Archive for April, 2016

Controversy in a new Baldur’s Gate Expansion …

April 6, 2016

So, it turns out that a group that has enhanced the old Baldur’s Gate games has also made a DLC expansion for it called Siege of Dragonspear and there’s a little … controversy over it. Supposedly it’s very buggy and has broken multiplayer, but the big issue is over the insertion of “Social Justice” memes into it. Those attacking it claim that it shoehorns them in, while defenders claim that those who are upset are simply upset that anything beyond the standard white male cis tropes were included. I’m going to focus on two main discussion threads: the post where the head of Beamdog asks people to go and give positive reviews of the game — if they enjoyed it — to balance out these purportedly invalid and politically motivated reviews and a summary of it at craveonline.

So, what are the main issues? Despite what the craveonline post claims, it isn’t just that there’s a transsexual character. Minsc also takes a potshot at Gamergate, which isn’t likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t on the strict Gamergate side (it’s kinda like Republican or Democrat jokes; you’re going to offend somebody if you do that, and if you appear to be too harsh or too biased even the moderates will get annoyed). But it is true that the transsexual character is the most talked about issue when people talk about a political agenda being forced on the player. So, there’s a video of the interaction in the craveonline article, which also highlights that people can, in fact, after hearing her story, decide to kill her … but it works as a good summary of the scene. So, what happens?

When you meet this shopkeeper/healer NPC, you can ask about her name, as it seems to be unusual. She comments that she invented it herself and that her birth name proved unsuitable. You can then ask what was wrong with it, and she comments that when she was born, her parents thought she was a boy, but it turned out she wasn’t, and so she chose the name herself with each syllable having personal meaning. You can never judge this in any way, mock her for it, challenge her on it or anything like that; all the player can do is say thank her for sharing her story in seeming approval.

Now, before analyzing this, let me point out that we don’t need to speculate from this scene about whether there’s an agenda here in the writing, as in this interview from Kotaku the writer, Amber Scott, is in fact absolutely clear that there is:

“If there was something for the original Baldur’s Gate that just doesn’t mesh for modern day gamers like the sexism, [we tried to address that],” said writer Amber Scott. “In the original there’s a lot of jokes at women’s expense. Or if not a lot, there’s a couple, like Safana was just a sex object in BG 1, and Jaheira was the nagging wife and that was played for comedy. We were able to say, ‘No, that’s not really the kind of story we want to make.’ In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade. If people don’t like that, then too bad.”

“I got to write a little tender, romance-y side quest for Khalid and Jaheira where you could learn a little bit about how their marriage works and how they really feel about each other.”

In fact, it turns out that perhaps the biggest impediment to resolving this are the things that Scott herself says about it. Note that in the above quote, she comments that there are a lot of jokes at women’s expense, and then that maybe there were a couple, and then finally that the character development of two characters was lacking. If Scott had simply said that Safana was underdeveloped as a character and the relationship between Khalid and Jaheira was expanded, most people would have at least given it a shot, and probably simply agreed. But casting it as being a reaction to sexism and about jokes at women’s expense is far more debatable; even if Jaheira was the nagging wife, that doesn’t mean that it’s a joke at her expense, rather than using a personality trope to build out the character. Also, her comment that if people don’t like it then that’s too bad is a very aggressive comment that’s bad for two reasons. First, a company really doesn’t want to challenge their customers with an implied “if you don’t like it, don’t buy the game” unless you don’t need customers, because they might just take you up on that. And they might take you up on that without even playing the game for the second reason, which is that Scott here sets us up to think that we won’t like it. I mean, as everyone knows I don’t like Baldur’s Gate in the first place, but Scott insisting that she needs to “fix” characters in it in a way that many people might not like is not in fact going to encourage me to give their version a shot.

And Scott’s reaction to this controversy doesn’t help either. From the craveonline article:

Amber Scott, a writer on the game, responded to these criticisms by saying: “As I’ve said before (and I won’t say much more on this subject other than to get my perspective out there): I’m the writer and creator. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the “normal” baseline from which “other” characters must be added, and it’s boring.

“I consciously add as much diversity as I can to my writing and I don’t care if people think that’s “forced” or fake. I find choosing to write from a straight default just as artificial. I’m happy to be an SJW and I hope to write many Social Justice Games in the future that reach as many different types of people as possible. Everyone should get a chance to see themselves reflected in pop culture.”

So, yes, she writes with a specific Social Justice agenda. And she doesn’t care if people think that her writing there is forced or fake. Sure, that could be because she knows that it isn’t, but it could also be that she’s stuffing it all in and if it is forced and fake, well, who cares?

So, let’s look at the scene. Is it forced or fake?

Some — see the threads at Beamdog for examples — argue that because you have to select the right options that it isn’t forced; you can avoid hearing about it if you want to. I find that a specious argument, since in RPGs if you have an option to ask someone about something you do so, because it might lead to a quest or even just important exposition, so everyone, at least the first time through, is pretty much going to select it. The big problem I see with it is that we don’t have any idea how things work wrt transsexuality in Faerun, and this doesn’t in any way help with that. For example, is transsexuality like it is in this world: rare and disapproved of? Then she wouldn’t be that open with characters she just met, especially since you can be, in fact, anything from a religious fanatic to an absolutely evil character. Is it common and/or accepted? Then she wouldn’t bother to mention it; she’d stop at saying that she invented the name herself. After all, people don’t generally declare that they’re heterosexual; we tend to only mention it if people would find it strange or we want people to act differently based on that, which she absolutely doesn’t want. This is made worse by the fact that no matter what class you are or what your personality is, you can’t express any disapproval of it. You can’t be an evil character and mock her for it, or disapprove of it. You can’t be Lawful or religious or anything like that and find it unnatural. All you can do is thank her for sharing the story and move on.

What this suggests to me is an attempt to shoehorn in transsexuality but to not actually do anything with it. It’s not an important part of the interactions with the character. It doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the world. Heck, it doesn’t even reveal anything interesting about the character. There’s no follow-up and nothing changes. It’s really an attempt to say “Hey, transsexual here!” without examining any of the issues with it, without showing their struggles — or allowing for any kind of struggle at all — or making it at all relevant to your relationship to that character. That’s fake, forced … and pointless.

So, some in the Beamdog thread commented that if the problem was the writing and not the mere existence of transsexuals, then the critics ought to have some suggestions for how it could be done better, which they don’t do. That’s a pretty specious argument — along the lines of “If you don’t like it, write your own game!” — but, hey, I’m willing to oblige.

This NPC is, as far as I can tell, a shopkeeper, meaning that you’ll visit them a number of times. After you’ve had a certain number of interactions or spend a certain amount of money, you get a short cutscene when you return to her where a customer is leaving and uses a name that’s different than the one she gave you, which seems to annoy her, but the customer doesn’t care. You can then ask why the customer called her that other name. She can then comment — and it would be better if you have to ask about it a few times, and not that she merely infodumps it on you — that that was her birth name, but that she changed it because it was a boy’s name and she discovered that she was a girl. Then, you can have, in my opinion, at least the following reactions:

1) Thanks for being comfortable enough with me to tell me that.
2) That customer is such a jerk!
3) You’re an abomination (means that you can’t shop with her anymore).
4) Call her by her birth name (ie be a jerk yourself).
5) (For some humour) You realize that your original name was gender-neutral? (Which annoys her but doesn’t cause her to not want to sell to you anymore).

This is better because it comes after some time is spent with the character, and has a trigger so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It lets you react to it the way your character would, and doesn’t force you to accept it (a character could say 2) even if they don’t really accept the idea of transsexuality, on the basis that calling someone a name that they’ve abandoned just to mock them isn’t a nice thing to do). Much less fake, much less forced … and something that SJWs don’t dare do because they can’t stand the idea that someone might, you know, ever act contrary to Social Justice principles in a game, which would be terrible, so they remove those options because leaving them in would be wrong, you know.

At any rate, given her interviews and what I’ve seen of her work, I don’t have much confidence in Amber Scott’s writing ability or her ability to reasonably depict the Social Justice issues that she wants to depict in a way that both does them justice and preserves the freedom of choice that is so important to RPGs. Even if I liked Baldur’s Gate, this wouldn’t make me feel confident about these remakes, or about what will happen if Beamdog gets the changes to make Baldur’s Gate 3, which is what this DLC is an audition for. And the impact on BG3 is one of the main reasons so many gamers are so upset over this. And Beamdog’s reaction, from top to bottom, has not been good.

It does not bode well.

Note: There’s a longer description of the writing here.

UPDATE: Trent Oster, CEO of Beamdog, has made a formal reply here. The Minsc line is being removed, he says they should have developed Mizhena more, and he wants the harassment to stop.

Conservative Atheism …

April 4, 2016

For a while now, the atheist movement, as represented by groups like Freethought Blogs, Atheism+, and whatever other groups have joined in calling for Deep Rifts[tm], have been pushing the line that the only proper atheism is that which is liberal and progressive, even going so far as to say that conservative atheists should, as the latest post on the matter from the blog “Death to Squirrels” by Iris Vander Pluym “get out of mah tent”, meaning the overarching atheist tent. So what this means is that if someone becomes convinced that atheism is correct and that there are no gods, but don’t happen to abandon their conservative beliefs at precisely the same time, then they aren’t welcome in the atheist “Big Tent’. Add in that religion and conservativism often correlate and there’s an awful lot of potential atheists that this attitude will exclude until they form the “right” set of beliefs.

So when Pluym criticizes one who is in some way conservative — and was described as an asshole — this way:

And movement atheism, which likes to consider itself a “Big Tent,” is already so chock full of them [assholes] that many, many good people have been driven away and quite understandably want nothing to do with it.

It looks like liberals can achieve that lofty classification themselves, and so it’s not limited to conservatives. Maybe, then, the liberal and progressive atheists ought to start by cleaning up their own house first, because those who insist that conservatives need not apply are going to push away a lot more at least potential atheists than the conservatives will.

(At which point, the reply will be that it’s about what’s right, and not about recruitment. Flip between the arguments as appropriate so that you can always claim to be totally right about everything.)

Then Pluym moves on to talk about those who claim to be fiscally conservative but socially progressive, who potentially then would meet the ideological requirements to be included in the “Big Tent”:

Gosh, that sounds reasonable! Fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal!

Except for one little problem: that position is utterly, laughably, fatally incoherent.

Greta Christina did an excellent job deconstructing it in a piece for AlterNet titled 7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand, wherein she points out that self-professed fiscal conservative/social liberals (“FC/SLs”) are depressingly common.

Now, I read that article, and as Pluym points out, the main argument was that fiscal considerations and social considerations aren’t, in fact, completely distinct from each other. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t think that fiscal conservativism can produce good outcomes even in the social sphere. If you look at Christina’s arguments, they essentially boil down to the idea that if the government gives people less money, it impacts all sorts of social concerns because, well, people have less money. But a fiscal conservative can easily deny that the way to fix that ought to be through government intervention, and that it isn’t the case that the only solution to the problem is the one that the progressive wants to implement. And both sides can claim, credibly, that no society has really tried their pure solutions.

The problem, though, is that Pluym doesn’t seem to understand what capitalism — and even equality — really is:

Conservatives are opposed to equality in principle, except when an issue directly affects them. You cannot have a “free market” and equality. Indeed, capitalism is predicated on inequality, and cannot exist without it. Are the uber-wealthy building or cleaning their own palaces, growing and preparing their own foods, making their own fabric and clothing, or home schooling their own children? No, they are not. They are instead very busy buying politicians who ensure they pay “low taxes” and that the people who perform all of these jobs for them are paid as little as possible. EQUALITY, everyone.

What Pluym is doing here is taking the worst properties of people who claim to be fiscally conservative — many of which would also be socially conservative — and elevating that to be what it means to be fiscally conservative, throwing in a lack of understanding of equality into the mix. First, the uber-wealthy are, in fact, hiring people to do that for them, trading the money they earned through other means to gain labour and time by getting other people to do that … just like pretty much everyone does. I don’t fix my own car or do house repairs beyond the very simple. I get other people to do that for me. If I didn’t want the exercise, I could hire someone to cut my lawn and shovel my snow, too. Does this mean that somehow those people aren’t my equal? If they hire me to do work for them, am I thus inferior to them? The whole notion of this is absurd.

Pluym also misunderstands “equality” here, insisting, it seems, that it must mean equality of outcome, which is indeed the form of equality that capitalism doesn’t guarantee … although, contrary to Pluym’s assertions, it can survive with it as well. What it guarantees is equality of opportunity: if you have a good enough idea and work hard enough, you can be a success. Now, starting points and luck come into it as well, but maybe the issue is that life just can’t be purely capitalist. But, at any rate, capitalism isn’t predicated on inequality, and would work far better than it does if we really did have an equal society.

It’d be more reasonable to argue that fiscal liberalism is predicated on inequality, because it’s predicated on taking from those who work harder and produce things of more value and giving that to people who work less hard and produce less value. And that would also be a strawman of the position.

Look, let me walk through my Not-So-Casual thoughts on what fiscal conservativism and fiscal liberalism entail. Fiscal conservatives, it seems to me, believe that the government should only provide that which a government is obligated to provide, and only take enough to fund those necessary services. Otherwise, as Elan says in this “Order of the Stick” comic, “the consumer knows best how to spend his or her hard earned money”. The market will provide what people want enough to pay enough for to get, and if the market tries to overcharge for a product, then people won’t buy it and either the market will have to lower the price or no one will be able to get it. The government should not get involved in determining what people want and what they do with the products of their labour.

Fiscal liberals, on the other hand, want the government to provide not only what only they can provide, but also at least what it would be better for them to provide if not what they think it would be good for them to provide. They have no problem talking the hard earned money from people as long as that gets spent in what they consider to be a manner that works better for society. Indeed, they don’t trust people to not spend their money only on selfish measures, and ones that hurt society.

This leads to the two extremes, which are not representative of the whole. On the fiscally conservative side, you end up with a very small list of things the government must provide, while on the fiscally liberal side you end up with the government taking the proceeds of everyone’s labour and using it to make everyone “equal”. From this, you can also see the benefits and downsides of each. Under fiscal conservativism, you have the most freedom in your spending … but you and/or a number of people might get “priced out” of really important things because you don’t earn enough; your financial freedom is limited not by direct action, but instead by how expensive all of the things that are important to you are. For fiscal liberalism, you can get the things that are important … but have less financial freedom to purchase or support the things you want but that the government doesn’t want to provide.

This is why the common criticism of fiscal conservativism that they don’t seem to complain about defense spending doesn’t work. Fiscal conservatives think that defense is something that the government is obligated to provide — even Ayn Rand thought that — and think that they are spending what they need to to maintain military supremacy. You’d have to argue that defense is not something that a government needs to provide, or else that we are spending more on it than we need to (although the weakness of that argument is that history has shown that it’s better to spend too much rather than too little).

So, how does Pluym go on to talk about conservatives in the “Big Tent”?

cannot believe this needs to be said, but one cannot reasonably expect people of color and women, for example, whose lives and most basic human rights are under constant, violent and escalating assault by conservatives, to occupy the same goddamn Big Tent with racists and Forced Birthers who just so happen to grok that there probably is no god. We should all come together in the cause of what? Atheism? To what end? “Equality for everyone”? Please.

By conflating fiscal and social conservativism in the worst possible way, and then excluding conservative atheists … who at least need as much support in their atheism as progressives, if not more. Nice, that.

Is there no possibility of disagreeing on some points, even major ones, but agreeing that you all share similar concerns that relate directly to your shared atheism? If you do, then partitioning out the “Social Justice” angles to focus on those specific issues makes sense. If you don’t, then what need do you have of an atheist movement?

Pluym finally gets around to talking about things specific to fiscal conservativism:

… there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a robust welfare state (especially quality universal single-payer health care) decreases religiosity, while economic insecurity (with respect to wages, housing, food, etc.) increases it. See, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God.” Fiscal conservatism in the form of Dave Silverman’s “small government, low taxes, a free market” is entirely antithetical to taking the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.

Except that fiscal conservatives will argue — with some justification — that a free market (even if not totally free) can produce more economic security and so reduce religiosity that way. Strong communist societies that have very robust welfare systems still had to try to reduce religious impulses through force … and generally failed. Booming economies provide financial security, regardless of how “welfare state” they are. Also, they can argue that expanding the social network just to create more atheists is a bad solution, as long as they really believe what they say they believe. The facts are not completely on the progressive side, despite Pluym’s and Christina’s assertions that they are.

And the problem in the atheist movement is conservative atheists. Their rationale doesn’t even withstand the most cursory scrutiny, and their conservative ideology is precisely what will prevent them from ever reaching their stated goals. More importantly, if history is any guide, conservatives will happily throw allies right under the bus, if it means they get to keep their guns or their regressive tax deductions or whatever selfish and destructive bullshit they truly hold dear.

And you are willing to toss potential allies in fighting for atheism under the bus to promote your progressive ideas, no matter how destructive they think they are. Sounds like you’re really no better, and that your “Big Tent” has a label of “All the people who agree with me on pretty much everything that I think important”. Which isn’t an “Atheist Big Tent” at all.

Is it over yet?

April 1, 2016

I am not built for playoff drives in sports.

I can take it in curling because an entire bonspiel lasts a week, and so by the time you get into debates over what teams need to do to make the playoffs you only have about a day or so — and likely about three games — left. So you start from musings about how a win or loss might impact the standings, and what they might have to do based on that, jump to the more definite discussions, and finally end up knowing the final results in a very short time. So I can live with it and even kinda enjoy the musings.

But in any sport with a longer season — baseball and hockey being the two that I most follow — I burn out on that sort of tension very quickly. I always end up wishing that the whole thing would just end already … even if a team that I’m cheering for is still trying to make the playoffs, like what happened with the Senators in hockey last year, and even with the Blue Jays last year. When you have a season that’s run for several months, and the playoff hype is starting, it seems that I, basically, just want the playoffs to start, and for the season to end.

Maybe the issue for me is that I consider the regular season to be more routine watching, and the playoffs as the more interesting and important thing to watch. Generally, I watch the regular season when convenient and make an effort to watch the playoffs. The end of the regular season kinda falls in-between those two, since it’s still kinda routine and still kinda important; the specific games matter but not as much as playoff games. Thus, while I can tolerate the tension for short periods of time, over the long haul I burn out because the only reason there’s tension there is because they’re trying to get into the playoffs, and at that point I’m already looking forward to the playoffs starting, which is what I’m more interested in. In curling, the games aren’t routine — because this is the only week you’ll be able to watch that bonspiel, at least, and each of them are different — and so I treat them all like special events, with the playoffs then merely being the culmination of the tournament, instead of being something completely distinct from it.

Ultimately, then, the issue is that the longer regular seasons hide too much the importance of the games — as early losses can be as devastating as late losses, even if they don’t look like it — which allows me to think of the games as routine, which then leads to a bit of fatigue with how long the season has been running, especially when the hype is pushing me to really care about those games that I haven’t been caring that much about for months, and maintain that for weeks at a time. I just don’t have the hype stamina to do that [grin].