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A user-generated dilemna

Keri takes a sideways glance at recent controversies

It's The Next Big Thing. Oh yes folks, don't think that just because you've had a long day, and all you want to do is have a bit of a chillax in front of the telly and play a few silly games that you've got an excuse to be unproductive. No no no. It's nearly 2009, and if we want to play great videogames, we've got to start pulling our weight.

"The era of passive entertainment is waning, active entertainment is where the action is" declares Reggie Fils-Aime, CEO Of Nintendo America, triumphantly riding the crest of the zeitgeist, the Wiimote of destiny twitching excitedly in his hand. With the releases of Spore, Guitar Hero World Tour, LittleBigPlanet and other various others, a new hot topic is in town.

User Generated Content: it's the future!

Really? Because so far, I have seen the future, and it is penis shaped.

Phalluses aside, I can see why UGC is the new champion of the console. We do indeed like to take a more immersive role in our gaming, that much was obvious as early as the days of SimCity or The Sims, and you'd have to have been living in a cave with your fingers in your ears to avoid acknowledging the phenomenon that is Second Life. And it doesn't stop at games. The staggering popularity of Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, and Youtube demonstrate that we don't just want to look at things anymore, we want to be an actual part of the entertainment. And the games companies want a slice of the pie. Because the pie is made of money. Yeahhhh.

Which is why peddling UGC at this time makes so much sense. The concept of designing things for yourself has been around in games for donkeys years - one forum post noted the existence of a level editor in a game as far back as 1985 - but we now have the technology (and desire) to enable us to share our efforts online with other players. Because really, what's the point of making something if you can't show it off, eh?

So here's the golden marketing opportunity for the games companies: take a not-too-original idea, give it a fancy rebrand, and tap into the social networking craze goldmine. In his gushing predictions for Nintendo's future, Fils-Aime quoted Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata, as saying: "We believe that building a foundation where players' creativity is harnessed and the results are shared is becoming increasingly important." Well, duh. Nintendo are a little late onto the bandwagon, but luckily there's enough room on there for everyone. UGC is the next logical step in the consumer-driven entertainment revolution, and at present there doesn't seem to be a genre that can't exploit it. Music, platforming, and simulation examples have been released already, and perhaps the sky's the limit.

And what a noble endeavour! We've known for a while now that Nintendo had a secret plan for getting us fitter, cleverer and less nicotine-reliant, but it seems that Sony, Microsoft EA and Activision are getting in on the act. What better answer to anti-gaming campaigners, who complain of the dissolution of community brought about by the rise of the solitary, anti-social gamer, than to make a game where a major selling point is the ability to immerse yourself in an active social community (albeit online), flexing your creative muscles and making things to entertain your fellow man?

This emphasis on creativity is indeed to be celebrated. To highlight console gaming's potential as a platform for creativity and artistic expression is a fantastic idea. This opens new areas of attraction for an activity universally considered a pretty low-brow form of entertainment - parents will be much more easily swayed by their darlings' demands for a game if it involves (or at least has the potential to involve) genuine creative thought, where kids could maybe even learn new skills or develop an interest in design or composition. For adults too, the opportunity to craft something new, to enjoy a perhaps all too rare opportunity to make something new and explore an underused imaginative side to our personalities may present itself as an opportunity as refreshing as it is entertaining. As Kyle Shubel put it in an interview with screwattack.com about LBP, "Just go out [into the game] and have some fun."

That's great, isn't it? I feel inspired. To celebrate, I'll join countless gamers across the globe in making a huge hairy pair of balls with titties for eyes dance around in the innovative landscapes of Spore (although it'll be nowhere near as good as a fellow artist's creation I saw on Youtube, a walking slug creature made out of the word 'f**k'). Or maybe I'll make Sackboy jump around on a wall shaped like a willy, or over blocks arranged to make the words 'beef curtains' or something really brilliant.

Because that's the main problem with User Generated Content - you've got to rely on the users to generate it. "Whether it's modeling clay, dolls or crayons, a small number of people can be counted on to use it for something vulgar," said Lucy Bradshaw, Spore's executive producer, in an interview with CNN. Kyle Shubel said he expected penis levels in LBP up within the fourth hour of open gameplay. Both expressed their confidence in their games' moderation systems, as though simply deleting these creations were the only issue.

I must admit, I find the whole 'Sporn' thing pretty funny. The fact that it was so blindingly obvious that this is what the creature generation engine would be used for actually just makes it all the more amusing to me. The same with LittleBigPlanet. But it does make me wonder why big companies like EA and Sony would want to invite this kind of behaviour at all? Yes, they can take the vulgar creatures and levels out of the game, but that requires strict policing - a time consuming and unreliable process. Even deleted creations still show up on Youtube - with their ties to the games in question clearly labeled. This is not great publicity, and doesn't exactly contribute to the thriving, creative community originally envisioned. Games are certified based on the reviewable content submitted by the game's creators - neither of these games have been labeled as suitable only for those over 18, but some of the online UGC would demand such certification. You can see horrified mothers fainting on the lino all across the land as they stumble upon little Marcus merrily driving Sackboy in a penis shaped rocket into a vagina facade tunnel. Yes, it can be deleted, but the damage is done.

Not to mention the real world consequences of such appalling actions. Who could forget the infamous Second Life flying phallus bombardment, which later led to the savage attack on respected chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov at an event in real life Russia. There are lessons to be learned here, kids.

Penny Arcade neatly summed up the problem with UGC controversy in a strip they published a few months back. Sony famously delayed their hotly anticipated LBP release due to one line in a song briefly referencing the Koran, and yet now searches for levels with the keywords '911' or 'Twin Towers' yield plenty of results for those eager to try Sackboy's fingerless hand at terrorism role play. Can it really be worth Sony's time and reputation to allow people the opportunity to do this?

Well, luckily, for every one crude or offensive player level, there are dozens of good, clean wholesome ones to justify the UGC capability. And as for Guitar Hero, well, you can't make a penis out of a song! The inability to create songs with lyrics neatly sidesteps the issue of crudity and controversy. Except actually, Activison are right up there sharing the biggest problem of all with EA and Sony. Vulgarity is not the biggest challenger to the UGC dream, but copyright.

Which is where the whole UGC thing starts to fall flat. GHTunes may be the big differentiator between Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour, but its appeal to many is very quickly fading. Activision have, predictably, found themselves having to delete scores of uploaded user compositions - as players happily turned out renditions of their favourite songs, or even just videogame theme tunes. Shame on you, aspiring guitar heroes. The T&Cs clearly state that all shared tunes must be unique creations, and not reference anyone else's intellectual property. EA have had to delete many a Spore creature who looks just that bit too familiar. And it's no secret that LBP moderators have been having to get a bit trigger happy with the delete level button in an effort to avoid legal action. In the pursuit of controversy free gaming, several reports of totally clean, original levels being deleted for inexplicable or wholly unnecessary reasons have emerged. And what right has the gamer to complain? None. It's all in the terms and conditions that no-one else's IP can be referenced. And in creating anything in game, you waive all rights to your creation. They own it now.

But, come on, guys! One could liken it to handing out paper and crayons to kids, and asking them to draw whatever they like, then ripping up every picture they draw of their favourite cartoon character. It isn't always kids for the most part whose levels are being deleted, I dare say, but an adult who has spent the best part of a few days crafting his homage to Super Mario Brothers will almost certainly react in the same way. The level creator in LittleBigPlanet is amazing, no doubt about it; but it's not exactly easy to make something genuinely entertaining, a game good enough that you'd think other people would want to play it. The same applies to GHTunes. Being genuinely creative is hard enough, but team this with the fact that there are so many rules, and suddenly the game seems more like work. Given the choice, I'll leave the creation to the professionals.

Until digital copyright laws change to allow amateur representations of copyrighted things being displayed in a commercial setting, this will continue to be a problem. But maybe it's all part of the great gamer-improvement scheme; as gamers we need to rise to meet the high demands placed upon us, to strive toward that genuinely creative goal, to improve our inventiveness, and emerge the other side inspired, talented individuals with perfect pitch and story crafting skills worthy of Chaucer.

Or maybe User Generated Content isn't the future; maybe it's just an ill-advised fad. I'll go back to making my NXE Avatar burp out a rendition of 'Mary had a little lamb', but I'll make sure he doesn't look too much like Luigi.

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