Friday, December 23, 2011

In which moving mp3 conjures up introspection.

I recently upgraded to a new computer, and in the process of doing so sorted through my mp3 library.  It'd been quite some time since I'd listened to most of the common mp3s, since Youtube and other online sources sufficed just as well and were only a tab click away.  So I'd actually forgotten quite a lot about the mp3s I'd had available - many, like the Clouds's '4 PM,' I only kept out of association with friends, because it felt disrespectful to delete something that someone I cared about identified with.  Others, like my modest collection of Staind songs, reminded me of singular events in my life, times when I felt very strongly about something.  Others still held connections to stories, cartoons, movies and soundtracks that I loved dearly.  Yet I had forgotten so many of these things, or at least, placed them in a part of my mind where I was content to let them gather dust indefinitely.  The simple act of organizing these mp3s reminded me about things... things that I didn't wish to be reminded of but probably should have been reminded of, horrible things that should be left to rot, precious things that really shouldn't have ever left my conscious thought process at all.

I realized that I had let those memories fade into the past because they had nothing to do with my present, and received a fresh reminder to never underestimate the adaptability of humanity.  Human beings can adjust to almost anything, given time.  It's a wonderful thing in that it allows us to survive in so many circumstances, but it can also be a terrible thing.  Because in adapting to new circumstances, we leave behind bits and pieces of ourselves that no longer seem immediately applicable or relevant.

Since then, I've been filled with a desperate need to DO things.  To grab the past and yank it into the present, if only in small ways that others likely would never notice.  I want to remember these things.  I want them held before me as shining stars that help me navigate my way through life.  They're part of who I AM, you see.

I themed a Ben 10 fanfic in part around this a while back, and ended it with a quote from Aristotle: 'We are what we repeatedly do.'  I have a friend who extends that so far as to her very conceptualized identity, her internal image of who she is - if she's doing something, she is that, for the duration of the task, and afterwards is that thing no longer.  She is an artist while she draws and stops being one when she stops drawing.

This stands greatly in contrast to my own thought processes, where I have always defined myself internally as something regardless of whether I'm doing that thing or not, and that doesn't change even if I'm doing something completely different, which I implicitly recognize as being Not Me, Just Something I'm Doing Right Now.  And yet, it DOES help to have reminders, and it does help to keep your outer self in touch with your inner self on a daily basis.  Even small changes to your schedule can have a vast impact on your overall emotional landscape and outlook on life.  Suddenly I feel like I 'get' why people have photographs and small mementos that I would usually disparage as pointless clutter: to keep us in touch with ourselves, to reinforce what we hold valuable against the daily humdrum of just making it from one day to the next.

I come out of this thinking that everyone really should take more pictures.  And being glad that, in this modern era, we have so many different ways to preserve our memories!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On macro versus micro in discussion.

I was browsing through a standard gender politics debate over at, as I'm so wont to do, when I had a recent revelation.  A former acquaintance of mine once told me that Scrabble wasn't about intelligence, but about seeing patterns.  And I suddenly saw a Pattern in that Tvtropes forum discussion that made it look hilariously familiar.

Gender-related discussions online, at least, tend to center around large and vague concepts.  One side presents an idea - women (or men, to some minority povs) are overwhelming oppressed by the inherent structure of society.  And then naturally someone else, often but not always playing for the other team, tells them they're full of it.  Then both sides start bringing out individual examples and counterexamples of oppression or its lack.  We could apply the same thing to racial politics as well, or to any discussion where a large group of people is theoretically but not necessarily literally functionally equivalent to any other large group of people in terms of advantages and disadvantages.

While both sides may get something to think about from the individual examples provided, at the end of the day it's all anecdotal.  Except for the statistics, which can be pointed out as being misinterpreted or countered by other statistics.  People don't change their positions on a fundamental level because their position are hinged on an overarching ideology that is inherently difficult to prove or disprove.

'Truth' is a surprisingly malleable substance even when all involved parties are doing their darnedest to sincerely find it.

Do you know what that sounds EXACTLY like?

Competitive gaming debates.  No, seriously.  That gamer you look down on for screaming that something he fights against is overpowered, or that something he uses is underpowered, sounds EXACTLY like you when you talk about how bad you have it or how much better the other side has it and they don't even realize it.  And anyone who's watched a gaming forum debate on these ephemeral power levels go on for more than two seconds can immediately realize that it's self-defeating and self-obfuscating.

Take Starcraft 2 as an example.  Is Zerg overpowered or underpowered?  Who cares, when whether something is 'over' or 'under' can completely flip-flop based on a single unit change in a single patch, or a map change, or the dominant strategies at a tournament that shift the metagame, or any of a million other factors?

What you should be focusing on in a game is whether X, Y or Z is FUN or not, and you can only do that by zooming in to look at the micro.  Does a given unit perform its role adequately?  Are win ratios for all races roughly equal for a given map?  Is a particularly ability underused or overused?  Small things, things you can take apart and dissect.  Things that, no matter which race you play or how you feel about it, you can mostly agree on being right or wrong.

Those are the things people should be focusing on in gender debates, too.  If you speak in terms of 'Women are consistently paid worse wages at Walmart,' then you have a specific problem to solve and a specific entity to punish for causing it.  But when you go to overarching ideological things like the very foundation of how society functions and how it all fits together as a whole, you're only going to get a lot of people disagreeing with your premise, which hinders your ability to get anything done.

So drop the premise.  Drop the framing.  Be practical.  Focus on the little things where you know you can make a difference, the things you know you can get other people to agree with you on.  The big things are just collections of lots of small things, and if you keep on working on those dominoes, eventually the big things will tend to themselves, too.

That's not to say that there isn't a place for macro or ideology, but it has to be at a point where the concept involved is just so revolutionary that it challenges fundamental assumptions and biases.  Back when the US had slaves, there was no question that a black man was worth less than a white man.  Saying, ideologically, that a human was a human regardless of skin color was a very powerful statement.  But if equality is close enough that people can pretend that everything's equal, then there's no point in trying to run a premise on an assumption of inequality.  Once you're close enough to squint and not tell the difference, you have to stop looking at the broad ideas and start looking at the specifics, the little details that are easy to miss.

So if you have something that you want to convince people about, stick with circumstances that are immediately applicable and easy to relate to, rather than using large-scale ideas that only widen the gap between your point of view and another person's.  You want them to know how it is to walk a mile in your shoes?  Tell them how your shoes make your toes feel in Dickensian detail.

Friday, April 29, 2011

It's easy to underestimate South Park. Re: Human CentiPad..

Let's be fair - South Park didn't catapult to fame because of wit or insightful political commentary. It's famous because it's vulgar. It's successful because it's vulgar. Yet the more I look at things like this, the more I find that the traits that enable profit and success aren't always the same traits that make that product important in terms of artistic evolution or creative design. When you think about South Park, you think about little children making potty jokes. And there are so many conservative people who cast judgment right there and refuse to see what else the show has to offer. That's a real shame, because the show, very ironically, has a lot to offer specifically to the kind of audience that's most likely to judge swiftly and turn away in revulsion.

The newest episode, Human Centipad, is an excellent example of what the show has evolved into. The actual quality of the episode, I leave for you to figure out yourself - the internet is full of plenty of people saying it was both the worst and the best episode ever. This is not a show prone to creating audience consensus. But the essential structure of dichotomy is there, clear as ever. We have the almost incomprehensibly vulgar on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have the underlying messages that vulgarity is being used for.

The basic plot is a Human Centipede spoof. That was an amusing movie by my extremely morbid standards, but it was a movie with just one (really creative) gimmick and not much else to drive it. But in so much less running time, South Park manages to take this spoof and make it do so much more than it ever did in the original movie.

The movie had no morals, no lessons beyond 'Sometimes bad things happen to annoying people.' It had horror without depth. South Park transforms that horror into comedy and uses it to propel very real and applicable messages into the viewer's brain. Commentary on the legality and morality of those endlessly long online agreements we all click through blindly. Commentary on the Apple brand, its marketing, the culture around it. Commentary on the nature of the human mind's detritus, of our desperate desire to share our mentally digested hobbies with others, as though they'd want our crap.

South Park and Serial Experiments Lain are nothing alike, but the two meet in agreement in this episode, both saying 'We will all be connected.' The difference is in presentation, but nos so much in message - South Park is a lot more cynical about it, understanding that closer contact to human beings also means inevitable degradation, loss of privacy, loss of control over things we take for granted. And the benefits? We get meaningless information we could often do without. Information that can poison us and typically disgusts us while providing no real nutrition to the mind.

Yet the Human CentiPad monstrosity isn't condemned in episode. Quite the contrary, it's taken as inevitable. At the end, all they can say, nervously, is 'Can't we go a little slower?' None of the issues brought up have any real resolution. They're here, we have to live with them. That's all.

Once you look beyond the vulgarity, there's a lot South Park has to offer, even for conservatives. Maybe even especially for conservatives. Yet the vulgarity itself is also crucial to the show, because it's the fist that pummels these messages into you. So, the next time you start dismissing a piece of art because it has a bit more swearing than you like, or nudity, or something else that's beyond the pale... stop and consider if it might not be using those things for more than just shock value.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ponies are magical. Real life, sadly, is not.

So far, Hasbro has been nice enough to not nuke the Youtube videos of My Little Pony floating around. Apparently this is because most of the profit is made off of the toys, so they don't really care if the cartoon is widely distributed for free, so long as people buy those little plastic ponies. Can't say I'm not tempted to grab a few myself (and mod them into gothic versions or something, but still).

The MLP series is built off of a very firm episodic structure. The ponies experience a plot revolving around learning one or two distinct morals, and then the moral is stated outright at the end of each episode for those who need subtext )or text-text) spelled out to them. Most of the morals are generic, simple, and unobjectionable basic niceness. Recently I came across one that actually bothered me a little, though.

The Show Stoppers episode centers on the three younger cast members, the 'Cutie Mark Crusaders' whose major continuing motivation and plot is to find their own individual talents that cause those little symbols on their flanks to appear. So, if you're a pony in the MLPverse, you have a major talent - you can be good at many things, but you are defined by one particular specialty that is literally branded to your skin for everyone to see. The initial 'blank flank' state of the Crusader ponies is a basic metaphor for one's struggle to find a purpose in life in youth. So far, we haven't seen any ponies grow up to be 'blank flanks;' every pony gets his or her Cutie Mark by the time they could be considered a teenager.

Now, I know there's only so much you can expect from even the best children's show. There's no way that politics, economics, or anything resembling a realistic climate for industry or jobs can be shoehorned in. It would go over the heads of the intended audience and restrict viewers according to culturally specific conditions. By keeping it broad and simple, the writers are able to appeal to as large a group as possible, in theory.

But I can't help but feel there comes a point when you dumb it down to a level of poisoning people with optimism. Oh, of course Scootaloo is great with a scooter, and she'll figure it out one day, in time! It's not like there's anyone else who copies her exact talent, she just needs time to work it out. And Sweetie Belle is a GREAT singer, everyone looks forward to hearing her sing! She doesn't hate singing, she's just shy about it, and in time she will learn to be confident and enjoy her talent in front of a crowd as well as when she's by herself!

Redundancy in talents is limited - there may be some overlap in broad strengths like athleticism or fashion sense, but no one will ever have YOUR Cutie Mark. The generation of talent is obvious and predestined - everyone knows what you're good at, and you'll always get good at something before the age where you'd need to figure out how to be an independent, responsible adult. No one ever hates their defining talents because those talents mesh with their personalities perfectly - ponies aren't saddled with talents they wish they didn't have, and any desire to be good at something that isn't their Cutie Mark is only a superficial interest that doesn't trouble them very much in the long run.

Why would you want to give your children such horrible messages in stories? Adults know that's not how life works. In fact, that's pretty much the opposite of how life works! Why would you set your children up for disappointment and allow them to be completely unprepared for the harshness of reality?

I think it's because, ultimately, adults want to believe that's how life works. And they feel ike maybe, if they tell their children that's how it is, and are very very careful to avoid mentioning the depressing parts of life, maybe the kidlets will have better lives. We pass our hopes and dreams down to our children, and tell them that they can be anything they want to be, even though that wasn't true for us. Because we want it to be true for them, so badly. We want them to have their own unique talents that make their lives rich and fulfilling and successful. And if you don't mention failure by name, maybe it won't come a'knocking, right?

Everywhere in children's stories there are messages about the power of friendship and love and making a difference. To a large extent, we need those messages. We need them as badly as we need religion, because it gives us something to hope for. But if you deliver those themes so consistently that real life doesn't poke its ugly head in at all, you just make children confident and ignorant of their own flaws. And then, like their parents before them, they too suffer the bitterness of disappointment. Of finding out that their parents lied to them, of finding out that life is hard.

Some people have no talent. Some people have talents that they hate. Some people have talents that aren't worth very much. Some people are unable to develop any talent at the things they want to do the most, no matter how hard they try.

Every time, mass market media takes the easy way out. Even a great product like MLP takes the easy way out. It tells people that life is awesome when we all know it's not always that way. And it's okay to have stories like that sometimes, but all the time? Might that not be doing more harm than good?

I think adults would be less bitter if they'd had more depressing children's stories when they were young. The drop from childhood to adulthood is a very cold and very sudden shock.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Regarding All the Wisconsin Hubbabaloo.

I would like to preface all this by noting that I identify as a left-leaning moderate, so if you want a label to put on my pov, that thar is it.

I'm not that well read up on the regulations regarding unions in Wisconsin, and I don't believe it's moral to take a particular stance on an issue just because an overall party or faction does. I'm not informed enough to make any judgment calls on whether attacking collective bargaining is wise or unwise, justified or unjustified. However, I retain a high interest in current events over there from a 'marketing' perspective. I like to watch politics and contemplate, not just whether an action was the right or wrong one, but whether it was likely to produce popular support or not.

So, judging Governor Walker's actions on that basis, I don't think he's made a very smart move here. In fact, so far I think that he's as good as guaranteeing that a Democrat will be his successor, and here's why I think that.

First of all, let's get the phone conversation out of the way. There was very little that was incriminating in that conversation; Walker handled himself quite well. The only truly damning portion of that conversation was the fact that he admitted to considering planting 'troublemakers' to make his opponents look bad, but the fact that he didn't actually do it likely makes the issue insufficient grounds for serious attack. So, setting that aside....

The Democrats lost midterms badly. They lost midterms in part because Obama heavily pushed unpopular legislation in the healthcare overhaul. Whether the bill was unpopular on its own merits or due to mishandling of its presentation and promotion really isn't relevant anymore. It wasn't popular, and it cost the Democrats a lot of votes to push it through. And they knew the consequences and did it anyway, because they believed it the right thing to do.

So here we are seeing Gov. Walker trying to push through highly unpopular legislation. And he knows the consequences, and he's doing it anyway, because he believes it's the right thing to do. Does this look familiar to anyone else? The Democrats were apathetic in the midterms. They weren't fired up. The Tea Party was fired up. Yet here Walker is now, giving the opposition fire because, just like Obama, he wants so badly to make a historical change in a particular way regardless of the environment surrounding that issue.

Hilariously, Walker is doing the exact same thing Obama was, from the exact opposite affiliation, over the exact opposite issues. And I truly think he will suffer the exact same consequences for it.

The tragedy of the thing is that it would have been a brilliant strategy had he just been willing to play it a little differently. Walker could have started out just the same, overextended his reach to the frantic objections of the left. At this point, if he was willing to compromise, he could get pretty much anything he wanted, simply because the Democrats feel that anything is better than losing collective bargaining rights wholesale. They're willing to give in on all budget matters so long as collective bargaining isn't nuked. Walker might even be able to get away with less extensive attacks on collective bargaining if he was willing to aim a tad lower. But no, Walker wants the whole basket. And in trying for the whole basket, it's probable that he'll get nothing at all.

I don't think success or its lack will alter later election outcomes at this point. Walker went after targets lacking popular support to attack - teachers and prison guards. These aren't exactly Wall Street fatcats you're milking there. And he's using threats of layoffs in an incredibly harsh economy to force the Democrats into surrendering. If the Democrats surrender, they look compassionate. If the Democrats don't surrender, they look steadfast. If Walker gets what he wants, he looks like a bully. If he doesn't get what he wants, he looks like an unsuccessful bully. Unless he's actually willing to change his mind and show some bipartisanship, he's going to lose out in terms of popular image no matter what happens from here on out.

Personally I don't approve of obstructionism in general. I have a great deal of difficulty respecting politicians who abuse obscure clauses in the rulebooks to grind the legislative system to a halt. Broadly speaking, I feel that it's better for laws to go through according to the rules, regardless of the consequences, and then to see the consequences and reform the rules if necessary later on. If people are free to totally block laws they disagree with, then you never see the realistic consequences of those laws. As a result, bad laws don't get a chance to be debunked, and good laws don't get a chance to garner support. Everything controversial just hits a great big government pause button.

So I didn't like obstructionism when the GOP did it with filibustering, and I can't say it leaves a better taste in my mouth with the Democrats from Wisconsin doing it now. But in terms of garnering popular support, they really can't lose, so they can afford to be obstructionists. From a 'marketing' standpoint, it was the smart thing to do.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Christianity and anime. More specifically, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

The attitude of conservative Christians towards media is a pretty mixed one.  In large part it seems like my people (and like it or not, they are my people, insofar as whitey is allowed to have a coherent subculture and corresponding loyalties in the first place) haven't bothered to develop a coherent philosophy to various media depictions and styles of art.  Growing up in the Bible Belt I got a bit of that good old 80s 'Isn't D&D Satanic?' ribbing, but it was mostly in jest.  There was never enough consistency in rejection of any given kind of subject matter to allow me to take such remarks very seriously.  Nonetheless I've always felt a gap between myself and the media habits of the common man and especially the common Christian.  Some believers may feel that watching anything that isn't as overtly Christian as VeggieTales can be spiritually degrading, while others will be more lax and draw a line at more graphic content such as R-rated movies.  Of course, drowning out all diverse points of view are the people who like to witch hunt and blame any random violent or overtly sexual media for the sins of their children, when improper childrearing techniques are more likely to be at fault!  It's been my experience that once someone is far gone enough to blame Grand Theft Auto for the ills of the world, there's really no point in attempting debate.  So this is a post directed more to the people on the fence between total acceptance of 'heathen' media and awkward rejection of it.  For those of you still wondering how much virtue there can be in the materialistic world and where you should draw the line.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, literally translated as When the Cicadas Cry, and translated officially in America as just When They Cry, is the last anime I've truly fallen in love with.  And by that I really mean the phrase 'fallen in love.'  I adore this little two-season cartoon show like I would a beautiful and intelligent woman.  In part this is due to its initial premise, which is an almost exactly even blend of sentimental schoolchildren romantic-drama-comedy, and no-holds-barred terrifying and brutal psychological horror.  The coupling of two so diverse genres is exactly my cup of anime tea.  Higurashi is more than happy to dip into the most saccharine cutesy scenes at one moment, and then immediately pull a 180 into graphic horror the likes of which would make Eli Roth wince.

Going by superficial descriptions, the average Christian, however, would find Higurashi pretty inappropriate fare.  The mild but obvious and definitely suggestive sexual content, so typical of anime, is centered on kids, in some cases quite young ones, which can check the 'ephebophilia/pedophilia' box.  The slasher side of the show checks the 'glorification of violence' box.  The inclusion of a minor deity in the second season checks the 'polytheism' box.  The reference to demons in the backstory checks off 'Satanism/paganism.'  If you only look skin deep, there's a lot to object to.  And now you're probably wondering how I justify watching something like that to begin with!  Let's scratch a little deeper and see what we get, shall we?

A little willingness to give the show a chance to justify its existence can go a long way.  Sexual content is constantly subverted, as the object of lust is almost always presented as damaged in some way by this attention, or pre-damaged and incapable of forming emotionally healthy relationships.  This continues to such a degree that you almost wish the characters would stop caring about each other, because you know they're just going to hurt each other more for it later on!  The initial 'fanservice' is typically used to lure not just the characters into an initial state of relaxation, but the audience as well, so we feel the same shock as the cast when things go south.

Gore, demonic influence, torture scenes and the like are not used in the sense of an action game like Dead Space.  You don't enjoy seeing these things happen.  While there are killing sprees and graphic mutilation aplenty, these events are addressed with a strong air of tragedy.  The resultant suffering is so unnecessary, and the victims so sympathetic, that you beg for it to stop even when you know it's going to go on until they learn their lesson.  Many Christians may also appreciate the more subtle point made through one of the antagonists - that an excess of interest in such things can be harmful, since it can damage one's ability to truly understand the emotional impact on the victims as well as hindering one's ability to relate to humanity in general.  At the same time, acknowledging the existence of this unpleasant underside of humanity with all due respect is crucial, and in fact a primary aspect of the priestess Rika's duties.  If you've read the Old Testament, you ought to be able to empathize.

Then there's our final possible objection, the little goddess Hanyū.  As with most anime, there's not a great deal of thought given to the inclusion of the divine as an actual cast member.  That doesn't mean there's no spiritual content to enjoy, but it does mean that you shouldn't look at Hanyū and expect some deep statement about the nature of interaction between humanity and God.  Hanyū, as a very cute, very timid, very ordinary little girl, just happens to be immortal and have certain duties towards the villagers of the setting.  She neither demands nor requires worship, and refrains from offering a consistent belief system for followers to adhere to.  Notably, the nature of faith, miracles, the afterlife or its lack, and the metaphysical gears that churn the universe are all left unaddressed.  They're simply not the point of the show.  Since Hanyū ultimately is no more a God in the Christian sense than the witches in Bewitched are witches, there's little for an open-minded Christian to find conflict with once getting used to the terminology.

But all this is on the defensive.  On the aggressive, Higurashi presents a number of strong themes that should strike a strong note with any person of faith.  The universal nature of sin is explored through the psychological horror aspect as it applies to each character in turn.  In fact, the line between protagonist and antagonist blurs significantly, while still retaining the audience's sympathy.  In short, everyone has their mental baggage, and given suitably trying circumstances, anyone can become a horrible person.  This is the bulk of the subject matter in the first season, as we find seemingly minor sins snowballing into outright psychosis, and small shards driven between two people turn into major conflicts.

But the second season flips this around to make the opposite point as well.  One's ability to relate to humanity and find a place in the world, one's ability to love and trust and sacrifice of the self, all these things are incredibly fragile.  At the same time, they are also accessible to all people.  Friendships can be mended, arguments resolved, and hurt feelings soothed if you're just willing to take the risk and allow yourself to be hurt for the sake of the other.  No matter how far the descent into horror is, there's always a way to climb back out.  It's very telling that the primary antagonist of the series, despite all murderous deeds done, is driven, not by selfishness, but by love.  By way of contrast, 'torture porn' style media like Hostel present suffering as a thing without meaning, arbitrary and shallow.  We have no reason to care about the villains in such a movie.  Higurashi differs in that it has the courage to offer not just universal sin, but also universal salvation.

And to me, that is what Christianity is all about.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lain is no longer special. Everyone's wired now, baby.

I'd have to say the most interesting, empowering, and simultaneously terrifying of social networking utilities I've tentatively delved into thus far is Twitter.  Twitter, by far.  I've been on AIM and such things for years, but Twitter is a different beast, and one I strongly suspect to be man-eating.  And unlike the tiger in the Jungle Book, this sucker has teeth that stay as perpetually sharp as people's opinions.

The sheer penetration of Twitter, and the way it puts the casual side note thoughts of our lives into text to be sent, reacted to, responded to... it's really nothing short of amazing.  Used to be, you had an idle thought, you scribbled it down in your diary, at the MOST.  And no one was SUPPOSED to read that!  Now, our mental flotsam and jetsam is purged from our minds and placed onto what is hopefully a receptacle more suitable for holding such detritus.

As a writer, I'm highly mindful of this in terms of Content.  It's rare that I have things I want to say that are actually 140 characters or less.  If I'm going to say something, it's going to be a worthwhile addition to the discussion with somewhat objective value and a modicum of thought put into it, and that usually means a ton of words.  If I don't have such a suitably thought out thought, then it typically never leaves my head.  I am, by nature, a highly non-spontaneous person, especially in text.  In fact, it would be accurate to say that I live in a state of perpetually barely suppressed stark raving terror at the potential negative consequences of every single action.

So imagine, then, what this textual coward thought when placed exactly one Twitter's distance away from some of his most beloved authors, voice actors, and celebrities.  Follow them?  Of course you're going to follow them!  You ARE a 'true fan,' aren't you?  Yet, no matter how many thousands of followers they rack up, it nonetheless feels almost voyeuristic, to read these offhand 140 character non sequiturs, random opinions on low-key news, idle comments on how the day happens to be going.  Now, here comes the part that most inspires my inner coward to lift up his head and froth at the mouth.  True fan that you are, how do you respond to such terse, non-directed yet somehow oddly personal content?

There's a format to a fan letter, along with many implicit agreements about what is and what is not creepy.  I understand these things.  You write some long eloquent adoring rant that tries to be respectful while also expressing a sentiment that you find embarrassing to admit to in everyday life, and if you're lucky and the object of interest isn't too swamped by such things, yours gets read with a certain amount of appreciation.  On the other hand, if the person is swamped, then you can assume your letter was only skimmed with disinterest, if read at all.  But that's not your fault, not the fault of your content.  You did your best to express the impact they made on your life.  That's just the fault of the statistics.  Who could read their thousandth fan letter with as much gravity as their first?  No one.  And so one is given a fair shot at acceptance, and rejection, if it does come, is excusable and impersonal.

Twitter's different.  Your idol is right there.  Right there.  RIGHT THERE.  There's a fairly good chance they'll see whatever you type in a Tweet reply, if only because the time involved is oh so much less than reading a letter.  You've got 140 characters to prove yourself a respectful and sensible human being yet also a devoted and appreciative fan, and how do you do it?  Do you allow yourself non sequiturs, if your idol opens up with one?  Do you attempt witticisms over their personal interests?  Try to draw out discussions?  God forbid, do you ever dare express even the slightest human warmth or sentimentality in such an environment, exposed on all sides to the predation of trolls?

But the trolls aren't the worst part.  They're not even on the fringes of the worst possibilities radar.  No, the truly horrifying thing is having your idol judge you, dismiss your reply, dislike your Tweet, and thereby render your entire life valueless based on 140 characters.  With the ability to communication comes the ability to be rejected outright, and no matter how mild or offhand that rejection may be from one party, the other half can't help but feel soul-shattered.  Words and reactions have value to us, not in and of themselves, but according to how highly we value the speaker.

Rationally, we could dismiss this line of thought in any number of ways.  It's impossible to be deep and interesting in 140 characters.  Twitter isn't the format for getting to know people as such, especially those moving in diverse social circles.  It's a shallow medium meant for shallow things.  The fact that someone dislikes one short message doesn't mean the rest of your life accomplishments have been rendered negligible.  Your idols are imperfect, as are you, so one shouldn't place so much value on their own off the cuff reactions that may not necessarily have had a lot of thought put into them, either.

But being a fan is inherently about being as irrational as one is allowed to be in polite society.  And right now, my inner coward has a very, very loud voice.

Perhaps it'll get better once I get used to it.  Let's see how things stand after a few months of exposure to the freedom of the medium.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just farmed a few achievements on Team Fortress 2.

I have mixed feelings about it.  They make it incredibly easy to fall into temptation, you see.  We can roughly categorize the achievements available into three categories.

You've got your grinding achievements, that reward you just for showing up and doing what you're supposed to do on a bare minimum level.  Heal X points or cause X kills over your gaming career, achieve X achievements (achievements for getting achievements, how droll!), and so forth.  Pure time investments.  The temptation here is moderate.  For the really big numbers, it's all or nothing.  Either you ignore them until you get them naturally, or you plop yourself down and farm for hours in achievement servers - efficient, but tedious.  I managed to avoid that little waste of my life!  On the other hand, when it's just ten, twenty numbers to click... yeah, I fell to the Dark Side there.  Just a few minutes of my life gone, along with my achievement integrity, of course.

You've got your competence achievements, which reward you for not just playing, but for playing well.  Killing guys with a medic without using your invincibility power even though it's available.  Particularly great shots as a sniper.  Capturing map objectives as a fast-running scout.  These things are often very hard to do in game, because they require the cooperation of your allies and, most importantly, enemies who are worse than you.  If you're, like me, new to the game, and only picking it up after four years of it being out, there aren't many people who are worse than you.  If you like to dabble in different classes and maps, the learning  curve is even bigger.  So again what could take hours, days, weeks, or even months of regularly playing the 'real' game can be done in a few minutes on a server designed to just hand you the achievements.  Yeah, couldn't resist there, either.  However, many of these require such specific circumstances that they're not farmable without help, and I've avoided asking for any so far, which leaves me plenty to still earn the fair way.

Then there's the totally random pure luck stuff, or stuff that's there just to be there.  These achievements are silly, funny, but not easy to get at all.  You can't deliberately try to set a spy on fire while he's flicking a cigarette in every match you join... well, you can, but you'll die a heck of a lot and be a burden to your team.  These I also don't feel bad about farming.  Once again, the time ratio for the 'fair' way to the 'cheat' way heavily nudges one over to cheat, if one cares about such things.

So, the common thread here is that if you make it too hard to get legitimately, and it's easy to get illegitimately, people will naturally tend more towards the illegitimate.  This brings up the question, should we not have hard achievements, or achievements that take long periods of time, if we can't 'protect' them from being gamed?  The thing is, designers are always making achievements in the spirit of the game, but players often don't play in the spirit.  This is an ongoing war without any resolution that I can possibly think of.  No matter what kind of achievement you make, you can't make it impossible for it to be gamed.

So you should, I think, do the next best thing, and not make them too excessively grindy or luck-based on the one hand, and not too easy to game on the other.  Rather than achieving unbreakable formula of hoop jumping, one should just make the hoop jumping time and effort investment as reasonable, intuitive, and pleasurable as possible.

To this end, Team Fortress 2 did a lot of things right, and a few things wrong.  The very existence of luck-based achievements is highly infuriating.  I see no reason for them, personally.  And especially I see no reason for them to exist within the class milestone structure, which is what grants tangible rewards - weapons.  If they have to be in there, they really should be separate from the achievements that offer real rewards and operate by rewarding actual desirable in game behavior and not the random blessing of that whore Lady Luck.

Grinding ones aren't necessarily bad, but they were implemented clumsily here.  There should never be an achievement like this: "Do X thing a Huge Amount Of Times to get this achievement."  That encourages botting, kill farming, and basically letting your eyes glaze over while you operate on autopilot.  Instead, the ultimate number should be broken up into tiers.  "Kill a small amount of things."  "Kill a medium amount of things."  "Kill a large amount of things."  So you get steadily rewarded each step of the way and don't feel the need to rush, rush, rush to the top as fast as you can.

Ultimately my favorite kind of achievement is the one where you're rewarded for playing well and achieving goals in the intended fashion, both cooperatively and competitively.  In proper matches, they definitely serve as guidelines to keep player behavior on track.  However, the more conditions you put into place on these achievements, the more of a temptation it is to farm them with the help of getting a buddy on the other team or going to a server dedicated to such things.  Circumstantial factors, such as enemy team composition, need to be included with a light hand, to avoid taking the ability to accomplish the achievement too far out of the player's personal control.

Then there's the class milestone rewards.  They're a pretty good idea, but inconsistently implemented:

Some classes have harder or easier achievements, more or less achievements, and require fewer or more to to attain milestones and get the weapon.  It'd be a lot easier to balance these things if, at the start of designing the system, you just sat down and made sure each class had equal numbers of achievements of a particular rough difficult level, with equal effort for equal rewards.  If you reach a bottleneck where it seems like you can't think of enough easy, hard, or fun achievements for a particular class, then that's probably a good sign that the class  needs to be given more depth at a baseline level.  It also helps players to see that every class is treated equally, and gives them a better idea of how each one is supposed to be played, and what the designers intend to be easy or challenging to accomplish.  What the designers intend will likely not match up with reality, but intentions can be adjusted, and I maintain transparency in designer-player relations as a high virtue.

Ultimately I've resigned myself to a mixture of cheating and fair play.  I'll do whichever is more convenient right up until that last milestone, and at that point I'll just let them accumulate naturally.  There's nothing wrong with tangible rewards for achievements, but in something like a first person shooter, the desire for an even playing field is just too high.  The skill difference between myself and the other players is enough of a barrier without me needing a weapons loadout difference to deal with, too.

Despite the barriers to newcomers mentioned, TF2 is still a remarkably friendly game.  The majority of classes can still function fine without special weapon drops, and some of them even operate best with the default loadout.  Another thing that helps is that some classes are well and truly easier to contribute with than others, in various ways.  You can have the hand-eye coordination of a half-blind wombat having a seizure and still be a great engineer who tops the charts and helps his team secure victory.  Yeah, I'd recommend it despite relatively minor imperfections, for those who enjoy fast-paced adrenaline junkie gameplay.  It's a very unique, stylish, and enjoyable fusion of rpg and shooter.  And those five dollar Christmas sales?  Exquisite.  Just don't go in expecting to own faces, because you're going to die.

A lot.

Friday, January 21, 2011

And so our perilous journey begins.

Today was my big 'social networking' day.  I got accounts with all the important stuff, fleshed out profiles insofar as I could, and wrestled with counterintuitive file uploading systems.  And at the end of it all I stopped and thought to myself 'Why not a blog, while I'm at it?'  I like to think I'm not especially narcissistic, but I do enjoy a good ramble or rant now and then.  So I figured this seemed like a good place for it.  This isn't going to be a very focused blog, I do believe; there will be plenty of ranting on the writing industry, on storytelling techniques, and on cooking and gaming.  And maybe a little politics, if I can stand the heat.

Not much of an introduction, I know, but I despise introductions.  They make me twitch.  So if anyone wants to read, I'd be honored.  I'll do my best to only say something when I feel like I've got something worth saying.  Hmm, and now that I have a blog with at least a precursor to actual content in it, gosh, I'll need to incorporate all the appropriate links back and forth for this, too, won't I?  This social networking stuff is a lot of work.  I think having actual friends is less work than this!

C'est la vie.  And yes, that is basically the only French I know, because I'm retarded in foreign linguistics.