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12 days of video gaming

A look back at some of the memorable moments of 2005.

In 2005 the real and the virtual continued their collision course. Sony entered the handheld market. Microsoft launched the Xbox 360. Hot Coffee became a synonym for doing the nasty. Politicians bloviated. Americans outsourced their fun to Chinese gold farmers. The Terminator threatened games.

What a year!  So, let's take a look back at 2005 with the "Twelve Days of Christmas" as our guide.

Twelve ‘games to avoid’
Just in time for the holidays the watchdog group National Institute on Media and the Family released a list of 12 games to avoid, among them “God of War,” “Resident Evil 4,” and “The Warriors -– all games, ahem, that received the thumbs-up from   "Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse," a game this site called "the finest game ever made about a 1950s-era travelling zombie salesman," came under particular fire for its depictions of cannibalism. Vegetarian zombies anyone?

Eleven politicians bloviating
Hillary. Hillary. Hillary. The senator from New York was all over the place in 2005 calling for an FTC investigation in June into the Hot Coffee mod on "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," joining fellow politicos Sens. Joe Lieberman, Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum to sponsor legislation for a five-year $90 million study on children and media consumption and introducing legislation in December to protect kids from games. On the state level, Illinois passed a law restricting the sale of violent and sexually explicit video game sales to minors; it was then declared unconstitutional by a federal judge. Another federal judge blocked the enforcement of a similar statue in Michigan. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, no stranger to fictional violence himself, signed into law a measure banning the sale of violent video games to children and it, too, was blocked by a judge. What no one mentioned: The parents.

On the other side of the debate, Rockstar Games did not help matters when it turned out they did actually know about the hidden sex scenes in the PC version of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." This revelation came courtesy of a Dutch modder who made the hack available via a mod called "Hot Coffee." In true bad boy fashion, Rockstar followed up this controversy by releasing the M-rated "The Warriors" and offering screenshots of "Bully," a game where the object is to give pasty school boys "swirley's" and "pink bellies." We can only expect a puppy-beating sim in the works. Meanwhile, The Onion had its response.

Ten high-faluutin game reviews
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of New Games Journalism (imagine Hunter S. Thompson — but with less drugs — scribbling stream-of-consciousness video game reviews from a first person perspective) the Guardian UK games blog listed "10 unmissable examples" of the U.K.-born genre. The posting produced a wave of debate. "Does it make you a good writer if you go over 2,000 words and talk about how the game made you feel? Afraid not," read one post to the video game blog Kotaku. Meanwhile, everyone else shrugged and went back to shooting stuff.

Nine signs that life is one big role-playing game
2005 was the year when real life imitated art. In Shanghai, a gamer received the death sentence for stabbing and killing another gamer over a stolen virtual sword. A man in Japan was arrested for using "bots" to rob and beat characters in the online game, "Lineage II." A man died of heart failure in South Korea after finishing a 50-hour gaming marathon. In the medieval fantasy "World of Warcraft," which by the end of the year had a staggering 50 million members, a plague left some characters damaged, others dead and entire virtual cities in quarantine.

Members of virtual worlds such as "Second Life" and "Ultima Online" held virtual parties and virtual dances to raise virtual money, later traded in for real money, to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami.  South Korea and Iran protested against how video games portrayed their regions (in South Korea's case, the criticism concerned how North Korea was depicted.)

This was also the year that the mainstream media shined a spotlight on gaming's strangest trend: virtual sweatshops where underpaid employees in China and elsewhere play their way through online role-playing games to earn virtual goods that can be sold to Western gamers too lazy to earn the items themselves. That’s right, just when you thought we Americans were already too lazy — now, we’re outsourcing our leisure.

Eight sports game deals
After getting exclusive rights to the NFL in 2004, game publisher Electronic Arts continued to dominate sports games in 2005 by scooping up an exclusive six-year agreement with NCAA football and a 15-year co-branding deal with the sports network ESPN. Take-Two Interactive Software scooped up a semi-exclusive seven-year deal with Major League Baseball, which still left baseball open to first-party developers such as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. The NBA spread the love (and the money) by signing deals with Electronic Arts, Take-Two, Midway Games, Sony and Atari. But the sports game of the year turned out to be the one title not stifled by an official license. With its hard hits, skimpy cheerleader and its attention to outrageous off-the-field antics , "Blitz: The League," ensured that game maker Midway won't be getting an NFL license anytime soon. And for that we are thankful.

Seven signs of Hollywood synergy
Geek deity Peter Jackson not only helped develop the game version of his King Kong movie, but also signed on to produce the film version of “Halo.” Let’s hope that it will be better than 2005's "Doom: The Movie." That dead horse also known as "The Matrix" was flogged not once, but twice in 2005. One version, "Matrix: The Path of Neo," actually re-wrote the ending of the final movie which would be a big deal if I remembered what happened. In 2005 director Steven Spielberg signed on with Electronic Arts to write and produce three undisclosed titles. (Please oh please, don’t re-do "E.T.") Finally, in the coolest example of film-game synergy, filmmakers in France used "The Movies," a PC game that allows players to make movies starring their sims, to create a commentary on life experienced by ethnic minorities in France.

Six-figure winnings
Pro gamer Jonathan Wendel, aka Fatal1ty, racked up over $231,000 fragging the heck out of fellow gamers in the 10-stop, nine-country 2005 Cyberathlete Professional League World Tour. The gaming world hyped the tour as proof that pro gaming is on its way to being recognized as a pro sport. I'll believe it when I stop seeing so many pudgy male groupies.

Five dead pixels
No sooner had Sony bounded into the handheld gaming marketplace with the PlayStation Portable, or PSP, in March when early adopters were complaining that its LCD screen was riddled with pixel-sized spots that stayed either constantly lit or dark. Sony at first refused to acknowledge the problem, calling such dead pixels normal, nevermind the PSP's $250 price tag and its tiny 480x272 pixel resolution. After a weeks-long online campaign, Sony quietly allowed the dead pixel issue to be covered by warranty. The whole matter was forgotten, thus completing the typical gizmo product cycle from bug-ridden product to mass amnesia.

Four Wi-Fi gamers in McDonald's
Virtual nutrition met virtual racing in October when McDonald's agreed to make each of its fast food outlets a wireless hub for the handheld Nintendo DS. That deal was followed by the November release of Nintendo's first Wi-Fi compatible game, MarioKart DS, where up to four gamers can log on to the Wi-Fi network and race against each. Think the deal means the re-release of "Burgertime?"

Three venture capitalists (including one Irish rock star)
Former Electronic Arts president John Riccitiello, former Apple chief financial officer Fred Anderson and Bono — yes, the one and only — announced a $300 million deal in November to buy controlling interests in game development companies Pandemic Studios ("Star Wars Battlefront," "Mercenaries") and Bioware (“Star Wars: Knights of the Republic,” "Jade Empire").  The deal is seen by many as an important step in helping independent game developers retain the creative independence. Both companies will continue to run independently, but will partner up for larger operations. We'll start the rumor here that Bono's sole request in the deal is that in the future both developers replace all in-game health packs with pints of Guinness.

Two EverQuest breeders
Somewhere between questing and galloping around on drogmors two players of the online multiplayer role-playing game "EverQuest" — "EverCrack" to fans — squeezed in the necessary time to procreate. Their daughter, born Jan. 6, is named Firiona, after one of the game's female elf-babes. Good luck in school, kid.

And one Xbox 360 for the entire state of New Jersey
When the next generation console from Microsoft went for sale at midnight on Nov. 22, stores across the country were mobbed by gamers and their bewildered girlfriends. Alas for many, many gamers it was not to be. Within hours, the initial shipment of 300,000 to 400,000 units sold out, leaving gamers to espouse conspiracy theories, read up on supply and demand theory or pony up the money on eBay, where Xbox 360s, according to one research firm were selling for an average of $702 a unit. But cheer up. While only a trickle have hit stores since the Nov. 22 domestic release, in Japan they're practically giving them away.  I hear it's wonderful there this time of year.

Bon voyage, readers! And Happy Holidays.