Archive for May, 2015

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Family

May 6, 2015

So, the third essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Family” by Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman. It meanders around a bit talking about various parent/child relationships in the Avengers — mostly father to child relationships — but the most interesting discussion in it — and I think its main point — is the comparison between the relationships between Hank Pym and Ultron and Magneto and his children Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Pym is quite often blamed for Ultron turning out to be a villain, while Magneto is never given credit for his children turning out to be great heroes. Both of them were largely absent during their actual upbringing. Just being Ultron’s creator seems to confer major responsibility for Ultron’s actions on Pym, while just being Wanda and Pietro’s father doesn’t give Magneto any responsibility — which means, here, no credit — for their heroic actions. Whence the disconnect here? Are people in the Marvel Universe being unfair to Pym?

In a sense, they clearly are. Pym, when he tried to create Ultron, clearly didn’t intend for him to be a murderous, villainous creation. In one segment of West Coast Avengers, he meets an Ultron that doesn’t hate him and is in fact generally good, and he feels a great loss when that Ultron sacrifices itself to save him from an Ultron that is still evil. Ultron’s villainy, then, is not intended by Pym, and Pym in general tries to oppose his villainy whenever he can. He did nothing, at least nothing deliberately, to make him so, and due to circumstances beyond his control wasn’t there to influence Ultron one way or the other; it isn’t like Pym abandoned Ultron deliberately which is what led to him turning out the way he did. Thus, to that end, he seems to be no more responsible for how Ultron turned out than Magneto is for how Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch turned out.

But because Ultron is an artificial creation, Pym does bear some additional responsibility. Ultron could only have turned bad because Pym designed him in a way that allowed for it. If Pym had put more safeguards in — heck, even a strong version of Asimov’s Three Laws — Ultron couldn’t have turned out the way he did. Additionally, Pym used his own brainwaves as a model, and it is from those brainwaves — and, as established with the Vision, from roughly that mind — that Ultron’s evil developed. Thus, it can be argued that Ultron’s evil developed directly from some flaw in Pym, a flaw that Pym has and that under other circumstances would make him that evil as well. And since Pym gave Ultron his mind, roughly, it can be argued that, unlike Magneto, Pym had a direct impact on Ultron’s development, because he gave him his brainwaves to kick start his mind and it is that mind that, ultimately, made Ultron what he ended up being. Ultron did not develop unguided by his creator, and in fact was guided by him in far, far stronger and more direct way than any parent ever could.

As the authors conclude, a parent gets praise or blame for their children depending on how much they influenced their development into what they eventually became. The trick with Pym is that he is much more responsible for Ultron’s development than it seems at first glance, which means that those in the Marvel Universe might not be being that unfair to him when they cast blame on him for how Ultron turned out.

Talk to the (Invisible) Hand

May 4, 2015

So, in response to Vox Day’s comment on Gamergate, over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia turned a comment by Marcus Ranum into a guest post, a post that, along with a pair of comments strikes me as far, far less of a good, solid argument for how gaming is working and will work in the future and far more as an example of someone who really, really doesn’t know anything about the media that he’s talking about. Thus, to me it provides an excellent example of why even gamers who aren’t particularly “Gamergatery” will often roll their eyes at the “Gamers are dead” articles.

Ranum’s main thrust in the post is that Gamergaters are fighting against the invisible hand of the market, which is changing on them, and that they, being libertarians, ought to support that. Well, okay, maybe he’s only talking about people like Vox Day. I’ll forgive him for that since it started as a comment and comments aren’t always clear. But his first big misstep is to compare the situation to that of pornography:

Sure, there is a smaller market for ‘hard core’ (i.e.: guy) gamers but it risks being marginalized out of the mainstream, which will mean that those games won’t be very well-funded or good. Sort of like how cis porn split off from the Hollywood mainstream and maintained its ‘independence’ in return for acquiring an unenviable cachet.

Okay, first, in terms of market … pornography is massively successful. I mean, the reason you can’t search for anything on the Internet without finding it is because of how massively commercially successful it is. Sure, it’s not “mainstream” like regular movies are, but considering that it can only appeal to a smaller market — adults who are willing to consume it — it’s massively successful. If “guy” games end up as relatively successful as porn, I think they’ll take that. Second, he has the causation completely backwards. It is not the case that pornography was pushed out of the mainstream and so gained an unenviable cachet, but instead it is the case that because pornography was considered to, in fact, be sleazy and shady that it was pushed out of the mainstream, pretty much solely because it had to do with unvarnished sexual content, which offended the prudish sensibilities of the time. Thus, it wasn’t the invisible hand of the market that pushed it out of the mainstream, but instead social pressures that said that talking about and showing sex was a bad thing, something that is lessened today but still exists. And it’s hard to say how well-funded or good pornography is, because it doesn’t have to be well-funded or good to sell, and what it would mean for pornography to be good is debatable anyway. You certainly won’t get A-list actors and writers working on them, but then how many people really want that in their pornography? That’s not how that is judged. For these “guy” games, more is probably going to be required, as it certainly is now. Oh, and note that the complaints against “guy” games are not, in fact, over the gameplay, but over the representations of the characters in them, and so is based more on specific plots, costumes, and so on and so forth. So the games, at least in terms of gameplay, are probably good now and will continue to be good later. So there is no evidence that if the anti-Gamergaters or Social Justice Gamers or whatever they should be called get their way that games, as games, will improve in quality. Heck, even if we just take Hollywood as an example, you might well be able to argue that in terms of quality Hollywood movies are declining while pornography is increasing, and in general that’s probably actually because of the invisible hand of the market, as since there’s more competition in pornography there is room for new approaches and you have to step up your game to bring in the bucks, which is not true for Hollywood.

Candy Crush has 93 million people playing it every day – a bit more than half of which are women. 8 million people play Farmville. Those are big numbers. They’re right up there with big ‘hard core gamer’ franchises like Call of Duty (100 million) and then there are the mega-game franchises like World of Warcraft that held 12-20 million gamers for 12 years paying $15/month. The point is that it doesn’t matter at all what the gamergaters think: the market is going to change in spite of them; they are nothing but the sound of defeat.

This is a standard talking point, but it’s relevance to the discussion isn’t that clear. As an example, when in a comment someone says that they don’t want to play Candy Crush, Ranum replies:

Don’t, then. I don’t, either.

Presuming that both parties are gamers, and that I’m a gamer and don’t want to play that either, how can they know that the numbers from those games will carry over from the mobile market to regular consoles? It actually isn’t very likely that if you simply ported Farmville or Candy Crush to a console or to the PC that it will have the success that it’s having on mobile platforms. It seems to me that those sorts of games work best on a mobile platform, which has differing requirements and, I’d say, audiences. Mobile games, it seems to me, are similar to Sudoku and crossword puzzles and surfing the web on your mobile phone: they’re something that you do to keep yourself occupied while you’re sitting around doing nothing, like taking the bus to work in the morning or waiting for your car to get out of the shop. These games are, however, highly addictive, and will indeed creep into every spare moment you have … but it doesn’t seem like something that people will deliberately plan into their schedule. So, these games won’t, at least in the minds of the players, be a hobby to them. But gaming is, in fact, a hobby, and that applies to casual and hardcore gamers alike. The main difference is the amount of time the two sorts of gamers allocate to that hobby, not their attitude that games are an important and specific passtime or hobby for them. If this is correct, then mobile “gamers” aren’t gamers, and what they do there isn’t going to have that much impact on gaming as a hobby, because no matter how the companies try to drag them away from their mobiles and into the world of dedicated gaming, it won’t work. They aren’t interested in games as a hobby, but instead as games as something to do while they’re waiting or bored.

As an example, you know those games that you typically find in every Windows installation, like Solitaire and Minesweeper? They’re massively popular and played at least at times by, well, pretty much everyone with a Windows system, right? Now, how much impact have they had on dedicated gaming? Not a whole heck of a lot, right? In my opinion, these mobile games are far more like those games than they are like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.

Moving into the first comment:

In gaming that customer-base exists but it’s moving away from violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups. There’s not likely to be an effort to prevent people from making crappy games – any more than there will be an effort to stop Vox Day and John Wright from churning out turgid prose – it’s just going to appeal to a proportionately smaller part of the market.

Okay, and on what grounds are you claiming that those “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are bad games. Sarkeesian called out as problematic games like Dragon Age: Origins (which is certainly violent) and the Hitman series. Others have criticized Bayonetta for its over-sexualized content while even conceding that the gameplay is, in fact, good. For the most part, the criticisms are not leveled against games that, well, just plain suck. They are, in fact, leveled against good games, with good gameplay and good graphics and the whole nine yards. Which actually should be obvious, as there’s no reason to complain about elements that turn you off of certain games if you didn’t want to play them in the first place. The games that are “crappy” from the perspective of production values and gameplay, and what are definitely the niche market right now, are ironically the games that the Social Justice Gamers push: Gone Home, Depression Quest, Papers, Please, and so on. And the reason for that is that they are done by independent studios who don’t have the budget for really high production values, and right now the “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are done by the big studios who have that budget. And they make those sorts of games because that’s what the market, at least right now, seems to want.

At which point we can again see that the Social Justice Gamers’ method is not to let the invisible hand of the market deal with this. What they want to do is exactly what happened with pornography: push it out of the mainstream not through market forces, but through social forces. Make those sorts of games be seen as sleazy, shady, icky, or bad from a social perspective so that people will feel ashamed for wanting to make or play them, even if they still want to. So, instead of letting the market drive the evolution of games, use social shaming to push the market to what you want it to be, regardless of what everyone else wants. If this succeeds, then, yes, the “guy” games will be the indie games that thus have lower production values and so aren’t as good … but if the market is there for those games, then they’ll still exist, and might be more successful at the indie level than the Social Justice Gamer games are.

That being said, it’s hard to see how this can, in fact, work, because the Social Justice Gamer complaints aren’t generally about specific genres of games, but about specific tropes or elements of those games. FPSs, RPGs, RTSs and the traditional genres of games are not, in fact, likely to go away, especially since their gameplay is, as stated above, a lot of fun. Social Justice Gamers are not going to get rid of games like Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty or whatever, and they don’t want to. Nor will they get rid of games like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman or Saint’s Row, where you play as, essentially, the “bad guy”, and again nor will they want to. So, those games will not be replaced by Social Justice Games like Depression Quest or Gone Home. The best they can hope for on that score is that more of those sorts of games will be made … but that definitely seems like a niche market if I’ve ever seen one. So, the best that they can hope for is that some of the most annoying — to them — tropes are toned down or stop being the dominant paradigms. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But that’s hardly going to be some kind of major revolution that will push “gamers” out of the picture.

In the last comment, he starts to take credit for market forces that existed long before Social Justice Gamers made a real impact and were made for reasons totally unrelated to their concerns:

At Blizzcon last year I had a chance to ask one of the panelists from Blizzard’s design team about representation of body self-image in Blizzard games and he replied that it’s a thing they are extremely aware of and generally try hard to represent a wide range of body types and skin colors, etc (hey, you can be green if you want!) and genders in their games. Blizzard Gets This. It probably isn’t sheer coindence that World of Warcraft caters to wide ranges of looks and roles, as well as having roles that are not purely violent (as well as roles that are) — there is a lot of space for players to find identity and – ta-da! A lot of players do, in fact, find identity. Blizzard’s revenues speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Duke Nukem games are .. “unspecified date” Even heavy shoot-em-ups like Bungie’s Destiny are gender-neutral and steer completely away from gendered violence. Blizzard, Bungie, … et tu, Rockstar. Wait for GTA 6 and I bet you’ll find an interesting female protagonist and a lot fewer women in throwaway roles as strippers and punching bags. The gamergaters have actually done a service to gaming by pitching their little shit-fit and putting Sarkeesian (in particular) in the role of the adult voice at the table.

So, where to start? First, the only “unspecified date” for a Duke Nukem game is “Duke Begins”, which was announced as a reboot that they would start after “Aliens: Colonial Marines” completed … which was in 2013. And it had a negative reception. And, oddly enough, what was it praised for?

The few positive reviews praised the single-player game setting, the game’s soundtrack, the level designs, the weaponry and character customization options as well as the multiplayer versus mode of the game

So, it wasn’t criticized for any of the things that Social Justice Gamers complain about, and was praised for doing the things that Ranum says are responsible for Blizzard’s success. So, somehow, the reason that the same company might not have a reboot of a franchise with a due date out for two years after their last game that presumably would have been a model for the basic gameplay, when that model was poorly received and problematic, must be something related to Social Justice Gamer principles instead of those, well, obvious problems. Hey, how long did it take Atlus to say when Persona 5 was going to be out, which was a follow-up to two massively popular and well-received games that they therefore knew that they were going to make a sequel to?

Also, it’s not reasonable to compare Blizzard and Gearbox because they work in completely different genres, and Blizzard hit the jackpot with World of Warcraft. And the body type and gender customization in Blizzard games, in fact, follow from that … or, at least, it follows from the RPG games like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is an MMORPG. MMORPGs got their start from RPGs. Western RPGs have always adopted a more sandbox style of game, where the real fun of the game is in customizing your character and making that character the character you want rather than focusing on you playing as a specific character with a set history and story, which is a sharp contrast to JRPGs. This is because they started from the D&D PnP model, which focused on that sort of thing and so had the choice of gender from, oh, pretty much the beginning. Which is not how FPSs went, for contrast. So, when MMOs came out, they always had the choice of gender, and a fair amount of customization of appearance, because that’s what RPGs did, and that’s the model they followed. WoW is actually, from my understanding, a bit constrained with respect to that when compared to games like “City of Heroes” or “Champions Online”. It’s not even clear that they’re that much better than Dark Age of Camelot was, which had multiple races inside each realm and even had a female-avatar-only class (at least Bainshee) which was appropriate. This was not done to appeal to female gamers or to allow people to better play as themselves, but rather to make it easier for them to play as other people. So when Ranum crows that game publishers “get it” … what does he think they’re getting? Social Justice Gamer ideals? At that point, he’s taking credit for the work that gamers — you know, those people that are claimed to be “dead”, outdated and are going to be marginalized and go away — actually did and pushed for long before these guys stuck their noses in. Whether they do it for the same reasons, many gamers want the same things as the Social Justice Gamers want and work for that. Gamers want more customization because it makes for a better game for them. Gamers want better female characters because better characters in general are more fun for them. Gamers want more diversity among protagonists because playing as the exact same sort of character all the time gets boring after a while. Gamers can even understand the idea that at least some elements in games might have to change to get more women involved in them. So why has the assault been against gamers or hardcore gamers … many of whom aren’t opposed to the changes?

Also, note that Destiny is “gender-neutral” in precisely the same way as MMOs are: you can decide your gender but it doesn’t matter mechanically. Which means that it isn’t “gender-neutral” at all when compared to FPSs, since most of them don’t let you create a gender, and so force you to one. Destiny actually allows you to define and work with your gender, and it does this because of the influence of MMORPGs, which as I’ve already pointed out have done that for decades. So, again, what are they “getting” by doing that? They’re using standard gaming tropes where you’d expect them to use them. Oh, the revolution.

Which carries on into the last part of the comment:

No, not all games will look like Candy Crush. They’ll probably look more like Destiny and Mass Effect. You can play a female avatar or a male avatar. And you can wear a ton of armor that covers your body, or a pink lame bikini, regardless of your gender.

Um … that’s how games are now, and have been for years and years, outside of the cross-dressing part (which has existed in a number of games already, most notably Fable. I don’t expect this to be common until/unless it’s easier to just apply all armours and outfits to all avatars than it is to restrict it to certain types). Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords in fact literally had the option of the slave girl costume or various sets of robes for a female protagonist … and the protagonist is canonically female in Sith Lords. Mass Effect is done by the same people, and they essentially just stuck with the model that worked for them starting way back in Baldur’s Gate, and that model started from long before that. As I’ve said before the future is now!. Games are already doing as standards the very things you want them to do. Get your head out of your narrow, FPS-inspired box and immerse yourself in the world of what games really are.

It’s no wonder that gamers roll their eyes so much at the Social Justice Gamers when they reveal the depth of their ignorance of what games are like and yet see fit to pronounce on what games ought to be and what they’re doing wrong. Sarkeesian is not the adult voice at the table, but is the person loudly complaining about how bad the rules are while not knowing what the rules actually are, which means that she hits on some good points, but they are points that others already have complained about, while she presents her ideas as ideas that no one else has thought of before. Well, okay, to be fair to Sarkeesian she herself doesn’t present herself as being original as much as her supporters do, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in general, Social Justice Gamers tend to advocate for things that gamers in general have long advocated for and tend to take credit for their “influence” in getting the things that gamers already managed to get without them. If Social Justice Gamers would work with and listen to gamers more instead of trying to shame them for things they don’t do, things would probably go a lot better for them.

Criticism and Criticism

May 1, 2015

So, Vox Day did an interview where, among other things, he talked about Gamergate. Dave Futrelle at “We Hunted the Mammoth” talked about a key part in it, at least to Futrelle. Day said:

… what Gamergate is fundamentally about is the right of people to design, develop and play games that they want to design, develop and play without being criticized for it.

Futrelle replied to that:

Which is an. er, interesting perspective, as there is in fact no “right” to be immune from criticism.

If you write a book, if you make a movie, if you post a comment on the internet — you should be ready for it to be criticized. Because that’s how free speech works. That’s how art works. And that’s how ideas work.

Criticism — whether it is positive or negative — helps to sharpen ideas and make art less self-indulgent; it pushes creators to hone their craft and expand their vision of the world. And it helps the consumers of art not only to look at art with a more critical eye but also to appreciate it more fully, by helping to draw out the more subtle meanings of this art and to put it in a broader cultural (social, political) perspective.

Of course, neither the artists nor the consumers of art are required to listen to this criticism, but they have no right to demand that such criticism be eliminated.

I think there’s a bit of equivocation on the term “criticism” going on here, because there’s a difference between being criticized for your project and being criticized for how you execute your project, and while the criticism that Futrelle defends here is the latter, I suspect that Day is complaining about the former … and that a lot of the people criticizing games, particularly from a social justice perspective, are doing the former, and not the latter.

So, then … what is the difference between the two? The kind of constructive criticism is the one that takes what your goal was into account and what you were trying to do, and analyzes and criticizes how that was implemented. So, if you were setting out to make a hard-boiled, noir-style detective piece, it would take that as a given, take the tropes as given, and look at how well you managed to achieve that. Knowing that you were aiming at that sort of work, it wouldn’t criticize the work for including the very elements that would make that sort of work, well, what you were trying to make it. It wouldn’t say that these sorts of works are terrible and so you should have done something else instead. It would look at how well you managed to do what you were trying to do, and how well that worked. Criticizing the project, on the other hand, would be arguing that the goal you yourself had and the work you were trying to create was not worthy of being created; you should not have set out to produce a work of that type. That’s generally not helpful in any way; it almost always comes across as someone complaining about a genre or sub-genre that they don’t like and saying that the creator should have, instead, made the sort of work that the critic likes instead … no matter how many people like that sort of work and regardless of the sort of work that the creator, you know, actually wanted to do.

Now, there are, of course, some gray areas here. It is a perfectly valid and useful criticism to say that the work should have been done in a different genre because it wasn’t effective at one of its primary goals. So, for example, I might be able to say that “Atlas Shrugged” should not have been written as a fictional/sci-fi work, because the philosophical elements make it not very entertaining fiction and the need to shoe-horn the philosophy into a fictional world makes it hard to really see how the philosophy works (note that I’ve never read the book and my only experience with it is through Adam Lee’s series on it, with is not exactly unbiased), but even there the main criticism is that the stated and known main goal of the creator isn’t being effectively met by the chosen medium and that they could have achieved that better with a different approach. What is isn’t saying is that a book advocating Objectivism is not something that any author ought to create because that project, in and of itself, isn’t one worth doing.

Which, then, gets into the Social Justice driven criticisms of many things, including gaming: they really often do come across as criticizing the project itself and not its implementation. From Futrelle:

Indeed, that’s what most #Gamergaters mean when they talk about fighting “corruption in game journalism” — shutting down those writers and publications that have dared to critique the prejudices of a backward portion of the gaming universe that is hostile to any challenges to the status quo ante — particularly from women with opinions different from theirs. That’s what drove the outrage over the “death of gamer” articles last Fall. And that’s what has driven “critics” of Anita Sarkeesian from the start.

The key here is that line about “a backward portion of the gaming universe”, and then to remember what the criticisms actually are. Sarkeesian’s biggest complaints so far have been about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and a couple of other ones. These are criticisms of the trope in general, not about specific instances. The “death of gamer” articles were all about how these backward sorts of games were going to all go away, without ever really saying what they were going to be replaced with, or what was actually going to go away. For the most part, the criticisms seemed to be about specific elements and genres and sub-genres that they wanted to go away, not about the implementation of those elements. And what I think Day is saying is that if someone, say, wants to create a standard and traditional damsel-in-distress, male-empowerment-fantasy sort of game, they should a) be able to be honest about that and b) if they are honest about that, shouldn’t be criticized for making that sort of game and not making some kind of Social Justice Approved ™ sort of game. If they say that they want to appeal to male gamers and not female gamers, that should, in fact, be okay, and they should not be criticized for making that audience their focus, beyond business reasons like “You’re ignoring a big market” or “You claim to be doing it because that’s what the audience is but, well, it isn’t”.

Now, of course, there is a gray area in here as well, because this touches on how people are represented in the work, and that can be a comment on presentation. For example, you could criticize differences in how a female Shepard is treated when compared to a male Shepard in Mass Effect — if there are any interesting differences — or in how men and women are, in general treated as a way to show how a different implementation could be more effective. And for any game that’s claiming to be general, talking about how the representations might look to women and how that might turn them away from the game is a perfectly valid criticism. But I think the key is how you respond to the game Scarlet Blade, which I think is obviously aimed at providing massive fanservice wrapped around a game. If you say that such a game is bad and should never, ever be made, and that the people who would make it are bad people, then I definitely think that Day will have a problem with you … and so will I. There is nothing inherently wrong with that sort of game, and it isn’t the case that such games should never be made. Scarlet Blade may or may not be a good game and it may not really achieve its goals, but someone saying “I want to make an explicitly fanservice game” is not grounds, in and of itself, for criticism. Or take Conception II. It’s a valid criticism to say that it is too risque for fans of Persona-style games and too tame for fans of adult dating sims and so won’t have a market, but it isn’t a valid criticism to say that the latter sort of games aren’t worth making.

So, criticizing someone because they want to do something you don’t like or don’t want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly isn’t general, helpful criticism of the sort that Futrelle talks about. So, then, the question is still open: should one be immune from “Activism Criticism”?