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Chilly reception for marijuana tycoon game shows games industry’s backwards stance on drugs – TechCrunch

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Intense and graphic violence is something we’ve come to simply expect from games, but sexual and other adult themes are still largely taboo — including, as publisher Devolver Digital is learning, drugs. Even if the game in question is a relatively serious tycoon-type look at the current (and legal!) business of selling weed.

Devolver is no stranger to controversy; it has published and helped develop dozens of games and many of them have featured the kind of graphic violence that sets off those who still see the medium as a corruptive, fundamentally debased one. And to be fair, the likes of Hotline Miami aren’t going to change any minds.

But for the company’s first original commissioned IP, it had the idea of assembling a game in the popular “tycoon” genre, but focused on the emerging and popular sector of growing marijuana.

Obviously this is somewhat controversial, but the plant is legal in many states and countries already and on its way in plenty of others. This isn’t the time or place for a full evaluation of the scheduling system and the war on drugs, but it suffices to say that it is a complex and interesting business ecosystem that’s teetering on the edge of widespread acceptance. That makes it a bit edgy, but also fresh and relevant — perfect, Devolver thought, to build a game around. So they made Weedcraft, Inc.

Unfortunately, the company’s co-founder Mike Wilson told me the other day, they underestimated how square the gaming industry is.

“This is definitely the hardest game I’ve had to market, and that’s saying something,” Wilson told me. “It has been a fucking nightmare. The fact that we’re still so afraid of a topic like weed instead of the murder simulators you can market any time, anywhere, it’s shocking.”

Console game stores were reluctant to even carry it, and warned Devolver that it would never be featured, which is a death sentence for a game’s discoverability. They couldn’t get ads approved on Facebook or Instagram, and the person who submitted them even had his account suspended. And just this week, streamers trying out the game on YouTube had their videos demonetized.

The only stores that didn’t buck were Steam, which is largely content-agnostic, and GOG, a popular DRM-free storefront.

Why, though? This isn’t a game about smoking blunts or cutting dime bags with oregano to sell to middle school kids.

Well, it is a little pro-legalization.

“This isn’t a pro-legalization game. This is a tycoon game. You don’t do drugs in the game!” said Wilson. “You can play as a totally legal, scrupulous businessperson. We did all this research with like, dispensaries, geneticists, lawyers, we were worried about cultural sensitivity with the subject matter, things like how much more black people get jailed for it. We wanted it to be representative of all the social issues involved. It’s kind of like doing a game about booze in the prohibition era — like, what an interesting industry to study, right?”

It’s not that the companies involved here — Microsoft, Sony, YouTube and so on — are applying some invisible rules. The rules are there; when I contacted YouTube for comment, they pointed me to the list of guidelines for “advertiser-friendly content.” And plain as day there’s the one about drugs: “Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not suitable for advertising.”

It’s just a bit weird to me still that we have this backwards, puritan approach to this stuff. Think of how much vile garbage is on YouTube and how the most popular games in the world glorify guns and death. But a recreational drug legal in many places and generally well thought of, not to mention a massive and growing business — that’s beyond the pale.

I understand YouTube doesn’t want people doing bong-clearing competitions, and console makers want to appear family-friendly so they don’t lose that teen and tween market. But surely we can be adults about this.

Gaming is maturing to be an interactive storytelling medium that encompasses serious issues, but the industry is holding itself back by its squeamishness about adult themes. And that feeds into the puritanical objections from misguided commentators, who go nuts over romancing an alien in Mass Effect or the ridiculous “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA, but don’t acknowledge the sophisticated storytelling of Return of the Obra Dinn, or subversive commentary of Papers, Please, or the impressive period recreation of an Assassin’s Creed.

Drugs are a complex and controversial topic. I get that some people want to stay hands-off. But when that hands-off stance doesn’t apply to graphic violence, sexism, and other sore spots, it comes off as prudish and hypocritical.

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The local politics of AirBNB’s ban on DC rentals

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Enlarge / Airbnb said it will refund guests who had booked stays in Washington next week and reimburse hosts for lost income.

Bonnie Jo Mount | Washington Post | Getty Images

On January 9—three days after supporters of President Trump started a riot at the US Capitol—Sean Evans decided it was time for action. Evans had seen a post on Nextdoor about neighbors running into hostile Trump supporters the night of the riot, leading to a verbal altercation that had left residents of his corner of Northwest DC on edge. Now, rumors flew online that the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden would bring more protesters and more armed violence to the streets of his city. “I don’t want them in my neighborhood,” Evans thought to himself. In fact, he didn’t want insurrectionists in the city at all.

So on Nextdoor, Evans asked his neighbors to stop renting out their properties via Airbnband VRBO. A few hours later, another neighbor devised a hashtag: #DontRentDC.

Separately, a group called ShutDownDC gathered 500 volunteers to message DC area Airbnb hosts. The group sent messages to the managers of 3,400 properties in the region—polite ones, according to ShutDownDC organizer Alex Dodd. The messages alerted the Airbnb hosts to an upcoming threat and asked them to please refrain from booking anyone in their homes in the days surrounding the inauguration.

It worked. On Wednesday, Airbnb said it would cancel and block all Washington area reservations next week. Guests who had booked reservations would be refunded; if hosts had reservations or had canceled them recently, they would be reimbursed for the lost income. Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said the company “came to this decision following dialog with Washington, DC, officials, the Metro police department, and members of Congress.” (Earlier in the week, DC’s mayor had asked people not to travel to the inauguration; many customary inaugural events will happen online.)

For Airbnb, the incident is a reminder that all its politics is local. The company, now publicly traded with a value of more than $100 billion, has made its reputation on selling visitors on neighborhood authenticity. But its business model has at times made it a lightning rod for local affairs, and left it scrambling to solve social ills. Airbnb has battled with local governments to allow short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. It has tussled with local officials over taxes and data sharing. It has reshaped the economies of tiny vacation towns. It has tried to prevent big parties in rentals, which have sometimes led to violence. More recently, it has met with the ire of neighbors who don’t want virus-stricken out-of-towners filling up their overloaded ICUs.

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Report: Xbox’s “instant on” feature could consume 4 billion kWh by 2025

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Enlarge / A lot of neon green power potentially

Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

The “instant on” feature that’s activated by default on new Xbox Series S/X consoles could suck up a total of 4 billion kWh—the equivalent of a year’s operation for a large power plant—from US owners alone through 2025. That’s according to a preliminary report released this week from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentally focused nonprofit advocacy group.

As the name implies, the “instant on” feature of the Series S/X (and the Xbox One before it) lets users skip the usual startup time when turning the console back on. That saves about 10 to 15 seconds of waiting per power cycle on the Series S/X, down from about 45 seconds on the Xbox One. (This is separate from the Xbox Series S/X’s heavily promoted “quick resume” feature that loads the game state for recent titles directly from the system’s fast SSD storage and works in either mode)

“Instant on” standby also lets the system check periodically for system updates in order to download and install them in between play sessions. But leaving the “instant on” feature active means the Xbox Series S/X draws nine to 10 watts of power 24 hours a day—even when it’s not being actively used—compared to less than 1W if the standby settings are switched to “energy saving” mode.

The Xbox Series S/X initially drew 25 to 28W of “instant on” standby power at launch, but a recent firmware update caused a dramatic reduction, placing the new systems below the ~13W drawn by the Xbox One’s “instant on” mode. The PlayStation 5, by contrast, uses between 1 and 2 watts when sitting idle in “rest mode.”

It all adds up

A power draw in the single digit watt range may not sound like much, but it can add up when millions of systems are left plugged in and idling for years at a time. For a single console, that 9W of additional “instant on” power draw can add up to about 78 kWh in a year, or roughly $10.60 in energy costs for an average US home (going by the October 2020 EIA average of 13.6 cents/kWh).

To estimate the total extra “instant on” power draw across all Xbox consoles, NRDC author Noah Horowitz told Ars he assumed 30 million US sales of the Xbox Series S/X through 2025 (a number itself based on estimated sales of the Xbox One). Most of those sales would be concentrated near the system’s launch in Horowitz’s modeling.

Horowitz then assumed that two-thirds of all Xbox owners would stick with whatever the “default” energy setting is on their system. “We don’t have hard data on this but it’s based on typical anecdotal experience whereby users typically stick with the default option, rather than opting out and selecting something different,” Horowitz said.

With all that factored in, Microsoft’s decision to have “instant on” as the default power mode adds up to 4 billion kWh of additional energy consumption over the next five years. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual output of a 500 MW power plant, and it translates to about $500 million in added energy costs and 3 million tons of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the NRDC’s reckoning.

“Given those numbers, our hope is that most users would be willing to wait an extra 5 to 10 seconds for their console to restart if they knew the impact,” Horowitz writes.

Uncheck that box

The NRDC is urging Microsoft to change the system’s default settings to “energy saving” mode right out of the box worldwide (this is already the case in Europe, thanks to the region’s energy efficiency directive). That change could be implemented by firmware update for existing systems and at the factory for newly sold systems going forward. Microsoft has yet to respond to a request for comment on the matter from Ars.

The NRDC also notes that high-end games consoles are absolute power hogs when it comes to the simple function of playing streaming movies or TV shows. New consoles draw anywhere from 31W (for the Xbox Series S) to 70W (for the PS5) when streaming from Netflix or Amazon Prime in NRDC’s testing. That’s way more than the 3W or so for a dedicated streaming box like Roku or Apple TV.

“We have repeatedly urged Sony and Microsoft to include a dedicated low-power chip for video playback in their consoles, and this request is even more important today given the potential for long hours of ‘binge watching’ via the console,” Horowitz writes.

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Wandavision series premiere: A slow, brilliantly weird start for “MCUTV”

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Enlarge / The black-and-white world of Wandavision, as occasionally interrupted by color in its first two episodes on Disney+ as of today.

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The modern era of Marvel Comics television has been a jumpy one, with ABC and Netflix dividing-and-conquering based on available comic series, exclusivity deals, and otherwise trying not to step on Marvel Studios’ gargantuan toes. Fans got some fascinating television out of the process, but those network deals eventually fizzled—perhaps not coincidentally, right around the time that the Disney corporate umbrella began plotting its own content-filled streaming service.

As a result, today’s premiere of Wandavision on Disney+ is far from the first TV series with clear links to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s definitely the clearest one yet. Take two major actors from repeat MCU films, slap them into the first-ever TV series that opens with a Marvel Studios logo, and you’ve got yourself one massive statement of intent.

As if that weren’t gutsy enough, Wandavision goes further in terms of ambition with a two-part series premiere that will befuddle fans and outsiders alike. After over a year of squint-worthy reveals, with hints of black-and-white TV throwbacks and superhero-filled intrigue, we have 65 minutes of goofiness, dread, and a sense that this weird series is only going to get weirder.

Doozy me this

Mild spoilers from here on out, based on previously revealed series trailers.

More bluntly, the first 30-minute episode is so odd that it’s unsurprising to see Disney+ break its tradition of “one episode a week” and offer the second episode for immediate binging. The first episode commits severely to the series’ apparent “twin timeline” gimmick by focusing almost entirely on a seemingly idyllic world, trapped in a late 1950s TV sitcom universe. Every man wears a suit; every woman wears a pointy bra and immaculately coiffed hair; and every scene is bathed in absurdly bright lights, black-and-white filters, and artificial audience laughter.

Even if you haven’t followed lead characters Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), Wandavision quickly clarifies their otherworldly superpowers—meaning, each I Love Lucy-caliber moment of laugh-tracked slapstick has a healthy superhero dollop. Tidying the kitchen means juggling a series of hovering dishes. A dated reference to demanding food from the wife is interrupted by a reminder that Vision’s a robot and can’t eat, anyway.

The first episode primarily hints to the series’ underlying layer by peppering the cookie-cutter sitcom setup with increasingly nagging questions. Husband and wife see that today’s date is marked on the calendar with a heart, and at first, we’re led to believe it’s funny that they both can’t remember why it’s there. Anniversary? Special occasion? Wandavision sets a predictable sitcom plot into motion when the couple splits up in making incorrect assumptions about this date, leading to a wacky dinner party where the duo tries to both keep guests comfortable and hide their superpowers. What a doozy!

We get about 20 minutes into the episode before question marks begin piling up, right around the time that the episode’s trope-filled ’50s throwbacks grow a bit tiresome. Olsen and Bettany’s chemistry is the best part about this goofy content, but when they split up for the day, their supporting cast—a dry-as-dirt bunch of office coworkers for Vision, and an absurdly aroused neighbor (Kathryn Hahn) for Wanda—doesn’t live up to that spark. Thankfully, the dinner party gets downright weird, as we come to understand that the date on the calendar was the tip of the couple’s iceberg. Turns out, they’re as confused by this whole 1950s pastiche as we are in the audience.

For which children?

This moment from the second episode sees Wanda wondering how to deal with the curious sight of blood. As in, red blood in a black-and-white world.
Enlarge / This moment from the second episode sees Wanda wondering how to deal with the curious sight of blood. As in, red blood in a black-and-white world.

Disney

The episode takes a little too long to get everyone onto the same page—and there’s enough foreshadowing through the episode to make viewers begin tapping their watches and saying, “Get on with it.” But the weirdness cultivates enough of a sense of dread that I, at the very least, was willing to commit—but I do wonder if I’d have felt the same way without a guarantee of a second episode to watch immediately after.

Sure enough, this second episode begins cheerfully toying with the fact that Wanda and Vision appear to exist in two places at once, even though the camera continues focusing only on their black-and-white sitcom selves. We also see an advancement in the series’ apparent era, with the following episode looking nearly a decade newer in terms of fashion and video treatment, along with an increasingly clear look at what doesn’t quite add up in this idyllic universe.

A fundraiser event prompts the couple’s neighbors to say the phrase “for the children” in monotone unison—often enough for us to notice that there aren’t any kids around. An inter-office chat peppers dark anti-communist sentiment between playful banter. And a freak radio broadcast includes chatter that seems to be aimed at Wanda, as uttered by whatever man makes a brief cameo at the end of the first episode. That says nothing of the way these first two episodes play around with hints of color, or the fictional commercials that shamelessly tie the series into the larger MCU.

All of this is, once again, stitched together by Olsen and Bettany driving the series with a goofy, adorable chemistry that they would otherwise never get to show off in Marvel Studios films. At the same time, the duo still carves out their own humorous space with superpower sight gags usually relegated to the dustbin of ’80s sitcom history (e.g. Small Wonder, Out of this World). Without this duo in the drivers’ seat, quite frankly, I may not have been eager to recommend the 65 minutes on Disney+ thus far. The show is otherwise an exercise in feeding MCU teases and mysteries, while building an entirely new plotline that seems to borrow from similar Scarlet Witch comics stories (with a few distinct differences thus far, arguably to fit into whatever film follows this series).

Big ups to the House of Mouse

But I also can’t help but enjoy how outright dark and weird the series gets in those moments when the first two episodes’ shimmering, superficial layer starts to crack, revealing a pulsing, disturbing belly beneath. Marvel Studios is clearly cashing in on the combined factors of viewer goodwill, buoyed by millions of Avengers film fans coming in with allegiance and understanding, and the fact that viewers aren’t stumbling onto this show in episodic, network-TV fashion. I imagine a confused comics outsider tuning into the first episode 22 minutes in, when a man begins choking on his dinner while his wife begins berating him in a cold, almost David Lynch-ian manner, and immediately shouting, “There’s something wrong with the TV!” while changing the channel to Wheel Of Fortune.

For that, I applaud the House of Mouse for putting this oddball series front-and-center on Disney+, guaranteeing to confuse at least a few hundred-thousand viewers while delivering a slow-burn story of what the heck has happened to Scarlet Witch and Vision since (or, uh, during?) the events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s another example of Disney making the most of a captive streaming audience and taking existing properties to strange new places, instead of trying to please everyone with every big-ticket character in a film’s two-hour runtime. (Or, as of late, more like 2.5 hours.) Best of all, this two-part premiere isn’t really demanding. Go on, put the episodes on while checking your phone or making a meal. You can always pause and rewind when a glaring red-and-yellow object appears in the otherwise black-and-white frame.

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