Archive for October, 2017

Grand Slam of Curling: Masters

October 30, 2017

So, curling is back, and this past weekend the Masters was on. As per usual, I only watched the women’s draws, which Jennifer Jones won in a relatively close game over Kerri Einarson, who had to win the Tier 2 event at the Tour Challenge to even get an invite to the tournament and to get onto the main tour, so she’s doing pretty well. Einarson managed to defeat Val Sweeting and Rachel Homan on her way to going undefeated until the final. From what I can tell, right now she isn’t in the Olympic trials, and so has to go through the pre-trials to even make it to the trials, but her team is certainly playing well at the right time if they want to get that shot.

Val Sweeting seems to be repeating her arc from last year, as she won the Tour Challenge and then at the Masters absolutely struggled, not even winning a single game. It makes me wonder what it is about her game where she seems to be so hit and miss, either doing really well or really poorly. She does seem to manage to get a lot of points and wins because of steals, so maybe the problem is with her strategy, where she relies too much on her opponents missing and not enough on setting herself up for shots that she can make to score points. If her opponents don’t miss, then she has a hard time either setting herself up or getting herself out of trouble. As an example, in the Tour Challenge final she did just miss a few shots that got her in trouble early, but her comeback was driven at least as much by Hasselborg missing shots she should have made as by Sweeting starting to make shots. So maybe it is strategy that she’s lacking.

Rachel Homan is struggling as well. She’s the defending World Champion and certainly would want to be playing well heading into the Olympic trials, but the only team she beat this week was Val Sweeting’s, and she didn’t have a good showing at the Tour Challenge either. She will certainly want to turn this around heading to the trials.

The next event is the Nationals, in November.

Crude Moderation …

October 27, 2017

So, Crude wrote a comment on last week’s post about moderates that on reading it I had too much to say to just reply as a comment, so I’m turning it into a post. Crude starts by saying this:

One problem with your view: the historical (and recent) tendency for self-described ‘moderates’ to collapse and change position when the tide turns.

See: the rise and fall of the civil union position. That used to be primo ‘moderate’ territory, the sweet spot between ‘There should be no gay marriage’ and ‘gay marriage now’.

They’re all gone. And quite a number of those people – surprise, surprise – collapsed into full-on ‘gay marriage is a basic human right’ the moment the momentum seemed to be on that side.

One of the most important things to remember about moderates is that they don’t passionately support either position, and so for the most part simply want the issue to go away unless it impacts them personally. So pretty much any position they advocate for is one aimed at doing precisely that, and no more. At the end of the day, what they really want is to find a compromise that at least satisfies both sides enough that they stop talking about the issue, and ideally a way to do that before the issue hits the major conflict stage where, for the most part, one side will win and one side will lose or, at best, a compromise will be forced on them that neither of them want.

So let’s look a civil unions. The initial idea that had some traction was the idea of leaving marriage as it was and adding civil unions that gay couples could get that would give them the marital protections that they were asking for. The problem is that this quickly spawned a counter that had some merit: that this was really “separate but equal”, which had been deemed discriminatory in and of itself, and so couldn’t be used as a compromise against a claim that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was discriminatory. Add in that one benefit of this idea would be to keep certain privileges away from same-sex couples if it wasn’t deemed appropriate for society and the counter of “What you’re really proposing is separate but equal!” really started to look like a good point. And the option for civil unions that avoided this — have the government get out of marriage entirely and only issue civil unions — wasn’t a compromise that anyone would accept. It was too radical a change for moderates. Proponents of same-sex marriage disliked it because it would deny them the social recognition of marriage on an equal plain with traditional marriage, and no matter how much they talked about practical issues it was the social recognition that they were really after. And opponents of same-sex marriage felt that it gave same-sex couples too much practical and social benefits. To be fair, opponents of same-sex marriage were probably more willing to accept that than proponents of same-sex marriage were, because it would at least cause less problems for religious marriage ceremonies. But at the end of the day, the simple form of civil union seemed too discriminatory, and the more complicated form wasn’t supported by anyone.

So, with no compromise forthcoming, it had to go through the normal mechanisms, which is this case meant the legislatures and the courts. And opponents of same-sex marriage lost; the courts and legislatures, in general, ruled that same-sex marriage was a basic right. Given that it went through all of the reasonable channels and that was the conclusion, of course moderates were going to accept that, and reply to the opponents of same-sex marriage that they had pushed the issue and lost, and so it was time to shut up about it and move on to something else. Once the legitimate channels have been forced to weigh in, the issue is over, even if moderates don’t quite agree with the reasoning.

This means that once something is settled, moderates don’t like reopening it, which can be a problem for certain positions. Trying to deny something will always be at a disadvantage when compared to allowing something. Let me us the analogy of a child asking for a toy to demonstrate how.

If a child asks for a toy, and you say “No”, if someone later convinces you that you should have you would then give it to them or give them something equivalent to that later. Also, presumably you had a reason to not give it to them, but that reason depends on that context, so they can ask for it later hoping that the circumstances have changed. Thus, in this case they can just keep asking and asking and asking until they get it, either because they convince you, circumstances actually change, or you just get fed up with their asking and just give it to them to shut them up.

Now, imagine that you give the child the toy. Since they get the toy, so they stop asking for it. If someone comes along later and says that they shouldn’t have had it, unless the consequences are dire — the child will choke on it, for example — you are far more likely to just say “What’s done is done, and we can deal with the negatives later”. Moreover, it would seem to be a bit mean to take the toy away from them while they’re happy that they have it and are happily playing with it. So you’d need to have incredibly good reasons to take that toy away before you’d do it.

Thus, advocating for something will always have an advantage over advocating against something. So, for example, it’s not likely that moderates will support completely overturning Roe vs Wade, but adding in extra restrictions and protections might, in fact, gain some traction with them.

Thus, moderates don’t really have arguments, they argue for compromises, but their main goal is the settle the issue and move on to things that they, at least, think more important.

How good can moderate arguments be when their own advocates are historically known for abandoning them?

They abandon them, though, typically when convinced otherwise or when the compromise is no longer valid. For both sides, accepting the compromise might be the better option than fighting it out, because there is always the possibility that they’ll lose, and if they lose they won’t even get what that compromise would have given them. The moderate argument is that while none of the sides will find it ideal, by the compromise they should at least get enough to satisfy them, and the compromise being rejected is usually seem as intransigence, at which point the only remaining option is the winner-takes-all approach of the legitimate conflict resolution mechanisms. And if it gets this far both sides will lose trust and respect from moderates because they’ll be seen as people who have no interest in compromising and are insisting on having things only their own way, which means that their proposals aren’t likely to take everyone’s interests into account. And on top of that, the side that loses actually lost, meaning that they didn’t get want they wanted and, much of the time, had exactly what they didn’t want to see enacted.

Moderates abandon their arguments when it is clear that they won’t serve their purpose of ending the dispute. That doesn’t mean their proposals weren’t the best options, just that neither side could or were willing to see that until it was too late.

Lack of Convenience …

October 25, 2017

So, for many years now, since university, a few times a year I’ve made a trip to the downtown area of my city. I’ve generally parked at my old university and then walked down there, either to one of a couple of interesting museums or, more frequently, just to the big mall and bookstore there, stopping on the way back at a few stores that I liked to shop at. In general, this was a pretty convenient trip for me, because a) it was easy for me to get to the university, b) I knew the university well enough to find a good place to park, c) it gave me quite a bit of extra exercise (walking to the mall took about an hour one way, while walking to the museum took about an hour and a half one way, d) the museum had a permanent exhibit that I really enjoyed, e) there were a number of shops in the mall and along the route that sold things I couldn’t really find anywhere else and f) along the entire route I could find stores that sold most of the things I wanted to look at, so even if I could find those things elsewhere I could make one trip and shop for all of them.

I’ve been busy lately, and so haven’t been able to get down there during the months when walking for an hour+ isn’t an incredibly stupid idea. I managed to get down there this past weekend, and noted that this incredibly convenient trip isn’t as convenient anymore.

1) The university is having a lot more special events than they used to, which makes parking and getting in and out of there more hit and miss (this weekend, they had a football game).

2) The museum re-did that permanent exhibit — which is another reason I hadn’t been down there in a while — and it’s lost the magic for me, turning it from a historical experience to a learning experience … and I have already learned the history and can learn the history myself without having to take three hours out of my life just to get there.

3) A lot of the stores that were unique there have closed.

4) A lot of the stores that were unique there I’m no longer interested in (one of them was a used CD store, but since my multi-CD player died and I couldn’t find a replacement buying CDs means adding on the work of ripping them to a USB drive).

5) And I can get pretty much everything that I could get from there somewhere else anyway, often from places where there are a number of places that I’d want to shop closer together than they are there.

About the only thing that I can still get out of that is the incredibly long walk … which I can make up for on my own anyway. The biggest benefit was that I was always walking somewhere which gave me the purpose I really needed to get exercise, but when it comes to walking I can usually compensate for that.

So, the really convenient trip has become too inconvenient to bother with. Maybe I’ll do it again if I go to see another play … which I haven’t done in at least a couple of years …

Further Thoughts on Cheers (End Season 5)

October 23, 2017

So, the first five seasons of Cheers is dominated by the Sam and Diane relationship. Which is unfortunate, because this arc is the least interesting out of the ones they had, featuring the least interesting characters — at least at the time — and is also filled with nonsense in an attempt to wring dramatic tension out of the relationship.

At the end of Season 3, Diane is proposed to by Frasier, accepts, and then tries to call Sam to, it seems, get him to admit his feelings for her and/or talk her out of it. When Sam finds out about the upcoming marriage, he rushes off to Italy to try to stop the wedding. The arc ends at the beginning of Season 4 with Diane having left Frasier at the altar, and Sam having had to go through a number of trials to stop a wedding that never happened. And both Sam and Diane are quite aware that the other did that.

So how come they don’t get together after that? At that point, neither of them can really deny their feelings for each other, and there isn’t even a real explanation of them thinking that the passion was there but that the relationship wouldn’t work. Even then it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to move on any time soon, and so at a minimum Diane probably should have stayed away from the bar and gotten a job somewhere else. But none of that happens because the show can’t let that happen, but there’s really no way to top this when it comes to their relationship. If this event didn’t convince them to get married or at least get back together, it seems that nothing could. And yet they still have to play this tired arc out and try to keep the tension in this relationship going somehow.

After a full season of this, they have Sam date a politician, who says that she wants marriage. This triggers Sam to think about marriage, and ultimately to ask Diane to marry him, who initially says “No” and then reconsiders, only for Sam to withdraw the offer. Not only is this in and of itself mostly ridiculous, it leads to Diane adopting the very annoying trait of consistently insisting that Sam is going to ask her again while Sam vehemently denies it. And the worst part of it is that given what has gone on before we know that Diane is right, but she’s being very smug and annoying about it. In an episode where Diane smugly insists that he will ask her that day, he does … and she says “No” again. At which point, they probably should just give it up, but instead they go to court and the judge insists that Sam propose in order to not be charged, which he does, she accepts, and they head to the end of the season planning a wedding. Which was also stupid, as it never really resolves why Diane said “No” the other times.

But since they don’t get married at the end of the season, you’d think that what makes them break up would follow from that, right? Nope … well, at least not directly. What happens is that Diane’s first fiance Sumner conveniently comes back right before the wedding — I think it was in the season finale — and says that he’s sent Diane’s book to an editor friend of his who thinks that it might be worth publishing, but only if Diane finishes it. He later confirms that it would be published, setting up a situation where it is believed that Diane has to choose between marrying Sam now or finishing the book. Sam convinces her — over her protests — to take the time to finish the book, which just happens to involve her going to Sumner’s cottage somewhere for six months. Diane insists that she’ll return, but she never does and the book deal ends up falling through. Diane is hinted at having gone to Hollywood to write for TV, probably a comment on Shelley Long focusing on making movies after that point.

But here’s why this really doesn’t work for me: bringing Sumner in at that point was just too convenient. Everyone should have suspected that he was doing this to try to break Sam and Diane up and possibly make a move on her himself. That he happens to send her novel off at pretty much the same time as he found out about the wedding and happens to send it to a friend who happens to think it will work and it just so happens that he has a secluded place available for her to work is an awful lot of happens to absorb, and yet no one questions his motives. If this had been set up more episodes in advance where there would have been time to question and verify what was happening, this would have worked out so much better. As it stands, it really looked to me like Sam and Diane got suckered by Sumner.

You can argue that Shelley Long’s decision to leave came too late to really do that sort of set-up, but then all they needed to do was have Sam or Diane have doubts about what her consistent “Nos” meant. Even if they had to leave the door open for her to return, this could have easily been resolved with her deciding that she needed more meditation time and then resolving that either way at the beginning of this season. As it stands, it’s a nonsensical ending to a nonsensical and boring story arc.

This is not helped by Diane being Flanderized a bit and becoming more annoying because of it. She always did have a streak of thinking that she was smarter and better than she really was, but she was always presented as being cultured and, for the most part, having some talent but ruining it by being overly ambitious and thus complicating everything. In Season 5, she’s far less competent and far more often overlooks failings that she really should have been able to spot. For example, in one episode she is trying out for ballet and gets a bad review of her abilities. To be nice, Frasier changes the recommendations to be more flattering, which ends up prompting her to barge in and try out for a professional ballet troupe to follow her dream, but Sam and Frasier stop her before she can make a fool out of herself. The problem is that she had a video of it, which makes everyone in the bar laugh at how ridiculous she looks. It’s perfectly reasonable for her to not see how her dancing really looks while dancing it, so that’s fine. But she watches it with them. And despite her having to know what the dance should look like, she thinks she did well, and it’s only when they tell her that they faked the review that she realizes otherwise. Well, sure, she might decide to trust the famous teacher over her own opinion, especially when that tells her what she wants to hear … but Diane had shown some self-awareness in the past, and this just sails right on past it. We might be able to believe that she could delude herself that badly about writing or poetry — although in those cases given how she does immerse herself in those media she’d likely be more derivative and think herself creative than be really, really bad — but with this she really should have known better.

And it isn’t even funny.

However, Cheers can be clever at times, and by now we’re starting to see its strength, which is its characters. Sam and Diane as characters work so much better when they are supporting the other characters and not hogging the spotlight. The relationship between Frasier and Lilith is much, much more interesting that the one between Sam and Diane. After starting from a disastrous first date, they end up on a show together, and Diane realizes that Frasier is in love with Lilith. Given her nature, she decides to intervene and tell Lilith about it, and then try to make her over in order to attract Frasier. What’s wonderful here is that when Diane tells Lilith that Frasier is in love with her, Lilith’s immediate reaction is that she’s not the type of pretty girl that people fall in love with, which made me immediately react with puzzlement. This seemed to come out of nowhere, and Bebe Neuwirth is a very attractive woman. But this results in Fridge Brilliance when you realize that the person who, so far, has made the biggest deal out of her looks is … Lilith. Diane simply says that she needs to dress better and use more … some makeup. Frasier, when he badmouths her, tends to talk about how cold and emotionally repressed she is, not about how unattractive she is, and give his personality he wouldn’t have asked her out the first time if he didn’t find her attractive. And if anyone else comments on that, it’s as a quick aside. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that she might have been awkward as a teen, and to avoid the teasing retreated to what she was better than most people at, which was things that involved intelligence, and thus cultivated the ideal intellectual manner, including the look. Since she wasn’t surprised that Frasier asked her out the first time, she had to think that her peers at least wanted to have sex with her, but could have fobbed it off as being the result of a male dominated field and her being one of the few women available. Her cold manner and aggressive intellectualism — worse than Frasier at lot of the time, who is pretty bad at it himself — would make most men not want to pursue a relationship with her, justifying her comment, and we can note that that is indeed what Frasier dislikes about her, and her more open style of dress and reaction to his flirting is probably more responsible for what gets his attention than simply that she looked hot. This underlying dynamic makes the relationship a lot more interesting than the shallow — and quickly dropped — idea of the cultured vs the everyday clash of Diane and Sam.

What the later seasons did better was avoid the split between the moral cultured class and the immoral or amoral working class. When Norm finds out that the person he is up against for a promotion is sleeping with the boss’ wife, while Diane is clearly opposed to him using that to get the promotion, Carla is also strongly opposed and Sam is uncertain about doing that as well. It’s pretty much left to Cliff to push for Norm doing it, and even here there isn’t a clear right answer.

That Norm doesn’t do it leads to another example of the importance of character. After he choose not to do it, the boss tells him that the reason Norm lost the promotion to the other person was that Norm’s wife Vera didn’t fit in with the other wives. Vera really wanted him to get the promotion so that they could buy a house. Norm is outraged and ends up quitting, and then has to tell his wife what happened. While he says that he plans to tell her the truth, he can’t hurt her that way, and so ends up accepting all the blame himself, proving that he really loves her despite his constant comments about her. This character development only carries on later when Diane tries to help Norm get noticed at a new job and get a promotion, and after his colleague steals Norm’s — bad, as it turns out — idea Norm finally says that he doesn’t want to big a big shot and just wants to be a worker drone, and is happy that way.

Woody makes a better replacement for Coach — the actor passed away in Season 3, I think — because as someone who is young you can maintain the naivete and stupidity without ever having to use the character as a mentor, which works against that. And Carla’s sniping got old, as it seems that pretty much everything she said was a snipe and it often interrupted the show to try to get in some cheap humour, which hurt her as a character.

So far Cheers is still “Okay”. Sometimes it’s clever and sometimes monumentally stupid. As I go on into season six, I’m finding that there’s more clever and less stupid, which is a good thing.

The Perils of the Moderate …

October 20, 2017

Everyone hates moderates.

Whenever you have strong ideologies or even positions on any topic, you will find moderates. And those people who are passionate about any of the options will always despise and criticize moderates for many, many reasons. We, in fact, have an entire fallacy dedicated to criticizing moderates the Argument to Moderation or “Golden Mean” fallacy, that ends up casting the moderate positions as fuzzy “middle-of-the-road” positions, taken for the sake of taking a middle ground. For the most part, moderates are seen as refusing to take sides, and even as aggressively defending their right to not take either side and to sometimes engage in “bothsidesism”, where they invalidly insist that both sides are equivalent, presumably mostly to maintain their fuzzy centrism and their ability to feel superior to both sides.

It is rare that anyone considers that most moderates might, well, be moderates because that’s the position that they actually believe. And even rarer that they deign to concede that that position might actually be correct.

Here is my argument: given two or more passionately held conflicting positions on a topic, most of the time some kind of intermediate and thus moderate position is going to be the correct one.

The reason for that is this: assuming that everyone is being honest in expressing their positions, in order for them to get passionately attached to their position there must be some sort of issue that drives that. There is something they want or, most likely, some kind of problem that they at least consider to be serious that they want solved. And in order for there to be any kind of passionate conflict between these positions, it has to be the case that the solutions to those problems have to at least be seen as being mutually exclusive, where if you solve the problem that is bothering one side you either can’t fix the problems of the other side or in fact end up making them worse. Thus, in anything that becomes any kind of passionate conflict, what you have are the various sides arguing for something that the other side sees as unacceptable given what they want.

Moderates, in general, often get torn between these sides, because they can see that each of them kinda have a point, and often understand the problems of all sides in ways that their opponents don’t. And they would like to see all of the problems fixed, and don’t want to see one side “win out’ over the others. Even when it comes to “bothsidesism”, for many moderates that doesn’t come from an insistence that all sides have to be equally bad, but instead noting that their actual problem is, say, with the tactics used, not with the causes being espoused. For example, my own personal objections to the “alt-right” using what they consider SJW tactics is that I hate the tactics and see their use as being a problem, not because I consider at least their stated goal of opposing the imposition of dubious values as being necessarily problematic, just as I consider the SJW tactics problematic but don’t oppose their stated goal of aiming for equality. I see identity politics as being harmful in and of itself, and so want that stopped, no matter what reason people use to justify using them.

Now, you can say “Well, what about the cases where the other side is hiding their real motivations, which we can all see because we’re perfect and telepathic and just utterly brilliant and that you somehow can’t see because you’re caught up in all of this ‘bothsidesism” that you cling to like a life preserver?”. I’d really rather people wouldn’t say it like that, but that’s pretty much only a mild exaggeration of what people actually say, with some slight sarcasm tossed in. Anyway, the problem is that once people become passionate about an issue there is always a risk that their stated motivations and their actual motivations won’t match up. For some, they will justify being deceptive on the basis that the mild deception will help them further their cause. For some, they will be prone to rationalization if they get accused of having less noble aims than they think they actually have, and thus being deceiving unintentionally and subconsciously. The issue here is that, in my experience, the problem is in the passionate attachment, not in the cause itself. If they can present a cause that at least seems reasonable, then their position has some justification to it, and so appealing to hidden motivations doesn’t actually change that the position, as presented, needs to be considered. And if you get into accusing your opposition of having hidden motives, you probably should take some time out to look to see if you happen to have a log in your own eye, just in case.

At the end of the day, though, passion or the lack of it is irrelevant. All that matters is coming to the right or best solution. So, given an opposition between strong views and an unconvinced set of moderates, the only right approach is calm and rational reasoning, teasing out the consequences and implications of each position and figuring out which is the right approach … which is what you really need to do to convince moderates that your position is right or at least more right than the other options.

That many people who passionately hold positions seems to bristle when it becomes clear that they would have to do that and instead insist that moderates are either apathetic or secretly support their opponents is indicative, it seems to me.

MMO Difficulty …

October 18, 2017

So, recently while playing The Old Republic I decided to dismiss my companion because I was going to do the Rakghoul infection quests and noted that in the past when playing with a companion they either tended to kill all the Rakghouls or at least draw all their attacks, making the infection a bit too difficult to achieve. However, I made a mistake and clicked on myself instead of on the companion, and noticed a setting called “Mission difficulty”, which I had set to “Story”.

Huh. No wonder the game was seeming really, really easy lately [grin].

To be fair, I had probably at some point noticed it and deliberately set it to “Story”, because that’s really how I wanted to play the game anyway. But this reminded me of how important and yet how counter-intuitive difficulty levels are for MMOs.

TOR isn’t the only MMO that did difficulty levels. The one that I’m most familiar with, City of Heroes (sniff), did it before it ended, and I’m sure other MMOs have tried it as well. But it seems kinda off to have difficulty levels in an MMO, since it would mean that you’d have different players in the world playing the game at different difficulty levels. Since one of the easiest ways to implement difficulty levels in an MMO — especially one that is heavily instanced — is to reduce the hitpoints and attack and defense strength of enemies, which can run into problems if you are in fact in a group and have to decide how to adjust them given the players in the group. Even adding attack and defense to the player’s character can cause problems, especially if, say, you give bonuses for damage done. It almost always seems like a safer and easier move to simply pick what you think is a reasonable difficulty level and let people who find it too difficult find a group to help them with those missions.

But the problem goes both ways. Some players will find some enemies to be too easy for them, and some missions thus too trivial, and would rather have a greater challenge, one that tests their skills. Thus, they might even want to play at a level where if you make even one mistake your character dies in order to have a tense challenge that forces them to practice their skills and pay close attention to the battles they are in. Obviously, setting the enemies to have this level of difficulty for everyone would eliminate most of your player base, so without difficulty levels they rarely, if ever, get that sort of challenge, and are bored.

Difficulty levels also provide a hedge against server population shrinkage. There might be a mission that is readily beatable with a group, but very tough to solo. This is fine and possibly even something to encourage when populations are high, but as they decline someone might really want or need to complete that mission and yet can’t find enough people interested in it to form a group to do it. Dropping the difficulty, if they are experienced or geared enough, might let them complete it anyway, even if they can’t find a group. Sure, they might be able to outlevel the mission enough to complete it, but that might require grinding and grinding is boring … and even then, changing the difficulty level means less overleveling they have to do before they can beat that mission.

Difficulty levels seem odd in an MMO, and yet they can indeed be useful to solve some issues that MMOs have and keep MMOs appealing to players longer.

The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

Thoughts on two books by Adrian Goldsworthy …

October 13, 2017

So, I recently somewhat read two books on Roman History by Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar and Pax Romana. I really liked Caesar, but couldn’t even manage to finish Pax Romana. I could have finished the latter if I had really tried, but I bought and was reading these books for entertainment and found at about the midway point that I wasn’t enjoying reading Pax Romana and wasn’t likely to start any time soon.

I think the main issue is that Pax Romana doesn’t really have a purpose, or at least one that the book supports. Goldworthy frames it as examining whether the Roman Empire could be considered peaceful and civilizing or aggressive and oppressive, but all he ends up doing is talking about how Rome gained its territories and how it governed them. While he generally slips in a comment or two about whether this made Rome oppressive or not, most of the time there’s no real direct relevance to the main thesis, and so if you are thinking about that premise you would be wondering how this all fits. However, most of the time you will have completely forgotten that that was what he was going for, and so simply be working through the details of how things worked in those areas or provinces. But he doesn’t go into enough detail on the everyday life of the people in those provinces or areas for it to work as just giving background history, and there’s no real chronological or even causal/narrative link between the sections to draw you along. Without a strong tie to the overall theme, the sections seem disconnected from each other, and the sections talk too shallowly about their specific topics to work as an interesting examination of those topics. At the end of the day, the topics examined were neither detailed enough to be enjoyed for their own sake or tied enough to a main thesis to work as establishing evidence for whatever conclusion Goldsworthy wanted us to draw.

Caesar works better — and is the one I read first — because it has an overarching framework to work with: Caesar. While there may be quibbles here and there, generally the book both has a reason for detailing what it does — telling us about Caesar — and has a chronological and causal chain carrying us from one chapter to the next, as we examine Caesar’s career. If we have to hop back into the past, it’s because what happened then is important — at least in the author’s mind — for understanding what happens to Caesar next. If we talk about political systems or historical events that don’t directly involve Caesar, it’s because it’s important to establish them in order to understand Caesar and how things got to that point. While the ending seemed a bit rushed, overall we get a pretty good narrative of Caesar and his life, as well as the cultural factors that made Rome what it was at the time and the systems that Caesar took advantage of and opposed.

Pax Romana had none of that, and so ended up seeming, at least to me, like a series of disconnected sections rather than any kind of comprehensive, unified work. And that, ultimately, bored me.

When MMOs Die …

October 11, 2017

So, after talking about how much I still miss City of Heroes last week, this weekend I managed to get in a little of The Old Republic. There’s talk about a server merge, which usually indicates a declining population, which then can indicate that, perhaps, the game isn’t going to be around much longer. And while I recently commented that TOR might end up being the only game I play for about a year, in thinking about it I realized that if TOR died I wouldn’t miss it anywhere near as much as I miss City of Heroes. But I would miss it.

Which gets into the things that a player would lose when an MMO has to fold. For the most part, for me, the things that I’ve missed have been things about the world itself, and not the gameplay or the social aspects. As I commented last week, there aren’t all that many superhero RPGs out there, so losing City of Heroes meant losing that world. Another of my favourite MMOs was Dark Age of Camelot, and there simply aren’t any games out there that combine Arthurian Legend, Celtic Myth, and Norse Mythology and crossover between all of them. In fact, there aren’t all that many games that try to even present one of those worlds, let alone three. And while RPGs in that era definitely occurred before, the eight story TOR does something that the other games don’t have the ability or funding to do.

It seems to me that in order for MMOs to compete, they often had to take on either unique experiences or attach themselves to existing popular worlds in order to stand out from the saturated crowd. After all, in terms of mechanics, gameplay and social aspects there’s not that much room to move or stand out, and if a player really likes that sort of thing they not only can keep playing the game that they first joined, they actually have reason to given that they’d have social networks already built up and a number of in-game advantages. If you want players to move, then, you have to give them something new, and a new and interesting world is probably the easiest and least risky way to do that. This means, though, that when an MMO goes away so does access to that world.

And I think MMOs taking on a unique setting is potentially bad for that setting, because it discourages companies from trying a non-MMO game in that setting. While the MMO is running, it can be seen as too much competition for the new game to handle unless the population is big enough to handle multiple games, which many MMO settings are at least not believed to be. And when the MMO dies and the competition is no longer there, there is always the concern that this means that the target audience is burned out on the setting, and so a new game in that space won’t succeed.

I’d love a new, good superhero RPG. Or Arthurian, Celtic, or Norse RPG. But I haven’t really seen any lately, and so without playing the MMOs I don’t get to play in those worlds anymore. I can and have to believe that if TOR closed that a new Star Wars RPG would get made, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. It’s almost a shame, then, how the MMO surge managed to get games in those settings made, since it’s not likely that their success will translate into getting new games in those settings when they’re gone.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.