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The modern history of swearing: Where all the dirtiest words come from

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The 18th and 19th centuries’ embrace of linguistic delicacy and extreme avoidance of taboo bestowed great power on those words that broached taboo topics directly, freely revealing what middle-class society was trying so desperately to conceal. Under these conditions of repression, obscene words finally came fully into their own. They began to be used in nonliteral ways, and so became not just words that shocked and offended but words with which people could swear.

The definitive expletive of the 18th century was bloody, which is still in frequent use in Britain today, and is so common Down Under that it is known as “the great Australian adjective.” Bloody was not quite an obscenity and not quite an oath, but it was definitely a bad word that shocked and offended the ears of polite society. It is often supposed to be a corruption of the old oaths by our lady or God’s blood (minced form: ’sblood), but this is another urban legend that turns out to be false. Either it derives instead from the adjective bloody as in “covered in blood” or, as the OED proposes, it referred to the habits of aristocratic rabble-rousers at the end of the 17th century, who styled themselves “bloods.” “Bloody drunk,” then, would mean “as drunk as a blood.”

The career of bloody is interesting, because one can clearly see either its perjoration (becoming a worse and worse word) or the rise of civility in action — or perhaps both. In the late 17th century, dramatists had no problem including the word in plays seen by genteel audiences, and printers had no problem spelling it out in their editions of those plays: “She took it bloody ill of him,” is just one example, occurring in the 1693 Maids Last Prayer. Henry Fielding, author of “Tom Jones,” uses it in one of his plays in 1743: “This is a bloody positive old fellow.” And Maria Edgeworth has her hero exclaim of another man, “Sir Philip writes a bloody bad hand,” in 1801’s “Belinda.” If Miss Edgeworth — who wrote novels about young women finding love and good marriages for a largely female readership, as well as morally improving children’s literature (six volumes of “Moral Tales for Young People”) — had her young hero say “bloody,” it can’t have been that bad a word. Miss Edgeworth gets her “bloody” in at almost the last moment it is possible, however. At around this time, the word starts to get more offensive: It begins to be printed as b——y or b—— and falls out of polite use, where it continues through the Victorian era. When George Bernard Shaw wanted to create a scandal, but not too big a scandal, in his 1914 “Pygmalion,” he had Eliza Doolittle exclaim in her newly perfect posh accent, “Walk! Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi.” The first night’s audience greeted the word with “a few seconds of stunned disbelieving silence and then hysterical laughter for at least a minute and a quarter,” and there were some protests from various decency leagues, but on the whole a scandal never materialized. Bloody became “the catchword of the season” and pygmalion became a popular oath itself, as in “not pygmalion likely.” Had he scripted Eliza to say “Not fucking likely!” (which he very well could have in 1914) there in all likelihood would have been a real scandal, akin to that generated by shift in “Playboy of the Western World.”

This was bloody at the turn of the century — a bad word, but not so bad that it was not in common use, according to Shaw, “by four-fifths of the British nation.” Perhaps because of this somewhat equivocal status, bloody comes in for more than its fair share of opprobrium from Victorian language mavens. In their definitions for fuck and related terms, for example, Farmer and Henley do not editorialize, merely defining the terms (“to copulate,” etc.) and providing examples of use. But they go off on poor bloody. It is

an epithet difficult to define, and used in a multitude of vague and varying senses. Most frequently, however, as it falls with wearisome reiteration every two or three seconds from the mouths of London roughs of the lowest type, no special meaning, much less a sanguinary one, can be attached to its use. In such a case it forms a convenient intensitive, sufficiently important as regards sound to satisfy those whose lack of language causes them to fall back upon a frequent use of words of this type.

Note the typical association of bad language with low social status and lack of education — the London roughs say “bloody” a lot because their vocabulary isn’t rich enough to furnish them other options. The original OED (1888) takes a similar line — bloody is “now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered ‘a horrid word,’ on a par with obscene or profane language, and usually printed in the newspapers (in police reports, etc.) as ‘b——y.’” Perhaps the OED would have had similar things to say about fuck, but the Victorian editors decided not to include it, along with cunt. And Julian Sharman, whose 1884 “Cursory History of Swearing” does not include any obscene words, attacks bloody for several pages. A sampling:

We cannot disguise to ourselves that there is much in its unfortunate associations to render its occurrence still exceedingly painful. Originating in a senseless freak of language, it has by dint of circumstances become so noisome and offensive … Dirty drunkards hiccup it as they wallow on ale-house floors. Morose porters bandy it about on quays and landing-stages. From the low-lying quarters of the towns the word buzzes in your ear with the confusion of a Babel. In the cramped narrow streets you are deafened by its whirr and din, as it rises from the throats of the chaffering multitude, from besotted men defiant and vain-glorious in their drink, from shrewish women hissing out rancour and menace in their harsh querulous talk.

(To chaffer is “to bargain, haggle, bandy words.”) Again, bloody is portrayed as a word beloved by the ignorant, morally degenerate lower classes. Bloody, unlike a word such as fuck, was perfectly placed to attract the anger from society’s growing intolerance of obscenity — it was “a swear-word,” as the Pygmalion press described it, yet it was not quite profane and not quite obscene. This made it offensive, but not so bad that one couldn’t with any decency draw attention to it.

Bugger was the other early obscenity used nonliterally, with the true flexibility of a fully developed swearword. It was, in the past as now, a blunt, direct word for anal intercourse (or for the person who does the penetrating during said anal intercourse, the pedicator, if you will remember your Latin). Randall Cotgrave used it this way when defining levretée, the girl “buggered” by a greyhound. Even more frequently, however, the use of bugger was divorced from its literal meaning, in examples such as these: “God damn him, blood and wounds, he would bugger his Soul to Hell, and these words he used frequently to Man, Woman, and Child, bugger, bugger, bugger” (1647, reported); “Go, get thee gone … thou frantic ass, to the devil, and be buggered” (1693); “B——st [blast] and b-gg-r your eyes, I have got none of your money” (1794); “Damn ’em bugger you an’ your ballast” (1854); “Take the bugger off, he is knifing me” (1860); “Previous to this the soil had, in the expressive phrase of the country, been ‘buggered over’ with the old cast-iron plows” (1868). One final example shows that the biblical epidemic of crotch grabbing had not entirely died out in the Victorian era. A witness for an 1840 divorce petition described how Susan Shumard “came out and met him [Francis Shields, her brother], and as she came up to him, she grabbed him by his private parts; there was considerable of a scuffle; she held tight, and he hollowed to her, you bugger you, let go.” (This was evidence that Susan had slept with her brother; her husband wanted a divorce because she had supposedly married him without informing him that she was four months pregnant with her brother’s child. The General Assembly of Ohio refused to grant the divorce — they felt that the testimony on both sides was so fantastical and unreliable that they could make no determination about the truth of the matter.) It is interesting that in the 19th century, bugger was apparently a term that could be applied equally to men and women, while today it is used almost exclusively toward men. Along with Francis Shields and the gentleman who called “bugger bugger bugger” to “Man Woman and Child,” we have evidence from the masterpiece of Victorian pornography, “My Secret Life” (1888), in which the protagonist reports that a low-class prostitute with whom he is consorting calls her landlady “bugger.”

This movement contradicts two trends in swearword evolution. With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the 19th century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the “West Somerset Word-Book” defines it as “a term of contempt, applied to men only,” as in “He’s a regular shit.” Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.

When swearwords don’t become more equal-opportunity, they often begin to be used solely for women — Geoffrey Hughes calls this the “feminization of ambisexual terms.” Words such as scold, shrew, termagent, witch, harlot, bawd, and tramp were all at one point in their histories terms for men; furthermore, the terms were usually neutral and sometimes even adulatory. Scold, for example, comes from the Old Norse word for “poet.” When these terms were feminized, they perjorated, going from neutral or positive to insulting. Bugger bucks this trend, too, going from a word used of men and women equally to an insulting term reserved almost exclusively for men.

In these examples, bugger shows great grammatical flexibility. Geoffrey Hughes categorizes swearing into eight classes, while Tony McEnery finds 16; either way, the above buggers can occupy many of the slots. The word can be personal: “you bugger you!”; personal by reference: “take the bugger off”; a curse: “bugger you!”; destinational: “bugger his Soul to Hell”; and a figurative extension of literal meaning: “the soil was ‘buggered over.’” Hughes notes that “as terms become more highly charged, so they acquire greater grammatical flexibility.” As words become charged — obscene — they are able to be used in more and more ways. Once the worst word in the language, fuck can be used in all eight of Hughes’s categories and in fourteen of McEnery’s sixteen.

As we can see with bugger, most categories of swearing require the word not to be used in its literal sense. When Francis yells “you bugger you” at his sister, he is not suggesting that she goes around having anal intercourse — he means “I have a strong negative emotion toward you, let go of my balls!” When soil is described as “buggered over,” no one is suggesting that teams of sodomites traversed the field, doing their thing — it means, figuratively, “really messed up.” Along with grammatical flexibility, this figurativeness is the hallmark of a fully obscene word, a word used not as a literal descriptor but to shock, offend, or otherwise carry emotion — a swearword.

Bloody and bugger were the two most prevalent swearwords in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is ample evidence of their use, from multiple sources, because they were employed frequently (remember Shaw’s contention that bloody is “in common use as an expletive by four-fifths of the British nation”) and because they were considered less offensive than many other obscene words. It was possible to print the two, even if they had to be disguised as b——y and b-gg-r, where f——k would have been impermissible. But there is tantalizing, if sparse, evidence that our other modern swearwords were making the same transition at the same time, becoming not just obscene words but swearwords, used where one once would have used an oath. By the 1860s, swearing probably sounded much as it does today, with obscene words doing much of the work of swearing, and with religious words — damn it, Jesus, oh God — employed frequently but to less effect.

The evidence for the most part comes from records of court proceedings, where people’s spoken language was recorded verbatim; from pornographic books, where obscene language went hand in hand with obscene doings; or from dictionaries whose editors were brave enough to include bad words. Let’s take fuck, for example. Around 1790, a Virginia judge named George Tucker wrote a poem in which a father argues with his son the scholar, “‘G—d— your books!’ the testy father said, / ‘I’d not give ——— for all you’ve read.’” According to Jesse Sheidlower and Geoffrey Hughes, the third ——— is replacing “a fuck,” producing the first recorded example of the modern teenage mantra, “I don’t give a fuck.” This poem didn’t see the light of day until a scholarly edition of Tucker’s work in 1977. Tucker’s great-granddaughter published some of his poems in 1895, but she somehow didn’t see her way to including this one. By 1879, the evidence is less equivocal. A character in the mock Christmas pantomime “Harlequin Prince Cherrytop and the Good Fairy Fairfuck” (1879) declares, “For all your threats I don’t care a fuck. / I’ll never leave my princely darling duck.” (The panto relates the story of Prince Cherrytop, who has become enslaved by the Demon of Masturbation. The Good Fairy Fairfuck helps him conquer his addiction to self-abuse, so he can embrace the joys of holy matrimony with his betrothed, the Princess Shovituppa. It was written by an eminent journalist for the Daily Telegraph, whose work had also been published by Dickens and Thackeray.)

In 1866, a man swore in an affidavit that one Mr. Baker had told him he “would be fucked out of his money by Mr. Brown.” The notary who recorded the testimony editorializes, “Before putting down the word as used by the witness, I requested him to reflect upon the language he attributed to Mr. Baker, and not to impute to him an outrage upon all that was decent.” Luckily for us, the witness insisted he copy it down, outrage or no, and so we have the first recorded use of fuck meaning “cheat, victimize, betray.” In 1836 Mary Hamilton was charged with using “obscene language” in the street — she followed a group of other women, called them “bloody whores,” and “[told] them to go and f … k themselves.” An 1857 abolitionist work relates the story of a slaveholding doctor who whipped one of his slaves on Sunday. The woman “writhed under each stroke, and cried, ‘O Lord O Lord!’” The doctor “gazed on the Woman with astonishment” and said “Hush you ******* b h, will you take the name of the Lord in vain on the Sabbath day?” (“******* b h” = “fucking bitch”). Again we have circumstance to thank for the preservation of this insult. The authors of the antislavery tract were invested in making slaveholders appear as foul and morally bankrupt as they could, and one easy way to signal that was with obscene language. And though they provide no examples in their slang dictionary, Farmer and Henley describe both the adjective and adverb forms of fucking as “common.” The adjective, they note, is “a qualification of extreme contumely” (“fucking bitch” is a pretty good example of that), while the adverb (“I am fucking furious!”) is “intensitive and expletive; a more violent form of bloody.” If fucking was “common” in 1893, when the volume containing F was published, it was probably in pretty wide use for some years before that, as the 1857 example implies.

So by the mid- to late 19th century, we have many forms of fuck being used just as they are today — “he fucked me over,” “go fuck yourself,” “you fucking bitch,” “I don’t give a fuck,” et cetera. What about our other swearwords? Shit was apparently used in modern ways back then too. In an investigation of voting fraud from 1882, one man was recorded as telling another, “Shit, that’t nothen [that ain’t nothing]; get your father to swear that you are twenty-one.” This is shit as an interjection, just as we use it today: “Shit, I got a parking ticket.” And we’ve already seen the “West Somerset Word-Book of 1886″ record shit as a “term of contempt,” which, it notes, is “very com. [common].”

The same dictionary includes a definition for nackle-ass, an adjective meaning “poor, mean, inferior, paltry: applied as a term of contempt to both persons and things indifferently,” as in “Why do you not buy yourself a knife worth something; (and) not keep about such a [nackle-ass] thing as that?” or “A plat-vooted [flat-footed], nackle-ass old son of a bitch!” While nackle-ass in particular doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression beyond West Somerset, it is strikingly reminiscent of our own modern and widespread -ass constructions — big-ass, bad-ass, dumb-ass, and so on. It is different, too, from the Renaissance construction burnt-arsed, as in “burnt-arsed whore.” This was a literal use — it meant “infected with venereal disease.”

One final example will have to suffice: in 1894, a New York man murdered an acquaintance partly because the acquaintance wouldn’t stop calling him “cock-sucker.” It’s not clear who started the bad blood originally, but the deceased escalated things by ordering drinks for a group of men but excluding his murderer with the words “Treat them five and leave that cock-sucker out.” He then smacked the defendant on the nose and called him “cock-sucker” several more times. When at one point the defendant didn’t have enough money to pay for another drink, the deceased also butted in with “Let him stick it up his ass.” Eventually the defendant left the bar, came back with the gun, and shot the man who had repeatedly called him “cock-sucker.”

These examples sound practically contemporary. The words in question, fuck, shit, ass, and cocksucker, were chosen for their emotive charge, not to denote as directly as possible some part of the body or action. They were employed to shock and offend, or to express the speaker’s emotional state. Most of these are also figurative uses, not literal — nackle-ass has nothing to do with the buttocks, to be “fucked out of your money” has nothing to do with sex. It is possible that cocksucker was meant literally; the defendant repeatedly asserted that he was not a cocksucker. It was still an extremely offensive word, however, with a shock value out of proportion to its literal meaning — it led, after all, to murder. Examples of words like these are much scarcer than ones involving bloody and bugger. They are considered to be worse today, and were probably more offensive in the past as well (“an outrage upon all that was decent,” as the notary put it in 1866). Whether or not they were used less frequently in life — and they probably were not, given that fucking and shit were both described as “common” by their dictionary editors — they made it into print far less often. An essayist for the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1891 echoes the lexicographers’ insistence that these words were common, opining that “the ‘bad language’ of the present day must be characterized as obscene rather than profane.” The flexibility of bugger reveals that the contemporary grammar of obscenity existed in the early 19th century; the ubiquity of bloody shows that 19th century people used bad words with abandon. Coupled with the tantalizing but few Victorian examples of obscenities that have come down to us, it seems safe to say that by the 1860s, and perhaps even earlier, people in America and Britain were swearing much as they do today.

Another, related question is when obscene words started to be identified as “swearing,” along with oaths. Many works of the period that address swearing refer to “profane swearing and obscene language,” as if these are still considered to be separate but related kinds of speech. The entry on swearing in “Chambers’s Encyclopedia” of 1892, however, notes that “by oaths are loosely understood many terms and phrases of a gross and obscene character, as well as those words the use of which implies profanity proper.” And the Boston magazine Liberty identified both obscenity and profanity as types of swearing in 1887: “We say that it is no worse to swear by the realities of nature as exemplified in the human body than to swear by a holy ghost. One is obscenity; the other profanity.” Certainly by the early 20th century, we achieve our confused state in which “profanity” — originally a religious concept indicating the opposite of sacred — refers almost exclusively to obscene words, and “swearing” includes both oaths and obscenities.

Gamahuche, Godemiche and the Huffle

Though Victorian people were swearing in much the same way that we do today, not all the bad words of the time are as familiar as fucking bitch. Many of these words rich and strange are not swearwords per se but terms for topics so esoterically taboo that they would never have come up in polite conversation. In his 1785 “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” Francis Grose includes to huffle, which is “a piece of bestiality too filthy for explanation.” (The 1788 and 1823 editions decide that discretion is the better part of valor and fail to mention the bestial practice at all.) Grose also lists “to bagpipe, a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation.” Even Farmer and Henley, brave champions of obscenity who boldly explained fucking, refuse to define to bagpipe in their dictionary — they simply repeat Grose’s definition manqué. One hopes for something really spectacular from these words, but they are simply the Victorian version of blow job, slang for fellatio, a practice evidently much more shocking one or two centuries ago. Another popular Victorian word for this lascivity was gamahuche. It derives from French, so it probably was a euphemism used in order to lift the tone of huffle and bagpipe out of the gutter. It more properly means “mouth on genitals,” as it can be used for both fellatio and cunnilingus.

Larking is another “lascivious practice that will not bear explanation,” according to Grose in 1785. (It also disappears from later editions of his dictionary.) It is a bit harder to figure out to what larking refers. Farmer and Henley go with fellatio again, but Gordon Williams argues persuasively that larking is having sex with the man’s penis between the woman’s breasts. In an 1800 engraving called “The Larking Cull,” the man is shown in just this position.

A practice considered less horrifying, in that it gets a real definition, is to tip the velvet. In the 18th century, this apparently meant “French-kiss” — Grose describes it as “tongueing a woman,” or “to put one’s tongue into a woman’s mouth.” A hundred years later, Farmer and Henley are defining it as cunnilingus. It is possible that the meaning changed in the intervening years, or that it was already ambiguous in the 18th century — “tongueing a woman” could refer equally to either action. Such kissing does seem to have been considered deviant; “Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies,” a guide to London prostitutes published annually between 1757 and 1795, mentions how “a velvet salute of this kind” from Miss H— lsb—ry “had nearly disgusted Lord L——.” For two guineas they worked it out, however: “he found that her tongue was attuned to more airs than one.” (Covent Garden was a well-known center of prostitution. According to Grose, covent garden ague was venereal disease, a covent garden abbess was a bawd, and a covent garden nun was a prostitute.)

Other wonderful words that may be unfamiliar to you include godemiche, another French import, meaning “dildo.” A dildo, Grose helpfully explains, is “an implement resembling the virile member, for which it is said to be substituted, by nuns, boarding school misses, and others obliged to celibacy, or fearful of pregnancy. Dildoes are made of wax, horn, leather, and diverse other substances, and if fame does not lie more than usually, are to be had at many of our great toy shops and nick nackatories.” Grose is wonderfully able to describe what a dildo is while denying any firsthand knowledge of them. Lobcock is “a large relaxed penis, also a dull inanimate fellow.” A rantallion is “one whose scrotum is so relaxed as to be longer than his penis, i.e. whose shot pouch is longer than the barrel of his piece.” Fartleberries are “excrement hanging to the hairs about the anus, &c, of a man or woman.” (Here &c, “et cetera,” is back to being slang for the private parts.) And then there is burning shame, “a lighted candle stuck into the parts of a woman, certainly not intended by nature for a candlestick.” Why this lascivious practice bears mention when larking and huffling don’t is not completely clear. Grose defines cunt as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”; perhaps he was simply unable to deny himself the pleasure of the pun: burning shame is “terrible shame/shame (cunt) on fire.”

There were many vulgar slang words for the penis and the vagina themselves as well. Pego was popular, as were words that depicted the penis as splitting the woman’s anatomy or plugging a hole: arse-opener, arse-wedge, beard-splitter, chinkstopper, plugtail. It was also Thomas or man Thomas, machine, and tool, which are still in use today. The vagina was the monosyllable (Grose’s default word), quim, or pussy, a woman’s commodity — what a woman has to offer in the free market — or her madge (Madonna’s nickname is more appropriate than we thought). Slang for sexual intercourse included roger (also 18th and 19th century slang for the penis; popular in Britain today), screw, and have your greens, the last putting a different spin on a phrase I have shouted at my children for years.

Breasts and bubbies were the standard terms for breasts in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bubbies was pronounced “bubbies,” as in Jewish grandmothers, not “boobies,” as in our own juvenile word for breasts. Harris’s List finds many occasions to describe bubbies and breasts — Mrs. Books, who lodges next to the pawnbroker on Newman Street, for example, “is tolerable well made, with well formed projecting bubbies, that defy the result of any manual pressure, panting and glowing with unfeigned desire, and soon inviting the gratification of the senses.” Betsy Miles, at a cabinetmaker’s in Old Street, Clerkenwell, is “known in this quarter for her immense sized breasts, which she alternately makes use of with the rest of her parts, to indulge those who are particularly fond of a certain amusement” — larking, it sounds like. (She does it all, actually, “backwards and forwards.” “Entrance at the front door” is “tolerably reasonable,” but she gets “nothing less than two pound for the back way.”) Diddeys was another word for the breasts themselves, while bushelbubby was slang for a woman like Betsy Miles, who had large breasts. When the List describes the “two young beautiful tits” of Mrs. Mactney, Great Titchfield Street, however, it is referring to her teenage protégées, not her breasts. Tit came into its modern meaning only in the early twentieth century; from the 17th to 19th centuries, it indicated a young girl. (Tit as a variant of teat was used in the early Middle Ages — a 10th century vocabulary defines mamilla [breast] as “tit” and papilla [nipple] as “titt-strycel.”)

Excerpted from “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr. Published by Oxford University Press. Note that Oxford University Press USA reserves all rights in the Work and the Excerpt except as explicitly provided herein.

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The game industry of South Africa

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Ruan Gates, a third-year game design student at Witwatersrand University, is lost in the dirt roads of Johannesburg. He’s trying to make it back to campus, where Wits is hosting a presentation on mobile game design. His GPS picks up the location, but each route it maps leads to a metal gate. He's in Northgate, an upper middle-class suburb. Every house is walled off and topped with barbed wire and advertisements for private security companies with names like “NYPD Security.”

Gates is enrolled in South Africa’s first dedicated game design program, and is among the very first to study it locally. On his way to downtown Johannesburg, he says gaming can seem niche in South Africa.

"Gaming is an expensive hobby," he says. "There are definitely more people who play games than you may first suspect, but even smart phones are a bit too pricey for your average South African.

Johannesburg, South Africa

"The closest thing I can think of to a game everyone played is a text-based game that was kind of an add-on to Mxit," he adds. "Mxit was sort of our own WhatsApp before WhatsApp entered the market. About seven years ago, it was huge. A big thing for our youth that everyone had access to."

In recent years, South African artists have gained prominence in the Northern Hemisphere, from Die Antwoord to Charlize Theron to Trevor Noah. Yet economic disparities and a lack of infrastructure still plague the nation of 52 million, which only officially ended racial segregation in 1994. As the barriers of entry into wealth fall for South Africa’s non-white majority, luxury industries like gaming will be large enough to support an industry. As of now, games that reflect South African culture are in short supply.

"I don’t think there’s been a truly South African game yet, a game that everyone here played," Gates says.

Until the Xbox 360 officially released in 2007, PCs and knock-off consoles dominated the market. Gates is optimistic, though, about what the increased availability of data-enabled phones and platforms like Steam implies for local game developers.

"We may now have a market here," he says.

And while the first console developers in South Africa were educated abroad, a new generation of developers is set to graduate from the country’s first dedicated game design program this year.

First class

Driving from one end of Johannesburg to the other reveals a post-apartheid society that is still shattered, yet holds together like a comminuted fracture. Some neighborhoods resemble any city in Western Europe or the U.S. Others recall poverty in the developing world, with tin roofs, overcrowding and shipping containers retrofitted into shops and living areas.

Johannesburg is a city poor enough to lack reliable electricity and paved roads, with some residents affluent enough to have time to spare to sit around asking existential questions. Gates drives past dugout holes on the roadside, leftovers from Jozy’s mining city heritage, and pulls into a shopping mall-sized parking lot for students at Wits.

The presentation at Wits university takes place in a building with a steeple, dubbed the Nunnery, inside a small classroom with about 70 students from the game design program and an unreliable slide projector. Of the 70 in attendance, there are about 20 women and 35 people of color.

"We should be able to finish our next game without scraping for money ... That's everything I wanted and more."

Poland-based game designer Vincent Vergonjeanne, CEO of social game developer Everydayiplay, runs through a set of slides about Agile design principles ("think big, act small, fail fast, iterate rapidly"), how games that can’t be marketed to a specific gender are not profitable and how ad revenue works on various platforms. Vergonjeanne keeps speaking uninterrupted until he reaches a slide about how only users from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and Western Europe are really monetizable.

"What about China?" asks a student.

Vergonjeanne explains that advertisements only generate revenue when the audiences can afford the products, and that even as many as 10,000 daily active Facebook users from America would generate a tawdry $70. It isn’t what idealistic student game designers want to hear.

Some of the pioneers of the '90s South African industry, like Luke Lamothe and Travis Bulford, are in attendance. Lamothe is an elder statesman of console development in South Africa, having worked on Chase: Hollywood Stunt Driver, which released in 2002 on the Xbox, the first locally developed game to sell on a mainstream console. Bulford is the creator of Toxic Bunny, which was released in the mid '90s on PC and was the first South African game to sell over a hundred thousand copies.

Chase: The Hollywood Stunt Driver

Those moments have been since eclipsed, with online distribution models like Steam providing access to a global audience. Weeks after each of their recent respective releases, two South African games, the Contra-style ode to '80s action movies Broforce and the space janitor simulator Viscera Cleanup Detail made the top five trending games on SteamSpy, Steam’s analytics platform.

Broforce’s creative director, Evan Greenwood from Cape Town-based studio Free Lives says that his team sold over 45,000 copies in the first three weeks after the game launched out of Early Access.

"It’s pretty great for a small South African studio," he says. "We should be able to finish our next game without scraping for money, borrowing and stressing the way that we did for Broforce. That's everything I wanted and more."

Domestically, South Africa is still a small market for expensive consumer goods. In 2011, the World Bank gave the country one of the worst recorded Gini coefficients, a value used to measure economic inequality in a society.

The born-free generation, the name given to those born after the end of apartheid in 1994, now accounts for 40 percent of the population. With so much of the population college-aged or younger, the future of game development in the country is uncertain. South African democracy itself is only 21 years old, which means the people attending university are some of the first in their families to be able to do so post-apartheid.


The born-free generation

The presentation ends and students begin to gather outside the Nunnery. The response to the various slides is positive, with some slight hesitations.

"I was initially taken aback by his comments about how cross-gender games or games made for a domestic audience aren’t commercially viable," says Raheel Hassim, a third-year student in the program. "But I get that he’s simply talking from a numbers point of view. Some of the presentation was useful. But we don’t have to follow the same rules of market segmentation via class or gender; we need games that unite. Even if I don’t sell my games domestically, I still want to make games that are culturally somehow South African."

This is a sticking point that comes up again and again over the course of interviews with the Wits students.

Skadonk Showdown

"I still live in Soweto," says Lucky Nkosi, mentioning the predominantly black township that lies southwest of Johannesburg. "I want to make games that are culturally resonant here."

To illustrate his point, he mentions the experimental games festival, A Maze, which held a pop-up arcade in his township. "Games are meant to make socially constructed barriers fall away," he says. "One game at A Maze that really did that was a racing game called Skadonk Showdown in which you race South African mini taxis against each other through Johannesburg.

"One of the kids at A Maze came up to me and said it was the best game he’d ever played," says Nkosi. "So I asked him, is it really as good as Grand Theft Auto? And he said, 'Yes, because the license plates say GP at the end,' for Gauteng Province.

"That game spoke to him in a way that other games don’t. Those are the kind of games that speak to me, ones that test how much games can make us feel and change the way we look at society as a whole."

For one student in the program, making games accessible to a South African audience is so important that he’d rather cut computers and consoles out altogether.

"A lot of indigenous games that we would play growing up have lost their history."

"I grew up in a very rural township area where people couldn’t afford digital games," says Tsitsi Chiumya. "We used to play board games together, like Maruba in play areas that were shared.

"I’d like to make a board game, maybe one that anyone can print out because video games have become too westernized," he says. "They are things you do by yourself made by developers who want to appeal to a wider, and whiter, audience."

Chiumya wears a big grin for his own turn of phrase before continuing. "A lot of indigenous games that we would play growing up have lost their history. We don’t know what those games were trying to say."

He has been testing his prototype for a board game where players are rival taxi drivers and try to compete for territory and fares. "Taxi drivers have a bad reputation in Johannesburg as ruffians or as very competitive with each other," he says. "Through playing my game, people slowly end up understanding what it’s like to become one.

"There’s still a market for board games, perhaps globally; we just need better themes," he says. "One of my dreams is to work for Hasbro."

He says that when he’s visiting his hometown, it’s impossible to explain what it is he studies at school.

"Actually, the way I got into this program was a mistake. My dad was trying to sign me up for architecture but somehow got the numbers mixed up. Once I found out what it was, and I qualified, I couldn’t go back."

"People will obsess and fef forever. Fef means to pick at something."

Hanli Geyser is the game design lecturer who helped spearhead bringing in the guest lecturer, and she is a member of MakeGames South Africa, a nongovernmental organization to help provide local developers with resources (which also serves as a message board and splash page that posts various alphas and betas of games). Sitting at a wooden table outside the Nunnery, she chain smokes and explains some of the hurdles holding game dev back in South Africa.

"There’s this feeling that there’s no truly South African market," she says. "You’ll find a popular myth that you can’t sell local. Many assume game purchases are merely limited to the upper classes, however the demographic goes much deeper than that. You’ll find makeshift arcades, or kids communally owning one PlayStation and an RPG, sharing a controller and sharing a single-player experience amongst 15 [people]."

Well-known South African games as they exist today, like Broforce, Toxic Bunny and Desktop Dungeons have an understated South African quality that is in contrast to the games developed in Nigeria and Kenya where locally created games are so culturally specific they couldn’t exist anywhere else. Highway Free, a phone game about sitting in a Nigerian traffic jam is one example.

Toxic Bunny

"There is a market for games in Nigeria and Kenya because you can use your airtime — as in the cell phone credit you use to make calls — to pay for apps on your phone," Geyser says. "It’s a legal loophole they’ve shut down in South Africa because it can negatively affect a country’s currency. A lot of those games that are peddled to Nigerian and Kenyan markets are pretty terrible, though."

Geyser says South African developers are detail oriented to a fault, and end up never releasing games because of an obsessive nature which she maintains is woven into the social fabric. "People will obsess and fef forever. Fef means to pick at something. Because a game is not perfect, they won’t release it."

The energy on the Wits campus is palpable as students laugh about the exploits of a recent all-night game jam. Wits is no different than many top-ranking universities in America, reminding one of Rutgers or Carnegie Mellon. It is one of the most expensive local colleges to attend, and it is regularly the top-ranked South African university in the Center for World University Rankings global survey. Wits’ list of notable alumni includes a former Lord Mayor of London, a Nobel laureate and Nelson Mandela.

Yet there is a disparity when the racial demographics of the student body stack up against the racial demographics for the country.

Education is the most powerful weapon

Geyser still feels that the game design program isn’t growing fast enough, being that white people account for less than 10 percent of the population in South Africa but are still greatly overrepresented in higher education.

"The racial demographics of my program are very concerning," she says. "My students are 40 percent female and 45 percent non-white, yet almost 70 percent of my applicants are black. With the disparity of infrastructure between historically white versus black secondary and primary schools, most of them don’t make the entry requirements.

"Many student leaders feel they are not being listened to."

"And many who do simply can’t afford it."

Many of the problems that plague South Africa’s young game designers are much greater than the scope of game design itself. A week after the presentation at Wits, elected student leadership at the university organizes a shutdown by standing in Wits’ gates to protest a proposed fee hike of 10.5 percent.

"Many student leaders feel they are not being listened to," says Gates. To make matters worse, a recording emerged of police mishandling peaceful student demonstrators who were mainly black.

The #FeesMustFall protests have spread across the country, from the University of Cape Town, to the steps of the South African parliament building, where police have fired stun grenades to disperse protesting students who cannot afford any price hikes.

The movement is still ongoing, though it culminated in late October with President Jacob Zuma announcing that student fees would not be raised in 2016.

"Providing these students with a good education is one thing," says Geyser. "Making sure they have an industry to grow into is another matter entirely."

It seems impossible until it’s done

Nick Hall is one of the leading entertainment lawyers in South Africa to work in games. He is also a founding member of MakeGamesSA.

"We’ve got a couple of studios right now, who in the next couple of years could afford to take on four or five graduates of Wits’ each," he says. "But if 60 students graduate, there may not be enough jobs in the existing industry. Which means many will have to go out on their own, which is very risky.

"For students who are economically compromised, who can’t afford to live at their parents while they develop their first game, it’s going to be massively hard."

In 2016, Hall is looking to turn MakeGamesSA into a formal lobbying body for the game industry. While there are governmental rebates available for game developers, Hall says the process is complicated. PC and console games qualify for the same rebates movies do, but mobile games, which make up the bulk of the market, do not.

"We’re not at a place where studios can afford to hire lawyers to work through the process to apply for government rebates in their current form," he says.

According to Hall, one thing that could help grow the industry is making it easier to start a game studio. "In the U.K. for example, there’s been an investment of four million pounds that they’re calling the U.K. Games Fund which offers money to those who apply for it," he says. "I’d like to see something similar in South Africa, like, here’s 20,000 Rand to make your own prototype. That would create studios to absorb the talent."

Geyser, on the other hand, sees serious games that deal with education and therapy as a sector where young developers could carve a niche out.

"We’re buying educational games from Europe and America but they’re not for the local context," she says. "We also have an extremely high incidence of PTSD, a whole generation of men are veterans of the Angolan wars who could be using locally made games to treat their trauma.

"I get contacted an awful lot by educational and governmental people asking, 'Is this sort of thing out there?' It’s an opportunity, but games for entertainment is the bright light, the spotlight everyone is trying to get under."

Fun and games

The annual rAge games and entertainment expo takes place in Johannesburg and attracts 33,000 gaming enthusiasts into the Ticketpro Dome, a venue usually reserved for performances by big American pop stars like Katy Perry.

During rAge weekend however, the dome is filled with large booths by the likes of PlayStation, Xbox, Megarom, LEGO, Disney and various PC vendors. The convention, which has been going on since 2002, has been steadily becoming larger, also hosting large tournaments for PC games like Battlefield and League of Legends. Even cosplaying has grown exponentially, with this being the first year Legionink hosted a cosplay competition.

The night before the expo begins, a little less than 100 kids start camping along the side of the venue to secure good seats at rAge’s 53-hour, 2,568 player LAN party — one of the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. The competitive tournaments has 20,000 ZAR worth of sponsored prizes (approx. $2,000 U.S.) on the line for players.

"A lot of us start camping out here early with our laptops because it’s one of the only opportunities we have to play with a steady ping."

"We don’t have easy access to stable connections in general, which makes many games unplayable when you’re at home — especially if you’re playing against opponents who are in Europe or elsewhere," a young metalhead in a faded Iron Maiden T-shirt says. "A lot of us start camping out here early with our laptops because it’s one of the only opportunities we have to play with a steady ping."

During the expo itself, there’s not a lot to distinguish what’s happening on the 20,000 square foot floor of the dome from similar events in far richer countries. Throngs of cosplayers, geeks and families filter around tables of unlicensed geek wares on one end. Huge corporate installations for major PC and console companies and franchises flank the tables of wares — with their brand identities intact. For example, "cool" Sony had a booth that boasted an appearance by up-and-coming South African rapper, Stilo Magolide.

"I used to own and run NAG magazine [South Africa’s first glossy gaming monthly]," says Michael James, now senior project manager at rAge. "We initially began running rAge because we needed to grow the gaming community here in order to support our gaming-related pursuits."

In 2002, the expo counted a few thousand attendants. October of 2016 began with an announcement that rAge is going to proceed biannually, with a second expo taking place in Cape Town in March of 2017. "We’ve seen consistent growth on average of 8 to 12 percent a year, with a large 29 percent jump in attendance in 2014," says James.

James says he is most proud of the Home Coded booth, which showcases local developers’ games in some cases with a heavily discounted booth fee, and the adjacent NAG Jam exhibition — a line of PCs set up with playable entries in an Intel-sponsored game jam. "A big hurdle for NAG magazine was that there wasn’t a large enough community who liked games locally. It was a hobby seen for a select few."

"There wasn’t much diversity in the early days of rAge either, it was mostly white men. Frankly, it’s nice to finally see some women and some color in here," says James.

Battle Arena Drones

Many well-known indies featured their games at South Africa’s Home Coded booth. Travis Bulford, the creator of South Africa’s earliest major title, the Earthworm Jim-inspired Toxic Bunny (which was released first in 1996) is in attendance with a new game, called Battle Arena Drones, heavily inspired by the classic 3-D shooter Descent. Also present is his young, new development company — partly culled from the program at Wits — called Celestial Games.

"In 2001 I ran out of steam and the industry looked impossible to reach from South Africa," he says of his nine-year retirement from the industry. "Although it might have simply been that I was tired of trying for so long pretty much solo."

When asked if it is easier now to embark in game development than it was when he entered the scene in the '90s, he is cagey. "Assembling a team was easy both times," he says. "In 1994 I was active in the demo scene in South Africa — and also all the way through high school, it was all my friends and I did.

"Still, it’s great to have interns from Wits and get their energy. Ultimately, if you have it in you, you can make it work." Babykayak

[Correction: This story originally featured photographs of Cape Town labeled as Johannesburg. We regret the error.]

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2339 days ago
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Racial attitudes differ more on ideology than class

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White Americans' attitudes on whether blacks and Hispanics are 'givers' or 'takers' is affected more by their politics than their class

Poorer whites are often assumed to hold more negative opinions of other racial groups than wealthier whites, but the latest research from YouGov, shows that class may not play an important role in white Americans' racial attitudes. 

Respondents in a recent YouGov survey were asked whether they think that various groups of people give more to society than they take, or whether they take more than they give. Working class people come out on top in the eyes of most Americans if you look at society as 'givers' and 'takers'. 72% of Americans say that working class people give more than they take, while only 10% say that they take more than they give. Middle class people (65%) and women (59%) are the only other groups which most people describe as 'givers'. Upper class Americans (55%) are the most likely to be described as 'takers'. 

Apart from the upper class, only two groups tend to be seen as 'takers' rather than 'givers': black Americans and Hispanic Americans. 45% of the country views black Americans as 'takers', while only 20% see them as 'givers'. 35% say that Hispanics are takers and 31% say that they are givers. 

50% of white Americans say that blacks take more than they give, while 16% say that they give more to society than they take. 44% of Hispanics say that black Americans take more, while 45% of black Americans say that they give more than they take. 

Respondents were asked to identify which class they consider themselves. 45% of white Americans identify as working class while 52% identify as middle class. There is very little difference between working class whites (49%) and middle class whites (51%) in how likely they are to view black Americans as 'takers'. 

Ideology, however, has a significant impact. Liberal whites tend to say that blacks give more than they take, with 41% of white liberals, something working class white liberals also agree with. Most white moderates (53%) and white conservatives (69%) say that black Americans take more than they give. 

White Americans (38%) are much less likely than either black Americans (83%) or Hispanics (62%) to say that their racial identity is important to them. There is very little difference between working class (38%) and middle class (40%) whites on this issue, though conservative whites (44%) are slightly more likely than liberal whites (37%) to say that their race is important to them. 

Most white Americans (62%) say that your class has a bigger impact on your life in America than your race (19%), something black Americans definitely do not agree with. 67% of black Americans say that race is more important than class, something only 23% disagree with. Hispanics are split 41% to 41%. 

Full poll results can be found here and topline results and margin of error here. 

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2340 days ago
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The only video game developer in Mississippi

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Birds fly over Mississippi's Lake Ferguson. (Via Flickr/Jimmy Smith)

He holds out hope that there are other developers quietly working away in Mississippi, but he's been on the programmer prowl for about a year and hasn't found much. He founded a Facebook group, Mississippi Video Game Developers, in August, and so far it has two members: Weymouth and one other guy who plays around with GameMaker software. Weymouth's company, War Room Studios, is registered with Mississippi, and he's working on a Super Smash Bros.–style brawler called Vellum Wars, though both his artist and musician are out of state. He calls Mississippi a wasteland for technical prowess.

"That's what it feels like to be a game developer or even just a creative person in this area," he says. "You live in your own little bubble, and that's not how creativity flourishes ... This is a real industry, and it's not going anywhere, and the fact that our state is not capitalizing on it is just a travesty. There's people in Florida doing it, there's people in Louisiana and Alabama. Why are we this dead zone in the middle of all that?"

The dream

Despite Mississippi's digital deficit, Weymouth has hope for the state's technological future, because he believes in the people of Mississippi. He knows artists and sees opportunities for education, training, entertainment and creative expression everywhere -- even in run-down, closed-up buildings.

Parts of Mississippi are still recovering from the carnage that Hurricane Katrina dumped on the region in 2005. Weymouth says rental fees are high in his town because of inflated insurance rates since the storm, resulting in rows of vacant storefronts. He passes these empty buildings every time he drives down Gulfport's main highway, and they fuel his drive to do something, anything, to help his community recover and create something beautiful.

Google Maps captured one abandoned building along a Gulfport highway.

"It just drives me nuts," he says. "I'd love to be able to remove the wall for anybody who wants to be creative, even if it's just a local band that just needs to use sound equipment. A video game studio has that."

Weymouth thinks big. He imagines an incubator outfitted with computers (complete with major game-engine licenses), sound equipment, a physical-art space, experts-in-residence from a range of fields, and, grandest of all, a motion-capture studio. He wants to host game jams and tournaments at the studio, and he'd encourage schools to bring students on field trips. He dreams of a community hub for creativity and collaboration.

The incubator wouldn't just be a place to learn and create -- it would be a lifeline for Gulfport's vulnerable youth. It certainly would have helped Weymouth when he was a kid. He comes from a large family, and he left home as a teenager so his kin could afford to live a better life. It was a "one less mouth in the house" kind of thing, he says. As a young adult, he floated between the streets and stable housing, and he met other young people in similar situations along the way.

Another potential home for Weymouth's gaming incubator, captured via Google Maps.

"I've just seen all these people go through this horrible stuff, and I'm like: That person was a beautiful artist," he says. "If they just had a place to paint, they might not have gone down that terrible route. They could have seen a future."

Weymouth had a leg up in terms of job placement. He loved video games from an early age, and that interest put him on a technical path. He taught himself how to program and eventually ended up fixing computers at a "big blue box" retailer. He's 29 now, married and with a three-year-old daughter.

"There needs to be more business here for creativeness, gaming, entertainment in general," Weymouth says. "If you don't want to go to a casino or go to a bar around here, as a young adult, you really don't have much else to do."

The gaming incubator could be that business. Weymouth isn't all talk; he's been trying to sell the idea to potential investors in groups and at private dinners for a year at least. In his pitch, the gaming incubator offers an affordable monthly subscription that provides access to the studio's tools and experts. The program helps burgeoning developers create and publish video games, and then takes a slice of the profit to keep itself afloat.

No one has bitten yet. Weymouth says investors have typically responded with things like "No one cares about video games in Mississippi," and "There is no game industry in the state -- for good reason."

Weymouth says Vellum Wars is like Super Smash Bros., but you won't need a Wii to play it.

He attempted to secure small-business loans and funding from banks, with similar luck. Interest rates were too high ("financial suicide," as Weymouth puts it), and other complications blocked those avenues. That's one reason he's working on Vellum Wars, his party brawler for PC. If he proves that video games can be financially successful, his incubator pitch might carry more weight.

"I decided, Well, I'm going to have to do it the hard way," he says. "I decided to sit down and create a game with as much inner resources that I could. Everyone's always told me my whole life that I don't do things simply. I always go over the top on things, and here I am doing it again."

The reality

Weymouth's incubator idea is mired in red tape, but it isn't completely unheard of. Rock Band Blitz and Dance Central co-developer Fire Hose Games launched an incubator program based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013, with the goal of helping new developers create and sell their first games. So far, the studio has brought Chris Chung's cat simulator, Catlateral Damage, to PC, Mac and Linux, and it's working with Batterystaple Games on the action platformer 20XX, which is on Steam Early Access.

Embody a feisty feline in Catlateral Damage.

These are two of Fire Hose's successes, though its first incubator game, Let's Quip, didn't do so hot, according to studio co-founder Eitan Glinert. Fire Hose eventually removed that one from the App Store.

"Two out of three? That's pretty good!" Glinert says.

Even though Glinert calls Fire Hose's incubator (or "accelerator") a success overall, he advises caution for someone like Weymouth, who's attempting to start a program from scratch in a tech-barren region of the country. Glinert correctly guesses that it will be difficult for Weymouth to find both developers and investors in Mississippi.

"No sensible investor wants to invest in video games right now -- it's a horrible industry to invest in at the moment, at least on the small or indie scale," Glinert says.

Weymouth's biggest issue may not be funding, though. Glinert says that the most problematic aspect of running an incubator is actually finding talented teams that can keep the business running. Searching for these developers takes time, and supporting their efforts takes money, and it's best to invest only in those that will churn out profitable, attention-grabbing games.

20XX is on Steam Early Access and it's already selling well, Glinert says.

"I didn't expect how hard it would be to do this when I started," Glinert says. "Plus, you're limited largely by region -- it's hard for us to compete with accelerators on the West Coast, so we're really only looking at folks on the Eastern Seaboard."

A new accelerator would work best if it's tied to an existing source of quality developers, such as the Independent Games Festival, IndieFund or even a university with a gaming program, Glinert says. That last part might be difficult for Weymouth, since there are no video game–specific programs in Mississippi universities, according to The Art Career Project.

Plus, Glinert says, it's nearly impossible to find funding for these things. Fire Hose ended up bootstrapping its own accelerator.

"I think your best bet to fund an incubator, if you don't already have the money, is to find successful or rich game devs who understand the industry, believe in you and what you're doing, and want to back you," he says.

Overall, Glinert says an incubator can definitely be profitable, but it's a long road packed with massive, money-shaped potholes.


All of this may not be terrible news for Weymouth.

He isn't interested in working only with the top developers in the nation; he wants people from his area to have a place they can express themselves and network with other creative types. His incubator is community-focused; it includes plans not just for video game development, but other forms of art, too. He hasn't explored all of his funding options, and alternative routes like Kickstarter are still on the table, even though Weymouth says he has a problem taking money from people before he has an actual product to deliver. He even likes the idea of running a nonprofit business. Still, he'll have to figure out some way to keep the lights on.

Finding an investor will be incredibly difficult, but Weymouth already knew that. Besides, he doesn't want just any investor to throw money at this project. He wants someone who cares about Mississippi.

"The investor who is in the state is doing it for the people here," Weymouth says. "If I get somebody from out of state, they're not going to feel the same as I am about the local people here."

Vellum Wars should be ready to brawl in about six months, Weymouth says.

Weymouth wants to build a hub for future video game developers, filmmakers, musicians and artists to flourish. He wants young people to be proud of their home state, and, in turn, he wants Mississippi to be proud of its creative pioneers. Weymouth wants to show his neighbors, family and friends that there's a bright future in Mississippi's gaming and art scene, if only it's allowed to take root.

"You deserve a future," he says, speaking to the hypothetical artist at his incubator's door. "You have talents and skills that you've acquired through hard work. You deserve a future. You're not lazy. You just have struggles -- and we all have struggles. It would be cool to just be able to remove the wall and allow creative prowess to get some exposure and a future."

Weymouth's dreams are immense, potentially naive, and maybe impossible to achieve. But he's been dreaming big all of his life. Why stop now?

"I'm not in this to make money," he says. "If I wanted to make money, I'd go get a nine-to-five where the money is guaranteed. I'm in this for a future where I'm not a cog in a machine. I'm doing something to help people."

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2344 days ago
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On the failure of Fallout 4 at the hands of The Witcher 3


Games are a medium just like film is a medium, although we never hear about something being criticized for not "being a movie," the same way that claim is held against certain games. A part of this may be due to the fact that violence is often seen as the default interaction for many big-name games, while everything else is seen as icing on a particularly bloody cake.

Which is why, looking back on 2015 with a bit of distance, I'm much more impressed with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt than I am with Fallout 4. They're both amazing games, and will long be remembered in the year's canon of games one should play to understand where the industry was. However, one game seems to relentlessly funnel you toward combat, while the other allows for a much more subtle form of storytelling.

To see what I mean, let me tell you about a race.

A missed opportunity

I didn't expect to hear the cries of an announcer yelling animatedly about a race while I was wandering around Bethesda's fictional Boston wasteland in Fallout 4, especially when his excitement came through bad speakers from a decaying racetrack. I approached the location, enjoying his announcements of strange names.

Looking through my sniper scope, I watched as various robots "ran" the track, although many, to be more accurate, floated.

The crowd was cheering while sitting on the bleachers watching the spectacle. Perhaps, I thought, some had gambled their life savings yearning for a dream that would never become reality. I had some spare caps and decided I wanted to bet, too. The scene ignited my imagination.

Only, I had forgotten: This is Fallout 4.

The default for a situation in Fallout 4 is to kill everyone. There was to be no engagement with this lovingly crafted setup, and no interaction with the audience or the managers that wasn't in the language of bullets and death. Instead, my mere arrival resulted in the announcer summoning the audience to attack me. The scenario in my head remained there; the game was more interested in violence than world-building.

The fight was memorable, if only because I found a switch that led to the detonation of all the mindless robots. Other than that, it was the same firefight with faceless characters that I'd been having since the beginning of the game.

This is not an issue I only have with Fallout 4, but it speaks to a wider problem. There is often little room in these worlds for situations that aren't resolved by violence, even when the possibility for something more is present. These beautiful worlds are created, and then filled with bullets.

Battlefield worlds

These stunning environments, created by talented artists, become mere battlefields for the same mechanics of slaughter that have existed since the first shooters.

Bloodborne's gorgeous Yharnam is there to let its gutters gush with blood. Watch Dogs' Chicago has a thin mask of interaction, dressed in the magic called "one-button hacking," that almost always ended with your hacker wizard shooting people.

Indeed, you use magic hacking software to assault NPCs, sometimes even before they've committed a crime — because "the software" tells your character to. The best outcome for side quests is physical assault by a character who is not even law enforcement. The worst is the NPCs are killed. The tools are merely set dressing for the violence.

The problem isn't that these games include combat, but that combat is relied upon as the primary method of engaging with their detailed, incredible worlds. Developers are now so effective at creating detailed versions of both realistic and fantastical environments, but our interactions remain fixated on violence.

Something feels wrong when mission after mission can be whittled down into a repetition of the same one you did a few minutes ago ... only this time, in a different location, maybe with one or two different enemies. These games look better than ever, but their worlds are wasted on superficial combat. When you compare the recent Fallout games with even past versions of the Fallout universe, there is a case to be made that interesting and non-violent options have been removed from the series.

Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez created a video about what was cut from Fallout 4, and you can begin to see a bit of the team's priorities. There were hints of some really neat stuff ... that was ultimately struck down by the figurative red pen.

Hernandez spoke about the Combat Zone, a location in the game where you meet a companion. It looks like a space where you could bet on and watch cage fighting. But, just like my own experience with an area where a fun betting activity appeared to be set up, this becomes another bullet-by-numbers slaughterfest.

Hernandez shows a trailer where it appears the player is watching a cage fight happen. "There's a souvenir shop," she says. "There's a bar, there's a fighting cage and even seats for the audience." Wouldn't it be great if these things meant something? Instead, it all becomes a well-decorated, lovingly crafted backdrop for blood and bullets.

This isn't a problem that's unique to Fallout 4 but, considering what fans have written and tell me about the franchise's history and Bethesda's, this latest iteration seems to have deliberately viewed noncombat interactions as secondary. The world looks to be much richer than its predecessors, but you interact with it via your weapons.

Even something as powerful as Fallout 4's base building, while unique and expansive, is optional. You won't "lose" by not building. Indeed, even after spending hours playing mayor to numerous towns, I felt little in terms of impact. There were no new stories to tell; the systems didn't feed into ... well, anything. The little towns just kind of stood there, lit and loud and patrolled, but I felt little for them.

Fallout 4's stripped-down dialogue system is another example of this. Your dialogue options rarely result in different outcomes. Dialogue "choices" serve as minor directions to let another character give exposition, not as a way for your character to actually have meaningful conversations with others. What you say doesn't matter, although the game tries to fool you into thinking it does.

The best attempts to focus on nonviolent or noncombat playthroughs don't work. Christopher Livingston attempted to avoid combat and ultimately failed.

"As much fun as I'm having with Chuck, I don't feel like I'll get much further with him," Livingston said. "Charisma and Luck are great when they're maxed out, and there are some enjoyable perks, but they definitely need to be paired with combat or stealth. I'm just not finding enough situations that I can talk my way in and out of, and even maxed-out luck isn't enough to survive a real fight. More and more often as I play, the dapper Chuck is winding up on the ground covered in blood."

Fallout 4 has no meaningful dialogue; the skill tree, with its lack of a level cap, means there's nothing unique about your character. You can eventually unlock everything, and the endings seem to be variations on the same theme. Your choices mean little.

The worst part is that some big-budget open-world games have worked around violence. And they did so in 2015. Let me tell you about an old lady's cookware and weddings.

The story of the pan and the wolves

The Witcher 3 was my personal game of the year (even if I had issues with it). CD Projekt Red's open-world action adventure was incredible, garnering numerous 2015 Game of the Year awards from many outlets. [Editor's note: Not on Polygon, but it was close!]

I fell in love with the game because I found (and am still finding) stories in it that are stunning, humorous and tragic — stories that didn't require me to kill my way through them. The Witcher 3 contains a beautiful, well-realized world that is matched by the interactions that world offers.

During one scene, an old lady demanded that I enter her tiny shack and retrieve a pan for her. Some soldier, you see, had come by a few hours earlier and commandeered her house. There is no fighting: you enter her awful abode, scratch around and find her pan. From the soot in it, Geralt is able to weave together a story of what happened. You return it to her, and she gives you some food. That's it. That's the quest.

Yet the woman is hilariously crotchety and Geralt's reluctance is charming, and the story he figures out from the soot is tragic. From the black powder, Geralt uncovers a message, and he pieces together the rest of the tale after examining other aspects of the environment. The world feels alive; you're not pushed into death.

Throughout The Witcher 3, you encounter many situations that are almost entirely about conversations. In one of them, Geralt speaks with a troll; the entire quest is about getting paint for the troll. There's a scene in the expansion Hearts of Stone in which Geralt allows himself to be possessed by the ghost of a womanizing brute and attends a wedding with a woman he adores. He catches pigs, dives for shoes and dances.

Geralt fights often. He is, after all, a witcher: a monster killer for hire. But conversations matter as much as combat, and investigating the world of The Witcher 3 — even if it's just a basic button press — is essential. Not only do the stories themselves matter, but Geralt often has to piece stories together to solve quests. Gathering knowledge is how he comes to know his targets and how he prepares for battles.

The Witcher 3 is not a game that feels like it has to rely solely on combat to keep the player interested. Indeed, its most memorable moments for me are entirely about refined stories and interactions with characters. I still roar with laughter thinking of Geralt badly performing poetry on stage, or leading pigs to a magical cave.

Default to destruction

It's clear that diversifying interaction makes your game more memorable; it's one reason so many people love the indie darling Undertale. The mixture of an interesting, if somewhat controversial, bullet hell mechanic with turn-based combat freshens everything up.

DayZ, despite all its flaws and frustrations, remains interesting due to the various ways in which players can interact with its world. Players engage in negotiation, bartering and fragile alliances with total strangers. DayZ benefits from the fact that other characters are controlled by real people, so these interactions don't have to be written ahead of time. But the real benefit is the world: Arma 2 provided the backdrop for DayZ's interactions.

Starting with an existing setting and adding interesting ways to play with other people is part of the magic. One could only imagine what would happen if other developers were able to use the worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto 5 to facilitate more interesting ways to play.

There's nothing inherently wrong with combat or violence or brutality in a game. It's just disappointing how many games continue to rely on it as the only or the main method of engaging with their world when it appears to be more available at first blush. There will always be a market for Call of Duty, but the games that funnel us into violence often remain frustrating, especially when it seems like there should be more there.

I say all this as the only person I know who's genuinely excited for the upcoming digital temper tantrum that is Doom, and as someone who loved the combat in both Bloodborne and Fallout 4. Wanting more variety doesn't mean wanting these games to never exist — indeed, it's wanting more to exist than just the ability to decorate beautiful game worlds in blood.

Shooting and combat don't need to be this ubiquitous. Watch Dogs didn't have to be about guns. The Division didn't have to look like another third-person shooter. Fallout 4 didn't have to resolve all its quests with slaughter. But there's an idea out there that seems to state that that path is the quickest way to sales.

It's not true. It's unfortunate. And we can do better.

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2345 days ago
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Mississippi abolishes slavery, 148 years too late

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By now you may have heard that on February 7th of this year, 2013, the state of Mississippi officially  abolished slavery by adopting the 13th amendment to the Constitution.  Here’s the text of the document that Mississippi only got around to officially ratifying two weeks ago.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Let’s face it, due diligence in rectifying the crimes of the past hardly wins you any merit badges in Mississippi, a state where 46% of “hardcore Republican voters” polled in 2011 thought inter-racial marriage should be against the law, and in which a middle school in 2010 couldn’t understand why it was a problem that only white students were permitted to run for class president.

So it’s little wonder that “someone forgot” to file the paperwork to officially get rid of slavery until 148 years after the 13th amendment became a permanent part of the US Constitution in 1865. Oops.

Now, defenders of Mississippi will argue that this isn’t entirely true.  Mississippi didn’t just officially end slavery.  The  year Mississippi took its brave stand against enslaving African-Americans was not 2013.  It was 1995.  Only 130 years too late.  So there.

But in the ensuing years, everyone in Mississippi simply “forgot” to officially notify the US Archivist of the amendment’s ratification by their state, so it never counted, until now.  It seems someone was watching the movie “Lincoln,” saw that Mississippi had yet to ratify, and he raised enough trouble back home to get the thing done.

But seriously.  Come on.  They just forgot?

You forget to get toothpaste.  You forget to pick up the laundry.  You might, on a really horrifically bad day forget your anniversary.  But you forget to end slavery?  Really, Mississippi?

You know what else Mississippi forgot?  To ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920.  Mississippi finally got around to that one in 1984 – 64 years too late, and dead last among the states.

We can all laugh at this story, but these are the kind of people we have to deal with, negotiate with in Congress, to get things done in this country.  These are the kind of people who make up a good part of the base of the Republican party.  If it’s not about God, gays or guns, they’re not interested.  So it’s no wonder America is falling behind the rest of the world with regards to the civil rights of gays and trans people in comparison to, say, Mexico.  Mexico doesn’t  have to deal with Mississippi.

In Mississippi’s defense, when the resolution passed in 1995, it was unanimous.  Sort of.

“It was unanimous,” Frazier recalled. “Some didn’t vote, but we didn’t receive a ‘nay’ vote.”

Yes, not everyone voted to end slavery, but no one voted against ending slavery.  And in Mississippi, you take your civil rights victories however, and whenever, you can get them.

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2345 days ago
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