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Free for All: Is free to play turning our kids into Vegas pirates?


I think it's the hair. In fact, I know it. The constant flicking -- it drives me nuts. How in the world did wearing your hair like 60-year-old businessmen become such a fad? I've now had my groceries bagged by 16-year-old kids with eyeliner on and dual piercings in their lips. When did looking like a Vegas pirate become so popular? The flicking of their hair -- it does something to them. Justin Bieber, in a recent interview, said that he was crazy. He insisted on it. Of course, his agent wanted to push this tiny public cry for help off as some sign of genius, but we all know what Bieber meant: "This hair is *flick* driving me *flick* flat-out bonkers."

What also seems to be an issue with the youngins these days is an unfiltered access to the internet. I'm not kidding -- next time you're at the mall, ask the kid with the 30 Seconds to Mars t-shirt on who the vice president is. Then ask him to spell "lose." See, on the internet and inside any number of free games, he doesn't need to know this information. After all, the only time he might be worried about "loosing" anything is when he is busy PvPing.

I might be onto something. Get the hair out of your eyes, join me after the cut, and we'll discuss it further.

Of course, the years of my youth were not exactly a bastion of amazing hairstyles, either. We had our mullets, our explosion bangs -- hair was big and hard. Luckily, emo was barely starting to rear its formerly shaved head at the time, and bands like Slayer pretty much kept the emotions down to one: raraarrgghhaaggh! R.E.M. was about as sad as you got, and if you felt really daring (or drunk) you jammed to some darker dance music. (Hint: It wasn't called "goth" back then -- it was "post-modern.")

The major difference for us was that we didn't have this insanely convenient 24/7 access to the internet. If you are reading this right now and grew up before the internet was so widely available, could you imagine what we would have done with it back then? Would we have become different people? Would we have enjoyed the same activities? What if we not only had constant access to the internet, but a free hook-up to hundreds of virtual worlds, all free for exploration or exploitation?

When I was in high school, kids like yours truly would waste their time in class by drawing for hours and hours. Do kids still draw? If they do, do they use something other than an electronic pad that plugs into their PCs? What if I hadn't been forced to come up with my own tales of magic or mystery and had only to flip on my phone to participate in conversations with people from all over the world? Would it ruin the person who I am now?

In this way, I can see how grumpy old gamers have such an issue with free-to-play. To them, it represents some kind of handout. While I was busy drawing in class and skipping P.E. to practice with a band, they were busy organizing rulebooks and dice bags. To them, free-to-play might just be what emo music and combovers are to me.

While I didn't organize my rulebooks or literally sit around in basements painting models, I came pretty darn close. Me and Christine O'Donnell were both dabblers in a few things as kids, but never full out freaks about any of it. So I have a taste of what these older gamers are going through during this onslaught of free-to-play. I was already in my own place and practically married as the internet first started really becoming accessible to everyone, so I can see how earning your way in a game could seem important to an older gamer.

I dropped all of that several years ago, however, after realizing that these wonderful games we all enjoy were about socializing with other people. If not, they would just be single-player RPGs. Once I began to meet more people, I realized that the make-believe worlds I was visiting were a mirror of our own. There were the weirdos, the jocks, the poor kids -- everyone was represented in digital form. Once I was turned on to all these different points of view, I also realized that not everyone cared about "performing" or "earning" anything. After all, that was how work made them feel, and the game was a break from work.

Free-to-play is representative of all of those different points of view. Yes, some cash shops do encourage buying certain advantages that will give some sort of upper-hand in very specific circumstances. Yes, that guy who bought a stack of healing potions might outlast you in a fight. Overall, however, free-to-play simply offers more choices for all types of players from all types of financial situations. If someone tells you that free-to-play "favors" the rich, not only is he exaggerating but he isn't even specifying the situation in which the upper-hand is gained. In other words, he is blowing smoke because he played a handful of crappy free-to-play games and therefore hates the entire lot of them.

There is something, though, to the idea that free-to-play might encourage, or at least strengthen, a selfish gaming attitude. After all, the young player didn't pay for his PC, or his rent, or the electricity that powered the entire thing, so why not expect the entire gaming experience to be free as well?

"Rest assured that while many gamers will grow up thinking that everything is indeed free for the taking, there will be the oddball creative types who take the noise and put a unique spin on it."

In the end, however, I don't care if a spoiled brat can still be a spoiled brat online. You know why? Because offering a free choice -- and a quality one at that -- is also going to encourage those kids who might not have any money and who might be running on less-than-state-of-the-art hardware. That Mabinogi fan or Allods kid might be dreaming of making her own game one day, and she might draw a lot of inspiration from the free study materials. Could it be that free-to-play games are actually teaching some of our kids about variety, writing, exploration or tolerance for those who are different?

It's actually quite possible.

The noise of free-to-play is hard to decipher sometimes. There are so many games out there -- so many. Literally hundreds, and more coming all the time. Whatever this means for our kids' grammar or social skills is really beyond me. Some damage will be done, for sure. The "old ways" of gaming are forever removed, instead replaced by faster, cheaper and slicker forms of escape. Rest assured that while many gamers will grow up thinking that everything is indeed free for the taking, there will be the oddball creative types who take the noise and put a unique spin on it. These are the future development geniuses.

It's very possible that this unfiltered, free access inspires them to make something we've never seen before.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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