, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?” (NYT)

I received an email today with a list of recommended articles. whichoneHere’s a screen shot of two of them. I don’t know Max Read or Mike Masnick, but one of them is, apparently, an idiot. But seriously, they can’t both be right…unless they are. It is certainly true that social media has been a game changer for political campaigning, and Donald Trump and his surrogates have been incredibly effective. But it is also true that there are many other dynamics that explain the outcome of this race.

There is a growing sense that the election this week was revolutionary. The fact that most of the reporters, commentators, pollsters, and pundits were caught off guard by the outcome is remarkable as well. Some have speculated that journalists seem to be more out of touch than ever with rural folk in the country’s heartland (what some dismiss as the flyover states) and that could have something to do with it. Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post claimed that most journalists just didn’t get it, weren’t listening, or were unable to comprehend the depth of support for Trump.

Now that the dust is settling…or at least we hope it’s settling…there is a lot of debriefing, navel-gazing, and yes, finger-pointing going on. For those in the media looking for an explanation there has to be something or someone responsible for this mind-boggling outcome. One place receiving special scrutiny is social media, and more specifically, Facebook. According to Will Oremus at Slate and Damon Beres at Mashable, Facebook’s inability or unwillingness to police its Trending news and news feed for fake news is leading many Facebookers astray.

According to Beres, While it’s obviously impossible to define how exposure to certain articles, video or photographs impacts an individual’s life, it’s downright cynical to suggest it all has zero effect.

Beres goes on to cite a study by PEW Research that suggests that “20 percent of Americans have changed their views on an issue because of something they’ve seen on social media.”

Like I said, there will be plenty of finger-pointing in the coming days, weeks and months. Some of them right now are being pointed at Facebook and other social media platforms. One thing is clear…social media is a force to be reckoned with.

Porn: a Threat to Public Health

The research is in, and the facts overwhelmingly support concerns that pornography is unhealthy, dangerous, and taking a toll on public health. According to a report published in the Washington Post, which cites 40 years of peer-reviewed research, porn “shapes how we think about gender, sexuality, relationships, intimacy, sexual violence and gender equality — for the worse.”

Another article, published in Time magazine, views porn through a different lens. According to this article many young men are finding that they are incapable of being sexually aroused by their partner because of years of exposure to extreme pornographic images. These are not moralistic crusades by puritanical killjoys.

These men, and the thousands of others who populate their websites with stories of sexual dysfunction, are all at pains to make it clear that they are not antisex. ‘The reason I quit watching porn is to have more sex,’ says Deem. ‘Quitting porn is one of the most sex-positive things people can do,’ says Rhodes. One online commenter, sirrifo, put it more simply: ‘I just want to enjoy sex again and feel the desire for another person.’

And if you’re a woman who thinks this is a guy problem, think again. The Time magazine article has a sidebar about the effects of porn on women. Women who use porn experience some of the same negative effects as do men. And for women, the often violent and abusive nature of pornographic sex makes women more likely to face similar behavior from their partners.

It’s time to take this matter seriously and recognize it for what it is…a multi-billion dollar industry that does great physical and psychological harm to its customers.

The Time magazine article ended with this poignant quote by a man who decided to cut back on porn: “When I think about it,” he writes, “I’ve wasted years of my life looking for a computer or mobile phone to provide something it is not capable of providing.”