Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Are Video Games Art?

October 30, 2014

So, observant people would have noticed that on my last post on gaming I included a new tag, “philosophy of gaming”. Those who have read the blog for a while know that I don’t use tags an awful lot. Putting those two things together, you should have been able to guess that I was indeed going to start doing something that might look like Philosophy of Gaming in later posts … and you’d have been right. And so I start here at the top: are video games art?

In order to decide this, there’s something you have to do first, and that’s something that I think a lot of people on both sides don’t do, which is decide what “art” is in the first place. As it turns out I already did that, at least for myself. And yes, you have to go and read the whole thing to find out what my definition is.

Nah, I’m just kidding. I’ll summarize the key points but not justifications here. The first thing I do is divide the concept of art from the concept of valuable art, in order to avoid the trap of claiming that good art is art or that anything pleasant is art. You can have good art and bad art, and we don’t want to limit our definition of art to the things that work as opposed to the things that don’t. I also relate the definition of art strongly to the aesthetic. Given my separation of the value of a work of art from its definition, my definition of art is that a work is a work of art if its primary purpose — based on the intentions of the creator — is to produce a specific aesthetic experience in us, and claim that a work is a good work of art based on the aesthetic experience it does create in us. And it is important to note that this definition leaves out a number of things that are generally considered art, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, or John Cage’s 4’33.

A more serious objection for our purposes here, though, is that this definition would seem to imply that the number of video games that can be considered art is vanishingly small. While a number of video games do indeed try to produce aesthetic experiences in us, they almost always do that as a means to an end, and not as an end in themselves. They want to make the game look good or sound good in order to make it enjoyable to play, which is their primary purpose. If producing a specific aesthetic experience is not a primary goal of the work, is not a goal independent of the other goals — although it need not be the only goal — then by my definition it’s not art. And by that definition, video games are, generally, not art.

Of course, a stronger counter to that is to say that movies, music, and books aren’t art by that definition, either. And while I don’t have a particular problem with that, in general people do consider those things to be art. So I’m veering quite a bit from what people think it means to be artistic, as was seen when I talked about very famous works of art that I didn’t consider art. So for the purposes of this discussion it can be accepted that my definition of art would exclude them, but then point out that the question, for now, is not really whether video games are art in some deep, objective sense, but whether they are art in the same way that movies, say, are. And to examine that, we need to look at why I excluded those works in the first place.

It’s generally the case that these sorts of works are considered art because of the point they make, not the aesthetic experience they produce. These are all noted for being lovely commentaries on art in general, and that’s a big part of their appeal. But if the main intention of the work is to made an academic or philosophical statement about something, then it’s hard to distinguish that from an essay. And an essay about art isn’t generally considered to be art itself. And if that’s the case, it seems reasonable to say that these works aren’t art as well. We can also see that in the case of movies, it’s certainly not safe to say that pure documentaries are really art; in general, documentaries get considered artistic because they do artistic things, not because they are art themselves.

At this point, we can start to see a distinction that’s being drawn in these cases. Simply straightforwardly commenting on something or making an argument is not considered artistic, but works that make a point through the medium generally are considered art. What this suggests is that we can extend the definition slightly by arguing that things that try to make a point by producing a specific experience in us are considered art, and things that simply try to make a point — even if they produce certain experiences in us — don’t count as art. By this reasoning, games like “Gone Home” and “Depression Quest” probably count as art, in the same way as movies and those other works I mentioned earlier do.

Note that I still think my own definition is preferred, and so am not changing it based on this analysis. However, since most people have a looser definition, I think that this one will work for discussion. So, video games that count as art have as one of their primary purposes either to produce a specific aesthetic experience in us, or to make a point by producing specific experiences in us (I dropped the aesthetic there to avoid issues with defining what that is). So, then, video games can be art by this common definition, and now we can move on to looking at the implications of that or of other issues around video games.

Philipse on the Grand Strategy of Natural Theology.

October 29, 2014

Moving on from what we can or can’t say about the beliefs of the every day theist, Philipse in Chapter 6 describes what a natural theology is going to have to have to be credible … and implies that most of them, except perhaps Swinburne, don’t have that. He talks about three levels of generality: a) domain-specific, b) not domain-specific but not universal (eg statistics) and c) universal, meaning that it applies to all domains or all attempts to gain knowledge. He then moves on to talking about what he considers the main dilemma for natural theology: they need to have a a), a domain-specific set of methods that are justified in some way. But they don’t want to stick too close to science and other forms of scholarly work, because applying those methods to theology hasn’t worked out well for theology. However, if they don’t use those sorts of intellectually respectable methods, how will they be able to demonstrate that their methods are intellectually respectable?

The big problem is that Philipse seems to place philosophy squarely in c) and doesn’t really allow for their methods to produce a) level methods … and, in doing so, ends up limiting the intellectually respectable methods to empirical and broadly scientific ones. For the most part, he asks that the natural theologians use methods similar to those found in the sciences or in history, but not ones found in epistemology or ethics or even philosophy of mind, where empirical data is important but generally doesn’t settle anything. As such, his demand ends up being that natural theologians have to justify things scientifically or else they have to invent methods that aren’t respectable, which is a false dichotomy. It also doesn’t reflect the views of many theologians, and also the state of the field as is.

Classical theists, for example, have a full theology that cannot be evaluated empirically, or with the methods of history. But it can be evaluated with the methods of philosophy of religion, and philosophy in general. And, in fact, it has been so evaluated, for many, many, many, many years. For the most part, every religion that is strongly focused on theology has a method for looking at things, and those methods can be evaluated and justified or challenged by the philosophical field of philosophy of religion, just as philosophy of science can do that for science. Thus, how a theology validates its a) methodology if it isn’t just one of those that are commonly used is through philosophy of religion, which has been more than willing to do that for quite some time. So you have to get down to the specifics of the theology, and not just hope for something that applies to all of them.

Thus, here, Philipse ends up selecting his preferred methodologies and demanding that natural theology follow them, or else be considered not intellectually respectable. But that methodology is broadly and strongly empirical and probabilistic … and most theologies don’t accept that methodology. For good reason. Classical theists have their conceptual argument, and demonstrate the consequences of that conceptual argument, and see no need and no ability to do empirical examinations of the matter. And it does seem hard to demonstrate that an all-knowing, all-powerful, creator being exists by looking really, really hard for one. But this isn’t unique to theology, as these sorts of debates over what the right methodology is are common in ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. Even given the rise of neurology, there is still much debate over whether neurology actually gets at mind or instead just studies the brain, and there are many good arguments that say that we need more than that to really get at mind. Ultimately, part of doing the philosophical work in a field is determining what your a) ought to be, and justifying that. Philipse gives a number of examples of how to validate your a) methodology, but there are more ways than that, and than the empirical.

I cannot escape the conclusion here that Philipse find Swinburne’s approach the most promising because it already uses methodologies that he considers respectable. But someone who, like me, distrusts Bayesian analyses and probabilistic justifications of beliefs is not going to feel the same way, and so his attempt to establish that something like that is needed and that Swinburne’s approach is the best one falls a bit flat.

Thus ends the first part. It’s a pretty meaty part, wading in to views and comments that are heavy and often somewhat obscure. There are definitely points in there, even points that I have criticized, that I would need to read again and gather more information on to properly understand, express, and criticize. That being said, there are fundamental disconnects between my epistemological views and Philipse’s that cannot be resolved by more understanding of what we mean, and because of that I find Philipse’s demands and little, well, overly demanding. I don’t see why I need to have the justifications and the sorts of justifications that he demands in order to have a rational belief, and even to rationally believe that my belief is rational. Philipse, it seems to me, falls into the common trap of insisting that in order for me to be rational in believing that X, I have to be able to present it that it is also rational for him to believe that X, which is an argument that I strongly deny. Indeed, his rational5 seems to encapsulate that very idea, and that was what he wanted to establish. I don’t think he did. But, at any rate, we’ll move on to the second part where he talks about theism as a theory.

Philipse on the Rationality of Beliefs

October 28, 2014

I have to admit that I found Chapter 5, where Philipse tries to outline what it would take for a belief in God to be rational, very, very confusing. I did a lot of epistemology in my day, but a lot of the distinctions he was drawing were a bit foreign to me, and so to really understand the distinctions he’s trying to make I’d probably have to go back over and read it again, and read more on the subject. That being said, one of my confusions wasn’t really due to that at all, and made me realize a major issue that’s been running through the entire debate up until now.

Philipse draws a distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of, I guess, justification. But he characterizes the externalist view as being reliablism — the idea that you are justified in believing that X if your belief that X was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty — and contrasting it with the internalist view that justifies belief on the basis of reasons. Now, since Philipse takes the internalist view as being the most reasonable, and I’m an avowed reliablist, I wasn’t exactly going to find that view credible. But the most puzzling thing about this is that it seems to be rather self-defeating. How would we know that appealing to reasons produces true beliefs? If appealing to reasons, in any manner, is a process it has to be demonstrated to be a process that produces true beliefs, and in that sense it has to be justified by reliablism. If one rejects a reliablist justification there, it sounds like an claim that the internalist account justifies by reasons but sees no need to determine if that process of finding reasons to justify a claim produces true beliefs the majority of the time … which hardly seems like justification at all. So it doesn’t seem, to me, like you can actually divide reliablism from justification by reasons the way Philipse wants to.

But this made me realize an underlying issue with the entire exercise: there are two questions to be asked here. The first is “Is a person’s religious belief rational?”. The second is “Does that person reasonably believe that their religious belief is rational?”. I don’t want to claim that Philipse thinks that these are the same question, because there are a number of indications — including the internalist/externalist distinctions that he makes in this chapter — that he does. He just seems to think that the first question is meaningless if the person can’t answer the second question. But this gets into first and second order knowledge.

The idea is basically this: if I have a belief that is a justified true belief, then I know that proposition is true. So, in terms of first-order knowledge, the statement “I know that X” is true; I really do know that X is true. Now, the second-order knowledge statement is “I know that I know that X”, which would mean that I have a justified true belief that my belief that X is a justified true belief. Now, in this case it seems quite clear that I could merely believe that I know that X, and so have first-order knowledge but not have second-order knowledge. But this wouldn’t mean that I would no longer have that first-order knowledge, or even that my belief that I have first-order knowledge was irrational. It seems, then, that I could know that X without being able to justify, at least to the level of knowledge, that I really do know that.

Now Philipse, I imagine, will reply that what I’m saying is the externalist view, and he thinks the externalist view isn’t a good one. He’d try to assert, I think, that you can’t credibly claim to know something unless you can justify that you know it, but as seen above that gets into at least a claim that you have to have a justified belief that you know or are rational in believing that you know or rationally believe that X. The problem with this though is that you start getting into third and fourth and higher degrees of knowledge. Sticking with knowledge for a moment, if in order to know that X I have to know that I know that X, then in order to know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know that X, and in order to know that I know that I know that X I have to know that I know that I know … well, you should be getting the idea by now. So insisting that one must know that they know something — ie be able to justify it to that level — before being rational in making that claim simply isn’t workable; it simply is not possible for us to parse out all the orders of knowledge that we’d need to be able to make that claim, and if Philipse decides to arbitrarily stop at second order knowledge then we can ask why we shouldn’t just stop at first order knowledge and call it a day.

It seems to me here that Philipse’s main concern isn’t so much about justifying the belief to yourself, but about justifying it to others. In short, it seems to me that in order to consider a belief in God rational, it has to be the case that the person has to be able to answer the question “Why is it that you think your belief in God is rational?”. But that’s a question that I answer from other people, not from myself. Thus, at this point, Philipse’s argument seems to work more as a demand from those who don’t believe in God to demonstrate that their belief is rational, and thus to justify the rationality of their belief to others. Sure, Philipse can justify it as a claim that you can’t consider a belief rational unless you yourself know why it is rational, but this is certainly not an uncontroversial claim for a number of reasons.

First, we can return to Plantinga. If Plantinga says that someone’s belief in God is rational because they do have a properly functioning sensus divintatis, and that therefore their belief was produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty, then it is just true that they know that God exists … even if they can’t prove that. And thus any evidence from people who come to different conclusions is meaningless; one is right, one is wrong, but we know not which one. If someone accepts this, then any demand Philipse would make for them to justify their belief is nothing more than a demand from someone else to prove to them that their belief is true or justified … and under the Reformed Objection that’s not acceptable. Their belief is factual or it is not, and they don’t know which yet. But it is the belief they have, and that someone else doesn’t share it is no reason for them to reject the belief they have.

Second, we can take someone who accepts the Web of Belief. The answer is almost the same: this is the belief I have. It fits in my Web of Belief without contradictions, and when I act on it no new contradictions appear. So, why should I consider it irrational if I can’t point to some kind of sufficient justification for its rationality? Being in the Web and causing no contradictions is enough to get basic rationality. So simply because someone demands a justification doesn’t mean that not being able to provide a justification means that the belief is irrational. At best, it demonstrates that I don’t know it true.

So, in both cases, I think the reply to Philipse is that unless he can demonstrate that the belief is irrational, it’s fine for me to consider it rational as long as it passes some basic tests for rationality, and that doesn’t mean Philipse evaluating the purported reasons against some standard that he himself sets. He can try to demand sufficient reasons for natural theology, because natural theology and theology in general should be about providing those sorts of reasons. But simple, every day belief need not be, as Plantinga and the Web of Belief demonstrate.

Is It Right to Make a Robin?

October 27, 2014

The second essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Is It Right to Make a Robin?”, by James DiGiovanna. This, shockingly, attempts to answer the question of whether it is right for Batman to take on his young wards and turn them into his partners in crime-fighting. He talks about both Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, but focuses on Jason Todd, because that’s the example that best fits his case: that of Batman taking a kid and turning him into a Robin, instead of having a kid come along in the same situation as himself and essentially volunteer to take on the role.

He focuses on the morality of Batman training a Robin, an evaluates it from the perspective of the three main moral systems: deontological, Utilitarian, and Virtue Ethics. His conclusion:

Batman is a lousy deontologist, a decent consequentialist, and, most assuredly, some kind of a virtue ethicist.

I think that he somewhat misrepresents the deontological position (which he bases on Kant) and the Virtue Ethicist position to come to this conclusion, and so my discussion here will focus on that.

In evaluating Batman’s actions in training Robin against Kant, he relies strongly on the Categorical Imperative, which is that one cannot assert that a maxim is right unless it can be made into a universal law. Now, he seems to make the common mistake of assuming that this means that you’d like the world that this produces, but that notion is in fact aimed at consistency: can you make it a universal law without it being self-defeating. So when Kant argues that one cannot universalize a maxim to lie, he doesn’t mean that if that was the case we’d have an undesirable world, but that you can’t do it without defeating any possible purpose for having that rule, because if everyone held a maxim to lie and more importantly everyone knew that that was the maxim that people were following, no one would believe the lies … and the purpose of lying is to say something untrue as if it was true and have people end up believing that it was true.

Given this, we’d have to ask if it is inconsistent for Batman to take on a Robin. And it doesn’t really seem to be the case, because a rule of “If someone willing to take on the role of your crime-fighting partner asks to do so, take them on” doesn’t become self-defeating when made a universal maxim … but amending the last part to “don’t take them on” doesn’t either. The bare consistency check, then, doesn’t really tell us much about what is or isn’t moral. In fact, DiGiovanna has to import a lot of additional moral maxims to try to demonstrate that Batman should not put a child in harm’s way, and so was wrong to train Jason Todd and Dick Grayson, at least.

So, if the consistency check doesn’t do much for us, what does? Well, Kant also advocates for his equally famous maxim, which is that one should always treat others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves. So, if we try to apply this principle, what do we come up with? Well, we’d have to note that Batman isn’t actually soliciting partners. In general, canonically Batman always wants to work alone, and has to be pushed into accepting a partner, from Dick Grayson to Barbara Gordon to Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond. If Batman was finding and training orphans in order to further his cause, regardless of what that meant for them, then he definitely would be acting wrongly by Kant. But he doesn’t. In general, they push their way into being his partner, generally by making it clear that they will do it anyway even if Batman refuses to let them come along. Treating them as ends in themselves, and in some sense able to make their own decisions, if they can make the decision to join Batman then it’s not necessarily wrong of him to let them. But he wouldn’t be obligated to do so, because that would force him to be means to their end: their thirst for justice or revenge, or their desire to be a hero and even their desire to help others.

So, as a deontologist, Batman is definitely allowed to take on Robins as long as he doesn’t take them on as merely a means to his end, but considers them as ends in themselves. And since he generally doesn’t want partners, it seems that he doesn’t use them as a means to help him fight crime, but instead sees something inside them that means that their desire to work with him is a credible decision for them. So, no, Batman would be a lousy deontologist.

The issue with DiGiovanna’s analysis of Virtue Ethics is that he moves from the fact that Virtue Ethics is about developing the proper moral character to an idea that a person is therefore obligated to develop the moral character of anyone else. This, however, isn’t required for most forms of Virtue Ethics that I’m aware of. The Stoics, for example, claim that you are responsible for only your own actions and therefore, by implication, your own character. Unless there’s a virtue that demands that you develop the character of others, you can’t be obligated to do so. The same seems to apply to Aristotle. So it’s a fairly weak argument to say that Batman is responsible for the character development of his Robins, for good or for ill.

The closest you can get is to import the idea of the exemplar from Aristotle, and argue that Batman needs to act like an exemplar for them if they want to try to emulate him, and in that sense Batman is obligated to bring them into the crime fighting business in order to facilitate that. The issue with this is that Batman may not be a good exemplar for anyone, and the criticism of his handling of Jason Todd makes it clear that he wasn’t the right sort of exemplar for him. While there is a lot that the Robins and Batgirls can learn from Batman in order to develop a properly virtuous character, simply emulating him is not likely to lead to a good outcome, as most of them learn. So Batman doesn’t really work as an exemplar, and probably shouldn’t try to be one.

Given the right circumstances, all three moral codes can support Batman training Robins. Utilitarians can argue that under some circumstances it allows Batman to save more people … but it may be too onerous for the various Robins to justify that. If there is a virtue to develop the character of others, Batman may be obligated to develop the character of the Robins … but has to consider the possibility that he is the wrong person to do that. Finally, Batman may have an obligation to respect the chosen ends of the Robins to become crime fighters … as long as that does not reduce him as a means to their achieving that end.

The future of gaming is … what?

October 25, 2014

So, if we look at the standard rhetoric around those who are either criticizing gaming or promoting diversity within it — depending on your view — one of the most common themes — which was pretty much the entirety of Leigh Alexander’s commentary — is that the traditional form of gaming is over and done with (and good riddance), and that those who argue against them are just people who are stuck in the old way of viewing gaming and are afraid of this brave new future of gaming that we’re entering. The problem that I’ve always had with these comments is that they’re often very, very light on what that future is actually supposed to be. What will games look like under their vision? What are games turning into? If I, as a Not-So-Casual Gamer, am to look to this future and decide if that’s the sort of gaming world I want to be in, it seems that I really need to know what that future is. And right now, I don’t.

Let me try to tease out some ideas of what it might be and examine them. Since the big push is on diversity, let’s start there. But not with diversity of characters (yet), but with diversity of games. One of the themes has been about getting more games beyond the standard FPS or whatever, and appealing to games like Depression Quest, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please and so on as examples of games that we need more of. So, let’s start from the claim that the future of gaming will give room for games like this to be made and to shine. If that’s the case, my immediate reply is … welcome to the future! All of those games were made, and got attention from the mainstream gaming press (even I’ve heard of them, and know a lot about what they’re about). Sure, you generally won’t find them in your friendly neighbourhood video game store, or in Walmart, but digital distribution is cheaper anyway for these small market, small company games, and as it expands finding games like these on places like Steam will help them be accessible. Sure, they’ve received criticism for not being games or not being good games, but that sort of criticism is always going to exist (and I’ll get into why they may have a point a little later) but, hey, if you want gaming as a whole to be open to these games, you got it. And those who criticize the games only spread the word about those sorts of games, allowing people who might find that sort of game or gameplay appealing to find it by looking at what people complain about and saying “You know, that sounds cool to me”. So you’ve got it, and it’s only going to get better.

(Note: don’t bring up the harassment. The harassment, in my view, is associated more with feminism/social justice than with the games themselves).

But maybe that isn’t what the future is supposed to be. Maybe the future is supposed to be a world where these sorts of games are dominant, or at least are on par in the market with simple entertainment-oriented games. This would be more an argument that games should be art instead of that you can indeed have games that are art. The problem is that this is almost certainly never going to be the case, since games are pretty much primarily an entertainment medium, like movies, books, television, etc. So while I do think that you will find — and are already finding — solely or predominantly artistic games, at the end of the day these sorts of games won’t be dominant. Why? Because they aren’t actually a lot of fun to play, just like artistic movies aren’t a lot of fun to watch. And, in general, things that try to make a point aren’t maximally entertaining, because they always put making their point ahead of being entertaining. This doesn’t mean that they have to be dull or boring or anything, or that entertainment can’t make a point, but it’s all about focus: if you have to choose between getting your point across clearly and making your point in an entertaining way, if you are trying to make a point you’ll choose, generally, “Make the point clearly” and if you’re trying to entertain you’ll choose “Be entertaining”. Trying to do both, as Miles O’Brien’s mother said about eating and talking, means that you won’t do either one as well as you could have. And the mainstream of gaming has always been about entertainment, just as the mainstream of movies has been. Artistic games are always going to be a side genre in games: valuable, but not something that the average game player is going to seek out.

Now, a counter here would be that if we look at movies, at least people say that artistic movies are still movies. For some of the more avant-garde or experimental ones, that isn’t true. But that sort of criticism has to be expected. After all, there are major philosophical debates over what makes art art, and over whether certain forms of art really count. We’ve just started considering whether games themselves are or can even be art, even in the same way as movies and books and … well, you get the idea. There’s no real criteria for what makes a game a game, and debates over the matter tend to get bogged down in definitions that leave out many things that everyone thinks of as games. Perhaps we need a Philosophy of Video Games to dig down into this and figure it all out, or at least put the discussions on solid academic ground. Or perhaps not. But we need to work this out, and insisting that, at the end of the day, the future will fit your view is at best premature. Maybe we’ll discover that video games can’t be art, for some reason. Maybe all games will be art, even the shooter that has nothing more than that. Who knows?

At any rate, these visions of the future are rather blurred and hazy (kinda like what I see when I take off my glasses). Do we have specifics of the sorts of games that people want to see more of? Well, let me look at Anita Sarkeesian, because she has a couple, although how much she wants these to be the way games are done and how much of these are games she just would like to see once in a while is debatable. From Damsels in Distress Part 3:

A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea. So as a way to illustrate how a deconstruction could work let’s try a thought experiment to see if we can create a hypothetical game concept of our own.

Clip- The Legend of the Last Princess- Mini Animation

“Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever.”

A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure.

Now, immediately thereafter Sarkeesian says that not all games have to start this kind of hyper individualistic woman … but she never says whether she wants this to be common or not. And I’d say that this kind of game might be interesting, and would be worth pursuing … but would always be a minority of games. The reason is that the “start imprisoned and escape to start the plot” sort of game is one that is somewhat limited in what you can do; there are only so many ways you can allow the protagonist to escape without making the villains look stupid. Starting the protagonist out in the world allows for far more options, so in general you’d pull this idea out when it really adds to the story you’re telling, and it’s been done well in a number of cases (see, for example, Baldur’s Gate 2). The specifics that would apply to a female protagonist and those subversions would wear out really, really quickly; they only work when it’s unexpected, but if it became the norm that, say, a female protagonist changes into a more practical outfit it’d be reduced to being like donning armour, which would lessen its effect. So, do I think that the future of gaming will have room for games like this? Yes. Do I think they’ll be common? No.

Let’s move on to the next one, from Women as Background Decoration Part 2:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.

She then goes on to talk about “Papo and Yo”:

Though not about the abuse of women, the 2012 indie title Papo & Yo is an example of a game that respectfully deals with the very serious issue of alcoholism and domestic violence against children.

The game does so by telling its story from the point of view of a protagonist directly affected by the trauma of abuse, not someone on the outside coming to their rescue. It focuses on the journey of a figure who is struggling through a traumatic situation and attempting to deal with the repercussions of violence. It makes that struggle to cope and survive central to both the narrative and gameplay – not peripheral set dressing to a story about something else. And critically, the game employs powerful metaphoric imagery to make its point instead of relying solely on sensationalized or exploitative depictions of the abuse itself.

Papo & Yo is an intense and at times gut-wrenching game that doesn’t sugarcoat or glamorize violence. In this way it’s an honest and emotionally resonant experience for players.

The key here is that Sarkeesian seems to be pushing games as a sort of commentary or critique or expression of values. In fact, she says that in the next paragraph:

We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy.

Taken with the first paragraph, her view of games seems to be that they don’t just or ought not just reflect, reproduce or represent societies and societal attitudes. They must advocate for values — and, presumably, proper values — and critique the existing societal structure and attitudes. And my reply to that is that games can do that, but that they don’t have to do that. Games can try to reflect the common societal views in an uncritical way, as nothing more than a framing device for people to simply have some fun and maybe even pick up some interesting perspectives on things, not as a challenge to the dominant views, but as a supplment to them. A bit like talking to someone from a completely different part of the world; you learn about their culture and how it works without it feeling like a challenge to your culture or trying to challenge theirs.

So, again, there’s room for these sorts of games, but that doesn’t mean that they ought to become the norm … and they probably won’t. Because after a hard day at work when I want to play something just to have some fun, the last thing I want is for the game to be constantly trying to challenge my view of the world, whether I agree with it or not.

Finally, let’s look at diversity in games. How is that future going to look? Well, I don’t really know. Game culture itself has already started looking at and talking about these things, and things have changed. I don’t feel that the sort of diversity pushed by most diversity advocates is going to be successful, because in its intense focus on the negative it simply encourages tokenism, rather than putting diversity in where it makes sense and telling stories where that diversity is a required element, and where that story can’t really be told any other way. While I criticized the criticism of Assassin’s Creed: Unity for not allowing people to play as a female avatar, I did agree with and appreciated the commentaries that pointed out that in that time period they had an amazing opportunity that they squandered by not going with a female protagonist. In order to get that sort of diversity, more of that sort of thing has to be done, where you point out opportunities and let game designers hit their heads and exclaim “I could have had a V8!”.

But I don’t want to go any further on that for now, because this would be getting into my view on how the future of games should go and that’s not what this post is about. And I don’t think I really have an answer to what this future that’s inevitably coming is supposed to be yet. Maybe those who are pushing for this could take some time out of ranting about gamers to outline this. At the end of the day, the response from most gamers might well be “Oh, that’s what we want, too”.

The Interacting Game …

October 24, 2014

I was musing over the new issues with video games, and thinking about the previous issues, and one thing jumped out at me: while they tended to talk about issues that pretty much all forms of media have, they also tended to claim that it was worse with video games. And when they didn’t talk about them corrupting the youth, they tended to focus on one particular facet: their interactivity. Which Anita Sarkeesian talked a lot about in her video on women as background decoration:

…but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.

A viewer of non-interactive media is restricted to gazing at what the media makers want them to see. Similar to what we might see in video game cutscenes, the audience is only afforded one fixed perspective. But since we’re talking about interactive gameplay within a three-dimensional environment, we need to consider the fact that players are encouraged to participate directly in the objectification of women through control of the player character, and by extension control of the game camera. In other words, games move the viewer from the position of spectator to that of participant in the media experience.

On a very basic level, we can think of non-interactive media as engaging audiences in forms of “passive looking”, while video games provide players the chance to partake in forms of “active looking” or “active observing”.

These active viewing mechanics encourage players to collaborate with developers in sexual objectification by enabling gamers to scope out and spy on non-playable sex objects.

This is especially sad because interactive media has the potential to be a perfect medium to genuinely explore sex and sexuality.

I should note that this kind of misogynistic behavior isn’t always mandatory; often it’s player-directed, but it is always implicitly encouraged.

In order to understand how this works, let’s take a moment to examine how video game systems operate as playgrounds for player engagement. Games ask us to play with them. Now that may seem obvious, but bear with me. Game developers set up a series of rules and then within those rules we are invited to test the mechanics to see what we can do, and what we can’t do. We are encouraged to experiment with how the system will react or respond to our inputs and discover which of our actions are permitted and which are not. The play comes from figuring out the boundaries and possibilities within the gamespace.

So in many of the titles we’ve been discussing, the game makers have set up a series of possible scenarios involving vulnerable, eroticized female characters. Players are then invited to explore and exploit those situations during their play-through.

So whereas in traditional media, viewers might see representations of women being used or exploited, gaming offers players the unique opportunity to use or exploit female bodies themselves. This forces gamers to become complicit with developers in making sexual objectification a participatory activity.

While these come from many different places in the video, the main thrust is essentially this: the player isn’t just watching the violence or sexualization, but are actually doing it. And this supposedly makes the harm worse, and has more of an effect on the player. Which is pretty much the same sort of argument that people made about violence: you aren’t just watching it, you’re doing it … and that’s much, much worse.

And yet, in all of the various scares over just plain violence … that doesn’t seem to be the case. No one has been able to make a case that participating in these actions is worse or has more of an impact on a person than watching it. And Sarkeesian doesn’t provide any evidence of that either; all of her studies are about observing, not participating in the actions. So, at least, we’re going to need some evidence that participating really is worse. And while it may seem like common sense or just obvious, no one has been able to actually establish it yet, at least in a way that’s convinced anyone. So if you fail to prove what seems to be common sense, maybe that common sense isn’t sense at all. And I think there might be a reason to think that participating in these things is, in fact, less likely to impact the person than watching does.

There are three main ways you can participate in a game:

1) As yourself, in that world.
2) As the PC, in that world (ie playing the role of that specific, fleshed out character who is not you).
3) As yourself, playing a game.

In the more immersive games — which are the ones that should be the worst if interactivity is really a problem — you’re going to be playing as 1) or 2). Let’s start with 1). As you play the game, you are making the choices and doing the things that you, yourself would do, and so all of your choices reflect who you actually are. Thus, if one has an optional choice to, say, enslave someone, if you do that it reflects what you, as a person, would do … and if that disgusts you, then you wouldn’t do it. That’s assuming that it’s a free choice, and that the game isn’t forcing you to make that choice. If the game forces you to make that choice and you wouldn’t make that choice, it breaks immersion in the same way as a “But Thou Must!” does: you are being forced to do something that you think is a really bad move to do. The only exception to this case is when the story is structured so that it’s actually a difficult choice. For example, you’re forced to kill a kitten, or an entire city will be killed. If you choose to kill the kitten, that’s a choice that you’d make … but you’re doing it to save an entire city. These sorts of dilemmas are actually good things, and things that we want to see more of in games.

So, in 1), if you are the sort of person who wants to murder random civilians or rape and objectify women, then you will in the game … but, then, you were already the sort of person who wants to do that, so it can’t have much impact on you.

In 2), you take on the role of the PC, which may be one that the game defines for you or one that you define yourself for the game. For example, I tend to play as Corran Horn in most Star Wars RPGs. Here, you take the actions that that character would make, even if that isn’t what you’d do yourself. As Corran Horn, I played a lot more confrontationally than I would myself. Playing the original Knights of the Old Republic as Corwin from the Amber series, I turned at the end to gain power for myself, which I wouldn’t have done playing as me (why in the world would I want that power?). And when I played as a Sith woman … well, that was nothing like me [grin].

So, in these cases, you play as the character, not as yourself. And so when you participate in murder or objectification or whatever, again you take the actions that the character would take, not that you would take. So having the option to play as a completely brutal thug, or a complete degenerate, is something that these sorts of players desire not because they want to be that way themselves (usually) but because it can be fun to take on another role for a while and not be yourself. And note that if you want more female protagonists in games, you have to accept that this playstyle is not only possible, but common, or else male characters will not play as female protagonists … at least in any game where being immersed in the game is desirable.

So here, since most people learn quite quickly the difference between fantasy and reality, the actions you take in the game have relatively little impact on you, because you aren’t playing as you, but as someone else. Seducing Carth Onasi has no chance of making me attracted to men, because it’s not me that does it, but instead that female character. So here, again, it doesn’t seem like it can have much impact on you.

So, we turn to 3). These are the least immersing types of games, because in these games you play them like a game: you calculate your moves not based on what you want to do, or what the character would do, but on what gives you the most points or gets you through the game the most efficiently. So, if we take the example from the Grand Theft Auto series where you can pick up a prostitute to recharge your health and kill her to get your money back, in this mode the player is treating that like a way to recharge your health for free. It doesn’t matter that it’s a prostitute or a life drink with a glowing aura when you drink it. You’re doing it to game the system, and so in this case you really treat the prostitute like an object … because at that point it is an object, like your party members and everyone and everything else in the game. Because you’re treating it like a game, and not like anything real. And, again, things we do in games aren’t things that we think we want to do or would do in real life.

Now, these things aren’t always easy to divide into neat categories, as sometimes you play as yourself and at other times — when immersion is broken — you play it as playing a game. But the key difference between a video game and a movie is that at the times when you are most immersed in it, and when its setting is filling your consciousness the most … in a video game, that’s when who you are is most involved, and when you are imposing the most on the game and what is happening. When the game stops letting you be yourself or the persona you yourself have chosen to adopt, that’s when you stop being immersed and remember that it’s just a game. Whereas in a movie, in something you just observe, when you are most immersed is when your consciousness believes that this is, in fact, just how the world is. So, in that case, it seems reasonable to posit that when you watch a movie, you might learn things from it just like you learn them from the world: often passively. While for video games you don’t learn things passively because you are actively involved in it. To explain this further, many of our attitudes we adopt simply because that’s how the world is and we just get it by osmosis. These become subconscious biases and these are the hardest to overcome if they’re wrong. Thus, the more actively involved you are, the less of these passive attitudes you would adopt … at least, passively and subconsciously. And games require you to interact far more with the world that you’re observing than a movie does.

Now, this is all speculation, and much psychological work needs to be done to decide what is the case. But it isn’t obvious that actually participating in an activity or being forced to do that is worse than simply observing it, and that’s what a lot of the panic around video games relies on. It seems like common sense that actually doing a bad thing is worse than just watching it, but that may not work when doing that bad thing is part of a game as opposed to something that you know and accept as real. Media depictions may matter, but participating in it may move it from depiction to role play … and we all know the difference between what we role play and what we’d do.

Don’t we?

Phillipse on the Reformed Objection

October 23, 2014

So, a while ago I took up the challenge of reading Phillipse’s “God in the Age of Science?”. It didn’t go that well. What happened is that I was going along fine, things were going well … and then I hit the section on Plantinga (Chapters 3 and 4). And I wanted to say stuff about it. And, as is usual for me, I just never got around to writing that post. Now, I could have just gone ahead and kept reading, but I had also noticed that when I did that I, in general, never went back to write up those little things that I wanted to talk about. So I decided to wait. And I waited … and waited … and waited.

So, here’s the post. I’ve decided not to go back and re-read the chapters in detail, so this is mostly from memory with some spot checking, so I might be misremembering or misinterpreting him. But I don’t think it matters much for what I have to say anyway.

The most interesting thing is that what Phillipse relies on against Plantinga is essentially a variation of the geography argument: you could think that you have a sensus divinitatis and feel justified in that claim, except that there are other people who have come to a different conclusion than you have, which means that it isn’t justified. This is an interesting tack to take because as we’ve already seen Plantinga has already taken on that argument and found it wanting. So it’s interesting that Phillipse is relying on an argument against Plantinga that Plantinga has already dealt with … and doesn’t seem to have addressed that point. And he points out that he ran his chapter by Plantinga, and yet still didn’t feel the need to address that argument. What gives?

Well, it turns out that the argument doesn’t depend on any kind of Geography Argument at all, but is instead an argument that if two people claim to be using the same method and come to different conclusions, then at least one of those people are wrong. So if A uses their sensus divinitatis to conclude that the Christian God exists, and if B uses their capacity to come to the conclusion that the Hindu god exists, then we have an issue, as both are using the same method here; you can’t appeal to the method itself to settle the tie. So, then, we need some kind of external justification to claim that A’s capacity is working and is correct, or vice versa. And it doesn’t look like we can get that without having some kind of rational argumentation, or a rational natural theology. And Phillipse’s whole point here is that you can’t use this sort of argument to do an end run around needing a rational natural theology.

Now, as one of my initial objections stated, this might work against a knowledge claim, insisting that theists can’t use this to claim that they know God exists. This doesn’t work at all against someone who merely wants to feel that their belief is rational. Because while Phillipse talks a lot about how you have no reason to choose your conclusions over those of theirs, that only matters if you are making a universal knowledge claim. If you are just trying to decide what to believe, you have every reason to trust your conclusion more: it’s your conclusion. If you read the Bible and just feel that a certain conclusion is true, then the fact that someone else tells you that they get the opposite reading isn’t going to and ought not sway you from your conclusion. It may cast doubt on your conclusion, but it doesn’t prove their conclusion either. And there’s no real reason to force yourself to a neutral stance just because someone else comes to the opposite conclusion. So this doesn’t impact theists who aren’t making knowledge claims at all.

And the discussions of how the sensus divinitatis might be like sense perception or memory are more revealing. Phillipse tries to argue that perceptions contain a link to truth and to truth making that this capacity couldn’t have. But we all know that the truth of sense perceptions is not exactly justified itself. So, if we imagine that the sensus divinitatis works like sense perception, that means that when someone reads the Bible or sees that wonderful natural sight the truth of God’s existence seems to come onto them full blown. It just seems obvious to them that God exists and has certain properties. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask ourselves: what would we think if we saw something, and someone standing beside us said that they saw something different? In general, if I see something, I am justified in claiming to know that I see that, and from there am justified in saying that the thing exists and exists as I saw it. If someone else says that they saw something different, but we can’t check it in any other way, am I no longer justified in claiming to know that that thing exists? Are they? Sure, at least one of us is wrong, but all that means is that we are wrong about our knowledge claim, not that we aren’t justified in claiming knowledge. Unless you insist that knowledge requires certainty and that you can’t claim to know something unless you are certain that you are correct that you know it, which pretty much everyone rejects.

Now, it can be argued that with sense perceptions we have a way of testing our conclusions and settling which of us is right, which can’t be done with the sensus divinitatis. The problem is that we don’t really have that for sense impressions; every test we could do to test our sense perceptions requires us to assume that our sense perceptions are correct in the first place, which then is assuming what we were trying to prove. The sensus divinitatis has a different problem; we could use our sense perceptions to test it, but it doesn’t really make claims that are amenable to testing by sense perception. So it looks like, in that sense, we have a similar problem for both, for different reasons.

The key might be in what Phillipse specifically says:

…what is present in perception and triggers these basic beliefs is not identical with their truth-makers. … these Christians are reading the Bible; they are not reading God.

This sounds like a claim that when we see the world, we see the world, but that’s not the case for the sensus divinitatis; when we read the Bible, we don’t experience God. But that there’s really a world to see is in fact the challenge for sense perception, and the claim listed above is that it might just spring on us as a fully-formed conclusion that God exists from reading the Bible. So that doesn’t seem like a promising line of argumentation. However, what I think he might be getting at here is that the reason we trust our sense experiences is because they, in and of themselves, present the idea of an external world to us and their conclusions are indistinguishable from that — ie the instant we have a sense experience we believe that they are telling us about an external world, no matter what experience we have — it seems that in general when reading the Bible we wouldn’t come to the conclusion that God exists except for the fact that the Bible itself tells us that explicitly. We don’t read the Bible and think “Ah, God!” as an inherent part of the reading, but instead read the Bible telling us that God exists and that triggers our belief that God exists. So, in this case, the idea is not spawned in us by the Bible simply by experiencing the Bible, but is instead spawned in us by the Bible telling us and arguing for the conclusion. Thus, we always have to doubt our experience, and wonder if we would have the same experience without the argument. This isn’t true for sense experience, which is why that can be a basic belief and the sensus divinitatis can’t be.

How far this gets Phillipse is unclear. He might have good cause to make against using this sort of revelation as a knowledge claim, but that won’t impact belief. And the parallels with sense perception are a lot closer than he seems to admit. But from here we move on to more natural theology, and then into the bulk of his argument.

Just when I thought I was out …

October 22, 2014

… they pull me back in.

I think I mentioned before that in my misspent youth I posted a fair bit on some feminist discussion groups … meaning groups that discuss feminism, not necessarily groups that were feminist. If there’s a difference between the two. I get kinda confused over that. Anyway, I used to talk a lot about feminist issues. I even tried to take a philosophy course on feminism in my last year, and then dropped it because I thought it would be far too restrictive. (I ended up taking the same course with the same professor later during my actual Philosophy degree, and it wasn’t as bad as I might have thought. If you’re curious, I took it because it counted as an Ethics course and was in a convenient timeslot). Anyway, after my first year in Philosophy, my interest in feminism fell off, mostly because there were so many more interesting issues in philosophy to deal with in general than feminism. And so for a long time I stopped talking about it.

And yet I find that I read more and more comments on it, and feel the desire to talk about it more and more. Why? Because it’s flippin’ everywhere. Feminism and feminist issues seem to have come back into fashion, and I can’t even read about video games anymore without coming across it. Heck, I can’t even read atheist sites anymore without seeing lots and lots and lots of discussions over specifically feminist issues, either inside atheism or not.

Case in point: this post by P.Z. Myers. He got sent a comic by someone, which he disliked, and commented on. And then he found that the comic wasn’t the original one, but was an altered one of Rebecca Coren’s.

So, let me first comment on what that person did: it was wrong. Not because he used her images without attribution, because he actually did that. No, it was terribly wrong and terribly dishonest because in altering the message, he made it imply that Coren was saying something that she not only didn’t say, not only said the opposite of, but that she absolutely under no conditions would support. I’m not sure about the etiquette of altering images, but you really ought to make sure that if you do you make it clear when you do, so that we know a) where the original came from and b) also can see what the original message is. Heck, I once didn’t include a cartoon by Shamus Young in an editorial because I couldn’t get permission to do it. Altering it and posting it without noting that? Really bad. I’m not going to go ad hominem on him, and say that his point is invalid because of it, but if I’m going to call out Jerry Coyne for being dishonest for doing less, I gotta do it here.

That being said, let me go on to talk about Coren’s actual cartoon, and the issues it raises. Her cartoon is here.

Essentially, the argument goes like this. A man asks a woman why she is a feminist. She says it’s because she believes in equality. He says that she should call herself an equalist or egalitarian. She replies that she calls herself a feminist because her main focus is on the unequal status of women. He retorts that that means she only cares about women, which is not equality. She then rephrases it to point at him and say that he, specifically, is the reason that she is a feminist.

Somehow, this is supposedly an argument about people who don’t actually have a problem with the term feminism, but instead have a problem with gender equality. Don’t believe me? This is her caption for it:

So sick of people who pretend their problem is with the word “feminism” rather than the concept of gender equality.

Except … the way her “heroine” puts it is indeed problematic. She believes in equality … but then wants to be known not for working for equality, but instead for working for the equality of a specific group. Again, not on a specific set of issues, but for a specific group. And, on top of that, it happens to be the group that she’s in, and so effectively she’s saying that she wants to be a feminist or work more as a feminist so that she can work on the issues that most impact her. And when challenged on that, her response is to essentially say that the person challenging her has some kind of actual problem, and that he as a person is why she’s a feminist. Again, she doesn’t say “THAT is why I’m a feminist”, meaning the idea that if you want to work primarily on equality for women it means that you only care about women (presumably that’s the problematic one, although it could just be the idea of reverse sexism at all). No, he’s the reason … not the societal attitudes, not the overall consciousness around gender issues, not even the idea of privilege. Him. Thus, she replies to his comment, justified or not … with a personal attack. And it can’t be described any other way. And feminists wonder why people who disagree with them often feel like they are being attacked as persons, and not just having their ideas challenged?

Now, is there an argument that Coren could have made and, maybe, wanted to make? Well, the general argument made over this is that the focus has to be one women’s issues because women are far more disadvantaged and are far less “equal” than men are, and so have the more serious issues to work on. Thus, it’s only logical to focus on the most serious inequalities first. The problem is that this doesn’t work at all against a claim that the feminist movement should be rolled in to the egalitarian movement to do that, because presumably if this is the case they can objectively demonstrate that, and any egalitarian movement worth its salt will indeed need to prioritize what they work on. The only main difference in this regard is that an egalitarian movement might actually decide that an issue of inequality towards men is actually a bigger problem at the moment than the top issue for women … which, if objectively true, is actually a good thing. Additionally, an egalitarian movement will have an easier time seeing commonalities among the various groups, purportedly dominant or not, and so be in a better position to decide that perhaps working on one issue — even if it’s one that primarily affects men — might end up being the better one to pursue because its underlying issue is one that, once solved, will solve a lot of problems even if it isn’t, in and of itself, the biggest problem. The ability of an egalitarian movement to have the global or big picture view is a huge advantage that a feminist movement cannot have without being an egalitarian movement with a different name.

Now, this global view can itself be a problem, with a fear that alongside all of the other issues — race, sexuality, religion, etc, etc — that gender issues might end up far, far down the totem pole. And there are reasons for this, mostly because while women are discriminated against, they also end up being part of pretty much every family group, which means that while the income in a family may not be under their control, they tend to get it. Women, under patriarchy, are as poor as their husbands are, and so the issues that really have to be addressed can often seem like middle-class issues … or the result of economic class and not gender. So there may be reason for feminists to say that these issues are still important and need to be considered as such, and that inside an egalitarian movement they might get swarmed under. The problem here is that this still doesn’t justify a specific feminist movement, focusing on women specifically. All this justifies is the idea that egalitarian movements might have to have submovements, like “gender egalitarianism” and “race egalitarianism” and “sexuality egalitarianism” to allow people to focus their efforts on specific issues without having to declare that they care more about those issues than the others. And in these movements, the above advantage still applies: if the purported dominant group is facing inequality, they can still work on it if it’s the most serious inequality of the time. So, again, under this sort of movement, if women’s issues really are the most important, then they would still get more attention, and so feminists would only have to fear women’s inequalities not being addressed if they aren’t objectively the most serious at the moment.

Now, feminists can counter than in that sort of movement, men’s issues will be given more priority because, they argue, they always are. Putting aside whether this is indeed actually correct, remember that this would be in a specifically egalitarian movement, full of people who are dedicated to equality. If you can’t make the argument with them that women’s issues are important, you have a much more serious problem … and you aren’t likely to get any further by calling yourself a “feminist”. Ultimately, you’re going to have to convince egalitarians that your view is right.

At this point, the only other objection is that this argument is semantic. We aren’t arguing over what to do, but just over what it’s called. The issue is that this is not an argument that feminists can make, because feminists have argued for decades that language matters, and that language should be inclusive. If you don’t want to imply that feminism is all about women’s inequality and not about gender equality or equality in general, then you shouldn’t call it “feminism” which implies that, when “gender egalitarianism” or “egalitarianism” are available, just as you shouldn’t say “mankind” instead of “humankind”. Either the feminist here has to abandon one of the tenets of feminist philosophy, or else it “It’s just semantics” works against them; if there really is no difference in the term, then choosing a more inclusive term is better. And if there is, then you are accepting that you really do only care about women … and then the person’s challenge actually starts to make sense.

So, feminists … which is it?

Calculating Humanity

October 19, 2014

For those who were hoping that during this blog run I’d return to Philosophy in Pop Culture … well, you might be happy today. Or not. Because I’m continuing the series with this post, picking up the next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy”. It’s by Timothy Sexton, and is called “Calculating Humanity”. In it, he attaches Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock Holmes to the Nietzschean Overhuman, as opposed to the Underhuman that the “calculating machine” depictions of Sherlock Holmes make of him (which includes the interpretation of the creator himself). While a big part of that argument is about Brett’s Holmes doing things with a lot of style, the part I want to focus on is the issue of superiority, and the sort of superiority that Sexton thinks that Holmes has. And to do so, I want to use another character in popular culture that reflects a bit of an irony here: Data from Star Trek, the actual calculating machine that takes on the role of Holmes, at least in part, to better understand humanity. I think that Data has a far superior form of superiority than Brett’s Holmes, which means that if Brett’s Holmes is the Overhuman and Data, as a calculating machine, is the Underhuman, then Data is actually the better human of the two.

Note that I’m not an expert on Nietzsche at all, so don’t take this as any kind of comment on Nietzsche’s actual comment. Go talk to Dan Fincke about that. I’m just talking about the forms of superior people and personalities discussed here.

So, how does Sexton describe his superiority?

What if the drive behind Sherlock’s need to solve cases was about “striving for excellence … striving to overcome one’s neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one’s own feelings”?

What this suggests to me is that for Brett’s Holmes, being superior, being better than everyone else, is a goal. It’s something that’s important to that Holmes, something that Holmes strives to be and strives to demonstrate. Again, not solving cases; solving cases in and of themselves is unimportant. No, what’s important is being better than everyone else, and solving cases is just the means by which that Holmes demonstrates that.

Now, of course, being overly modest isn’t necessarily a virtue … but that’s where we can get a better way to be superior from Data. In an number of cases, Data flatly states that he is superior to humans. He is aware that he is stronger than they are, that he knows more than they do, that he’s faster than they are, that he has less physical limitations than they do, and so on and so forth. But whenever he states this, he doesn’t state it as something he is either proud of ashamed of. He states it as if it is nothing more than a fact; he just is superior, and that’s that. It’s not important to him to be superior, it’s just a fact that he’s superior there.

To see how that attitude is better, consider what happens when the person finds out that someone else is superior to them. Brett’s Holmes ought to be devastated, and should take any measures necessary to try to beat that person. Beating that person, in and of itself, has to be a goal … even if they actually can’t be better than that person. In the Holmes mythos, it seems to me that there is someone superior to Holmes: his brother Mycroft. The calculating Data Holmes can indeed simply state that Mycroft is better than he is, and feel no rancor about it or any bitterness, or not allow it to influence his own behaviour or see it as something that he has to work to overcome. Mycroft might well just be naturally better, and that’s fine. Data Holmes will just do what he does and what he’s good at. Brett Holmes, however, can’t be as sanguine about it, because being superior is important to him … and it just isn’t important to Data Holmes at all.

The best kind of superiority is the superiority of fact: it just is the case. You just are better than them at something. It doesn’t make you better as a person or them worse, it’s not a sign of success on your part and failure on theirs, it just is. If someone is inferior to you because they just don’t work at it or don’t work at it properly, there is no harm in encouraging them to do that properly … even if it means that at the end of it all they end up better than you. If you are inferior to someone only because you don’t work at it properly, strive to work at it properly.

The proper goal — and I think Fincke would argue that the proper Overhuman — strives to be the best they can be, not to be better than anyone else. If you are the best you can be and better than others, that’s fine. If you are the best you can be and inferior to others, that’s fine, too. It’s not about being better than anyone else, but about being the best you can be. Data gets that; I don’t think Brett’s Holmes would.

And I game alone …

October 18, 2014

The other day I got invited to a party
But I stayed home instead
Just me and my pal Johnny Walker
And his brothers Black and Red
And we game alone, yeah
With nobody else
Yeah, you know when I game alone
I prefer to be by myself

The above altered lyric actually has nothing to do with the article I’m going to talk about, or anything I’m going to say, but after finding out the name of the person who wrote it, I’ve had that stuck in my head … and now you can as well.

The article I’m going to talk about today is by John Walker, mixing personal experiences with commentary on the whole thing. So let’s get into it:

GamerGate (GG), since its beginnings, has unquestionably been a formless, undirected collection of people with wildly disparate aims and desires. To say, “GG thinks X” is a meaningless statement, since there are those who are participating who only want to know that the games journalism/criticism/coverage they read is not affected by corruption, all the way to those who are sending terrifying death and rape threats to women in the industry, with a wide spectrum between. While there are various attempts at grouping together specific aims or objectives, these again widely vary, from desires to see game sites publicise clear ethical guidelines, to the desire to “destroy” sites that do not adhere to particular standards/styles/beliefs. There are those who wish to see “politics left out of games coverage”, and those who wish to see writers with “SJW agendas” out of work. There are those who fear games themselves will be negatively affected by progressive criticism, and those who wish to scare female developers and writers until they are too afraid to participate in the industry.

Identify the group as one aspect of this, and other aspects will step forward in disappointment/fury/confusion in response to this understanding. It’s intangible. And I believe perhaps its greatest weakness is that it seems to have no idea that it is.

You know, this description reminds me of my impressions of the Occupy Movement: a group of disparate people with very different aims and no central organization. I think that this is more a reflection of modern activism than anything about “Gamergate” in particular. The advent of social media allows you to reach more people with your message than ever before, but that growth comes with a price: less control and less organization. When you had groups of people in separate official groups … well, it was often still hard to separate what others did and support from what you do and support, but at least you could disavow the group, and you knew who the members of each group were. That’s hard to do today, and amazingly hard to do in social media. Which is why in these sorts of discussions you see people trying to attach groupings to people, often by where they post, like 4chan or the Slymepit or things like that, as a way to divide the us from the them. It may be a weakness, but it is indeed the way things work now.

I absolutely believe that there are many who have been part of the million tweets made using this tag who are horrified by the horrendous abuse and criminal attacks that have come from within GG. I know that there are those who identify with GG who have benign aims, and are personally hurt or upset when they see people identifying GG as a misogynist cause, or a cruel, bullying agenda. I appeal to these people to consider whether GG is ever going to be a place that accurately reflects them or their desires.

The problem is, as discussed above (and in the comment to Walker’s post) that there may not be any such place. Even using the GG talking points will get those who make them attached to the purported misogyny that’s been associated with GG as well. And even then, because these things can’t be controlled, the same people whose words are giving that impression will show up there and start everything all over again. So saying that they should move somewhere else either tells them to move somewhere that no one is paying attention to, or is just forcing them to start over, build attention … and then have the same claims made against them. It’s a no-win situation.

Alternatively, the people who are being criticized could sort the good points from the dreck, and pay attention to those who make reasonable points in a reasonable manner and ignore those who are being abusive. It’s a radical concept, but it might just work.

Now, I’m not interested in the specifics of GG, so his personal experiences with it and his discussions about how he’s not sure what the goals are aren’t things I’ll address here. So I’ll move on to the discussions of politics and bias. He invents an example of a game that contains some nudity and sexual stereotypes, and three different types of reviews, one of which seems to celebrate that, one which condemns it, and one which deliberately ignores it. He says that all three are political:

All three reviews are inherently political. Choosing to mention this specific feature of the game is a political decision, whether to condemn or celebrate. And crucially, choosing not to mention it is a political decision too. Not thinking it worth mentioning, also, is born of a political position on the matter. Indifference to something of importance to others is, of course, a political position. You cannot “leave the politics out of games coverage”. Politics are inherent. What is instead meant by this demand is, by its nature, “Leave politics I don’t adhere to out of games coverage.”

Well, first, there’s a false dichotomy here, assuming that either one has to mention it and take a stand on it, or else not mention it at all. The non-political review can simply point out that it’s in the game, and leave it up to the readers to decide if that is good, bad or indifferent. If that might be important to people who are reading the review, then it behooves the reviewer to mention it. But the reviewer doesn’t have to judge it, at least not in and of itself. They can judge how it works for the game itself, and point out if it works or if it doesn’t, or if certain audiences are likely to have problems with it or enjoy it, even with a “If you want to rescue bare-breasted women from koalas, this is the game for you!”. So you don’t have to ignore things that might be important to your audience. Second, when people say they want politics left out of game reviews, they usually mean that they want to leave politics out of game reviews. So commenting that the game relies heavily on stereotypes of women or even on the damsel in distress trope is okay. Commenting that this turns it into some kind of anti-woman game or represents women as nothing more than sexist stereotypes is pushing it. Commenting that these sorts of depictions are bad because they perpetuate those stereotypes in the real world is going too far, because at that point you stop treating the game as itself and evaluating itself as itself and start evaluating the game in a political and social context. Which is not what people care about when they read a review. That’s something that, in my opinion, you can do in a commentary, like what Sarkeesian is trying to do. I think that a lot of people’ biggest problem with her is not what she’s trying to do, but that she doesn’t seem to be doing it very well, and seems to be treading over old turf in a much longer form with less research. But that’s neither here nor there for now. The key here is that you don’t need to talk about “politics” in games in order to highlight what’s important to your audience in a review, and the idea that you can’t leave politics out of a review seems to equivocate on politics.

And now we move on to objectivity:

There is an attempt to avoid this reality from GG by attempts to invoke the even deeper fallacy of “objectivity”. I’ve written at length on why objectivity is literally impossible for a human being, and further how deeply unhelpful it would be in games coverage. It’s immediately obvious that one cannot review a game objectively – one can only attempt to describe a game’s intended features while unavoidably infecting such an attempt with conscious or unconscious subjectivity. And describing a game’s intended features is the job of the publisher, and is already taken care of in descriptions of games on any gaming store. Objectivity is obviously not desired, but instead the term is used to suggest a politically “neutral” position on very specific subject areas. Attempts at neutral politics are obviously impossible, but more to the point, remains political.

One should always be very suspicious of an argument that sounds like — and in this case, is pretty identical to — “We can’t ever be totally objective, so let’s not even try”. Especially when one is talking about journalism. When I criticize things, I try to be objective, which means that when I, say, criticize Smallville for screwing up Clark’s secret, I really think that, objectively, they did that. Now, this can’t be completely “objective”, because it is defined relative to a work and the goal of the work. So if the creators said that in that episode they were trying to make Clark look like a moron, I’d accept that … but then point out that their handling doesn’t give that impression. These sorts of commentaries aren’t totally subjective, and in fact rely on separating what you like from how the work works as a whole. Did you know that I once wrote a review of Persona 4 that gave it a 7? You know, one of my favourite games of all time? And that the only thing I’d change about it is my comments on its replay value, because the better handling of the dungeons leads to less grinding which makes it easier to replay than Persona 3? I love the game, but I’m not blind to its flaws. I also gave “Sakura Wars: So long my love” a low score despite loving the game. This, to me, is what reviewing should do: tell you what the game is about so that everyone can know what they’re getting into. Having your own style and interests come out isn’t bad, but must always be in the service of informing others about what the game is like. That’s not just listing the features … and you aren’t required to say that the features are good. Again, just like in Smallville, I can note what they did and comment that it doesn’t work whether or not I like it.

And of course the pretence that it’s about neutrality is patent nonsense. By requiring neutrality on those specific subjects, such as anything regarding the representation of any group of people, it is a tacit endorsement of the opposing political position. The desire to mute criticism of the representation of women in a game is a tacit endorsement of the representation of women in the game. And again, of course, anyone is absolutely entitled to endorse that representation if it is their position. But it’s a position.

Why is it that someone who says “I’m not getting into this debate”, according to so-called “progressives”, is always supporting the sexist/racist/whateverist side? Why can’t the other side say that by not explicitly defending those representations they’re taking the side of those who want it changed? Sure, they can argue that by not opposing the status quo you’re saying that it’s fine as is … but if someone actually and legitimately doesn’t care, shouldn’t that be their reaction? It’s sort of an idea that everyone should care one way or another about it, and so has to take a side. I don’t want to necessarily take a side. In some cases, I want to say, at a minimum “I don’t even play those games; why should I have an opinion?” Why can’t I think that the one side is overstating their case for what these representations are but that the might have a point buried in there? As Walker says in the beginning, there are a wide range of positions here, and so this can’t be reduced to a mere desire to mute criticism. In some cases, it might merely be a desire to have you … not … bring … it … up … in … every .. review. Or a number of other positions.

Neutrality on a topic is not supporting either side. Neutrality is, at its essence, at the very least thinking that it isn’t important enough to you to mention for those who don’t want to talk about it themselves, or thinking that those sorts of discussions aren’t appropriate for the piece you’re doing if they want others to not do it. If you can’t convince people that they should care or that it is appropriate, don’t gripe that they’re demanding some kind of impossible standard. They ain’t. They may be wrong that neutrality is appropriate on that issue and in that piece, but it is possible and is desirable.

GG is, in its suggestion of wanting to leave the politics out of games coverage, arguing for the continuation of the current politics represented in the games. Arguing for the continuation of the current politics is obviously fine! People want to see their own politics reflected, because it contextualises the game within their own worldview, and is therefore more useful. Wanting games coverage that comes from this same worldview makes complete sense, and finding that the majority of coverage does not is obviously frustrating, or simply unhelpful.

I want game reviews to be apolitical, neutral and objective. I don’t want them to reflect my own personal politics, mostly because that would be very hard to do and, bluntly, I don’t want you trying to guess what my personal politics are. In reviews, give me the facts, and let me decide how that interacts with my politics and my worldview. In commentaries, give me your view, the view from inside your own worldview … but then present it as if it is coming from there, as if it isn’t objective fact, and most importantly be willing to have as many worldviews as you can represented on that topic … ideally, not by you (unless you’re a philosopher, at which point it can work.) If gaming sites are overly represented by so-called progressives, then they should look at getting more diverse worldviews in there, just as they would if they are overly represented by men, women or bleached blondes from the planet Schwartz. Let the people decide what’s right and what’s wrong.

It’s quite disingenuous to assume that people who want neutrality want their own views reflected, as opposed to them not wanting to have to wade through an entire article advocating for worldviews that they are dubious about to get to the facts of the matter to figure what they think about the issue. They might also be suspicious about those facts if they know that you feel strongly about a position, because not only do people sometimes consciously lie in those situations, they also unconsciously shade their arguments that way. At least trying to be neutral — not just look neutral, but be neutral — helps with that … and allowing other views ensures that most people get to hear, at least, both sides of an issue.

I’m biased – ho BOY, I’m biased. Biased in favour of progressive attitudes, of equality, of fairness and representation. I’m also biased in favour of games being good, rather than rubbish. And my interpretation of which is which is, like every other human, rooted in my bias. I wear my bias in the open, for reasons of integrity. I’m proud of myself. I want everybody to be able to say the same.

This is a rather dishonest statement … and both the sad and good thing about it is that I think he’s actually being totally genuine here. But look at how he represents his bias: all good things. All things that he can say “How can you be opposed to any of this?”. Well, you can agree with him on all of those things and still think he’s wrong. And even still think he has a bad bias in there. He has ideas of what makes a game good, of what constitutes quality, fairness and representation, and progressive attitudes. Describing his bias this way sets it up as if there is only one way to get those things, and that if anyone disagrees with him they must be opposed to those things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. And yet so many social progressives always argue this, and always set it up so that if you don’t agree with them then you are against those good things, and so are bad, and so need to be opposed. Which is just one more reason why separating oneself from GG will never separate you from the charges of misogyny, because for so many opposing their progressive views and values is enough to make you misogynistic in and of itself.

The first thing people need to do is stop claiming to represent equality, or fairness, or goodness, or whatever. You don’t. You represent your own view of the world, which many mean that you strive for those things, but not that you have the inside track on them. Even a call for equality may not, in fact, produce actual equality. But saying, as Walker says here, that you’re biased towards those really, really good things — intentionally or not — sets up anyone who disagrees with you as having to oppose those things … and that’s a very, very unfair way to frame a debate.


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