Archive for April, 2015

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 2

April 30, 2015

So, last round, I went a respectable 5 – 3. Or, well, at least it was respectable for me, since I have a goal of finishing over .500 so that I can be said to be generally better than what you’d expect from flipping a coin. What’s interesting is that in the East every higher seed won their series, while in the West 3 out of 4 lower seeds won theirs … and I’d have done a lot better there except that I picked the wrong higher seed to make it through.

But the second round starts tonight, and so now I have to try to predict the second round.

Eastern Conference

Rangers vs Washington: The Islanders put up a much bigger fight against Washington that I expected, and Washington was full marks for winning that series. That being said, the Rangers are a better team than Washington is, are playing well, and have solid and reliable goal tending. Don’t expect Washington to overcome this challenge.

Prediction: Rangers

Montreal vs Tampa Bay: This is a tough one, because both teams had a harder time beating their first round opponent than anyone expected, but how much of that is to the credit of the team they beat and how much of that can be blamed on weak play isn’t clear. These teams are close in terms of points and probably close in terms of overall team skill. So, I hem and haw and go back and forth but, finally, I decide that I have to go with the better goaltender, and that’s Carey Price right now. Sure, he didn’t play that well against Ottawa in a number of games, but he never plays well against Ottawa. If he rounds back into Vezina and potential Hart-winning form, Montreal will win the series.

Prediction: Montreal

Western Conference

Anaheim vs Calgary: I’m not sure it’s wise to pick against the lower seed in the West, given how the first round worked out, and Calgary has been overcoming all adversity and refusing to go away for pretty much the whole season. However, when they faced Vancouver they faced a vulnerable team that didn’t have all that much better a season than they did. Anaheim had a much better season and as evidenced by how they handled Winnipeg seems to be firing on all cylinders. This isn’t a match-up that Calgary can win.

Prediction: Anaheim

Chicago vs Minnesota: This is another close one. Minnesota has the advantage of having their goaltending set and playing well, while Chicago seems undecided between Darling and Crawford. On the other hand, Chicago has a strong and experienced team to throw at Minnesota. In the end, I think I’ll go with the experience, especially since Crawford has indeed won in the playoffs before and so even if they go with him he probably won’t cost them the series.

Prediction: Chicago


Eastern Conference

Rangers vs Washington Correct
Montreal vs Tampa Bay Incorrect

Western Conference

Anaheim vs Calgary Correct
Chicago vs Minnesota Correct

Overall Record: 8 – 4

Gaming the Movie …

April 29, 2015

So, due to having read some rather poor Aliens novels, I recently watched Alien and Aliens again. And the big thing that I noticed while watching them was that I remembered playing some very good games that I played based on them when I was younger. And then I thought that movie and book and other tie-ins have a very bad reputation in gaming circles, in that in general if the games aren’t complete and utter crap you’re incredibly lucky. And yet, there are three games I remember based only on the Aliens series that I’d say are, in fact, good, as the Alien 3 game is arguably better than the movie itself was.

So, what is it about these games that made them good? I thought about that for a bit, and it turns out that they don’t have a lot in common, at least in their approach to making the game. Alien was essentially an adventure-style game where you had certain items and weapons and had to get off the Nostromo, with a fairly open-ended way of doing things. It essentially took the essence of the movie, the characters, and some plot points and turned that into a game, but it didn’t really try to follow the movie precisely, and in fact actually tried to not do that. Aliens, on the other hand (at least in the version I played) took the key moments in the game and built individual mini-games out of them, often with radically different mechanics in each section (a bit like the “A View to a Kill” game which I enjoyed for a bit but never finished). Alien 3 dispensed with most of this entirely and turned the movie into a platforming shoot-’em-up which was as far as I can recall only a small part of the movie and so didn’t have a strong relation to it. Three different approaches, three different at least good games.

I think the key here when developing a game based on an existing work is to look at the work and ask yourself one question: how can I make a good game out of this? The easiest way to do that is to figure out what would make people want to, in fact, play in this world, and then give them those experiences. I think that’s what Alien did. Aliens took a second approach, which was to look at each section and see what sort of game would work for that section of movie, and then realize that in gameplay. Alien 3 essentially took the lazy way out and took existing fun gameplay and wrapped the theme around it, which means that for a movie that’s good it generally won’t capture what made the movie good and so will be panned, but with an inferior movie made for a better game by ignoring what didn’t work in the movie. The third approach has the problem, then, that it won’t be making a good game out of the source material, because it’s only shallowly interacting with it. The second approach runs into the issue of having to integrate too many game styles and so making the development more difficult and potentially having one specific section of the game bore some players so they stop playing it. The first approach can be hard to do. Alien naturally lent itself to that sort of game style, but Aliens would have been reduced to a simple FPS in most cases which wouldn’t nearly have been as much fun.

Ultimately, though, at the end of the day the key here is to focus your design on making a good game first, and staying true or reflecting the source material second. That does not mean that you ignore the source material until the end and paste it on later. That means that you understand that the source material is not going to make your game fun or entertaining or liked, and so you have to keep in mind that the game design has to do that for you, while keeping in mind that a lot of people are going to buy your game because of the source material but will stay because they had a blast in it. Too much of the time I think that these games are built on the premise that the source material will drive the sales and so that has to be the focus, leaving an inferior game as the result. And some games can’t even manage that.

Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).

April 27, 2015

So P.Z. Myers is going on about evolutionary psychology again. The problem, though is that like so many times before the criticisms raised against evolutionary psychology are either problems with evolution, psychology, or are just the literal biological facts of life that the critics don’t seem to be able to understand or apply to the topics under discussion.

So let’s start with the first one, which is an example of the latter:

It’s all that nonsense about modules, whatever they are — they seem to be inventions by evolutionary psychologists to allow them to pretend that they can reduce behaviors to discrete regions in the genome, or the brain, or something (go ahead, try to pin one down on exactly what a “module” is — there is no clear association with anything physical).

Um, I presume that when they talk about modules they are talking about the well-known — and a commenter even points this out — fact that the brain is arranged generally into functional areas that do certain things, and that functionality is not distributed completely throughout the brain. Which means that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you will damage certain predictable functions and leave other functions unimpaired. We can even point to parts of the brain that are, in fact, older and so were developed first in humans, and what functions they have, and what functions arose in the later parts of the brain. All of which not only supports an evolutionary approach to looking at the brain — and the psychology produced by it — but in fact constitutes some fairly important evidence for those who claim that consciousness is just something produced by the brain and was produced through evolution. I doubt Myers wants to ditch that just to spite evolutionary psychology.

It’s about The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the imaginary Garden of Eden in which our brains evolved 10,000+ years ago, which is the reference by which all adaptations must be explained…despite the fact that evolutionary psychologists know next to nothing about that environment.

Well, this is a problem for evolution as well, as any trait that can be traced back to that time period — and there are lots of those for humans, including pretty much all of our mental traits and abilities, at least in early form — is going to have been in the same environment and, if natural selection is correct, greatly shaped by that period … that evolutionary biologists also know next to nothing about. Unless evolutionary biologists are willing to limit themselves only to talking about vague selection pressures — and they usually aren’t — then they have the exact same problem, it seems.

It’s about deep methodological problems: researchers who make sweeping claims about human universals by studying just the middle class white American population attending their Psych 101 class.

Which is, uh, what psychology does, and has been criticized for. So they’re following standard (flawed) psychological practice and are being singled out for failing in that regard? It seems that this should be a call for better methodology, not an insistence that the whole field is a pseudoscience, useless, and wrong.

It’s about the focus on the status quo — somehow, every study seems to find that current social attitudes just happen to be a reflection of our evolutionary history on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and endorses a kind of naive biological determinism that imagines that the way people are is the way they must be.

Um, as a psychological field, no one insists on that, or at least if that’s the case then the few who do say things like that last part should be criticized by their own field harshly. But my understanding every time I read evolutionary psychology — which is, indeed, limited — is that they aren’t trying to say that this is just the way things are and will always be, or in fact in any way committing the naturalistic fallacy, but are instead simply saying that we can explain these tendencies and structures in our personal and social behaviours by the evolved innate characteristics that were developed in that time period. Now, of course, this is controversial, and to make this stick it is perfectly reasonable to demand that they show this is sufficiently cross-cultural, because cultural structures don’t follow as strictly from evolved traits as physical structures do, so you can get a lot of contamination. That being said, to insist that culture is the most important factor a priori ignores that culture comes from the behaviour of individuals, which may well be tied to evolved traits. I suspect that what we have is an intricate dance combining culture, genetic traits, and environment, and note that different cultures are often found in radically different environments … and since environment impacts evolution to a large degree, cross-cultural differences aren’t in and of themselves evidence that a trait or cultural structure has therefore not evolved. Think of even peppered moths to see how that can work.

Reading the comments, I do think that one of the main reasons that evolutionary psychology is so derided is that it potentially provides what can be seen as a justification for certain social traits that some people don’t like and want removed. If you can say that it evolved for a benefit in relation to an environment, then it looks like it is being defended as actually useful and from there, potentially, to right or, at least, not really wrong. But since they think those structures wrong, that can’t be, so the theory must be wrong. This, of course, is ignoring the whole idea that just because we have a natural instinct that evolved and was even beneficial in the past doesn’t mean that it is still beneficial today, and certainly not that it’s right. Our sweet tooth is a prime example of an uncontroversial evolved natural psychological tendency that was useful in the past but is actually detrimental now, and thinking that we ought to do something just because we naturally desire it is, in fact, the definition of the naturalistic fallacy. Now, some people may indeed point to the results and say that those instincts are justified, but they’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy and we should point that out to them, not dismiss the idea that we have that instinct because it was more beneficial to us to have that than to not have that, so those who had it reproduced more and so did better wrt natural selection. After all, the explanation for altruism relies precisely on that sort of evolutionary psychological explanation, and no atheist wants to give that up.

The extent to which the critics of evolutionary psychology often rely on the precise same sorts of flaws that they claim should make us disregard evolutionary psychology always boggles my mind. I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology … and psychology … and evolutionary explanations … but I’m at least willing to give them the chance to prove their case. The critics of evolutionary psychology tend to not even do that, while committing the precise same sins. That’s not the way to go about proving your superior scientific approach and skills …

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


Eastern Conference

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

Western Conference

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

Overall Record:  5 – 3

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.