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.



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.


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.



...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.


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. 



Back in black.

Today I reverted to a "simple" template, because the so-called "dynamic" thingies are way too slow to render on a shoddy connection. Also some of the content didn't work properly, and I can't be arsed to decipher the CSS and html templates that rule blogspot page layout.
On the downside, that means the blog is no longer mobile-browser aware and will serve you the same page regardless, but I've tried to mitigate that somehow.

The page layout is set for 1400 pix width, which on any proper computer display this side of the millennium should fit comfortably, but in case you're reading this from a tablet or phablet you should be good as long as you can fit 800 pix or thereabouts.
Tested on a TF101 10.1" tablet (1280*800 if memory serves), it takes only a small zoom out to cram the whole thing to screen width, and the fonts are still large enough to read just fine in landscape mode.
In portrait mode,  you need no further zoom out to read the main content column, which is designed for a nominal 900 pix width, but reads smoothly enough shrunk into 800 pix width. You'll lose the sidebars however, while clean vertical scrolling becomes sort of a minigame — that's my gift, to you.

And yeah, it's light-on-dark again, because I dig trog mode, and because not all devices offer a convenient way to swap between night and day modes.

…not a chocolate waterfall, either.
When looking for a segue image, do not google "chocolate shower" — just sayin'…

Unrelated, in the crossing wires department, the following mashup happened in my shower* earlier today :
— Adam Curtis : People embrace ultra-conservative views such as theocracy not (just) because they're dog-crazy, but because they've lost faith in the ability of politicians to change the world for the better, on account of political power inevitably leading to corruption.

— Bill Maher : The craziest reactionary ultra-conservative really are a tiny minority, only one so vocal that clueless politicians (whose pulsometers got calibrated forever back in the era of one-way mass-media) can't correct for the distortion and then buy into the fiction the loudmouths really make the core of their constituency.


*[I meant : 'in my head', while in the shower, wherein neither Maher nor Curtis are particularly welcome to partake in person.]


The Chocolate Factory - Part 2 : is it worth it ?

[I know I kinda promised an entry about video games as brain-washing, mass-murderer-making machines of ebil, but I got sidetracked in more ways than I care to contemplate right now, so here's a coupon : I'll ring you when we restock on that peculiar brand of bile.]

Today on the Chocolate Factory specials : 

Is striving to design good games in this age of vapid loudness a waste of time ?

One way video games as a hobby stand apart from many other forms of recreation is by how often gaming enthusiasts are asked to consider whether they may be wasting their time and could, you know, be doing something 'constructive' instead.
Provided they make a living of it (or attempt to), game designers are not called out in the same fashion, because "hey, it's work" is justification enough for anything these days, and the gamebiz is one of those few sectors that's still hiring more than it fires.

The stigma on video games is multilayered : not only is playing them seemingly unproductive, it's very often perceived as masturbatory-like behavior …yet that's not even the worst of it.
Precisely because they aren't passive and casual distractions, it's for their pointless intensity that video games are oftentimes perceived as worse-than-slacking : they're an affront to our deeply ingrained preconception that the worth of an activity can be judged by the level of engagement it elicits — unless you're prepared to accept games may be of some worth, or that there's something wrong with how you assess the value of stuff.
That's why even slouching in front of daytime TV doesn't suffer as much social stigma as videogaming …as long as you don't start acting like you really care about the storyline in that home-shopping show.

'Casual gaming', and social network gaming platforms offer an interesting contrast : playing a few hands of Solitaire or Bejeweled won't lead people to look at you weird, and — as long as you keep it low-key — diddling around with your virtual garden or fish tank while you hold on a phone call may not be a fireable offense in places where being caught playing a FPS would.

The perception is different because it appears noncommittal to onlookers, keeping the games where they belong, next to the paperclip twiddling and the napkin doodling, and far from the podium of important stuff such as your job at Starbucks, your studying for the realtor license exam, your cookie-baking for church or your buttocks-tightening salsa class… you know : duties.

All of which goes to explain why a frequent argument of gamers and game makers in defense of the hobby goes along the lines of "it's really good for something", like improved hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills or self-confidence. Such benefits, and even the 'spirit of discovery' are routinely invoked to make games look less like addictive time-wasters, which I'm sorry to report is a load of crap.

Certainly, games have a wondrous potential as teaching and learning tools, and I'm sure once in a blue moon somebody actually designs a game with such purpose in mind and maybe doesn't screw the pooch too badly on execution, but trying to justify the whole on the merits of the very few, or claiming credit for unintended, second-order consequences falls somewhere at the intersection of manipulative and delusional.
Another, less common argument to defend the hobby is to say games are just like sports, ie you do it for fun and it's still good for you. That's cute, but no dice : it's part of the sports-as-hobby formula that most amateurs do them largely because 'it's good for you', to get/keep in shape, the fun aspect making sports a more pleasant substitute or complement to other forms of workout. 
When it comes to video games, on the other hand, aside from the sub-genre of fitness-oriented games and a handful of dance/rhythm games that require players to stand up and move, the overwhelming majority of titles, measured by volumes of sales or cumulative hours spent playing follow no other agenda than pure distraction (which is not to say they don't have other, possibly beneficial, effects).


Ultimately, there's little point in such weak attempts to vindicate gaming and game making on other grounds than the value of playing for its own sake, for video games need no further justification than literature, dance or movies do : they're art and entertainment.

I've made the case in the past that video games should ostensibly position themselves as fine art rather than mass-market entertainment, as a practical line of defense against would-be censors and other righteous idiots, and that idea still has merit, although I reckon going AO should be more than enough in most cases to ensure creative freedom. Legal standing aside, the notion of video games as creative art holds on its own self-evidence, too, and is not necessarily detrimental to their study and progress as craft and trade, even though I see how it could be a slippery slope and an easy cop-out in some instances.

For being works of art, today's video games are no less heavy machinery, and the craft of them more readily compares to moviemaking than book writing ; such is the nature of the medium that game making faces the exact same challenges and systemic issues other popular hybrid arts suffer from, the same tension between mercantile exploitation and elitist isolation, the same conflicts between the  oft-divergent interests of creators, public and financiers, forcing games to grapple with money and technology in the same violent dance movies and TV fiction do.

Facing the apparent disconnect between commercial and artistic value, games creators must therefore individually answer for themselves the same uneasy question so familiar to moviemakers and TV writers : do I want to make creative art that accounts for the need to sell, or commercial art as a means to sell as much as possible ?


Strangely enough, the ongoing transformation of the market may be shifting the balance in favor of the first option, as the second approach becomes increasingly irrelevant.

'Big games' are the exclusive province of large publishers who can back the costs of thumb-thick eyecandy coating, and shoulder the cost of failure when consumers don't bite. These games are risk-averse behemoths that can't afford to get stranded while sailing uncharted waters. Marketing and focus groups reign supreme in this land of ever-cloned franchises, and they all agree : customers want more of the same, only louder, until they don't want it anymore …and then let's clone the next hip thing or die trying.
There's no room for more than a visionary or two per generation in those parts. If that's you, congrats on landing the job, but what are you doing reading this ?

'Cheap games', which can be built on a budget small enough to not prohibit experimentation, break into two categories : junk food and artisanal. They also cater to two distinct types of players.

Junk food games are made by companies that see games as commodities, and go about building, packaging and selling them accordingly. The idea here is to recombine a limited set of cheap elements in a great many variations to give the impression of diversity, pimp them out in attractive, flashy packages, and sell them bite-size so people don't really notice how much they pay in aggregate. Carefully monitor what works best out of your manicloned product line, and iterate.

These are games for people who don't care much, and play for the most part as one would distractedly munch potato chips, except for the few that will develop a strong addiction to some unique recipe of crisps, and are subsequently known by the trade as "whales".
What is called 'art' in these parts is the monkeywork of churning pirate or steampunk themed sprites by the hundreds for a pittance, in infinitesimally distinct mutations of the same templates, seeking the 'bliss point' of the week. As you can imagine, the demand for creative or inspired game design in that field is minimal, as it would presumably just mess up the conjoint analysis routines.

The last group of 'cheap games' is the most promising for people who care about games worth playing, owing to their being creatively designed and carefully crafted — they're what I'd call artisan games.

These, more often than not, are of the indie scene, and unless Raph Koster's musings about Oscar Bait games become a real thing (entirely possible), it's still where most 'passion projects' will sprout from in the future.
Not that all indie games are passion projects, mind you : a good portion of the derivative drivel currently cluttering various app stores comes from independant developers that aren't backed by a publisher or external investors.

Games that qualify as artisanal might sometimes turn out to merely be 'pretty' art, of the vacuous, faux-simple humblebrag sort that draws hipsters in like flies, and there's already some of that a-plenty in the artsiest corners of the indiesphere. If you can run it on dedicated hardware, say an arduino board encased in amber-looking resin, and sell it as handmade unique pocket arcade system on thinkgeek, you're probably it.
Some of those artisan games could also be genuinely fine art, but on that I couldn't comment, because it probably would still look like hipster doo-doo to me (see above).

Alternatively, if you build something that's both disturbingly moving, and still really a game, you could end up making Love, or something like it.
Point being, if you're into creating games that are unique, innovative, moving, or just plainly fun, and are able to understand they're also products that should account for the reality of players, then your kind of art may speak to some, maybe enough to pay for the work. 


Provided you're willing to be just a little accomodating and practical about giving others a chance to enjoy your creations (like not totally ignoring usability, looks and stability concerns), the rest of the industry is currently busy doing you a favor, by making it fairly easy to tell what's what.
More importantly, the players are learning, too, and fast.

I mentioned TV last week as proof that good things can come from the less likely places, and I'll do it again : looking at TV fiction and the food business, two fields that are seemingly dominated by the most cynical, exploitative and mediocre products, it seems clear there's also a growing demand (and supply) of alternative offerings that cater to people unwilling to eat crap, however loudly advertised, yet prepared to go out of their way to find the stuff they crave. 
It may look like it's all just one big market with some segments only now better served, but it goes beyond that : we're talking about people who will simply not buy at all unless it's good enough for their taste, and will postpone buying rather than settle for an inferior product range, which for them simply doesn't register as a possible substitute.

Anecdotally yours, and keeping in mind how, in addition to my game design interests, I'm also a foodie and a big fan of good storytelling (thus it all may just be a self-serving argument) I find it increasingly easy over the last couple years, not just to find good eateries or good TV shows, but also easier to tell them apart from the junk types at a glance, and not often be disappointed.
As marketing-driven businesses find decreasingly useful to even bother with the overhead of adding any substantial value to their products, instead selling nothing but puffed-up simulacrum, those products that seem carefully crafted are more likely to prove more than just bait, and actually deliver.

All this hints at some new truth to the old saw that if you make it (and put a little effort in getting the word out), they'll come.

So, is it worth the trouble to design deep, or clever, or moving games, even as the marketplace is overflowing with trite tripe coated in bright colors, while creative quality or innovation don't seem to be much of a selling point, judging by the top 100s ? 
My bet is yes, there's a public that itches to pay for that, if only they can find the wares, which is what I'll discuss in the next episode.



The chocolate factory.

In this tentative series, I'm going to explore how videogames and particularly online social/multiplayer ones are both better and worse than we like to think. It doesn't start from a joyous place, and I can't guarantee the end will be a happy one either, but I'm not here to sell ad space, so live with it.


Metaphorically and not, the 'civilized' world is sinking in its own waste, and trying to keep its collective nose above the stench by slurping the goop faster than it excretes it — you'll thank me for that image later. Wherever people aren't saturated by pointless crap, they're short of essentials, while a few places such as the US of A manage the incredible feat of routinely combining both, overfeeding toxic slurry to their poorest until their brains melt whilst their bodies inflate, until they can't afford even the most basic physical or mental exertion.

That was just to get the preamble out of the way, because I don't feel like making the full inventory of the many ways we are dooming ourselves. I'm sure there are many different and valid definitions of what civilization means, but a population of mindless blobs tube-fed by hyperactive stepfordian gerbils for the benefit of sociopaths most likely doesn't meet your standards more than it does mine. If we can agree on that, let's move on.


What I really want to talk about here is videogames, and most specifically MMOs, but not only. I'll use games because they're part of the question, and because that's a convenient vehicle for me — if the notional "10k hours of practice makes you proficient in any given trade" holds any truth to it, I'm probably some kind of 3rd dan black belt in gameology.

Here's my problem : I do love games, making and playing them, it's been a large part of my childhood, as is likely true of you too, reader, and an even larger part of my adult life, and yet I don't feel so good about that, lately. 
Designing and playing simulation, strategy, RPG and action games, on tables and on screens, has shaped my outlook on most things, from personal relationships to politics and from work ethics to parenting. On the balance, games have done me more good than harm, by a wide margin, and I count myself lucky for the help gaming and game making have been in turning me into slightly less shit of a person over the years.

Because of this, I find myself with a bit of a conundrum : when I look at what's on offer these days, at what's most likely to end up on people's phones, tablets and computer screens, I can't help but feel slightly uneasy advocating the idea videogaming is not junk food for thought, because in truth, it mostly is.
This is an apt comparison, too, because what makes junk food junk food is not that it's pizza, or meat sandwiches, or fizzy cold drinks, it's that it's those things, only made from the cheapest, most addictive and fattening, sugary, yet least nutritive crap the companies can find, with a single objective : leave you hungry and craving for more, no matter how much you gorge yourself.

In that regard, MMOs stand out as the worst culprits among videogames, because most of them are predicated on exploiting your frustration. Much like fast food, they need to offer something reasonably attractive to get you through the door, then keep you wanting for just a little more so that you stay and pay rent (subscriptions), or shell out for extras (Freemium). 


I could make the easy and common comparison with crack or meth instead of food, for sure, but it really wouldn't be an apt analogy. The worst aspect of the whole affair is this : food and games are not unmitigated evils, they're essentials, and when done right they can play a big part in making our lives better.
If crack cocaine is a nasty virus, essentially sprawling death incarnate, games are the gut bacteria that help you process stuff (otherwise wasted or toxic), unless the wrong sort of bacteria start to proliferate in your system, and things go bad.
Metaphor overload yet ? Me too ; let's back it one step and stick to the food-games thingie.

We're omnivorous apes, and there is an argument that it's been a defining trait throughout our history, for not only did it allow our ancestors to colonize environments otherwise inhospitable, hadn't they been adventurous enough about what constitutes food, but it also favored the quick and smart learners, and contributed to boost our specific inference engine. Our weird regimen also led us to develop technologies like food making, which paved the way for chemistry, pharmacology and in the arts and aesthetics department, at least in places, cuisine.

Many other animals play, among them all mammals (afaik), at least in their young age. 
Playing is a low-cost way of learning basic skills and behavioral rules, of socializing and honing one's abilities. Those individuals who are more eager to play are more likely to end up 'good at life', and thus most of their descendants (that's us) are primed to be aroused by preset signals, when it comes to food and play.
The more is known about us as a species, the easier it gets to exploit these traits — once evolved to keep us alive and fit — to now trick us into doing stuff that isn't beneficial but in the shortest term, like scratching itches purposefully designed to get slightly worse every time we touch them. 
Much of business, economy, and culture presently revolves not around the satisfaction of needs and urges elicited by our accidental and environmental circumstances, but around engineering the precise type of frustration or anguish that will trigger our feel of want for a designated object.

So what ? Everybody does it.

True, and if you agreed on the premise that our world is turning to crap because we've made churning and eating shit a competitive pastime, you may feel a little uneasy about that.
Games are a special case among other mass market artefacts because they're powerful behavior prescriptors, and because playing is nearly as integral to our condition as eating. We simply can't go (far) without eating and playing, and what we choose (and get) to eat and play affects our sanity and capacities, among other things.

In a weird fit of mental acrobatics seldom observed outside tea-party rallies, the same gamers and game makers who will tell you how big of a deal gaming is in their life and world outlook will simultaneously and reflexively dismiss the potency of games as mind-altering devices of any harmful consequence, which is at the very best oxymoronic.
My contention is that, for better and worse, videogames are more powerful magic than the industry cares to admit, and that game designers have no excuse for their shirking the corollary duty to use this power responsibly — which doesn't entail being defensive, nor knee-jerk over anything controversial.

On a brighter note, the more we know about games and how to make them, the more good they can potentially do. If TV, the titular village idiot in the popular fiction family has finally managed to bring us stuff worth watching voluntarily in the last two decades, I want to believe videogames are not cursed to eternal mediocrity, and MMOs can aspire to better things than making professional human traffickers feel woefully inadequate at ruining people's lives.

Inevitably, I'll be talking about stuff that will rub some friends the wrong way, because of unpleasant things to contemplate, and also because Jack Thompson, but it's all for the children, and also the worthy cause of feeling OK with what you do.

Speaking of which, next episode is about how videogames really cause mass shootings, and stuff. 
Nah, just kidding — almost.


[Sorry, no pretty pics on this wall'o'text : I suck at iconography, plus I don't have the time for it. Suggestions are welcome however, and I'll update the article if warranted.]