Matt Smith, Senior Editor at Digital Trends

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Welcome to @matt_on_tech, a simple blog belonging to me, Matt Smith. I’m a writer, technology guru, gamer, and Senior Editor of the Computing section at Digital Trends. In my down-time I’m an avid fan of video games (particularly the strategy and racing genres), but I sometimes get away from my PC long enough to camp, hike and enjoy the Pacific Northwest.

Email me to get in touch or follow me on Twitter and Google+. I’m currently looking for gigs that cover gaming, iOS devices or display technology.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Overwatch’s toxic community

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Edwin Evins-Thirwell over at Rock Paper Shotgun is the latest voice to join the chorus wailing over the descent of Overwatch into toxicity. Many tears have been shed on this topic in recent months, and the sentiment is understandable. Overwatch is not just a great game, but also on the vanguard of inclusiveness. Its highly diverse roster of men and women, from many ethnic and national backgrounds, is a refreshing change from the constant barrage of (often rather dull) white male protagonists, who’ve gritted teeth through melodramatic cutscenes for decades.

Yet I can’t agree with the thrust of his argument which, from what I gather, is that Overwatch doesn’t deserve the community it’s now saddled with. The game has earned exactly what we should expect. Underneath its colorful graphics, inclusive roster, and beautiful animated shorts, the game itself is entirely competitive. And a purely competitive environment rarely brings out the best in people.

The game experience is fundamentally about killing, maiming, and eliminating the other team. While losing does gain you experience, it’s of course a fair bit less than gained from a win and, once you’ve climbed the levels a bit, usually not enough to feel meaningful. The game’s complete lack of non-cosmetic progression means there’s little opportunity to dole out consolation prizes or boosts.

Worse, the game’s primary modes center on 6-on-6 combat. That’s small enough that you’ll notice if you, or someone else on your team, is doing terribly, yet too large to easily fill a full group without relying on strangers. Throw in voice chat, and it becomes clear that Overwatch was a timebomb from the start.

We should expect Overwatch to be toxic. It’s a purely competitive game where the only meaningful progression is each player’s skill, and the only goal is complete victory. Losing feels like a waste of time, and the game structure makes it easy to identify someone to blame – while voice chat offers an easy way to vent.

This isn’t to say the design of Overwatch is bad, wrong, or incorrect. Blizzard’s decisions make sense if the intent is to build a competitive esport, which is obviously what the developer wanted to do.

Yet I think it’s a bit silly that so many people – including both game journalists and, if their comments are to be believed, the game’s developers – are baffled about the game’s toxic spiral. Now that the problem is clear, it’s disheartening to see so many shoulders shrug. Many seem ready to conclude that this is just how gamers act, while others place the blame on “culture wars.”

In truth, the blame is simple to apply. Overwatch doesn’t have a friendly community because the game itself doesn’t create it. The graphics look friendly, the characters are diverse, and the kills aren’t gory – but that’s all just a coat of paint. What matters is how the game plays.

Matt Lees of Cool Ghosts summed this up nicely in his talk at Gamescom 2017. As he said, “your mechanic is your message.” A highly competitive game based on individual skill isn’t going to make people work in harmony just because it has cute, inoffensive, and/or inclusive art. (Strangely, though, Matt Lees cites Overwatch as a game worth emulation because “it’s hugely diverse, unashamedly so,” which I think misses his own point).

So, if Overwatch is a game that creates its own toxicity, what are some games that encourage a better community? Several examples come to mind.

Guild Wars 2 has a friendly community (outside of its player-versus-player mode, at least), because there’s rarely a reason not to help another player. The game’s many open-world events dish out excellent loot, but aren’t prohibitively hard, and don’t punish players who show up late or do poorly. Everyone has the opportunity for a reward. Player progression is linear, so players are rarely rejected or put down because of their items, level, or skill, which are only relevant in the most challenging, and entirely optional, game modes.

Kerbal Space Program ­has fostered a large, helpful, and active following. It lacks online play, so players never compete against each other, yet the game is extremely challenging. For most, it’d be impossible to play without help. This fosters a spirit of cooperation. It’s the community against the game. Each clever new solution to a problem is not just a benefit to that player, but also a revelation for the game’s other followers.

And then there’s Minecraft. While servers open to the public can fall victim to trolling – as many YouTube videos attest – nothing about the game rewards or encourages that behavior. For most people, who play with friends in co-op, on private servers, or alone, it remains a game about building and discovery. Minecraft’s large community is too busy dreaming up new in-game contraptions to worry about defeating other players. The game even encourages playing with people you already know (through couch co-op on consoles), which makes toxicity less of a concern.

Don’t mistake me – I’m not saying these games are better than Overwatch. I’m not even saying they’re better designed and developed. There’s obviously a demand for competitive games, and there always will be. I simply mean to point out that game design does a lot to determine the community.

Blizzard, particularly, would do well to learn this lesson. It’s historically suffered from a shitty community. I believe that’s no coincidence. Many of its games focus heavily on competitive play. Even those that don’t, such as World of Warcraft, are structured in a way that doesn’t encourage players to hang around their peers. Instead, most other players are a burden, either too weak to be useful or so strong that they leave you behind. It’s like the old joke about traffic. Everyone slower than you is an idiot, and everyone faster than you is a maniac.

A competitive spirit is not necessarily a bad thing. Difficulty and frustration in a competitive environment can create hugely loyal followers of players eager to prove themselves better than last time they played. It’s also a lot of fun to watch. Competitive games do not, however, encourage a friendly community – and we need to stop acting surprised when they spiral into toxicity.

Competition and toxicity go hand-and-hand. Even professional athletes occasionally risk suspensions and fines with a good old-fashioned shoving match. It only makes sense that the average player, having just come home from a shift at a job they hate, is going to call you a fuckstick when you use accidentally use Pharah’s ultimate on Reinhart.

 

Fitbit sucks, and it’s a big problem

Fitbit is arguably the biggest little consumer technology success stories of the last half-decade. Founded in 2007, the company took off in the new decade, riding a wave of cutting-edge wearables to a 4.1 billion dollar IPO this year, the fourth largest of 2015. Amazon’s list of best-selling fitness trackers is smeared with the devices.

There’s just one problem. No one knows if they actually work.

Credit: Charly W. Karl / Flickr

Credit: Charly W. Karl / Flickr

That’s true in more ways than one. No study has been able to confirm that a fitness tracker provides any tangible benefit to health over a specific period of time. We don’t know if they help people lose weight, improve cardiovascular health, or lead to a decrease in mortality.

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The iPhone 6S is good enough

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Reviews of the iPhone 6S are in, and unsurprisingly, they’re positive. I don’t envy the job of those tasked with reviewing them. How many different ways can you say “it’s the best, and you should buy it?”

This year, however, I noticed something that I haven’t before – the boredom of expectations utterly fulfilled.

Apple’s latest and greatest is hugely fast. GeekBench says its about as quick as the new MacBook, which is powered by Intel’s Core M processor. While I’m not sure if I trust that GeekBench in the iOS environment is comparable to the same in a Windows environment, the point is clear. The iPhone 6S is very, very quick.

But not everyone agrees that this on-paper improvement translates to the everyday experience. Niley Patel, writing for The Verge, calls the new A9 “the most powerful processor ever in a smartphone,” but follows up by saying “it kind of doesn’t matter.” Gareth Beavis, writing for TechRadar, notes the new chip is quick, “but in general day to day use, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference. TechCrunch’s review, written by Matthew Panzarino, made the boldest statement by saying almost nothing about the processor at all – “A9” is found once, in reference to the better camera and ability to shoot 4K video. The iPhone 6S is good enough for almost anything, and that makes its specific performance merits more difficult to describe.

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Remember when tablets were cool?

My iPad 3 died last night. Carelessly left to linger along the edge of a desk it soon fell victim to the curious paws of my cat and landed directly on a wheel of my office chair. The sound an iPad makes when it breaks this way is like a car window shattering. For a moment I thought someone had tried to vault into (or out of) my apartment.

In a way this accident’s timing is convenient. Apple just debuted its new iPad Air 2, so if I buy a replacement I’ll be at the cutting edge of the release cycle. The new tablet is by all accounts the best ever made.

Yet as I stood in the Apple Store today with its svelte frame in my hands, contemplating a purchase, I was more annoyed than excited. I’d be lying if I said the shiny new model felt meaningful quicker or drastically better in my hands. Pay $600? For this? I just couldn’t do it.

The moment my iPad broke didn’t change anything about my life. Without it I can still write, I can still play games, I can still visit web pages, I can still check my email. Absolutely everything that my tablet could do is already covered by another more necessary device (mostly my computer and smartphone, but game consoles as well).

For perhaps a year I felt that maybe Wired’s prophetic post-iPad article “How the Tablet Will Change the World” was not as overwrought as I’d thought. Maybe they would change the world. Maybe we would stop using PCs entirely. Maybe “a tablet in every backpack” would become the battlecry of a new era for education. Tablets were everywhere. Tablets could do everything. Tablets were cool.

But now the future isn’t as clear. Tablets aren’t going anywhere, but neither are PCs, or phones. There’s a dizzying range of devices available in nearly any size I’d like. Even Apple’s lineup is starting to become confusing. The expanding capabilities of each device is making the battlefronts between them longer, vaguer and harder to define.

If tablets aren’t going to take over, though, what is? I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question. There isn’t anything in consumer technology that’s omg awesome! right now except 4K monitors - but I get the sense the general public isn’t on board with them yet. And they only improve, rather than change, how we use computers.

Maybe I will end up buying an iPad Air 2. Right now, though, I’m tempted to wait until something cool comes along.

When morality loses to search; Google sued over celebrity nudes

Early last week we learned that Google is being sued by a group of celebrities whose nude photos were leaked to the Internet through some form of online attack that gained access to their iCloud photos.

The technology community’s reaction was swift and predictable. Its general tone was best captured at Ars Technica, which saw comments such as this:

When will these dinosaurs learn? You can’t scrub content, especially images, off the internet entirely.

And this.

People will say that I’m “blaming the victim” but really the only way to ensure naked photos from appearing on the internet is to never upload them to the internet in the first place.

And this.

Lawsuits to shut up people on the internet just don’t work.

If you took the name away from the company being sued and tried to guess it via reaction to the article, you’d think it was some helpless small business being victimized by a scummy lawyer and greedy celebrities.

But that, of course, is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Google, the world’s largest search company and one of the world’s largest advertisers. Surely they have the resources necessary to respond to takedown requests in a timely manner? Surely they have some responsibility to handle the content they display?

That is, in fact, the point being made by the celebrity’s lawyer, who notes (in a quote not often cited by technology websites covering this piece) that:

Ever since the hacked images first began to be posted on websites and blogs [...] we have been sending notices to various website operators and host providers [...]. The vast majority of those sites and ISPs/hosts, all of which are much smaller than Google, with fewer staff and resources, complied with their obligations under the DMCA and removed the Images within an hour or two of receiving our DMCA notice.

Google did not remove the images quickly. It still has not, as a Google Image Search for most of the celebrities victimized by the leak will turn up the leaked photos (along with a long list of photoshops). Some of the photos are hosted on domains that are literally the celebrity’s name followed by the word “nude” behind it, and all of them are obviously indexed well enough to make them visible in Google’s search engine. The company knows how to find them. Yet they’re still visible, still obtainable from the top of Google’s search results eight days after this lawsuit was filed.

It’s incredible to me that so many people are happy to give Google a pass on this with the usual hand waving about openness and freedom. They are, in effect, elevating the “rights” of a set of search results above the rights of real human beings. This is the sci-fi dystopia where the value of data trumps even the most basic morality, and it’s happening right now.

At times like these I’m reminded of Jason Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, a book that sharply points out that technology is not a unquestionable instrument deliver from the heavens but simply a tool built by humans with their own motivations. To quote him:

I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.

I worry about that, too. Not because technology is naturally de-humanizing, but because there’s always a wizard behind the curtain designing the models we conform to. And we’re becoming very, very good at refusing to acknowledge he exists.

Why I cry when Tim Cook says he has “one more thing”

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to switch people from Android to iOS. So yes, this is epic. It is epic.”

This quote from Marco della Cava’s piece about Cook in USA Today shows Tim Cook at his most aggressive. While different from Jobs in many ways, Apple’s new CEO shares the unrelenting ambition of his predecessor. Cook wants Apple to explore new frontiers through innovation in both new categories and in existing, successful hardware.

But ambition is not enough on its own. What made Jobs a legend in consumer technology was the fact his ambition came second to his desire for perfection. The potential market for a new device wasn’t as important as the sanctity of its design. If he felt something was out of place, it wasn’t going to be sold, period.

By contrast, Cook comes across as a conqueror rather than a perfectionist. Why is the new iPhone larger? Because it’ll steal market share. He told Charlie Rose at PBS that “it’s [the new iPhone] been about making a better phone in every single way,” but as far as I can tell, he’s never specifically said why a larger screen is a better design.

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Steam is bad for gamers

Sometimes it’s hard being right.

Back in 2010, before I realized there wasn’t much money in writing about video games, I penned an opinion piece for The Escapist. The topic? Steam, and it’s current and/or impending monopoly status.

My point, in essence, was that what people think of Steam and Valve right now is irrelevant because, once the platform dominates, it’ll be free to disregard what’s in the best interests of consumers and developers.There will be nothing stopping Valve from making bone headed moves out of ignorance, greed or stubborn idealism.

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Why I’m skeptical of virtual reality headsets

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Image Credit: Wikimedia/Yakiv Gluck

The Oculus Rift and its upcoming rival, Sony’s Morpheus, have become the darlings of technology. Almost everyone has something great to say about them, and many seem convinced that once consumer versions of VR headsets hit the market there will be no going back. Monitors, televisions and everything else will all be instantly forgotten.

I’m not so sure.

There are many serious complaints that can be made about the current state of VR technology. The units are bulky, they don’t play well with glasses, the display panels aren’t good enough, the price is too high, and so on. These aren’t trivial points, but they’re not the reason I’m skeptical of virtual reality.

My negativity is pragmatic. Geeks often pretend that technology is like a force of god that cannot be resisted and overwhelms human desire, pointing us towards a new, more enlightened path. In truth, technology – and consumer technology in particular – thrives only when it conforms to its users. Most people don’t care if technology changes their lifestyle, but hate changing their lifestyle for technology.

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Getting fed up with Google

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The above is a screen capture of my Google Authorship stats. As you can see, they’ve nose-dived. Suddenly I’m getting almost no impressions and, as of the last few days, zero clicks.

Except (thank god) this isn’t actually true. One of the sites which I work for provides author states, and they reporting as they had before. Yet the stats I can view are screwed – and why? Beats me. And I’ll almost certainly never hear of a solution from Google.

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