New York Times' "Games to Avoid" Doubles as Solid Shopping List

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News Posted: Wed, Dec 9 2009 3:05 PM

Ah, Christmas. The word itself conjures images of hearth and home, inspires (occasionally debaucherous) celebration, and is a time of spiritual contemplation for millions. In this crazy modern age, it's also a time when the bewildered parents of tech-savvy children all over the civilized world, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious background, or nationality are united through the magic of a single shared emotion—panic. From October to December, the advertising departments of a thousand companies exhort children to beg, cajole, and guilt-trip their parents for all manner of inappropriate digital entertainment. As supposedly informed gatekeepers, we sadly earthbound Santas are reduced to scouring the back pages of gaming review sites and magazines, trying to evaluate whether the tot at home is ready for Big Bird's Egg Hunt or Bayonetta.

Luckily, The New York Times is here to help. In a recent article provokingly titled "Ten Games to Cross off Your Child's Gift List," the NYT names its list (apparently compiled by Common Sense Media) of big bads—the video games so foul, so gruesome, so perverse that we'd recommend you buy them immediately—for yourself. Alternatively, if you need gift ideas for the surly, pale teenager in your home whose body contains more plastic than your average d20, this is the newspaper clipping to stuff in your pocket.

The New York Times list is as follows:

  • Assassin's Creed II
  • Borderlands
  • Brutal Legend
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • Dead Space: Extraction
  • Dragon Age: Origins
  • GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony
  • Demon's Souls
  • Left 4 Dead 2
  • Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Conspicuously absent from the NYT story is any real attempt at comparison, evaluation, or discussion—the last five titles are essentially listed as bullet points with the word "Avoid." Unless you're the type of person who follows Oprah's book recommendations with the zeal of a modern-day crusader, the justification for not buying some of these titles (at least, as presented by the paper) is, pardon the pun, paper-thin. Curious to see what the original site would recommend, we headed over to Common Sense Media and were a bit surprised.


Left 4 Dead 2: Violent? Maybe a little... But they're zombies, you'll get over it.

Common Sense Is Not Common

To our surprise, CSM actually appears to be doing a reasonably fair job of providing information. We don't necessarily agree with all of the site's ratings (more on that in a moment), but the reasons for those ratings are presented in language that's (mostly) free from offended sensibilities. We can't quite tell if the site has played all the games it reviews, but many of the titles it offers as alternatives (Ghostbusters, Arkham Asylum, and Mirror's Edge, to name a few) are all good games, worth playing in their own right. This was genuinely refreshing—all too often, outfits like CSM are little more than mouthpieces for a certain breed of hand-wringing gibbering banshee—specifically, the sorts of people who think home entertainment reached its peak around 1950 with nightly six-hour games of Monopoly. There were, however, a few giggle-worthy quotes: 

From the site's review of Left 4 Dead 2: "This game glorifies the violent and vicious slaying of zombies. Players are meant to gawk at and appreciate the extreme levels of gore and the wide variety of creative ways in which zombies can be slain."

Well, yes. This is, in fact, the entire point of building a video game based around slaughtering zombies. As villains, zombies are pretty limited. They don't have complex motivations, they aren't emotionally driven, and they don't weave sinister plots. If, by some strange twist of fate, zombies were to turn vegetarian and eat graaaaaaaaaains, the only people who'd be terrified are a bunch of Midwestern farmers, their cattle, and the six people outside of San Francisco who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. The other, not-to-be-overlooked advantage of zombies-as-villains is that killing zombies has been proven guilt-free in scientific testing. On a guilty scale of 1-10, where a 10 is a cute puppy and a 1 is a Nazi, zombies are around a zero. Not only are they already dead, they're mindless, incapable of redemption, and they want to eat your brain. It doesn't get any more justifiable than that, folks.

Unless, of course, they're Nazi zombies. Riding velociraptors. But until that happens, a lot of the games on the "Avoid" list up there offer great hours of gameplay, storytelling, and fun. While Common Sense Media's reviews are better than most we've seen from sites of this sort, cross-comparisons of this nature aren't exactly fair. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Grand Theft Auto IV are violent, both games include some "bad" language, both games include some sexual content.

The tenor of the two games, however, couldn't be more different. In Dragon's Age, you play a character tasked with defending mankind against an evil invasion—the choices you make, both in terms of who you ally yourself with and how you treat the people around you—have real consequences in game, and impact how the story plays out. Players who make what we'll broadly call 'disagreeable' choices may find themselves unhappy with the results of those choices or with how the end of the game plays out. In Grand Theft Auto, players are explicitly cast as vigilantes living outside the law—you can choose to play the game without engaging in certain kinds of behavior, but you're essentially missing out on certain content if you do so.

Dragon Age isn't necessarily a game for kids—it's rated M for a reason—but there's a lot more "good" to be extracted from its epic adventure if you're worried about the content your kids are exposed to. Neither the NYT nor CSM provide much in the way of qualitative comparison.  It's an issue that we'd suggest matters more than the column space typically devoted to it. 

In other words, if you need a list like this to understand what games to not stuff little Johnny's stocking with this holiday season, you've got larger issues you should concern yourself with. We'd suggest picking up an auto-shotty and taking a few rounds against the horde - it's a wonderful stress relief and you're probably going to need it.

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wil2200 replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 10:08 AM

If I had the time for gaming I'd rush right out and grab all from the list.

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digitaldd replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 10:09 AM

Too bad most parents will buy their kids anything to just shut them up. I work with a guy that just bought COD:MW2, L4D2 and the new GTA game for his 9 year old. He will never see the games nor see his kid playing the games.  He probably still thinks games look like they did when he was kid on his old Atari 2600/5200.

 

I think parent's should judge for themselves based on the content in the games, same thing goes for movies, music and other entertainment. But I'm not a parent so who cares what i think right?

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Dave_HH replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 10:18 AM

I think you're spot on, digital... If you're a parent, it's your responsibility to have a modicum of intelligence to read the front of the box where the content rating and included content description is.

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Video games will always be a controversial topic.  For that reason, the media feasts on the gaming industry with the release of games for adults.  I'm still not sure why they don't freak out against horror and action movies but hey.  There was a 9 year old sitting in front of me at the 300 showing, when it came out.

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rapid1 replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 11:57 AM

Yes; digital you make very valid statements, as Commander Dave alluded to. I think this list is basically a catch all for this type of parent. They have no clue what there buying for there kids, and the sad part is they don't really care enough to find out. No I am not saying they don't love there children. I am saying they don't love them enough to actually commit some effort to caring for them. I have been a gamer for many years, but have slacked of lately personally. Although some of there recommendations (on the list) are off in general it is decent especially for non teenage children. As for Digital's co-worker he is a dumb a55 maybe you should make an unsigned note to him and leave it on his desk. I doubt it would do any good, but as a parent myself a lot of the content of the games listed is well above the head of a nine year old, as well as containing a great deal of content a 9 year old generally doesn't need (if he were over 10 maybe, but 9 is a bit young). Either way I see this list as a desperate grab for readers personally.

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Volatile replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 2:59 PM

They won't always be controversial. In a decade or two, when the people running the media are from a generation in which adult gaming is far more common, the bloodthirsty frenzy the current media loves to go into over games will die off. One of these days, of course, parents will actually have to get back to raising their own kids rather than expecting the government / media to do so for them.

All that said, zombie nazi's on velociraptors? Produce this game. Now.

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Dave_HH replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 3:16 PM

Vol, couldn't agree more, on all accounts.

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3vi1 replied on Thu, Dec 10 2009 7:29 PM

I agree with you guys. You have to actively take an interest in what your kids are playing.

I can't understand why a parent would think a game like GTA would be appropriate for a child. That just won't fly in my house.

As for FPS games, I treat them like BB guns. You don't just give a kid a BB gun. I got my first BB gun when I was five and a .22 at ten. But the entire time, my grandfather was right there working stories of action and consequence into his shooting lessons. I work those same lessons and talks about "real life" into the fun while teaching my son how to pwn aliens.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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metcroft replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 9:48 AM

I always think it's funny that a media outlet like the NYT's makes judgment about games during the holiday season. Couple problems i have with it.

1. Do they actually play the games that they have decided are terrible?

2. What makes the NYT the experts on gaming and games in general?

3. Where are the parents.

Media outlets love to bash games that they know nothing about, but I would say 90% of the games are being bought by the children's parents. Of course I'm not going to let my 3 year old see people getting their head blown apart in Left for Dead. It's why there are ratings on the boxes folks! All parents need to do if their child asks for MW2 for xmas, is to take 10 minutes, and go to youtube and decide for yourself if this game is appropriate. Educate yourself parents, stop taking the medias word for everything.

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You're not legally able to purchase the M rated games unless you are 18 or over.  That has been like that since I was a kid.  And yes, they do enforce that law at the stores.

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gonk replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 12:11 PM

I have a problem. I don't read the NYT as roundly condemning the games for being of poor quality. The article is plainly titled as a list of games not to buy for children based on violent content or bad language. Does the article deviate anywhere from using these criteria in selecting games (or reiterating CSM)?

While it is unfortunate that many parents won't take the time to watch what their children play, a list like this will at least provide some bare bones information. Furthermore, it points to the ESRB's website and also encourages discussion among readers regarding the titles selected.

I'm sorry, but nowhere do I see any hyperbole there close to what is written here. I'm also left to wonder what exactly the point is here. You accuse the NYT of not evaluating and comparing the games further, but in what way is that necessary to accomplish their goal? These games are rated M, none of them are good choices for children, especially given there are plenty quality alternatives.

I don't believe everything written here is meaningless or wrong, especially the headline. However, what is the purpose of lambasting the NYT or the CSM in this particular case?

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Dave_HH replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 2:49 PM

gonk, as Editor here, I'll field this one. Thanks for your perspective on this. I don't think Joel was lambasting NYT or the CSM at all but rather poking lighthearted fun at the story itself because if anyone really needs a list to understand that "M for mature" really does mean mature, then there is a larger problem at play more likely. The irony that was pointed out in this article, was that list reads like a top games list rather than games to avoid.

Sure, avoid them if you or someone you're buying them for doesn't meet the mature rating criteria but otherwise these are some great games listed here and they're quite plainly rated "M". This article was written in a satirical voice not so much directed at the NYT but more toward the social situation in general.

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Joel H replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 4:56 PM

Gonk,

The intent of my story was to poke a bit of fun, as Dave states, but you raise a few questions that deserve to be answered.

Let me first say that you've got a point. Any time a reviewer sits down to talk about a product, for any reason, there's an inherent tension between the time and energy one can devote to a topic and the need to produce the article in a timely manner. Furthermore, any review criteria based on subjective weighing vs. quantitative analysis is always prone to criticism. If a game reviewer feels the presence of blood in a video game is an 8 on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is 'M' and up) and you feel it's a 3, you're not going to agree.

Having said that, I'd like to point out that I go out of my way to compliment CSM. I state that the site is doing a "reasonably fair" job, that the reasons behind its reviews are stated neutrally, that the site's advice is dolled out minus any spooky "think of the children" language, and that the games it offers as alternatives are good games. I consider the fact that CSM goes out of its way to recommend good alternative titles particularly important; it's a big part of why their original story is vastly superior to the NYT summary.

Yes, it's important that parents know what games their children shouldn't be playing. It's also important to know what games their children *should* be playing. Consider one of the CSM's recommendations: as an alternative to GTA IV: TBoGT, the site recommends "Batman: Arkam Asylum."

I've played GTA games enough to be familiar with their design; I've played B:AA. Both games are fast-paced, both involve a lot of combat, but the point-of-view and general "theme" of both games are as different as the contrasts I included between Dragon Age and GTA: IV.

B:AA has plenty of slow-motion knockouts, uppercuts, and face-poundings, but they're delivered sans blood, with the player in the titular role of Batman (a 'good guy'), attempting to thwart the Joker. Batman doesn't use guns, he (mostly) doesn't kill, and yet he dishes out enough pain to satisfy anyone's violent impulses. There's also a couple of gadget-oriented mini-games and a ton of exploration and puzzle-solving to unlock extra content.

While I still think it's important to compare various 'don't buy' titles and discuss the reasons behind each, CSM does a good job of providing good alternatives, as opposed to trying to tell parents that your kid who wants GTA IV or Bayonetta would actually be satisfied with a copy of Barbie: Digital Skank.

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gonk replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 5:28 PM

Thank you to both of you for your reply.  I admit I probably took some things a bit too seriously.  I can agree with the points made, and it's nice to see people defend what they said intelligently.

I'd also like to express my definite agreement with the sad state of the social situation.  It is definitely true that many parents simply want to shut their kids up and pursue their own careers or goals in a self absorbed manner.  I'm working in retail until I can get back to school, and it's so obvious in that situation which parents raise their children properly, and which don't.

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ClemSnide replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 7:52 PM

Of course, we're all kind of preaching to the choir here; I suspect that 95% of the readers of HH are gamers. (Games, as I've said since the 1980s, drive development of technology. You don't overclock your CPU to recalculate spreadsheets faster.)

So we have a sort of shared mindset that leans in favor of games as a whole and are suspicious of agencies which are of them-- even if they have reasons. I haven't played any of these games, partly because I prefer MMORPGs and partly because Captain Clunker would choke on the least of them. But even I started reading with the thought "Oh, another group of blue-noses who don't like videogames" in my frontal lobes.

So it's good to see that the CSM has reasons for what they're saying-- I guess the Times is falling victim to another modern-day phenomenon, the USA Todaying of the news, where as long as it comes with a flashy graphic we don't mind having fewer words and ideas. (The same attitude that brings us more and more forgettable summer blockbusters.) I suppose they have so many M-rated titles because of the age-old phenomenon of parents believing their kids are more advanced than everyone else's kids and their 4-year-old can handle a toy that's for 8 and up.

Being an animation fan and psychologist, I read up on studies of the effects that various forms of violence in the media have on kids. The broad conclusion was that children shouldn't be exposed to violence until they can reliably tell the difference between fantasy and reality; but that after that, it's a matter of taste. Unfortunately, we live in a world where adults often have trouble distinguishing between the two.

But what do I know? I don't have kids, and even if I did, they wouldn't get my copy of Korpsendinosauriermitfahrerbündkreig (the Nazi zombie velociraptor game).


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Joel H replied on Fri, Dec 11 2009 9:57 PM

From the depths of my musty German, I get most of that noun, but "bündkreig?" "Bund" is 'Federation/Union/Collective, and 'krieg' means "war," but I've no idea what 'kreig' is.

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Volatile replied on Sat, Dec 12 2009 12:43 AM

I think the real prolbem with the Times article is the simple fact that it provides no information that cannot be obtained by looking at the boxes of said games. I don't mind giving consumers a "watchlist" of sorts, but for any uninformed parents reading just the article in the NYT, it'd be easy to come away with the impression that all these games are absolutely horrible for teenagers, which I find fairly absurd.

While the fairly realistic violence (especially that one particular level) in MW2 may certainly assault the senses of more impressionable teenagers, it's rather comical to lump a game like Dragon Age, which, aside from unnecessary-to-the-point-of-being-comical amounts of blood, is a fairly standard D&D sort of fantasy game, with the only truly "mature" theme arising in just one of the origins. And even then, the involved person is such a caricature that it really seems to take the edge off (to be fair, I've always said the same about the GTA series--there's always the ones with a total divide from reality I suppose). As for the so-called "sexual content" of the game, let's face it, your average prime-time sit-com is more risque, and by no small measure.

If they're going to attempt to assist the uninformed parents (even an involved parent may make a purchase they believe is within their child's comfort zone only to find that it steps beyond their expectations), I feel they have much more of a duty to provide much better analysis. How shocked might a parent be who reads an oversimplified comparison of Left 4 Dead 2, which they may find fine for their teenage child (what young man DOESN'T love a good zombie flick/game?) to MW2, only to be shocked when they see their son rampage through an airport? The problem in this instance isn't a direct attack on gaming, but an oversimplification of specific games.

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3vi1 replied on Sat, Dec 12 2009 4:24 PM

Wait a second!

- Guy-A posts a well thought rebuttal to the article from a different viewpoint.

- Author and Editor post intellegent and understanding replies to Guy-A explaining their viewpoint and theme.

- Guy-A *doesn't* get pissed off and go totally nuts, but instead expresses mutual respect for mature opinions.

WHAT THE HELL HAS THE INTERNET COME TO?!?!?! I hope it's only affecting this one site.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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3vi1:
WHAT THE HELL HAS THE INTERNET COME TO?!?!?! I hope it's only affecting this one site

I haven't found this kind of respect on any other forum, and that's why I like it here so much.Yes


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3vi1 replied on Sat, Dec 12 2009 4:50 PM

Ditto on that!

The HH guys, and even the forum people here have shown a lot of respect to each other. It's not uncommon that someone (especially me) can jokingly post something that might be misinterpreted, but it seems to always end in an amicable and mature manner. It's a fluke, is what it is! :)

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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ClemSnide replied on Sat, Dec 12 2009 5:48 PM

Joel-- "Kreig," of course, means "wra" or "batlte."


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rapid1 replied on Sun, Dec 13 2009 12:05 PM

Yeah Super Dave that's one of the reasons I at least read this forum daily and have for quite some time now (more than or right on 2 years now I believe). There is actual discussion on here, rather than the trolling and arguments flame wars etc. I am sure there have been some incidences of it, but either they edit 24/7 every, which I doubt, or the people who frequent it as well as edit it and of course write it generally practice a somewhat different behavior. I am not really trying to hoot any horns here but HH is a bit of a different forum all the way around, and unique among a field of many at least to me!

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Joel H replied on Sun, Dec 13 2009 3:58 PM

Clemsnide,

Krieg is "war." Krieg is...? (I wasn't sure if you meant krieg, or if there was a word I didn't remember. Given how long it's been since I studied German, the latter was a distinct possibility. :P)

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Dave_HH replied on Mon, Dec 14 2009 10:34 PM

Hahaha! Yet another simply priceless 3vi1-ism! So true too...

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When it comes to gift lists, the New York Times is on a roll! Take a look at their latest gaffe HERE.

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digitaldd replied on Wed, Dec 16 2009 1:55 PM

Super Dave:

When it comes to gift lists, the New York Times is on a roll! Take a look at their latest gaffe HERE.

Good god, a politically incorrect gift guide.

 

thanks for the heads up Dave.

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digitaldd:

'Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope' by Nikki Grimes

Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Why give your kids yet another video game when you can open their minds? Nikki Grimes’s children’s book about President Obama comes with an educational guide and colorful illustrations. (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, $16.99)
And I thought only the North Koreans were into leader-worship!

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Dave_HH replied on Fri, Dec 18 2009 5:42 PM

HA! You guys are too much. :)

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> Krieg is "war." Krieg is...? (I wasn't sure if you meant krieg, or if there was a word I didn't remember. Given how long it's been since I studied German, the latter was a distinct possibility. :P)

 

Merely a typographical error, son. I take solace in the fact that 99% of my other words are spelled corretcly.


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Dino-riding Nazi zombies and German spelling lessons aside, anyone who has been reading this thread might like to take a walk down memory lane:

 

PCWorld's slideshow of the most violent video games ever made

 

I just don't see why The Bilestoad didn't make it. They're obviously prejudiced against the Apple ][.


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rapid1 replied on Thu, Jan 28 2010 4:07 PM

Yeah I need to start checking out some games. I of course play MMO's generally and have tired of the ones I have Vanguard, Conan etc. I never really played WOW but may have to check it out by grabbing the last upgrade (I do have the original I was on alpha, and received it for free). Alpha/Beta testing is one thing, but it was never my style of play I enjoy the hardcore type of MMO better. I know I'm not waiting for star wars till 2011. So any suggestions would be appreciated .

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rapid1 replied on Sun, Jan 31 2010 2:29 AM

I may have to try some of these as the current MMO market is not blossoming anything new.

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rapid1 replied on Sun, Jan 31 2010 5:40 PM

Thats very true Super Dave. This forum generally we debate intelligently back and forth, and come to what I would consider a common well thought out conclusion. I think one of the biggest things is we don't seem to have any mega fanboys. Another is we don't have many trolls and or get spammed all the time. Yeah they show up regularly but Dave and Marco keep this site so tight it is generally gone rather soon. Plus the users here seem to be smart enough either to not click links from spamsters, or know how to do it safely and not have issues with auto joins and screen grabbing flooding etc. SO this site is by far more an intelligent exchange of information and opinions than most others on the subjects of interest.

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Inspector replied on Sun, Jan 31 2010 6:10 PM

thing is theirs no idiots Wink lol

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