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7 Video Game Controversies Not Involving Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat

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With the recent Supreme Court ruling that video games are a form of Free Speech protected by the First Amendment, it seems like a good time to look back at some of the controversies that led the nation's highest court to get involved in the debate. While you've heard the stories behind notorious titles like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, here are some video game controversies that might have flown under your radar.

1. Death Race

Death Race was the first arcade video game that really got people riled up. While there were other car games around at the time, Death Race was the only one where the player's goal was to run down an endless supply of stick figure pedestrians. After hitting a “gremlin”—maker Exidy insisted you were running down gremlins, not people—the figures gave out a shrill, garbled scream, and then turned into a tombstone, which stayed on the screen as an obstacle to dodge while pursuing the next target.

Practically upon its release in 1976, Death Race caused a stir for its questionable gameplay philosophy. The sound of the gremlin's scream also bothered people, who said it sounded too much like a child's voice. The concern, of course, was that a person playing Death Race would get behind the wheel of a real car to start running over kids. Although there were no cases of this type of violence actually happening, parents across the country rallied against the game—there are even stories of protesters dragging the game out of arcades and burning it in the parking lot.

While exact production numbers are unclear, some sources say that only 500 Death Race games had been made before the controversy. However, thanks to all the publicity, orders doubled before the game was pulled from the market.

2. Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

In the years after the tragic 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, which left 13 people dead and another 21 wounded, people struggled to understand the event. To try to make sense of it all, Danny Ledonne chose an unusual and controversial medium when he created the 2005 video game Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Using police reports, crime scene photos, and excerpts from the journals of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as a guide, Super Columbine Massacre allows the player to take on the role of the shooters as they navigate the pixelated halls of Columbine High School, planting propane bombs in the cafeteria, and then continuing their armed assault on the students and staff.

Ledonne insisted that the game was intended as art, meant to spark conversation much like acclaimed director Gus Van Sant’s 2003 movie Elephant, which graphically depicts a fictional school shooting that borrows heavily from the real Columbine massacre. Those who defend the game argue it has just as much to say about the shooting as Elephant, except it uses the medium of video games to express those opinions and emotions. But Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been a point of contention since its release.

The most public controversy came when the game was initially accepted, then later rejected from the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival. The game’s dismissal caused half of the other contestants to pull their projects in protest. The jury even tried to give the game a special award, but the Slamdance organizers denied it the honor. The story of “Slamgate,” as it is now known, as well as the game's impact on the ongoing debate of video games as art, is highlighted in the 2008 documentary Playing Columbine, which Ledonne produced to tell his side of the story.

3. JFK: Reloaded

Was Oswald really the lone gunman in the Book Depository? Did he have help from the Grassy Knoll?  Those were the questions hoping to be answered by JFK:Reloaded, a “historic simulation” video game released on November 22, 2004, the 41st anniversary of JFK's death. The game allowed the player to see through Oswald’s rifle scope and take shots at the Presidential limousine as it headed through Dealey Plaza. To promote the release, the game’s website held a contest with a top prize of $100,000 to the player who could most accurately recreate the events in Dallas as reported by the Warren Commission, which determined that Oswald acted alone.

While there could arguably be some educational value to the game (as publisher Traffic Management Limited suggested), many, including Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, said the very idea of re-enacting such a horrific day in our nation's history was "despicable." Others said the only lesson it taught was how to be an assassin. Despite the controversy, the game was never a mainstream success, and, less than a year later, the website was gone. Traffic Management has never released another game.

4. Tomb Raider

Main character Lara Croft's digital bustline has always been controversial in the Tomb Raider games. But the series has also drawn fire from animal rights groups for the menagerie of animals killed during gameplay. Many mirror animals on the endangered species list in real-life, like tigers, bears, snow leopards, and gorillas. The creators of the games have toned down the animal slaughter over the years, but Croft still takes out the occasional tiger with her twin .50 caliber pistols.

5. The Sims Online

In the virtual world of massive multiplayer role-playing games, there are few rules by which a person must abide. This became clear to Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor from the University of Michigan, when, in 2003, he found that players were involved in a virtual sex trade on The Sims Online.

If a player needed Simoleans, the in-game currency used to buy clothes, houses, and other goods, they would sometimes agree to cybersex sessions in exchange for digital cash. Of course the problem is, according to the game's terms of service, Sims’ players can be as young as 13, meaning there’s a good chance underage kids were participating in these sexual chats with adults.

When Ludlow brought this illicit trade to the attention of Sims' creator Maxis, he claims the company did nothing to curb the practice. However, they did shut down his account because he had links to his commercial blog in his Sims character profile, which apparently was prohibited in the otherwise anarchic online world.

6. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Like Hollywood movies and TV shows, video games also receive ratings based on their content. These ratings, like E for Everyone or M for Mature, as well as descriptions of what can be found in the game, are assigned by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) after they have evaluated an early version of the game supplied by the publisher. While there can be some changes to the final product, it needs to stick closely to what the ESRB reviewed or they might call for a re-evaluation.

In 2006, Bethesda Softworks submitted Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a sword-and-sorcery role-playing game, which the ESRB rated T, meaning it was appropriate for kids 13 and older. They also described the game as containing “Violence, Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Language, and Use of Alcohol.” However, shortly after the game was released, software called a “mod” (modification) was created by someone online that, when applied to the PC version of the game, removed the female characters’ tops, revealing their bare breasts. Of course if you never downloaded and installed the mod, the characters were clothed throughout the game as originally intended.

However, upon hearing about the mod, the ESRB re-reviewed the game and gave it a higher rating—an M for Mature, which meant it could only be purchased by people 17 or older, restricting a large part of the game's target audience. The ESRB’s official stance was that the rating changed because Bethesda submitted environmental graphics featuring a pair of dead bodies that were notably less bloody in the review version. But the board also acknowledged the existence of the third-party mod for the PC version, which meant the game would now carry the additional description of “Nudity,” even though there was none in the game Bethesda released. Additionally, the new rating extended to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, despite there being no such nudity mod for these versions. Under protest, Bethesda created a software fix that would make the nudity impossible to access, but the ESRB refused to change their rating.

7. RapeLay

While there are many video games that feature violence, few of them do it as methodically and disturbingly as RapeLay. In the game, the player takes on the role of a man who stalks, molests, and then forces himself upon three women in explicit, graphic detail.

RapeLay was released in Japan in 2006 and sold as hentai, a genre of pornography that features X-rated cartoons, comic books, and video games. Because it was sold legally as an adult-only product, the game was not considered controversial until 2009, when British Parliament member Keith Vaz used it as an illustration for the need to tighten regulations on video game sales. Vaz pointed out that RapeLay was available on Amazon via third-party sellers who had not gone through proper channels to have the game evaluated by the British Board of Film Classification, which rates some video games for the UK. As soon as they were made aware of the game, Amazon quickly banned it from the site.

The media jumped on the story and the bad publicity fallout was extensive. The game's publisher, Illusion, pulled the game from the market. Additionally, the Japanese version of the ESRB, the Ethics Organization of Computer Software, banned all future video games where rape is the main goal.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]