On Gaming And Imagination

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. We wrap up this year’s week with a manifesto on gaming that speaks, frankly, for itself.

I have been a gamer for ninety percent of my life. That ratio is going to increase, and that much is certain. However, it’s important to note that I’m only thirty. That means that I started gaming when I was three years old. I’ve told that particular story many times before, about how my grandfather held me up to the Pac-Man cabinet at the pizza parlor and let me play.

But the fact remains, I wasn’t born a gamer. There were more than two years of my life where gaming was not an ingrained part of the American consciousness, and by extension not part of my life. Some of the more cynical among you will likely think that it was those two years where I was truly safe, and the day I first held the joystick was the day I became irrevocably corrupted. Pac-Man Fever was, for people in those sorts of mindsets, a terminal disease.

I’m going to put it to you, my fellows, that there was no safe point. There was no time in the world when gaming, of some kind or another, did not engulf this world and have a chance to put its hands on me, and itself in my hands. Think on this for a moment: In the fall of 1983 CBS introduced the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, as well as the Saturday Supercade, which was in addition to the Pac-Man cartoon that had premiered the year before on ABC. Video gaming was big enough then to spawn mainstream television about it– but it would also spawn controversy.

The idea that media can be created and developed stands at odds to the desire of those in charge of the existing media to stay in charge. Newspapers felt threatened by radio, which felt threatened by television, which has felt threatened by the internet and video games. It’s all a matter of companies in control wanting to remain in control, and when a new source of information– a new medium– comes along, it shakes up the balance of viewership and power within all media. Some might say that that’s a needlessly cynical view, but I posit that it isn’t cynical enough. Human nature being what it is, there’s a reason we have the aphorism about power and corruption.

Nowadays, the public at large doesn’t fall into a huge panic about every new little thing that comes around. With the maturation of a sufficiently jaded generation, we recognize that rock and roll is here to stay, that Dungeons and Dragons inspires creativity, that video games can be a great way to pass the time, and that the internet is not entirely for porn. It is because we have lived through the persecution of these media that we understand that the needless ridicule and pseudo-vetting process isn’t helping matters and in fact hinders the acceptance of potentially beneficial technologies.

In the world of video games, however, few are as universally accepted as flight simulators. While around 2002 there was some unfortunate misunderstanding regarding their ease of acquisition, in general the flight simulator is a well accepted and perfectly understood piece of software that is almost always hailed as a “game”. Microsoft’s Flight Simulator software line has been going strong for decades now, and as technology has advanced, it is possible to build a flight cockpit so realistic as to permit its use as part of a real pilot’s training regimen. There are many arguments as to why realism in games is a bad thing, but if this “game” was not so realistic– if it did not conform to the physical world in every way– would it be as accepted? I think not. I think, in point of fact, that if MS Flight Simulator had featured and prided itself on even the slightest deviancy from reality, it alone would be held responsible for the events of late 2001 by the court of public opinion.

When you get down to it, that’s where the world finds its greatest fear in games. The world cannot accept the fact that there is something wrong with it. In employing imagination to alter the parameters of the world– to presuppose that something that is, should not be, and that something that isn’t, should– the collective society is cut to the quick. Such a declaration irrationally frightens people. I have absolutely no idea why.

Is it really so bad to conceive of a world better than ours is? Are people so unwilling to engage in self-analysis and reflection that they would instead turn a blind eye to anything that highlights their imperfection? More than that, even with completely fantastical elements such as magic, or advanced technology, people are squeamish to the point of repudiation. Why is this? What could provoke such an irrational, pointless, self-destructive fear? What did Harry Potter, Gandalf the Grey, Malcolm Reynolds, and Luke Skywalker ever do to you?

Some people say that being a gamer is a pejorative mark, and that it’s indicative of an intellect that far outstrips its social grace. I think it’s the other way around. I think that those individuals who play games, who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, are able to set aside the more ridiculous preconceptions of society and engage their imaginations with all four cylinders running. The ability to see the flaws in a situation and conjure up ways it can be improved is nothing but a benefit.

Society has always had a love-hate relationship with imagination. We encourage our youngest children to make-believe, to pretend and to imagine the limitless possibilities that stand before them. As time wears on, though, we teach them instead that imagination is poisonous, that someone who isn’t 100% completely grounded in reality at all times without the slightest spark of creativity is going to be forever a child. We encourage imagination at early ages because we see it as a childish conceit, instead of proof of our innocence which we must never lose. The day we, collectively, stop dreaming is the day we, to a man, die.

On the flip side, though, an overabundance of imagination is poisonous. If we lose contact with reality entirely, we become unhinged, deranged, dangerous. Someone who is unable to understand the connection they have to the world, and the world to which they have a connection, is a liability no matter what wondrous works they conceive of. It’s important to have a basis in reality, but that doesn’t mean we have to be there all the time. Moderation is the key, as it is with everything in this world, or worlds we have yet to even hear of.

For my part, and from my perspective, gaming and creativity are the sparks most people need to rekindle the fires of their imagination. They see the worlds that others have created, even if they’re as simple as a yellow partial pizza chomping dots and escaping ghosts in a blue maze. Somewhere in that interaction– in plugging yourself into someone else’s world and letting the real one fall away, for a time– your own world comes alive once more. And there can be no greater good than finding that the worlds you once thought were things of your past, the mental places you played in as a child, can be passed down to the children you have, or will have.

So let’s play a game.

On Dungeons And Dragons, Revisited

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. Today we take a look back at the very first Essay Week topic three years ago, and see if I was rolling 20’s that day.

It’s not that Dungeons and Dragons has become less nerdy in the two years since its fourth edition was released. Quite the contrary, in point of fact, as the game now has an emphasis on miniature modeling in addition to die-based roleplaying. The books are more numerous, the gameplay more dogmatically defined, and the characters hewn more closely to standard fantasy and gaming archetypes. But, even within that strictly nerdy framework, the players involved are becoming ever so more diverse.

In retrospect, I think maybe Wizards of the Coast made a bad call in describing 4th edition as ‘evolutionary, not revolutionary’. A huge amount changed between 3.5 and 4.0, and with it came a pretty bad backlash against WOTC. This retaliation came in no small part due to two specific things, both of them very dogmatic and very dear to many players’ and supporters’ hearts.

The first, and probably the least obvious one, is the dropping of the Open Gaming License system. Introduced alongside 3rd Edition in 1999, the OGL was intended to make creating content for Dungeons and Dragons “safer” for players after the (and I hesitate to use this word, even though it’s both thematically and literally appropriate) draconian measures that TSR had employed during editions prior to 3rd. TSR had seen the Internet as a threat to their ability to maintain a profit on D&D in the 1990s, and as a result cracked down HARD on discussion of the game. Even when the discussion was purely positive. It was so bad that even the official discussion boards for the smash-hit computer game Baldur’s Gate, which was itself based on D&D rules and officially licensed by TSR, could not talk about the rules that the game employed. By taking an open-source approach to the creation of D&D supplements, it was hoped that interest in D&D would surge.

It certainly did, but with that came the attendant increase in really crappy modules and rule splatbooks. Sturgeon’s Law was in full force, and Hasbro (at the time the owners of the D&D property) could do little about them. The core rules for the game were freely available except for a few key elements such as character creation and class listings. Think of it like the rules for poker: you can go to any website in the world and download the rules for poker for free, but you still need to buy a deck of cards to actually play. While OGL and the D20 System were very good ideas in theory– and the D20 System rules are still among the clearest and most straightforward of any RPG systems available– it was still, in Hasbro/WOTC’s eyes, a wash.

So, when 4th Edition rolled around, both the OGL and D20 System were quietly taken out behind the shed. This presented a legal problem for WOTC. They could not revoke the OGL license and fully kill off 3.0/3.5, and in truth they didn’t want to, as that would undo a lot of the goodwill they’d regained from players. On the other hand, they wanted to push 4th Edition as the proverbial “new hotness”, and owing to this they needed to wash their hands of the game system. Enter Paizo Publishing, a child company of WOTC that had been set up to handle the magazines Dungeon and Dragon (two different magazines at first, later rolled into one). An agreement was set up: Paizo would split off from WOTC, and become its own entity. They would then trade licenses: Paizo would gain control of the OGL and D20 System, and WOTC would gain the Dungeon and Dragon names for… we’ll get to that in a bit. This worked for gamers, but it was bad for WOTC as the ‘new’ game on the block– Pathfinder– was now in direct competition for the hearts and minds of players. Ultimately, though, it worked out for everyone’s benefit, again as we’ll discuss momentarily.

The second issue that stuck in gamers’ craws was the complete revamp of the way the game was played. Whereas in 3.0/3.5 miniatures representing players and monsters were a strong recommendation, in 4.0 they became all but a requirement as the game took a more tactical emphasis on combat. Adding to this the fact that the character classes were completely redesigned to provide a better focus on the combat role each character would play in a functional party (thus preventing a party from having not enough offense or defense to withstand a challenge), the fact that characters of all classes now gained abilities in exactly the same ways and were all more “wizard-y” (thus preventing the problem of magic users far outstripping straight fighters at high levels), and the fact that, for the first time in the game’s history, a complete and fully-supported computer application suite was being offered for a monthly fee to assist in session development and character creation/maintenance (thus preventing the problem of players complaining that creating such game resources was too time-consuming and difficult), and the conclusion was leapt to almost immediately that D&D had become pen-and-paper World of Warcraft.

The truth is, that’s an unfair and knee-jerk reaction to the benefits these advances provided. Yeah, so you can’t play a wizard because the party needs a physical fighter; now you have all these really cool fighter-type classes to choose from that don’t have just “hit things with sword” as their only course of action, and you can preview anything in the game– literally every officially published class, splatbook, and magical geegaw– up to level 3 for free. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on miniatures if you have a bunch of pawns or spare dice and some imagination. Games can be organized more quickly and played much faster. And while there’s still an emphasis on combat, if you have a good DM, you can sometimes go entire weeks of playtime without having to resort to violence.

Since the game’s debut in June of 2008, I’ve played in a few different runs here and there and even run a couple of sessions myself. Another friend of mine has fallen completely in love with the game, and spends a lot of his spare time trying to shoehorn interesting mechanics into the 4th Edition ruleset (and is making a pretty good name for himself by posting his successes for others to work with). What I’ve noticed, though, is that the game is quickly becoming more universal and more accepted in mainstream society. The crowd of gamers who join in the monthly sessions at GASP is skewing slightly older, and the younger ones joining in are from incredibly diverse backgrounds and are not at all what could be considered Geek Classic. It’s becoming a universal thing, and I love it.

I’m not saying we’re going to see Congress resolve its issues with rolls of 20-sided dice, or that the UN will replace its Secretary-General with a Maitre de Jeux Internationale. But as time wears on, and as the geeks get older, we’re seeing Poker Nights and D&D Nights go neck and neck for get-together activities. What the geeks of yesterday played, the world of today is discovering, and will become the commonplace of tomorrow. Revolutionizing the game has prompted the evolution of the society surrounding it.

For my part, I really enjoy the game, and making it easier to play has been probably the best thing to happen to it. I have more 4th Edition books than any other game system, and I’m seriously considering starting up a campaign to run using pre-made modules (I don’t have time to build a campaign from scratch right now, even though I’d love to). But really, what it’s done that’s most telling is that I have what I call the “+2 Case of Gaming”, fully stocked and ready at a moment’s notice to roll, something I’ve never done for any other pen-and-paper game. If the game’s ready for me at any time, then I ought to be ready for the game at any time.

On Planning and Overplanning

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. Today’s theme is the waste of a perfectly good course of action, and how to prevent it.

Earlier this week, I ran into a little bit of trouble with my car. It rattled me enough to derail the topic I did have planned for today, which I’ll get to tomorrow. The short version of the story there is that the thermostat coupling on the car broke, and threatened to overheat the engine. I knew from experience that when I saw the temperature gauge rising, I needed to stop immediately and get the thing fixed; the last time I’d let it slide, the car I did it to did not appreciate it one bit, and died a rather spectacular death on Interstate 480 in Cleveland.

As I said, I had not planned for this– but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t prepared for it. I have a membership to AAA, and I’d been rather conservative with my spending over the past few weeks in preparation for, if nothing caught my eye at the con, then repairs and upgrades to my Windows computer. It turns out that the part was not expensive, and that in the end all I really lost was half a day’s work and a mere fraction of what I had saved. It didn’t impact my con plans at all, in the end.

I have a tendency to overplan, though. Most of the time that I’m out of the house these days, I carry around my backpack, which at any given moment contains: a laptop computer, charging cables, headphones, my sunglasses, an umbrella, my DS, my e-reader (or a physical book), a USB drive, some Tylenol, an emergency Red Bull shot, a Sharpie, and a deck of cards. And that’s the “not really going anywhere” loadout; weekdays it also contains my lunch and one or two bottles of soda for the day, which honestly is where the majority of its weight usually comes from when it weighs a ton. Believe it or not, this is down from when I first started carrying a backpack on a regular basis a few years ago. Whenever I’m asked about it, though, my answer is always the same: “Everything in this bag, I’ve needed at some point or another.”

The motto of the Boy Scouts of America is “Be Prepared”. I flunked out of the Boy Scouts early on. But that lesson has always stuck with me. One of the things I really hate experiencing is the feeling of helplessness that comes with knowing you totally did not foresee something happening, and that exact circumstance is what’s going on right now and wrecking your day. To avert that, I tend to let my mind wander into situations where it would take a ludicrous conflagration of unfortunate and tragic coincidences to converge precisely right in order to justify, say, a couple extra hair ties. It turns out, though, I’m not the only person to take preparedness to a bizarre extreme.

Part of the recent resurgence of interest in zombie films and literature stems from a phenomenon and phenomenology study that was featured on Slashdot a few years back. Survivalists were training their students on how to be ready in the exceedingly unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse. The justification was that if you were able to hold out on your own for a couple of weeks while civilization and the military got their stuff together and mounted a rescue operation, all the while fending off the newly-risen undead, you were in theory prepared for almost any eventuality, from fire, to flood, to full-on invasion. The theory has some merit, as there’s little functional difference between a fast-moving cannibalistic corpse driven by eldritch forces, and a human enemy high on adrenaline and God knows what else, screaming towards you with guns blazing.

Then again, I live near Monroeville, which is pretty much Zombie Central, so I could be biased.

The odds of having to get Romero on a horde of shambling zombies are pretty low, even on the day after the Super Bowl, so the preparedness can be a little overspecialized. I also don’t realistically foresee myself needing to know how to fire a gun and having my life depend on it, but stranger things have happened. (Plus, in all honesty, I like shooting games, and I’m fairly good at them, but not terribly fast on the draw.) As with everything, the point of the zombie-apocalypse scenario is meant to serve as an example of the kind of flexible thinking needed for disaster preparedness, and not necessarily as the end goal.

What is the most valuable asset to have in the case of an emergency beyond human reckoning? Is it a firearm, for protection? Is it physical strength, for survivability? Is it medical knowledge, for preventing trivial wounds from becoming deadly? I posit that all of those are nearly unimportant next to the ability to think on your feet and quickly adapt to changing conditions. If you can avoid conflict, engineer solutions, and evade danger, you have no need for those things. If the worst happens, though, you can still come out of it smelling like a rose if you’re smart enough and adaptable enough.

One of my favorite board games of late is Agricola. The game is a very complex and intricate simulation of farming in the Dark Ages, and it is very difficult to do well unless you have a plan from the very outset of the game. The problem is that, even though you have your own plot of land that is untouchable by the other players, and even though the influence of luck on the game is minimal to nonexistent, other players can and will wreck your plans as soon as they get a whiff of what they are– or even just by competition borne of the scarcity of valuable resources. In order to succeed, you need to be able to quickly alter your plans in the event that a critical resource you were eyeing becomes unavailable, or to prevent your rivals from gaining an upper hand from which you might never recover. I don’t win as often as I’d like, but I’m doing a hell of a lot better than I did when I first started.

The point is, having a plan is important, but not nearly as important as knowing when to abandon a plan that’s gone awry and try to salvage what you can. For my part, when I’m caught in a bad situation, or when life throws me a curve, I find myself quickly taking stock of what resources I have at my disposal. I then work under the assumption that I’m going to take the greatest advantage of those resources possible, while maintaining their sustainability. Sometimes this means giving up on a part of the goal I set out to achieve to begin with. Other times, it means cutting my losses and trying to get away with the least amount of damage possible. Regardless, I try very hard not to fall into despair that things are not proceeding exactly as planned. A mood like that is self-perpetuating, unhelpful, and dangerous.

Sun Tzu’s most famous quotation comes to mind: “If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” Planning without overplanning means knowing what’s coming at you, and knowing what you can and can’t do about it. A more recent military mind, Donald Rumsfeld, added: “There are things we know that we don’t know: the known unknowns. And then there are the things we don’t know that we don’t know: the unknown unknowns.” It’s best to focus on the known unknowns, and account for ways around the answers to those questions. Where adaptability comes into play is when a known unknown rapidly spirals into unknown unknown territory, and being able to turn an unknown into a known is a skill that is only forged by doing it.

For my part, I’m still going to haul around that backpack, with all its junk and all its seemingly useless stuff. Batteries die, ink runs out, and paper burns; but if I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere, with a rescue a long ways off, I’ll be damn glad to have that deck of cards to pass the time.

On Why I Write

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. Today’s essay goes into what I do on this here blog.

Recently I’ve had occasion to take stock of what I do with myself online, and while for the most part I tend towards a ‘read-only’ view of the majority of the web, this blog and its predecessor, along with the Linguankery project, are where the majority of my effort and output winds up. The question has been posed to me in several different ways, but it all comes down to the same thing in the end: Why exactly do I feel the need to write a blog?

As with everything, the answer is a little complex. First, of course, is the fact that I’ve been told many times, and feedback has confirmed, that I’m a good writer. I’m also quite confident of this fact without the validation of others, in point of fact; so much so that I’d written two full novel drafts before the Linguankery project ran, just to see if I could. I’m not perfect, and I suppose I’m far from being able to quit my day job, but I know my way around words.

The second is that I like to be able to keep a record of what’s going on in my life, and I also think that it’s of interest to some people. Now, granted, some random jerk off the street isn’t going to be reading this blog to get a deep insight into what I had for breakfast (it was cereal, if you must know). However, my family, both immediate and extended, do read, and are interested in how I’m doing. That’s the primary reasoning behind my desire to have daily updates. More to the point, on occasion I’ll stumble upon some bit of interest to a wider audience, and sometimes I talk about pointless stuff. It evens out, really.

The thing is, though, when people ask “why do you write a blog?”, they’re not asking that question. The real question that they want to ask, but in most cases aren’t willing to outright say, is “why are you making this information public?”. This also carries with it the implicit remark, “Nobody will care about this, nobody will notice, and it’s not like you’re writing anything big or important. Don’t you have better things to do with your time?” It certainly is a question worth considering.

The thing is, though, for reasons I’ve stated above, people do care. Even if it’s just a convenient way to reach a whole bunch of family members at once, or if maybe the topic at hand really is just interesting to two or three people in the entire world. The thing about the internet is that, no matter what you write, the odds are good that someone out there will read it, and that someone will be interested.

As to the quality of the writing– something I freely admit has been highly variable on this blog– that’s a stylistic matter, honestly. I like to think that when I write a blog post, or a forum comment, it’s giving me a bit more practice in the rapidly-fading art of true literacy. I’m firmly of the belief that being literate in this day and age means being able to write as well as if not better than being able to read, and that the shortcuts we take in communication will inevitably harm us. I don’t care for chatspeak, I try not to unironically use obsequious SMS abbreviations, and even in instant messages I strive to write in full, complete sentences. It makes me a slower communicator, of course, but I think it also makes a big difference.

Writing of any kind is an important practice to learn, to cultivate, and to maintain. It disheartens me when I hear of budget cuts to a school, but I see red whenever I hear of cuts to literature and arts programs. A student goes to school not to be indoctrinated with a regimen of essential facts and knowledge, nor to be given a broad but shallow pool of initialization in various fields to pick which one he or she is most suited to. The purpose of education in an enlightened, democratic society is to give the student the tools and skills needed to enable them to express themselves to their fullest potential, regardless of their ultimate path in life. Key among these skills is the ability to clearly communicate, because that opens the door to all other learning.

However, like anything, writing, and writing well, can be forgotten as time wears on without exercising it. How many of you could honestly sit down and write a book report these days? How many of you even think it’s an activity worth undertaking? Writing doesn’t just exercise our vocabulary, it acclimates us into a higher level of critical thinking. It’s easy to absorb words and to understand them, but to bend those words to your will to clearly express an amorphous idea in your head takes more than just passive mental acuity. Word games like crosswords, Word Ace, and the like fall somewhere in between this: good stopgaps, but ultimately no replacement for the act and art of crafting a written work.

There is another element to writing, one which I indulge in more often than some others. When I am not writing for this blog, or jotting a forum post down, I am doing creative writing– novel-writing. Fiction is an interesting and nebulous area to consider when discussing the merits of writing, and as it turns out the advent of the internet has put the spotlight on a form of creative writing that tends to get a lot of undue disrespect: fan-fiction. (For those unfamiliar with the term, this is when a person writes a story using characters, settings, or other elements from a popular and well-known (usually) commercial work, such as Star Wars or Final Fantasy. I’ll get into the immediate concern in a moment.)

Fan-fiction, and indeed most fan-created works, tend to be viewed with exceptional disdain by the internet at large, mostly due to the fact that, like everything, it conforms to Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of it, if not a slightly higher percentage, is utter unreadable dreck. I served as a submissions reviewer for a fairly well-known news site that had a fan-fiction section, and if I had to go by the entries I read, I’d skew that number closer to 95% (and yes, that certainly includes my own work). The thing is, though, in the minority that isn’t god-awful, one can see the beginnings of some truly great authors. Either in plot, characterization, or merely capturing a particular prose style, some tales out there are quite amazing. I’ve always said, and I still maintain, that fan-fiction is the best way to develop creative writing skills and to discover plots you never even knew you wanted to write.

Where fan-fiction becomes a liability is primarily in its legality. Strictly speaking, any fan-fiction is a violation of copyright, as the author is taking elements from a work he or she did not create. In the vast majority of cases, since the derivative, tributary work is being produced not for profit, the producer of the original work is either willing or compelled to turn a blind eye to the derivatives, mostly due to the accepted standards of fair use. If the derivative work is deliberately damaging to the original– such as misrepresenting the themes of the original to provoke a reaction, or using the characters to lend an artificial endorsement to a damaging or hateful point of view– or if the derivative work is being produced for profit, the company does have a legal basis for reprisal. But, like I said, for the most part, original creators tend to ignore or even encourage fan-works. Some fairly prolific authors began by writing fan works, even if those works never see the light of day, and could never be used to give a new author exposure or pre-publication credit.

There is, of course, another liability to fan-fiction, and that is complacency. Most fan-fiction authors do not ‘graduate’ to wholly original fiction. This is sometimes due to a self-imposed feeling of inadequacy: “I’ll never be able to write characters from whole cloth, and why should I when I have all of commercial fiction to draw upon?” and so on. I don’t think, inherently, it’s a bad thing to limit one’s writing to fan-works, particularly if one genuinely doesn’t feel a need to become a professional writer. But I do think that everyone should at least try. And I mean, make a real effort at it. Sit down and bang out a fifty thousand word pile of crap. It may wind up being better than you think possible.

What it all really boils down to in the end– the question of why I write– is that it’s a hobby of mine, just like following sports or collecting cars. People have spent their lives doing stranger things; and while it could cynically be seen as self-absorption, I would think that a blog can’t be so easily dismissed by those outside its intended audience, regardless of who that audience is. In an age where all information is kept, all information has value to someone, on a long enough timeline.

On Responsible Consumption

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. Today I take the metaphor of ‘food for thought’ unusually literally.

I am, as has been noted before, a caffeine fiend. The day that wondrous molecule is outlawed– heaven forfend– I will have to start the day with naught but an egg and a waffle, or possibly cold cereal. At least until sugary cereal is put on the bad books, too. However, in the past few years, a market has sprung up around the quaffing of caffeine in forms other than coffee. As I’m not a big fan of coffee in general, you can see how this would be interesting to me.

One of the leading brands of energy drinks nationally available is Rockstar. Bearing no relation to the video game developer of the same name, it is however just as controversial, as the company was co-founded by the son of a prominent highly-conservative talk radio host. The radio program has often espoused messages which portray disagreeing individuals as unworthy of the right to express their opinion, and when called out on his irresponsible application of his right to express an opinion, the host has not stood by positions that could get him into serious trouble if he indicated that they were his true beliefs. The connections between the drink company and the radio program are purportedly non-professional, but the fact remains that proceeds of the sale of the drink could indirectly be used to further an agenda that I not only find distasteful, but in fact downright harmful.

And yet, this past weekend, I found myself drinking a can of it. I have often tried to stick by my principles in my purchasing decisions, and I occasionally find myself in situations where I must discern the lesser of two evils. I no longer express surprise that these juxtapositions between Scylla and Charybdis can be easily and commonly found on the store shelf betwixt Sensodyne and Coca-Cola.

It is an interesting situation that we find ourselves in these days, where the every machination behind the scenes of a company are exposed and placed out there for everyone to see. As a society, Americans today enjoy a level of corporate transparency that is unparalleled throughout human history. If you want to know exactly how your hot dogs are made, and exactly what goes into them, more power to you, and you shall have your wish– for better or for ill. You see, while hot dogs may be tasty, the process of making them can put you off them for quite a while. In the interests of allowing you to keep your own breakfast down I shall refrain from elucidating on that point.

The problem arises when it turns out that everything we consume today is, on some level and from some point of view, a metaphorical hot dog. Every company has its fingers in politics and policies that someone, somewhere, is going to find distasteful. Starbucks puts local coffee shops out of business. Wal-Mart works its employees to death. Target sells low-quality goods as ‘premium’ brands. Cars are made in Japan, and built in Canada. The United States has a dwindling production economy, and some days it seems like there’s no way for an ordinary citizen to combat this.

A few years ago I recall reading about a family that made an attempt to purchase only American-made goods for a full year. The experiment was rough and difficult, and in the end it turned out that the US-made goods were higher-priced and sometimes lower-quality than the foreign goods; it should be emphasized that the quality disparity was not a universal trait: it averaged out to being about even. The family decided not to continue the experiment once the year was up, but did encourage people to try it for themselves for a certain period of time.

I am not advocating an exclusionary economic policy. I’m certainly not saying that there’s a benefit or a detriment to American-made goods. What I am saying is that everything we buy today– every single purchase you make, be it a lowly bottle of water to a house and beyond– every single thing we buy comes with two price tags attached: the money we spend on it, and the implicit support we give to the producers of that object. Nothing is ‘clean’. Nothing is without politics these days, and there is no refuge in ignorance. The information is out there, and by the way certain people can, will, and feel entitled to judge you by your spending habits, what the producers do with the money is directly and inescapably your fault.

Obviously, I find that position to be ridiculous, to be polite about it, and complete and utter bullshit to be perfectly frank. In cases where a purchase is explicitly mentioned to benefit a cause or charity, the theory has some amount of credence. But even then, it has its problems.

A 1998 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research stated that, in general, consumers were more likely to purchase products that explicitly benefitted a charity when that product was considered a ‘frivolous’ expenditure, such as a movie pass or a bag of M&Ms. The same paper, however, approaches the charity proceeds as a marketing tool, and not as a purely altruistic endeavor. Furthermore, it does not discuss the possibility that the corporation may not be passing along the proceeds in good faith, or that the charity ‘campaign’ is in actuality funding the general, publicly-lauded, lump-sum contributions corporations make. This obfuscation stands at a sharp contrast from the openness seen earlier.

For my part, I view energy drinks as a ‘utilitarian’ purchase, in the sense that the paper contraposes that against the ‘frivolous’ expenditures. It is certainly a luxury, but in my case it takes the place of coffee in someone else’s expenditure budget, and many people would see coffee as ‘utilitarian’. However, with the awareness of the political and social baggage behind every single purchase, it is easy for someone socially conscientious or socially activist to quickly become paralyzed by indecision. Do I support this cause indirectly? But the alternative indirectly promotes views I vehemently disagree with. But this third option is completely unsuited to my tastes or needs!

The answer is not simple. More importantly the answer is not, cannot be, and will never be universal. Though I certainly harbor no desire to assist an extreme-conservative agenda, someone else may find something to agree with in the words of the radio host connected to Rockstar energy drinks. That’s their right, and I won’t stand in their way. The point of this essay isn’t to demonize any one viewpoint, but to simply state the point: Nothing is ‘clean’. Every purchase you make can and will further someone’s agenda somewhere along the line.

In dealing with this awareness, I find it helpful to look at a sort of parable that author Neal Stephenson had put, possibly inadvertently, into his Baroque Cycle of books. At a point in the story, a certain quantity of gold, presumed by the characters to be the fabled Solomonic Gold– the result of transmutation of common substances via elemental quicksilver– is lost track of by the individuals from which it was stolen. Initially this group finds itself in despair, as the gold will likely be melted down, minted into coins, and released into general circulation. It will be impossible to recover in this state. However, the group concocts a plan to start a bank, with the express purpose of buying the gold out of circulation. To do this, they will have to buy all gold they come across, as during the minting process, the Solomonic Gold will have been combined with common gold. Stephenson appropriates the word ‘con-fusion’ to describe this process.

The point being, in our modern day society of liquid funds and digital currency, the concept of money from a corporation’s coffers being directly traceable back to a single consumer of the company’s products is difficult to the point of nigh-impossibility. The $2.50 I spent on the can of Rockstar would produce about $0.25 of profit to the company (if even that– I’m far from being an economist but I would be willing to bet that a nationally-distributed brand such as Rockstar would have the luxury of operating on razor-thin margins owing to the sheer scale of their operations). Twenty-five cents, out of possibly tens of thousands of dollars of profits. Quite simply, it would be as if I had dropped a quarter on the street and the talk show host had just happened to pick it up. I have no control over where ‘my’ quarter goes after that point.

I should note, of course, that the can I drank last week was the first one in about three years, and only because the store was mostly picked-over and I hadn’t tried the cola flavor before. It wasn’t bad, but it’s certainly not compelling enough for me to swallow my morals and become a regular customer.

In the end, it’s okay to lapse once in a while out of necessity. Sometimes, even, you shouldn’t think too hard about what you’re buying. It can be easy to focus on one particular negative aspect of a purchase. That can of Rockstar did give a quarter to a cause I despise, but it also gave $2.25 to a whole bunch of people I’ll never meet, who may need it. Some of that presumably goes to the clerk at the store who sold me the can. Some goes to the company that made the aluminum; some goes to the farmer who grew the corn for the HFCS (which is its own can of worms, but we’ll get into that some other day). We are all only human, and we are all of us looking to make our way. Sometimes that means helping out someone who we disagree with, albeit several dozen levels removed from the process. I worked for a pretty big company for a couple years, too, one I’m sure that radio host that I disagree with used on more than one occasion. In a way, he’s contributed to someone who’d counter his interests, too. It’s okay to lapse, as long as you’re aware of what your purchases are doing, and making a conscious and conscientious effort to mitigate your support for groups against your own beliefs.

Sunday evening, I went to a local chain of convenience stores, looking for an alternative to the energy drinks I’d seen at the supermarket– you can only drink the same thing for so long. On the shelf next to my usual favorite flavors were cans of the store brand, labeled in very large letters, “DRINK THIS, HELP KIDS”. I bought five. The drink isn’t great, of course, but it’s at least tolerable. Knowing the charity, though, and knowing exactly how much of a difference it really makes– well, this can of the drink certainly tasted sweeter than the last time I’d had it.

On the Recording of Emotions

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. After a bit of a hard-edged start, we move to a more fluid topic.

A few years back, Mike Doughty, lead singer for Soul Coughing, released a cover of Kenny Rogers’ iconic song “The Gambler”. The cover transposes the song to a more alt-rock style, leaning more heavily on the drums than the original (which was dominated by acoustic guitar), and it drops half of one of the narrative verses in favor of starting with the legendary and infinitely-memorable chorus. In many respects the cover is good, but it loses something in the retelling, particularly without the missing section.

“The Gambler”, at its core, is a fairly standard country-western song. Country as a rule tends to be more narrative than other genres (excepting perhaps blues or certain types of folk), and as a result each song is more akin to a short story than a piece of music. In the original version, “The Gambler” tells the tale of an aging card sharp passing along his last words of wisdom to the singer as he quietly dies. If one pays very close attention to the song, and considers the story that the song presents with due thought, it becomes a strong and very emotional piece.

Despite the missing verse, Mike Doughty’s version still conveys the emotions that Kenny Rogers’ does. Both versions act as testaments to the strength of the singer and the story, as I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who, once told of the deep element of the song, still thinks of it as the frivolous little ditty it once was seen as.

Although it is most often seen with music, it is a phenomenon by no means limited to that medium. Last year, after the unprecedented success of James Cameron’s Avatar, the news services (for what it’s worth) were flooded with reports of people coming away from the film feeling depressed and despondent. Not due to the film’s mood, but rather due to the fact that the film had ended— that they would see no more of Pandora than what had already been committed to digital celluloid. Perhaps it is excessively cynical of me to dismiss that sentiment with the single word “sequel”, but on some level, I can certainly relate to the concept of completion depression.

Each year I undertake a personal project to see how many video games I can complete in those twelve months. I had to put it off in 2009 due to the various calamities, but in 2010 I’m aiming for 50 completions. As you might have noticed I’m not even to fifteen. This is partly due to a lack of free time, but more due to the fact that, after completing a major game, I lose ambition for a while. I can’t explain why, as it’s sometimes due to a story affecting me, or sometimes it’s just the sheer amount of time needed to get to the next clear in some cases. I think, though, I have the hardest time “moving on” from a game whose story or circumstances affect me greatly.

Earlier this year I played through Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In that game, one of the early stages places the player in the role of a deposed head of state in a Middle Eastern nation that is undergoing a violent revolution. The president has no weapons, no abilities, and no freedom bar being able to move his head to observe his surroundings as he is driven through the city he once ruled. While the stage serves as little more than the opening credits, it also sets up the story for the rest of the game, and ends in a courtyard. In this courtyard, the player watches, still through the president’s eyes, as he is tied to a post in the center of the courtyard, ranted at in subtitled Arabic for a few moments, and then summarily shot in the head. The screen goes black, usually immediately after the player is screaming for the execution to stop. The character, however, says nothing.

I’d said in the Save and Quit article for the game that Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 are not at all subtle in their plying of the players’ and critics’ emotions. The games are aiming to be their mediums’ equivalents of Apocalypse Now, of Full Metal Jacket, of Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill. These games are strong and powerful anti-war messages, just as their predecessor films are, and if they are heavy-handed in inducing the desired emotions, it is irrelevant compared to the fact that they do.

A writer on the (in)famous TV Tropes Wiki wrote, “Art isn’t about making you feel good. It’s about making you feel.” I find it a most fascinating sentiment, simply because the end result is something that was brought about quite implicitly. Our civilization, and our culture– human culture, all of it without even the slightest exception– is built upon our ability to imbue our creations with emotion, and to extract emotion from works of man.

In his story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, Philip K. Dick wrote about a machine which could be set to induce an emotion in its user. The users “dialed” codes, which presumably directly stimulated the response centers of the user’s brains, thus triggering the emotion. The machines were so precise as to be self-justifying: one of the explicitly mentioned potential uses is dialing to induce a “desire to dial”. The machine was presented in a slightly negative light, as it was symbolic of humanity’s inability to be emotionally affected by anything but their own chemistry. I certainly understand where Mr. Dick was concerned, but I submit that not only was he wrong, he was comically and ridiculously wrong.

Humanity will always have the ability to be moved by their experiences. It could be the view from a mountaintop; the feeling of victory in a game; the poignancy of an actor’s performance; the poetry of a mathematical equation; the dry prose of a news report… literally, and without hyperbole, anything. As long as humanity exists, humans will create works of art, and will experience those works to discover the emotion recorded within. No machine is necessary. Machines in fact are incapable of recording this or inducing it. In the end it is the human touch, the hands crafting the work, which guide the observer, and grant the emotion that the observer receives. And the wonderful thing is, that emotion is always different.

Not everyone shared my opinion about the effectiveness of Modern Warfare’s anti-war message. In fact many people completely glossed over it, instead choosing to simply bask in the carnage of the deathwatch multiplayer. That’s okay. Others still were even more deeply affected, having lost friends or family in military action overseas. Just last week I saw a billboard commemorating a soldier who had died in 2007; his birthday was only three weeks prior to mine. If we had lived in close proximity we would have gone to school together. Someone from that kind of a background would have been terrified, or inconsolable, during the nuclear explosion portion of the game. Even as detached as I was from that kind of tragedy, I had to stop playing for a little while.

The point is, many of the people claiming that certain things are or are not “art” are forgetting the root of that word. “Artifice”. We tend to use “Artificial” as a pejorative word, but at its core it means “made, manufactured, created by people”. It is easy to forget that, sometimes. But when anything provokes an emotion in you– and anything can– just try to think of the emotion needed to create it. Think about the connection between you and the creator of that work.

On Inspiration And Discussion

Essay Week 2010 runs from Sunday, July 25th to Saturday, July 31st. Every year I take a week and write about some topics of interest to me that run slightly more serious than the usual fare on the blog. That’s not to say that games and anime won’t enter into it, but the predominant theme is that this week skews a bit more literary than epistolary. We start this year’s Essay Week off with some thoughts on Essay Week itself, in point of fact.

Last week I put out the call for ideas for this year’s Essay Week. While on the surface it appears that the response was a little anemic, it turns out that that gave me plenty of ideas as to what to write about. I suppose, though, I ought to address why the call didn’t get as many public ideas being floated as I had hoped.

When I made the request, I put in a proviso that I didn’t want to tackle anything overly polarizing or controversial. The reasoning behind this categoric dismissal is well-intentioned but far from benign. In general I try to stay away from topics that, in a predominance of instances, descend quickly or unduly from discussions into mud-slinging. Religion and politics have usually been the two big ones that trigger apoplexy in people, but I’ve noticed that of late pretty much anything will set people off.

I know, I’m late to the punch on that one. People have had hair triggers for as long as there’s been people, but in general they’ve limited genuine rage to topics that tend to carry a lot of historical baggage behind them. The thing is, though, from a purely rhetorical standpoint, those topics shouldn’t be considered any more significant or compelling than any other. That’s a theory I’m increasingly becoming aware that I’m late to arriving at, too; but the big issue here is that where I would err on the side of caution by keeping a civil tone and treating all topics with equal respect, the majority of the world coming to the same conclusion chooses to treat all topics with equal disrespect.

It’s certainly true that discussing the relative merits of a television series is of less immediate consequence than, say, global politics. But there’s always the critical problem of context to bring in to the equation, and that’s where things start to get muddled. Everyone has their own opinion on how far a frame of context extends into or out of a sphere of discussion. You would certainly not expect, say, the President of the United States to spend hours discussing which episode of Spongebob Squarepants was the best and when the series started to go downhill. At least, he wouldn’t and shouldn’t be doing that in the Oval Office. If he wants to have that talk with his children, that’s certainly fine by me.

Of late, though, people have an incredible tendency to grossly misrepresent the importance of the topics they feel are important, to a point where they will feel compelled to inject that topic into all of their conversations without fail and without less than an hour’s oratory on the subject. Granted, the issues these people may espouse certainly are worth discussion, and in situations where the topic could tangentially be connected to the primary topic under discussion, it’s okay to go off on those tangents. I just happen to think that maybe, just maybe, a technical feedback forum for a video game isn’t necessarily the best place to bring up the topic of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the first places I went to when I was on the Internet was a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of Final Fantasy. I was 15. At that point, the group had a pretty coherent discussion core, a thriving community, and a pretty strong focus on the game series. A year later, when I had consistent access to the group, the newsgroup’s focus had changed dramatically. The community became self-sustaining, and the people involved were the main focus of the discussion instead of the group. It was in some senses elitist, but at the same time if the topic of Final Fantasy came up, there was almost certain to be some attention paid to it, and the question or comment answered and responded to.

However, this was merely the beginning of a larger shift. As time wore on the members of the community became more insular and isolationist, myself included, and eventually the community was what brought the community together. It doesn’t sound so bad when put that way. With the gift of hindsight I can see that some of the nominal goals of the individuals who disrupted and eventually dissolved the community were worthy of scrutiny. A lot of bad blood had passed, though, and emotions ran high. Hair triggers were everywhere, and unfortunately the group did not part ways in amicability, but in animosity.

It is not really to my pleasure that I see some of the signs of this sort of thing happening in other communities as well. Both online and offline, many groups are shifting their raisons-d’etre from supporting a cause to opposing another group. American politics in particular has seen this shift happen over the course of the past ten to fifteen years, and it is not isolated to a single party. A full discussion of what I find wrong with the American political system (note: not its government system, which I feel is perfectly sound) is far, far outside the scope of this essay, this blog, and in point of fact my comfort level for discussion. I have my disagreements, and I choose not to engage in a discussion over them.

And that in the end is the crux of the problem. A discussion would not last long if one side or another chose not to participate. While unfortunate, choosing not to participate in a discussion is a self-evident, and self-encapsulated, act. It signifies that the individual declining to discuss has an opinion that he or she does not wish to share at this time, and that is all that it signifies. It cannot and should not be taken to imply assent or violent disagreement with the challenger’s viewpoint. Furthermore, it does not mean that the individual who wants to discuss has somehow “won” over the other person, simply because no discussion took place. A game that is not played cannot be won or lost.

Over the last five years or so I have noticed an increasing tendency for people to be dragged into discussions against their will by individuals who likely do not want to hold a discussion, but more likely wish to corner their opponents into voicing an opinion that he or she does not want expressed. When the topic at hand is the core of a disagreement between two groups, this likelihood approaches 100% at an alarming pace. Discussion and rhetoric are no longer the tools of democracy, but the weapons with which democracy is being dismantled. Their potential is being perverted on a daily basis, by agents who choose to listen to the lesser devils of their nature and spark artificial conversation for the sake of fleeting attention. The very people we should trust to be impartial, objective presenters of fact, we can no longer trust to even tell the truth about the weather while they’re standing in front of a window.

Despite this, do I believe that the system of the world is corrupted beyond redemption? No. Absolutely not. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” A common bit of wisdom, to be sure, and a cliche by this point. But those labels do nothing to assail its truth. In point of fact, it is in its inversion that we may find a way to demonstrate its power.

Do nothing. Stay silent. Withdraw from discussion. Allow those who shout and scream and rant and preach to have their say, to have it on every screen at 6:00 and twenty-four hours a day on the ticker at the bottom of the cable news. Let the lies flow freely and without obstruction. Drown this world in filth and profanity, let it sink into the mire of untruth and deception. And when the liars’ throats are hoarse, their voices spent, and their poison disseminated, simply, and quietly, tell the truth. Engage in discussion to illuminate, not to blind; to educate, not indoctrinate; to understand, not control. If someone comes at you with a pack of lies, hold your tongue and tell the truth to someone who will listen. And never force someone into a discussion they don’t want to have.

For my part, I hope to not speak falsely during this week. I have a lot of opinions, some strong, some light-hearted, but all of them are genuine. I have no need to hide behind a facade, I have no need to misrepresent myself for attention. But I want to make clear that I’m willing to listen, and I’m willing to change my mind if presented with a compelling argument. I’m not willing to bicker for the sake of something to do; and there are some beliefs I’m not willing to change under any circumstances as I don’t think any external evidence could sway me, if it even exists. I won’t think less of anyone disagreeing with me, but I also won’t hold myself superior to them either. (This is something I have had some trouble with in the past.)

So, let’s talk.

Shoulda Listened To Howard Jones

I missed being able to post for today, primarily because I was filming footage for the Life in One Day project. As it turns out yesterday was profoundly boring, and I’m not even sure I’ll submit any of my video for the project… but it did serve its purpose in getting me a little more practice with the video camera in advance of Otakon. I also wrapped up the essays needed for Essay Week, so without further delay, I’ll be posting the first one… now.

Best Left Unsaid

This week has seen a few game announcements of note, and a few anime announcements. Only natural, because Comic-Con International is going on over on the West Coast. Among the anime announcements have been Tales of the Abyss, which is good as I’ve been meaning to find an excuse to play the game (or in this case, not play the game– 13 hours of anime versus 40+ hours of game for the same story is not a difficult decision to make). But the real gem has been one and a half game announcements.

Capcom shed a little more light on the enigmatic Mega Man Universe, which had been revealed in a rather well-done teaser trailer a week or so ago. According to the revelations, Universe is meant to let each player play as their idealized version of Mega Man– a tricky feat given that good ol’ Rock has been incarnated in many varied forms in his twenty-three year history. (Wow, can you believe it’s almost time for the silver anniversary of Mega Man?!) Capcom seems to be going all-out with this one, even including the godawful version of Mega Man from the US box cover. This is fanservice of the highest degree, and quite frankly, I couldn’t be happier about it.

Except that, in almost the same breath, rumors of a for-real announcement of Mega Man Legends 3 were rekindled after the question was met with the Capcom rep throwing foam Mega Buster arms into the crowd and simply saying, “Thank you.” And as much as I want to believe in the rumors, I have to retain more than a modicum of disbelief.

There’s this thing I don’t do. It’s called ‘tempting fate’. It’s because of this other thing that I have, called ‘historically rotten luck’. And the reason I don’t do it in this case specifically is because of a thing I like to call ‘I really really want MM Legends 3 to come out and will do unspeakable things to anything that jinxes that chance, myself included and in particular’.