Thursday, August 28, 2014

Semper Games


Imagine an empty universe. Imagine nothingness. This is a universe without God, without a creator, without a guiding hand. It was not *made*. It simply *is*.

Populate this universe with the celestial objects - stars and planets and all cosmic entities in between.

Now add to one planet the element of water - and from water, emerge life.

Now we wait.

Life mutates. The drive to live is mutation - a beneficial one, at least for purposes of survival. The beings that do not have these instincts die. The ones that do live. This does not mean that those biological instincts are the way life should be. Rather, they are self-justifying: they exist because they helped life survive. This, and only this, is their purpose. Such is the way of "biological truths".

Many animals exist that failed to breed. They died. But in truth, so does every other animal. Death is the common curse. Why, then, is breeding important? It isn't. It's simply a trait that is passed on. The reason it is passed on is because it is a trait that supports being passed on. Breeding does not save you from death. Failing to breed does not damn you. You are, and then you aren't. You are not graded. You are not scored. It is not objectively possible to waste your life.

At any moment, you could be killed. This would not be an event with purpose or greater cause. It would simply be what happened.

There is no purpose but that which we give ourselves, or which we allow others to give us.


A problem I have with a lot of philosophers is that they're essentially working under the assumption that "something important" exists. For many, this is the existence of the divine - that they firmly believe God exists, and their philosophies are founded in working around or with God's plan for them. René Descartes famously examined every possible assumption he had, down to his own existence - but concluded ultimately that he must not be deceived, because a Just God would not allow it. He could not bring himself to truly doubt the existence of God, even when he was intent on questioning everything else.

For others, the concern is more material. Ayn Rand labored under the idea that it was objectively valuable to pursue prosperity. Now I could certainly trot out quotes about her views on the rich (they're great and deserve everything they have and they got it all themselves) or the poor (they're parasitic idiots who couldn't sustain themselves for a week). But I think this one sums it up a lot better:

"They (Native Americans) didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent."

Ayn Rand's belief is that it is an Important Truth that progress is good and anti-progress is bad. Progress is more important than the autonomy, and lives, of the native peoples, and she holds then in contempt for failing to recognize that. She can't prove that value, of course, because it is a subjective belief. It is an opinion. But it is an opinion that she regards as unassailable and objective. She does not consider an alternative, because the criteria she uses to make decisions is founded in the intrinsic idea that progress is good.

If you were interested in defending civilization by its merits, you could mention things like medicine and plumbing and industry. Theoretically, you could make the argument that "civilization" as a concept includes many things that improve the life of the citizens within it. However, to do so, you would have to weigh that against the human beings killed in its name. This is not something Ayn Rand does because she does not care about those things - she cares about Progress itself. And if "progress" includes her living in luxury as the rightful inheritor of profit, then all the better for it. Naturally, Rand's philosophy was a big hit with people who want to be rich, selfish, elitist, and morally justified.

Most of the "great philosophers" operate in this way. They have an idea of the way the world should work, and they try to come up with reasons why it's the way the world has to work. Reading classical philosophy is a lot like reading the works of Freud - it's useful in a historical sense, but in an objective sense it's people without training trying to stumble across the truth. Freud is the "father of psychology", but he was also biased and arrogant, leading into his preferred conclusions without real concern for methodology or the well-being of his patients. In much the same way most of the great classical philosophers are essentially setting out "the way they think the world works" and then trying to justify it after the fact with their own theoretical anecdotes.

A philosopher believes that their beliefs are correct because they believe they must.

The counter-question is always "and what if we don't?"


Now, me, I'm a bit of a philosopher myself. I believe in the sanctity and primacy of reality. I believe that stories should aspire to something beyond pure entertainment - to truly connect with the real world, with real people and real stories. Reality comes first, real people and real stories, and fiction should - at best - try to skim off of the beauty of reality. It disgusts me - disgusts me - when people cry over fictional characters more than they cry over real people. It sickens me when people give more attention to a fictional story about war atrocities and "game narrative theory" than they do to real wars. It shows me, over and over, that people are more concerned about stroking their own egos (in one way or another) than actually learning about the world around them.

Recently, some of that kind of stuff has been in the limelight. Battlefield: Hardline brought out the idea that dehumanizing a group of people in order to justify violence being "fun" is distasteful and disrespectful. Hey, guess what, that's exactly how I feel about most video game violence. The idea of using something like that as entertainment is abhorrent to me. But most gamers are still basically okay with it, because that's the reality they grew up in.

Once, I wrote an article about the depiction of "easy violence". In this article I didn't even bring up the idea that it's wrong to pantomime murder - instead, I challenged the way we view escapism. "Killing" is generally a self-indulgent act in gaming, but it's also usually a pointlessly easy one. Is there a reason to get a thrill from pretending to kill an enemy who was barely capable of fighting back? Is there a reason to think it's cool and exciting to put a reticle over a guy and launch a yellow blob at him that bursts into jelly? Is this why we game?

Another time, I wrote an article about the way people use "realism". In that article I pointed out that many people (on all sides of the political spectrum) will use "realism" as a good thing and "non-realism" as a bad thing, but they will do so in very select instances. Some people will say that women shouldn't be allowed to fight or be stronger than a man, because that's "unrealistic". Other people will say that it's wrong for armor to have breast-shaped indentations, because that's "unrealistic". However, these kinds of complaints tend to float in a sea of abstract, disjointed design decisions. There is no true adherence to realism - it is simply invoked as a self-justified concept, with its own intrinsic moral value. And, of course, it's difficult to be so certain about what is "realistic" when we ourselves don't know all the facts about reality.

Almost all of my early articles had the same basic concept even when they were talking about wildly different topics: they were trying to teach people that realism itself is good, not just the concepts behind it. Inevitably fiction must differ from reality (that's why this is Exploring Believability and not Exploring Realism), but the more coherent realism you can put into a work, the better it'll be. And by "better" I mean in terms of things like visceral reactions, logical coherence, and real-world engagement. In fact, I told everyone this in the very first article I wrote on this site.

But now here comes the question: "and what if we don't?"


The answer is "nothing". Nothing happens if you don't adhere to realism. There is no objective purpose to life. It is impossible to "waste" life objectively. Life may be spent however the living being wishes (physical constraints aside).

FACT: A walking simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A dating simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

FACT: A depression simulator is objectively not a waste of time.

FACT: A murder simulator is not objectively a waste of time.

The worst thing I can promise you, objectively, is that you will be hated by someone, somewhere. This is inevitable. But still, you don't want it.

How many of you are familiar with Christian Weston Chandler? Yeah, he's kind of a weird guy. Got a lot of problems. Easy to make fun of. Except, the problem is, a lot of the people making fun of him were basically just as weird and degenerate and societally-outcast as he was. What grounds did they have to mock him, apart from the safety of not being on display? What right did these shitbag nerds have to point and laugh at another shitbag nerd?

There's a really wonderful and enlightening event from Chris' life called Father Call. It's a complete dressing-down of Chris' inflated ego and sense of self-worth, where a societally revered individual (a veteran, a father, a provider) tears apart a societally hated individual (a failure, a blowhard, a guy who makes jokes about 9/11). Lots of people laughed at it. How many of them, I wonder, were nervous on the inside? How many of them compared their lives to Chris' and realized, oh, right, maybe I'm not as different as I'd like to think? Maybe, just maybe, I'm also a person that society despises?

"You are all bronies to me." - @ExpBelieve, twitter dot com

Of course the objective answer to this is that being hated is only bad if you care about the opinion of the people who hate you. Christian Weston Chandler could bundle himself up in his delusions and live totally happy on the taxpayer's dollar for the rest of his life. He can't get a girlfriend, sure, because that would require someone else thinking well of him - but he can at least get an anime bodypillow.

Why do we game? Because gaming is that blanket. Gaming is that bodypillow. Gaming is an institution founded on two things: self-indulgence and self-delusion. Games are about escapism - about pretending you're cool and important and likeable even when you're not. Games are about being better than everyone else. Games are about being stronger than everyone else. Games are about "romances" that are easy and reliable because there's no human being on the other end with opinions and values of their own.

And if you tell nerds how pathetic they are, they get so upset, my droogs. If you could harvest outrage, you would have no greater source than telling nerds they're pathetic. As much as they mock SJWs for daring to care about issues (and also "not doing real activism"), they themselves are the most sensitive demographic in the world. Because despite their "detached exteriors", they know what they are. Despite their "thick skins", they know how people feel about them. Despite the masks they wear, they know what's coming.

Hey, everyone, who wants to laugh at the nerd?

Despite everything they do - because of everything they do - gamers are losing right now. You know why? They're attacking the only people who could give their vapid medium an image improvement - the only people who could polish that turd up enough to make it respectable. They're organizing as one entity to do the kind of stupid shit that Jack Thompson could only dream of. For years, anti-game people had to make do with loosely connecting games to shootings. But now, here it is: an entire subculture organizing to do overt, repulsive activities. People who lived their lives not giving a shit about what other people thought of their body pillows and their murder simulators are now forced into answering the ringing phone. They hope, vainly, that an anime character will somehow turn it all around for them and make society ignore them again. Ring. Ring. Ring.

It's the Father Call.

Pick up the phone.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quick Primer / Update

Hey guys I know I said I was done writing about games, and really, believe me, I'd like to be. But, you know, there's been a lot of stuff going on recently and I think people could use a quick primer on the way games work and why things are wrong with them. Ready? Here we go:

1) Battlefield Hardline Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

People are generally pretty surprised and shocked at the timing of a game wherein you kill lots of people who are forcibly dehumanized in order to justify a binary moral narrative.

But this is what games have done forever. Every game where you kill living human beings does this.

The thing is that, in order to justify a format where the protagonist is better than everyone, someone has to be the "everyone". In B:H's case, the "everyone" is people you might know, people who are your friends, people you would sympathize with. They have names and faces and value and worth. They're human beings, goddammit.

Every game about killing human beings is about killing human beings. Repetitive, I know, but games love to take that thought away from you. The people you fight look and sound like human beings, but they don't behave like them. They don't cry or beg or run. They just fight and die. In such circumstances you're completely obligated to kill them - if you don't, they'll just try to kill you later.

And of course it's only fair that you should have advantages - there's so many of them, and just one of you! It makes sense that you can regenerate health. It makes sense that you can slow down time. You have to kill everyone. It wouldn't be fair for the act of murder to be scary or consequential. You have to make it fun.

At this point you might be thinking about games like Call of Duty. Fine. Do what you have to do. But when you're done thinking about that, don't forget to think about the snarky nerd-bait games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Don't forget to think about literally every game where the act of killing is cheered and praised. Because they're all part of the same problem. Don't make excuses. Don't go "well it's okay in this situation". Wake up. Confront the real world like a goddamned adult.

Is it necessary to kill people? Inevitably, yes. Sometimes people have to die. Should we celebrate it? Should we cheer it? Should we draw pleasure from it? That depends. Look around you. Look at the people cheering on the murderers. Ask yourself if you want to stand with them.

2) Gamers Harassing People Is The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers have been told all their lives that they're better than everyone, and if they're not better than everyone they're garbage. That's power fantasy.

If a gamer tried to shoot someone, the police would stop them. They know this. Their fear of death is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

If a gamer got in a fight, they could be overpowered physically. Failing that, they could be sued. Their fear of consequence is is more important than any possible desire to harm others.

But there are no police on the internet. There's no "being overpowered" on the internet. There's not even really any "being sued" on the internet.

Now they have a format where they can do as they please without being stopped.

This is what power fantasy does. This is what dehumanization does. This is the monster it bred.

Some of those monsters are reading this and they're nodding their heads. He's right. I can do whatever I want.

3) Polygon Headlines Are The End Result Of A Logical Chain Of Events

Gamers being ignorant and uneducated is nothing new.

"When I see MGS transcending the medium, pushing the envelope... When I hear [people complain that there are] 'too many cutscenes,' I think, 'you're a peasant.' MGS 4 made me think about PMCs -- which, in a way, I hadn't before. The fact that [Kojima] brings up these real issues and brings them to light for people who don't really think about them...." - Shane Bettenhausen

Do you understand now why I hate Spec Ops: The Line? Not for what it is, but for the reception it had. The idea that something so shallow and weak could be so enlightening to so many was a revelation about how ignorant and terrible the average gamer is.

But it's not surprising.

Gaming is an exercise in "not thinking". Gaming is an exercise in finding reasons to not think about things. Gaming is an exercise in being shocked when a game provokes the slightest thought.

Gaming is about a population who will only accept new information in an exciting or thrilling form, like a child who must be tricked into taking vitamins.

Maybe pick up a book. I recommended a few the other day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading List

The one thing I miss about Twitter is the ability to signal-boost for a book or movie that I liked.

Luckily, I still have a blog.

The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer
- Autobiography of a German (French-German, really) soldier on the Eastern Front.

Ivan's War, Catherine Merridale
- Collected accounts and historical overview of the common Soviet soldier in WW2.

A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo
- Autobiography of an American officer in Vietnam.

A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
- Autobiography of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- Illustrated autobiography of a girl during the Iranian Revolution.

Ayn Rand, Darryl Cunningham
- Illustrated biography of a girl during the Russian Revolution.

An Image of Africa, Chinua Achebe
- A critical essay regarding Heart of Darkness, available here. Criticisms are also applicable to stories that followed the HoD model, such as Apocalypse Now and that one other thing.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- The Stoic Emperor's observations on life and existence, which are surprisingly secular in nature.

The Cartoon Histories, Larry Gonick
- Some people don't like reading books with just words in them. Gonick's an alright alternative.

Women In The Military Speak Out About Their Portrayals (Or Lack Thereof) In Video Games, Jacqueline Cottrell
- This is a great article primarily because the two servicewomen bulldoze the interviewer's attempts to make excuses about "well, FEMSHEP,". The last paragraph lines up almost perfectly with the things I believe about games.

Unmanned, MolleIndustria
- This is a weird book.

Jet Set Radio Future
- I have two joys in life: I love to go fast, and I love to build cities.