Blowback

A couple weeks ago I happened to come across a TV Tropes entry for the television program Revenge. It was summed up pretty accurately in the article as a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, which is a book I really, really need to get around to reading some day (I’ve glossed over the Cliffs Notes, though)– but that’s all beside the point today. I just wondered exactly why some executive thought the title Revenge would in any way compel people to watch the show.

Although, sadly, the more I think about it, revenge is itself pretty much its own motivation. I have to admit that I find some amount of satisfaction in seeing someone get a comeuppance they seem to deserve. Schadenfreude is, after all, a perfectly legitimate emotion to feel– it’s a primal instinct that helps to reaffirm our tendency towards being social creatures. When you f#$% up, you’re gonna get it somewhere down the line. Humans as a rule like to know that the karma bank is solvent, and paying out dividends on time and to their rightful clients.

Where it gets ugly is in the urge to act on that oneself. The people that wronged us should get their just desserts, but for us to see that happen we have to be on the outside of it. Otherwise, when you start working towards the goal of revenge, suddenly the nature of the catharsis changes: you’re not seeing something bad happen to someone you dislike, you’re actively causing harm to that person, and that’s what your brain rewards.

Besides, the perfect revenge isn’t about stomping someone down below your level: it’s about raising yourself up so that you end as far above your aggressor as they pulled you down with them.

I’m working on it.

Pushback

Something I’m finding to be an especially egregious problem in the world today is the lack of clarity in communications. For a good while now, I’ve noticed that people tend to word their conversations in such a way as to avoid actually making a clear, decisive statement one way or the other. This way, if the point that they are waving and gesticulating towards is somehow proven wrong at a later point, they can then go back and say, “Well, no, see, you missed what I was getting at, what I really meant was…”

This infuriates me. It’s not even so much the fact that I don’t do it– I certainly could, if the thought of doing so didn’t make me want to vomit out my lower intestines and strangle myself with them– it’s that people have been doing it so long that they seem to not even realize that they’re doing it. There’s no clear answers anymore, no straight up definition of facts. Anyone trying to tell you that their discourse is the truth is automatically lying, and while that may be harshly cynical, more often than not, it’s borne out as being a pretty reliable barometer.

The worst part is that when the inevitable confusion does arise, the fault is somehow turned on the person who did misunderstand. After all, listening skills are important, and if someone isn’t able to follow “simple, clear directions” then it reflects fantastically poorly on them. The speaker is never in the wrong, because the speaker can always weasel out of it. The burden of communications is put on the listener, and if that listener has the foresight to ask for clarification, they’re either brushed off entirely or the situation is muddied even further.

Apparently nobody actually learned anything from the fable of the Tower of Babel. Which, of course, doesn’t surprise me.

Filing Issues With Reality

Just before Tekkoshocon, Pez lent me his copy of Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better. I regret to say, actually, that I didn’t get a chance to crack it open until well after the show was over. On the flip side, though, it only took me about twenty pages before I realized I needed a copy of the book myself.

McGonigal doesn’t waste any time in providing her argument. She starts off with a mythological story about how the ancient Lydians survived an eighteen-year famine through the effective use of games. (Which put the other purchase I made at the bookstore that day– Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games— is a markedly less pleasant light.) She then breaks her argument into three parts, detailing along the ride eleven ways that reality could be improved through the strategic implementation of behaviors that are seen in gaming of all stripes.

While McGonigal focuses predominantly on electronic gaming, only breaking out of it for a handful of her examples, she presents an incredibly strong case that the mechanical aspects of gameplay in general are worth far more than the condescension that most people have for players of games. And, while fundamentally I agree with a lot of her points, I also have to take issue with her assertion that making everything a game will make life better. This is mostly out of the incredibly poor way that a lot of “gamification” efforts have been implemented in the past.

When dealing with incredibly boring or tedious tasks in my childhood, I was often told that I should make a game out of it. The problem is that fun cannot be “enforced” in that way. It didn’t matter how I compelled myself to accomplish whatever I was told to do, only that I did it. And if I wasn’t invested in the task to begin with, there was no way I was going to put in the mental effort to compel myself to do it. Now, if the game had developed organically among the other people I was working with at the time– or hell, even if there were other people to engage in the game– it would be a different story. But solo, it was just frustrating to be told that I should somehow force myself to enjoy something objectively boring.

That’s why I take a jaundiced eye to games like Chore Wars or Fitocracy: it’s great to compete with other people in these games, but for someone on their own, if they’re not already committed to the tasks, they sure as hell aren’t going to be motivated by a little number or avatar. It’s a bit like having a competition to see who can finish their homework first. There might be a reward at the end, and it might not be any more substantial than bragging rights; in the end, though, you’re still doing your homework, and if you just plain don’t want to do homework, no reward is going to be good enough. More to the point, games of any sort get boring after an extended period: when people ultimately get bored of Chore Wars, the dishes will start to pile up again.

Do I think that making reality more fun is going to make people happier? Absolutely. I love games, and I play them constantly; earlier this month I was introduced to Tiny Tower, and I’ve been using it alternately as a time-waster and as a productivity monitor (work for x minutes, check on the tower for one or two, then back to work for x more). But I have some issues with the assertion that gaming can become a force that will make kids do their homework or eat their broccoli, or make adults save for retirement or mow the lawn. Games are only so powerful, after all.

Nerdery: The Book, April Update

This past weekend I took some time to work on a rough outline for how Nerdery is going to be structured. A lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to pull from Jane McGonigal’s fantastic Reality Is Broken— which I realize I need to write a review of, too– but a bit more of it also had to do with the fact that, for as all-encompassing a topic as general nerdery is, I really only focus on a few major aspects of it.

The other part of it, though, is getting over the feeling that I’ve gone over this stuff before. After all, Nerdery is the culmination of well over ten years’ worth of essays, private and public, and so going over it all again is pretty much a necessity. For as much of it as I end up doing, I really dislike repeating myself. Ultimately, this means I have to just suck it up for the sake of making a greater point. The outline also helps me focus my thoughts so that I can approach each essay with at least the illusion of it being something new and unique to me.

In the end, I decided on structuring the book into four parts, not counting the inevitable introduction and conclusion chapters:
In Part One, I’m going to explore what it means to be a nerd. I’ll look at the origin of the word and concept, the history of how nerds are portrayed in media and culture, and see how it evolved into what it is today.
In Part Two, I’ll focus on the negative aspects of being a nerd. I’ll discuss the bias against intellect in society today, how being a nerd can be personally and collectively detrimental, and go over a couple of high-profile incidents where someone was targeted for being too smart.
In Part Three, I’ll flip the argument around and declare why being a nerd isn’t entirely a bad thing. I’ll focus primarily on why people choose to self-identify as nerds, what high intellect can do to help a community, and discuss how celebrities are embracing nerdery.
And in Part Four, I’m going to discuss what can be done to eliminate the stereotype of being a nerd. I’ll focus on why it was never actually relevant, why it’s constantly evolving, and how the world will be much better once there are no more “nerds”.

If it sounds like there’s a lot to go over, and if it sounds like people really aren’t going to like a lot of what I have to say (I imagine parts three and four are going to raise the most hackles), good. Ambition goes hand in hand with intellect and nerdery. And, despite what the essay at the beginning of this week would have you think, I have absolutely no qualms about failing quite publicly.

My next major goal is to have a draft of the book done by the end of summer; I’d like to shoot for October 1st as a draft deadline. This gives me time to crank out one long-form essay each weekend until then, while accounting for time for revisions and some mild editing. The essays are going to be written privately– that is, not shared with anyone just yet. However, I’m likely to share snippets of thoughts as blog posts now and again. If I get done with painting up my miniatures early, I may repurpose the Saturday morning disconnection time into a writing-only period, using my laptop while turning its Wifi off.

It’s on, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get down and nerdy.

Link Wednesday: Nightengale Needles

Important Service Note: The links in this week’s post are not referral links. However, John does know the proprietor.

If you’ve been to an anime convention on the East Coast in recent times, chances are you’ve had opportunity to hit the Artist’s Alley and see the work of the artist featured this week. She’s been around for a while, which is an impressive feat for an anime-themed crafter and artist; there’s a lot of churn as people come into and exit the hobby. In point of fact, one of the first artist groups I ever raved about online– Able Sisters Crafts– has shifted their focus to predominantly Etsy sales, as conventioning is expensive work.

Nightengale Needles has been in business since 2008, and her work is beyond phenomenal. NN (I don’t know if sharing her name here is okay with her) is a crafter of all trades, but she focuses primarily on sewing custom plushies and fleece hats. I’m continually amazed at how detailed and well-made they are, and if anything it just serves to remind me how gifted and talented some people can be.

Interestingly enough, NN is once again taking commissions very shortly for custom hats. She’ll be opening up the queue this coming Friday, with the hopes of having a quick turnaround time. Don’t let that fool you: she doesn’t sacrifice detail or quality in order to get work done, and these are certainly worth it. If you’re a cosplayer or just a general aficionado of gaming and anime culture, she can help you get that last piece taken care of (and she’s a cosplayer herself– a fantastic one at that).

Part of the reason why I’m highlighting her this week, though, isn’t just because I consider her a friend, but it’s to prove what I find to be a rather interesting and encouraging point. NN is someone who, when she started, took it upon herself to make the fan crafting business her full-time job. She did so knowing full well that, if the climate of fandom was changed dramatically by the companies which produced the stuff she modeled her gear after, she could be put out of business. Even still, she took the plunge. And her skill has borne her through the last four years with aplomb.

She’s one of the bravest people I have the privilege to know. And that bravery should be rewarded.

Whuffielupagus (Part Three)

Were we wrong about Mass Effect? That’s not really the point. Personally, I think it was a better game than the reviewer said it was, but then again we almost always disagreed internally about the games we reviewed. Netjak always inhabited that quasi-professional level, where we weren’t getting paid to write about video games, but we all approached it with solemnity approaching the sepulchral. So, how exactly should we have been approached?

In his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, Cory Doctorow introduced the concept of whuffie: a quantitization of personal reputation that had replaced money as the way to gain non-essential luxuries (basics were freely available). People who did good things, like composed symphonies or let people ahead of them in line, gained whuffie, while people who did bad things, like cutting people off in traffic, lost it. It is instantaneous and mostly subconscious due to constant neural connections to an/the internet. In short, it puts a number on positive attention, while penalizing negative attention. While it sounds like the ultimate in egalitarianism, it sits poorly with me as something that should ever be implemented, even in the internet, simply because it’s instantaneous. Someone who just made a bad mistake will have a low whuffie score due to the snap-judgments of those around them drowning out or undoing the good they’ve done in the past.

If you try, but fail, you may have gained experience, but you have still failed. In private, the only one who ever sees it is you, and thus it’s easier to take. The problem is when your failures are public: if someone sees you fail, no matter how close you came, the memory of that failure is still there. On some level the witness will always have that knowledge about you, and there’s a good chance that it will in some way color their perceptions about you. When the failures are ephemeral– like bumping into a glass storefront because you thought it was an open door– the effect is minimal. When the failures are permanent and/or replayable– like a Youtube video of that very same collision– the effect is compounded.

With blogs and the internet, the temptation is to take everything as being instantaneous. Something posted years or decades ago is just as accessible as something posted right now, and whether or not it’s just as relevant today is, ironically, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how long ago you posted that topless picture, or if it’s just one ill-conceived moment among thirty thousand exquisite photographs; it’s there forever and it’s all that matters. There is no statute of limitations on the internet.

It should, of course, go without saying that I think that’s a load of absolute bullshit. For my part, I try very hard not to let one mistake in the past color my perceptions of any site, professional or personal. The big names are capable of cranking out stinkers once in a while. But the little guys who don’t get any attention sometimes have the biggest ideas. The internet was supposed to let everyone’s voice be heard.

So remind me why we’re ignoring some of them, just because everyone else is?

Whuffielupagus (Part Two)

The question then becomes one of effort and consistency. If 99% of the posts on a blog are filler (cough), does that automatically condemn the 1% of the posts that have genuinely good and interesting content? More important to the point at hand, does that 1% of posts command the blog’s readership attention for the uninteresting 99%? If it’s not a 1%/99% ratio, where exactly do you draw the line? How do you judge a site’s real worth?

The “fun” thing about all of this comes when you realize that some of the internet intelligentsia happen to have some rather cruel streaks in them as well (and I most certainly include myself in that categorization from time to time). The egalitarian nature of the internet just doesn’t sit well with some folk, and that gives rise to sites such as “Web Pages That Suck” and “Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad”. This is to say nothing of the legions of commenters and forum-goers who pooh-pooh anything that isn’t a work of magnificent perfection.

Now, far be it from me to say that criticism isn’t warranted or desperately deserved in some cases– and I’l be the first to own up to the many, many mistakes I’ve made in the past. But as I’ve always said, honest and constructive criticism will always beat just plain ol’ criticism. For everything that’s wrong, there should at least be something that was done right. This isn’t always the case, obviously, but the cases where it doesn’t hold true are so astonishingly rare as to be worthy of the ire and bile that are heaped upon– well, more or less everything.

It gets worse when you start trying to quantitatively and objectively assess the quality of something based on a relatively incidental number. Back when Netjak was still around– which was itself a remarkable example of a professional blog– we raised our fair share of hackles with certain of our reviews. The biggest offender here was with Mass Effect, which didn’t get the glowing praise from the reviewer that the rest of the gaming press was lauding onto the game. This prompted an individual to sign up for our forums (which we used in place of a comments system) and berate us for not falling in line. The individual went so far as to suggest that our small userbase on the forums (because we’d just gone through a dormancy period due to technical failures) as well as the low number of threads and posts (because it was set to auto-purge posts older than a certain threshold) “did not give [us] the right” to our opinion of the game. Nevermind that Joystiq had linked to us repeatedly; we were small, therefore we didn’t count.

Whuffielupagus (Part One)

Last week, Pez mentioned (via Twitter) that he was in the bad habit of disregarding blog posts that don’t have comments. His argument– and it’s not an unfounded one, but I’ll get into that later– was that if nobody had bothered to respond to it, it wasn’t worth his time to read. He himself admitted that it’s a flawed reason to not read something, and when I made the snarky self-deprecating remark that “nobody must read my blog, then, if there’s no comments”, it was mostly as a joke. But then, I got to thinking about why he’d have that policy about feedback uber alles, and why its scarcity somehow indicates a lack of quality.

My introduction to the social internet was, as I’ve said often, Usenet. That was nothing but feedback. It’s post upon post upon post, each one building off the rest, and a community emerging from nothing– not even a structure more concrete than “post about this here, and that there”, and even that was fluid to some degree. Occasionally one post or another would become a foundation for more discussion, either by virtue of its own content or by containing a reference or link to something else, like a World Wide Web page. It would be the “big topic” for a while, and then fade away as the next one came to the table.

A good friend of mine, who I met during our shared time in Usenet, dislikes the idea of blogging in general. He feels it to be narcissistic and unnecessary, as the vast majority of them are people just endlessly talking about themselves into the void to make themselves feel important. I, of course, can’t argue with that, considering the fantastic amounts of pure crap that I put out here, but as the past month or so seems to have shown I’m working on fixing that. But what I think that friend is missing is the rather important distinction between a personal blog and a professional blog, and a rather frightening blurring of the lines between hobbyists and professionals.

The coming of the World Wide Web made everybody rock stars, and elevated all content to the same plateau. Suddenly, personal blogs, not necessarily intended for widespread consumption, are being presented and styled as if they are. Structurally, there’s nothing different between my site and say, Joystiq, aside from the content and the tools used to produce them. Where it all breaks down is in content: Joystiq has it and I, to be quite frank about it, don’t. At least, I don’t regularly have any content nearly as compelling as Joystiq’s constant feed of gaming news. And that’s where things start to get hairy.