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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

So… PAX is ruffling feathers with their “diversity” panel.  Seems like comments around the web range from outraged to offended to offensive to dismissive.  Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I made a comment on diversity in literature over at tor.com (#7) that pretty much covers what I think about diversity and how I’m fond of MLK’s dream, and ran into a person (comment #8) who espouses a position that I find… baffling.  I suppose that their position is where Affirmative Action comes from, though, and I’ve always thought that to be deeply flawed.

It seems that a lot of it comes down to what I think of as tribalism.  You know, the human reflex to want to associate with those who are like you, or who are perceived as like you, and shun those that are not.  That “other” guy isn’t part of the tribe, so he isn’t to be trusted.  It filters into everything, from politics to gaming.  World of Warcraft is one easy example to point to, with their strict divide between factions, even to the point of enforcing it on otherwise genial Pandaran characters.  It’s an easy thing to leverage in game design (and psychology); whip up some fury against the Other, and the emotional argument can stay ahead of logic and evidence.

For the Horde!  Go, go, Alliance!  …or whatever.  (And ultimate victory goes to the cabal pulling the strings or jockeying for money or power, never the people doing the fighting.)

The whole core of “diversity” as a concept enhances the subconscious categorization of tribes, since everyone gets tagged and filed away in neat little categories.  It fosters continued contention as factions jockey for position and prominence.  It has always seemed to me to be Sisyphian, or perhaps Schroedingerish, where the “cure” perpetuates and even creates the problem.

When it comes to games, though, there’s an extra wrinkle.  Some people play games and imagine themselves in the game, and want their game avatars to represent them.  They want to connect with the characters on a personal identity level.  This isn’t how I play games or read books, but it’s an understandable approach.

In fiction, this is less of an issue since books aren’t assumed to have a high level of interactability.  Games, though, bank on giving players some level of autonomy, so it makes sense that players would also want their identity to be a part of that.  I don’t care about it as a player, but it’s something game designers should keep in mind because some players do care.

For a point of reference, two of my favorite books in my teens were The Blue Sword and Sabriel, despite being neither a necromancer nor a kelar-gifted horseback warrior.  I loved the heroines of those stories for what they did, and their gender and other “diversity” flags didn’t matter.  (In fact, to this day, it sticks out to me that there’s a bit in Sabriel where the lead character thinks a bit about her period.  It just seemed shoehorned in to show she missed her mother and to bracket her age… and that she’s a she.)  Rather, they were fascinating characters with interesting choices in intriguing scenarios, and I learned about life seeing them grow, even though I didn’t really identify myself with either of them.  I didn’t need to.  To quote Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

In games, we are given the ability to make choices.  I think this is crucial to the whole point of making a game in the first place.  It seems to me that choices are the best vector to really look at diversity.  I do love a Final Fantasy and its plucky band of teenagers and token minority characters out to save the world via weird leveling up schemes and oddball weapons, but it’s trite storytelling sometimes.

So… it’s not something that really bugs me, this push for diversity, except that I think it embraces the wrong priority.  I think that a greater diversity of motivations, choices, conundrums and consequences are the far more important direction for creators to address.  With luck, as the medium matures, this will happen naturally… though given the PAX kerfluffle and that quota-based mindset evinced in the tor.com article, I’m not sure that it will happen significantly quickly or profoundly.

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A little knowledge goes a long way sometimes… and maybe not in the direction we’d like.

As I’ve noted before, my college degree is in computer animation, specifically geared to film making.  In the course of earning that degree, I learned a lot of film making tricks and tactics, as well as the extra layer of tomfoolery that computer graphics permits.  As such, it’s very hard to watch a movie these days and not see all the little hacks and cheats.  I can’t help but see behind the curtain because I’m so familiar with what goes on back there.

I have a similar problem with games.  Since I work in making games, usually creating, texturing and animating 3D models, and I’m very familiar with the industry, I see all the little tricks that other game developers use in their games.  Even if I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and just be entertained, it’s a reflex to see, catalogue, and examine how things work, and perhaps more importantly, how they don’t work.

Similarly, since my degree is technically a Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts, and I’ve been an artist who studies art for a long time, I have a lot of experience with art, both creating it and in analyzing it.  I see art problems way too easily.  Even my hobbyist knowledge of astrophysics, physics, math and science makes some things hard to swallow, like the awful science in that recent Star Trek movie.

This is the effect underlying the Uncanny Valley effect.  Y’see, we’re all experts at being human, just by virtue of, well… living life.  When we see something that doesn’t agree with our experience, it just seems wrong, no matter how well-crafted it is.  It need not even be conscious; we notice the inherent wrongness whether or not we want to, and it colors our experience.  Even something like basic kinesthetics can be thrown off, as is the case with the Kinect motion sensor control system for the XBox.  The functionality is wrong compared to what we know so well, and it just doesn’t work.

So when we see something like this, where a psychotic nutjob’s murderous actions are blamed, in part, on video games, as gamers, we cannot help but shout:

OBJECTION!

We know enough about the reality of games from our own expertise to call “shenanigans!” on the media narrative.

Of course, there’s a flipside to this.  If we don’t have personal expertise in a topic at hand, and don’t want to bother informing ourselves about it, it becomes very easy to just go with the flow, accept fallacious authority, and accept whatever we’re told, especially if it’s something we think we agree with and fall prey to confirmation bias.  If we want to hate someone or something, we’ll find reasons to do so.  If the narrative suits our taste, we’ll happily ignore facts.  We embrace ignorance and live in our own little perception bubble, because we’re happy there.  Manipulative agenda-riddled media is more than happy to play along.

This is certainly obvious in politics and the so-called “mainstream media”.  This is one reason why blogging is changing the world and why it’s important to protect in the face of political opposition and Big Brother control; the “news” networks get called on their lies and matters of public policy can get a bit more transparency with concerned citizens involved.  Nothing quite dies on the internet, and it’s increasingly easier to do a bit of research and do a little fact checking.  Of course, even then, so-called “fact checkers” are usually biased, too.  You really have to go do your homework and proper research if you care about something.

Remember the murderer who played WoW?  When there’s a causal link implied by shoddy reporting and poor courtroom procedure, and you know the argument is pure crap, you don’t trust the narrative, and you are right to be distrustful.  You know better, no matter what the talking heads on the magic light box try to tell you.

The really crazy part is when you see through the curtain sometimes, but decide to let it slip back into place later, say, if the same media outlet reports something you want to hear.  They are no more trustworthy than they were before, but this time, since it’s something you agree with, it doesn’t matter what goes on behind that curtain.  The narrative is what matters, not the truth.

WoW subscription numbers down 300,000?  The game is finally dying!  Thanks for the brave reporting, guys!

WoW subscription numbers steady next quarter?  Must be a statistical blip or someone cooking the books.  They are desperate to show they aren’t dying!  Lousy lying media!

So what?  Just sayin’…

Trust, but verify.  Understand your own bias and get past it… at least, if you care about truth.  Sometimes, we just want to be lied to.  Being able to swallow the lies, benign or otherwise, certainly makes it easier to be entertained.

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My kindergarden daughter is improving her reading abilities in leaps and bounds.  One of the interesting things that she started doing on her own is to read a sentence backwards.  She can read it perfectly well forwards, but she reads backwards on occasion more to really get a good look at the words than anything else.  I’m not sure why she started that, but I told her it was a great idea.  (She might have picked up on the quirk I have of reading perfectly fine upside down or sideways when I’m holding a book so that the kids can see it, even if it’s off kilter for me.)

In high school, my art teacher had us take an illustration of a human, flip it upside down, and replicate it as faithfully as we could.  This was her way to train us to draw what we saw, not what we thought we saw.  Flipping the source short-circuited our tendency to just draw what we thought we needed to draw.  The shapes were unfamiliar enough (though familiar, which made for a curious mental perception loop) that we resorted to drawing shapes and hoping we got them perfect enough that they would fit together correctly when we turned them right side up.

Y’see, whether in art or in reading, we tend to think ahead a little bit and anticipate what we’re going to be doing next… and sometimes, we anticipate incorrectly.  We know that a human eye looks like this, our own mental visual shorthand for what an eye should look like (it’s worth noting that everyone has a different mental image).  We’ve seen so many of them over the years that we just assume that we know exactly what we’re doing.  And yet, everyone’s eyes are different.  Everyone’s features are a little quirky.  The vast majority of people don’t even have a perfectly symmetrical face, but since we know that human faces are symmetrical for the most part, we tend to miss the subtler details of the individual.  This is true when it comes to race or age as well; if we know that a fellow with dark skin has thicker lips and a broader forehead, or a Middle Easterner has an aquiline nose, or an older Asian lady has hooded eyes, we may well ignore what we actually see.  Caricatures play strongly to the cliches, largely because that’s what people expect… even if it’s not accurate for the subject at hand.

When someone reads “Rudolph the Red…” they almost reflexively put in “Nosed Reindeer”, no matter what is actually on the page.  When we read “Democrat” or “Republican”, “liberal” or “conservative”, “religious” or “atheist”, “Christian” or “Muslim”, “male” or “female”, our learned mental patterns fill in the gaps and anticipate what comes next.  We know that those (x) are evil corporatist pigs, or that those protesters are unwashed hippies who live in their divorced mum’s basement.  We know that those religious guys are hypocrites, or that rich people cheated the system somehow.  Our brains shut off once we have the sketchy outline, and we fill in the gaps the way we always know they get filled.  It’s obvious, so there’s no reason to actually pay attention.  Why swim upstream against the meme when it’s more efficient to go with the flow?

We know something… that ultimately turns out to be untrue.  This, not because we are wrong to try to anticipate, which is useful, and not because we are uneducated, for we are all very familiar with the human face and common communication patterns… no, we are wrong because we assume instead of observe, we label instead of listen.  We jump ahead to the response instead of reading what’s on the page, we formulate counterarguments and questions instead of listening to what’s being presented.

It’s a survival tactic.  It keeps us from thinking too much, from wasting time.  Assumptions and prejudice help us function in the absence of perfect knowledge and incomplete comprehension and the lack of will or time.

And yet, sometimes… if we miss what is actually in front of us, we make mistakes.

Authors, artists and game designers tend to take advantage of this, and some consumers love the “twist” to stories and art as well.  Humans are very good with patterns, and creative sorts love to tweak those expectations.  Less innocuously, so do media moguls and politicians.  If there are no details presented, or if the patterns might suggest something that doesn’t quite represent reality, well, we’ll just leave that up to the individual, hm?  Certainly the audience can make up their own minds, right?

Allusions, aspersions, assumptions… very useful tools, in the right hands.  Stage magic is all about tricking the natural anticipation and pattern recognition systems of the audience, even if they have to establish a pattern that they then subvert, rather than relying on an existing framework of assumptions.  It’s the old shell game philosophy; establish a pattern, add a little razzle dazzle and sleight of hand, and the mark’s own brain does the bulk of the trickery for you.  Classic Inception-style mental Judo.

So it’s interesting to me that in a world that sometimes seems upside down and backwards, the best solution can often be to look at it upside down and backwards.  Maybe you had it right the first time after all, but taking the time to really look at what you see, really listen to what you hear, and really comprehend what you read, well… that can make a world of difference.  Sometimes we have to look beyond the things we know into the things we really should be learning about.

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Previously I wrote a bit on the games in politics.  This can be flipped around to look at the politics in games, specifically MMOs and the player-dev relationship.  There are a few good angles to come at this from, notably the following:

Gordon’s Politics MMORPG

The Political Power of Games from Experience Points

Egomania and Civilization

Games with political and social subtext, like Phoenix Wright or The Redistricting Game (OK, not MMOs, but tangentially interesting)

Jack Thompson and any other ill-bred political crusader using games as a whipping boy (I’m not linking anything on this one intentionally; if you don’t know Jack Thompson, you may be better off, but if you want to chase him through the internet, it’s easy enough.)

As the Experience Points guys note, game devs “work within an immensely powerful medium”.  We are effectively the deities of our game worlds, able to rewrite the fabric of our little reality at a whim (more or less).  Players conform to our design parameters in most traditional games, simply because, despite the interactive nature of games, playing by the rules is often the only way to get through a game.

I’ve seen players who intentionally ignore or act directly opposite of a game’s tutorials… gaming counterculture hippie rebels, as it were.  It’s a valid way to play, certainly, but unless such experimentation is the point of the game (say, in a sandbox game), dev-sanctioned “progress” comes slowly if at all to someone who runs against the grain.

Even so, when a game is live and constantly mutating, as an MMO is, players can have some influence on the design.  Just look at all the tweaks in the average WoW patch, and how the ever-shifting balance between classes creates storms among the players and the class/race population distribution.  The Blizzard devs aren’t obligated to listen to any given forum, but they would be foolish not to at least try to understand how their design is perceived and processed by players.

An MMO is not a democracy (though running one as if it were might prove… enlightening).  Devs aren’t at risk of being kicked out of office due to a savvy political campaign or article of impeachment.  They are more like a hyperpowerful dictatorship that players pay to be a part of.  The coin of the realm isn’t merely popularity contests and elections, it’s real world money.  Games that don’t manage to stay ahead of their consumers and keep things interesting and enjoyable react largely to the “pure” elections of wallet voters.

To be sure, there’s a dose of goodwill currency manipulation as well, and some political games involved therein (complete with spin-infused marketing), but for the most part, MMOs live or die by their financials.  If people aren’t happy enough to keep paying the bills, the game can have problems.  If the MMO’s design relies on a critical mass of players, the stakes are raised even further.  None of this is astoundingly insightful, but I’m underlining the need for devs to understand their players and react well to them.

This is especially important when you’re relying on the constant stream of subscriptions to finance your business.  People must be happy all the time, at least above the “cancellation” threshold.  They don’t need to always be extremely happy, so the entertainment value isn’t as dense as, say, that of a movie, but they do need to always be “happy enough”.  Devs can’t rock the cart too much… but neither do they constantly have to provide astounding moments of awesomeness.

Even the much-ballyhooed “Cataclysm” in the World of Warcraft isn’t so much a radical shift in game philosophy as it is a mild mutation and facelift for existing mechanics and art assets.  Cataclysm is a good idea, methinketh, and indeed, I called for that sort of renovation before it was announced, as did BBB, but I’m not imagining it to be a Brave New World so much as Cheers with a paint job.  It really can’t be anything radically new; that would risk losing too many people.

So what about the players?  Are there forums for players to organize themselves into powerful blocs or unions to wield power over game development?  I’m not familiar with any, but I do have to wonder what an MMO might look like if it did have such metagame factional input.  Perhaps the Ryzom open source experiment will be an interesting tangential look at what happens when players get power.

Still, as Nels Anderson notes, Player Generated Content isn’t always the best idea.  It has potential, sure, especially at smaller scales and with tight dev control, but when you’re dealing with large groups of people, things can get dicey fast.  It’s a good idea for the devs to have a steady hand on the reins.  Much like the notion that a true democracy can be a dangerous thing (effectively degenerating into mob rule), a faceless, anonymous horde of gamers can be a dangerous thing, at least if game stability is an issue.

It’s easier to give players a lot of control over things that don’t actually matter.  That sates the player need for authorship, and keeps the game from being polluted by too many diverse opinions.  This is the heart of why cosmetic options and talent specs are so valuable to MMOs.  (Dear Blizzard:  appearance tabs already, aye?  Housing, maybe?)

Devs are closer to deities than senators, but money still talks.  Follow the money, and understand why it goes where it does, and you can siphon off a living.  Divert the stream too much (not the same as crossing the streams), and you run the risk of upsetting the flow, such that your living (or the health of the MMO) is at risk.  Keep things even and smooth enough, though, and everyone can be happy.  It might mean a little compromise here and there, and actually listening to each other, but it pays off.

Sort of like politics.

When the players or the devs start feeling entitled or start ignoring the valid concerns of the other party, acrimony builds, and can undermine a game world.  I’ve argued before for more player input into these MMO things, and I think it could be a good thing… but it wouldn’t be wise to push things so far that players have more power than the devs.  There’s a balance to be struck, more in MMOs than any other class of games.  Rather than pitting players vs. the developers (that link is to an excellent blog), perhaps some cooperation and compromise would make an MMO stronger.  Maybe not… but, like a democratic MMO, it’s worth thinking about, if only as a thought experiment to confirm that the way things currently run is the Best For Now.

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I don’t think I’ll try for the trifecta of internet taboos this time.  I’ll save the religious stuff for Easter.  Politics and economics are intertwined, though, and unfortunately, considerably more important than some of the other articles I have simmering on the burner.

Karl Denninger has some new articles up that I’d like to highlight.

First, his obligatory “Year in Review” sort of post.  Lots of data with a side order of vitriol.  This will be an interesting year, what with the 2010 elections firing people up (or not, as the case may be).  Apologies to those of you who don’t care about U.S. politics.  I’m actually not a fan of politics, as it happens (politicians bother me), but events on that stage have a nasty tendency to affect the stuff I am a fan of, so it’s good to at least be aware of what is afoot.

Where We Are, Where We’re Headed (2010)

Then there’s this gem that not only roasts the mainstream media, but also serves as a nice reminder of the math behind housing and why we’re still not in a Happy Place economically.  Calling Geithner and Obama to task is icing on the cake.  (Don’t worry, he has blasted Bush as well.  Economic concerns are nonpartisan; both parties are part of the problem.)

The Mainstream Media Wakes Up (HAMP)

And if you’re a fan of the Time Man of the Year, dear old Ben Bernanke, Denninger has this to say of some of his recent comments:

Fed Bubble Blowing:  A Study of Denial

Denninger is a wee bit more… fiesty… than I might be, but he’s keyed into the financial markets, and considering the smoldering problems in that sector of the economy (that affect all of us), it’s been instructive for me to see what he’s concerned about.

The Christmas Eve shenanigans were interesting, too:

Fraudie/Phoney-What Does Treasury Know

When the legislation makes efforts to pass something while citizens are busy, it throws up a few red flags in my mind.  Similarly, when they say “this must pass NOW, or the world will end”, it bothers me, whether it’s about Climate Change, TARP or Health Care Reform.  I can’t help but think of hucksters telling me to “Buy Now, this deal will never be this good again!”, when almost inevitably, a little bit of homework and a bit of patience shows it to be the fraudulent sales pitch it really is.  Why is it that we offer politicians any more respect than cable TV sales channel pitchmen?  In my mind, both are modern day snake oil salesmen, only differentiated by the actual effect they can have on the population at large.

Speaking of snake oil, though:

The True Intent of Health “Reform”

“Global Warming” SCAM -Hack/Leak FLASH

Interesting stuff.

I know, I know, I usually talk about game design and happy shiny fluffy stuff.  Thing is, if societal acrimony increases while the economy burns as our leaders fiddle about with things best left alone, and we really do step into a Greater Depression, complete with political and societal upheaval, the New Happy Shiny might be more Big Brother Soylent Green than endless navel gazing in the MMO genre.  Jack Thompson isn’t the only “political” figure that stands in opposition to gaming utopia.

So… yeah.  That’s my New Year’s “Coming up Next” post.

Please pay attention to things that really are more important than games.  Don’t take my word for what is going on, don’t take Denninger’s word, don’t drink the Hannity or Huffington Kool-Aid.  Don’t trust government propaganda.  As Thomas Jefferson recommended:  Question With Boldness (OK, OK, there’s a hint of religion in the full quote, so I did get in the whole trifecta…)

Question everything, and don’t stop until you have the truth.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Questioning of Game Design.  (See, the philosophy works there, too!)

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HWFO is an acronym coined by the CEO of Three Rings (the brilliant minds behind Puzzle Pirates), Daniel James.  It stands for Hand Waving Freak Outery, and is often used on the PP forums as a disparaging remark to suggest that someone is overreacting.

Karl Denninger does his fair share of HWFO over at the Market Ticker (a fascinating blog about the markets and their dysfunction of the last several years).  But hey, overreacting is what bloggers do.  If we wanted dry, rational reporting on facts, we’d turn to the impartial, accurate, professional media.  I mean, that’s what they are paid to do, right? *cough*

Anyway, KD’s on a tear lately, with a bit more vitriol and urgency to his commentary.  It’s worth a perusal of his archives if you want to get a bead on what the markets are doing, and how the economy is functioning (or not, as the case may be).  You could be excused for mistaking his latest articles as the rants of an anti-Obama nutter, but the curious fact is that he voted for the guy and made a big deal out of pointing out the fact.  He wrote a few times about liking Ron Paul’s stance on the economy, but ultimately voted for Obama.  So remember that when you dig around and find him ranting and waving his arms about the problems he sees.  He wanted Obama to succeed (and probably still does; who really wants chaos and social breakdown?).

So, his take on the 9/12 gathering in Washington D.C. is interesting less for the inherent HWFO, and more for the observation that it’s not a big deal elsewhere in the media.  No, the big news of the day is about Kanye West behaving badly.  A million or more people marching peaceably on the capital in protest of government spending would be big news in a sane society.  (Though, really, some of the protest posters are way over the top.  Hyperbole doesn’t help make a good case.  Of course, when the people in charge are telling us that they Must Pass This Bill Right Nao!!1! or The World Will Collapse!!11!!!1, it’s not like everyone is behaving rationally.)  People are tired of the nonsense from both parties, and the economic abuses that we’re all dealing with.  (Remember Enron?  Bernie Madoff?  Chuck Ponzi?  When the regulators turn a blind eye to this sort of activity, or actively support it, the guy working for a modest salary can be excused for being a bit peeved at The Man.)

Also, KD’s article “An Address To Our Schoolchildren” was interesting.  Rather than more partisan HWFO about the President speaking to kids in school, he took the opportunity to point out a few key ideas that our kids really should be told.  As a bloke who detests current educational thought on math education, namely the blight that is Investigations Math, I really like telling kids how numbers really work.  Math is really simple; it’s pure logic.  The math behind the economy doesn’t add up to “All is Well, Party Hard”.

Short story long, not only is the economy broken in fundamental ways, but people are starting to understand it, and that has some significant long term repercussions.  We’re not yet dealing with a Network moment of national breakdown, and Soylent Green isn’t being served in elementary schools, but ultimately, we really shouldn’t need to have the Apocalypse in our back yard before learning to pay attention to social mood or political winds.  Whether or not we’re on the cusp of a real economic Depression (or something worse or something better), it’s smart to pay attention and be prepared.  Better to have a bit of extra food on the shelves and nothing crazy happen than to think everything is OK only to have a run on the grocery store tomorrow and be caught with your pants down.

Call it a Blue Ocean social strategy.  Pay attention to the news that isn’t in the mainstream media, and you might just find something interesting, and worth doing something about.  HWFO has its place, but it’s the quiet, subtle shifts that are often most important.   If you’re just paying attention to the big flashy stuff, you’re likely to miss a key point.  That’s how magicians work, after all.

Disclosure: I did vote for Ron Paul as a write in vote for President, and am thoroughly disgusted with the political parties, the establishment, and the media.  I’m nonpartisan; I can’t stand any of them.  This mostly caught my eye as an indicator of what is happening out there in a populace that isn’t happy with a broken economy.  When prevailing social mood shifts, it’s good to be aware of what is happening.  I’m not saying that this is The Most Important Moment in Time, but then again, we don’t often recognize history until after the fact, and social change tends to move in small steps rather than big leaps.  It’s best to try to figure out where trends might go when there’s time to plan ahead, rather than trying to react when the train wreck is imminent and unavoidable.  Some may call long range analysis a bit of HWFO, but I call it strategy.  Also, I’m not advocating any politial position here, just encouraging people to pay attention and to be prepared for the long term, however you want to do so.  It’s not Big Brother’s job to take care of your family, whatever party he’s coming from.  That’s your job, so do it.

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Again, this is just a political aside.  Feel free to breeze on past.

(more…)

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