Tag Archives | Games

Does Religion–Any Religion–Have a Place in Video Games?

If you haven’t been following the controversy over the PlayStation 3 killer app LittleBigPlanet, here’s a primer:

Sony recalled the game, which was due out this week, because one of its background music tracks quoted the Quran. It’s not a forbidden practice under Islamic law, but it does risk offending some Muslims. Sony expects to have an edited version of the game back in North American stores on October 27.

The surrounding brouhaha can potentially go in all sorts of directions, and the media and blogosphere have examined most of them. Edge magazine quoted Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, the head of the right-wing Muslim group American Islamic Forum for Democracy, as decrying the ban, while MTV’s Stephen Totilo talked to the more established Council on American Islamic Relations, which commended Sony for its efforts. He also asked experts if the reaction to the track could match the Danish cartoon controversy (it won’t) and got a statement from the musician, Toumani Diabate (he’s a devout Muslim). And of course, Sony’s motivations have been questioned, as the company loves the Middle Eastern market, and is no stranger to past religious foibles.

But one still-unexplored angle was brought to light by a commenter in Totilo’s article, who agrees with the song’s ouster because “religions create social boundaries, LBP is meant to have none.” And that really begs the question: Do religious themes, symbols and texts have a place in secular video games? Or are other mediums better-equipped to address religion’s subtler points? (I’m not talking about Left Behind and other overtly faith-based titles.) This situation is an opportunity — albeit less-sexy than the controversy itself — for a discussion on the subject. Let’s not waste it.


Scrabulous is Dead–Long Live Wordscraper, I Guess!

As Mashable is reporting, the Agarwalla brothers, who yesterday were forced to pull Scrabble clone Scrabulous from Facebook are back–with a new Facebook game called Wordscraper. It involves piecing letters together into words on a grid in which different positions provide different scores, and…well, it looks a lot like Scrabble. But less so than Scrabulous did. (For one thing, the letters are on circlular “titles,” not squares.)

I cheerfully admit being a lousy person to judge Wordscraper, having little experience with either Scrabble or Scrabulous. If you have a more well-informed opinion than I could muster, I’d love to hear it…and let’s hope that Wordscraper is a distant enough bastard cousin of Scrabble that avoids the wrath of Hasbro’s lawyers.

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What Ms. Pac-Man Could Teach Hasbro About Scrabulous

I know I sounded cold and uncaring about Scrabulous fans who are being forced to go cold turkey when I blogged this morning. But I’m still sorry that a happier endgame didn’t happen, and still hold out a tiny sliver of hope for an unexpected fairytale ending.

And it dawned on me that there’s little-known precedent for the notion of Hasbro deciding to legitimize and leverage Scabulous, in the well-rounded, chomp-chomping-chomping form of Ms. Pac-Man.

Nobody other than hardcore arcade-game nuts remembers this, but–as Wikipedia explains–the distaff member of the happy Pac-Man couple had her origins in a bootlegged hack of Pac-Man called Crazy Otto, from a Boston-area company called General Computer Corporation. Midway, Pac-Man’s American distributor, liked the game so much that it gave Otto a sex-change operation and made the game an official sequel to Pac-Man. Namco, the Japanese company that originated Pac-Man, eventually ended up owning his spouse as well.

According to Wikipedia, there’s at least a little bad blood between Ms.P. and Namco to this day–she’s not mentioned in Namco’s official archives. But twenty-seven years after her birth, she’s if anything more omnipresent than ever, and all those quarters have added up to untold millions in profit for Midway. (I played a lot of Ms. Pac-Man back in the early 1980s, but if you’d told me back then that in 2008 I’d own a phone made by that Apple II company, and could play a perfect recreation of Ms. Pac-Man on it, I’d never have believed you.)

The story isn’t an exact parallel for the Scrabulous saga–Midway adopted La Pac before anyone had heard of her, not after she became a phenomenon. And it’s important to remember that we don’t really know Hasbro’s thinking on the notion of acquiring Scrabulous–whether it never seriously considered doing so, flirted with the idea, or tried to and was rebuffed. But the birth of Ms. Pac-Man was sure an example of a large company showing some creative thinking when it was faced with a small company’s unauthorized use of its intellectual property. And the Scrabulous takedown certainly was not.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have a sudden, inexplicable desire to play a game or two of Ms. Pac-Man…


Sorry, Scrabulous Fans, I’m Only Mildly Sympathetic

Today’s news brings one of the least-startling developments in recent tech history: U.S. and Canadian Facebook users are being denied access to Scrabulous, the extremely popular app that lets people play…well, let’s just say it: It lets them play a thinly-veiled pirated clone of Scrabble. The move was inevitable after Hasbro, which owns the North American rights to Scrabble, licensed Electronic Arts to do an official Scrabble Facebook app and sued the Indian brothers behind Scrabulous. (Facebook is saying that it was Scrabulous’s developers that decided to disable it; for now, the game seems to live on at the Scrabulous site.)

We’ll presumably see a bunch of posts like this one by Don Reisinger on Mashable, siding with Scrabulous fans and the Brothers Agarwalla and caricaturing Hasbro as a company run by clueless geezers who don’t understand the Internet. And it’s tempting for me to join the dogpile-on-the-rabbit. The happiest scenario would have been for Hasbro to acquire or license Scrabulous and legitimize it–or, for that matter, to have rendered it unneccesary before it ever existed by coming out with a Facebook version of Scrabble a long time ago.

But truth to tell, I’m not all that irate at Hasbro, and I’m not all that sad on behalf of Scabulous fans or the Agarwallas. Unless you’re opposed to copyright law, period–or least contend that the Scrabble copyrights and trademarks should have expired already, which I guess is a defensible position, but one at odds with actual law–Hasbro has the right to protect Scrabble. It even has the right to do so in a way that other people believe to be stupid and unreasonable. (I’m a great believer in the idiosyncratic, libertarian notion that laws exist in part to permit people to behave in ways that other folks may believe–correctly, in some cases–to be stupid, unreasonable, and self-defeating.)

If forcing the Agarwallas to shutter the Scrabulous app turns hundreds of thousands of Scrabulous fans into Hasbro haters…well, that’s Hasbro’s call.

As for the Agarwallas, they’re clearly smart, talented guys. Maybe they could have figured out that Facebook-izing Scrabble without Hasbro’s consent might be a bad idea? Is it impudent of me to suggest that they coulda avoided all this by coming up with a compelling online word game that was…original?

(Full disclosure: I’ve played only a couple of games of Scrabble in my life. If this dust-up involved Monobulous or Cluebulous, I’d take this all a little more personally…)