Objectivism: Capitalism

May 27, 2016

So, continuing on from my discussions of Objectivism started here, here I’d like to talk about how Rand comes to decide that capitalism is, in fact, the best economic system and the one we must follow. A common misconception about Rand — although some of the scenes in “Atlas Shrugged”, if read shallowly, support this — is that for Rand money itself is some kind of ultimate ideal or ultimate goal, and that money is worth having for the sake of having money. This misconception, I think, follows from the numerous times were Rand talks about money in very reverent terms, almost as if it was an object of worship, but also — and probably more strongly — from the idea that strong capitalists do in fact care about money for its own sake. This confusion is only deepened by the fact that Rand doesn’t think of money as either an end it itself or merely as a means to other ends. Instead, she reveres what money represents, and what that represents is something crucial to her underlying philosophy.

As I noted last time, for Rand everything boils down to self-interest. We, as individuals, can have no other ethical obligations than to our own self-interest. And we, as individuals, have needs; definitely basic survival needs but also, as conscious beings, other needs. And we need to be able to achieve those needs if we are going to have any kind of meaningful and appropriate life. But how can we go about achieving those needs? Rand starts from the idea, that follows from Egoism, that no one is required to provide our needs for us simply because we have those needs. If we can’t rely on people to just give us what we need because we need it, then we have to go out and get what we need somehow. And then it becomes clear that the only way we can achieve our needs is to work for it, to use our physical and mental labour to in some way “produce” the things we need. If we can live all on our own and can provide for our own needs completely on our own, this becomes simple … but we can’t provide all of our needs ourselves, and so need other people, at least at times, to help us get what we need. And this help must be purchased through our labour, and in a sense we trade the fruits of our labour for the fruits of their labour.

But of course this immediately raises a question: how do we determine what our labour is worth? Obviously, we all want to maximize the return we get from our labour, and so get as much for our labour as we reasonably can. But since this applies to everyone else as well, we need a way to determine how much is reasonable in a way that respects everyone’s desire to maximize what they get for their labour. This isn’t out of any kind of overarching principle of “fairness”, but simply a recognition that if someone isn’t getting full value for their labour and discovers that, they are likely to stop trading with us and seek out other options that maximize their return on their labour investment. So if I really do need what they can provide, and I don’t want them to do that, I definitely want to ensure that they are paid fairly for their labour, just as I want to make sure that I am paid fairly for my labour.

But we have to return to the question: how do we know what our labour is worth? We need some kind of objective system so that we can determine what the market value of our labour is so that we know what to focus on if we want to get what we need. If we can just trade directly — I need some milk, you have a cow that you milk, you need some turnips, I grow turnips — then this is easier, as we can negotiate between the two of us, but if there are more stages involved things get complicated. Additionally, even there we need some standard to appeal to in our negotiations. And if you start from that simple model, you’ll start to see what standard we end up applying, which is the standard of how much we need each others’ services, which ends up being the standard of supply and demand.

If you have the only cow that can provide milk, and lots of people can provide turnips, then your milk is more valuable to me, specifically, than my turnips are to you. Given that, I’ll have to make you a better deal on my turnips than you have to on your milk in order for you to agree to the trade. However, if I know that there are a lot of turnips around, I might decide to grow potatoes instead and thus provide a protect that fewer people are providing. If that’s the case, then I might have something that you need more than I need your milk, or at least as much as, and so then I don’t have to provide as good a deal. Also, it might be the case that I need your milk, but you don’t care for turnips and so don’t need them. Thus, I won’t be able to trade my turnips to you at any reasonable price. But if there’s someone who needs turnips and has lots of potatoes, I might be able to trade my turnips to him for some potatoes, which I can then trade to you for some milk.

So the idea is that you end up trading things you need but have lots of for other things you need but don’t have enough of. And since all of the things you produce are things that you produce with your labour, you always want to get the best possible return on that labour. So if you have lots of something, you won’t simply hoard it — or, at least, not most of the time — because you need to use those products of your labour to get what you want. You would only hoard it to drive up the price if the exchange is so low that you take a “labour loss” on the deal; you work too hard on it to trade it for that price. Otherwise, even a low price still gets you the ability to get things that you need in exchange for things that you don’t need at the moment, and so the products of your labour still work for you, to your benefit.

Now, we can immediately see how this fits into the common path of the development of currency. Once I start dealing with lots of other people, it starts to become inconvenient for me to have to trade my turnips for potatoes, and then the potatoes for milk, and then the milk for bread, and so on and so forth. It’d just be so much easier here if I could just trade my turnips to the first person and get something that I could just take directly to the person with the bread and then let them take that to the person with the milk if they want milk. And that thing is commonly called “money”.

But for Rand, the use of money doesn’t stop there, because we have to trace all the way back up the chain to see what money represents here: not some abstract value or promissory note, but instead it represents my labour. Under this system, if I have a lot of money it doesn’t (just) mean that I have a lot of purchasing power and so can achieve a lot of my needs (or even desires). No, it also means that my work is, in fact, particularly valuable. I produce a lot of things that a lot of people really want or need, and so they are willing to pay me a lot to provide it. Note that this doesn’t make it “valuable” in the sense that we argue that a doctor’s services are, say, more valuable than Britney Spears’ (even as she makes so much more money). Everyone will agree that I generally need doctor — when I need one — far more than I need to listen to Britney Spears. But this is reflected in how whenever I go to the doctor I, generally, am willing to pay them far more than I’m willing to pay to listen to or watch Britney Spears. However, the nature of Britney Spears’ work is that she can provide that service efficiently, in that she provides relatively cheap services to thousands of people a day, which a doctor simply couldn’t. Thus, Britney Spears is full value for the money she has, because she simply provides services for more people than the doctor does. That doesn’t that we don’t value the doctor’s services more than hers, because at the individual level we clearly do. It’s only in the aggregate where Spears wins.

Thus, the constant wondering about why Rand’s producers don’t just gouge people and try to make as much money as they can has a simple answer: in doing so, they’d devalue their own labour. Remember, money only represents the value of our labour. If we allow it to be the case that people can make more money without in some way having their labour be more valuable, we devalue the system, but that system is the very system that we use to determine what our labour is worth, and we need to know what our labour is worth in order to be able to properly pursue our needs. If we undermine that system, we undermine the very thing that we need to ensure our survival, either basic survival or our survival as conscious beings. Additionally, if we try to extract more money from the system than our labour is worth by gouging others, we are admitting that our labour just isn’t all that valuable. But that, in a real sense, is critical to who we are for Rand. So no True Objectivist will admit that they are trying to extract more value from labour that is less valuable, because it means that the others are in a real sense better than they are, but they are trying to appear more valuable than they really are. At a minimum, such fraudulence is dangerous when or if they get found out, and it also reveals an irrationality in them that they must pretend that things aren’t really the way they are.

So, when Rand and her characters revere money, it’s not money they revere, it’s productive labour. And, in Objectivism, all people should take pride in and try to maximize their actually productive labour, because it’s all they have to make their way in the world.

To George R.R. Martin: How You Can Fix Your Hugo Problem

May 25, 2016

So, in a recent post at his “Not A Blog”, George R.R. Martin is lamenting how the proposed rule changes to Hugo nominations won’t actually fix the problem of the “Puppies”. And he eventually says this:

Sadly, I don’t think there is an answer here. No magic bullet is going to fix this. And I fear that the people saying, “pretty soon the assholes will get bored and go away,” are being hopelessly naive. The assholes are having far too much fun.

A year ago April, when Sasquan announced the ballot, I wrote the Hugo Awards had been broken, and might never be fixed. A lot has happened since that time, and from time to time I’ve allowed myself to think that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that this too would pass. Now I am starting to fear that my first reaction was the correct one.

The Hugo Awards have always been an occasion for joy, for celebrating excellence and recognizing the best among us. That’s what we need to get back to. But I don’t see how.

Well, Mr. Martin — may I call you George — you had a simple way to pretty much kill this at your command … and you and the others — and especially the others — completely flubbed it. Here’s what you had to do to make this mostly if not completely go away:

All you had to do was play fair.

See, while you talk about how this was all aimed at finding the best science fiction works, your nomination system … didn’t really work that way. The nomination system, as I understand it, gets people to nominate a number — 5, I think — of works in all categories that they think are the best, and the nominations are tallied and then are turned into the ballot. But this means that unless you happen to align with the majority on all of your nominations or are voting on a strong “recommendation list”, chances are at least one of the works that you think are the best for that year isn’t going to make it on the list, and will be replaced by something else. The best case there is that it’s a work that you hadn’t read and would have put on the list if you had. Typically, however, it’ll be a work that you think is inferior to the one you nominated that it replaced. And this could apply to all of the works in that category. None of which means that the other works are necessarily bad, but just that they aren’t the ones you really thought were the best.

Now, this is what you ostensibly want, because the only reason to go with fan nominations instead of jury selections that the fans then vote on is to muster the diversity of science fiction readers and thus end up with a nomination list that reflects all of the cross-sectional interests of science fiction. You want fans to nominate so that they can nominate works that are lesser known but have more resonance in the community as a whole than they do at the upper echelons. Admittedly, this isn’t that great a way to do it because the mainstream views will dominate anyway, but it does work to catch cases where the views of mainstream fans differ from those of the biggest names in the field.

So when people were coming into the actual vote, they weren’t necessarily — and were quite often — not voting for the work that they thought was the best, but were instead voting for the work they thought was the best out of those nominated. And that was the agreement, and one that was indeed used against people who complained that the works didn’t seem to them to be all that great: this is what has been chosen, so either suck it up and vote for the best out of these, or don’t vote. Now, there was an option added where if you thought that none of them were good at all, you could vote “No Award”, but in theory this is the nuclear option and should be quite rare. The expectation is that if the nominations are done reasonably at least one of the works would be good enough to win, even if you liked other works much better than all of them.

And so, what happened when the Puppies did manage to stack the nominations in their favour, and did so deliberately? Two things:

1) Immediately there was a call to change the rules so that this couldn’t happen (despite the fact that it already could have happened for years, and less direct “slates” might have been in place).

2) People decided that voting for the work that was the best out of those wasn’t what they wanted to do, and so they “No Awarded” entire categories out of spite … only, you know, not the ones where they really did like a work.

3) There was a push for people who were nominated because of the slate to withdraw just because they were nominated that way, which was pretty much a backhanded insistence that their works really weren’t good enough to win and that those doing that thought others were better.

Now, George, to your credit you’ve talked about how bad 2) was and that there were perfectly reasonable nominations that got “No Awarded”. I think you need to talk about it louder, because all you needed to do to shut down and shut up the Puppies was, in fact, to simply play fair, and vote the works that you thought good enough for an award above “No Award”, and the ones that you didn’t think were good enough for an award below “No Award”. If you had only done that — and not insulted authors by asking them to pull themselves off the list because clearly they shouldn’t have been there and were only there because Puppies — then you would have undercut the whole raison d’etre of the Puppies and so blunted their entire campaign.

I can see what the fear might have been, though. You were worried that they weren’t really there for the reasons they said there were, but that instead they were there to win awards, and if you didn’t do something at the rules and/or social level to avoid rewarding that, they’d just keep doing that to win awards. This requires us to think about what the motives of the “Puppies” actually are, particularly the “Rabid Puppies” who are the ones you most fear/need to fear.

So, they could be doing it to get awards. The problem is that this doesn’t seem to make sense. First of all, even with the idea of “Dread Ilk”, there simply aren’t enough people who want to see Vox Day win a Hugo to provide the numbers you need to run a successful slate that then gives Vox Day the win. If you undercut the overarching political issue, most of the people responsible for making the nomination slate work would abandon the slate, or at least drift away. Even if most of them really wanted to see those authors win, once they had won a couple of times most of them would get bored and drift away. You can’t maintain a slate of that form built mainly on outrage once they pretty much got what they wanted. Additionally, this assumes that Vox Day really cares about the validation of others, which isn’t very credible since if he did, he could very easily toe the party line and embrace the Social Justice mindset that gets people on the ballot. Vox Day has, for ages now, tended to take the more controversial side of, well, almost every issue he opines on. So it’s not all that likely that he cares that much about what people think.

Okay, but then maybe you can say that Vox Day wants attention, and that’s why he picks the controversial sides, and that’s why he’s doing that here. And if you all had simply treated it as an unfortunate event and played fair … he wouldn’t have gotten the attention that he’s getting now. And then he’d have had to move on to something else if he wanted attention, and again it would have been blunted. So if it had been treated like a non-event, it would have died down if Vox Day and the others wanted attention because, well, they wouldn’t have gotten attention.

Now we have to consider the possibility — strange though it may seem — that most of the people here are doing this because for the reasons that they say they are doing this, that they feel that works are being judged more on the politics of their works and their authors than on their real merits. If you had played fair, then this argument would have been blunted; you would have proven that you vote on the basis of merit but that for whatever reason more people think that other works are better than those ones that they say are getting excluded unfairly. Instead, what happened is that you proved that works not only can but are chosen on the basis of politics, by reacting strongly to the politics of the slate. Again, George, the you here doesn’t really include you, but is a shot at what is ostensibly your side.

The problem here is exemplified by a some comments on this very post. The first exemplifies the attitude that you — and I do mean you here, George — should be opposing with all of your strength if you want this resolved, from yagathai:

I have not read Between Light and Shadow. I do not plan to. I will nevertheless vote against it. Castalia House is the propaganda organ of an odious white supremacist and obscene misogynist, and I will fight to deny it even a breath of legitimacy.

That may not be all Castalia is. It may also publish serious works of scholarship, but that’s immaterial — lay down with puppies and you get fleas. Any work published by CH is tainted.

You can call this a “political reason” if you like. I don’t. I see it as a matter of common decency.

Here, yagathai is not only willing, but is in fact proud of voting against a work that you yourself, George, think is a worthy work simply because of who published it. Additionally, yagathai considers it “common decency”, which means that they think that everyone should act that way, voting down good works because of some sort of association that they can’t even prove and have to admit might not be entirely accurate, but even then they don’t care. If you want this problem fixed, George, you have to smack down such idiotic statements, not leave them sit uncommented upon. Well, sure, if you think that most people find such a view abhorrent, you could ignore it on that basis … but that doesn’t really hold in a post where you gently chide people for pretty much doing exactly that. It exists, and you need to acknowledge and condemn it if you want this to get settled.

You also have to address the issue that some of those who post at Castalia House do so because they don’t think they can get their works published elsewhere. You definitely don’t want to react this way, as you did:

I am a huge fan of Gene Wolfe, one of the living legends of our field… and someone who is long overdue for a Hugo, by the way. A study of Gene’s work is certainly a worthwhile project.

And I have seen Marc Aramini’s posts elsewhere on the internet, where he says repeatedly that no one but Castalia House would publish such a volume. In those same posts he often says how helpful VD was an editor… but here you are, saying you were the editor. Can you clarify? Who edited BETWEEN LIGHT AND SHADOW?

I really have to wonder about Mr. Aramini’s assertion that no one but Castalia would publish a work like his. I wonder how many publishers saw the book. Where did he submit it? Did Gene’s own publishers get a look? How about the academic presses? If the book is well researched and well written — have no idea if it is or not, since I have not seen it, but let’s take your word that it is great — there should have been PLENTY of good markets for it.

It’s not unreasonable, when some says that they couldn’t get published/couldn’t get hired, to ask them politely what it was that made them think that. It’s not reasonable to do so in a dismissive manner and demand to know who “really” edited a work that you think is a good work and should have been able to get published by other people. You look here like you’re trying too hard to deny that this was the case, instead of trying to find out why they think that and whether or not they are actually right. Because if you want to fix these issues in science fiction, George, if people really think this is the case you’re going to need to fix that impression. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept that they are right, just that they think this is the case and there are reasons for that. To use a Social Justice analogy here, it doesn’t matter if you have perfectly gender neutral hiring practices if women think that they won’t get hired just for being a woman. That doesn’t mean that your hiring practices are sexist, just that women won’t even try if they think they’re just going to fail. And the same thing applies to this case.

But, see, George, you kinda miss the boat on this because you dismiss the issue that started all of this:

I don’t agree that Larry Correia “continues to be right,” either. Correia has never been right. His own nomination for the Campbell refuted him, as did Brad Torgersen’s nomination for both Campbell and Hugo. They didn’t win? No, they didn’t. Boo hoo. I’ve lost seventeen Hugos and a Campbell too, some to better stories and some to worse. I didn’t need to blame secret conspiracies of Torlings and CHORFs and third-wave feminazis. You win some, you lose some, and some years you get ignored. That’s how it goes.

Except, Corriea’s comment was that when he got the nomination, people said that he ought not win and encouraged people not to vote for his work because of his personal politics. Not the politics of the work, but instead the politics of the author. So his complaint isn’t so much that he didn’t win, but that people were insisting that he ought not win because of his personal politics. I imagine that Torgersen has experienced similar comments, either about him or about his work. To think that none of this could impact the awards is utterly naive, so naive as to come across as disingenuous.

Now, you might argue, George, that you and others on your end of the political spectrum get that, too. Which is probably even true. But can we not agree, George, that this is bad? And, if so, can you stop saying that Correia has never been right when that sort of thing seems to have clearly happened to him? Or do you deny that that happened to him? If you do, then stop bringing that up as if it is obvious and prove that.

So, in conclusion, George, here’s what you need to do to fix the problem:

1) Play fair in the Hugo awards. Stop trying to fix the problem by changing the rules and twisting the rules because you don’t like the results.

2) Take the concerns of “politics” seriously, and evaluate them honestly, and work with those who you think are or who might be reasonable to either change the impression or change the system, as required.

3) Stop dismissing the concerns of people just because they’re saying things you don’t want to hear. You don’t have to think they’re right, but at least stop thinking that they have no reason to say what they say.

George, I’ve been a long time science fiction and fantasy reader. I love your “Wild Cards” series and have all of the original ones. I’m not as fond of “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, to be honest, but I love “Wild Cards”. I’ve been looking at getting back into reading new science fiction, and right now I’d rather go back and re-read those than even bother trying to find new works that interest me. Why? Because with this political fight I can’t trust anyone’s assessment or review of a book. I can’t trust that when you or someone else says that a book is good that it really is good or whether all that means is that it panders to your personal politics. And I think that’s true of all sides in this. Science fiction has a problem that it needs to fix, George, and right now no one’s fixing it. And while I don’t need you guys, I’m also the sort of person you want to attract because, well, I can afford to buy the books. Reading is the one leisure activity that I always do, so books are a big part of my entertainment budget. You want me buying books instead of buying games, and right now I can’t do that, George.

And that’s sad.

Thoughts on “Coup d’État”, Book 4 of “The War That Came Early”

May 23, 2016

In “Coup d’État”, we deal with the implications of “The Big Switch”:

Read the rest of this entry »

Bear and Bloom’s Experiment on Free Will … and Why it Fails

May 20, 2016

So, from Jerry Coyne at “Why Evolution is True” comes another experiment that he, and others, seem to think supports the idea of hard determinism, the idea that we don’t really have any kind of free will at all, even the sort of free will that people like Dan Dennett think is worth wanting. Coyne describes the experiment thusly:

The first thing the authors did was expose the subjects (who had been trained) to five randomly-placed circles on a computer screen, asking them to choose one circle quickly. Then, after intervals of time ranging from 50 to 1000 milliseconds (0.05 to 1 second), the computer randomly turned one of the circles red.

The subjects were then asked if their chosen circle turned red. They had three choices: “yes”, “no” and “I didn’t have time to choose before the circle turned red”, all indicated by pressing one of three keys on a keyboard.

Without any “postdictive bias” of the kind I described above, one would expect “yes” to be answered about 20% of the time when subjects reported that they did make a choice, because the circle that turned red was one of five chosen randomly by the computer. Instead, regardless of the interval before the circle turned red, the probabilities that you said “yes, my chosen circle turned red” was always higher than 20%. That’s shown in the graph below, which plots “probability of a yes answer” against the interval after which the circle turned red.

What’s important about this plot is not only that the probability was higher than 20%, which means that people were saying that their “choice” turned red more often than they should, but that that probability was higher when the interval between the start of the experiment and the circle’s turning red was shorter. That is, people’s bias—that they had “chosen” the circle that later turned red—was higher when they had less time to “make” a choice:

Now, the experimenters thought of a potential problem with this — although you should be able to come up with some problems with it beyond that one — and tried to fix it:

The authors thought of one problem with the experiment above. If the subjects were confused about whether they had chosen the circle that turned red, they might simply randomly press the “yes” or “no” button. That would drive the “yes” answers, expected to be 20%, towards 50%, giving the higher-than-expected “yes” rate shown above.

To deal with this, they used an experiment in which they showed TWO randomly positioned, and colored, circles on a screen, with the two colors chosen from an array of six. The told the subjects to choose one color. They then added a third circle between the two that had a color randomly chosen from the two initially displayed. And, as in the five-circle experiment, the third circle appeared at intervals ranging between 0.05 and 1 second. This way a random punch of “yes” and “no”—”I chose the right color” or “I chose the wrong color”, respectively—a randomness due to confusion, would not bias the results. With only two circles, a random punch would just make the probabilities of “yes” and “no” closer to 50%, which is what they should be anyway.

And again, the same bias was shown: subjects generally reported that they chose the circle of the same color as the one that appeared later with a probability of higher than 50%: as high as 63% at short time intervals. And again, the shorter the time interval, the greater bias was seen in the self reports.

Supposedly, this shows something important:

What both of these experiments seem to show is that, as Bear wrote in the Scientific American piece, “Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice—that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived—was a choice that we had made all along.” The paper with Bloom cites earlier experiments that also support this result. We have to face the possibility, just as we now realize that choices can be made by the brain before we become conscious of them,” that choices may actually be carried out before we become conscious of having made them; and yet that we feel that the sequence was the opposite of what really happened.

So, this might show that we make a decision and then trick ourselves into thinking that the decision we made was the one that occurred, no matter what decision we actually made. Put this way … it seems almost nonsensical to have such a convoluted process to trick us into thinking that we made a specific decision based on our own experiences and consciousness only for it to pull the rug out from under us later and rewrite our memory to think that the result of our conscious experience of decision-making was the exact opposite.

Fortunately, there are two other really big issues with the experiment. The first is that the key is the conscious recognition of when a choice was made. It appears that in all cases the experiment relies on the participant being certain that they actually made a choice, and so they can report the cases where they made the decision after the circle had changed colour or appeared so that we can eliminate any bias in the decision-making from this new stimulus. But note that the time ranges are all incredibly small. The longest time interval was one second, so that gives lots of chances for the person to have simply not decided before the stimulus kicks in. Ideally, these would be eliminated, but making this choice isn’t going to be all that binary a process. We’re picking at random, which is mostly subconscious anyway, and so we’re just going to react with a gut “That one!”. When the stimulus and the choice reaction come close together, it’s quite possible that the people were on the cusp of deciding when the stimulus flashed, especially since we do seem to at times be able to react to a stimulus before we are consciously aware of this. Given all of this, the more likely scenario — which they haven’t eliminated — is that the people were generally still making a decision when the stimulus kicked in, and the stimulus impacted their subconscious decision-making processes. To really eliminate this, you’d have to make them hit a button to lock in a choice, and then have the new stimulus appear. But if they did this, it would almost certainly be the case that this effect wouldn’t appear. So at a minimum they need a better experiment, one that can let us ascertain that the choice was clearly and distinctly made before the stimulus appeared, and that the participants aren’t invalidly thinking that they made the choice clearly before the stimulus appeared.

The second big issue is the common one with all of these experiments: as noted above, they are testing decisions that are, in fact, mostly subconscious in the first place. We don’t reason out choosing something at random. But free will is all about the choices we make when we reason out decisions, not instinctive or gut reactions or random choices. So, for libertarians, we’re interested in being able to make choices for legitimate reasons, and these experiments test cases where we are told to choose something for no reason. There’s no reason to think that these experiments say anything interesting about those sorts of cases.

Ultimately, for hard determinists to make their case, they have to start getting into experiments that test the paradigmatic cases of what we think are free choices. These are much harder to test, but these controlled cases simply leave out everything that makes free choices free according to libertarians or even compatibilists, and so add little to the debate.

Self-Balancing Gameplay …

May 18, 2016

So, a while back (okay, a decade ago) Shamus Young wrote a post about simple self-balancing gameplay. I came across it while browsing some posts on his blog, and thought about it some more, and realized one crucial thing: it won’t work because it doesn’t get the key distinction between casual and veteran gamers.

The issue that Shamus is trying to solve here is that, especially in RPGs, the combat and gameplay mechanics are often complicated and obtuse, relying on a lot of previous knowledge or a major time investment to really grasp. But a lot of casual gamers — he uses “Grandma” as an example here — don’t have the time or interest in figuring that out. So the casual gamer chooses based on aesthetics and character, while the veteran chooses based on optimization … and then you toss them out into the same world with the same or similar enemies. How do you create that world so that both of them have fun? If you tailor the difficulty of your gameplay to the casual gamer, then the veteran will find things way too easy and be bored. But if you tailor the difficulty to the veteran player, the casual gamer will find it too hard and get stuck, get frustrated, and probably quit the game. You can introduce difficulty levels, but as Shamus points out people still don’t know what level would fit them, and there may be some psychological biases against playing on the easiest levels (not an issue for me, but it might be for some).

Shamus’ suggestion, essentially, is that in an RPG you can do this through the leveling mechanisms, which ends up meaning through grinding:

It just needs to provide a series of areas with steadily increasing challenge level, and allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.

Sure, Francis will burn through the whole game in eight hours, and it will take Grandma three times as long, but each one will find the game offered the right level of challenge. Grandma will hang around each area and farm experience to the point where she is nearly eligible for government experience-farming subsidies. Her character will level up many times before she moves on. On the other hand, Francis will pass quickly through areas because he knows he can earn money, items, and XP faster in the next area. Sooner or later he will hit a point where the game naturally starts to push back, due to his low level. He will get to a point where his skill at optimization and mastery of the hotkeys cannot overcome his relative strength deficit, and he’ll have to slow down until he has a few more levels under his belt.

Everybody plays. Everybody wins. (Everybody except for the monsters, of course.) The system is elegant, intuitive, and automatic.

And … it won’t work. The reason it won’t work is that it trades time for difficulty; casual gamers are expected to simply kill things and stay in an area for a longer period of time, and so essentially to pull my TOR trick and win through massive overleveling. However, casual gamers aren’t that likely to want to spend that much time grinding in a game, for two reasons. The first is that many casual gamers — and this includes myself — are that because they have a limited time to dedicate to playing games. They have other things to do and other hobbies, and so in their limited gaming windows they always want to feel like they’re making progress. Simply adding levels so that maybe they can move on to the next area does not feel like making progress. One of the main issues I’ve always had with Persona 3 when replaying without simply loading in my high leveled character from my previous playthrough is that the grinding in the dungeons to hit the level you need to be at to take on the full moon boss is boring, and also takes quite a bit of my limited gaming time. At one point, for example — I think it was in FES — I ended up playing one evening just to level and then the next evening I could do the interesting things like advance the story and, especially, advance the Social Links. That model was tolerable. I don’t think Shamus’ would be anywhere near as tolerable.

The second reason is that in RPGs most casual gamers aren’t there for the combat, but are instead there for the story and the characters themselves. So they’re going to want to push on to the next part of the story as quickly as possible, because that’s what they care about. If the game drops a quest for them to move to the next area and continue the story, that’s what they’re going to want to do, and what they’re constantly going to have as their main goal. If the quest says that they need to gain 5 more levels to get there, they might grind it out … but they’ll be constantly consciously and explicitly reminding themselves that they’re only doing it to get to the next level so that they can advance the story.

So casual gamers aren’t likely to and are likely to be annoyed by having to do things just to build their abilities so that they can advance in the game. Ironically, the ones who are willing to do boring and repetitive tasks just to optimize their characters tend to be … the veteran gamers that have been doing that from the start. So, ironically, this system seems tailored so that the veterans will take advantage of the extra leveling, and the casual gamers won’t. This … is not what Shamus wanted.

You could help the casual gamers out by giving in-story or character reasons to do this, so for example by adding these all as quests instead of just as “kill some things”. The issue you run into is that while this might encourage casual gamers to do them and so get the max levels — so pretty much what I do in Dragon Age Inquisition, by making it a goal to clear each area before moving on to the next one — if those quests are interesting enough veterans who like plot and lore and characters will do them, too, and end up bored.

Both Persona 3: The Answer and Persona 4 (on Easy) managed to make this tolerable for me, through different methods. For The Answer, the dungeons were short enough that typically I was able to just keep running them and running until I could breeze through the dungeon without losing too many hit or mana points, and so was completely prepared to take on the final boss. So limiting it through non-“I just keep dying!” means can provide a way to ensure that veterans advance when they’re ready and casual gamers advance when they’re ready. This can still be repetitive, though, and it’s hard to find a trait to balance that. In Persona 4, on Easy — and yes, generally, with the top weapons and armour — if I simply explored every nook and cranny of the dungeon I generally had a high enough level to complete the dungeon my first time up, especially since I could generally use physical attacks only — again, best weapon — and so had plenty of SP for the boss battles, and exploring the whole dungeon wasn’t generally that boring. But this might bore veteran players.

Maybe Bioware’s “Casual” or “Story” difficulties are the way to go, with these difficulties constantly cheating in your favour. The issue here is to provide a balance between making the combat relatively painless without making it so that you don’t have to do anything. In other words, to turn it into a game where I win almost all of the battles by a narrow margin. This, however, is very difficult to do. I find that the strategic aspects of the Persona games work even on Easy — you still want to learn, generally, what you ought to do if for no other reason than to make things go faster and save SP and HP — and find that the FPS-inspired gameplay in Mass Effect works not too badly at that either because I still have to do things like take cover and shoot in order to succeed. And with those names there ought be no shame in casual gamers or people primarily interested in the story to say “I should select that one because its me”.

It’s still a tough problem, though, and one that impacts and depends on the actual gameplay far more than most people think.

Thoughts on “The Big Switch”, Book 3 of “The War That Came Early”

May 16, 2016

So, after nothing of any consequence happened in “West and East”, things finally happen in “The Big Switch”. Specifically, a big switch.

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NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 3

May 13, 2016

After starting off poorly in the first round — going 4 – 4 or exactly what a coin flip would give you — I did much better in the second round, going 3 – 1 and ending on a 7 – 5 record, which means that if I get even one more series right I’ll be guaranteed to be above .500.

Also note that this year I added a category that tracks how many times the team that had home ice advantage wins the series in this year. I was inspired to do this after noting that a number of them did seem to win their series or at least be winning it, and wondered if the much lauded “parity” was still everything it was made out to be. In the first round, teams with home ice advantage went 5 – 3, but only 2 – 2 this round, which means that they have a 7 – 5 record.

Thus, if I hadn’t even bothered to think about any of this at all, and had just chosen each team with home ice advantage, I’d’ve had the same record. Huh.

Anyway, these match-ups are what you want in the semi-finals in you’re a hockey fan, and thus what you don’t want if you’re trying to predict who will win: the series are really too close to call.

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh vs Tampa Bay: So, here’s the dilemma here. Tampa Bay has been playing without one of if not its best player with the injury to Steven Stamkos, which leaves, in theory, a big hole to fill in their line-up. For Pittsburgh, even though Crosby and Malkin were underwhelming against Washington, they are in the line-up, have been playing, and could take over the series at any moment. Even if Stamkos comes back, he’s not likely to be in top form and so may not have the impact Tampa would like. On the other hand, Pittburgh has been playing Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury is just recently back on the bench and hasn’t played in quite a while, so their goaltending is suspect, while Tampa can rely on Ben Bishop.

What makes things really difficult to predict here is that both of these teams have had these issues throughout the entire playoffs, and have managed to overcome them and, in fact, to do so relatively handily. Tampa is getting great performances from their secondary players, while Matt Murray has outduelled stronger goaltenders to win series. So we have two teams with what look like glaring weaknesses that haven’t been weaknesses for them throughout the entire playoffs.

I’ve been betting against Matt Murray the entire playoffs so far. Have I learned my lesson? Well … no. The issue here is that if Tampa Bay can get into Murray’s head or pick up tendencies and exploit them, Pittsburgh is likely finished, while if Stamkos comes back that will likely only help Tampa Bay. So I’m going to go with the established goalie again this round.

Prediction: Tampa Bay

Western Conference

San Jose vs St. Louis: Here, we have two teams that have become known for underachieving in the playoffs, and that even this year have not looked like exceptionally solid teams, both flirting with upsets at times. One of them is going to have to actually win this series, and both of them are clearly capable of winning it all or handing it to the opposing team.

It’s a tough decision to make, but I think I’m going to go with St. Louis here.

Prediction: St. Louis

Summary

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh vs Tampa Bay

Western Conference

St. Louis vs

Overall Record: 7 – 5
Home Ice Advantage Team Record: 7 – 5

Thoughts on “West and East”, Book 2 of “The War That Came Early”

May 11, 2016

So, I’ve recently finished Book 2 of “The War That Came Early”, and my main thought on the book is this:

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More Thoughts on Dragon Age Inquisition

May 9, 2016

So, after clearing up some things — and getting a cheap Blu-Ray player so that I can move my PS4 off of my main TV — I’ve decided to play Dragon Age Inquisition again. My first thoughts on the game are here, and so far my impression of it is pretty much that it’s more of the same, which makes it worse.

First, the War Table. Maybe I need to activate things more often, but the missions for your companions have dried up a bit, and I spent all of my time running around the Hinterlands — and getting killed while trying to close Rifts — while trying to get more experience. This felt a lot like an MMO and was boring me, and so I finally had enough power back and decided to just try that mission in Orlais … and then noticed the recommended level, which I was at the top of. And then the story progressed, and I have no idea if there are things I should have said to make things work differently or not. So that might open up more things when I get back to Haven, but first I want to finish the quest that started there.

Which runs into the issue with the maps. I said in my first thoughts that I get lost wandering the Hinterlands. Technically, the marks on the Quest Map — which I just really noticed — that I can follow should help with that … except that even in the wilds they can apply to differing levels, so you can run right on top of one, not find anything, and realize that, well, you’re actually right below it. This gets worse in the cities. This is a major problem for Bioware as TOR has the same issue, and so it can be hard for you to figure out where you have to go, which is massively frustrating … especially when the thing is on a cliff with only one way to get there … that you can’t find.

Also, it’s still hard to know if the reason I die when I try to close Rifts is because I’m too low-level or because I suck. It’s hard to know what order, if any, you need to do things in. I might have to scour the journal more to see if there are any hints on that.

So far, I like DA2 better. Sure, it had less exploring and less quests, but you always knew what you needed to do when, and what will advance the story and what won’t. I sometimes enjoy DA:I, but that enjoyment is rarer than it was in DA2.

The New Ghostbusters’ Ditzy Secretary …

May 6, 2016

So, Dave Futrelle over at “We Hunted the Mammoth” is taking a look at the reaction to a recently released clip from the new “Ghostbusters” movie. I haven’t watched the clip myself, but from what Futrelle says the clip essentially shows the replacement for Janine Melnitz from the original movies. Since the powers-that-be decided to flip the gender roles and make all of the new ghostbusters women — purportedly in the name of equal representation for men and women, which is a very odd way to go about that — it seems that they also decided to gender flip Janine and make the character male, played by Chris Hemsworth (of Thor fame and probably some other fame as well, but that’s the one I’ve seen). However, they also seem to have made the character essentially decorative; he’s portrayed as attractive but pretty much incompetent at his job. The implication from this is that he was hired for his looks and not his skills, and given that people on the Internet (Futrelle assumes that they are all or are at least mostly men) are protesting. Since Futrelle’s site is one dedicated to mocking MRAs and the like, Futrelle mocks this, with the overall impression that, well, this is no big deal and nothing to complain about.

There are, however, a number of problems with it that you don’t have to be opposing feminism to see (although, for one of them, it helps).

The first issue for me is this: I really liked the Janine character, especially with how she evolved in the “The Real Ghostbusters” animated series. Her cynical attitude really did work, and gave something to ground Ray’s and Egon’s fascination with ghosts while also providing a foil for Peter, and also potentially for someone for Winston to relate to. Was she used that way in the movies most of the time? No, but her cynical approach definitely did shine through (just read the quotes from her on IMDB for that). Most importantly, she was portrayed as someone who was very competent at her job, if snarky. She wasn’t hired for her looks, but for her skills, and she had them. This, then, is not a replacement for that character. This is replacing a superior stereotypical secretary with an inferior stereotypical secretary. Making the character male but equally snarky might have worked, but the character that I liked is now completely and totally gone. And I can’t see any good reason to go this route, especially considering how problematic this stereotype is. The only reason I can think of is for the writers to take a shot at the stereotype itself … but, as I’ve said before, when works sacrifice entertainment for message they end up, well, sucking. So, this is not promising.

The second issue is what this choice implies: that whomever was doing the hiring chose this person on the basis of their looks rather than their skills. This … is not a good way to hire someone. At the very least, the only reason the person still has a job is their looks. So … which of the Ghostbusters is the one who hires on the basis of looks rather than ability? Which of them is that shallow? Is it all of them? Are they all that sort of person?

See, in the original movie you could get away with that by simply having Venkeman hire the secretary, because as was established early that was totally in character for him. But the key thing here is that that part of his personality was the big flaw in his personality. If I recall correctly, he originally goes with Dana because she’s attractive and he wants to hit on her, but at the end they only at least somewhat get together because he overcomes that and starts to actually care about people and about the job. He moves from being seen, at least, as nothing more than a scam artist to someone who is willing to die to save the city. He gets redeemed.

Now, the original movie didn’t do this. But if it had, Ray and Egon would have protested at least as soon as the secretary screwed up something important, and either the secretary would have had to prove that she had a role, or Peter would have had to admit that it was a bad idea and then accept hiring someone more competent. In fact, I strongly suspect that there was an episode of “The Real Ghostbusters” where Janine quit due to not being appreciated, Peter hires or tries to hire someone who was just hot, and at the end they all realize that they really miss — and need — Janine after all. I could be wrong about that one, but it does sound like something that a cartoon would do.

So, does this happen in the movie? Or do all of the Ghostbusters decide that when women objectify its female empowerment and so not really bad at all? So, are all of them in favour of hiring on the basis of looks in a movie that pretty much is trying to subvert that notion?

Which leads to the third issue, which is exactly that, and something that some of the commenters that Futrelle mocks mention: this movie, as near as I can tell, is about at least trying to present more equality and less sexism than Hollywood movie typically do. Yes, Dave, it’s a movie about ghostbusters, but it’s also a movie going out of its way to be “inclusive”. Having a man who is objectified doesn’t, in fact, do that, and if feminists — like you, Dave — don’t stand up and say that objectifying a character and hiring on the basis of looks as opposed to on the basis of ability is bad no matter what the gender of the people doing it and the person it’s being done to then you only further the stereotype that feminism is about women, and not about equality at all.

Now, Futrelle tries to defend it:

Sometimes comedy plays with stereotypes and is funny. Sometimes it just reinforces stereotypes and while this is often not so great, comedically or otherwise, sometimes it can actually be funny too.

For comedic actors, the best roles are often the ones in which they make themselves look like the biggest idiots. Who was the most idiotic character on I Love Lucy? (HINT: Her name is in the title.) Who was the star in I Love Lucy? (HINT: Her name is also in the title. Because it’s the same person.)

Anyway, dudes, relax just a teensy weensy bit. Men are so overrepresented in movies these days, as protagonists and as supporting characters, that it’s still kind of seen as a big deal if two women characters in a feature film have even a single scene in which they actually talk to one another about anything other than a man. And lots of movies fail that seemingly rudimentary test.

And so, if you can’t stand Chris Hemsworth taking a comedic turn as an inept administrative assistant, if the very thought of it makes you mad or sad, it’s possible that your head is so far up your own ass that, well, I mean, that can’t be very enjoyable, your head up in there. It’s sort of disgusting to think about, really.

Anyway, angry Ghostbusters-hating dudes, if you’re concerned about people thinking men are a bunch of ridiculous idiots, one excellent way to fight this perception is to STOP ACTING LIKE A BUNCH OF RIDICULOUS IDIOTS.

There’s probably an argument in there, if you turn it sideways and do the standard philosophical charity thing where you build in the arguments that you’re sure they were trying to make/would have made. Of course, even interpreting this charitably, the arguments are all really, really bad:

1) He can be arguing that, hey, Hemsworth looks like an idiot, but, hey, that’s comedy, right? Well, except that if we go back to the original Ghostbusters, the comedy did indeed come from them acting like idiots — or at least stupid and/or odd — and yet none of them were completely incompetent. Peter, for someone with a PhD, knew very little about the field that he supposedly was an expert in. Ray was seen, especially in the cartoon, as being overly enthusiastic about this. Egon was the typical “head for science, and not for anything else” scientist character. Looking like an idiot does not, in fact, require you to be an idiot. It especially doesn’t require you to be an idiot with the clear implication that the only reason you still have a job is because you’re hot. You’d think Futrelle would, you know, want to discourage that sort of presentation more.

2) He could be arguing that men are presented in so many different roles that having one idiot isn’t going to hurt them. Which is true, but also rather odd since, well, idiot male characters have existed for a long, long time now and will continue to exist. The protest is not about having an idiot male character. The protest is that the character is a male version of one of the stereotypes that feminists most hate. Just because it happens to be a man this time doesn’t mean that presenting someone hired for their looks is a good thing. And it also removes a stronger female character from the roster. Why would he think that good?

And the supreme irony is that he finishes thusly:

The only thing about the Ghostbusters clip that really bugs me is that Sony decided to release it on Administrative Professionals Day. And that’s really kind of patronizing as hell. If most film heroes were Administrative Professionals that would be one thing, but this, not so cool.

Now, we have lots and lots of representations of Administrative Professionals who are competent that their job, so there is indeed plenty of representation of competent APs, so that can’t be the objection here. No, the objection must be about presenting the worst possible stereotype, of the AP hired for their looks and who is utterly incompetent at the job. Which, yes, is something that might annoy APs on the day dedicated to them. But that’s the stereotype that Futrelle is asking people to lighten up about. Hmmmmm.


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