On What Matters: Objectivism vs Subjectivism About Reasons

August 31, 2015

If we’re going to look at how Parfit may not be being fair to Subjectivism, we should take a quick look at what he means by Objectivism and Subjectivism, which he covers in Part 2. It turns out here he isn’t talking about morality directly here, but instead is talking about reasons. In particular, he is talking about practical reasons, which presumably are the reasons that can and ought to drive and justify actions and behaviour. He ends up defining Objectivist views about practical reasons as being views where the reasons are derived from the objects of the aims, which leads to a somewhat odd Objectivist view in this context. It looks like he’s taking the term “object” too literally here in calling this an objective view, since “objective” in this context usually implies neutral or third-person, not just in objects. However, as he shakes out his idea and, particularly, contrasts it with Subjectivist views, it ends up being pretty much that way: Objectivist views say that reasons are derived from the facts of the matter about things external to the agent in some way.

So, then, what is a Subjectivist view? Essentially, it is a view that argues that one’s practical reasons are derived from facts about the person themselves. More specifically, it seems that Parfit defines such views as being ones where the aims of the individual are what gives one reasons to act in those ways. In short, one’s practical reasons can only be defined in terms of the aims, goals and desires that the agent has, and cannot be derived from the nature of the aims, goals and desires themselves. As Parfit presents Subjectivist views, they hold aims and goals have no inherent value; the only value that can be given to them is given by the fact that they are the aims and goals of a specific individual, and no one, therefore, can say that they have reason to do something that they don’t, in fact, value themselves.

In short, then, Objectivist positions by Parfit will claim that there are some aims or goals that are inherently valuable or desirable and so give reasons to do them even if the person themselves doesn’t see those reasons of think that those things are valuable. Subjectivists are going to argue by Parfit that there are no such aims, and that the facts about the aims cannot determine the value of the aim independently of the individual’s assessment of those aims. In the next two parts, Parfit is going to try to show that Subjectivist views are wrong, and I think he’s going to trip over himself a bit trying to do that.

That’s all I want to say about Part 2, although Parfit does talk more about Objectivist positions there. I don’t feel that he proved that Objectivist positions are correct there, and my purpose for these posts is to pull out a couple of interesting points per part, not do a full critique. I will, however, probably have more to say about the next two parts in the next couple of posts.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

August 28, 2015

The fourth essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” by Adam Barkman, which examines issues around the Problem of Evil and responsibility, and even how it is that God can forgive us. Without getting into much detail, it explains reasonably how God forcing people to love Him and be friends with him and never reject him is a logical contradiction for a God that wants people to be free, and also talks about how we need forgiveness and needed Jesus’s sacrifice to wipe out the injustice that we, as fallible humans, must commit (and can never atone for), goes through the various arguments to support natural evil (including the angels and demons one, which he puts far more reasonably than most atheist criticism concedes), and describes the Thomist conception of God pretty well.

But what I want to focus on is, essentially, what’s described in the title, and the idea that with great power comes great responsibility. Barkman points out that being a superhero isn’t a great and wonderful “gift”, because it comes with a great responsibility to use that power to help others. He talks about the Widow’s Mite and points out that she was expected to give less because she had less, and that the rich people were expected to give more because they could. By the same token, Peter Parker is expected and has a responsibility to help others because he has the power to do so, and that power, in and of itself, confers the responsibility to help others. Which is all pretty reasonable except …

… why, then, doesn’t it apply to an omnipotent God? God has the power to end all suffering. Since Peter Parker is expected to intervene in the free choices of the villains and stop them from hurting people, and since that supposedly follows from his just having that power, then why isn’t God expected to save people as well? If Peter Parker is expected to save children from burning buildings because he can, then why isn’t God expected to save every child from a burning building? If you start from “With great power comes great responsibility”, you can’t even argue that God needs to allow people like Peter Parker to act justly, because God could save every child that Peter Parker doesn’t … and, by having that power, is obligated to do so.

Thus, by tying responsibility to power in the way that Barkman does, he pretty much makes the argument for the Problem of Evil, no matter how hard he tries to explain it away. He can’t use the argument of it being demons doing it of their own free will, because Peter Parker is expected to stop villains and even demons from hurting others even though it interferes with their free will. And if Peter Parker — or we — are expected to help those being tormented by natural evil because we have the power to do so then God, having that much more power, ought to be expected to do that as well. There’s no way out for God if you argue that with great power comes great responsibility to use that power to prevent suffering … because God, having the greatest power, would then have the greatest responsibility.

Why I Prefer the DH in Baseball …

August 26, 2015

Well, the Toronto Blue Jays are making a late season run to hopefully make the playoffs, and so I’m paying more attention to baseball as a whole now than I used to … and so are most Canadians. Because of that, a little while ago I had a short discussion with a co-worker about the Designated Hitter rule. He doesn’t care for it, and I prefer it. So, here, I’m going to go over the reasons why I prefer the DH, even though I started watching baseball with the Expos — and so the National League — and was a latecomer to the Blue Jays.

About the best argument against the DH is that baseball is a game that has two separate but equal components: fielding and hitting. Thus, the quality of a baseball player has to be determined on the basis of the combination of their ability to field and to hit. So the interesting decisions in terms of who you have on your team come down to balancing that. Do you keep someone who is a great hitter but can’t field over someone who is an excellent fielder but doesn’t hit very well? Or do you go with a player that balances the two more? Having more hitting will score more runs and having better fielding will prevent more runs … but going with a player who is merely good at both doesn’t give you an advantage there. The DH, however, takes away that consideration. For pitchers, you simply evaluate them on the basis of their ability to pitch, and for the DH their ability to field is irrelevant (for DHs whose main role is to DH). So, it can be argued, this allows for two positions where the player isn’t evaluated as a complete baseball player … and so isn’t, in fact, a complete baseball player (or at least need not be).

This is a fair criticism, but I evaluate the DH on the basis of what it means to me, as a fan, and having watched both, and both recently (when I got cable back, one of the big things I watched was baseball, and the baseball playoffs). And as a fan, it seems to me that the pitching position is unique enough that making pitchers hit doesn’t really add anything to the game, and that allowing some players to mostly hit does add to the game. The big issue I have when watching National League games is how often pitching changes are made not for pitching-related reasons, but for hitting related reasons. A pitcher is pulled because they’d be hitting and the manager needs or wants someone who has a better chance of getting on base or driving in a run. But the interesting pitching changes, to me, are the ones that are related to “How can I best get this next guy out?”. Matching lefty vs lefty, for example, or going with the better or worse history between the two, which then can spawn counter-moves from the opposing manager. The moves because you need a better hitter are not only moves of this sort, but, in fact, impede these sorts of moves because you end up making earlier and more frequent pitching changes which means that you don’t have the arms in the bullpen to make that move. And let’s not forget that the reason managers change pitchers in favour of pinch hitters is because pitchers, in general, don’t hit all that well. They have so much more to worry about that, in general, working on their hitting is not going to be a high priority for them, especially considering that starters get about 3 at bats once every 5 games and relievers might get 1 at bat in a blue moon.

Pitching, then, is just not the sort of position where hitting can ever or ought ever be a priority. Pitchers will generally hit infrequently compared to other position players, and hitting and running the bases can be an issue for them since pitching is so complicated that, in general, pretty much anything else they do can impact their pitching. If they have to run full out on the bases — going first to third, for example — that might tire them out and shorten the number of innings they can work. Remember, this is a position where a blister or even a twinge can greatly impact their stance and ability to throw pitches. Everything has to be working right for a pitcher to pull off the complicated pitches and to hit the spots that the modern pitcher needs to hit; adding hitting into the mix just provides another distraction from their real job, a distraction that isn’t one for the other positions.

From the other side, having a DH can extend the career of great players, who can still hit but simply aren’t able to play in the field every day anymore. Without the DH, it’s hard to justify a roster spot for them since they can only be a pinch hitter and occasional substitute, but with the DH they can play every day, do spot inserts into the field, and pinch hit if they aren’t DH’ing. I remember Paul Molitor fondly for his time with the Blue Jays in their run to the World Series, but he was, indeed, pretty much a DH. Without the DH rule, he wouldn’t have been on the roster. And there are a number of cases where this can allow a great player to keep playing and thus help to do things that are magical and win and be integral to the win of titles even though they wouldn’t be on the roster otherwise. We lose those players and those moments without a DH.

As a fan, I prefer the DH. It let’s pitchers be pitchers and lets managers manage pitchers for their pitching rather than their hitting, and extends the career of great and storied players who just can’t play full-time in the field anymore. Sure, it excludes some players from having to play both aspects of baseball, but I think the gains more than overcome that. At the end of the day, having the DH just makes the game of baseball more fun to watch. And God knows, it needs it [grin].

On What Matters: Normative and Apparent Reasons

August 24, 2015

So, I’ve started reading “On What Matters” by Derek Parfit again. I originally bought it to take a university course that I unfortunately wasn’t able to take, and so I started reading it for a bit and then, as usual, got distracted. Having just finished reading my two collections of Ayn Rand essays, I’ve decided to go back to reading it, and since I always need posts for the blog, I’ve decided to do some commentary on it as I do so. As I write this post, I’ve just finished reading the fourth chapter (or “Part”, as Parfit puts it), and again think that he’s being very unfair to Subjectivism in parts 3 and 4. But before I get into that, I want to talk briefly about a couple of issues in the first two parts. This post tracks the main thrust of part 1, which is about reasons.

Parfit uses a particular analogy here that he relies on heavily in his discussions of Subjectivism, which is as follows: Imagine that you are walking in the desert, and you disturb a poisonous snake. You believe that the option that will best save your life is to run away, but in reality the option that will best save your life is to stay still, as it only strikes when it detects movement. Parfit argues that what you have the most reason to do is stay still, despite the fact that you believe that the right thing to do is to run away.

At first blush, this actually seems fairly reasonable, but it immediately runs into issues when we ask — as Parfit does — what you ought to do in such a case. Given our intuitions, we can say, and reasonably so, that you ought to stay still. After all, assuming that you want to preserve your life, that is the action that will actually achieve that, while running away will almost certainly get you killed. But how can we expect you to stay still? Given your set of beliefs and desires, and all of the information you actually have, the right action is to run away. But it happens to be wrong. What reason could you give to justify staying still? The only way you could, in fact, do the action that we say you ought to do is completely by accident; there is no reasoning that could possibly cause you to conclude that you should stay still given the beliefs and desires you actually have in this situation. So even if you ought to stay still, there is no actual way you will do that in that situation … or, at least, no way that appeals to reason.

Parfit addresses this by distinguishing between “normative” and “apparent” reasons. Normative reasons are essentially those reasons that we would have if we have all of the information, all true beliefs, and all of the appropriate desires. Essentially, it is the reasons that we would have if the situation was evaluated from a neutral — and presumably omniscient — third-person perspective. Apparent reasons are the reasons that we in a particular situation given a certain set of beliefs and desires actually have. He argues that what it is rational for us to do is governed by apparent desires, but normative desires track what we really and factually have the most reason to do.

Again, this sounds reasonable … until you realize that making this distinction essentially sunders normative reasons from our behaviour. Given this distinction, it is clear that we will only ever and can only ever act for our apparent reasons, no matter how close they actually are to our normative reasons. We can only act on the beliefs and desires that we actually have, not the ones that we would have from a third-person omniscient viewpoint. So it turns out then that by this we can never really act according to what we have the most reason to do, because that is always the normative reason and we only act on our apparent reasons. Only if our normative and apparent reasons are identical can we act based on what we have most reason to do … but given that those reasons can only be formed from a neutral, third-person, omniscient viewpoint the chances of our normative and apparent reasons being the same is miniscule, to say the least. So if we have to say that our normative reasons define what we have the most reason to do, then we never act on the basis of what we have the most reason to do. This will be problematic for Parfit later when he uses this analogy against Subjectivism.

Weight loss, again …

August 21, 2015

So, it seems that there’s a new semi-controversy out there, over research that’s partly funded by Coca-Cola that at least argues that exercise is more important than generally thought in losing weight and maintaining healthy weight. Since this might suggest that the best way to lose might for someone might not be to give up soft drinks but instead to just go for walks every day, and since Coca-Cola is certainly interested in people thinking that, this leads people to be suspicious of at least Coca-Cola’s motives. So Salon has posted an article that was originally at Scientific American with diet and behaviour expert Charlotte Markey talking about it, and at some point talking about the presentation of the group and what it is trying to do. And, after reading it … I simply had to respond. Let’s go through it, shall we?

In your fall Scientific American MIND feature you write “study after study shows that working out is not terribly effective for weight loss on its own.” Why is that?
Exercise increases appetite, and most people just make up for whatever they exercised off. There’s a lot of wonderful reasons to exercise and I always suggest it to people who are trying to lose weight—some sort of exercise regimen keeps them focused on their health and doing what is good for them, and it’s psychologically healthy. But in and of itself it won’t usually help people lose weight.

So … if people exercise, they want to eat more (likely because they are burning more calories). So if they increase their exercise and don’t watch their diet, then they at least don’t lose weight. Well, okay, fair enough. But I don’t think anyone is suggesting — and if you watch the presentation, they clearly aren’t suggesting — that someone who wants to lose weight should just exercise more. What they perhaps should be doing is exercising more instead of trying to lose weight by restricting their caloric intake. In short, if you need to burn 300 more calories a day than you consume in order to lose weight, maybe you shouldn’t look through your diet to find ways to cut those calories, but instead look for ways to exercise more to burn off those calories. The idea is to stop trying to lose weight by dieting, and instead to try to lose weight by exercising more. That no more suggests that you shouldn’t have a balanced diet with a reasonable amount of calories than Markey is suggesting that you shouldn’t exercise at all while dieting.

Two years ago there was a review study in Frontiers in Psychology that concluded dieting often actually led to weight gain. Why would that happen?
When people try to diet, they try to restrict themselves, which often leads to overeating. They cut out food groups which make those food groups more desirable to them. They think too much about short-term goals and don’t think about sustainable changes. But if you are going to lose weight, you have to change your behaviors for the rest of your life or otherwise you gain it back. That’s not a sexy message because it seems daunting.

Or, to put it another way, when people diet, they cut out things that they a) really like and b) that they really need, and so that leads them to cheat in various ways. That’s not a good way to diet. Now, that being said, if you are trying to lose weight, you need to run at a caloric deficit. Running at a caloric deficit is not sustainable. So in general what people need is a short to medium term adjustment for running a caloric deficit until they lose the weight they need to lose, followed by a long term plan to maintain it. The easiest way to do this, it seems to me, is to build a food plan that gives them all of their nutrients and all of the calories that they should need that doesn’t deprive them of the things they really love, coupled with greatly increased exercise to burn off the extra calories. That way, they can eat the foods they want to eat and can get their food choices into a routine, so that when they hit their weight all they need to do is throttle back the exercise a bit into a new routine that maintains the weight they have. The only downside to this is that they might be hungry … but any caloric deficit is going to leave you hungry.

(Note: this isn’t just armchair theorizing. Every time that I’ve lost significant weight, I’ve done it by increasing my exercise. One of my most successful times at losing weight was when on a regular basis I would go for a walk to buy a big bag of Cheetos as my reward. Lately, I’m trying to lose weight again, and managed to lose 10 – 20 pounds over the winter months just by walking a lot more, and that has stalled a bit from my a) not being able to walk as much and b) my “cheating” on the food plan with stuff I shouldn’t be eating at the same time, and mostly that was because I wanted it, not because I was hungry. So I’m definitely partial to the idea that exercise might be the better way to go).

Coke’s message is don’t worry so much about dieting but worry a bit more about exercise. Is there something to that then?
I find everything going on here very troubling. In the promotional video from Coke’s group, linked to by the NYT, exercise scientist Steve Blair says we don’t know what is causing obesity and we need more research. That message is oversimplified and terribly misleading. We actually know a great deal about what leads to obesity. It’s not a great mystery. People are eating too much and not exercising enough…that makes it inevitable that people will be obese. The group’s emphasis on physical activity is misleading based on what the data shows. There’s no data to support saying if you exercise for 30 minutes three times a week that this will take care of the problem. We have data refuting that.

Except — and you can watch the video if you don’t believe me — Blair says that we don’t know what’s causing obesity except that people are, essentially, taking in too many calories more than they burn — or, that they eat too much and don’t exercise enough. In short, he is oversimplifying and misleading by … saying exactly what she says here. He doesn’t say in the presentation that “if you exercise for 30 minutes three times a week that this will take care of the problem”. 30 minutes three times a week is, in fact, a rather low amount of exercise. It seems like a bare minimum. Even if he was pushing that sort of line, it really seems like he’d be pushing for far more exercise than that.

But he doesn’t really say that. He talks about Global Energy Balance, which is pretty much what she talks about herself: the idea that you need to balance the amount of calories you take in with what you burn. His “emphasis on physical activity” is nothing more than a suggestion that, for the most part, the “how much you burn” part has been left out of the discussions. Again, maybe it isn’t really a problem that we eat too much and the wrong things, but that instead we just don’t get enough exercise. If we exercised more, what we’re eating wouldn’t make us gain weight, because we’d burn off the extra calories . In short, that given our activity level we actually need to eat that amount of calories in order to simply maintain our weight. And even then, all he’s really saying here is that we really should think about it and do some science on it to figure this stuff out.

What does a sustainable weight loss regime look like?
It looks like making regular, sustainable dietary changes. It does not have to be a complete revamp of someone’s way of eating since that is not typically sustainable. But, in most cases, it has to involve dropping 300 or more calories per day; that can be done by dropping a couple sodas per day. People have to commit to this and prepare themselves—weight loss is a marathon and not a sprint.

Well, actually … what it means is, in fact, creating a deficit between what you take in and what you burn of 300 calories. So, she has to assume that a) you’re eating at exactly the level you need to sustain your weight and b) that you drink at least a couple sodas per day. Which, of course, didn’t work for me at any rate, as neither were true (I rarely drink soda … or anything other than water or milk). And if someone, say, really likes their 2 pm Coke, then it isn’t sustainable for them either, as they will be doing what she said was an issue in her first comment: depriving themselves.

Alternatively they could walk for pleasure for two hours per day and get burn 340 calories, without feeling like they are depriving themselves of foods they love or completely revamping their way of eating that even she says is unsustainable (I, on the other hand actually did that and it’s mostly working; it’s the exercise and avoiding treats that’s causing issues for me at the moment, not the revamp of my way of eating).

The issue with losing weight through cutting out foods is that you feel deprived. The issue with losing weight through exercising is that you might not have the time to get that exercise in. But it’s generally easier to exercise more than it is to cut out foods that you love.

Exercise is important for sustaining weight loss though, right? Can you talk a bit about what the literature says on that?
Exercise makes people feel good. Avoiding food can just make people feel deprived. Exercise also gets people distracted from wanting food or other stressors, and it alleviates stress.

But exercise also has real physical benefits.
Right. We are burning calories. It’s good for all of our systems—from our heart to our digestive system to our psychological well-being. People should exercise for their health overall but alone it’s not good for weight loss.

So, her big push for exercise continues to be “It makes you feel good”. She almost grudgingly accepts that it burns calories, and even then completely ignores that burning more calories would, in fact, create that deficit that you need for sustainable weight loss. And, as I said above, trying to create that deficit primarily through exercise means that you don’t have to futz around with what you’re eating while trying to lose weight, but can instead eat normally and in a manner that you can sustain long term while shifting your activity levels to lose weight.

Now, I’ve ignored most of the talk about Coca-Cola, mostly because it isn’t important here. But I think that her response shows the precise problem that the Global Energy Balance people are complaining about: the focus is entirely on restricting caloric intake and not on increasing the amount of calories you burn. Heck, we even call it “dieting”. We start from the assumption that we need to eat less in order to lose weight, ignoring the common sense and even scientific view that essentially it’s either. What I think makes sense is that we get our diets right, and then exercise to generate the caloric deficit we need to lose weight. Again, that lets us get into the habit of eating right and not changing that while we try to lose weight, and only shift our activity levels appropriately. We never have to feel deprived because we should have an eating plan that works to avoid that. In theory, this should work, and there’s no reason to think that any of the studies she talks about have actually studied that approach.

So, yeah, we need more data. Whether Coca-Cola funding it is a good thing or not, we need to find a way to do it. How do we do it?

Thoughts on the Mass Effect Trilogy …

August 19, 2015

Spoilers will abound:

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Thoughts on Mass Effect 3 …

August 17, 2015

So, I’ve just finished the last game in the Mass Effect trilogy, Mass Effect 3. Let me start by saying that I think I liked it better than Mass Effect 2, but that Mass Effect is still my favourite game in the series.

There will be spoilers here, so let me continue below the fold:

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Social Justice vs Games: Sarkeesian on E3 …

August 14, 2015

Well, when I introduced my “Social Justice vs Games” category, it was pretty much certain that eventually one of those posts would talk about Anita Sarkeesian, and her post discussing the games showcased at a recent E3 is a pretty good example how Social Justice concerns and gaming concerns can clash.

Let me start with probably the mildest example:

These numbers also reflect the fact that a purely binary understanding of gender was on display in the games featured at E3, with no options featured that might allow players to pick from a wider spectrum of gender identities or presentations.

Presumably, this is asking for consideration of trans* issues. The problem is that the estimates of trans* people is something like 1 – 2%, from what I’ve seen around. So, at best, you’re looking at an audience of 1 – 2% at base for these sorts of options. Now, there may be other players who might want to take those options — after all, my DA:O and Mass Effect characters are, in fact, homosexual females, despite my not being one — but it’s still likely to be a pretty low percentage of the audience that would want that, and so it’s not likely to be a big selling point (at least female protagonists can claim to appeal to a large base audience). And in the fact that, again, people who are trans* are going to be exceptionally rare in the video game design world — and not because of discrimination — and it’s going to be hard to pull this off in a convincing and reasonable way that doesn’t feel like mockery. So what the game designers are being asked to add is an option that only appeals to a small percentage of their potential audience, is hard to implement properly, and one that if they get it wrong they will receive far worse criticism than leaving it out. What reason could they have for even doing it? So it seems to me that, given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for game developers to continue to ignore these options and instead focus their time and effort on things that will improve the game for more potential players … and given the way games are these days, there are plenty.

Sarkeesian also, in a post that’s entitled “Gender Breakdown of Games Showcased at E3 2015”, talks about violence:

Rather, these numbers are presented here only to demonstrate how prevalent violence as a mechanic is in all sorts of games, because it is worth considering how, in relying so heavily on violence as a core component of game design, developers and publishers are not exploring opportunities to tell other kinds of stories and create other kinds of games. When game narratives consistently take place in inescapably hostile antagonistic environments, it severely limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

The medium has near-limitless potential, and in indie games like Tacoma, Firewatch and Beyond Eyes, we get a glimpse of what’s possible when games approach human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence. Games have only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done, the stories that can be told and the experiences that can be illuminated when combat isn’t employed as a lynchpin of game design. Fully realizing this potential requires that game creators continue exploring the possibilities, investing in innovative mechanics and storytelling techniques to push the medium forward.

Really? What specifically are the “stories” that can’t be told with a combat mechanism inside of their gameplay? Why can’t you have empathy and combat? Now, I’m all for variations in gameplay — one of the things I liked about Catherine was it’s unique twist on the traditional RPG dungeon gameplay (I wonder if Sarkeesian would consider it “violent”) — and I accept that there might be stories that work better with a non-violent overall mechanic, I don’t see this as being as critical as Sarkeesian says. Taking even the examples she gives, “Beyond Eyes” is probably the only game whose story is hard to tell with a combat mechanic, but mostly, in my opinion, because it would be far too hard to do, or else in lowering the difficulty you’d lose the ability to understand how hard being blind in the world can be. But “Tacoma” seems to be built around a similar exploration mechanism to “System Shock 2”, which had combat out the wazoo. And “Firewatch” could easily have combat as well, like, say, Silent Hill 2 does, to fill in the spaces around the exploration. What she thinks is key in those two games, it seems — the interaction between the lead and Odin, and the interaction between Henry and Delilah — could be done in a game with combat mechanisms. Now, I’m not saying that it would be better; suspense based games, for example, can be done better with less combat. Fatal Frame is an example where the meat is the exploration and the combat is mostly there to establish that Miku’s life is in danger. But there is no reason for her to count the number of games that use combat mechanisms, say that it’s only 15 or 24% (depending on whether you count sports games or not), and say that that’s a bad thing because having a combat mechanism means that it simply can’t tell a specific story that she, well, gives no examples of.

Again, from a gaming perspective unique and creative forms of gameplay are, in fact, good things. But Sarkeesian here comes across as being more anti-violence than pro-creative gameplay.

And, finally, we turn to the heart of the issue here: representation of women:

There were 7 games with exclusively playable female protagonists or 9% of a total 76 titles

There were 24 games with exclusively playable male protagonists or 32% of a total 76 titles

There were also 35 games in which players appear to be able to choose either a man or a woman. It’s always great to see more games with gender choice and this year we saw a few blockbuster franchises like FIFA and Call of Duty finally add playable women. Still, of those 35, titles only Dishonored 2 used its marketing and promotional space at E3 to predominantly focus on the female character option.

To start, let me highlight how very, very important that last sentence is. Note that it doesn’t distinguish between which games featured the male character option predominantly and games where they were given roughly equal presentation. No, for Sarkeesian it is important that the female character dominate. So, no, not equality, but dominance. She couldn’t do a better job arguing that feminism is really about female dominance if she tried.

Am I reading too much into this? Well, let’s look at the numbers above not in terms of “male dominant vs female dominant”, but instead in terms of “Can play as a male vs can play as a female”. For “Can play as a male”, we have 78%. For “Can play as a female”, we have 55%. I’d personally like that number to be higher, because from a gameplay perspective having more control over your character is generally a good thing. But over half of the games showcased allowing you to play as a female protagonist is pretty good, I’d think. And yet Sarkeesian, while saying that it’s great, mostly gripes about the marketing and then goes on to say this about it:

Some may ask why it is important that there be games led exclusively by women, and why we make a distinction between those games in which the sole protagonist is a woman (such as Mirror’s Edge) and those games in which you have the option to play as either a male or female character (such as Fallout 4).

One reason why we need more games that are fronted exclusively by female characters is that it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default. By and large girls and women are expected to project themselves onto male characters, but boys and men are not encouraged to project themselves onto or identify with female characters.

When players are given the opportunity to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a female character with her own unique story, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, and their struggles.

As long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones. Stories have the power to influence our understanding of the world around us and when we can virtually embody the lives and experiences of people different from ourselves it opens up greater possibilities for empathy and understanding.

Translation: Society is screwed, so we want games to fix that for us by forcing the choice of gender onto gamers playing the games instead of doing what is generally better for games and giving the choice and allowing the player to customize their character to their liking. It’s “Rust” all over again.

This is also a move that is likely to backfire on game designers because in order to achieve what Sarkeesian wants, they have to do more than simply stick a female avatar onto a game whose story was designed with a male protagonist in mind. So, they’d have to write stories from the female perspective. “And what’s wrong with that?” Sarkeesian will cry. You mean, aside from the fact that there isn’t really a female perspective? Well, the fact that any such attempt with either make a big deal about the character being female, rely on stereotypes, or end up reducing her to a generic character where they could just as easily have given the choice because there’s no character to project onto. The problems with the last one have already been given and the problems with the second option should be obvious, at least from the Social Justice perspective. The problem with the first one is that unless it’s done right it can be seen as insulting and patronizing, where the game goes out of its way to say “Look at me! I’m doing a female-centric story!”. To those who weren’t really interested in that sort of story, that will get annoying very quickly, and to those who were it can in fact ruin the story by how hard it’s trying to be that sort of story.

Thus, the right approach from a gaming perspective is this: if the story works best with a defined male protagonist, make one. If it works best with a defined female protagonist — I personally think survival horror games work best with a female protagonist — then make one. If you need a defined protagonist but neither gender is better for the role, flip a coin. Otherwise, give the choice. This achieves everything that Sarkeesian could want … except for changing society by forcing identification. But it’s not the job of video games to change society, even if they can have an impact on it.

Sarkeesian is less interested, it seems, in making good games than in making games that will help her achieve her Social Justice goals. But when the needs of the games and the needs of Social Justice clash, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that gamers ought to consider the needs of games first. Games are not the only way to promote Social Justice and don’t need to turn themselves completely over to that movement to be legitimate, or art, or fun, or valuable, or even not harmful. Let games be games, not necessarily treatises.

Freethought, freedom and blogs

August 12, 2015

So, there are a lot of things happening at the Freethought blogs network recently. Both Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson are leaving the network. Ophelia Benson is leaving over a scrap between the bloggers on the network, where many of them called her out for being transphobic in pretty much the same way — and sometimes actually in a nicer way — than they called out people like Tim Hunt and Richard Dawkins for being misogynist, and Benson has not liked that treatment and has explicitly said that she thought that colleagues would have her back … and they didn’t. Ed Brayton is leaving because the controversy of being one of if not the most visible person on the network is getting to be too much for him, both in terms of his health and in his activist work.

People have commented in various places about what this means for the network. P.Z. Myers has decided to try to address those comments in his own inimitable way. He starts with this:

I’ve been reading the obituaries. So many people, friends and foes alike, have expressed their confidence that Freethoughtblogs is dooooooomed, because Ed Brayton has left. It’s all going to fall apart without his iron hand ruling this motley crew! Without him, no one could possibly be interested in reading anything on this network! They only ever read the old white men here anyway, so losing one is an irreparable loss!

Let me quote Jason Thibeault, the Lousy Canuck to explain what the actual concern is:

Another is that I had a few extra days’ lead time on knowing that Ed was leaving. Traffic-wise, Ed and Ophelia both are about a third of this network. Without them, it’s now PZ and The Also-Blogs, at about a 90/10 split. We’re taking a big hit traffic-wise, which results in a big hit money-wise. That big hit money-wise means the server we’re paying for is slightly overprovisioned (which means more stable, yay!) but also means a larger slice of the ad revenue and more likely to result in shortfalls (boo). Shortfalls that will probably be paid out of PZ’s pocket. Shortfalls that probably mean if anything goes sour, we’ll have lean months, maybe even where bloggers get $0 revenue, where even now we’re lucky to get double digits.

They’ve lost a third of their network traffic. One of the things that seems to appeal to both Brayton and Benson is that with their new blogs they will make more money, as Patheos pays more than FTB did and Benson is using this to launch a Patreon drive. As Thibeault notes, the bloggers stand to lose a bit of money on this, with Myers likely being the one to absorb cost overruns like Brayton did to keep things going. FTB was, by its own admission, started to provide a bigger stage to some bloggers of the appropriate stripes and to also potentially make it so that they could earn some money to help them with their causes. If the attention they end up getting is too negative — note that Brayton commented in his post that he felt that the negative attention the network got hurt his activism because some people didn’t want to work with him for reasons varying, I presume, from “We don’t like the people you’re on the network with” to “The attention means that anything we do with you ends up with complaints from others” — then they might want to leave to avoid that, and if it doesn’t pay enough anymore they may have to pursue better paying options. So losing that much traffic with a network designed to generate more traffic for everyone isn’t a good thing at all, and could indeed run the risk of killing the network.

So let’s see how Myers tries to assuage concerns that the network might be having issues:

– Ed never actually “ran” this place — no one did, or does. This is one of those pinko commie anarchies. He managed the books, arranged for the ad services, that sort of thing, but all of the blogs here are autonomous. No boss. Get it? If you’re an authoritarian, maybe not.

– The kind of minimal, managerial oversight needed to keep the lights on has fallen into the hands of the executive committee, a small subset of the people here who handle mundane issues that affect the whole network. Just to let you know how busy the executive committee is, we initially proposed to meet once a month. I don’t think we’ve met in over a year.

It’s not about control. But if you look at what Brayton did, these are things that you do, indeed, need someone to do, and that it works a lot better if you have one person doing that than a committee. About the only thing that the committee would do as well or even better is managing the bloggers: dealing with requests to remove bloggers or add new ones. But it isn’t a better way to manage the books, or to arrange for ad services. That’s better done by one person, with perhaps some oversight. So, no, it doesn’t look like that’s an effective way to replace the things that Brayton did that still need to be done, and no one should be reassured with Myers’ vague “We’ve replaced it with a committee!” response.

– The network is not a vanity project for the white men who set it up. It’s an anti-vanity project. The whole purpose of the network was to leverage our traffic into creating a space for a diverse group of bloggers. They’re still here! Ed and I could drop dead on the spot, and it’ll still keep ticking along.

– Building a diverse network also produces a robust network. There is no single point of failure. By design and by diffusing the leadership all along, there’s no way to take it out with loss of a single blogger (we’ve lost and gained bloggers all along, you know).

Yes, but FTB was started by Myers and Brayton who were, in fact, already known and relatively popular as a way to use their traffic to draw attention to those who were good bloggers but merely need more exposure. To put it in Social Justice terms, Myers and Brayton used their privilege to provide a forum for those who were disadvantaged. With two big draws leaving the network, that doesn’t work out so well. And considering that it was in-fighting that actually caused at least one of them to leave, it’s also not a given that they’ll support each other. You may indeed see posts that either directly or indirectly encourage people to not read a particular fellow blogger. Without the big draws and without them staying mostly neutral, you don’t have enough of a guaranteed push to generate views from other people. This is not a good thing, no matter how Myers spins it.

– We do have to worry about maintaining a volume of traffic to maintain ad rates. But this is a group that does not prioritize making money off their writing (although it sure would be nice…) but on maintaining independence. I’d be writing for free — I was writing for free years ago — and what money we do make is distributed among the bloggers by traffic. There is no central authority skimming off the profits.

But the easiest way to maintain your independence is … to be independent. I, for example, am completely and totally free because my blog is on my own and not part of any network. The only standards I have to follow are the basic ones from WordPress. I owe no one anything. If people like my blog and link to it, I appreciate it but have no obligation to them. If I want to criticize Crude harshly for something he said, either here or on his blog, I can do so and even if he decides to unlink my blog all that means is that I lose some traffic, and since I’m blogging for free that’s all an “Oh, well”.

Look, there’s a reason for bloggers who want to be independent to choose to join a network where, by necessity, they give up some of that independence. The only reasons I can think of to do that — money or exposure — are hurt by two of the biggest draws leaving. What stops others from leaving and perhaps going to Patheos or independent? Considering, for example, and both Miri and Ashley Miller, for example, almost certainly make more through Patreon than the ad revenue from FTB (and it’s mostly stable), and that that comes from their own work and doesn’t depend on and isn’t shared with anyone, why wouldn’t they open up their own site, run their own ads, and make money that way? What does being in the network give them? Especially if they might run afoul of their fellow network bloggers and have being in the network work against them instead of for them.

– do have one serious worry about an ongoing failure. That’s all you people who say you only came here for the PZ and Ed show. You’re doing it wrong — I’m not going to object to you reading my stuff, but the whole point of the network is to give all those other voices a platform. You should go read them.

Maybe they have, and found them wanting. Maybe they aren’t updating enough to make that worthwhile (I can attest to how much of a difference updating can make, as my traffic, miniscule though it is, halved when I went to posting three times a week from posting every day, and I’m still on pace for my best year ever). There may well be reasons why they really don’t want to read the other bloggers, even if it’s something as simple as “They all say the same things as you do, mostly, so there’s no real reason to read them.” And if the in-fighting starts up again, there may indeed be more and more issues with this.

But Myers doesn’t get what the problem actually was here, as he says:

you may have heard, Ed Brayton is leaving FtB. His health has suffered, because he is the point man here, and one of the defining features of the current atheist movement is that it is populated with assholes who hate the idea of any kind of social justice movement, so they’ve been making life hellish for a guy who has had more than enough work trying to keep the lights on and the engines running.

And elsewhere:

This is a network that happily embraces the social justice cause. We select our bloggers from people who are clearly on that side of the cultural divide, and we’re going to kick out anyone who opposes equality for all (we’ve done it once before, and we can do it again). If you do not respect people’s choices, if you try to impose negative views on people’s identities, if you will not tolerate other people’s autonomy, if you think your arbitrary definitions of the ‘right’ sexual orientation, ‘right’ skin color, ‘right’ class, ‘right’ social behavior allow you to judge others, than nope, you really don’t belong here.

On the other hand, this is a freethought network. If you look at that set of boxes and question why society is labeling one set one way and another set a different way, that is appropriate and reasonable. Questioning assumptions and criticizing labels is a good thing; we should be wondering why anyone would even want to dictate the identities of others, and it’s worthwhile to try and puzzle out what criteria others are using to make that decision.

But this latest kerfuffle isn’t from atheists who are opposed to Social Justice. It’s been between those who support Social Justice, or at least claim to. Myers has had to shut down his social threads twice in the past little while, and both times it was because his “cliquish” commentariat were treating someone he liked the same way they treat anyone he didn’t like and who he also saw as “opposes equality for all”. It is certainly the case that those going after Benson saw her as that, and there is reason to think that some of the trans philosophies espoused do that if evaluated in the light of feminist philosophy (in short, feminist philosophy rejects defining what it means to be a woman by the traditional feminine trappings of the patriarchy, but many trans women seem to, in fact, do just that, choosing to identify as a woman because they prefer those trappings to the ones traditionally assigned to men, but if that’s enough to be called a woman then a woman who rejects those trappings but who still wants to be seen as a woman is facing a potential contradiction). The issue isn’t so much with what philosophy or worldview one is fighting for, but with how one is fighting for it. There is no reason to think that with the executive committee in place the FTB bloggers are going to stop fighting with each other, and they will fight with each other over what it really means to oppose equality. It’s harder to figure that out than Myers thinks, as this latest mess demonstrates. So if the blog is going to kick people out who oppose that and make that a stated principle — as Myers just did — then they are indeed going to get calls to kick someone out who seems to some to step over that line, and there’s really no good way to say to someone who thinks that that they’re wrong (if you accept the Social Justice line that those not of a group can’t say what ought to bother that group).

But if FTB really was a Freethought blog, then what it ought to say is that, outside of incredibly egregious and obvious cases, their bloggers can say what they want. If it’s deemed anti-feminist or anti-trans or whatever, then the other bloggers and those concerned about it can then write about that too, free of interference. That their bloggers might disagree sometimes could then be seen as a positive and not a negative, especially if they all disagreed respectfully (which would be difficult for them I admit). The only rule they should have is that you don’t get to say that no one should read a fellow blogger on the network because of that (which you wouldn’t think would be that difficult a rule) and can’t call for their removal on that basis, at least not publicly. So no comments that their view means that they shouldn’t be a part of the network because they “oppose equality”.

Do I think that FTB will die? Not really. It has some momentum and so will likely keep going for a while, up until the point, at least, that Myers leaves. But Myers is clearly clueless about the problems it faces and what is, in fact, responsible for them, and that should not fill those who want the network to succeed with confidence.

Ghostly Intentions …

August 10, 2015

So, I came across an article entitled The real reason some men still can’t handle the all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ by Anne Theriault. But here’s the actual link: http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/all-female-ghostbusters-backlash-male-tears.

This … is not promising. Ultimately, the article is about the “backlash” over the new Ghostbusters movie with the all-female Ghostbusting crew, and Theriault ultimately describes it as:

Part of the problem is, of course, straight-up misogyny (not to mention unfounded fears about Fake Geek Girls co-opting everything nerdy men love), but it’s also the fact that men are genuinely unaccustomed to seeing women in films.

The last part, presumably, is her real reason, since she focuses on some studies and an ad-hoc theory from Gina Davis to demonstrate this. But since this paragraph follows a number of tweets, presumably those tweets demonstrate the problem and provide evidence for her contentions of misogyny, fears of Fake Geek Girls, and being unaccustomed to seeing women in films. So let’s look at those tweets, shall we?

Melissa McCarthy will ruin ghostbusters, always typecast into the same bad/annoying role

Translation: I feel that Melissa McCarthy is a one-note comedienne and I don’t like that note.

@Ghostbusters not the new ghostbusters. Look like the biggest jokers going. Way to ruin a franchise

Well, this could refer to them being all-female, or it could just refer to them not looking the part like the original Ghostbusters did. Kinda like I feel thinking about Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as “Starsky and Hutch”, or the guys who played the lead roles in “21 Jump Street”. Or the “A-Team”, for that matter.

I will not be watching the new Ghostbusters in 2016. Nothing against the all female cast but why ruin a classic. There’s no more talent

In this one he explicitly says that he has nothing against the all female cast, but that the original movie was a classic — which implies that he feels that there’s no reason to remake it — and that there just isn’t the comedic talent out there to do it properly. There’s no reason to think that he thinks that there’s male talent out there that could do the role justice either.

New Ghostbusters cast being all female is just Hollywood pandering

This is the only one that actually talks about the all female cast … and it isn’t misogyny or fear or not being used to seeing women in movies if he’s right that it’s pandering. And considering that there seems to be no reason to have an all-female Ghostbusters line-up — at least the original idea, from what I heard, would have had Venkeman running things and so it might have been reasonable that he might have skewed his selection process to young, attractive women — it seems that there’s a fairly good case to be made that this is, in fact, just pandering to liberal and Social Justice considerations.

Now, Theriault’s — and Davis’ — theory is that the reaction is at least in part due to the fact that we don’t see a lot of women on-screen, and so our idea of how many women is a majority, say, is skewed. We see 17% women and think that equality, when it isn’t, and 33% women is seen as dominating. And she’d almost have a point right up until she tries to link that theory — which, again, is ad hoc and under-evidenced — back to the Ghostbusters movie:

Going back to that 33 percent figure that Davis cited, it’s interesting to note that it can be applied directly to the Ghostbusters franchise. Including the film that’s still in production, only a third of the representation in the films has been female: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson each acted in two entries in the series (that’s eight male entries), while Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig fill out the new cast (four for women).

However, that ratio still feels like over-representation to some men—because in a way it is, based on their ingrained notions of how and how often a woman should be represented.

Um … does anyone think that we should be counting the total representation across all of the movies, and not the representation in this one? Tell ya what. I’ll redo “Sailor Moon”, and I’ll make it an all male cast. And when feminists complain that I’ve taken a cartoon that represented women and girls and turned it into one that represents men and boys instead, I’ll reply that if you take the two series the representation is precisely 50-50, so it’s perfectly fair. Do you really think that reasoning would work? So why does anyone think it would work or have meaning here?

If we just consider this as a question of equal representation, the new Ghostbusters movie fails miserably, as there is no reason to have an all anything cast. If we look at the history of the franchise, there is even less reason to have an all male or all female cast. Starting from the original, we could easily see Egon deciding that active Ghostbusting was getting in the way of his research, and Winston deciding that he wanted more steady work. Then we could take the thread from “The Real Ghostbusters” and add Janine as a Ghostbuster, and then fill the other slot with another woman, and likely one that’s very attractive but is actually the brains of the group (Why very attractive? So that Peter would hire her, and so that she has a subplot of people not taking her seriously because of her looks that she has to overcome by the end). This gives us an even split, but is an organic even split, and is one that maintains the original franchise while simply adding to it. There is no reason to have an all female cast, particularly if you’re going to argue for that on the basis of equal representation. Given all of this, the charge of “pandering” seems quite legitimate; it sounds like they want female Ghostbusters just to have female Ghostbusters, not because they’re going to do anything with them beyond being able to tout their wonderous equal representation.

We need media that, thus, features a diverse cast of women—because the only way to correct our perceptions about gender parity is to make sure we’re exposed to films, books, and TV shows that represent the people we often pretend don’t exist.

Actually, the way to correct our perceptions about gender parity is to have media that has gender parity. I don’t know about you, but to me an all female cast does not show gender parity any more than an all male cast would. No, it’s about women becoming the dominant representation, in an attempt to make up for the sexism of the past. There may be cases where that’s needed, but not in representation where your stated goal is to show gender parity.

The new Ghostbusters movie won’t ruin anyone’s fond memories of adolescence—in fact, they might make a lot of peoples’ childhoods a little better. For the young women who might not be used to seeing themselves on screen—or to being told that their stories matter—Wiig, McCarthy, and company aren’t just battling the supernatural. They’re fighting to give us a new generation of heroes.

Because, obviously, having a gender parity Ghostbusters wouldn’t give women female heroes. They can’t be female heroes if they work alongside men as equals right? That’s clearly not what we want, right? Right?


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