Yee: What is ESRB Trying to Hide?

August 29, 2007 -
Included in GameSpot's coverage of the Manhunt 2 political fallout are strong words from California State Senator Leland Yee concerning the re-rating of the controversial game:
What are they trying to hide?  Unsurprisingly, the culture of secrecy continues at the ESRB. 

Even individuals within the video game industry are now calling into question their rating system.  Parents simply can not trust an entity that is unwilling to disclose or give any meaningful rationale at how they come to their decisions. 

The ESRB refuses to use the AO rating for violence despite the descriptor calling for such a rating when there are "graphic depictions of violence."  If Manhunt doesn't qualify, what would? 

Combined with the use of the ambiguous term "Mature," many parents are left with a false sense of how violent an M-rated game may be; and obviously even many retailers as the Federal Trade Commission secret shopper study suggests.  Using the numbers generated by the FTC, 42 out of 100 kids who want to purchase Manhunt 2 will be able to do so.
 
When weighing in on laws to prohibit the sale of ultra-violent video games to children, the industry has said over and over, "trust us; our rating system will protect children."  This latest episode demonstrates once again that the ESRB in fact can not be trusted.

Yee, of course, was the driving force behind California's 2005 video game law, recently declared unconstitutional by a federal court judge.

GP: Presumably for space reasons, GameSpot edited Yee's remarks. We've published the entire statement, which came to us from Sen. Yee's office.

Comments

@Terrible Tom

"Do you think Yee considers it marketing toward children because he doesn’t consider a 17 year old an adult?"

In California you can't drink or look at nekked ladies until you're 21, so yeah, probably...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@Central/Andrew

True, it's ESA numbers, and it's not gospel. But even if the numbers are off, it's still showing that of purchases, minors buying M rated games without being refused is a very small number. Even if it was 5% instead of .5%, I'd still be wondering what the fuss was about...

"In my opinion the MPAA DOES have ful transparency by default since we have the luxury of comparing theatrical releases with unrated or director cut releases in the comfort of our own homes."

ONLY if the publisher authorizes it. If they don't release a Director's Cut, you've got nothing to compare it to... So you're comparing a completely voluntary marketing ploy to a suggestion that the company is somehow being deceptive if they DON'T do it...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

"In California you can’t drink or look at nekked ladies until you’re 21, so yeah, probably…" -Jabrwock

I can't?! Oops...

Certainly doesn't lend much credence to Yee's cries of "but we legislate drugs and porn to kids!" when you'd be hard pressed to find a minor who hasn't smoked or drank or looked at a girly mag or something.


Andrew Eisen

That and you don't have people like Yee demanding that the movie industry stop allowing kids to purchase R-rated DVDs... because the FTC numbers for that are TERRIBLE compared to game purchases.

I'd hate to see what the unrated-DVD numbers are like...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@Andrew

Crazy eh? At 18 you can't look at Playboy or enjoy a beer (or possibly even enjoy a cigar, I'm not sure what the Calif smoking laws are right now), but you CAN be sentenced as an adult even for minor crimes, vote for President, and be shipped off to die for your country...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@ Jabrwock

The FTC studied both R and un rated movies on the retail side. Both ended up being a 71% of kids being able to buy them.

Suddenly 42% doesn't seem as bad.

Where in blue blazes did this immense distrust of the ESRB originate from anyway?


Andrew Eisen

@ Andrew

It started with a couple of politicians and lawyers with an agenda. This brought the topic to the forefront of the gamer's mind. Then the gamers gotto thinking about it. So now we have a distrust from all sides of the field all because of a couple of politicians and lawyers and their agendas.

@Andrew

"Where in blue blazes did this immense distrust of the ESRB originate from anyway?"

Where else? When it started not banning games that people wanted banned...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

I guess if you misrepresent (or completely misunderstand) what the ESRB actually does, it’s pretty easy to view them as incompetent and untrustworthy.

Andrew Eisen

@The Central Scrutinizer

A large majority of movies that do that unrated DVD thing is ONLY to market/hype how controversial their movie is, and largely it's really negligible stuff that doesn't matter. Plus, not every movie does it, so that analogy really does not work out at all.

71%... wow... And still video games catch the heat.

Yea its a shame its become 21 to be a true adult. I've always thought it should be 18, your getting out of high school. Your either getting a job or going to college(or both). And if shit hits the fan you could be sent overseas to go to war. Only kind of nakidness you can see is on video or in magazines and you can't drink... but feel free to smoke. But if your 17 and you commit a crime aren't you automatically judged as an adult? What the hell is up with this tangled mess of contradicting laws?

Andrew - That all depends on which side of the distrust of the ESRB your looking at. I think gamers and politicians that oppose the ESRB probably are looking at from completely different sides.

He's got a point about the ESRB, but I still don't think games should be legislated.

@Jabrwock;

"I was using movies as an example of how full disclosure allows the entire movie to be seen before it’s ready for release. It’s perfectly applicable to games too, because in order to be “fully disclosing”, you’d have to release the playable game…"

We're talking about ESRB disclosure, not game industry disclosure. They can yell till they're blue in the face at the game industry to fully disclose games before their release - and good luck with that - but the ESRB could disclose no more than what they're offered.

ESRB website: "Along with the written submission materials, publishers must provide a videotape or DVD which captures all pertinent content, including the most extreme instances, across all relevant categories including but not limited to violence, language, sex, controlled substances and gambling."

None of that material ruins a game like it would a movie. It's actually probably all in their marketing.

"If the ESRB only released some screenshots and descriptions, they could still be accused of “hiding” details about how the game got it’s rating, because they’re not disclosing everything."

I absolutely agree there's a slippery slope here. If you give a man a fish, he'll ask for some water. And I don't want to see the ESRB turned into a game industry marketing outlet any more than the next gamer.

But this continued line of reasoning, that the ESRB need not work a certain way because that is not the way the MPAA works, is flawed. There are different, better, reasons why the ESRB should not pursue a path that makes it the first and best source of 'spoilerrific' information about upcoming games before their release, which may...or may not!...overlap with the MPAA's reasons.

Patricia didn't go into detail, but she touched on them in her response. I expect we'll see more of those details if folks keep pushing, and it'll make them look rather shortsighted.


I wonder if the industry would consider a mechanism to 'gag' AO ratings, where they intend to cut material and resubmit the game for rating. It would spare us these media frenzies if we could just cut the chase to "what do you mean it was rated 'unbanned'?"

I may disagree with the ESRB on their continued use of the AO-rating but I trust that the original submission of Manhunt 2 fell within its guidelines for that rating. I also have no reason to doubt that the recent submission was altered sufficiently to earn an M-rating.

I want to know what was changed but not for the same reason that Yee does. I want to know how the creator’s vision was compromised in order to earn a lower rating so that I may decide whether I’m interested in buying a censored product or not. Yee wants to know if the current version of Manhunt 2 really deserves an M-rating.

Why he doesn’t just buy the game when it’s released and see for himself is beyond me.


Andrew Eisen

@Andrew

E. Zachary Knight's partially right. It also comes from the "censor everything for the sake of the children" groups like the CCFC and game creators and publishers who have issues with the ESRB in the first place.

@HCF

"But this continued line of reasoning, that the ESRB need not work a certain way because that is not the way the MPAA works, is flawed. There are different, better, reasons why the ESRB should not pursue a path that makes it the first and best source of ’spoilerrific’ information about upcoming games before their release, which may…or may not!…overlap with the MPAA’s reasons."

Well, within reason. The fact that the MPAA is not mandated, required, or actually *does* provide transparency in how it sets its ratings (or the television rating system either for that matter) does lend strong credibility that the ESRB has just as much leeway in that regard. Any demands to make the ESRB be more transparent, without requiring the same of other media industry ratings boards is disingenuous, and targeted persecution of that specific media (namely, video games).

Yee just doesn't seem to get it. The ESRB would lose a large amount of their credibility if they gave in to his ridiculous demands.

Maybe it's time we step in and all send him the link to http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp so that he can learn about the ratings system. It's obvious he doesn't have a friggin' clue what it entails.

Also, perhaps to alleviate some of this ignorance on his part and the part of others like the CCFC, the developers and publishers could produce a series of PSAs letting parents know about the ratings and parental control systems. We tend to blame others for their own ignorance, which by all rights is their problem not ours, but we could make an effort to educate the dullards that don't want to take the time to figure this stuff out on their own.

@Andrew Eisen:

I agree with you up to the point where you're considering buying Manhunt 2. You talk about the creator's vision being compromised as if it was a Fellini film... which it most certainly is not.

Additionally, based on that logic, you may as well never again go see a movie in its theatrical releases since just about every movie is "edited" to conform to its desired target demographic based on the MPAA rating it receives. And, didn't you or someone else at GP argue that many other games are routinely edited to get an M rating but just never get the controversy? Seems to me this rating re-do is normal for the game industry right? Why feed in to R*/TT's hype ?

So, Yee and others like him are willfully misrepresenting the actions and goals of the ESRB in order to further their own agendas?

Why that’s…untrustworthy.


Andrew Eisen

@HCF

"We’re talking about ESRB disclosure, not game industry disclosure. They can yell till they’re blue in the face at the game industry to fully disclose games before their release - and good luck with that - but the ESRB could disclose no more than what they’re offered."

Remember, these criticisms are coming from the same people who demand the ESRB play 100% of the game. So really if you give them the info currently submitted, they'll just bitch until they get 100% of the game anyway, because they want the whole game studied.

So really, you're not decreasing the amount of bitching by giving them the info, so why bother at all then? It's not going to make the ESRB any more credible in their eyes...

@Andrew

See my suggestion about the $100 report vs. the $70 game. ;)
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

http://gamepolitics.com/2007/08/29/yee-what-is-esrb-trying-to-hide/#comm...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

@Xlorep DarkHelm

yet another argument against ESRB transparency based on precedent.

I really fail to see how the ESRB/Game Devs in tandem stepping up to the plate in an UNPRECEDENTED way as a sign of good faith. The "spoiler" and "sales" issue are easily dealt with by determining a time table, say 6 months? a year?

Saying you won't do something because someone else doesn't have to is not an argument that sounds reasonable to me.

I TOTALLY agree that it is unfair the way the industry as a whole is persecuted but I see no reason why extra steps can't be taken to pre-empt this current nonsense since ultimately it would not hurt anyone and then no one can say the industry is not bending over backwards to "help".

-mw

The Central Scrutinizer,

“You talk about the creator’s vision being compromised as if it was a Fellini film… which it most certainly is not.”

I bet Manhunt 2’s creative director would beg to differ. Besides, how would you know? You haven’t played it yet.

And Frederico Fellini’s creative vision is just as important as Uwe Boll’s. Neither should be compromised.

“Additionally, based on that logic, you may as well never again go see a movie in its theatrical releases since just about every movie is “edited” to conform to its desired target demographic based on the MPAA rating it receives.”

I often don’t see movies theatrically for just that reason.

“Seems to me this rating re-do is normal for the game industry right? Why feed in to R*/TT’s hype ?”

Because I know about it. I’d be saying the same thing if I found out Katamari Damacy’s creative director wanted people to leave blood smears on the ground as they were rolled up.


Andrew Eisen

@Xlorep:

I agree. But a statement to that effect is more an attack on the person making the argument (even if they are, transparently, singling out an industry who are not his campaign contributors) than an attack on the argument itself.

@Andrew:

There is at least one thing you can count on. "No matter how far an ass walks, it will not return to you a horse."

@The Central Scrutinizer

Well, legally, precedent determines if they should be forced to do so. The whole *point* of my argument was precedent -- if there is no precedent for such a thing already existing, there is no reason to expect an industry to do it. What said industry does on their own volition is a completely different, and actually irrelevant argument with no real connection to the point at hand -- that a representative of government is attempting to pressure the industry to be transparent, and using underhanded statements to do so, when there is no precedent for such a thing already existing for any other kind of media -- it becomes a matter of singling out video games apart from other media.

Historically, any time people have given into pressure the likes of what Yee is wanting, that has not been the end of it. If the ESRB became fully transparent and revealed everything (which I won't even begin to discuss the impact this would have on video game developers ever willingly submitting to being rated by the ESRB ever again, as it would make the ESRB the largest spoiler organization *ever*), it would not be enough. Once he got his way on that, he'd push for something else, and continue to push for things until he could shut down what he feels as "ultra-violent video games" for good.

The ESRB capitulating to this demand would be a serious wound against the industry and the credibility of the ESRB as seen by the industry. Why? because there are simply corporate secrets that are not to be made available to the general public before the company which made the game is good and ready. Where's the surprises which people come to expect in media? What if the MPAA had to reveal everything about a movie, in detail, in order to be "completely transparent" before the movie went to the box office? How would that have affected movies like "The Sixth Sense" or other such movies that have a surprise ending, if the ending is already revealed and on public display?

What Yee is asking for here is unrealistic, and he knows it. But it is something that makes headlines and attracts attention -- unwarranted negative attention at that -- toward the ESRB.

Oh, remember, the Comics industry capitulated to the demands of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his movement, resulting in the formation of the Comics Code Authority, which served to stagnate the Comics industry for years until the honchos at the main comic corporations finally got fed up with it. Video Games right now are more or less going through the exact same attacks that Comic books did in the '50s.

Uwe Boll's "vision" is that of him driving a pickup truck full of money to a bank.


puhLEEZE spare me the "artistic" comparisons. lets just agree to disagree on that one, so many people do already, no need for us to.

now, as far as the ESRB and Game Devs are concerned, in my opinion the process should be transparent and it is NOT a position I hold lightly or because of just this incident. I don't see it as a move to cater to one group or the other, I see it as a needed step in evolving the "PERCEPTION" of video games in the public eye.

Fighting amongst ourselves or with JT will not evolve anything, so in the interest of that end, I will not 'argue' with anyone here. My position in the game industry is not that different than a retailer, but my opinion as a "gamer" is just as valid as anyone here and I respect most of the people that come here regularly quite a bit and I think Andrew and Dennis are doing something that very few people are doing and that is creating a dialogue within the gaming community, the gamers, and that is very important.

My comments and opinions on these subjects are meant to bolster "evolution" of video game culture.

I don't know about any of you but as a 42 yo parent I find my self defending video games quite a bit in social settings. I'm getting sick of it and I'd like to see some more strides in a positive direction in my lifetime. I know its asking a lot but considering where we've come from in such a short amount of time, I see it as entirely possible and plausible to expect more of the same.

"Parents simply can not trust an entity that is unwilling to disclose or give any meaningful rationale at how they come to their decisions. "

The MPAA seats a review board that is kept secret from the public. They're repeatedly refused to identify the people rating games, even to movie studios and producers. They only release a final rating, not listing any of the specific reasons, or how many times a movie was submitted for rating. The Bourne Ultimatum gets "Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action." but no indications beyond that (rating taken directly from the MPAA's website). If State Senator Yee and similar critics were serious about their rhetoric, they would be going after the MPAA and RIAA as well. The fact that they're not should be a red flag that they've got an ax to grind.

And I only see full transparency as being detrimental to the industry. As a software developer, heck, as a video game (and any media) fan in general, I can see the negative effects it can have, strictly from the standpoint that some things in any media are meant to be surprises, and full transparency would make nothing be a surprise. How many people who read mystery novels would continue to do so if they knew exactly how it was going to end, every single time? There needs to be an element of mystery surrounding the video games, and other media as well.

I've had to defend video games more than a few times myself, and I am not a parent. It is the times we currently live in. Transparency would cripple the ESRB, forcing extreme indecisiveness in many situations as if every action they took was constantly being monitored, even if they are doing the right thing, that gets... well.... tiresome. Ever had a boss who was always watching over your shoulder? Same kind of problem, but at a bigger scale. It shows an extreme lack of trust in the ESRB as a board, and them becoming fully transparent could rapidly be taken as them revealing that they don't have the capability to make decisions on their own and should be dissolved.

No, confidentiality needs to remain in place, thank-you very much.

I have to say guys, I went into a game store yesterday and when buying my new copy of STALKER Shadows of Chernobyl, I was carded. I'm amazed honestly, as I look far older than 17.

This is, to me, a sign that the market is doing its job and that COMPANIES are more than capable of keeping those games out of kids' hands without parent consent.

In other words, leave the fucking ESRB alone.

“Parents simply can not trust an entity that is unwilling to disclose or give any meaningful rationale at how they come to their decisions.” -Yee

Really?

According to the ESRB parents agree with the assigned ratings 82% of the time.

http://www.esrb.org/about/news/downloads/ESRB_AwarenessUsePR_5.4.07.pdf

According to the FTC, 87% of parents reported being "very" to "somewhat" satisfied with ESRB ratings.

http://www.ftc.gov/reports/violence/070412MarketingViolentEChildren.pdf

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 93% of parents found the ESRB ratings to be either “very useful” or “somewhat useful.”

http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/Rating-Sex-and-Violence-in-the-Media-...

Well gee-whiz Senator Yee, it looks like parents are pretty happy with the ESRB as it is. So, explain to me again why you think parents can’t trust the ratings without more transparency.

Andrew Eisen

Even if the ESRB wanted to release why it gave a game a specific rating it couldn't. The publishers are never going to agree to having the process by which their games were rated released to the public.

Imagine for a second that the public decided that books needed to be rated and a board was developed to do this. Imagine that authors had to go through a process of writing and re-writing their product to receive a rating that matched their target audience. Then imagine that the public demanded that the ratings board release information about what was cut to receive a particular rating and what stayed the same. For a writer this could be devastating. In a very real sense they would have lost partial control over their own intellectual property.

Creating video games, like writing, is a continual process. At no point should one stage of the creation process demand that the owner release his or her IPs to satisfy public curiosity or quell public outrage.

Where the heck is Rockstar during all this? This whole heap of bull could be ended simply by someone from Rockstar or T2 saying "we made changes to the original game, we took out so-and-so and what-not, and thank the ESRB for protecting the privacy of our company as well as letting us release the edited version with an M rating." For a company that has been talking so much about defending video games as an art form and standing up to censor happy politicians they sure are leaving the ESRB out to dry.

@Andrew Eisen

Well cited. :)

"When weighing in on laws to prohibit the sale of ultra-violent video games to children, the industry has said over and over, 'trust us; our rating system will protect children.'"

Um, no they haven't, Senator. They've said that they will provide tools to help protect children, but it is primarily the parent's responsibility. People keep trying to cast this as an issue of whether or not children should be able to play extremely violent games. It is not.

Sure, the ESRB and the game industry might be able to work together in some way and allow for greater transparency of the ratings process. But for what purpose?

As many have said, due to issues of non-disclosure and the like, revealing the specific scenes that determined why a game got a particular rating would cause issues. It would violate the NDA's the ESRB has certianly signed. Now, some might wonder, why can't they just word the future NDA's so that only content directly related to the rating is allowed to be revealed? Well, first of all, I imagine that would be a legal nightmare to work out, and second of all, it still wouldn't stop major things from being spoiled in some cases.

Imagine if you will that some anticipated RPG gets a M rating, surprising some people because the game didn't seem that violent or anything from the previews. Turns out the reason why this game got it's rating was largely because there was a certain scene where a main character gets tortured, and has her arm cut off and her eyes removed. It's not an especially gory scene with the way the game presents it, but it's very effective in conveying the pain the character was going through, and it's somewhat disturbing. (Intentionally so.) It happens to a very likable character (the main character's love interest, actually), and is designed to fuel the fury of the player.

Incidently, this scene occurs near the very end of the game, after a very clever fake ending. Not some stupid fake ending done halfway through the game when it's obvious it's not over, but one done very near the real ending that is very well-designed and actually has a high chance of tricking the player into thinking the game is over.

If the fact that a main character is tortured and losses her arm and eyes is revealed, that fact alone will spoil many things for the players. As soon as that scene of torture starts, they are going to know what happens. Because of the circumstances of the scene, they'll instantly know that she's going to lose her arm and eyes, and the whole shocking nature of that scene will be greatly reduced. Perhaps even worse, they have no chance of falling for the fake ending anymore because they know that someone losses her arm and eyes in the game.

I chose a rather extreme hypothetical example here, but the fact is, there are many many minor things that could be spoiled by having the exact scenes of violence/sex/language revealed.

So, maybe the ESRB should disclose their rating process after the fact, after the game's already released and spoilers are already out there? That's what some say. Sounds good?

Except, I think that would be pointless. It wouldn't satisfy critics. They want to know things NOW. They want to blast the ESRB for games that aren't released and that they have never played, you think a "We'll tell you why we gave it a M in 6 months" would satisfy them? It wouldn't, it would just give them something to nitpick about later. It would be a waste of time and money on the ESRB's part. There are far far better things for them to spend their time on.

Frankly, people should be using resources such as GamerDad if they require more details on a game they plan to buy. The ESRB cannot be expected to put an entire review on the box, and certainly not spoilers. Such details as described by Mad_Scientist above would ruin the game if the ESRB told everyone, but a site dedicated to Parents who are interested in the games their child are playing could include that information and therefore make the parent more aware of the reasons a particular rating was given.

"# Joe_Snow Says:
August 29th, 2007 at 7:39 am

You gotta love how the word “Ultra-Violent” keeps coming up in these press releases. What soccer mom thought that word up?"

Ya know what we need? Ratings based on the difficulty levels of doom.

"I'm too young to die!"
"Hey, not too rough"
"Hurt me plenty"
"Ultra-violence [:)]"
"NIGHTMARE!"

At least part of it's already ingrained permanently into their brains.

Hahahaha!!!

That would Rock!

I'm gonna call it as I see it: Rockstar, once again playing the media for free advertising and to inflate a game's sales artifically.

In this fasion, Yee is perhaps their most sucessful advertiser... And he does it for free.

@ Thetruemrjack
sounds like the WOLF3d difficulty settings.

I'm just always stuck wondering why the ESRB is coming under such fire from secrecy complaints while the MPAA has functioned for over 30 years without trouble. I believe in transpanrency, but why single out the game industry when most every other medium's ratings function in a similar fashion. Can't wait until they start rating novels.

20 The new hot Paris Hilton sex tape footage...

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