20140722

Symaptico w/ the debil

Call me a contrarian, but the more public discourse seems to break down into a collection of loosely connected, self-referential reality-distorting echo chambers where people congregate based on shared prejudices and unexamined beliefs, the more I find myself going in the opposing direction, reaching out and paying attention to people I intuitively disagree with.

*

I remember my marveling, in the early days of the interwebs (circa 94), at how it was suddenly so easy to assemble and exchange according to shared interests and self-selection criteria, rather than by imposition of external factors such as locale, class, age, creed and other opportunity-limiting parameters. [all subject to the usual caveats about future's uneven distribution, etc.]
It was a nice change of pace.

The net created a privileged space where (a subset of the many) voices that couldn't be heard before could speak up and reach like-minded individuals, of the sort previously doomed to the solitude that comes from worshiping at no(t the right) altars, or failing to embrace the local unquestioned consensus — wherever one happened to have been born.
This new information age seemed to open the doors on a much richer, diverse future, and really, so it did.
 
Thanks to being fearful, bunchy apes, with sectarian reflexes drilled into us by history as the winning strategy for survival, this explosion in complexity and variety soon led to us seeking safety in exclusionary self-selected cliques. This mindset eventually leaked into meatspace and most venues of public debate as our daily lives got more networked and net-entangled, turbo-charging trends that had started with the advent of the TV age, and trampling whatever semblance of shared normalcy we'd painfully imposed upon ourselves through centuries of self-inflicted mass punishment.

Flash forward to now, where simply getting people to agree on basic facts gets problematic, since it's become so easy to tune all inputs, and receive only those feeds that confirm and reinforce one's expectations (good and bad), to engage only with people who share one's worldview.

If the takeaway lesson from the 20th century was to be wary of the ideological and military continent-scaled monstrosities enabled by mechanization, modern media and commerce acting as force multipliers for simplistic cure-all utopias, we certainly overdid the formula when we leveraged the wondrous potential of a networked world to create the epidemic of self-assembling cults that now seem to be tearing to bits every attempt at building any sort of social and political consensus.

*

Mobs freak me out today more than ever, as they've never been so well-insulated against any call to reason or practicality, now that self-delusions have been promoted to the 'new normals'… 
Strangely enough, this proliferation of self-contained insanity bubbles also makes me hopeful in the potential of education and shared intelligence in our technological age.

If we managed to shred the social fabric(s) that had gone essentially unchallenged for the previous eight thousand years in just a few decades (not to mention ecosystems and climate dynamics), then it could be a hint about our potential to collectively grow out of this phase, too, possibly in no more than a generation or three, and maybe even of us getting a clue before we self-exterminate, as cultures, and as species.

Hence me no longer seeking out like-minded types — it's good enough for me to know there are, a plenty — and instead looking in the most unlikely spaces I can parse for the sort of intelligence that differs from mine.
I'm not saying UFOs (you silly), although if you have some actual (or alleged) space aliens willing to sit down for a drink and a chat, I'm down with that, too.

*

So what do I mean by that ? 
Since I've always been driven by curiosity, I must now assume I can't rely on my sense of wonder and adventure alone to take me where I've been a dozen times already, and see better this time around.
Instead, I go where I normally wouldn't. 

If something or someone rubs me the wrong way, with that familiar "this is beyond dumb" feel, I go against my so-called best judgement and ask myself two things :
  • Why exactly does it trigger my scorn, disgust or mere irritation (when some hold it so dear and / or true) ?
  • What would it take for me to relate ?

I suggest you try it, it's interesting, and often fun.

***

20140612

Diversity in AAA titles

Hello reader : it's been a while.

Backstory : E3 is upon us, and the count of severed heads still beats that of female characters (because that's a metric now, apparently). Many are irked by this, and thanks to fumbling a PR saving throw, Ubisoft has made itself a sausage-shaped lightning rod in this storm of diversity denial, or something.
Assassin's Creed Unity coop mode will not have female avatars, which certainly is not as good as having them, but the real problem is Alex Amancio (creative director @ Ubisoft) inadvertently turned a missing bullet point into a scandal when he said the game sorta-kinda-almost did, yet doesn't, because it was "too much work", which some immediately translated into "not worth the trouble", to be taken as proof positive that female characters (hence players, too) are discriminated against.
If that wasn't enough to fuel the fury, the Far Cry team (also Ubisoft) then offered a free refill.


Diversity in videogames is a hot-button issue and the discussion is now reaching into the usual proclamations about WEIRD being the scourge of the universe (which should be the new Godwin, btw). The people is Kony2012-levels of angry and I kinda grok the outrage, yet I'm not totally on board, either, hence the poast. 
Let me mansplain why Assassin's Creed is the wrong kind of game to pick for affirmative action.

As a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, penis-having, reasonably affluent and educated cis-gendered straight-ish bastard, I still get frustrated by the lack of diversity in blockbuster RPG/adventure games, not just over avatars, but also plot, characterization, etc.
On the other hand, when I pick up a title that centers on ninja-ing through (admittedly gorgeous) scenery with not much more story to it than 'go there, kill that, don't get caught', I don't set my expectations higher than what reads on the tin – if that — and I don't care to identify with the avatar : it's a vehicle with about as much humanity to it as my keyboard.

Complaining about the lack of depth or diversity of what is essentially an over-polished hack'n'slash game seems as misguided to me as faulting a Monster Trucks show for falling short on character development and long story arcs.


I swear, I'd be all over that if it had playable female characters…

With that said, the default-to-white-straight-male thing gets on my nerves, too, and I wish there were more titles where the protagonist was anything else.
Don't count me as one of yours just yet, though, because I really mean that…

I do wish there were more games where we get to play really diverse characters, like a goblin or a spider, whose mission is to kill invading 'heroes' in order to protect our family and grow our stash of gold, or fill the boots of the cleanup crew who's to rebuild NYC every time the Avengers fuck up the city real good with their overkill tactics. I wish there were more games where you had to juggle accountability to your peers, or boss, or kids, while fighting the ebil du jour, and so on.

In short, I hate that most AAA games are unimaginative clichés crapfests, and I feel sorry that so many among the riled-up defenders of minorities rights seem to merely aspire for opportunities to better identify with the seriously lacking protagonists of seriously stupid games - it's like complaining that nobody makes truck nuts for girls.

… anymore.


As things stand now, it seems to me engaging the females-in-games issue in their established product lines is, if not a lost cause, at least an uphill battle for game studios : whatever ridiculously overblown female archetype they pick for a main character, they'll take flak (often deserved) for sexism, when they can safely dial the muscular grizzled warrior to eleven without a peep of complaint from their regular  audience.
The solution is to build deeper, less braindead games, and yes, I'd advocate being proactive in bringing more diversity in the teams that make games to make more diverse games, but I'm not of the opinion that merely slapping female textures and voicework* on the avatar in 13 year old male fantasy-fulfilling games will magically make them female-friendly.
…and if GearBox decides to build embarrassing stereotypical female-fantasy AAA titles, more power to them : I'll despise those with the same level of scorn I have for Duke Nukem Forevah.

Now, give me a good story, with engaging characters, and then I'll get seriously pissy if it all revolves around yet-another white male fantasy.

~


*[It's actually much more work than that, too, as Amancio apparently failed to get across. Adding a credible protagonist of different gender to a 3D full motion game is about as much work as adding another humanoid alien species.]

20130402

I demand hord-ahr !


We all know of way more important things going on re: sexism, harassment and broader expressions of dorkery in the gaming industry and culture, but I'm gonna natter lexicon instead, because it won't drive me to a lengthy, foamy rant (can't be arsed, today) :
When did 'chauvinism' (without the 'male' qualifier) become the default and preferred synonym for 'phallocracy', as opposed to its proper meaning of 'exacerbated patriotism/jingoism' ?
I get how anything with an -ism attached instantly sounds prejudiced and therefore becomes more suitable to dissing purposes, but 
  1.  it's confusing two distinct (if often coincident) prejudices, 
  2.  how could you pass on the opportunity to use 'phallocracy' instead, when it literally translates to 'rule of dick(s)'

Right ?

This isn't a picture about chauvinism.
Pic found via Ernest Adams, the beautiful beardy feminazi…


…all that, assuming it's acceptable to call someone a dick when he/she/it's being an ass, and there isn't a minority rights group somewhere to object to the misrepresentation of 'dicks' as anything but superiorly endowed in the cognitive department — I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's in their tender bits, of course.


20130329

Terroriss' drones, best drones.


There is an interesting opinion piece by Conor Friedersdorf, over at The Atlantic.
Staff writer, is that a paid position, these days, you ask ? …who knows, really, but that's not why we're here (full disclosure : I'm not paid by The Atlantic, either. Jealous much ?).

It's about killah drones, and why the US of A should keep using them, if only the home of the brave would show more manners and a modicum of common sense about the whole thing, pretty please, instead of fragging anything that moves, in a vain attempt to look tough and ease the frustration of not being able to get their for serious, gold-plated warbirds to work.

According to 'one-N' Conor, and while indeed, drones are here to stay and thrive, the question isn't whether to use them, but how, when and why they should(n't) be put in play. 
Common sense, really, yet worth the non-ink bled for it on your screen anyway, as anything that helps straighten the discussion about drones from its usual contorsions of false dichotomy is good. When it comes to debate anything war on terror, the dominant (and very skewed) framing goes "either you're for whatever it is we do to win the WoT, or you're on the terroriss' side !". Merely suggesting the injection of some reasoned argumentation in there is daring, so props for that, Schrödinger hobbyist/journalist you.

In fairness, the issue has been on the agenda for some time, and recently reached such a level of visibility that the Obama administration felt compelled to do something about it… word is they're contemplating a move of killerbot overseeing from CIA to the Pentagon, for which all I can say is it's better than the other way around, but not by much.

*

Neither Friedersdorf's plea for due process, nor the administration's putative concessions to more transparency really touch on what I reckon is a most crucial flaw with the sky killer robots doctrine, which lies in the negative externalities known as  blowback

Emphatically not painting itself the color of Palpatine's empire is something that should be a matter of import to a nation so adamant on being a beacon of civilization, freedom and justice, especially when reaching out with the strong arm of the largest military in the world to engage in flimsily justified wars, ostensibly waged in response to terror attacks past, and with the purported aim of discouraging repeat offenses of the same flavor.

Why then, elect to put at the forefront the kind of weapon and tactics most likely to bolster any moral superiority claims your opponent might have ? 
Short of using bio/chemical weapons or nukes against cities, nothing begs for terrorist retaliation against US civilian targets anywhere, anytime, like the systematic and seemingly careless recourse to drone strikes.
It's almost as if the doctrine aimed at guaranteeing perpetual war — are Pentagon and C.I.A staffers so worried about their job security that they mean to cultivate ill-will towards the US ?

Every time somebody who isn't an obvious player (by witnesses' estimate) gets killed or maimed by drones, resentment amongst the general population against whoever sent or enabled the remote killings grows, much more so than when 'collateral damage' happens with boots on the ground, because a drone strike on civilians is — simply put — nothing like combat : it's remorseless mass-murder, a description applicable to the sort of warfare also commonly labeled "terrorism".
The remote component only makes it an especially cowardly type of terrorism, which doesn't help anything in the win hearts and minds department.

Such blunders make for powerful media ammunition against the drone sponsors, who come out as brutal, incompetent chickenhawks, and seem like they're doing their utmost to fit snuggly in their evil empire dark costume, giving the shine of righteous fury to the underdogs.
'Counterproductive' comes to mind…
*


Not even touching on the notion of 'paying the price in blood' (let's keep things simple), and just by looking at the yearly output of movies and TV shows that revel in portraying 'merkuns as freedom fighters in the face of oppressive imaginary invaders, the patriot/heroes often literally depicted as ragtag insurgents resisting killer alien-robots occupiers at overwhelming odds, it defies imagination how the obvious and tragic irony of the RealWorld™ drone warfare situation seems lost on the american body politic.

Like Conor and others, I am not opposing drones on principle, nor the validity of targeted assassination as a tactic : both have merit and hold the potential to actually mitigate loss of life on all sides during conflicts, if and when used properly, but it seems to me somebody fell in love with their new toys and got a little compulsive, here.
Understandably, the ability to cripple an enemy organization by taking out their leadership and principals, anytime and anywhere can be intoxicatingly tempting, but the ultimate goal of war, if not outright extermination, is supposed to be the establishment of the requisite circumstances for a return to peace, or at least the goal should not be the perpetual escalation of the impetus for violent conflict.

Point being, a 20th century-style invasion war against foreign nation-states is the last thing the USA have to worry about right now. Terror is indeed the main threat to the country, and it's a danger, as the saying goes, both domestic and foreign, that's well on its way to eat it from the inside sooner than the out. 

Angst and disarray in the face of a changing world have led US politics to devolve into a culture of fear, easily exploited for personal gain by demagogues and pillage-capitalism profiteers who are only too happy to see neocon prophecies about clash of civilizations come true, as long as they make a buck on the firesale and grab some power in that new world disorder.
As a result, today's US foreign policy oscillates between clumsy attempts at realpolitik and saber-rattling evangelization, while domestic legislative and executive branches seem to have fully embraced the "kill the village to save the village" doxa on everything but funding defense and megacorporations, leading essential rights and terms of the social contract to be sacrificed one after another on the altars of 'homeland security' and 'saving the financial system'.

Foreign onlookers are therefore justifiably uneasy about these developments, as 'merka looks every year more like a very tense paranoid-schizophrenic driving a truck full of toxic chemicals at breackneck speed through their neighborhood, trying to outrun her own shadow…

Most of the enmity that has built up against the US in many parts of the world over the last couple decades stems from the convergence of largely exaggerated fears, yet there's no bullying people into falling in love again with today's derelict 'merka. The strong-arming that somewhat forces governing bodies of nations to pretend they like it doesn't translate to individuals or non-governmental groups. Since gunboat diplomacy only breeds resentment and hatred, not respect, the only way to win the war on terror is to stop acting out of fear.

…and it starts at home.



~


20130328

Here, let me ruin your breakfast.


I was catching up with WIRED's Danger Room, always good fodder for the sci-fi inclined, and bumped into YA-doomsday piece by Bruce Schneier, this time about the inevitability of us being wiped out (or kicked back into the stone age) by a combo of purposeful infrastructure mishaps, hobbyist-grade biotech plagues, and any other niceties creative application of natural stupidity multiplied by tech pawah can bring about.

Schneier's latest security alert can be summed up thusly : 

As every jackass can print a nuke on their home replicator, bad shit happens.

Go and read it, I'll wait.

Two blokes in PJs facing a seemingly-empty minibar.
— I don't know, pale dude… looks empty to me…
— That's the cool bit about airborne pathogens : no need to worry about pesky syringes. Feel anything yet, hominid friend ?

*

So, nothing new, really : we're nearing the point of no-return, and the 21st version of idiots playing with fire will eventually trigger mass-extinction through grey goo, or somesuch.
Only it's starting to feel a bit too real, by now, and while I'm trying hard not to go all Bill Joy on you, the "are we fucked for real ?" question is ever-simmering on my back burner as I mull over matters of game design and storytelling, or go about other, equally important daily business.

Should one run for the hills just yet ? 
Shall one entertain the idea of being the kind of people who run for the hills, even ?
…because the company's terrible, as a matter of record : advocates of 'preparedness' tend to also be bloodshot-eyed gun-crazies with overgrown dog-modules and weird notions about what constitutes humane behavior. 
And yet, for all the well-deserved ridicule directed at doomsayers and personal-bunker builders through the ages, we all know how the perfectly workable and sensible (in hindsight) may appear ludicrous at first, until one gets the implementation just right, or circumstances change — and changing they are, fast.

As we relentlessly set everything just so for turning ourselves into an endangered species, or at least usher mankind into a collection of dystopian futures, is there enough wiggle room left to prevent the worst possible tomorrows, and if so, does it entail sacrificing everything we value today, in the name of post-apocalyptic survival ?

"Survive to fight another day" is frequently invoked to justify avoidance or resignation in the face of damning odds, but this wisdom is predicated on a future worth holding out and fighting for. If all we've got to look forward to is the inevitability of paranoid social regression frenzied by technology gone feral, now might be the best only time left to not worry about death and taxes, break out the booze and partay ourselves into oblivion, girl.


https://plus.google.com/116747581186148686204/posts/XwsXxHwNodY


Let's face it : if things turn to extreme crap on a global level, individual preparedness will only be of minimal weight compared to dumb luck. More importantly : how eager will you be, personally, to merely survive for another couple of years, with nothing much to aspire to — for you or your cherished ones — as you trudge through the never-ending 'rough patch' ?

Back of the enveloppe, assuming nothing tangy enough to wipe the entire species comes around, we can expect massive depopulation (at least in some areas) to trigger infrastructure cascade-failures, then worsened environmental conditions as a second-order consequence, and massive social regression towards feudal models reliant on explicit might-makes-right power rules.

The people who spend their time reading books, playing videogames and writing blogs make for nice and stimulating company in a world of plenty, but your Facebook followers score and your BS in Virtual Interior Architecture will hardly translate as credentials in your new career as refuse forager and occasional unpaid prostitute for low-ranking pillagers.
You, dear reader, are more likely than not to be sheared, then enslaved, then eaten, or some equally unenviable fate, unless you off yourself first, because you probably haven't been raised to cope with perpetual duress and misery (I'm making wild assumptions about you here, but if that's enough to rub you the wrong way, you're just proving my point).

*

Care to contemplate some alternative options, then ?

The natural urge in the face of imminent existential threat (in 'merkan parlance) is to sandbag and/or lash out (preemptively vitrify), but both those stances become decreasingly viable strategies in the face of hobbyist-grade nukes or bioweaponry, against which neither protection nor suppression are practical.
There is, in fact, only one winning strategy in that scenario, and that's not an easy or comforting one : it boils down to minimizing discontent with the social order among the population, and hope to weather moderately less awful amounts of catastrophic events than could otherwise prove too much for the social fabric to resist.

In practical terms, it might entail a radical choice to eschew violence and blatant coercion as means of governance — and possibly adding benzodiazepine mist blowers to AC units everywhere.
That's a hard sale, granted, and unlikely to pass as the result of a mere sit-down and stern talking-to, because who's going to do that…
As usual, we'll only get serious about changing our ways after all other venues of inaction and flailing around while making things worse are exhausted. It will probably take us single-event death tolls in the 5-6 digits range before we figure throwing more monies into SWAT tanks, airport anal probes, electrified fences and moar killer robots will not work out to anyone's benefit (but that of war profiteers).

How bloodied we all get before we accept that doing the same stupid things over and over again will not result in different outcomes remains to be seen, and whether we're in good enough shape by then to act upon that painfully acquired wisdom is just as uncertain.
Considering we've only got more skillful and sophisticated in the ways we inflict pain unto ourselves over the centuries, and have near-mastered the dubious art of engineering consent to our collective abuse, we may very well have boiled the frog, already, so don't get crazy hopeful just yet…


Bioterror for beginners, on a budget.

As the distinctions between war, terror and common-law crime become vanishingly artificial, it's time to acknowledge the obvious : while war is asymmetrical, peace demands balance, and it can't be gained or kept as a zero-sum game. With war and peace entangled beyond separation, we have to figure according to which of those states of mind we want to live our days. 
Waging peace as low-intensity form of war is what we've been doing since 9/11, and it's not quite working on the global scale, because we're not the ones who get to decide how hot or cold it gets before we call it quits or victory.

Keeping the peace and preserving 'civilization' in some shape we can recognize through the 21st century might turn out to be less about stationing legions in Rome, and more about upping the budget on panem et circenses, for a start, then eventually rework our values systems to reward and foster socially beneficial behavior at the individual level, while mitigating the damage dissenters can inflict on society.

On this week's menu then, here are our specials :

~

Commie on Xanax (picture may differ from actual product)
Dead child soldier in the Glorious Army of Dog (your pick of cult/brand/nation)
Feudal Warlord (1B$ extra fee, not suitable for non-sociopaths)
Hills-people Toxic Waste Forager (exact number of limbs may vary +/- 3)

~

Enjoy your meal, just chew it well… to be safe.

*

As for me, my coffee's cold and my work here is done. Next time, I'll return to talking about creating cool games and entertaining stories, because I've got nothing better to do, considering.

~

20130324

...on brunch.

This Sunday sermon did not happen, on account of yours truly being on holidays.
Catch you after recess ? 


Also, I've been reading (and listenin') a great many things about TV writing lately, and I mentioned #InTheFlesh not too long ago, so I figured you could do worse than go read this during the hiatus.

20130320

Stuff that sells itself — literally.

In the course of my noodling on the commodification or art, I stumbled on this little gem of a talk by Bob Levy of Alloy Entertainment, about the art of commodification, aka pointed trans-media IP creation and marketing : the bit starts at 08'00" into the track.

Trans/cross-media properties are nothing new, nor is book-packaging or algorithmic storytelling, obviously. What Alloy Entertainment does could be seen as mere incremental refinement of established forms of commercial artistry (think cartoons as promotional vehicles for toys) and IP franchising as a brand strategy, but the outlook here sets itself apart in its conceptual purity.

No longer is it simply about synergistic marketing, nor opportunistic milking of a successful IP through every possible adaptation or derivative, it's about the design of IP blueprints that 'tap into the zeitgeist', then handing those wireframes over to contractors or licensees, for them to develop and iterate in every possible format.

[Kirk examining a tribble] "Character development is gonna be a bitch…"
Character development is gonna be a bitch…
 

What I can't help but find disturbingly poetic here is the mechanization of the entire creative drive, from impulse, through process, to purpose : in the absence of original or initial art or product to derivate from, the entire 'art vs commerce' debate is moot. It's so perfectly commercial art — the artefacts exist only to promote their own existence — it's as creepy and fascinating as watching robots breed.

Forget about Skynet : somewhere, a freak marketing hacker is busy coding the tween-lit procedural content generator that will eventually unleash the tribble scourge upon mankind. 

~