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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sandra Day O'Connor Caulks Her Wagon To Float Over a River of Civic Indifference

posted by on June 5 at 12:02 PM


Will a video game co-created by a Supreme Court Justice win over the kids? You might think edutainment died with the Oregon Trail, but even if next year's Our Courts bombs, there's something to be said about an influential person giving games the benefit of the doubt--and passively-aggressively bashing Bush's educational policies in the process.

O'Connor said that the No Child Left Behind act of 2001 has "effectively squeezed out civics education" from public schools. "We can't forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America is to produce citizens who have the skills and knowledge to sustain our form of government," she said. "Public education is the only longterm solution to preserving an independent judiciary and constitutional democracy."

A good place to start is to let kids digitally re-enact court cases... which sounds LAME (wha, no shotguns to pwn n00b judge5?), until you see that the game's cases revolve around teens and their rights as students. If the Wired story is correct, Our Courts will take on the "Bong Hits For Jesus" case, which should make computer lab class a little more awesome for every tie-dyed T-shirt wearing pre-teen in suburbia.

I'm all for games with a social conscience, though they're a tough sell in a GTA world. From this writeup, it looks like O'Connor is at least smart enough to market this one directly to schools and classrooms--kids will play anything as long as it gets them out of doing real classwork--but wake me up when Gears of War sets up camp in, say, northern Uganda.

Pinball Weekend

posted by on June 5 at 11:38 AM

My buddy has a theory that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who play pinball by hitting both flippers at a time, and those who only hit the one their ball is actually headed for. I offered that there is a third kind of person who doesn't play pinball at all, but she poo-pooed me, saying that she would rather not acknowledge that possibility.
This weekend the NW Pinball and Gameroom Show hits town (Seattle Center, June 6-8). Entry buys you free play on a hundred games. There is also a tournament taking place, and several speakers, including the dude from King of Kong.

Oh, and you might want to bring some ear plugs. I've never heard 100 pinball machines going at once, but I imagine it's pretty intense.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ninja Gaiden 2: First Impressions

posted by on June 2 at 2:45 PM

Last week, MTV’s Multiplayer blog posted a game reviewer’s bill of rights. It coincided with some recent, “exclusive” game reviews that had gone up days before the competition, which were either rushed reviews or done with early, unfinished product. Movie critics don’t review partial edits, and music critics don’t tackle unmastered records, so I agree that it’s dumb for games sites to get stoked about claiming first dibs. Other than that, do readers really need to be hit over the head with the fact that some reviews aren’t up to snuff? Have these people never picked up SPIN or seen a movie review on Good Morning America?


But if I’d gotten the idea to write a game review bill of rights, it’d have one rule: Games that are frustratingly, yell-at-your-TV difficult on the “easiest” setting should go straight into the toilet. That rule is brought to you by Ninja Gaiden 2, which hits stores tomorrow; I’m only six or seven hours into the game on its easiest difficulty, so don’t call this a review. I’d be further in the game, but I got sick of playing it.

This is not the Contra-meets-throwing-stars of Ninja Gaiden from the ‘80s. The series came back years ago in 3D as a Devil May Cry-style slasher; run around and kill beasties with swords. Unlike many button-mashers, you’ll die if you don’t block, but otherwise, you’re still pretty much slapping buttons as you tear through dozens of creatures at a time. NG2 is more expansion than sequel, because it plays almost exactly the same as the last one. More weapons, that’s about it. Still, if you’re a glutton for silly violence, NG2 works harder than its bloody precursor. Since each of the eight weapons has its own huge (and impressive-looking) set of kill moves, you have to wonder what sick sonuvabitch was hired to motion-capture zillions of death shots. And there’s no question whether or not your enemies are actually dead: cut limbs off of aliens Black Knight-style, then finish them by crushing your foot on one half of their body and your sword on the other. Also, in the so-stupid-it’s-awesome category, I’ve already had to fight a dog with knives attached to its legs and a sword gripped between its teeth. Man is no longer the deadliest game.

But I can’t see what’s happening half of the time. If the game tore buildings’ roofs off and held the camera birds-eye style (like God of War), I might know what’s attacking me from all directions. As it stands, NG2 has a thing for tight corridors, which means this game’s difficulty often comes from manually adjusting the camera and wondering who’s hitting me from where. Stupid. You’re asking us to not question why we’re playing a barely updated sequel; obscuring my view with bad camera angles doesn’t help your cause.

On the easiest difficulty, most of the fights are tolerably challenging--an improvement over the last one’s punishment (now you auto-heal between fights, for example, which is welcome). But this morning, I spent nearly an hour fighting a boss over and over and over; not because figuring out how to kill the thing was hard, but because it would mow me down with instant-kill moves all of the time, which I might’ve avoided if, again, I could see what was going on. This kind of “challenge” is not worth $60. To be fair, there's a gaming core that loves this sort of violent, difficult, done-to-death material, and I don't think camera issues will kill it for them. Me, I still prefer God of War's mix of shameless violence, high production values, well-scaled challenge, and decent attempts at plot. I’ll soldier on and post updated NG2 impressions next week--does the challenge eventually even out? Does the dumbass plot, complete with an androgynous Edward Scissorhands who likes to stroke the Statue of Liberty, become less dumbass? My guesses so far: No, no.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

DS Roundup

posted by on May 29 at 3:21 PM

I'd been planning to write up the DS games I've been playing lately, but in light of today's Tecmo Bowl DS unveil, they all seem moot.

Come September, virtual pigskin addicts will get their fix again via Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff, and in spite of the dumb name, I'm already excited. The original Tecmo Bowl is pretty much the only sports game I can play with my friends, and not just because they're suckers for the late '80s era of Bo Jackson and Joe Montana. The series is still marked by many as the pinnacle of video football--simple yet fluid and fast. Only reason Tecmo didn't keep making TB games was because early '90s versions for the Genesis became complicated to keep up with Madden's popularity--dumb move, and the series vanished as a result. This long-awaited return was announced a month or so ago (will also release on the Wii by 2009), but I waited for footage before getting my hopes up. Looks good--as in, butt-ugly, simple, and old-school. Sucks that I have to wait until next year for a non-portable version; Tecmo Bowl is meant for the living room, not the palm of your hand. Still, it's got online play and editable rosters, which means Bo Jackson will run again! 'Snough for me.

Other stuff on the DS lately that has proven interesting:

Crosswords DS: Not sure why it took Nintendo this long to make a crossword puzzle game, since the DS is tailor-made for it. You can write on the touchscreen to enter letters; you can save progress on long puzzles in case you have to get off the bus midway through. The same things worked for the New York Times Crossword game from last year, but that one was abusingly hard and all kinds of ugly (not to mention that it retreaded puzzles from 2003-05, so if you're a Times puzzle addict, fuhgeddaboutit). Crosswords DS starts right with a clean interface and simpler entry-level puzzles. Trouble is, you have to complete one hundred super-easy puzzles ("medium" my ass) before you can even begin to try puzzles with words longer than seven letters (and still averaging at three-to-five until then). The bonus anagram and wordsearch modes don't help; unless you're younger than 14, stick to getting ink stains all over your hands.

glitchDS: Don't look for this homebrew release at stores; to play glitchDS, you'll need a flash cart (essentially, a memory card that plugs into the DS to run custom programs). Well, not exactly "play." It's a program, not a game, specifically an audio sequencer. Other homebrew music synthesizers and sequencers have come out before for portable systems, most of which are watered-down versions of computer sound-loopers like FruityLoops. But this one's a trip because it plays sound effects according to a cellular automation system. The top screen shows this animation, which can be changed if you add or delete "cells," drawing them on the touchscreen. You then load sound effects onto a second touchscreen grid, and when the animation steps over that grid's sound pad, it plays the according sound. The result looks and sounds a little like this:

It's not quite chiptune material, as glitchDS relies on your own sound effects rather than an ancient, chirping sound processor, but it doesn't make the thing any less fun to play with. And this is by no means a reliable instrument, but it is interesting to see how cellular automation translates into sonic loops with very little effort (not to mention how well it responds to on-the-fly manipulation). If you have a DS flash card, download glitchDS here. If not, you can always seek out Nintendo's noise-toy for the DS, Electroplankton (though I don't recommend it, since the rare game costs over $60 on eBay).

Next week: Does anybody still care about Wii Fit? If so, I'll sum up my three-week trial of the thing. Elsewise, I'll need to steal a Playstation 3 so that I can play that new Metal Gear game.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One ... The Review

posted by on May 23 at 11:43 AM


The best and worst thing about the first Penny Arcade video game is its humor. Not because it's an "acquired taste," though that's a fair worry--PA, the web comic, prides itself on in-jokes and up-to-the-minute game satires. PA, the video game, eschews much of that, instead taking place in an alternate 1920s America where the Industrial Revolution has loosed an army of cultish mimes and fruit-raping robots. It's bizarre, but it's that sort of universal bizarre that'll leave fans and outsiders cracking up in equal measure. You don’t need to be a fan of the comic to be both amused and confused by this; the first episode of Penny Arcade Adventures mines humorous juxtaposition to great effect, marrying a love for over-literate exposition (and satire of said love) with a rich, creamy gravy of stupid. You know, the kind of giddy stupid that thinks "shit poop!" is a good exclamation.

Trouble is, in game form, the funny tends to whiz by--especially in an "episodic" game that tops out at maybe five hours of play. After clicking through so many funny conversations (no speech, just text), I found myself wanting to rewind and savor the wit again and again. (Tough not to reprint so much oddball material, by the way, but rest assured that bums, mimes, piss-obsessed scientists, early 20th century novelists, and Zoltar all get theirs.)

So how do these Bellevue-based game critics translate as game makers? At first glance, PAA’s central gameplay suffers by bowing down to the dialogue rather than pushing for unique twists. Surely, PA’s hyper-critical leads would notice that, aside from the humor, they’ve played this traditional RPG before: run around towns, click random things on the screen to find items, deliver stuff to people for more items, get into turn-based battles. (Reminds me of a grown-up Earthbound.) If there is a twist, it’s that battles are a weird mix of simple (auto-healing, free items) and complex (no pausing to plan moves, surprisingly deep strategy); by splitting the difference, they wind up being pretty engaging. The devs could’ve made fight menus a lot easier to read, I guess; no deal-breaker. But the game only has three “towns” to run around in, so its already-brief length is padded with things like clicking on zillions of items on the ground and enduring a few too many fights.

PAA’s first episode could’ve distilled its five hours to two or three in terms of actual, hard content, making the $20 price point a bit of a stretch. Could’ve added an extra half-hour to the thing just by giving completists a bonus “read the dialogue again” mode; no such luck this time. Still, the comic’s creators win out by expanding their humorous reach beyond their usual niche (cuz if there’s ever a class of people who’ve been left out of gaming for too long, it’s the “shit poop” crowd). Combine that with solid fights, likeable music and equally funny art direction, and you’ve got a worthwhile first effort for these critical game-makers--along with obvious room for improvement for Episode Two.

Worth buying? You’re possibly overpaying at $20 for the full thing, but the free demo’s a no-brainer. Xbox 360 owners can download that demo by digging through the 360's “new arrivals” list, and PC/Mac/Linux users can download their own demo here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wii Fit: The Review

posted by on May 20 at 1:26 AM

One week into Wii Fit, I had gained nearly four pounds. Didn’t matter that I’d logged five-and-a-half hours on the game’s timer (average of 46 minutes per day); that I’d enjoyed walks, bike rides and a long basketball game through the week; that I’d even avoided eating out, snacking late and drinking much. Wii Fit, in spite of its encouragement and games, stresses weight above all, and by day seven, I found myself obsessing over its most glaring metric.

Ah, day seven. I woke up, stepped on the weight-sensitive Wii Balance Board, and found out I was nearly three pounds heavier than the day before, I waited a few hours, stripped down to my skivvies and re-measured. MUST. GET. HIGH. SCORE.

The girlfriend caught me, but she didn’t bust me for being naked. She went the other route: “Tell me you didn’t just go to the bathroom before weighing yourself.” I sheepishly turned my head away.

Wii Lunge, Meet Wii Big Ass

Wii Fit gets a few things right. I’ve become more sedentary since losing my last office job, so having a new source of cardiovascular activity a few steps from the desk has sent my daily average through the roof. The game’s exercise modes mostly push me in new ways--stretching the spine, holding yoga poses and pulling off smooth, controlled leg lifts, all of which tell me how balanced I am mid-exercise thanks to this Wii Board. Direct, immediate feedback without the cost or pushiness of a trainer? I’m all for it.

Clearly, the three fitness modes (yoga, strength training, aerobics) are not fun. Sweat- and soreness-inducing, sure. Fulfilling, probably. But let’s not confuse the tree pose or a 60-second plank ab flex with Call of Duty 4. I’m glad there’s a “game” mode, though--pretend the balance board is an analog joystick, then lean in every direction to aim a skier, a hamster ball, a rolling marble board, and so on. If you only have a few minutes or don’t want to break a sweat, these games can at least boost the heartrate for 10 or 15 minutes, and, yeah, they’re fun.

In many other respects, Wii Fit holds up. The virtual trainers have soothing voices and relatively helpful advice as you do each exercise. The interface is clean. Its exercise selection is pretty diverse. But too much contributed to my seventh day freak-out.

After a few days of play, you’ll unlock the full series of over 40 exercises. Do each of them at a high rep count, and you’ll rack up over an hour and a half of work, which is unfeasible for a daily workout. Begs questions: Would it be best to start my workout with yoga? Or aerobics? Should I just focus on one type of exercise or do a spread of all three? Maybe I should focus on separate body parts every day? How should I mix my routine up over time?

Wii Fit doesn’t answer any of these. You’re thrown in to work out however you see fit, which is weird for a game that logs your every action--not a single recommendation, huh? Wii Fit also doesn’t answer or advise much with a lot of yoga poses. When I first did the tree pose, my girlfriend saw me struggling and suggested I lower my raised foot closer to my knee. This worked perfectly, as did all of her other suggestions (none of which were given by the Wii’s virtual trainers). Too bad every copy of Wii Fit doesn’t come with a yoga-wise friend.

Worst of all is Wii Fit’s obsession with weight. It wasn’t until day seven that I cracked open my instruction booklet and saw that its BMI (body mass index) scores should actually scale for users with more muscle mass. This text is in fine print, as is a warning that users under the age of 20 shouldn’t rely on BMI readings. Would be nice, then, if the game didn’t declare my 16-year-old alter-ego “overweight” with absolutely no asterisk. (There’s also the legit tale of a 10-year-old whose Wii deemed her overweight. What fun.) And if your weight spikes on a given day, Wii Fit will demand an explanation. Seriously--jump two pounds or more, and you are forced to explain yourself with one of eight choices: “Ate too late,” “Indigestion,” etc. Sadly, the thing lacks choices such as, “I’m going through my period, you heartless piece of plastic.”

(Though I'm already running too long here, God, I have to point one little thing out, mostly cuz it drove Golob nuts during his test run. When you step on the Wii Balance Board, a little girl's voice usually exclaims, "Oh!" I think it sounds like a little girl being stepped upon; someone else said it sounds like "a nine-year-old who's just been fingered by an older man." Either way, creeeeeeeeeepy.)

Wii Fit’s hype has resonated with plenty of weight-conscious folks--here’s a convenient, fun device that can finally motivate you to get to it, tubby! But if Nintendo wants to sell this as a complete training solution, education is crucial. Wii Fit offers no true fat measurement, little info about weight fluctuation (it’s there, buried under demanding weight-spike questions), and no smart recommendations based on the data it saves. If you know what you’re doing--been through the gym circuit, have a grasp on yoga, know that a scale is hardly indicative of true fitness--then Wii Fit is a solid tool to fill the gaps in your schedule and keep you active when you’re at home. I like its yoga poses, its dynamic measurements, and its easy access.

But I hate that it’s made me a slave to its scale. The little information that Wii Fit offers is drowned out by the fact that it turns your weight into a score, greeting you in the form of a glaring, daily chart. Welcome to disorder city; don’t forget to take a dump before you hit the power button.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Piss Test

posted by on May 19 at 11:48 AM


From Germany, a new way to remind drunks that they're drunk:

So how to capture the attention of any potential drunk drivers? Well, where do most people go when they’re drunk? (Apart from the bar, that is. Or maybe a kebab.) They go to the toilet. As such, we thought the urinal would be the perfect medium to reach our target audience in a fresh, surprising way.

h/t Metafilter.

Footnote: The Piss Screen game was invented by British advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, whose first p.r. coup was this billboard campaign, which helped Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party take over in the UK general election of 1979:


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Booth Babes and Dorks

posted by on May 15 at 3:36 PM

I wish I had much to say about Sony's coming-someday MMO, The Agency, after attending their online division's reveal party last night in Bellevue. That won't happen. My e-mail invite said the game would be demoed, but the only thing that was shown was a months-old video clip of incomplete gameplay. When I asked someone where new game footage was, a woman in attendance stared me down like I'd asked her why the sky is blue. She exclaimed that the game was nowhere near ready to play, but, oh, hey, there's some exclusive art over there, seen it yet?

And I wish the developers had much to say, but while replaying the months-old video, The Agency's head designer kept pausing in his narration to say that he wasn't allowed to reveal certain details yet. By "certain," he meant "most." Not sure if SOE thought their "open house" party would be reason enough to come out, complete with fancy catering, ice blocks shaped like guns, booze ahoy, and chicks in Tank Girl-styled outfits... you can guess where this is going:


So, sure, I could rehash the game's few deets-so-far. As in, this is an MMO that splits the difference between Goldeneye and World of Warcraft, and so far, it doesn't appear to have a clear target audience or cohesive artistic core. But it's hard to judge something that's still quite unfinished. Nobody was saying how soon The Agency will come out, how it might change while still in development, or how the heck Sony will convince console gamers to cough up MMO-style fees, so last night, the only solid things in their corner were booth babes and dorks. Still, I'll always hold out hope for a game with some Goldeneye flavor, so I'm looking forward to digging deeper into the PS3/PC game once the Bellevue studio gets an early version up and running.

By the way, same thing goes to any other local game devs: INVITE US TO SEE YOUR STUFF! Just as long as you promise I won't have to endure turquoise cameltoe at your offices, anyway.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Fill the fun bar all the way to the top"

posted by on May 13 at 4:32 PM

McSweeney's has a list of "Good Advice From a Grand Theft Auto Dating FAQ." Many of these quotes apply to real life:

If you raise your relationship level with a girl to 100% you'll be given a special outfit.


If you let her shoot you until you die, your relationship with her will go up by 10%.


[I]f you kill a girl through abuse, she will no longer be your girlfriend.

One Day Into Wii Fit

posted by on May 13 at 4:10 PM

Hours after Wii Fit arrived at my house, I was ready to rechristen the device it comes with. "The Wii Balance Board?!" I yelled at a bar while drinking with friends last night. "More like the Wii Breakup Device."

Hopes were high for Wii Fit when I got it yesterday, and my first session with this gaming/workout fusion was positive. The Wii Balance Board is Nintendo's second-ever family fitness device, the first being the Power Pad in the '80s. Similar ideas for both--stand on it and move to control a game. But while the Power Pad was only used to play awful "running" games, the Wii Board measures input with four weight sensors, one in each corner; an on-screen dot shows how centered your weight is. Wii Fit, then, is a balance-obsessed grab-bag of workouts (yoga, lunges, leg lifts) and games (skiing, walking a tightrope, guiding an intertube).

When my girlfriend got home later, I asked that she try it, since much of the game is based on sharing it with friends and family. You can view each other's workout progress over the ongoing weeks for motivation. But here's the thing--every praise-filled write-up I've seen so far about Wii Fit has been done by lonely losers. When you bring something like Wii Fit to your partner's living room, it doesn't matter if it's a dolled-up video game or a set of dumbbells with a "Happy Valentine's Day" tag attached. You're walking into the fiery, brown eye of Satan's asshole. She was already tired from a long day of standing for hours at work, and she was immediately turned off by having to stand on the board for long periods, having too low a ceiling in our house for a few of the yoga moves, and slipping when trying the step-exercises mode. She quickly threw up the white flag and sat down. Then I was dumb enough to say that I was disappointed that she gave up after only a few minutes. Yes, I'm holding my hand in the air. My foul.

I've seen this in other relationships as well--not so much issues with body and appearance but pressure. The couple I drank with last night agreed. She wants to be totally alone when working out with a DVD instructor. He doesn't like lifting weights when people can see that he's not lifting much. Not sure if it's a Western thing, but I guess couples assume they're supposed to shut up and stay in their corners when it comes to working out or getting fit, so I have to wonder--is Wii Fit right for the demographic that Nintendo pimps in its promo shots?

There is no way this couple didn't get into a fight about Wii Fit at some point. I refuse to believe their smiles.

But after having it out with the GF last night, and owning up to the fact that I didn't have a right to be "disappointed" at all, I woke up to her doing a full, 40-minute Wii Fit workout. Might've been because I'd asked for her to chip in for my games review; might've been her own urge to give the thing one more shot. Either way, her opinion had brightened. Fun, easy-to-use, could see herself sticking to it for the next few weeks. Importantly for her, the workout was low-impact enough for her issues with an aching heel.

My vote's up in the air. In some ways, it's a glorified workout DVD, as most of the game's workouts require nothing more than a step board (if even that). If you're motivated enough and looking for a solid, private, living room workout, you can probably spend $90 in better ways, especially since some of the in-game workout tips are bare-bones compared to workout DVDs. But motivation is the key here. The game automatically tracks your progress. It sets time-lapsed weight-loss goals. For many of the modes, particularly yoga, the balance board offers feedback (staying centered, putting enough weight down) that you'd otherwise blow cash on a trainer for. The balance games supplant the overall workout without feeling like work. The on-screen trainer isn't perfect, but he/she gives decent, real-time advice (along with plenty of non-condescending encouragement). And Wii Fit rewards your effort by unlocking more modes and games as you go along (measured in minutes, nice touch).

But so far, I'm into it, I'm sore, and I'm paying attention to balance and posture for pretty much the first time in my life. This morning, the GF even hung out when she was done and gave tips about yoga when I screwed that part up. Afterward, I could talk to her about Wii Fit without flinching. Maybe this Breakup Device is broken.

Friday, May 9, 2008

What the Hell Should We Do With All This Liquor?

posted by on May 9 at 12:15 PM

Kelly O and I have a bit of an overstock problem on our hands.

You see, some promotion company keeps insisting on giving us this weird malt liquor energy drink thing called Rize. Last time they came by the offices, they gave us six flats. It tastes awful. (Nick Scholl says: "Like Vietnam.") Kelly and I puzzled for weeks. "Should we walk around Seattle asking people to pour it out for their homies?" That would be very heartfelt, but kind of boring. "Should we just give it to the bums and see what happens?" They'd probably kill themselves, as no human can drink more than three without having a heart attack from all the taurine.

So we took three flats and did this:

Which, of course, was incredibly inspired.

But the delivery man came again, and we hadn't even gotten through the last batch. And this time, he brought MORE:


Which brings us to the subject of this post. What the hell should we do with all this liquor?

Give us some ideas, people, because our faucets are on dry. Put 'em in the comments, and we'll pick the best ones and throw up a poll next week. Whatever you decide on--we will do it and we will film it for the next Drunk of the Week video.

Nothing too gross, or violent, or sexual, or weird, but a little of all of that is cool. Mostly, just be hilarious--that's what we're looking for.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wanna Play? Give Up Your Data.

posted by on May 7 at 1:45 PM


Following the lead of Internet cookies and TiVo, gaming systems are poised to be the next great American data farmers. I hadn’t thought about this until last night when my Wii glowed blue, which happens whenever Nintendo sends a message through its WiiConnect service. Last night, the company debuted the Nintendo Channel, a free, promotional video service with one particularly cool bonus. If you have a Nintendo DS, you can use the Nintendo channel to try free demo games on your DS by downloading from the Wii.

But there’s a catch: the demo option is grayed out until you accept a Nintendo data request. They want to continuously keep tabs on your hours played per game, hours spent using other Wii services, and more. Even though Nintendo states that this data isn’t tied to your name or machine, that it’s “anonymous,” it's still damn weird--"tell us everything, or you can't play. Neener neener." I already regret clicking "yes" to try it out and have since turned it off. I don’t want to contribute to someone’s data pool, not even for a DS demo trinket.

This move isn't unprecedented; the other Redmond gaming behemoth has done the same thing with its Xbox Live service for years. In fact, by making Xbox Live free in a “silver” tier, Microsoft has ensured that all online 360 users can deliver data such as “times you sign-in to and sign-off from the Service; games that you have played on the Service; content you purchase on the Service; and game score statistics.” Sony’s Playstation Network agreement lists the same sort of up-for-grabs data: “network configurations, your network devices, peripherals, USB devices, plug-ins and monitors... information about how you use PSN and your PLAYSTATION®3 computer entertainment system unit, including, for example, downloads, game activity (including game title name and length of play), forum postings, game profile, [and] rankings.” You’re also still on the hook if you play offline and then connect to the Internet later (though Microsoft is the only company that explains through its service agreement how to avoid giving this info up).

These practices aren't entirely really evil. If you’re playing games online, you’re passing through these companies’ gates, and it only makes sense that they have policies in place to say that they’ll see who’s doing what. Also, Xbox Live users know damn well that their friends can see things like game history and “now playing” info (as can strangers if privacy settings aren’t enabled). But while MySpace and Facebook have gotten negative mainstream attention for gathering personal data, television-centric services like TiVo and game systems have gotten a relative pass from the mainstream. And that’s because these services deal primarily with anonymous info, so the media can’t craft any tales of identity theft or public embarrassment.

But anonymous data can be valuable stuff--usage patterns can shape a company’s production and marketing plans, and other companies desperate to know a target demographic just might pay top dollar for trends that pop up in that sea of faceless 18-35 year old gamers. Does each game console company do a decent job confirming or denying this angle? Nintendo’s service states that it will “use this information to recommend games to you and develop new games and services.” By using the word ‘services,’ Nintendo leaves the data door wide open. Microsoft’s online agreement doesn’t specify what they do with a wide range of usage data, other than the fact that if it happens, it’ll happen “without notice or compensation to you of any kind.” Sony uses a “for example” to talk about how non-personal information is fair game for “studies” with an "outside firm"--and they make sure that other vague uses get the green light from their phrasing. Sony is also the only one to go so far as to say your personally identifiable info is up for grabs if a “lawsuit, investigation or other action” comes up. Yikes.

There’s no lid-blowing discovery here; none of the three big gaming companies are exactly hiding this info (though user agreements are as close as corporations get to hiding anything) [Edit: I also feel the need to be clear that, yeah, these people aren't hawking your e-mail address or installing malware on your PS3.] But if gaming is growing up, then so should consumers' understandings that their aimless play is worth something to somebody. That blue light coming out of the Wii isn't exactly staring you down HAL-style, and Mountain Dew may never see that it’s you, HotGruffyGamer420, who’s playing hours of Upskirt Anime Adventure 360, but they’ll know that Mr. 18-35 Target Demographic is.