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The Gamer Behind the Console

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Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 2:00 PM

Everybody watches movies, everybody listens to music, but not everyone plays video games -- at least not yet. Doug Lowenstein oversees a 30-year-old industry (worth nearly $30 billion worldwide) that's at a crossroads, at once mainstream and misunderstood.

One week he's challenging Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposed legislation to curb sale and rental of "violent and sexually explicit" games to minors. The next he's co-hosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Friends of Hillary Clinton at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington.

Washington Post staff writer Jose Antonio Vargas got to sit down with this contradictory figure at the head of a controversial industry.

Listen to his audio interview and read the story .

With the week-long E3 game trade show in Los Angeles as a backdrop, Vargas took reader questions about Lowenstein and the direction of the video game world at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday, May 11 .

A transcript follows.

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Jose Antonio Vargas: Hello,

Sorry I'm a bit late. Lots to do at E3, which I like to call the Vatican conclave of the game industry (but much louder). I finally (!) got a chance to hold the controller for the new Nintendo console, Wii, and I gotta tell you, this thing is revolutionary.

Ask away.

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Washington, DC: Jose, we're seeing quite a few different theories on the future of gaming at this e3. As you walk through the adjacent Nintendo and Sony booths, what do you think of their radically different takes on the next generation?

Jose Antonio Vargas: This is a great question, and I think it's a question that looks beyonds this week's confab. What we're seeing here, I think, is a fight for the soul of a gamer. Sony's PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 are clearly aiming to be the center of your living room. It can play DVDs (Blu-ray or HD); it can hook up to your PC; it can cook too! (Just kidding!) Nintendo's Wii, on the other hand, is, simply, a gaming system. And I gotta tell you that having sat through the three so-called "press briefings" (they're really presentation since the media doesn't get to ask questions), I was quite impressed by Nintendo's point of view. Remember: gaming is really more about the games than the consoles -- what would the original Xbox be without the original "Halo"? -- and the depth and variety of games that Nintendo presented were, in a word, refreshing. After a while, the games that Sony and Microsoft showed started to look alike. That's just my two cents.

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Washington, DC: Jose, what seems to be the buzz on PS3 pricing? Does the mass market want blu-ray and will it be willing to spend upwards of 500 for it? Are the games show worth the money?

Jose Antonio Vargas: THIS is the question. Though the PS3 comes in $500 and $600, we all know that most folks (show-offs that we are) will opt for the $600 one and, really, can I spend $600? Most of the folks I've talked to here say that Sony is taking a big risk. Whether it will pay off, it's too soon to tell. But then again, the PS2 has quite a lead in consoles.

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washingtonpost.com: E3 Game Expo Blog

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Baltimore, MD: Following the coverage of gaming-related legislation, I get the impression that legislative opposition to violent video games is an easy way for politicians to gather popular support (without necessarily considering some of the more complicated issues at hand, such as freedom of expression, the role of informed parents in the process of buying M-rated games for underage individuals). Did you get the sense that this is true? If so, are attitudes beginning to change at all?

Jose Antonio Vargas: What I really wanted the Lowenstein profile to do -- it's in Style today -- is to put video games, which I wrote is at once "mainstream and misunderstood," in a societal context. The opposition on the Hill, and in several jurisdictions, will only get louder I think, especially consindering how photo-realistic most of these games already are. When Microsoft announced two days ago that "Grand Theft Auto IV" is coming out next year on the Xbox 360 next year, the first thought that came to my mind was: Prepare your speeches, politician! Beating up on games is easy, and frankly the discussion around game violence, so far, don't exceed beyond the superficial. State Assemblyman Leland Yee, who wrote the bill that California passed last year that ESA is now fighting on the courts, has a point. But so does Doug Lowenstein of ESA.

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Baltimore, MD: In the wake of the recent re-rating of Oblivion - how do you expect to draw the line between a company's work and the work of "fans" or modders? In this case, it seems like Bethesda is being 'punished' for the actions of people outside of their control (and no, they can't control them - even if they lock out texture changes, someone will crack it if they want to - that's been proven multiple times.) After all, every multi-player online game has some sex or violence added by the players, either in chat, visuals, or action.

As a matter of fact, please leave the details of the example aside and talk about the central issue, when does something outside of the developer/publisher's hands justify a re-rating or 'stronger' rating for a product? How do you plan on distinguishing between them?

Because, it seems like the ESRB is applying a double-standard to ratings even while trying desperately to avoid having games treated differently than movies in legislation. Namely, we are treating fan content as if

it's their fault for enabling it. Applied to movies, then, it's Lucas' fault if someone makes a Star Wars themed porn film, or is it Sony's, for making the camera?

Thanks, a game producer

Jose Antonio Vargas: Very good question. The ESRB rating system is something I'm very intrigued by -- what it represents, how it works, who, exactly, is doing the ratings. Please look out for a future story on the matter.

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Washington, D.C.: How has the name change for the Nintendo Revolution/Wii gone over? Are some people still flubbing it and calling it the Revolution or has everyone gotten comfortable with calling it the Wii?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I actually blogged about that the other day. I asked this Japanese guy handing out headsets for translation -- lot of Japanese folks here at E3 -- what "Wii" meant in Japanese and he said, quite embarrasingly, "Um, um, nothing."

It is going over? I can only speak from anecdotes here, and I would say no. They asked: Why couln't Nintendo stick with "Revolution," Wii's code name? Judging from the line at the Wii booth that stretches at least a mile long downstairs, everyone is anxious -- excited? -- to give this baby a try.

Personally, I'm starting to warm up to "Wii," though I still think of, you know, going down a waterslide saying "Weee!!!" whenever I hear it.

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Washington, D.C.: What kind of employment opportunities are available at ESA? Where can one go to see a list of job openings if there are any?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Not sure on that. You can check out theesa.com, of course. I know that there are 20 people in the Washington office, which is in Chinatown.

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Potomac, MD: How are developers taking to the Wii-mote and do you see a lot of support from them as the system is launched? Third-party support has been a chronic weakness of Nintendo's systems lately.

Not talked about as much but how would you regard the DS' showing at E3?

Jose Antonio Vargas: There are lots of PSPers here, but the DS, as far as I can tell, is king.

You're right about third-party support being a particular weakness of Nintendo's systems, but it seems that Wii's controller is exciting to a few of the developers I've talked to in the past two days. Think of the possibles.

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DC: What's the chatter about Sony's proposed price for the PS3? I couldn't believe they are asking for over $500! Yeah, they will offer a lesser system for less, but who wants to buy that? It makes business sense to me to take a profit hit on the console knowing you'll make it up in games and accessories.

I think this might be the second major gaming console I haven't purchased on the first day available (first was GameCube). That's a shame, because my husband and I really love Guitar Hero....

Jose Antonio Vargas: Another PS3 pricing question. The question to me is this: If it's $600 now, what will it be in five years? When will it stop? How many game systems can a house support? And remember, these are just the systems, not the games. These are questions I'm sure consumers are asking themselves -- and will ask come Christmas.

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Chicago, IL: What's it like playing with the new nintendo? Does it wear out your arms to keep waving them around? Is it embarrassing to play the games? Just wondering.

Jose Antonio Vargas: I just played Wii earlier today. Let me put it this way: It's a good bicep and arm work out. It is embarrassing? No. It feels natural and instinctive. And, most importantly, it felt free.

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Wheaton, MD: Initial reaction from the press seems to be that the Xbox 360 is impressing people for than the PS3... thoughts?

Jose Antonio Vargas: The reaction I've been hearing is: Sony is taking a big risk, Microsoft -- with both "GTA IV" and "Halo 3" -- is looking good for next year, and Nintendo is, as always, the underdog.

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Louisville, KY: Both Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas have to be patched by a user in order to show nudity or sex. Out of the box and played as intended, neither game shows any sexual material. Furthermore, any video game is capable of being modded, hacked, and made to show nudity -- even Nintendo's Mario franchise. Why should Oblivion and GTA be singled out and re-rated?

Furthermore, why are these games that show wanton gunfights, dismemberment, woman-beating, and disembowelment okay so long as they don't show sex? Why is graphic violence acceptable, but not the slightest depiction of nudity?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Again, this is all very complicated -- and, in a way, inevitably political. Is it the game's fault when it gets modded? Why is sex considered on par with violence? I don't know the answer, but I'll find out.

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Concerning Wii...: Was there any title on the system that particularly impressed you? Word I've heard around in that Mario, Zelda, Red Steel and Metroid all play beautifully. Is there anything else that wowed you?

Jose Antonio Vargas: The new Super Mario game, "Galaxy." This was not the Mario I played ten years ago, that's for sure. It felt new.

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Jose Antonio Vargas: I was having some technical difficulties loading the questions, so I apologize for not answering more. Please check out our E3 blog.

Thanks!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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