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QAnon in crisis as day of reckoning fails to materialize

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Enlarge / A demonstrator holds a “Q” sign outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

QAnon adherents called it “the storm.” At midday on Wednesday, there were supposed to be blackouts across the US, military tribunals led by Donald Trump and the mass execution of Democrats in the streets.

It did not happen. Instead, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th US president and the day of reckoning anticipated by the pro-Trump conspiracy cult failed to materialize, dismaying the faithful.

“QAnon believers invested all their remaining hopes in false beliefs that Trump would take action validating their theories before or during inauguration,” said Jared Holt, a research fellow focused on extremism at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “For some followers, watching Biden and (Vice-president Kamala) Harris sworn into office was a breaking point in their beliefs.”

QAnon followers had been among the rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in the hopes of overturning the results of the November presidential election, which Mr. Trump and many of his followers say was rigged.

According to QAnon prophecies, Mr. Trump would maintain power as electrical outages spread across the US on January 20. But when the lights stayed on in America, the mood in QAnon circles turned dark.

Believers began proclaiming: “Nothing!!!!” on messaging apps, their verdict sometimes accompanied by angry face or broken heart emojis.

“We all got scammed, you caused us all to lose friends over this charade,” posted one member of a QAnon discussion group created a few days after the Capitol riot. “Now we all sit with egg on our face.”

“Q,” the pseudonymous poster or posters behind the nearly 5,000 arcane messages that form the central scripture of the conspiracy theory, did not offer any explanation.

But Ron Watkins, whose father owns the imageboard where QAnon’s posts are hosted, said: “We gave it our all. Now we need to keep our chins up and go back to our lives as best we are able.”

The setback was only the latest in a series of reversals for the QAnon movement, whose ranks grew dramatically in 2020 during coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns.

Facebook said on Tuesday that it had removed more than 40,000 QAnon Facebook and Instagram pages and accounts since August as part of a clampdown on extremists. Accounts belonging to QAnon influencers were removed by Twitter earlier this month, shortly before the website permanently suspended Mr. Trump.

QAnon supporters were also affected by the closure of Parler, the “free speech” social network popular with conservatives, after Amazon suspended web hosting services to the platform earlier this month.

Nevertheless, some QAnon believers attempted to find ways to explain the situation, or fell back on the cryptic messages that characterized many of QAnon’s posts. “Trust the plan,” wrote one.

Experts warned that individual conspiracies within the wider ideology—such as anti-5G and anti-vaccine narratives—would likely live on, possibly morphing into something more menacing.

“For many people, there won’t be an easy step back. The engagement cycle has been too addicting and empowering,” said Molly McKew, chief executive of consultancy Fianna Strategies and an information warfare expert. “And what if they decide to latch on to a new, less lazy and incompetent leader than Trump? The power in this belief system hasn’t dispersed yet.”

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Valve Anti-Cheat’s “permanent” bans now have one major exception

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Enlarge / Elias “Jamppi” Olkkonen, seen here at Dreamhack’s 2019 Winter Open, may be allowed back in Valve-sponsored events despite a VAC ban.

If you know just one thing about the Valve’s Anti-Cheat system (VAC), you probably know that a ban issued through it lasts forever. As Valve’s support page lays out clearly, “VAC bans are permanent, non-negotiable, and cannot be removed by Steam Support.”

Now, apparently, there is one sizable exception to this rule, at least when it comes to esports. A post to the Counter-Strike: GO blog yesterday notes that some VAC-banned players will now be able to participate in events surrounding the game’s next Regional Major Rankings (RMR) season.

The CS:GO team notes in the post that its event guidelines were initially written around the game’s 2012 release, when “all CS:GO VAC bans were relatively recent.” Now, though, the team has decided to update those guidelines to reflect the fact that “VAC bans can now be more than eight years old.” As such, VAC bans older than five years, as well as VAC bans that pre-date a player’s first participation in a Valve-sponsored event, will no longer be taken into account when assessing RMR event eligibility.

That’s a pretty big change for a system whose defining feature is consequences that are supposed to be “permanent” and “non-negotiable.” And those other VAC consequences—including the loss of a player’s purchased game library, achievements, tradable vanity items, etc.—will still remain in place. “The only change is how they influence your eligibility to play in Valve-sponsored events,” the blog post notes.

Cheater bygones?

For years now, Valve’s zero-tolerance approach to VAC enforcement has suggested how seriously it takes evidence of cheating in the hundreds of games that use the system. One verified cheating infraction was enough to ruin your in-game credibility across Steam forever, with no exceptions even considered by Valve’s enforcement team.

When it comes to CS:GO esports, though, Valve apparently now thinks suitably old evidence of cheating should be considered as some sort of youthful indiscretion that shouldn’t be held against current players. It’s a surprisingly stark and specific carve-out for a policy that was previously inviolable.

Some CS:GO watchers suspect the rule change might be targeted to affect players like Elias “Jamppi” Olkkonen, who received a VAC ban back in 2015, when he was 14 years old. Olkkonen has claimed that the banned account in question had been lent to a friend of his at the time of the alleged cheating. He sued Valve in Finland in 2019 over that ban’s impact on his professional esports career, including its role in preventing him from signing a contract with pro team OG.

A Finnish court ruled in favor of Valve in that case last November. And in February, Olkkonen seemingly gave up on CS:GO entirely and signed on with Team Liquid as a pro-level Valorant player (though the “CSGO” name still appears in his Twitter handle). “Thank you everyone who has supported me during my past years in CS, lets start the new road in [Valorant],” he wrote at the time.

Yesterday, though, Olkkonen wrote a Twitter “thank you” for his “Officially… Unbanned” status in CS:GO. Olkkonen’s father Petri added via Twitter that Valve’s legal counsel had confirmed to him that “due to the time that has expired since the infraction happened it will no longer affect [Elias]’ eligibility to be invited to a Valve-sponsored esports event.”

Back in 2016, Ars contributor Rich Stanton wrote in depth about the crowdsourced process used by the CS:GO community to reliably identify cheaters. It’s a process that involves multiple experienced human investigators agreeing on recorded evidence of cheating, Stanton writes. It’s also a process in which investigators “presume the suspect to be innocent” and where “never being wrong is more important than always being right,” Stanton wrote.

“The surety demanded by the Overwatch system creates a small slice of cases where you’re convinced the player’s hacking, but you can’t say for sure—and if there’s any doubt, you have to let it slide,” Stanton continued.

It’s unclear whether this new CS:GO policy suggests Valve might further loosen its system of VAC consequences in the future (a Valve representative has yet to respond to a request for comment from Ars Technica). In any case, this is the first visible crack in a system that had previously served as an impenetrable shield against cheaters.

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NPD: PlayStation 5’s first 5 months are best ever for a US console launch

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Enlarge / The PS5 is bigger than Xbox Series X in more ways than one (at least, in the United States).

Sam Machkovech

While we’re still waiting on exact sales numbers for last year’s newest video game consoles, select stats have begun to emerge that, at least in the US, give a clear lead to Sony’s PlayStation 5. As it turns out, the lead is historically significant.

The NPD Group, a longtime retail analyst, has confirmed via brick-and-mortar and digital sales figures that the PlayStation 5 sold more units than any other console sold in its first five months in the US.

NPD rarely confirms exact sales figures, and stitching together an estimate of PS5 sales in the US thus far is therefore a bit tricky. In early 2018, Nintendo claimed the title of fastest selling console in US history at a mark of 10 months, by which point the company had sold “more than 4.8 million” Switch consoles.

At that time, Nintendo’s announced span of sales figures included both its March 2017 launch and its subsequent holiday 2017 period. Any more granular understanding of how many of those 4.8 million Switches sold in the US in its first five months is guesswork on our part, since Nintendo otherwise lumps Switch sales in “the Americas” for its investor relations announcements. (At the 3.5-month mark, the Switch had sold 7.81 million units throughout the entirety of “the Americas.”)

And launch numbers only tell some of a console’s success story. Even the Wii U had gangbuster sales out of the gate, with a global tally in its first two months of 3.06 million. That global number for Wii U also makes me wonder: did the PS5 sell so many consoles in the US because Sony chose to prioritize the region over Japan, Europe, and other major PlayStation territories? The NPD data doesn’t say. (The same question goes for Microsoft, whose Xbox Series X/S managed to recently top India’s console sales charts—a territory that has long been known for loving the PlayStation.)

Number hunters might note that the NPD announced last month that the PS5 was the fastest-selling console in “total dollar sales” but not units; at the time, the latter was still in Nintendo Switch’s favor as a $300 console, compared to the $500 disc-based PS5 and $400 discless PS5 model. One month later, the PS5’s leadership in the first five months of sales counts for both dollar sales and units sold.

Friday’s announcement, as posted by NPD Executive Director Mat Piscatella, did not include any sales estimates for the Xbox Series X/S hardware. When we asked, Piscatella noted that the sales of both Microsoft’s and Sony’s newest consoles “lean heavily toward the disc versions,” but he did not provide additional clarification, such as percentages.

Marching toward March sales madness

Piscatella’s latest monthly report mostly screams good news for video game hardware, software, and accessory sales. The Switch is still the number-one selling console in terms of units, both in the month of March and the entire first quarter, while the PS5 claimed the highest “hardware dollar sales” for that three-month period. Americans spent $680 million on “video game hardware” in March, beating the month’s prior high of $552 million in 2008. And year-to-date hardware spending in the states is 81 percent higher this year compared to last year in the same span of time, totaling $1.4 billion.

Beyond those numbers, Piscatella’s Twitter thread breaks down digital and traditional retail sales figures for Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch games (albeit without Nintendo’s precious eShop digital sales data for its first-party games), and it points to one other interesting note about the PlayStation 5’s apparent health: the PS5-exclusive DualSense controller is the best-selling accessory “in dollar sales” for the first three months of 2021.

Kyle Orland contributed to this report.

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Resident Evil 4 VR announced for Oculus Quest 2 as a first-person remake

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Capcom

On Thursday, Capcom announced that its megaton horror series Resident Evil will soon return to virtual reality. But instead of adding a VR mode to the upcoming Resident Evil VIII: Village, slated to launch next month, the game maker threw horror fans a curveball. The project, as it turns out, is Resident Evil 4 VR, a wildly revised port of the 2005 classic, and it appears to be an Oculus Quest 2 exclusive.

You read that correctly: Quest 2, as opposed to Rift or other PC-VR platforms. No release date or estimate has yet been confirmed.

The VR port was announced as part of the latest announcement frenzy otherwise dedicated to May 7th’s RE8, and it confirmed that Oculus Studios and Armature Studios (made up of ex-Metroid Prime developers) are leading the VR port’s production. Because of Armature’s recent ties to Oculus, in terms of releasing exclusive VR games for its Rift and Quest systems, that collaboration points to this game remaining an Oculus exclusive.

Representatives for Oculus and Facebook have so far only described the port as a product for “Quest 2,” as opposed to a more generic platform description that might hint to the “Oculus Link” system, which streams PC games to the otherwise portable Quest headset family. If Facebook wants to clarify any additional ways to play the game, we’ll have to wait for next week’s Oculus Gaming Showcase, which will premiere on Twitch and YouTube on Wednesday, April 21.

The port appears to heavily revise the original game, which launched on Nintendo GameCube in 2005 as a third-person, over-the-shoulder adventure—and one that revolutionized how the series would play for years to come. Some of that action, particularly the twitchy gun-driven combat, will likely be a solid match for the first-person view of a VR game, but RE4‘s cinematic scenes and massive bosses are another story.

Thursday’s debut trailer avoided clarifying exactly how the original game’s more ambitious moments will translate to VR. Instead, Armature and Oculus took the opportunity to show some basic combat, including a moment where the player held a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other, along with a VR-friendly inventory management screen, a puzzle that required turning a lever with hands in virtual space, and some “reload a gun using both hands” gimmickry.

Amusingly, this port serves as a reminder that the game’s original 2004 announcement came as part of a “Capcom Five” press conference of exclusive games for Nintendo’s then-struggling GameCube platform. Months later, Capcom was forced to clarify that RE4 would indeed launch on the era’s dominant PlayStation 2 after all, and it wound up being ported to roughly 4,000 other consoles in the 16 years since.

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