The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

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Thoughts on two books by Adrian Goldsworthy …

October 13, 2017

So, I recently somewhat read two books on Roman History by Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar and Pax Romana. I really liked Caesar, but couldn’t even manage to finish Pax Romana. I could have finished the latter if I had really tried, but I bought and was reading these books for entertainment and found at about the midway point that I wasn’t enjoying reading Pax Romana and wasn’t likely to start any time soon.

I think the main issue is that Pax Romana doesn’t really have a purpose, or at least one that the book supports. Goldworthy frames it as examining whether the Roman Empire could be considered peaceful and civilizing or aggressive and oppressive, but all he ends up doing is talking about how Rome gained its territories and how it governed them. While he generally slips in a comment or two about whether this made Rome oppressive or not, most of the time there’s no real direct relevance to the main thesis, and so if you are thinking about that premise you would be wondering how this all fits. However, most of the time you will have completely forgotten that that was what he was going for, and so simply be working through the details of how things worked in those areas or provinces. But he doesn’t go into enough detail on the everyday life of the people in those provinces or areas for it to work as just giving background history, and there’s no real chronological or even causal/narrative link between the sections to draw you along. Without a strong tie to the overall theme, the sections seem disconnected from each other, and the sections talk too shallowly about their specific topics to work as an interesting examination of those topics. At the end of the day, the topics examined were neither detailed enough to be enjoyed for their own sake or tied enough to a main thesis to work as establishing evidence for whatever conclusion Goldsworthy wanted us to draw.

Caesar works better — and is the one I read first — because it has an overarching framework to work with: Caesar. While there may be quibbles here and there, generally the book both has a reason for detailing what it does — telling us about Caesar — and has a chronological and causal chain carrying us from one chapter to the next, as we examine Caesar’s career. If we have to hop back into the past, it’s because what happened then is important — at least in the author’s mind — for understanding what happens to Caesar next. If we talk about political systems or historical events that don’t directly involve Caesar, it’s because it’s important to establish them in order to understand Caesar and how things got to that point. While the ending seemed a bit rushed, overall we get a pretty good narrative of Caesar and his life, as well as the cultural factors that made Rome what it was at the time and the systems that Caesar took advantage of and opposed.

Pax Romana had none of that, and so ended up seeming, at least to me, like a series of disconnected sections rather than any kind of comprehensive, unified work. And that, ultimately, bored me.

When MMOs Die …

October 11, 2017

So, after talking about how much I still miss City of Heroes last week, this weekend I managed to get in a little of The Old Republic. There’s talk about a server merge, which usually indicates a declining population, which then can indicate that, perhaps, the game isn’t going to be around much longer. And while I recently commented that TOR might end up being the only game I play for about a year, in thinking about it I realized that if TOR died I wouldn’t miss it anywhere near as much as I miss City of Heroes. But I would miss it.

Which gets into the things that a player would lose when an MMO has to fold. For the most part, for me, the things that I’ve missed have been things about the world itself, and not the gameplay or the social aspects. As I commented last week, there aren’t all that many superhero RPGs out there, so losing City of Heroes meant losing that world. Another of my favourite MMOs was Dark Age of Camelot, and there simply aren’t any games out there that combine Arthurian Legend, Celtic Myth, and Norse Mythology and crossover between all of them. In fact, there aren’t all that many games that try to even present one of those worlds, let alone three. And while RPGs in that era definitely occurred before, the eight story TOR does something that the other games don’t have the ability or funding to do.

It seems to me that in order for MMOs to compete, they often had to take on either unique experiences or attach themselves to existing popular worlds in order to stand out from the saturated crowd. After all, in terms of mechanics, gameplay and social aspects there’s not that much room to move or stand out, and if a player really likes that sort of thing they not only can keep playing the game that they first joined, they actually have reason to given that they’d have social networks already built up and a number of in-game advantages. If you want players to move, then, you have to give them something new, and a new and interesting world is probably the easiest and least risky way to do that. This means, though, that when an MMO goes away so does access to that world.

And I think MMOs taking on a unique setting is potentially bad for that setting, because it discourages companies from trying a non-MMO game in that setting. While the MMO is running, it can be seen as too much competition for the new game to handle unless the population is big enough to handle multiple games, which many MMO settings are at least not believed to be. And when the MMO dies and the competition is no longer there, there is always the concern that this means that the target audience is burned out on the setting, and so a new game in that space won’t succeed.

I’d love a new, good superhero RPG. Or Arthurian, Celtic, or Norse RPG. But I haven’t really seen any lately, and so without playing the MMOs I don’t get to play in those worlds anymore. I can and have to believe that if TOR closed that a new Star Wars RPG would get made, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. It’s almost a shame, then, how the MMO surge managed to get games in those settings made, since it’s not likely that their success will translate into getting new games in those settings when they’re gone.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

Rise of Dictators …

October 6, 2017

So, I just finished reading a biography of Julius Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy. Not long before that, I read a book talking about the French Revolution exploring how it turned into the Terror. I’ve also, of course, read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. All of which talk about how governments that weren’t restrictive dictatorships/tyrannies turned into far more restrictive and tyrannical nations. While reading it, it struck me that it is precisely this that is making progressives very angry and scared, the idea that the United States is moving from being more liberal and democratic to becoming a Trump-led dictatorship. And there’s one commonality in at least those three historical events that I think they are missing.

In all of those cases, the tyranny came about because the people, in general, didn’t feel that the current system and people in power were serving the people, and so were willing to accept someone, anyone, who was in a position of some power and promised to fix all of that up.

Germany had been in dire straits for a long time after WWI, and had suffered what many of the people considered to be egregious humiliations for their part in it. The Socialists were blamed — quite likely wrongly — for the surrender, and were blamed for not making things better and/or for not trying to restore German honour. Hitler, on the other hand, directly promised to restore their honour and make the country better, and when he received power he actually did both, although how much of the economic recovery was due to his policies or just a generally recovering economy is not entirely clear. Given that he at least at first seemed to be fixing things and pretty much every move he made he won in the beginning, it’s not surprising that the general German public supported him, at least until he started losing. By the time his policies started impacting the common German, he and his party were too entrenched to be easily removed. And what is also critical to note is that his opponents often spent more time attacking him than in understanding why the common German at least somewhat supported him and trying to appeal to them.

Whatever else you might say about him, Caesar actually had a lot of support from the common person in the Civil War. Throughout his entire political career, he had advocated for and enacted a number of policies to benefit the common voter. Meanwhile, the existing Senators were seen as being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Pompey and his supporters, fearing that he might take over, actually precipitated the conflict by essentially setting up a case where Caesar could be prosecuted for purported crimes while he was in charge of Transalpine Gaul, which Caesar felt could be used to deny him what he saw as his rightful power. Given that it was clear that political trials in Rome did not turn on truth but instead on the personal interests of the people prosecuting and voting, this left Caesar potentially taking a huge risk if he accepted it. And even as official dictator, he continued to promote the interests of the common person, and at least tried to maintain the image of being merciful and conciliatory.

But the most indicative one is the French Revolution. The government was corrupt, and so the Revolutionaries rode a wave of popular support, making strong accusations and riding mob rule to carry out punishments on those people, whether or not those accusations were really founded. And then when they got into power, they continued to splinter and to make the same sorts of accusations against each other, resulting in a tug of war where the person who could actually convince the people that one of their former leaders and comrades was really a traitor to the cause winning and gaining power through that, which led to the Terror.

You can argue that Trump is taking the Caesar/Hitler route, presenting himself as the only person who can fight the corruption in the government and “drain the swamp”. And yet you can also argue that the progressives are taking the Revolution route, attempting to muster popular support by making often dramatic and poorly founded accusations against Trump and anyone who supports him in any way, and presenting his government as the corruption that they must fight and — using the Nazi parallels and the “Punch a Nazi” rhetoric — fight with violence if necessary, which means fight with violence if they can’t win. If we take these historical parallels to their logical conclusions, you’d have the choice between an American Empire or an American Terror. Is it any wonder, then, that so many moderates don’t support either side?

It’s Been Five Years …

October 4, 2017

… and I still miss City of Heroes.

I was musing on that while playing The Old Republic and creating my new character (a Jedi Consular modeled after Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). I’m always struck when creating characters in any Bioware game just how limited the customization options are despite them seemingly being among the better studios at allowing it. And then I started looking at getting a nice outfit for her because Sabrina would be a fashion plate, and couldn’t find anything all that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I only had 2000000 credits to spend on the GTN and all the good outfits were out of my price range, and the Cartel Market options weren’t that interesting, but I found most of them somewhat interesting but far too similar for me to bother with. And I only cared about looks, not about stats, which makes it doubly depressing when I compare it to City of Heroes.

City of Heroes was probably my ideal MMORPG. Costuming was built into your character creation, so you could style everything about your character before you ever stepped into the world. The powersets were interestingly varied, both inside and outside the main divisions. The hero and villain worlds were interestingly varied. The story arcs were interesting. The task forces were amazing, and didn’t suffer from TOR’s problem where people often try to skip the cutscenes to get on with the rest of it if for no other reason than that about the only thing you got out of them was the story that linked the missions together, as the XP gain and quest rewards weren’t overwhelmingly impressive. All it lacked was TOR’s class story arcs — it actually had more area and quest story arcs than TOR does — and it was starting to build something like that at the end with Going Rogue.

I haven’t heard of any MMORPG doing anything as well. To be honest, I also haven’t heard of all that many new MMORPGs starting up either, and so maybe we have hit MMO saturation. There are supposedly a few independent studios trying to do CoH-like games, but only time will tell if any of them will be completed or be any good.

For superhero games, there aren’t that many out there. Champions Online did not seem like my type of game. I actually tried DC Universe Online, and am not interested in it. I own Freedom Force — both in original and in GOG form — but have never really been able to get into it. Replaying the Legends and Ultimate Alliance games are an option that I’ve mused about, and there’s that DC PSP Legends-type game that I keep considering playing. But other than the online Marvel stuff, I don’t even know about decent superhero type games anymore. And City of Heroes, before it died, was one of the best.

Yes, I still miss it …

First Thoughts on Cheers …

October 2, 2017

So, the next half-hour series that I’ve decided to watch is Cheers, which I picked up for a reasonable price assuming that I watched through the entire series at least once. I’m at the beginning of Season 3, and so far I can say that it’s … okay.

As a show, it sometimes has some humour that works, and the characters are — or at least can be — interesting at times. The show is good in that it sets up character and plot points as throw-aways in some episodes that end up paying off later. Unfortunately, many of those plot and character points aren’t all that interesting, and since the previous points were throw-aways it can be hard to remember that they happened when they come up, a problem that would be made worse if you were only watching once a week instead of about a season a week like I do. In essence, it seems like it was in at the beginning of using continuity in shows and even in comedies to make a better show, but later shows have done a much better job incorporating that than it did, so it looks a little hollow today, like an attempt to do things like that but a refusal to commit to doing that. Which, to be fair, is indeed probably what it was.

The show’s main premise is the introduction of the intellectual, cultured and upper-class Diane Chambers into the working-class bar of Cheers, and the clash that produces. This leads to a lot of banter between her and Carla and Sam, and a little with the other patrons, although most of them are more pleasantly disposed towards her than Carla and Sam at least pretend to be. These snarky and sniping interactions — which, of course, persist even when Sam and Diane are dating — work best when Diane gives as good as she gets, which she starts doing after only a couple of episodes, otherwise it can feel like everyone is ganging up on her. And even then Carla’s sniping is so constant that it is often distracting, and so you just want her to shut up and let the episode get one with … whatever it is that it is supposed to be doing.

This is helped along by my finding Diane to be the most sympathetic character in the show, which is a big problem since the reason for that is that Diane seems to be the only character who actually cares about other people and tries to do the right thing most of the time, and is often opposed by the other characters in that. This ends up giving the impression that Diane is actually moral and the others are amoral at best and immoral at worst. Diane, then, is often seen as trying to care about and reach out to the other characters with them at best taking advantage of that and at worst insulting her for that. As an example, at one point Sam forces Diane and Carla to sit together to try to learn to get along, and Carla spins a tale about Sam being the father of one of her children, and Diane is deeply moved and sympathetic and tries to help … and Carla laughs at her behind her back that she believed that story. How can anyone not feel for Diane and be annoyed or even angry at Carla for that?

Ultimately, what the show ends up doing is setting up a divide where Diane is the good and moral person and the rest of the bar are unapologetically immoral much of the time. Sam is set up as her “different worlds” love interest, a womanizer who nevertheless “falls in love” with Diane. If you are going to do that, generally you set the womanizer up as someone who is willing to manipulate women into having sex with them, but at least won’t take advantage of the main heroine when she is vulnerable, so in at least some instances putting feelings over sex. Sam, in the first season, knowingly is at least willing to take advantage of Diane when she is emotionally vulnerable, and while they hint that it’s because he knows of no other way to deal with women that is never brought up again and, in general, is proven false with Carla. As for Carla herself, she has a small subplot where she ends up getting seduced by her ex-husband who gets her pregnant again so she sets out to seduce a socially awkward bar patron and then tries to convince him that he is actually the father of her child, which he does believe at first. She shows no remorse over this and refuses to even tell him until Diane browbeats her into it. When the guy is, understandably, upset and refuses to marry her — remember, they only had a one-night stand and he was only going to marry her because of the child — at which point Sam tries to convince him to marry her anyway for some reason, even going so far as to insist that if the guy doesn’t marry her, Sam will … which Sam clearly never meant to do, since the guy does walk out and he is quite reluctant to do so, even before she lets him off the hook.

How can you consider any of these actions — and therefore these characters — moral?

The problem is that this breaks down the traditional “upper crust vs working class” divide down along moral lines. Diane is our first and most prominent representative of that class, and she seems to genuinely care about other people and generally acts morally all the time, while the representatives of the working class are generally seem as petty and self-interested/self-centered, not willing to think about how their actions will affect other people and, in general, not caring about that either. Many episodes end up with Diane trying to browbeat them into caring about such things. When Coach’s friend dies and Coach finds out — from Sam — that he had slept with Coach’s wife, and at the memorial when all of his other friends confessed the same thing, even though Coach makes an impassioned speech about forgiving failings he gets swept up in the fervor of burning the person’s standie in effigy, and it is Diane singing “Amazing Grace” that calms everyone down at the end. In another incident, Norm is faced with a woman client who is attracted to him soon after reconciling with his wife, and the entire bar pretty much tries to shame him into going for it … except for Diane, who discourages it and is in fact quite disappointed when it looks like Norm was going to go for it. Even on a practical level, why would Norm do that soon after reconciling with his wife and being happier when he was back with her? If this had been done while they were separated, Diane’s objections would have been ridiculous, but it happening soon after they reconciled makes the temptation seem ridiculous. So what we end up with is a false divide between the upper-crust and the working class where the working class ends up on the immoral side, and this is consistently done throughout the first couple of seasons. The upper-crust, represented by Diane, is moral, while the working class is not.

The thing is, the “upper crust vs working class” conflict only really works when their various sensibilities are different, and it isn’t clear which one is inherently better than the other. In general, the working class tend towards the practical, the immediate, the short-term, and the in-group, while the upper-crust tends towards the abstract and the expansive. If the characters are moral, the working class tends towards helping out and supporting their friends in practical ways without worrying about any other main principle than “That’s my friend” while the upper-crust tends towards general principles. The episode where the bar patrons were worried about the bar drawing in more gay people and so becoming a gay bar while Diane was upset at the discrimination is actually not an unreasonable conflict, at least in terms of appealing to the stereotypes of working class vs upper crust. But most of the conflicts — including that one — are only superficially at best about that sort of moral divide, most often coming across as the working class being morally wrong and Diane — and by extension, the upper crust — being morally right. Sure, moral sensibilities have changed but did anyone ever think that sleeping with another woman right after reconciling with your wife or tricking someone into marriage by deliberating seducing them and deceiving them into thinking that your child by another man was theirs morally right? For the most part, pretty much all of these are at least cases where by precedent we should be inclined towards thinking that the people on the working class side are taking the morally wrong side, and they’d need to do much more to make this more morally complicated to avoid that distinction.

When they do create that divide, things work. But even here Diane is presented as more reasonable than they are. In one episode, Diane wants to watch an opera and when the others don’t want to watch it, harangues them over her giving their things a chance but them not giving hers a chance, and they try for about two seconds and switch back. Sure, Diane was an idiot to suggest the entire multi-hour Ring of the Nibelung opera, but they could have at least let her watch it since the framing was that she really wanted to watch it because it was a unique experience. While having one character always being in the right could make you really hate that character, here I, at least, end up liking her to the detriment of the others because she demonstrates good qualities and seems to be always right, and always right in a way that aligns with her character as presented and the others are wrong in a way that aligns with their characters as presented. And that makes me dislike the working class characters.

I’m also not that interested in the relationship between Sam and Diane. I found the case where they get together and then break up at the end of the season problematic, mostly because they need to bring Diane back to the show and to do that they have Sam return to the bottle, which I thought was a bit out of character for him, given how long he had been off the bottle, and that he didn’t need to get drunk to do the womanizing that he had fallen back into. But the problem had to be big enough to convince Diane to come back to a place that she refused to come back to, and so he had to be drunk and, to make that dramatic, she had to have a nervous breakdown. They just didn’t seem that close to me, and Diane didn’t have that problem when her fiance left her without a word leaving her alone and without a job. So it came across as a way to break them up dramatically and then get them back together, which didn’t really work for me.

That being said, the show is still okay. I’ll probably get through it, but I don’t like it as much as I liked “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.

A Disappointment …

September 29, 2017

So, the MLB regular season is just about to end — this is the last weekend — and the team I cheer for — and pretty much the only MLB team that I care about one way or another — the Toronto Blue Jays are not going to be playing games in October after having made the playoffs the past two seasons. More disappointingly, they weren’t ever really close to making the playoffs, even the Wild Card game. And even more disappointingly, they weren’t really close despite the fact that for the longest time being under .500 pretty much put you in the thick of the hunt, and it’s only now, at the end, that both AL Wild Card teams are significantly over .500. The Blue Jays were never over .500 for the entire season.

The thing that struck me the entire season, however, was that despite the lamentations of many Blue Jay fans, the Blue Jays really shouldn’t have been that bad this season. Their most significant loss in the off-season was Edwin Encarnacion, but numbers-wise that wasn’t that significant; Morales and Pierce alongside the great season Justin Smoak had probably made up for that loss. They kept a pretty good rotation and had a decent if somewhat cobbled together bullpen, and had most of the offensive pieces they had last season. While they still had some weaknesses, given the players they had if the ones who had struggled a bit last year recovered and the players that performed well last year just kept it up, they should have been in the hunt for at least a Wild Card berth, even assuming the normal 90’ish wins usually needed to get there.

But Jose Bautista didn’t bounce back, becoming a liability both at the plate and in the field. Tulowitzki and Martin struggled, both with injuries and when they were playing. Steve Pierce struggled with injuries and at the plate/in the field. Donaldson missed significant time with injuries. Aaron Sanchez missed most of the season with blister problems. Devon Travis missed most of the season. Marco Estrada struggled, and there were other injuries in the rotation, requiring a number of fill ins who were, in fact, relatively weak. And the weaknesses were never fixed, and so when the purportedly strong areas faltered, nothing was there to pick up the slack.

The result was a much worse season than the team, on paper, should have had. The Blue Jays were not, on paper, as bad a team as they were for most of the season.

Going into next season, though, it’s hard to conclude that they are a really good team. Sanchez will hopefully be back, but even if he comes back and Estrada regains his form, they don’t even have a fifth starter as reliable as Liriano was (or at least seemed), and that wasn’t saying all that much. Tulowitzki, after a few seasons of sub-standard play, seems like he might be declining sharply and has a contract that you can’t trade. Martin seems to bring the best out of the pitchers he catches for but might not be as strong offensively or with throwing out runners as you might like. Donaldson seems to be recovering from a poor start to the season, and so isn’t a point of concern, but Bautista almost certainly won’t be back next year which means they need a new right fielder … when this season they had issues with and never did find a good left fielder. Their only really reliable outfielder, then, is Kevin Pillar … who is certainly serviceable but is not likely to be an offensive force. It’s probably time to cut bait on Devon Travis, who might be able to provide offensive spark but can’t stay healthy enough to actually contribute. Goins and Barney are serviceable at best but right now one of them would likely have to be a starting infielder … and Barney’s contract is up after this year, I believe. Carrera seems to be able to provide some offensive spark at times, but is a liability in the field. The bullpen is probably okay, but could definitely use improvement.

Maybe they can bring up some younger players and give them a chance, but that’s a risk and many of them — like Hernandez, who did pretty well offensively in his limited playing time as a September call-up — have potential offensive upside but are weaker defensively.

The front office has said that they don’t want to blow it up and start over, but it’s hard to see where they are actually secure and don’t have huge question marks for next season. Of course, they don’t even really have any players that they could generate decent value from if they wanted to blow up the team without getting rid of the young core that they’d want to build around. Unless some of the underperforming players recover or some of the prospects seize the reins, next summer could be another long one for Blue Jays fans.

Outta Touch, Outta Time …

September 27, 2017

So, as I’ve touched on, I’ve been pretty busy lately. And, of course, I’ve been pretty busy before. But this time is a little bit different. This is the first time that I can recall where I actually feel that I have no time. Always before I knew I was busy, but for the most part also felt like I a) still had some time left to do things, even if I decided to rest or take a break instead and b) would have the time to pick things up once work slowed down. But this year I haven’t really felt that.

Part of the issue is that I have not only had a lot of things to do at work and around the house, but I’ve also been trying to do a number of other things. I’ve been trying to get some programming in regularly, as well as some writing, and wanted to put them on a schedule. Which I think is what most led to the issue, because the schedule I put together is, at least technically, rather packed. As I commented, I have budgeted about an hour and a half of TV watching a day, which is what I’ll get if all of the schedule works out the way I plan, with it only being the case that I get more in if I, say, don’t work as late as I generally plan to. That leaves little time to actually watch anything, as it would take me upwards of two months to watch an hour long show. And there are a number of them that I want to watch or watch again. I have a regularly scheduled 3 – 4 hours of video game time a week, which means that it would take me five months to finish a game like Persona 5 if I stuck to the schedule. And I have something like 8 hours for project-type stuff — writing and programming — if I stick to the schedule.

Before, if I wasn’t getting anything done it was because I wasn’t sticking to the schedule. Now, it really looks like I won’t get things done even if I stick to the schedule. And I never stick to the schedule.

And I even tried to slide some other things into other sorts of spare time, like watching DVDs while I’m working weekends which might then let me actually get some of the things I want to watch watched. But there isn’t that much time those days and whether I even go in or not varies, and on top of that if I don’t go into work for a while or don’t want to have that on, then what do I do with that series that I’m watching? The whole point to trying to watch it then is that I don’t have time to watch it otherwise. I’ve thought about doing things like writing or blog posts while compiling, but I find switching between the two to be distracting, and it doesn’t take me that long to compile anymore. I’ve thought about doing stuff like that before leaving work, or even taking an hour around lunch time to read, but if I’m working on something then I don’t want to stop looking at it and if I’m not working on something then I’m usually either waiting for something — and I don’t wait well and so would be distracted by the waiting — or else I’m planning on going home early instead and doing other things. So even when I would have the time to do things there, I wouldn’t and it would be better for me not to do it. So for all of these, I can’t really put anything regular in there, and if I can’t put anything regular in there, then it won’t help me get those things done, and if it won’t help me get those things done, then it isn’t helping me all that much.

And that, I think, is the real key. Always before when I put together a schedule, I could pretty much fit in everything I wanted to do somewhere and get what felt like enough time to do all of them. Sure, I didn’t always or even usually do all of those things, but again it was just a matter of my actually sticking to the schedule or just getting temporarily and unexpectedly busy. But now, that’s not the case, and there are things that I really want to do that I don’t feel that I have the time to do. That makes me feel like I don’t have time anymore.

I guess the key here is to accept my time constraints and either try to be more efficient or else accept that some of the things that I want to do I just won’t be able to do. I’ve already done that for hour long shows (for the most part) and I’ll have to see what else I’ll have to accept not being able to do.

Thoughts on Beast Wars and Beast Machines

September 25, 2017

So, the last segment of my spin through Transformers was the CGI-based series “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines”. For the most part, I think both of these series were definitely hampered by a move to short, 13-episode series from a longer Season 1 of “Beast Wars”, although “Beast Machines” suffered more than “Beast Wars” did.

While the post-movie Transformers cartoon definitely tried to take on more mature and darker topics than the original cartoon, these series went even further, although oddly while they were definitely more serious they weren’t typically darker overall, at least in “Beast Wars”. There was still a huge sense of fun that the post-movie cartoons seemed to lack, and that was also more absent in “Beast Machines”. So ultimately it started down a path of having more detailed and involved plots and characterizations and character arcs, which worked really well. And they both tended to not only have these be more detailed, but also to have more of them, and to have them all going on at the same time, which allowed for them to advance multiple arcs in the same episode while the overall episode focused on one of them or, at times, none of them.

The thing is that if you’re going to do that many involved and detailed arcs all going on at the same time, you really need the time to develop them all. In the first season of “Beast Wars”, there were enough episodes and few enough arcs that this could be done. But when the seasons shortened to 13 episodes, there wasn’t enough time to develop them all and still develop and resolve the main plot for the season. Season 2 of “Beast Wars” didn’t suffer from this as much, because it could utilize what was developed in the first season. But the third season struggled a lot more with this, ending up with a number of arcs that seemed rushed — Tigerhawk, for example, resolves the Tigertron/Air Razer kidnapping plotline by his showing up to fulfill some kind of prophecy in one episode and then dying the next — which really hurt those arcs. The Dinobot clone is another example. After the wonderfully done death of Dinobot earlier, this whole arc would have to be handled carefully, but it could have been done, especially given its ending. But the clone wasn’t properly developed and there wasn’t room to really go into detail with it, so instead the whole thing seems less than monumental. At least it didn’t feel like it ruined that original wonderful arc, but it certainly was far less than it could have been and seemed almost superfluous.

“Beast Machines”, however, suffers the most from this. For the most part, this series can’t utilize what happened in “Beast Wars” because it’s a new series, back on Cybertron. It also has a mystery to resolve and a clash between the organic and technological to resolve, as well as a number of character arcs. And it has to do it in … 26 episodes. It fails to do that, and in so doing makes many of the arcs seem rushed and, ultimately, unsatisfying, as well as a bit confusing. For example, the arc of Tankor really being Rhinox and then setting out to trick Megatron and Optimus Primal into destroying each other and the organics that Optimus was protecting or trying to revive is a good one … that is hampered by there not being time to show Rhinox developing his hatred of organics or, in fact, actually explaining it, and then Rhinox is defeated after only a few short episodes, which then loses the series an interesting antagonist. And then his redemption arc takes place in a short scene in the first episode of the next season. At that point, the arc really seems like a waste.

And this happened to so many arcs, even ones that carried on throughout both seasons. Black Arachnia’s attempts to restore Silverbolt and, once that happened, having to deal with his guilt and cynicism. Cheetor’s development into a more mature leader. Optimus’ growing obsession and mysticism. They even manage a late romance for Rattrap … started and resolved in the last couple of episodes and that ties too conveniently into the plot of the last few episodes. These ideas were all good and could have been great … but they simply weren’t developed enough and so in general come across a bit flat.

“Beast Wars”, though, is still a pretty good series, especially in the first season to season and a half. “Beast Machines”, though, is merely okay and a lot of that comes from it being a continuation from characters that we already know and like. It was worth watching, though.