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Bulletstormgate: Fox News Responds

Featured post And on and on and on, so long as the nonsense comes.

There’s always a twist. If you followed the Fox News Debacle, you’ll have seen the tale that began with an article on Rupert Murdoch’s esteemed news source that asked whether Bulletstorm was “the worst video game in the world”, and argued that playing it could cause people to rape. We took a closer look at the claims made, found that at least one of those interviewed had been deliberately misrepresented and another ignored, and demonstrated that the author of the article did not complete even basic fact checking before publishing (for instance, being willing to let readers believe that reported rapes are on the increase). Then the “expert” who triggered it all, Dr. Carole Lieberman, got in touch to finally provide her evidence for the “thousands” of articles that proved sexual violence in games causes sexual violence in real life. Nothing she sent had anything to do with the subject, and it became clear that she had either not read the papers she was linking to, or wasn’t able to understand them.

Now the original author of the Fox News article, John Brandon, has filed a new Bulletstorm story on FoxNews.com, in which he once again makes extraordinarily inaccurate statements that he cannot evidence, and decides to insinuate that Rock, Paper, Shotgun has not told you the truth. Oddly enough, we have.

Because Fox News do seem to be very muddled on this matter, let’s state this once again, up front: Rock, Paper, Shotgun does not reject the notion that violence in games could have a real-world effect on players. We do not reject this because we have yet to see convincing evidence either way, and our minds remain open. Currently, of studies that appear unbiased and scientifically robust, there is a balance between the two sides, however neither sets of results having conducted the longer-term studies that would be necessary for drawing any useful conclusions. At the moment the best one side has is to demonstrate that showing someone a sexually explicit image makes them feel more sexually aroused, and the other likes to point out that people gain better motor coordination skills whether it makes them beat up their brother or not. We aren’t at a point where it’s helpful to make pronouncements either way. What we can see, however, is that violent videogames have been around for a few decades, and there is no noticeable increase in violent crime in any Western culture that has been affiliated with gaming, and that certainly sexual crimes have dramatically fallen (by a staggering 85% in the US) since videogaming became a pursuit. If it were to cause such terrible results, it would seem reasonable to have seen its widespread effects. So far this has not proven to be demonstrably the case. So let’s move on.

Fox News’s John Brandon has not been convinced by the information we’ve been publishing. His initial story, designed to provoke fear about gaming – especially Bulletstorm – was filled with inaccuracies, ill-informed “experts”, and misquotes designed to give the impression those who study videogames believed the exact opposite of what they’d told him. It was not an example of the finest journalism, and unless Brandon is delusional, he must surely know that he selectively plucked “facts” and obfuscated information to create a misleading story that matched an agenda of the far-right news source. Unless he is unable to comprehend basic English, he knows that a game including out-of-context words like “topless” is not depicting sexually violent acts. So he had his own reasons for writing the story the way he did. And having acquired the responses genuine experts sent him, we know what information he was choosing to ignore. To Brandon’s disadvantage, we chose to do some investigation into the story. He doesn’t appear to be pleased.

In a new article on the same site, Brandon reveals that Bulletstorm has sensationally been censored in… Germany. Not in the US, he notes – his nation shall have to face the full depravity. But the Germans are to be spared. He puts it like this:

“It’s too violent for Germany. But it’s okay for America? Yet another uberviolent video game will be unleashed on an unsuspecting public next week. Featuring over-the-top violence, strong profanity and crude sexual innuendos, Bulletstorm shocked Germany’s watchdogs, who slapped the game with an 18+ rating — and demanded that publisher Electronic Arts (EA) significantly censor it to cut scenes of dismemberment and gore. EA won’t censor the violent game for its U.S. launch February 22 however.”

“Shocked”, “slapped”, “demanded”, “censor”, “dismemberment and gore”. None of which acknowledges the widely known fact that Germany does not allow any games to contain spilled human blood or human gore. It is nothing specific to Bulletstorm, it is not representative of anything this particular game does wrong beyond any other. German gaming censorship is an archaic system that has unfairly treated gaming for many years. But for Brandon the implication is this specific game is uniquely abhorrent.

Brandon later employs a technique common to those who write heavy editorialising disguised as the reporting of information. Familiar to anyone who has read the Daily Mail, Daily Express, or experienced much of Murdoch’s Fox empire, a deliberately obfuscated statement at the start of an article is designed to cause shock, before being contradicted/corrected by something thrown in further down. The idea is to have had the enormous impact on the reader with the outrageous claim, before nonchalantly contradicting it midway through, seemingly to escape criticism. So Brandon can reply to the above by saying, “Ah, but later I wrote…”

“EA acknowledged the censorship by German advisory board USK, explaining that the country censors many videogames, a policy the publisher disagrees with.”

However, the reality is this form of reporting makes the journalist look either confused or deceitful. The reader is forced to ask: If he was in possession of the above statement, then why did he not correct his opening barrage? (Also, if it’s such a huge issue, then why was he okay to publish a screenshot of the violence at the top of the article without a warning?)

NOW I WILL DO A MURDER!

But it’s not the only time Brandon gets, er, confused in his article. Let’s take a look at some of his other statements.

“FoxNews.com first exposed Bulletstorm on Feb. 8, warning that the game ties ugly, graphic violence into explicit sex acts: “topless” means cutting a player in half, while a “gang bang” means killing multiple enemies.”

What a revelatory exposure it was. This would be the same Bulletstorm that was first announced by EA on the 12th April, 2010. In the accompanying press release the following was included:

“Players step into the role of Grayson Hunt complete with an arsenal of over-the-top combat moves and outrageously large guns. Bulletstorm’s array of distinct ‘skillshots’ produces unprecedented levels of frantic gameplay and yell-inducing satisfaction. The skillshot system rewards players for inciting mayhem in the most creative way possible. The more insane the skillshot, the more points players collects to upgrade their character and unlock weapons, which then allows them to execute even more creative moves and exaggerated skillshots.”

GameTrailers first featured a video containing violent in-game footage on the 13th May 2010. GT captioned the video, “It’s violent, bloody and without redeeming social value. When do we get to play it?” And the video footage contained the ultra-violent Skill Shots, including the infamous “Gang Bang”.

It’s been widely publicised and discussed, with numerous videos, some outlandishly offensive, regularly over the last year. Fox News “exposed” nothing whatsoever.

Then there’s,

“And the experts FoxNews.com spoke with were nearly universally worried that video game violence may be reaching a fever pitch.”

“nearly universally” is a splendidly oxymoronic phrase, but it’s also an extremely inappropriate one. Let’s have a look at those experts:

Dr. Jerry Weichman: A motivational speaker for teenagers, Weichman is the only one of the people we contacted who has yet to get back to us. We had asked him what his experience of Bulletstorm was, and what expertise he had within the field of videogaming violence. He has so far been unable to provide us with this information. [Edit: since publication Weichman has responded to us.] He was described as against Bulletstorm.

Carole Lieberman: With her name now correctly spelt on the original article after we pointed it out, her claims were rapidly demonstrated to be completely nonsensical, and her eventual “evidence” proved to be nothing of the sort. She was certainly against Bulletstorm.

Electronic Arts: Pointed out that the game was strongly labelled as for adults only. They were, unsurprisingly, in favour of Bulletstorm.

Billy Pidgeon: Grossly misrepresented, Pidgeon had his quote deliberately mangled to give the impression that he compared Bulletstorm to Postal and BMX XXX, and that he didn’t think the game would sell well. He thought the precise opposite, as was extremely clear from the text he sent Fox News. He was in favour of Bulletstorm.

Hal Halpin: The president of the ECA informed Fox News that he “supported” the game, and compared it to the film work of Quentin Tarantino. He was in favour of Bulletstorm.

Melanie Killen, Ph.D: The University Of Maryland professor campaigns for legally enforced ratings on videogames in the US, but makes no statement even implying that she wishes to see Bulletstorm banned or censored, nor does she make any published statement criticising its content. Her only concern is that children not play it. Her opinion is therefore not available.

Hal Levy: The representative of the National Youth Rights Association tells Fox News that the game is “praised for encouraging innovative thinking”, and that emotionally unstable adults will not be affected by playing the game. He is seemingly in favour of Bulletstorm.

Scott Steinberg: Not included in the article, but approached by Brandon for his expert opinion, Steinberg was overtly in favour of Bulletstorm in the detailed, erudite and informed answers he gave the reporter.

So of the experts we know John Brandon spoke to, five of the eight were in favour of the game. One was ambiguous. Two were against. This is, he states, “nearly universally” worry. Which is clearly not true.

Then we get this extraordinary statement:

“The gaming press reacted violently. The site RockPaperShotgun.com [no link] contacted FoxNews.com sources and posted transcripts of interviews, exposing “the full story,” they claimed. Some sources, including Scott Steinberg, the CEO of consultancy TechSavvy Global, shared private e-mail interviews with other websites.”

Let’s break this down.

exposing the “full story,” they claimed.

Too cowardly to acknowledge that we’d accurately called him out, or to simply outright libel us, Brandon instead opts for something more insidious. He attempts to imply that we at Rock, Paper, Shotgun were in some way not telling the truth.

None of the four stories published on this matter contained the phrase “the full story” he misleadingly attributes to us, and never did we claim to have provided any such thing. We claimed to, and indeed did, post the available truth. We spoke to the people Brandon had contacted, and we found out what they had really said. Even Lieberman repeatedly stated to various sites that she had been “taken out of context” by Brandon in his article. (Despite then making the same ignorant and entirely unevidenced claims that Brandon had credited to her.) We looked at the available statistics on rape, which directly contradicted that which Brandon was happy to report as fact on a major news site. And we investigated the evidence behind the claims, finding none of it supported anything that had been said. Certainly we offered a far fuller story than Brandon. And we absolutely did not lie about anything.

Some sources, including Scott Steinberg, the CEO of consultancy TechSavvy Global, shared private e-mail interviews with other websites.

The impression given is that Steinberg somehow betrayed a bond of privacy with Fox News. What Steinberg sent us (and other sites) was his full responses that he wrote to Fox, which included the questions he’d been asked. These responses were ignored by Fox, and as such Steinberg thought it important to make it clear to the wider press that Fox had been in full possession of information that contradicted the published article. The notion that his own thoughts and feelings on the matter should be “private” is a fairly ludicrous one. Although one could see a reason why Brandon would be embarrassed to see his sensible questions exposed, contrasting his chosen style of delivery on the site.

Oddly Brandon summarises the games press response (he only identifies our coverage, and Destructoid’s typically outlandish angle) as “defending free speech.” We can attest that while of course we do (although not in our own comments), that was nothing to do with the content of our articles. We were defending evidenced based truth. It seems odd that this somehow didn’t come across to the Fox News reporter.

In light of all this, Brandon did not choose to write a story admitting that he’d misrepresented the game (it contains no sexual violence), the people he’d spoken to, nor to offer another side of the argument. Instead he writes one repeating the same ill-informed claims, littering it with occasional truths between editorialising outrage.

Image from multiple sources, but may belong to Games Radar.

The new article the goes on to “investigate” the ESRB ratings.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), rates all video games as a guide for parents; each game carries a letter-label at retail (T for Teen, M for Mature) and an online-only summary. And many experts say it’s useless, because it isn’t enforced at retail.

These mysterious “experts” are not identified. And they somewhat contradict what Brandon was told by one expert who definitely did speak to him. Billy Pidgeon informed him,

“The ESRB ratings and the market have all the control necessary to limit the availability of games with objectionable content for sale to minors. The current rating system determines who can buy a game based on content, and retailers typically strongly support these ratings. Games with violent or objectionable content will be rated T for Teen (13+), M (17+) or AO (18+). Bulletstorm is rated M and retailers will not be likely to sell the game to purchasers without ID certifying age.”

And then, enormously strangely, Brandon goes on to provide abundant evidence that his own claim is complete nonsense. Claudia Bourne Farrell of the FTC told him that most online stores require a credit card for purchases, effectively blocking minors from purchasing. But don’t take comfort, because, “However, according to a report by the NPD Group, 90% of game purchases are made at “brick-and-mortar” stores like Wal-Mart.” Uh-oh – so it must be there that the kids are getting them then? I mean, you wouldn’t say “however” otherwise, right? Um, no.

“Retailers have been doing an excellent job checking customers’ ID to make sure they are seventeen or older before selling them an M-rated game,” said Eliot Mizrachi, communications director at the ESRB. “Considering that both video games and movies are rated for age-appropriateness, why should they be treated differently in terms of how they are sold?”

But he would say that, wouldn’t he? But what about Dan Hewitt of the Entertainment Software Association? He told Fox News,

“a recent FTC study found that 96% of those surveyed were aware of the ESRB rating and what it means. Hewitt also said the average age of those who play video games is now 34, much higher than in past years.”

But didn’t we begin this section of the story being told that “experts say” the ESRB ratings are “useless”? None is named, referenced, alluded to. Just a series of people saying the precise opposite.

Which appears to be John Brandon’s MO in his two Bulletstorm stories. Make an unsupportable, untrue and scaremongering statement at the top of an article, pretend that there is abundant evidence to prove this from unidentified experts, and then put a series of contradictory or easily disproved claims from a few of those who got back to him. And presumably hope no one bothers to think about it.

His conclusion comes from nowhere:

So what is to become of Bulletstorm? So much has been written about the shooter prior to release that the actual game may end up being disappointing. Indeed, FoxNews.com tested a widely available demo and found the game was gory and crude — but hardly a creative tour-de-force.

Never mind the lunacy of reviewing a game based on a demo, the first statement is just peculiar. No more has been written about Bulletstorm than any other forthcoming AAA cross-platform release. Maybe Brandon means in light of his own articles? Certainly a lot has been written about the horrendous state of reporting on Fox News in light of the stories, and the discussion of gaming violence has been brought up once more. But this is all pretty much irrelevant to Bulletstorm. We’ll find out tomorrow when the game is released, and the embargo on the reviews expires.

We’ve contacted Fox News to request an interview with John Brandon.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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