Saturday, 17 October 2015

(SATIRE/INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM) “Violent theft of women's time” fuels black market growth of extra-time power-ups in coin-op arcade games

It's hard to imagine that a generation raised on the convenience of console and PC gaming, would find anything remotely alluring in the faded glamour of tawdry provincial amusement arcades. Yet, in recent years, end of the line destinations such as the Golden Mile in Southend-on-Sea have come to represent a shabby, neon-lit Mecca, kindling the interests of a new breed of retro videogamer.

Very few of these contemporary enthusiasts are of an old enough vintage to tear-up with dewy-eyed nostalgia at the memory of the glory days of arcade gaming, when the weapons of choice were shop-soiled light guns, and cooperative multiplayer meant you and three of your friends jostling around an incarnation of the popular top-down dungeon crawler – Gauntlet - furiously mashing buttons.

I quickly got tired of playing on arcade emulators at home. I realised that I wanted to get out of my bedroom and play Pac-Man in his natural environment...” writes Richard Kelly - co-founder of The Free Range Games movement, who was born almost 12 years after Space Invaders first captured the hearts and minds of teenagers bored-stiff of rolling dice and moving counters around in boardgames like Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders.

...It turns out that Pac-Man's natural habitat is a cavernous brightly-lit shed, populated by unsavoury, destitute-looking characters and packs of feral children, situated next-door to a rough pub that once hosted meetings by the English Defence League, and a hole in the wall takeaway that dispenses chips and kebabs until 3am. It's a place where obscure arcade classics, many of which are poorly translated Japanese titles bearing names such as Cobra Limpet, Arena Skies and Bat Compiler, rub shoulders with ranks of chirping slot machines, penny waterfalls and claw cranes stocked with 'Beats by Dr Dre' headphones of dubious provenance and Minions soft toys.”

Kelly's obsessive search for the roots of videogaming has carried him the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and beyond, from the stuffy alcoves of cross channel ferries, to the tiny lobbies of independent fast food takeaways, to social clubs bordering remote caravan parks, where the puny 'pew-pew' of a laser cannon and the concussion blasts of exploding space boulders, resonating from an Asteroids table arcade, competes with the repetitive thud of darts.

For a hardcore cadre of amusement arcade regulars, racing games remain the big draw. The genre, which mostly forgoes any pretence of storytelling in favour of advancement through a succession of increasingly difficult circuits, is well-suited to the short sessions typical of the arcade gaming experience. Many of the most popular racers offer players a level of immersion that they would not get in a home setting, with realistic vehicle cockpits incorporating steering wheels, accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals, gear shifts, handbrakes, glove compartments, electric windows, and a three year warranty.

Games of this type often include time trials in which players must reach destinations within tight schedules, assisted by any extra-time power-ups they manage to gather along the way. Failure to meet these targets is brutally punished with the player usually required to deposit additional 50 pence pieces in order to continue.

At the age of 11, Mark Remy was a regular at his local gaming arcade. A veteran of racing simulators, he cruised the digital highways of Miami and other exotic locales in a variety of high-end virtual sports cars and articulated trucks.

Back then it was all about the horsepower and the torque,” he reminisces over a cup of tea, in a cafe a few doors down from the arcade where he first earned his racing stripes.

There were always plenty of extra-time bonuses to collect in those games. I never once thought about where all those additional seconds might be coming from.”

In 2014 Remy turned his back on videogames and now fronts a local school outreach programme for children hooked on driving sims. His sudden change of heart followed a chance encounter with a former classmate - Donna.

We sat opposite each other for a year in Mr Kilby's European Studies class but when I bumped into her in the street, a few months ago, I almost didn't recognise her. She looked about 80 years old. She told me that she had recently undergone a second hip replacement. Then she offered me an unwrapped Werther's Orginals toffee with a used green tissue stuck to it. I politely declined.”

After leaving school Donna had fallen in with a bad crowd on the notorious 4tune website. When she announced in a heartfelt goodbye post that she was leaving the message board she found herself the target of internet trolls who began to relentlessly spam her social media accounts with insults and threats – a practice referred to online as 'dog-pounding.'

At the peak of this internet harassment Donna was spending, on average, an additional 6000 hours each day going through the messages left for her by trolls, who gleefully informed her of their plan to keep spamming her accounts until she was aged over 9000 years old. Reading one lengthy message left on her Facebook page (which turned out to be a cut and paste of Leo Tolstoy's novel – War And Peace - translated into German) caused her to miss both her 18th and 21st birthdays and spend a small fortune on German language lessons.

It all adds up,” says Remy. “These 4tune trolls stole her youth, her middle age and her twilight years, all so they could level up in their sick game.

Those hours that she spent in front of her computer reading those vile hate messages took a toll on her eyesight. As her vision deteriorated it took her longer to read the thousands of tweets and facebook wall updates she received each day, and she began to age more rapidly. At the end she was wearing four pairs of reading glasses. The coroner reported that she had the body of a 93 year old. In the space of just three months she had aged 70 years.”

Angela Welds from the anti-cyberviolence charity - Stolen Moments - has followed the increase in accelerated ageing among female internet users and identifies an escalation in online harassment as the root cause of this disturbing trend:

There is an erroneous but widespread belief that these women are ageing prematurely as a result of a bad diet, a lack of exercise, or an allergic reaction to brightly-coloured hair dye, rather than as a direct consequence of sustained trolling.

Make no mistake: This is a violent crime on a par with being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an alleyway by masked assailants, wrestled to the ground and having your handbag wrenched from your grasp. Although in a sense it's more serious since time rather than money is being stolen.

The fact that, in 100% of all observed cases of online harassment, men are the perpetrators and women the victims, points, not so much to a gender gap than a gender canyon. At the heart of this coordinated campaign of harassment are cells of Men's Rights Activists who are jealous of the longer average lifespan enjoyed by women in developed countries, and who are seeking to address this imbalance through unscrupulous methods.”

According to C Drive sources cited in a recent UN study*(see footnote) every minute a billion seconds is lost as a result of internet trolling.

Many of these purloined moments find their way onto the black market where they are sold by criminal gangs, with the profits being used to fund real world terrorism.

Time extracted from trolling celebrity social media accounts is valuable and can be auctioned at a premium. Ironically the key market for this so-called 'prime time' is fading celebrities looking to extend their waning careers.

Seconds accumulated from the online hoi-polloi – unflatteringly referred to in underworld circles as 'the meat cloud' - is trafficked on the dark web where it is processed and sold in bulk to disguise its origins.

One of the main consumers of this 'standard-grade' time are the manufacturers of arcade machines, who use it as a crucial ingredient in the extra-time bonuses in their games. Usually these rewards for competent play grant a gamer no more than 30 additional seconds. Typically only 10-15% of this time will be human in origin with the remainder padded out with time harvested from female rabbits or mice who are given Twitter accounts and then relentlessly trolled. On average an arcade machine will need to be topped up with extra-time every 12 days.

A growing number of anti-harassment campaigners are calling for tighter laws governing the industry, to ensure that extra-time bonuses incorporate seconds obtained from ethical sources. Some are appealing for a percentage of the revenue from arcade games offering these bonuses to be donated to a fund aimed at combating online trolling. Others are demanding the abolition of extra-time bonuses altogether:

Time is precious,” says Mothers Against Mario and Double Dragon founder, Chloe Decker. “We shouldn't have to tolerate it being stolen out from under us, just so some latch-key kid who can't afford a proper console can enjoy a few extra seconds playing a racing game.”

While some are willing to take the legislative route to industry reform, a vocal minority on the extreme fringes favours a more-direct approach. The twitter hashtag #PushPlayerOne aims to discourage gamers from playing arcade machines offering extra-time bonuses by 'accidentally' bumping into them or nudging them at crucial points during the gameplay.

The response to these concerns from the hardcore videogaming community has been sceptical with most regarding the claims made by Remy and the UN as far-fetched:

Mathematically it doesn't seem possible that someone with no coding experience could cram an additional 6000 hours into a standard earth day. The most I've managed is 45.” says Twitter user @Goatface_killah12.

In Sunspot Amusements on Southend seafront, battle-scared videogames patriarch, Paul 'Cressy' Creswell, takes a break from kicking-arse on the unfathomably challenging smooth-scrolling beat-em-up - Total Bain - to explain the philosophy behind arcade gaming:

Arcade games speak to something at the centre of the human condition: The unpalatable truth is that some of us get more life than others and everybody's preoccupied with delaying the inevitable. Even if we are not aware of it, we are all looking for a little extra-time on this planet - a way to progress a little further into the game.”


* Defending Safe Spaces from Space Invaders (Buckenham & Mear 2012)

Skate Or Die: Deflowered On The Horns Of A Digital Dilemma (Lambert 1998)

Micro-Aggressions So Small They Cannot Be Seen, Even Using The World's Third- Most-Powerful Microscope (Dunmall & Chamberlain 2014)

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