Why So Much “Pop”?

April 24, 2015

So, with this week having two “Philosophy in Popular Culture” posts, it seems like a good time to talk about those posts again. In particular, you may have noticed that they’ve been coming up a lot more regularly than they used to, when I’d go for months without making one but now one is showing up sometimes once a week, or every couple of weeks, or even two in a week or even, shockingly, two in a row. Of any series of posts that I’ve ever talked about doing, they’ve suddenly become by far the most popular, and the most popular tag of mine — oh, sweet tag o’ mine — in recent weeks. Why is that?

Well, you might think that it’s because I’ve put a big push on doing them, and am making it a priority to do them. That isn’t quite true. Sure, it is a goal of mine to get through them, but it isn’t overall as important to me as other things are, things that don’t show up as often (like Sophisticated Theology or commenting on Sarkeesian). So no, it’s not really that; I like doing them and feel good about getting them out, but am not really focusing on, in fact, getting them out. They’re just naturally falling into place in a way that other posts aren’t.

The main reason for this is the blog posting schedule and my general work schedule and my schedule for life in general. I’m in a relatively busy time of my life now for various reasons, which is why I went to the Mon-Wed-Fri posting schedule. As I’ve commented before, the new schedule takes the pressure off of me in a way that lets me, unfortunately, procrastinate a bit more on my posts, since I don’t need to have as many out in a week as I used to when I was posting daily. So, not only is it the case that if I have posts for Monday and Wednesday on the weekend I don’t feel the need to write more posts, I also note that if I can get posts for Monday and Wednesday on the weekend then I’m set and can stop thinking about it. So when I’m busy or into a game or something, I look for quick posts just to get far enough ahead to not have to worry about my posts for the week. And the Philosophy in Popular Culture series is perfect for this for a few reasons:

1) They require limited prep time; I can read one of those essays in about a half-hour.

2) They can easily be prepped in advance; after reading it once only a quick skimming is required to remember what they said and what I wanted to say about them.

3) They’re easy to write; I don’t have to worry too much about quotes, and the posts tend to be relatively short. I can write one of those posts in a half-hour to an hour easily.

4) In spite of how easy they are to write, they aren’t fluff pieces. They talk about interesting philosophical ideas and aren’t just comments on cats or dogs or just a link to someone else’s funny post. Sometimes the ideas can be repetitive, but they are philosophical examinations and even the repetitive cases tend to be different examples for things that I like to talk about.

Thus, they fit incredibly neatly into my schedule. I never have to worry about breaking one of those into parts or writing about it in stops and starts because it’ll take too long, and they’re something that I want to write and that I think say interesting things. So, because of that, they’re likely to have a good long run for a while. So if you like them, you’ll be happy. If not … I’ll try to do some other posts, too.

“My Name is Peter Parker”

April 22, 2015

The third essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “‘My Name is Peter Parker'” by … hey, it’s Mark D. White again! I swear this was not planned [grin].

Anyway, this essay is an examination of the conflict between the right and the good, examined in the light of Spider-man’s decision in “Civil War” to unmask. White says that Parker first decides to unmask primarily on consideration of the deontological notion of right: Peter feels that he has a duty to support Stark because of what Stark has done for him, and also due to Aunt May’s argument that he has a duty to be true to himself and to acknowledge and act as the person he truly is. This is in sharp contrast to the reason he was so protective of his identity in the first place, which is over the consequences, particularly the consequences to his loved ones. As he says earlier in the series to Susan Storm, it’s fine for the Fantastic Four to reveal their identities, but he risks his family and loved ones — who are not superheroes and so are relatively unprotected — being used by his enemies against him and killed because of that. And he knows this because it’s happened to him before, with Gwen Stacey.

Hence, the clash between the right and the good, between what is objectively the right thing to do and what has the best consequences. It can be argued that Spider-man switches from the deontological idea of the right to the consequentialist view of the good during the series, but considering what the pro-registration side is doing it can easily be argued that he merely switches to a new form of right; it is no longer right for him to support the pro-reg side, even though that will have very bad consequences for him personally. When he makes the deal with Mephisto during “One More Day”, that can be said to be him sacrificing the right for the good … except that the consequences aren’t clearly better either. That is probably best viewed as Peter having a moment of weakness and grasping at a straw instead of doing the right thing, and accepting the way life is.

Can we ever really have a true clash between the right and the good? For consequentialists, we can’t, because the morally right thing to do is always the consequentialist good. For deontologists, again it isn’t an issue because the obvious answer for a moral person is to choose the right and ignore the so-called good. It’s only when we have a clash between people from opposing viewpoints — say, Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War — that they can come into meaningful conflict. Internally, everyone with any consistent moral viewpoint will have their answer … even if they don’t like it.

Is Suicide Always Immoral?

April 20, 2015

The next essay in “X-men and Philosophy” is “Is Suicide Always Immoral?” by Mark D. White. In it, he examines the question of if suicide can be moral or if it is always immoral, by mostly referencing Jean Grey’s sacrifice when she became Dark Phoenix. He examines the three main ethical views — consequentialism/Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, and Kantian deonotological ethics and concludes that … Kant’s view is the one that best justifies Jean’s suicide?

The question mark is there because the heart of Kant’s view, used here, is that no one should be treated merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. This includes yourself, which is why Kant had issues with things like masturbation, as it uses you as a means to an end — pleasure — and not as an end in itself. Thus, sacrificing your life for the lives of others — no matter how many — seems to be treating yourself as a means to that outcome and not as an end in itself, and so is at least suspect if not verbotten. Consequentialists can take that way out simply by arguing on the basis of the overall consequences, but Kantians can’t. Of course, White considers consequentialism and dismisses it because of how difficult it can be to determine overall happiness. Which is a fair criticism of consequentialism, but doesn’t really apply here: we can easily decide that the sacrifice of one life is not going to outweigh the loss of billions here, so that objection doesn’t seem to apply to Jean’s case. Jean’s case seems to not only justify her sacrificing herself in this case, but also, say, Wolverine just up and killing her even if she doesn’t want to die … which is the real problem with Utilitarian views in these cases, and a more relevant comparison point to deontological or Virtue Ethical views.

So, in order to work around the “never just a means to an end” restriction, White essentially has to argue that in Jean’s case she would be forced to do something gravely immoral by Kantian standards, or would become someone who would do gravely immoral things, and so in that case her suicide is not using herself as a means even to her own ends, but is instead used as a way to stop herself from acting immorally, which is her duty as a moral person. This, however, seems to be a bit problematic. Is it really acceptable to say in Kantian morality that if someone, say, takes over your mind and is going to force you to do something immoral and you gain one second of freedom, you should kill yourself to stop yourself from acting immorally? Even if you might be free or in control later? Aren’t you still being used as a means there, a means to the end of Kantian morality, and not as an end in yourself? I concede that you might be able to make it work under Kantian ethics, but I don’t think it’s exactly an easy ride.

I think that the view that best justifies the idea that Jean Grey might be moral for choosing suicide in that case without also easily justifying Cyclops or Wolverine out-and-out killing her is, in fact, Virtue Ethics, and specifically Stoicism. White dismisses Virtue Ethics by concluding that it, in general, would consider suicide wrong because it wouldn’t contribute to any kind of life at all, so it couldn’t contribute to having a fulfilling life. As I’ve talked about before, though, the Stoics considered life to be an indifferent, and in general “fulfilling life” didn’t not mean that virtue would not demand that you sacrifice yours. Courage on the battlefield, for example, came with the understood price of your life, and in fact sacrificing your life for others was often the epitome of courage. However, Virtue Ethical theories — even Stoicism — insist that you not spend your life frivilously, when you don’t have to. You only sacrifice your life when it conflicts with virtue, and when the only way to avoid acting viciously is, in fact, to kill yourself.

So right there, Virtue Ethics gets to White’s Kantian endpoint easily, far easier than White does using Kant. It even sidesteps the issue of what happens if later you might reassert control, because you are judged on this action, not on potential future benefits. Stoicism’s strong insistence that life is an indifferent just makes this even more clear, and it would stop Cyclops and Wolverine from killing her because they are not responsible for her immoral actions, and so if killing her is not an act of virtue — and it might not be — then they are not allowed to do it morally. The only wrinkle is that if Jean is only doing it because she’s under the control of the Phoenix Force, then she’s not responsible for the actions that it takes either, and so doesn’t have any need to kill herself to control its behaviour; she has no moral obligation for actions performed by other entities, even if they’re in her body. So the question would be how much of the action is Jean and how much is the Phoenix Force. But choosing to sacrifice herself to avoid that much suffering would never be an immoral act, even if it wouldn’t be morally obligated.

So, I think White dismisses the other views too quickly here. The essay would have been an interesting examination of how Kantian ethics could handle such a situation if he hadn’t tried to say that Kantian ethics would handle it better, but instead had examined the full issues and benefits of a Kantian approach to the question. As it is, he looks like he’s dismissing the other views too easily in favour of his preferred view … when those views might arguably have a better answer than his.

End of the Dragon Age

April 17, 2015

So, over this past weekend, I finished another game. I managed to get through Dragon Age: Origins, finally finishing it after two tries with my second character, a rogue/dualist city elf who was a bit bitter and selfish but who became a better person due to her love for Leiliana. Seriously, she had to act a lot better than she would have with Leiliana telling her to be nice a lot of the time, and since I wanted the relationship to come off I had to avoid doing things she didn’t like, and so generally acted nicer a lot of the time … although she could still be snarky at times.

For the ending, I decided not to go with Morrigan’s ritual, and so she left. I had arranged for Alastair to marry Anora, but then let him kill her father, so that killed that (no pun intended). So I let him sacrifice himself at the end instead of myself (she’s still a little selfish). I then left to travel with Leiliana for a while.

Coming back to this game after ME2 made me hate the combat more than I did before … and I was not fond of the combat. In DAO, the combat was often far too chaotic for my tastes and there was just too much of it. I waded in and hit things and often had no idea what I was hitting or if my abilities were kicking off at all, or even who I was hitting. Thus, I died a lot, and picked up injuries, and never had enough kits, until the end. Of course, I found out later that going back to camp fixed injuries, which might have helped at the end there.

The world was interesting, but it was often hard to figure out where all the quests were and how to get there, and it was too easy to miss things. I also hated how they tried to be edgy in parts, especially the blood splatters that you picked up in combat that stayed with you during interactions. It was just annoying. But, overall, I’m glad to have finished it.

Since I don’t own any of the sequels, that leaves a spot in my rotation, which I will fill with: Arcanum, which I just bought from Good Old Games.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 1

April 15, 2015

So, it’s that time of year again, when the NHL starts their playoffs and I try to predict who will win what series. This is actually fairly tough to do, because it seems that in today’s NHL upsets are common-place, so much so that you have to start to wonder if picking the underdogs is now the equivalent of picking the favourite, especially since so many of those underdogs come into the playoffs after fighting hard to get there and having to have everything go well and having to go on a roll to get there, meaning that the increased level of play that the playoffs produce is just another day to them.

Anyway, here are my predictions for the first round, starting in the East:

Eastern Conference

Montreal vs Ottawa: I think this series will be decided in Game 1. If Ottawa wins that game, they’ll probably ride that momentum to a series win. If they lose a close one, they still might be able to ride the confidence they gained during their improbable run to win the series. But if Montreal manages to burst their bubble, they’ll collapse and Montreal will take it easily. So will that happen? Montreal has a strong team, and Carey Price has had a great season. Ottawa, however, has a team that has been playing really, really well over the past few months. If they can ignore the pressure, and Hammond can keep playing the way he has been when facing a team that is going to analyze his tendencies to death, they can win the series. You could wonder if they’ll run out of gas, but they’re a very young team so fatigue isn’t as big an issue. Montreal has the edge in playoff experience, however.

This one will be a close one, but I’m going to go with Ottawa.

Prediction: Ottawa

Tampa Bay vs Detroit: I don’t ever want to count Detroit out, because they’re a team that tends to make it into the playoffs and do things in the playoffs even when they really shouldn’t. That being said, Tampa Bay has a strong team this year and as far as I know isn’t starting with any critical injuries, and come in on a roll. This one might go the distance, but I think in the end Tampa’s talent will win the day.

Prediction: Tampa Bay

Rangers vs Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh comes in after limping into the playoffs, and with major injuries, especially on their blue line. The Rangers are the President Trophy winners, a very skilled team, and Lundqvist is back and seems to be playing well. For Pittsburgh to win this, Fleury would have to stand on his head and steal the series with Lundqvist being at most human. That won’t happen.

Prediction: Rangers

Washington vs Islanders: This series pits two Hart Trophy candidates against each other, Ovechkin and Tavares. The teams are even in points and even in talent, so this should be a close series. That being said, the Islanders slumped their way into the playoffs and Halak has seemed shaky whenever I’ve watched him play lately, and so while he has more experience Holtby is playing better at the moment. Everything else being a wash, I give it to Washington.

Prediction: Washington

Western Conference

St. Louis vs Minnesota: I don’t think that St. Louis has any big injuries, and they had a great season. Minnesota is a good team and can force the upset, but I don’t think they’re playing any better than St. Louis is right now. So I’ll give this one to St. Louis.

Prediction: St. Louis

Nashville vs Chicago: The teams are close in points, but Chicago has a lot more playoff experience than Nashville does. Nashville pretty much only has home ice advantage working for them, and I don’t think it will be enough.

Prediction: Chicago

Anaheim vs Winnipeg: All through the panel discussion during the Senators game yesterday, people kept saying how they felt that Anaheim, for all of their points and success, was vulnerable. Winnipeg will get a massive boost just from making it into the playoffs for the first time, and that’s always dangerous. Anaheim will have more pressure due to expectations on them and Winnipeg has nothing to lose. This is probably a mistake, but I’ll go with the emotional boost on this one.

Prediction: Winnipeg

Vancouver vs Calgary: Vancouver has the weight of expectations on them with a team that hasn’t performed that well this season, including its top stars. Calgary has been overcoming massive adversity the whole season, and as the panel commented everyone thought that they were just going to go away, and they never did. Let me predict them to not go away this round either, playing against a team that isn’t that much better than they are.

Prediction: Calgary

Summary

Eastern Conference

Montreal vs Ottawa
Tampa Bay vs Detroit
Rangers vs Pittsburgh
Washington vs Islanders

Western Conference

St. Louis vs Minnesota
Nashville vs Chicago
Anaheim vs Winnipeg
Vancouver vs Calgary

What Price Atonement?

April 13, 2015

It seems that I for some reason skipped the second essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy”, entitled “What Price Atonement?” by Taneli Kukkonen. Either I didn’t think it was interesting on my first read or just completely missed it and skipped over it. I’m thinking it was the latter, because on reading it the essay does have some very interesting things to say, and in particular raises an interesting theological point that I’d like to talk a bit about. So, what will happen is that I’ll do that one here, then do the regular X-Men and Philosophy essay, and then do the third Spider-man essay.

First, on to this one. The interesting theological point made is about Anselm’s view of infinite debt, which addresses our relation to Original Sin, sin, and ultimately the crucifixion. The idea is generally this: through Original Sin or through sin, we’ve accrued a debt to God that we need to repay. But repaying that debt implies that we give more to the person than we are required to in order to balance the debt we owe them. However, when it comes to God there isn’t anything that we can do that is over and above what we are required to do simply as our normal due to God. Therefore, we can never repay this debt through actions, because all we can do is give God what He is due; we cannot give Him more than His due. Thus, we have an infinite, undischargeable debt to God that we can never repay.

To use the Spider-man example, one of the main reasons Peter Parker becomes a superhero is to repay his debt to Uncle Ben. So he sets out to stop criminals to make up for not stopping the criminal who killed his uncle. But as his uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. Since Peter Parker has great power, and the power to stop these criminals, he also has the responsibility to stop these criminals. So when he stops these criminals, he is just doing what he is already obligated to do, regardless of any debt he might owe to Uncle Ben. Thus, doing that can’t in any way free him from his debt to Uncle Ben, because he’s only doing what he is obligated to do, and to repay Uncle Ben he has to go beyond his obligations. Thus, stopping criminals will never free him from his debt to Uncle Ben.

Anselm uses this to argue for the necessity of the crucifixion. The only being who could give God more than God is due is, well, God Himself. Thus, God becomes Man in Jesus, and then sacrifices Himself to repay our debt. However, Kukkonen points out that all this does is drive us deeper in debt, because now we not only have to pay the debt of sin or Original Sin, but also our debt to Jesus for the sacrifice he made. If forgiveness is predicated on repayment, we can never repay our debt … and so can never be forgiven.

Which, I think, highlights a problem with the “restitutional” idea of forgiveness. Kukkonen notes that Kierkegaard said that doing something above and beyond the call of duty for someone and saying that you have thereby paid off your debt seems cold, like a strict balance sheet calculation. People who are properly loving shouldn’t see the world that way. When it comes to forgiveness, it also doesn’t make sense to forgive someone for or only after they manage to repay some sort of accrued debt, like someone paying off a bank loan. Forgiveness should be granted on the basis of a genuine desire to be forgiven, and a genuine understanding that they need forgiveness for what they did. If that is present, then what need for repayment is there? Someone who is genuinely loving and genuinely good and genuinely sees that what they did was wrong should just naturally want to try to make up for the harm they caused if they can. If they can’t, then that shouldn’t mean that they can’t be forgiven. If someone accidentally breaks something of mine that’s irreplaceable and had massive value to me — like my copy of Persona 3 FES — if I’m convinced that they didn’t mean it and know that what they did was wrong and genuinely want forgiveness, why shouldn’t I forgive them? It just seems petty and cruel to refuse to forgive them under those conditions just because they can’t “make it up to me”.

I think this idea carries on to Kukkonen’s discussion of obligations, and the choices that Peter Parker has to make. When he chooses to help someone, or stop a crime, he often ends up having to break certain obligations to other people, from things as simple to seeing their play to as big as not stopping them from getting beat up. Since he can’t do all of those things at once, he ends up having to choose which obligations to keep and which to break. Under the debt model of forgiveness, this means that no matter what he does in those situations, he ends up accruing a debt to someone. Thus, no matter what he does, his debt goes up and up; he always owes somebody something, and the only benefit that he gets from the choice he makes is that he accrues the lesser debt by breaking the debt than by letting someone die. But under the model I propose, this isn’t the case. Peter Parker is obligated to fulfill the responsibilities that he can fulfill, and to fulfill the greatest responsibility he has at that moment. Doing that, he doesn’t accrue any debt to anyone else. He might make people mad at him, and so have to work to get back into their good graces, or to convince them that he can be responsible, but while he may have to apologize, he doesn’t really have to repay them. If they could understand the choice that he had to make, and that his choice was in line with what was his greatest responsibility then there would be nothing to forgive. As it is, if he can convince them that he is sorry that he had to leave them in the lurch they should forgive him even if he can’t make it right.

For me, the kind of forgiveness that God gives us is not the restitutional kind of forgiveness, dependent on us doing an appropriate penance or repayment that we can make to him, but is instead a forgiveness based on how genuinely we desire it and how we understand that we do need forgiveness for what we’ve done. Any penance or act of restitution made to others is just a natural demonstration of that; if we were unwilling to do those things, then we don’t really see that what we did was wrong and thus don’t really want to be forgiven for it. Thus, when people comment about how unfair it is that some serial killer could adopt religion and be forgiven for that and thus get into heaven without doing extra penance, they misunderstand forgiveness. The whole point of penance and/or punishment is to get people to see that what they did was wrong, and neither are actually very good at doing that. If a serial killer really did come to see that what they did was wrong and genuinely wanted to make up for it, even though they couldn’t, it would be cold, cruel and heartless of God to deny them forgiveness or to punish them anyway. Sure, they can’t make up for their crimes … but as Anselm points out, neither can we. A model of forgiveness where we are forgiven not based on repaying our debts but based on us actually learning our lesson is a better model all around, I think.

Sarkeesian on Positive Female Characters

April 10, 2015

So, one of the things that I’ve been constantly pushing for from those criticizing the state of video games and particularly the portrayal of women in them are examples of good portrayals and games, for them to both talk up the games that do it right in their view and to outline what it is they want to see. Anita Sarkeesian has just done that, and hints that this is just the first video in an ongoing series on the topic. This is good. This is very good, in fact. I strongly support her doing this.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to criticize her choice, and here there seems to be a lot to, in fact, criticize.

Her first choice is the Scythian from the game “Sword & Sworcery”. As far as I can tell — and, as usual, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the video yourself to see if you agree — the main reasons she thinks that this is a positive female character are:

1) The character is barely recognizable as a woman.

2) The character is barely recognizable as a character.

3) The character sacrifices herself at the end of the game (it’s part and parcel of the game mechanics).

Now, this summary is a little thin and not quite fair, because she does give reasons for each of those, which I’ll get into in a moment. But I want to take a step back and examine this outside of Sarkeesian’s general analysis, because her reasons do seem to follow from her own analysis and the requirements it entails. And stepping outside of things that she doesn’t like, my first blush reaction is to say that if a character is going to be a positive female character, it should be obvious from the start that the character is female. You shouldn’t be able to consider the character a male character for most of the game for it to make the list. The game could make the list if it subverts this properly — ie puts a female character in a male character role and deliberately doesn’t make it obvious that the character is female only to pull the rug out from under you at the end — but it’s hard to say that the character is a good representation of female characters if for most of the game the player thinks that they’re a male character, in my opinion. But I also think that to get the stamp of approval as a positive female character that they indeed have to be a character, and not just something that you impose your own traits on. When I originally did my list of top ten best female characters, my original comment on it was that I couldn’t do a similar list for male characters because they weren’t really characters, but were instead shells that you impose a personality on. I wouldn’t consider my create Baldur’s Gate characters great characters, or at least not in a way that I assign to the game itself, because all of that characterization comes from me, and not from the game itself. The Scythian has a bit more of a personality than that, but Sarkeesian is explicit that she is the blank slate that players project on, which means that she’s promoting the idea of a positive female character that is mainly what you want her to be.

So, what are Sarkeesian’s reasons? While she does make at least some of them explicit, I think we need to look at her overall assessment to really understand what she’s looking for:

When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

What I think she’s trying to do is get a female character into a traditionally male role without making the game about the main character being a woman. Essentially, the idea is to have the game work out in precisely the same way that it would with a male protagonist, except that it just happens to be a woman who is the lead instead of a man. When you tie this in with her own stated views, I think things become clear. The first point is to avoid “Ms. Male Character”, making the main character act just like a male character but adding some feminine fashion just to make it clear that the character is a woman. This is important, because the thrust here seems to minimize the impact the main character being a woman has on the game. The second point is to both facilitate it being no different than if the character was a man — and defining a character might well introduce differences — and to force players to “get inside the head”, as it were, of a female protagonist. The third point is to highlight that this is a woman with agency, and that her death is done due to her own choices and not just to service the plot of a male character.

The problem is that it seems to me that the way this was done impedes what she wants to see in a game. And to see that, we can look at my choice for a positive female protagonist, Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Frame. I explicitly reject what I think is Sarkeesian’s main push there: what makes Miku such a positive female protagonist is precisely because she isn’t just a female character stuffed into a male character’s shell/story, but that the game is different in ways that work better for a female character (for example, not relying on strength-based weaponry). Ultimately, we know from the start that Miku is a female character, and yet the game still doesn’t really play out any differently than it would with a male protagonist, highlighted by the fact that you start with Mafuyu and switch to Miku and the mechanics don’t change. If Sarkeesian wants players to empathize with women’s stories, then it has to be clear from the start that this story is a woman’s story, and ideally there would be things in it that are particular to it being a woman’s story, things that you wouldn’t get in a story from the perspective of a man. For example, while Sarkeesian might rightly see sexual assault threats in a game as being there for fanservice, the threat of sexual assault is something that women face and fear that men don’t (for the feminist argument for this, see “Shroedinger’s Rapist”). If a game can convey that threat from the perspective of the female main character such that even those who don’t face that normally can empathize and therefore feel and understand that fear, that seems to me to be the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants: player empathizing with the woman’s perspective as women are expected to empathize with the man’s perspective normally. If all you do is stuff a woman into the precise same role as a man and nothing changes, all you’ve done is essentially put a female character into a man’s story, which does not seem to be what she’d want.

You can counter that the idea that the traditional heroic story is a man’s story is precisely the problem; women are just as heroic as men are. Which I concede, and is implied by my discussion of Fatal Frame and noting that the game doesn’t really change just because the main character is female. But to argue this, I think, undercuts a lot of the general criticisms of games that Sarkeesian makes, because it assumes that, in general, the stories in games are not tailored to a male audience and the male perspective, and that the only difference that matters is the gender of the character itself. In short, you have to argue that the games and characters themselves are mostly gender-neutral, and it’s only the gender of the main character that’s the issue. This would make most of her examinations pointless and explicitly refute about half of “Ms. Male Character”, so that’s probably not what you’d want to argue there.

So, if Sarkeesian wants female characters put into the same roles as male characters, it seems that she’d want them to be characters and to be readily identifiable as female characters from the start, so that players are forced to treat a female character in at least roughly the same way from the start. Also, if the game can indeed subtly shift the perspective somewhat so that players actually get to experience the perspective of a female character that’s definitely a bonus. Unless Sarkeesian wants to argue that the focus on the natural beauty of the world and not on combat and killing reflects that — which would be as much and as bad a sexist stereotype as the ones she criticizes — “Sword & Sworcery” doesn’t do that, which means that the Scythian does not seem to be a very good example of a positive female character.

Of course, Sarkeesian just be just overjoyed to have a female lead in this sort of epic, heroic tale at all. At which point, my only reply is that she seems to be easily impressed.

Mass Completion …

April 8, 2015

So, I did, in fact, manage to finish Mass Effect 2, this past Friday. I didn’t manage to get the romance with Chambers, probably because I had the romance with Liara from Mass Effect and never ended that one. But that wasn’t that important to me anyway, so I didn’t mind it.

The final battle, on Casual, wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a harder time with the last loyalty missions and the IFF mission, mostly because my teammates weren’t all that great at covering me and I had issues with some of the enemies. In fact, I had a harder time with the lead-up missions than with the final battle, even though the final battle took me a long time because I was never sure how to target the final boss and so ended up taking some damage from it before hiding to recharge and then having it run away/fall down for a while. Finally I managed to hit it enough with the Collector gun to take it out.

I continued after the end, but couldn’t even really muster the effort to talk to my crew members. I certainly had no desire to keep exploring the galaxy, considering how boring that process generally was. I might have aimed to get the level 30 trophy, but again I was just too bored with the exploration part of the game to bother. This is in sharp contrast to the first game where I found the planet exploration to be more interesting than most of the missions. It’s a crime how badly they screwed that up in ME2.

Some of Thane’s personal stories were interesting, but for the most part I still liked Mordin and Miranda the best. I wish that Miranda would have talked more, since there were more aspects of her personality that I wanted to find out about. Overall, the other characters were somewhat interesting but not enough to keep pushing them after beating the game.

I don’t regret playing and beating this game, but I did like Mass Effect a lot better.

Mass Effect 3 will take its place in the rotation, which was an obvious choice. I’m also almost at the end of Dragon Age: Origins, and so it might be a bit more of a challenge to find a replacement for it once I finish it.

‘Humans Smile With So Little Provocation’

April 6, 2015

Skipping over the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy”, the next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is “Humans Smile With So Little Provocation” by Harald Thorsrud, an examination of the opposing views on emotion between Data and Spock, with Data not having any emotion but wishing he had it and striving to attain it, while Spock has emotion but is striving to eliminate it like all good Vulcans. This provides excellent fodder for the philosophical discussion of emotion, and Thorsrud does an excellent job comparing fairly and accurately Aristotle and the Stoics, although Thorsrud does seem to come down, at the end of the essay, on the side of emotion. What’s most impressive about it is that Thorsrud doesn’t stuff either view into the extreme view of either that emotions are good and we should have, experience, and rely on them all or that emotions are all bad and we have to get rid of them completely, which is something that would follow from the views of the two main characters in the debate. Instead, Thorsrud notes that Aristotle wanted to moderate the emotions and that some emotions are not worth moderating, and that the Stoics did think that even the Stoic sage will still feel emotions but won’t rely on their judgement and won’t allow them to overly influence their behaviour. So the Aristolean is not going to be someone driven by emotion unencumbered by rational thought, and the Stoic sage is not going to be someone totally unaffected by the world and unconcerned with it.

Now, I come down on the Stoic side, and the reason is that for many emotions, even emotions that we see as positive or as potentially useful, moderation of them is really, really difficult to do. This is because, and Jesse Prinz notes, the general purpose and structure of emotions is that they assess and make judgements about the world. When you get angry, it’s not just the case that you are having a reaction to a stimulus from the world. The anger itself is a judgement about how the world is, usually that it is being unfair to you. Love, betrayal, happiness, sadness, fear, guilt … all of these are the result of a judgement of the world and your place in it. And as these judgements tend to be lightning fast, emotions would be great ways to come to these sorts of judgements … if they weren’t so often massively and dangerously wrong. Additionally, emotions don’t just make judgements, they also suggest and prime us for actions that we can take in response to that judgement; emotions usually include suggestions for what we ought to do next. Unfortunately, a lot of those suggestions are crude and best and terribly wrong at worst.

So emotions make judgements about our condition and bias us towards certain responses, but those judgements and biases are often wrong. Thus, if we want to react properly to the world, we would have to subject every single emotional reaction to the scrutiny of reason to make sure that it is actually judging and advocating correctly in this case. But since emotion tends to bias us, just its presence will bias even our reasoning towards its conclusions. We will always tend towards rationalization of our emotional reactions instead of reasoning properly about them, which means that even when we’re wrong we’ll be more likely to conclude that the emotion really is right. Thus, we want to minimize that sort of rationalization … but the only way to limit it is to eliminate the emotional reaction, either by not having it kick off in those cases, or by calming ourselves down after it does kick off.

I believe there are two broad cases where emotion can be useful in making judgements instead of detrimental:

1) Emotions whose default reaction is “Stop and think”. A vague sense of unease is a great example, as that simply makes you stop and look around at your environment to see what might be the problem. Even here, though, there’s a risk that you’ll find something just to find something, but at least it makes you think about it and doesn’t just push you to action.

2) Emotions that kick off reflexive reactions in cases where you have to react quickly. It’s harder to find cases like this, but the speed of judgement and reaction that comes from emotion can be useful for, say, jumping out of the way of speeding objects. But to be effective, all of these have to be conditioned to the rational response, and ones that are keyed to irrational responses have to be culled.

But we shouldn’t need emotions for anything else. We shouldn’t need to get angry at an injustice to see that it is one and that it must be corrected. We shouldn’t need to feel guilt to note that we did something wrong and need to make amends. We shouldn’t need to know what the other people are feeling in order to know that we shouldn’t do bad things to them, or to decide what a bad thing to do to them would be. If emotions are making judgements that are rational, then rationality should lead us to the same judgements. And if emotions are making irrational judgements, why in the world would we want to accept them?

Thoughts on Mass Effect 2 …

April 3, 2015

So, I’ve recently been playing Mass Effect 2 as part of my regular rotation. I played and finished Mass Effect a while ago, and then started playing Mass Effect 2 for what was the second time (I started the PC version of it briefly on the recommendation of a friend and got through the first mission before dropping it). The second time was right after my play of ME1 with my ex-pat of Helena Cain, and comparing it to ME1 I found ME2 to be very, very lacking. I found the planet explorations missions with the vehicle probably as annoying as anyone, but they had a lot more charm to them compared to ME2’s “probe” missions, especially since probes and fuel cost you money that you may not have had early in the game, and so it actually discouraged planet exploration, whereas in the first game I explored every single planet. I also disliked the change from the heat mechanism back to a more standard ammo mechanism for your guns, because I am not particularly good at FPS-style gameplay and the heat mechanism made misses much less of an issue. So I played it for a bit, and got Mordin, Garrus and Kasumi, at least … and then stopped playing it.

This time, the most relevant comparable game was Dragon Age: Origins. ME2’s combat is slightly easier than Dragon Age’s because of the cover mechanism and the ability to fight more from a distance without needing to have an explicit tank, although I definitely died more in Mass Effect 2. But that’s mostly because ME2 is definitely more chaotically combat-oriented than Dragon Age is; all the missions are essentially a bunch of waves of combat, with lots of enemies and often less time in-between them. I think, anyway. So, given that, I found ME2 a bit more fun than Dragon Age was, although that might be because I had more recruitment missions to do, and recruitment missions are a little shorter than the areas in Dragon Age usually are, so you get a reward for your annoying combat faster, and so get a sense of accomplishment. Note that I always play the game on “Casual”, so you can laugh over my lack of ability if you want.

Planet exploration still isn’t a lot of fun. If you don’t find a mission on a planet, launching probes is boring, mechanical work that pays off and is something that you have to do. When you don’t have a lot of money and don’t have probe and fuel capacity, you have to be careful about how you mine to maximize your gains without driving yourself into bankruptcy (although, as it turns out, running out of fuel only takes away some of your resources, according to the handy tip that was displayed once) and when you have a lot of money it’s still boring as heck. There is little reason to explore the galaxy, and so I certainly won’t be exploring all the planets again like I did in the first game.

I like that some of the choices that you made in the first game carry over to the second and are mentioned. It does help make it seem like a continuing story. For my character, this includes the romance with Liara, even though in the second game she’s going after Chambers.

I wish that there were more general missions that aren’t loyalty missions, like the missions that you get in your personal messages. Those encouraged both exploration of other parts of the galaxy and picking up resources while you’re there. But I mostly ran out of them in the second act, and so was just ensuring all of the loyalty of my crew, which served the same purpose … but I wanted more.

One big issue with the game is indeed the missions. Most of the missions are disturbingly similar: go out and kill a lot of things and get a reward at the end. Since the combat isn’t particularly interesting, this gets very boring after a while. But when they tried to mix up the missions — Thane’s, for example, being a following mission — you ended up having to learn new mechanics that you’d never seen before too quickly, which got frustrating. So when they did the standard, you likely knew how to handle it but it was more of the same, but when they tried to do new things, you didn’t know how to handle it and so ended up restarting and reloading a lot if you wanted to finish it properly. It’s pretty much the story and the characters that made me keep playing this, and again fortunately the missions tended to be short.

I like the characters, although because of the link to the loyalty system I think I interact with them less. Most of them didn’t want to interact with me too much until I passed their loyalty mission, at which point at times they started talking to me, at which point I cared less about it with it being so close to the end of the game. I would have liked comments all through the game, but with the loyalty angle I can kinda see why they did that. Still, TOR did it better, but had more points along the way that could trigger things to make that work out.

My favourite characters are Mordin and, perhaps surprisingly, Miranda. I initially took her along on every mission as kinda a “You’re pushing this, so you have to see how it works” and then when I got Jack always brought the two of them along to annoy both — as I think Cain would do — which worked out nicely. And talking to Miranda does let you know more about her, and makes her out to be less of a shrew and someone who cares about someone, and you can even find out that that’s why she’s with Cerberus. But I think that her experience in Jack’s mission did shake that a bit, making the purported end of the game make more sense. Mordin is just a lot of fun to talk to pretty much all of the time, and I’m not even going to get the “Thane” comment that you saw in the SF Debris playthrough of the game.

Right now, all I have left to do is Jacob’s loyalty mission, the IFF, Legion’s loyalty mission, and the final battle. Since it is on a rotation, I’ll likely finish it in the next month or two, unless I swap Conception II out for a while and play it in its place. Hopefully, the final mission will not simply slaughter me and I can add this to the list of games that I’ve finished.


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