Archive for March, 2016

What I Like (and Dislike) About “What I Like About You”

March 30, 2016

So, I’ve been watching an old show called “What I Like About You”, starring Amanda Bynes and Jennie Garth as two sisters (Holly and Val) who end up sharing an apartment in New York — Val’s — after their father gets another promotion that requires him to move to Japan, and Holly doesn’t want to go. The most consistent sidekick is Gary, a friend of Holly’s who starts with a crush on Val but that, thankfully, gets dropped by about mid-way through the first season. The first season starts with a boyfriend for Val, Jeff, who gets dropped at the end of the first season.

The underlying premise, at least at the start, is the fact that Holly and Val are very different people who now have to live together again. Holly is spontaneous and free-spirited and fun-loving, while Val is organized and serious. The clashes in their personalities, especially since Val has to be the parent figure here, drives most of the plots in the first few seasons, but this fades in the later seasons, although Val is still portrayed as being uptight and serious despite being far less so in the later seasons.

I’ve also found that the pace of the show is very fast, so much so that if I try to read while watching it — as I’m prone to doing — means that I end up missing stuff (which is hampering my re-reading of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”). I also find that, other than in the pilot, it tends to stay away from simple stable comedy plots where Holly does something that she shouldn’t and the whole episode is spent following her trying to avoid having Val find out about it. In fact, in one episode she sneaks off to a concert without telling her system, and the humour is entirely driven by all the problems Holly has along the way: they get a flat tire, the tire rolls away, Val and Jeff catch up to her, the car rolls away, and so on. They revert to the staple jokes more in the later seasons, but still much of the humour is driven by the incidentals and not as much by trying to hide what’s going on.

As we get past the first season, the cast of characters increases, to include a new friend for Holly, and a number of potential boyfriends, while Val loses her steady boyfriend but picks up a friend. And this gets into something that is both good and bad, because while I really like Holly’s friend Tina and think she works quite well in that role, I find Val’s friend Lauren very, very annoying. There’s really no reason for Val to be friends with Lauren, who is selfish, self-centered, and at least amoral. Tina’s worst qualities, on the other hand, are generally her snarkiness and how she doesn’t think things through, and she shares with Lauren a propensity for falling for the wrong guy and being far more promiscuous than Holly. Unfortunately, Tina gets underused; she doesn’t even typically get the “competing with Holly for the same guys” plot that Lauren gets. Which is sad, because one of the things about Tina that makes her work so well is that that sort of thing could work, as given the actresses involved it’d be perfectly reasonable to think that someone might find Tina more attractive than Holly, while Lauren just isn’t as attractive as Val is. So what happens is that Tina, a much more interesting character, gets swamped in the big crowd of Holly’s friends and boyfriends, while Lauren gets a big role in Val’s life but is mostly annoying there, overly competitive and incompetent in business and not really a supportive friend. While Tina ended up using her looks to get ahead at work in one episode, the only way Lauren could have been any kind of competition for Val — which is how they met — is by using her looks. The Tina character, I think, would have worked better as Val’s friend than as Holly’s.

Also, the show seems to be arguing for the idea that, when it comes to relationships, all women like bad boys. For Holly, both Henry and Ben are considered to be exceptionally nice guys, which is even commented on in the show … but Holly will end up with the more attractive but more of a jerk Vince. For Val, Jeff isn’t bad — if a bit of a doofus — but after that they try to set her up with Peter who she’s somehow attracted despite him being a massive jerkass, and then they turn Rick into a bit of a jerk as he sees his ex-fiance without telling her (and marries the ex later), and even when Vic returns — who was at least reasonably nice — he comes on so strong after their spontaneous wedding that he really does come across as a jerk … and Val ends up with him to end the series.

Also, by the end of the series, while the humour is still entertaining, I’m getting heartily sick of Holly’s boyfriend issues. It … just … never … ends.

That being said, overall I like the show. Season 4 is probably the worst season I’ve seen so far (and I’m only about 4 episodes in!) but it keeps me relatively entertained and I even laugh on occasion. It was definitely worth revisiting.

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Commentary on Women Playing with the Men

March 28, 2016

So. as I noted last week, I watched Rachel Homan playing in the Elite 10. What was surprising about that was not the outcome, but that in her first match … I was cheering against her. Now, I really like her team, and think that she’s a good curler, and usually have no trouble cheering for her, and yet I was cheering against her when she played a men’s team that I had no reason to actually cheer for. Additionally, I managed to see her last match against Brad Gushue and had a much easier time cheering for Homan … at the point where she still had a chance to make the playoffs but was unlikely to. So why was I cheering against her in the first match?

And, after some thought, the conclusion I’ve come to is … I’m sick of it. I am thoroughly and heartily sick of women playing against the men and the attention that garners.

First, I’m just sick of the gimmick. Yes, as Rob Faulds said, Rachel Homan can curl, but her playing in the Elite 10 was still a gimmick, and was still heavily promoted as one. When this all started long ago, for the most part everyone watched because we wanted to see if the women could compete with the men, and we hadn’t have enough matches like that to see if they could or couldn’t, or how well they’d do. And they managed to pull off some upsets, although almost always that was against average or aging men when the women were the elites of their sport. But we’ve been doing this for decades now, and for the most part everything has been settled: in general, in any case where women and men can and do indeed play the same sport, women at the very best hold their own, but aren’t really competitive against the men. Homan made history by beating a men’s team that everyone beat that bonspiel, in conditions that most favoured her. Women not only have nothing to prove against the men anymore, we all pretty much expect them to, at best, not get slaughtered.

This means that, for women, there’s absolutely nothing at stake for them here. They have nothing to prove and aren’t going to prove anything. If they get blown out, it’s a disappointment, but not a big one, and something that most people will think wasn’t unexpected. If they keep it close, then that’s great. If they manage a close win, that’s outstanding. Thus, there’s little pressure on them because if they lose, it’s expected … and they don’t usually have a chance at really winning. Thus, it’s nothing more than a gimmick, but we all pretty much know what will happen: the women generally don’t embarrass themselves, but don’t do anything really monumental either. So there’s no drama in this anymore, and no real “Battle of the Sexes” like we used to have, because for the most part the war is over and the women lost.

So women doing this aren’t being brave or taking a stand or trying to prove how the quality of women’s sport, no matter how much the media or event organizers play that up. They’re just playing against the men, mostly for personal experience or for themselves. They aren’t doing it for women everywhere anymore. And so it being portrayed has such has gotten annoying.

Which leads to the second thing: if this isn’t to support women in general, why do they do it? Well, the underlying attitude seems to be — and I’m not saying that this is what any of the actual athletes really think, even the Homan rink — is that if you have elite female athletes and they’re dominating their field, what they need to do to get a real challenge is … play against the men. But what this does is suggest that the women’s sport is just an inferior men’s sport, an attitude that I think really hurts women’s sport. Because if women’s sports are just inferior men’s sports, then there are only three reasons that I can think of to prefer to watch the women’s sport, or to watch it when men’s sports are available:

1) Patronizing: “Aw, look at those women, trying to play that men’s sport. We should support them doing that!”. I don’t think that’s what anyone wants.

2) Sex Appeal: “Yeah, they aren’t as good, but at least the women are hot!” (See beach volleyball). You can try to point out that one of the appeals for me of women’s curling is the attractiveness of the curlers, but this is belied by the fact that I like the women’s game better. I’ve made the analogy before of the two restaurants that serve equally good steaks but if one of them gives me a free dessert, I’ll choose that one, but in this case it’s more like I like the steaks at one restaurant better and they give me a free dessert, so I’m not really watching based on that alone. That being said, this is another thing that women’s sports can appeal to … and one that they. rightly, have resisted appealing to.

3) Sexism: “You have to support women’s sports because men have dominated sports for so long and so women have to finally get some support, regardless of the fact that the games aren’t as good”. This is usually accompanied by unconvincing arguments that the women’s sport is just as good as the men’s sport. But at the heart of it, this is an argument that people should support the women’s sport despite it being inferior because of patriarchy or sexism or because it’s only sexism that would make you see the games as inferior or things like that. Again, that’s not something that women should want.

Ultimately, at the end of day, I think women in sports, at least, should stop trying to be like the men, and start focusing on building a sport that leverages the physical differences between women and men in their favour. I still remember the Nagano Olympics where I saw women’s hockey for the first time, and loving it because it was different than the men’s game, since there was no body contact and no one had really hard shots, so it required different strategies. And then they started getting women who could shoot the puck and loosened up on the body contact and it because an inferior men’s product. Tennis’ hard servers are doing the same thing to women’s tennis, as are the women with the up-weight in curling. Even if it requires radically changing the rules, making the women’s game importantly different from the men’s game is the key to making women’s sports a success … and, unfortunately, most people trying to make women’s sports successful jump to the three points outlined above instead of to this one.

Thoughts on “Corpse Party: Blood Drive”

March 25, 2016

So, as I commented on the “Best Soundtracks” post, I really should like interactive novels. And yet, as with “XBlaze: Code Embryo”, “Corpse Party: Blood Drive” left me a bit cold … so cold, in fact, that I don’t think I’ll even finish the game.

The game is a chapter in a long-running “Corpse Party” series of horror visual novels, so I’m coming into the game in the middle. The game, however, is pretty good at getting you up to speed on what’s happened so far, which involves a magical inheritance through the family line, a book of magic spells, terrible injuries, and the disappearance from existence of a number of people, and even an old school. You, at least at the start, work through the girl who cast the latest spell and caused the latest disaster. While I’ve only experienced it once so far, the general gameplay is that you end up in a haunted place, and have to move around solving puzzles and dodging evil spirits that will attack you and kill you if they hit you enough. There are places that you can hide from them, but I don’t know of any way to actually attack them yet, and it looks to me like there isn’t any. There are also areas on the floor that you can step in and hurt yourself. You do have a flashlight that you can turn off and on to see things better, but if you use it too much and don’t have extra batteries it will die and, well, won’t work.

Graphically, outside of the cutscenes and internal dialogue, everything is done in the “Chibi” style, which doesn’t work all that well for a horror game.

Ultimately, there are two big issues that I’m having with this game:

1) The main character is far more scared by things that I am. This is understandable given her history — she’s survived a previous horrific experience that really ought to make her a bit jumpy — but since the game stops to let her panic it, well, stops me from playing the game until she calms down, when I’m not really upset at all. Ideally, the player should be more freaked out than the character they’re guiding is so that you don’t have their reactions getting in the way of the player’s reactions to the game. If the main character is much more scared than the player is, the player rolls their eyes at them and it takes the player out of the game.

2) Like “Cross Edge”, the gameplay and story have been done better elsewhere. All this game makes me want to do is play “Clocktower 3”, while “Cross Edge” made me want to play “Record of Agarest War”, because the “run away and hide” gameplay was done in “Clocktower 3” as well, and was done better, and the story in “Clocktower 3” was better, too. In fact, “Haunting Ground” is similar and again, more detailed in both story and gameplay.

Ultimately, I think it’s the latter that gets me when it comes to visual novels. Ideally, the story in a visual novel would be better than the story in other games … but many of the visual novel games go that way so that they can skimp on things and be smaller, and modern games often focus quite a bit on story, giving an overall better product. And since visual novels tend to simplify gameplay, what you end up with is a game that feels … small compared to other games. If the visual novel format is used to do something that a regular game would have a hard time doing, this can work … but “Corpse Party” does not seem to be that sort of game. Thus, I give props to “XBlaze: Code Embryo” for doing something that works well in a visual novel but whose gameplay is too small for regular games … it’s just that the whole “We decide the endings based on what you read” works really, really badly for me, who always wants to read everything.

Maybe there are visual novels out there that will more appeal to me, or maybe I’m just not the right audience for them.

Video Games and Challenge vs Experience

March 23, 2016

So, last week I talked about games of all kinds and the distinction between a game as experience and a game as challenge. As I said there, video games have special issues with the challenge vs experience dichotomy, and it all comes down to the fact that, in a video game, we have the ability to save and replay sections of the game if we fail at a challenge, which you typically can’t do in other sorts of games.

Let’s look, then, at what happens in other types of games when you hit a challenge that you simply aren’t prepared for. In sports, you hit a team that’s too strong for you, or they spring a strategy on you that you weren’t prepared for and run up a big lead. In a board game, you get a string of bad luck or you don’t understand how to play the game and so end up behind, and perhaps even in an unwinnable situation. In all of these cases, you have two choices. Either you keep playing the game, or you simply quit completely and start over. Thus, either you stay in the experience — even if it isn’t one that you particularly enjoy — or else you end the experience entirely, and often go to do something else. Either way, the situation doesn’t drag you out of the experience only to reinsert you into it a few minutes later. hoping that you can pick up the experience as you go along.

Video games are different. If you hit a challenge, or something that leaves you in a tough situation, you can and are generally encouraged to restart from an existing save file and pick up from where you left off, preferably in a way that will let you get past whatever obstacle you encountered. Thus, a video game can present ending the game entirely as a speed bump on your way to the end of the game, as if the game ends you can just reload pretty much where you left off. Thus, a video game can present harsh challenges — and harsh consequences to failing the challenges — without forcing the player to pack up the game and move on to something else, or restarting the game entirely.

The problem is that from an experience standpoint, every time you actually die it drags you out of the experience, as you go through the cutscene that kills off your character(s), and then through the loading screen, and then back into the game where you left off, without having all of the preamble that got you caught up in the experience to start with. And even if you have to replay large portions of the game, some of the tricks that it used to drag you into the experience will be lost. There’s a reason why Shamus Young recommends that survival horror games might want to threaten death but never actually kill the player, in that being threatened with death is great and immersive and generates fear, but actually dying drags you out of the experience and ruins the fear the game is trying to generate.

So, with saves, video games can ramp up the challenge, even using — and over-using — DIAS-style gameplay. But if they do that, they break up the continuity of the experience, and thus make for a disjoint experience, where potentially just as you’re getting into the experience, you die and get yanked back into reality and get reminded that, yes, this is really just a game. Video games have a remarkable ability to get players to suspend disbelief, but overusing the challenge notion of games can ruin that, all unintentionally. Other games either keep going or end when the challenge becomes overwhelming. Video games are the only case where you can keep retrying and retrying, and thus have a disjoint experience based on how challenging the gameplay happens to be for you in those cases.

I think Bioware’s “Narrative” difficulty might be first step towards resolving this, where at that difficulty level the challenges are minimized in favour of maintaining the experience, while at the other end the focus is on challenge rather than on maintaining a continuous experience. If this catches on and games start doing more things to focus on one or the other, games might move from having this dichotomy as a unique problem to having this dichotomy be a unique benefit, as the same game can provide both without impeding the other.

Rachel Homan at the Elite 10 …

March 21, 2016

So, as I talked about a few weeks ago, Rachel Homan played in the Elite 10 curling tournament, playing against men’s teams and … she didn’t get destroyed. Except for the first game. She did manage to win one game to go 1 – 3 in the round robin — which left her short of the playoffs — but the team she beat was … the team that everyone beat in her … division? … and she only beat that team by 1. She managed to keep the other two games kinda close, and because of that and her one win it’s being portrayed as a great success and an indication that she really can play with the men and deserves to be on the same ice as them. Which, to me, is an odd statement, as it says that what may be the best women’s team in the world — who isn’t going to the worlds this year — can play at the level of, at best, an average men’s team.

The Elite 10 is also odd because of its format — it’s match play — and thus, as I watched it, ended up looking a lot like the women’s game and so less like the men’s game (and I caught parts of the Briar so I do remember what that game is like [grin]). Because blank ends or taking one didn’t give you the end and so only caused you to lose the hammer, the typical heavy-weight style of men’s curling — which is to “blast” everything if you’re getting in trouble — didn’t happen as often, so the men’s teams let rocks stick around more in the hopes of either stealing or getting two. Even forcing an opponent to one point wasn’t all that great, as holding hammer meant that you had to score two and so that you had to play with more rocks in play. Add to that all of the extra — and in my opinion, stupid — rules that the Elite 10 added, and this was, to my mind, the ideal game for a women’s rink to compete in, as the rules led to there being more come-arounds, raises, and taps instead of doubles and triples (although Homan pulled off a quadruple in the game she won). And the best Homan could do is not get slaughtered — except for the first game — and get one win against the team that wasn’t beating anyone in the round robin. That’s … not that great.

And. given that, it’s fairly clear that if she played in a regular tournament against the men, she probably wouldn’t fare as well. At the end, when Brad Gushue merely needed to force a push to win the game outright, his up-weight allowed him to leave her absolutely nothing, even with the rule that you can’t move rocks off the centre line until after 5 rocks had been played. As soon as they were able to run the guards, they ran absolutely everything leaving Homan no place to hide and so no chance at stealing. I didn’t see her game against Thomas, but it’s quite likely that in a more normal curling game he would have at least beaten her.

Some thoughts on some things said while I was watching (from memory):

Kaitlyn Lawes — the third on Jennifer Jones’ team — was commenting for a while, and she commented that this format worked in Homan’s favour, because you only needed to get the requisite points — a steal or two points if you had the hammer — and so if you stole more or scored more that wasn’t counted. Yeah, and if Homan would have given up big ends but still managed to squeak out a win, that would be bad, because it would indicate that she really couldn’t compete at all with the men but that the format is keeping it artificially close. You would think that Lawes wouldn’t want to draw attention to that.

Rob Faulds commented on people saying that this was a gimmick that it wasn’t a gimmick because Homan can curl. Yeah, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

As I commented above, the format here minimized the weight advantage — again, insert your own joke here — but both Lisa Weagle and Rachel Homan commented on something that I missed (and should have thought of) which is the advantage the men have in sweeping the rocks due to their greater strength. Homan’s team are among if not the best sweepers in the women’s game, and Homan pointed out that in the first game they tried to take the same ice as the men took and kept racking because of the greater ability of the men to keep rocks straight and drag them further, and even to curl them more.

All in all, I only watched any of the Elite 10 to watch Homan’s rink, and I’ll probably never watch one again. So, the gimmick worked on me … except I would have watched a women’s tournament anyway. So, yay?

What Is the Right to Free Speech, Anyway?

March 18, 2016

So, for a long time now, there have been discussions and rants over free speech and censorship, and one of the the things I’ve been hearing — explicitly stated in this xkcd comic and in a number of other places — is that the right to free speech only applies to the government; they can’t arrest you for saying things. However, it doesn’t apply to anyone else, and so no actions taken by any body that isn’t a government body cannot, in fact, infringe on your right to free speech, which they use against anyone who claims that any private actions are infringing on that right.

I find this argument suspicious, and we can see why it should be when we look at, well, every other right that exists in the world. The right to life doesn’t mean that the government can’t kill you, but that no one can unduly kill you … and the government is in fact obligated to protect your right from people who are not in the government who want to take it. The same thing applies to freedom of choice, of movement, of religion, and of non-discrimination. Even the right to a free press almost certainly applies to people, say, using undue economic pressure to stop the press from, well, doing their jobs. Given that, it seems unlikely that the right to free speech is such an exception that only the government can violate it, and nothing anyone else can do can infringe on it; for all other rights, there always seem to be at least theoretical cases if not practical and real cases where ordinary citizens can infringe it and where the government needs to step in and protect that right.

So, let me point out what I think the right to free speech really means: a person has a right to not be punished merely for holding and expressing a view that some don’t like, and must be able to express that view under the same conditions as those who express all other views. The government making expressing a particular view illegal, then, follows directly from this, as putting someone in jail for that is definitely a punishment, but it does leave it open to other ways of punishing the expression of a view, like firing someone for simply expressing a view that the owner of the business doesn’t like but that doesn’t, in fact, actually relate to the work the person is doing.

But, some will protest, surely the right to free speech can’t protect you from the consequences of that speech, right? Well, as it turns out, this was a problem that I faced in my own moral theory, where it appeared that either I couldn’t imprison someone for doing something wrong — as that would count as a punishment — or else I had to try to find some way to differentiate between an action taken to punish someone and an action that counted merely as setting something up as the reasonable consequence of their taking that action. And what I came up with was intent: is your intent to punish them for their action? If it is, then that’s a punishment and not allowed, and if it isn’t it’s merely a consequence and so allowed. We can apply that to the right to free speech. When you take an action, what is the intent of that action? What are you trying to do?

Let’s use the “Ender’s Game” movie as an example here. Orson Scott Card — who, if you didn’t know, is the author of the book the movie is based on — is seen as homophobic. There may even be homophobic undertones to the book, although I haven’t read it and so can’t say, and I don’t trust anyone who makes a claim like that and doesn’t actually back it up with scenes from the book. At any rate, even though the movie itself doesn’t seem to have any such issues as far as I can tell, there was an explicit campaign for people to boycott it, based on the fact, as the linked campaign says, that they didn’t want to give Card money from his work — even if it was one that they’d like — because of his views that, again, were definitely unrelated to the movie and were likely unrelated to the book itself. So, take the base situation here: there is an author who outside of their works expresses views that you find appalling, even though you’re pretty sure you’d enjoy the works themselves. What can or should you do, and can you infringe on the right to free speech of someone with any action you can take here?

So, if it was the case that you were aware of the author’s views and that the entire time through the work you’d be reminded of that and then it would ruin your enjoyment of the work, given the above “consequences vs punishment” example that falls squarely into the “consequences” example. It’d be the same as if, say, the work was written by or reminds you of an ex; it’s not that there’s anything bad about the work, but there are emotional connotations there that will definitely get in the way of your enjoying it. So, what if you want to organize a boycott of it, like the linked campaign above? The campaign is explicit that they are doing this to deny Card the “reward” of their dollars, that he can use to support his expression of his views that they find odious. That is, in fact, clearly an attempt to punish him from holding and expressing his views, and so infringes on his right to free speech. It might be different if the work itself was advocating for those views, and you can ask people to not support the ideas themselves in that case … but even then, one should think long and hard about whether the real goal is to deny the money rather than make a statement about the views themselves.

We also have a distinction between public and private action here. If someone expresses an idea that you find odious and it makes you see them as a despicable person, it’s not a violation of their right to free speech if you stop being friends with them, or exclude them. You have the right to associate with whomever you want without interference. If, however, you decide to exclude them either to try to use that exclusion to get them to change their views or to convince others that adopting and expressing those views is not a good way to go, then that’s punishment, and violates their right to freedom of speech. The same thing applies to hosting the views in private or public venues. If someone comes into your home and says those things, or wants to book your private speechifying hall (and how sad is it that my spell checker doesn’t flag “speechifying”) to express them, you aren’t violating their right to free speech if you deny them that venue … as long as the venue isn’t intended for the public at large to use. If the venue is public, then you can’t deny them access to it based on your disapproval of their ideas without it being a punishment for their expressing them, and so violating their right to free speech.

There are also exceptions where the expression of those opinions will legitimately have a consequence on a specific area. For example, if someone expresses the idea that women are inferior to men, it would be reasonable to say that that isn’t the sort of person who should be heading up your “Status of Women” office, if for no other reason than that people will be rightly skeptical about the credibility of your office when the person running it is expressly against its very goal. And you might be able to fire a hiring manager — or, perhaps, anyone who works with women — for expressing that same sentiment, out of at least a fear that they will discriminate, which will impede the work environment (of course, if they hold that and have proven to not treat anyone any differently despite those views, then it certainly wouldn’t be valid to do that on the basis that the co-workers might not believe it; if the data shows that they are fair, those people need to accept it). It clearly wouldn’t be fair to fire them because people outside the company demand they be fired despite the fact that they do their jobs properly and the views they express don’t have an impact on their job, as that would be giving in to a demand to punish, and not a reasonable consequence. So if someone doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage, for example, and campaigned against it, it wouldn’t be a reasonable consequence that they lose their job as, say, a store clerk … or any other job, for that matter.

Of course, things aren’t simple in real-life, and there will be a number of grey areas. But for the most part, the right to free speech means that everyone has the right to express their views without the fear of undue and unreasonable consequences, and that people cannot impose consequences on people whose sole purpose is to try to push them into at least not expressing those ideas or even get them to change them. Ideas must be changed with discussion and debate, and must be tested in the marketplace of ideas. You are not allowed to bully people into shutting up or changing their ideas, no matter how odious you find them or how odious most people find them. The right to free speech doesn’t just protect us from the government’s attempts to do that, but from everyone’s attempts to do that. Denying that leaves us with a right to free speech that is not on the same playing field as all other rights, and so with a right to free speech that’s not worth having.

“Best” Soundtracks?

March 16, 2016

So, on my recent post on my favourite soundtracks, Malcolm the Cynic left a comment linking to the “To the Moon” soundtrack, calling it “the very best”. Now, I’m pretty certain that he didn’t mean this as a real qualitative comparison, but it got me thinking about what it would mean for a soundtrack to be “the very best”.

The thing about soundtracks for video games, specifically, that’s different than regular music is that it’s difficult to evaluate them independently of the games in which they appear, because their primary purpose is always to supplement the game and gameplay. They are there to make the cutscenes more memorable — which they share with soundtracks of all sorts — but also to play in the background and enhance the gameplay experience. They thus not only provide background moods for the narrative, but provide background moods for the gameplay, and as such have to encourage the player to play the game according to the gameplay: cautious when necessary, aggressive when necessary. It has to enhance panic when you need to move quickly … or, in fact, even and perhaps especially when you don’t. It has to provide the background to scare you and make you tense if the game is supposed to be doing that, without distracting you or clashing with the gameplay that you’re supposed to be experiencing at the moment. Which can, as an aside, lead to the odd case like I had in Mass Effect 2, where I had a foolproof way to determine when to take cover because combat was happening: listen for when the music change to the battle theme [grin].

Anyway, given this, video game soundtracks can pretty much only be evaluated based on how well they support the game they’re in. Yes, we can enjoy them musically, but ultimately their qualitative value can’t be judged separately from the work they were created to support. For example, I’ve listened to the “To the Moon” soundtrack, and musically I enjoy it but find it a bit repetitive, as it is mostly just repetitions on the same theme. But while I haven’t played that game, I can easily imagine that, given its subject matter, that’s precisely what you want there. On the other hand, Suikoden III has a much wider variety of musical styles because it’s meant to convey themes for a wide variety of locations and cultures. Should we argue that “To the Moon” is inferior because it doesn’t have more variety, or that Suikoden III is inferior because its soundtrack is less consistent? The truth is that both fit their games well, and so that shouldn’t be what determines their quality.

I’ve commented before about Persona 3 and Persona 4 with regards to their soundtracks, in that Persona 3 is better musically but with Persona 4 when you listen to it you associate the themes with specific people. Given that Persona 4’s dungeons were definitely more character associated than Persona 3’s, this makes sense, as without any other reason to care about the dungeon one wants that music that you’re going to be listening to for hours — a major difference between movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks — you want it to be entertaining and definitely not boring, while in Persona 4 you want it to remind you of why you’re here to drive you forward. Again, the different soundtracks drive different experiences in the game, and thus fulfill their purpose, I’d say, roughly equally well.

Ultimately, being the “best” soundtrack is less important as being one that properly enhances the gaming experience. So while it’s not completely subjective, it’s not really objective either. Perhaps it’s best if we just enjoy them, and not argue over them or rate them beyond “I really like this one”.

Shake up at Freethought blogs

March 15, 2016

So yesterday there was a big shake up at Freethought Blogs. A number of their long-standing bloggers have moved to a new blog network called “The Orbit”, a network that describes itself thusly:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

At the same time, Freethought Blogs has recruited a number of new bloggers. In his recruitment drive, Myers said that what he was looking for was this:

Our requirements are simple: we want godless Social Justice Warriors.

Now, Myers himself has been promoting the new network, and all of those who left FtB said nice and kind farewells, and many have reacted to suggestions that this split means something — such as the Friendly Atheist — with scorn and mockery. The problem is that if you look at the descriptions of their overall purpose and goals … well, they seen to be pretty much identical. The bulk of the bloggers on “The Orbit” are former FtB, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they couldn’t do what they want to do on “The Orbit” on FtB, even by their own words. So there must be some reason they left FtB to form this new one. Did they find that the reputation of FtB hurt them in dealing with some people or organizations, as Ed Brayton suggested when he left? Do they think they can make more money with this new network than they could on FtB, which is the other reason Brayton left? Were they unhappy with how things went when people like Ophelia Benson left? Or what is the driving force behind this?

We know that there has to be one, because they are moving from one blog network to another with very similar if not identical goals. If one blog network wanted to focus more on atheistic discussions and less on social justice, the move would make sense. Or if one wanted to include religious blogs that work for social justice and remove the atheistic/godless criteria, that would also make sense. Or if one wanted to be more open and include a wider variety of topics, or even a narrower one — including more direct science or philosophy, for example — that would make sense, too. None of that happened. So assuming that these people are all rational — which, of course, they all would want us to think they are — then there must be a reason.

I’ve read in the comments that some people are using the happy-happy-joy-joy posts to show that no such reasons exist, but it’s clear that given the criticisms of FtB from multiple corners that was the last thing they’d do. After all, at least for now they’re all on the same side of the “Deep Rifts”, and they wouldn’t give their enemies the satisfaction of seeing them split. Yet, there is at least a split here, and it seems likely that the reason for this is either something about FtB, or something about the people on FtB. But there’s no way they’ll ever tell us which.

Games: Challenge vs Experience

March 14, 2016

Games, all sorts of games, are inherently an interactive experience, which is what differentiates them from pretty much all other forms of media, entertainment, or art. Yes, you can have semi-interactive experiences with other works of art or media, but what makes game games, inherently, is this drive to interactivity. For the most part, whether it be a sport like soccer or hockey, a board game like Arkham Horror or Monopoly, or a video game like Persona 3 or Mass Effect, ultimately, at the end of the day, what makes the game itself is, in fact, what the participants bring to it. It’s not only either superficial appearance or deep meaning that the participant brings to the game, but ultimately the style and character of the game itself is determined by the participants … and by their goals, purposes and desires.

What this allows for is, to my mind, a dichotomy that doesn’t exist outside of games: the distinction between challenge and between strict experience. TV shows, movies, books, visual art, music … all of these are pretty much about the experience you have while participating in or viewing/observing them. Even the interactivity and meanings in these fields are all there to supplement and provide an experience. And games themselves can be just about the experience, about playing the game without any real sense of challenge or a real test of skill. Think of an RPG video game that you play to experience the narrative, or a board game like Arkham Horror where the experience of the game is more vital than the fact that you play it, or an RPG game like Call of Cthulhu where the players pretty much expect, like the universe it is based on, that you will lose at the end, and that it’s how you get there that’s the fun of the game, or a pick up game of hockey where the end score doesn’t matter as much as getting to play a bit and have fun with your friends.

However, games have been more famously known for, in fact, being all about challenges and tests of skill. They’ve been all about one person, one group, one team proving their skill and their superior skill by challenging something and, ultimately, beating it. This doesn’t exist for the other things, the things that are primarily if not solely experience-based. There’s no sense in talking about “beating” a movie, or a TV show, or a painting, or an orchestral symphony. There’s no real way to compare one’s “skill” at experiencing these things, and what you get out of it is, really, what you get out of it. But with games, there traditionally has been the idea that their purpose is to go out and “win”, either by beating someone else or by beating the game itself. The idea of games as experience has been mostly ignored or, at least, designated to a secondary goal.

For sports, this seems to still be the case — despite the many people who play them “recreationally”, as a way to have some fun with friends without worrying too much about overcoming challenges — but for board games and video games the idea of them being more as a means to an experience is becoming more and more popular. The interactive nature of games, in general, allows for a different type of experience than can be provided by the other things that are primarily aimed at producing experiences. So, more and more, board games and especially video games have been aimed at providing experiences rather than merely providing challenges, or even providing challenges as a way to provide experiences. However, they haven’t lost the idea that challenges ought to be in there somewhere.

The issue with this is that providing challenges and providing experiences are, in fact, often in opposition. To really provide a challenge, it has to be possible for the player to lose, and so to learn that they need to increase their skills and abilities, try harder, practice more. But this takes you out of the experience, and encourages you to think of the game not as something you do for the experience, but as something you do to win, or improve. Even in sports, in a simple pick-up game you might be willing to try higher risk plays because if it fails and you either miss an opportunity or give one to your opponents, it doesn’t matter. If the game is on the line, you had better make the safe play that will more obviously help you win the game. But the higher risk plays add more to the experience than the lower risk ones. With board and video games, you act less like the character you are playing would act and more follow set strategies that give you the best chance of winning. But the experience of these games is best furthered by playing in character, not following a set of objectively highest probability plays. So due to their interactivity, games can provide both challenge and experience … but often simply can’t provide both at the same time, even if the same game — played with different mindsets — can provide one or the other.

In another post, I’ll talk about how video games specifically have issues with this dichotomy.

Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

March 11, 2016

So, in response to the latest case of a scientist talking smack about philosophy — in this case, Bill Nye — P.Z. Myers and others are trying to defend why these people are willing to spout off like that wrt philosophy. Myers focuses on atheists:

It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations.

So, despite the fact that Myers is a biologist and not a psychologist, he’s going to feel free to opine about what their motivations really are. How do you get that much irony into a short paragraph?

Anyway, he opines this:

Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

But, unfortunately for the atheists, philosophers tend to be better at the logical argument dealio than most of them are.

Um, except that the main objection of scientists and scientific atheists to philosophy has always been that their arguments don’t work, and don’t apply to the real world. Thus, the main counter is that philosophers only do logical argument, not empirical investigation. That might be a reaction to being outargued, but that’s hardly likely.

The other psychological gambit I’ve been seeing a great deal of is the herd mentality. Big name nerd disses philosophy; then swarms of followers agree, “Philosophy is a joke!”, and they all laugh and slap each others’ backs and cheer on more jeering at the stupid discipline.

This assumes that there wasn’t already an attitude that philosophy is a joke rampant in scientific and atheistic communities, which is, in fact, absolutely false. It isn’t a big name expressing their opinion and everyone following along, but the big name expressing an opinion that is common and getting the chorus back for doing it.

It’s especially irritating when groups of atheists fall into this trap, because their usual mantra is “show me the evidence,” and most of the ones playing this game have never studied philosophy at all.

So, if you read Myers’ article … where is the evidence, there, for his conclusions about their motivations?

Anyway, I’m going to tell you why atheists in general and even why scientists disparage philosophy. For atheists, it all starts from theology.

What we’ve seen in the atheistic movement is a general disparagement of theology, and that disparagement has taken on a particular form: theology is derided, mostly, for ignoring science and reality and empirical data in making its conclusions. These are the main objections to arguments like the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument, and any number of theological claims. The problem is that these are, in fact, philosophical arguments, and the dismissal of those arguments has been that they simply can’t work to prove the existence of God, and just aren’t the right sort of arguments to generate any kind of truth. In order to find out truths, you have to use empirical methods, and the king of empirical methods is, in fact, science.

Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” itself only adds to this problem, as when people are told that they need to read the relevant philosophy and theology to understand what the argument really is, they can invoke the “Courtier’s Reply” to, essentially, insist that they don’t need to read that sort of arguing to know what the obvious answers are. But for the Ontological Argument, a philosopher as august — and empirical — as Bertrand Russell said that it clearly isn’t obvious what’s wrong with the argument (even as he was convinced there was). So atheists were taught and taught methods to simply ignore philosophical arguments like the Ontological Argument, and to dismiss them without consideration. But since philosophy will, of course, not support that move, it would get involved and show that there’s more to the argument that a shallow examination will reveal. And so atheists will start to regard philosophy with suspicion, as an enabler of theology.

This only, then, gets worse when scientists and atheistic scientists start wading into areas that were traditionally philosophical. As they focus on empirical and scientific answers to these questions, they get philosophers pointing out that those answers don’t work, and are often far too shallow. And then, like Krauss, they get upset at philosophy, and insist that their empirical and scientific examinations are right. This leads them to insist that empirical methods are the only ones that can lead to truth, and that the problem with philosophy is that they don’t use empirical methods. They also see what they see as quibbling over definitions, and thus say that philosophers are only good at arguing because they play word and semantic games, not because they find truth. They also find the fact that good philosophers are well aware of the weaknesses of most philosophical positions and are comfortable with the fact that we, at least currently, don’t have proven answers for most of the important questions disturbing, because their justification for the effectiveness of science is that it has come up with great and testable answers. Philosophy hasn’t. How can it be a great system for generating truths if it hasn’t come up with some answers?

Thus, they suggest that philosophy needs to be more empirical. That philosophy constantly resists this for some of its biggest questions is taken as a sign that it is anti-empirical and anti-science. The problem is that philosophy doesn’t reject empirical and scientific answers a priori. Most atheistic critics of philosophy ignore the long standing naturalistic movement in philosophy, of which Dan Dennett is a member (and is one of the few philosophers they tend to like). The problem with these answers is not that they aren’t properly “philosophical”, but instead that they don’t work. And the reasons that they don’t work have been documented in philosophy for a long, long time now.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, scientists and particularly atheistic scientists fall into scientism because science answers the questions that they really want answered and gives shallow answers to the important philosophical questions that they want answered. Given that, they don’t understand and don’t see the need for a particularly philosophical approach, and feel that the philosophical approach provides cover for bad arguments and bad ideas, and at best only introduces doubt into the picture for a lot of other questions. Science’s approach works, and they can’t see how philosophy’s works, so what good is philosophy? No good, they conclude.

It comes down to them not understanding the field and the scope of the questions that philosophy is chasing, mixed in with being stuck in a mindset where the philosophical approach is foreign to them. Add in that philosophy often tells them that they ought not be so fast in rejecting conclusions that they think obvious and that it casts doubt on their most successful epistemic approaches, and they end up simply dismissing it as being out of touch. And thus, end up dismissing it entirely.