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October 7, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this first week of October:

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The power of games: Insights

  1. 'Generation GTA'

    An alternate headline might be, "What is it with GTA, anyway?" Now, as the sixth Grand Theft Auto first-person-shooter game ("GTA: Liberty City Stories") is about to hit store shelves, there is a "Generation GTA," the Washington Post reports in a fascinating cultural look at "the GTA franchise, worth about $1 billion in US sales alone." The Generation GTA members profiled in the article are Brendan (16) of suburban Fairfax County Va. and Tito (17) of South Central L.A., the world after which "GTA: San Andreas" is modeled. As different as these boys' worlds are, they both represent this "generation" "deemed too young by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to play 'GTA' [because of its "Mature" rating] but too resourceful not to get their hands on it anyway," as the Post describes it.

    Just what is the appeal of these games, so realistic as to make Tito in South-Central L.A. talk about "C.J.," the key "street thug" in "GTA: San Andreas," "as though he's referring to a cousin or a next-door neighbor" (even though "San Andreas" was developed in Scotland!)? The Post asked that question of players and researchers, and the answers say something about all immersive, alternate-reality games, especially those with story lines, I think.

    The three basic answers are control, role-playing, and escapism. The games give players varying degrees of control over their environments (control they probably don't have in real life) - and those powers grow as they spend time playing. Also, they get to try on new, more powerful personas (something teenagers do in IM and chat too) and in completely new and different environments (they get transported, as most of us do at the movies). But read the last page of the Post piece, where all this is spelled out more personably.

  2. One gamer's view

    I asked an experienced gamer I knew of - David, 16, in Washington State (who does not count himself a member of "Generation GTA") - about what makes GTA and other videogames so compelling. (David's a reader who emailed me about another gaming story I wrote.) I appreciated his thoughtful answers and think you might too. Here's our email interview:

    NFN: Do you like the "Grand Theft Auto games" - why/why not?

    David: "I personally don't like the games. Sure, I enjoy first-person shooters such as Rainbow Six and the Tom Clancy series of games, but that is because they have a plot. I severely dislike the GTA series just because of its simplistic nature. To me, it is boring - shoot, go, shoot, go. That is all I get out of the game - I feel it's a waste of time and nothing like what people say it is (realistic). Yes, there are gangs and, yes, I am white/Mexican and have been through South Central, Compton, and, yes, life in a sense is like it is portrayed in the game, but in some ways it is exaggerated, and in others it isn't. But I personally don't see any appeal in a game where the sole purpose is to commit crimes, some hate-oriented."

    [David's favorite games are: "Stepmania/DDR (console, PC, and at arcades), Halo 2 (console), Counter-Strike (PC, console), World Of Warcraft (online/PC), in that order."]

    NFN: How would you describe where you live - suburbs, city, anything close to the GTA environment?

    David: "I live in the city. It is a well-off neighborhood in the 'rich' part of town, but my family is in no way rich like the people around us in outlying neighborhoods. It is a somewhat quiet neighborhood full of stuck-up racists. I don't feel that it is anything like what is seen in the GTA series but, then again, that's not to say that we don't have similar crimes and mischief taking place." 

    NFN: Do you agree with the views in the Post article about why people who'd never go anywhere near South-Central L.A. like to play the game?

    David: "Yes, I feel that a game can put you in control of certain aspects of the environment around you, but a game will never be able to portray human emotion and thought. I mean, crimes happen for a reason, whether it be self-defense or out of hate or some other form, but it all comes down to the decision that the person committing the crime makes. In real life, that person can choose to or not to commit the crime, escape if caught, etc., but in a game, it is all code, it's all sequenced. The A.I. [artificial intelligence] might be able to mock actual intelligence, but in no way can it make the kind of decisions and put the amount of thought into something as an actual human mind does. A person can choose to shoot another human, or not to. But just because they do doesn't mean that every other person in that area is going to do the same. 

    "So I guess what I am trying to get at is that a game, no matter how similar, will always be different than what is happening around us. And that a game can (to some) be a form of escape, control, etc. and an opportunity to experience new/different cultures, but there are others who don't take games as seriously and view it only as a means of entertainment. A game like this to someone who was raised in, say, a smaller town with less crime might be intriguing as it shows another side of the world and immerses them into a whole different culture that might previously have been unseen."

  3. Gaming in the news

    Videogame news was hot this week, no doubt in anticipation of the holiday shopping season.

    • From violence to sex. After the X-rated "Hot Coffee" mod hit the headlines, the spotlight moved to "Adult"-rated games - the "dozens of games that address sexual issues, sexuality and sex itself, ranging from Cyberlore's 'Playboy: The Mansion' to Sierra Entertainment's 'Leisure Suit Larry.' Downloadable nude 'skins' have even been created by third-parties to (un)clothe characters in Electronic Arts' best-selling 'The Sims'." CNET reports.
    • Videogame school: The latest from the Washington Post on university-level game-design programs.
    • The State of Play conference, where "leading thinkers on the social, intellectual, economic and legal aspects" of games gather each year. In New York this week, they looked at "where reality ends and virtual reality begins," CNET reported, e.g., the real-life, real-money trade in virtual weapons (a whole new take on "intellectual property"!).
    • Games for Xbox 360. Microsoft this week unveiled a passel of games for its new Xbox 360 console, available next month, Reuters reports, including "Perfect Dark Zero," which it hopes will be the "Halo" of this next-generation Xbox (standard version for $300, souped up for $400, including a hard drive that'll allow it to play some original Xbox games). Another new (but old) game for the 360 is Wolfenstein, "the granddaddy of the first-person-shooter games," according to the BBC.
    • Halo goes mobile. "One of the biggest video game franchises in the world" - being made into a movie produced by Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame, the BBC reports - is also moving into cellphones (ringtones and games), reports.
    • 2 signs of games' power: 1) Nickelodeon's "Jungle Boy" will make its debut and build its franchise in videogames, then be a TV show, rather than the usual other way around, the New York Times reports. 2) A new study found that "in-game ad campaigns resulted in a 60% increase in awareness of new brands," CNET reports.
    • China's gaming curbs. Beijing will soon be imposing a three-hour limit on online game play, the BBC reports. "The measures are designed to combat addiction to ... games such as World of Warcraft and Lineage II." The BBC adds that more than 20 million Chinese play games regularly, mainly in Internet cafes, and last year Chinese spent almost $500 million (US) on online games.

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Web News Briefs

  1. School district's blog alert

    A school district in central Texas took matters in its own hands and sent parents a heads-up about blogging and social-networking sites like and The Leander school district "sent letters to hundreds of middle and high school parents warning them that their children may be posting personal information and suggestive photos on the Internet," the Austin American-Statesman reports. "School officials said they became concerned when they saw 'inappropriate' material being posted on their students' blogs," including "personal attacks on other students and school staff members." When the American-Statesman was looking for sources for the article, several students declined because they didn't want their parents to know they blog. One agreed: 17-year-old Terra Pratt, who blogs and has her own Web site, the American-Statesman says, but she's smart. She "posts her photo but uses an alias so strangers cannot find her." Here are further insights from the Miami Herald into middle-schoolers' early entry into the adult world through blogging. And here's a teacher's view on teen blogs, featured in my 6/6/05 issue.

  2. Poker's rise: Fresh numbers

    About 2.9 million US 14-to-22-year-olds gamble with cards (mostly poker), and the number's on the rise, reports the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has been watching this trend. Card players are more likely to gamble online - Annenberg estimates that about 580,000 14-to-22-year-olds gamble in Web sites on a weekly basis. More than half (54.5%) of self-identified weekly gamblers reported having at least one of the symptoms of problem gambling: preoccupation, over-spending, tolerance, and withdrawal. That's up from 44.95% in 2004. Then there's the money: "We also asked persons who gamble at least once a month if their gambling ever led to their owing people money and, if so, the highest amount they had ever owed. About 10% answered that it had. We estimated conservatively the average debt to be close to $74. (We excluded one respondent who claimed he owed as much as $10,000.) This level of indebtedness would amount to over $115 million for the population of approx. 16 million monthly gamblers ages 14 to 22." Here's the study's press release in pdf format and the Center's own page for more on its research. Here's earlier NFN coverage, linking to a thorough look at the phenomenon by Sports Illustrated and naming key gambling sites, for parents wanting to monitor online gambling.

  3. More worms in P2P & IM

    Heads up, parents! Increasingly, the worms are where the kids are online. "Instant-messaging and peer-to-peer fans are being hit with more worm and malicious code attacks than ever before," CNET reports. Detected threats in IM services and on file-sharing networks were up a huge 3,295% the third quarter of this year, according to IMlogic research CNET cites. Not only that, the attacks are getting smarter: "Worm writers are coming up with more effective ways to get people to click on links to their malicious code, and worms can increasingly hop from one IM network to another." MSN Messenger was hit hardest (reflecting its popularity), with 62% of detected attacks overall, AIM and ICQ got 31%, and Yahoo Messenger 7%. Tell kids to be really careful about what links and files they click on in IM and file-sharing, even - in the case of IM - when the messages look like they're from friends. Hackers and/or their malicious code have figured out how to disguise themselves as friends (by hijacking buddy lists on infected PCs, for example). If you feel you want to click on a link from a "friend," first start a new conversation or window with that buddy and ask him/her if s/he sent the IM. Click only if s/he did! See also "IM risks & tips" from a tech-literate dad.

  4. A mom countersues RIAA

    This is actually big news, since only a handful of the some 15,000 people sued by the RIAA for file-sharing have actually countersued. Most have settled with the RIAA out of court, paying the RIAA several thousand dollars. In this case, a single mother in Oregon, Tanya Andersen, accused of "illegally downloading 1,400 gangsta rap tunes is countersuing the music industry for allegedly violating Oregon's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO)," Internet News reports. The RIAA is seeking more than $1 million in damages, but Anderson says she never downloaded a single song. Her lawyer told Internet News that "Andersen contacted the Settlement Support Center [a company created by the RIAA to work out settlements with the targets of its litigation] and professed her innocence. The Center claims there is evidence Andersen downloaded songs at 4:30 a.m. under the log-in name of 'gotenkito.' Andersen again denied the claim, said she had never used or heard of the log-in name in question and asked that the Settlement Support Center." Please see the article for what happened next.

  5. Online music sales way up

    In just one year, sales of downloaded music have more than tripled, the Associated Press reports. Digital music sales reached $790 million in the first half of this year, compared to $220 million for the first half of 2004. Even though the $790 million figure is just 6% of overall industry sales, it's "helping offset a continuing decline in CD sales and other physical formats," according to a report from the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. "The digital boom, which now exceeds the value of the global singles market, was largely driven by sales in the top five markets - the US, Britain, Japan, Germany and France," according to the AP. For more on digital music, see "File-sharing realities for families."

  6. Dial-up on steroids

    It's getting so the only difference between accelerated dial-up and slower broadband Internet service is the fact that, with the former, you still have to dial up! Speed and price differences are becoming negligible, the Boston Globe points out in a very thorough look at home Net users' current options. But there's an upside to not having the Internet "on" all the time, in the case of dial-up users: a little less risk of having the family PC become a zombie. Computers that aren't available all the time to outsiders seeking to take control of them are a lot harder to manipulate in denial-of-service attacks and for spam distribution. Herb Lin of the National Research Council last year pointed out another advantage of slower connections for families with online kids, linking inconvenience and kids' safety (see my 4/23/04 issue).

  7. MP3 player just for kids

    Yet another sign of how huge digital music is becoming. Disney's Mix Sticks are beginner MP3 players (MP3 players with training wheels, perhaps?). CNET reports that they're able to download tunes and copy them from a CD, but also play them off memory cards called Mix Clips that feature music music from Walt Disney Records. "Disney Mix Sticks have a storage capacity of 128MB, enough for about 60 songs, and work with a USB 2.0 connector. The MP3 players also feature an SD/MMC card slot for as much as 1GB of storage, or approximately 500 songs. The MP3 player, available in stores in mid-October, will sell for about $49. Its battery will last for about eight hours, after which it can be recharged in the Jam Stand, which will be sold separately for about $40. Here are CNET's photos of the Mix Stick, which comes in four colors, including plain chrome, the Jam Stand, Mix Clips, and yet another purchase opp: a carrying case.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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