Thursday, June 16, 2011

Insert Coin to Continue

I've mulled this for a bit, and imagined various degrees of apologia in how to present it before ultimately deciding against the absurd narcissism of thinking it matters.

The long and short is this - I'm putting this blog on hiatus. There are a number of reasons - waning interest in writing it, frustration at what I perceive as a lack of quality in recent entries (Your mileage may vary, but it turns out that as nobody is paying me to do this and I'm my own editor, my opinion of my own writing really does matter more than anyone else's), and a need to free some time in my week for other projects including ones that might actually make me some money.

The official position is that we'll resume again someday and make it through the rest of the alphabet, but let's be honest, that position should probably be filed along with those "under construction" banners of 1990s Geocities pages and the idea that Half Life 2: Episode Three is ever coming out. Then again, Duke Nukem Forever and Chinese Democracy eventually got releases, so you never know. But if we're being honest, we should admit that this is an indefinite hiatus, that Rover has not actually gone to a farm where he can run so much as been euthanized, and that Mommy and Daddy are probably never coming home.

What it comes down to is that I still love the idea of this blog, but feel like I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about NES games right now and I'm not enjoying saying things I don't find very interesting. When and if that changes, we'll be back. Until then, I am still blogging three times a week over at TARDIS Eruditorum, and other writing projects are actively being worked on.

See you around.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Persistence of Mercury (Harlem Globetrotters, Hatris)

The Harlem Globetrotters make an odd subject for a video game, given the degree to which their history consisted of kayfabe basketball. Not that there is anything wrong with this history. The Harlem Globetrotters were, by any reasonable measure, a celebration of numerous aspects of African American culture. But they were not basketball as such. Rather, they were a simulation of basketball designed to focus on the moments of maximum fun and trim out the others.

In other words, the Harlem Globetrotters are themselves basically a video game. That is, after all, what basketball video games are about. Trimming the boring bits and getting to the fun bits. It's basketball without tedium, at the frankly fairly low cost of also being without point. But given that sports are already kind of inherently pointless, this just isn't that massive a problem.

The process involved here, alchemically speaking, is one that we would associate with Hermes, also known as Mercury. His name is also given to a planet and metal. Or, rather, all three of these things share the same name because, for a period of thought during which quite a few linguistic roots developed, they were the same thing. The metal, god, and planet were all simply manifestations of a larger concept.

This concept, broadly speaking, was change, but change in a very specific sense. Mercury is not the change of the passage of time. Rather, mercury is change in the sense of creation. Mercury was viewed, classically, as essentially the stem cell of metals - the inchoate chaos from which anything can form, along with, crucially, the process of that formation. Mercury, in other words, is the act of creation itself.

We cannot survive in a world of pure mercury. Some system is needed. Neal Stephenson, among the most brilliant living writers in English, wrote an entire trilogy that ends up with this observation as its main conclusion. But we equally cannot survive in a world that is fixed. There must be mercury - inchoate moments of unfathomable creation. There must be sparks. This is what the various dunks and stunts of the Harlem Globetrotters are - the moments of inspiration and passion and beauty that make basketball worthwhile. They are pure mercury. But they are not the world.

Still, a video game based on it turns out to be kinda dumb. It turns out not to be possible to take something that is already a distilled simulation of an object and create a distilled simulation of it. All you get is a generic basketball game with a lone "stunt" that you can pull to get an automatic basket. There is nothing to it. All is fixed and determined, and there is no room for chaos.

There is not enough mercury in the world, however. Case in point, Hatris. From the creator of Tetris, Hatris is another falling objects game in which you try to stack sets of five identical hats with six columns to maneuver in and hats falling in pairs. It demonstrates a key facet of game design, which is that just because you came up with one brilliant concept it doesn't mean you can do it again. Hatris isn't bad, but it lacks all of the spark of Tetris.

Ironically, of course, hats themselves lack that vital spark of mercury they once had. For some time mercury was a vital ingredient in manufacturing felt hats, leading to lots of toxic vapors and the phrase "mad as a hatter." Broadly speaking, mercury in general is something we lack today. Where once it was something everyone encountered, whether in thermometers or toys, now the fact that it's horribly dangerous and toxic is used as a pretense to remove it from as many things as possible. The resulting lack of brain damage and death is, admittedly, nice.

But something is, as we can see in Hatris, lost in the conversion. There is no spark to the game. Which is a problem. The falling objects genre, after all, depends on the dynamic of the game slowly but surely spiraling out of control until you die. This requires mercury - a formless chaos to which you descend. This is the problem with Hatris. Death may be inevitable in it, but there is no sense of things getting out of control. Usually you die because there aren't enough slots for the hats - six slots and six varieties of hat means that it is basically certain that you will be unable to maintain a stack for each hat type. But this dynamic never feels like spiraling out of control. It just feels like bad resource management.

Tetris, as we'll talk about in the Ts, avoided this. The dynamic that kills you in Tetris is subtle. You don't quite know why you always die. Thus there is a sense of chaos. In Hatris, you know why you're dying, and get no opportunity to be driven mad by it.

Mercury will kill you, sure enough. But so will life. In the end, the cause of death is always inevitability. Better to live in a world where that fact remains strange.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Widening (Gyruss)

I've been down on video games lately. Admittedly, I've been down on life lately. But I'd be lying if I said I enjoy this blog as much as I used to. Much of this may be down to the fact that I've been pretty hostile to video games lately. Some of this may in turn be down to the fact that NES games are largely a bit lackluster. But in any case, this blog is feeling like a chore, and I dislike that.

So let's take my own advice.

One of the things that I've been contemplating as I teach the handful of sections of courses I can get is the fact that we've really done an awfully cynical job of teaching people to read. Not necessarily a bad one - actually my students are very good at following plot and comprehending the reading. Apparently we've gotten that down. No, where we fall flat is that we've somehow created an army of cynical readers who go looking to dislike things.

It's our own fault. The unfortunate downside of the wave of "ist" and "X studies" approaches. Not that these have been by and large negative - the work they did in opening up how we think about art and power is invaluable. But so much of the work that all of them - feminist theory, queer theory, disability studies, post-colonialist theory, the lot of them - was to show us the seedy and uncomfortable underbelly of "classic" texts. The problem is that now we know to use this approach, and it becomes increasingly difficult to actually enjoy anything.

The actual ists and Xes have long since sailed past this problem into new territory with their approach of finding marginalized literature worthy of more attention than it's been given. This does not mean the "liking the bad thing ironically" approach of hipsters, which is really just what we've been calling "camp" for decades now, only with more cynicism and patchoulli. Rather, it means finding literature that gives voice to people the classics often ignore.

But there's another tactic I've been thinking about lately. What I call redemptive readings. It hit me while watching Love and Other Drugs, a film that is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. But watching it, I found that I could watch the film and enjoy it by focusing on a narrow, somewhat idiosyncratic, but largely valid reading of it in which the film is about playing Anne Hathaway's bland starlet characteristics off the fact that she actually can act and provide a compelling portrait of someone with a fatal illness, and how it makes it very difficult to support a for-profit medical industry in the context of the film. Whatever its myriad flaws, that bit seems good.

I call this redemptive reading. Going into something with the active goal of liking it, and trying to find a reading that makes it work. Ideally this shouldn't mean ignoring any obvious flaws, but it should mean trying to find reasons to like something. The appeal of it is that it's charmingly subversive. People are going to watch television. Television, by its nature, is never going to actively give voice to oppressed and silenced minorities, because it's a corporate-controlled broadcast medium. Finding good things in it is, more often than not, going to involve taking something that might not actually be good and thwapping it upside the head until it behaves.

So let's try that with NES games. Here, most of the time, we don't have terribly large racial issues, we have very standardized and entrenched gender issues, and the class issues are... well, OK, that's where we're going to need to be working.

Thankfully, for our purposes, Gyruss is not half bad to begin with. It's a rotational shooter. By which I mean that it basically functions in the shooter mould that I'm running out of things to say about, except instead of constantly scrolling forwards you move in a circle around the playfield. Enemies come in along the Z-axis, and cluster at the center of the screen for you to destroy them.

The gameplay is pleasantly pacey, the controls are at a nice midpoint between intuitive and frustrating, and almost every time I died I felt like I deserved it. The minimum threshold is thus cleared. But, for once, there's more than that!

I mean, one thing I am increasingly coming to believe is that the interesting parts of video games are the play mechanics. This does not mean I am becoming a hardline ludologist, as I still believe play mechanics can tell a story, but, for instance, if we take my favorite game in recent memory - Braid - the story extends from the gameplay. It's a story about the passage of time, memory, and regret, but all of the aspects of the story are simply thematic meditations on things about the gameplay. When the game introduces time-locked objects, the story introduces the idea of mistakes that cannot be undone. When it introduces the ability to have a shadow Tim carry out one set of actions while Tim carries out another, it introduces the idea of regret for lives unlived.

The thing about Braid that I think a lot of people miss, despite it probably being the most important thing about the game, is that it is one of an increasing number of games to operate in a lyrical mode as opposed to an epic mode. Implicit in this, of course, is the idea that the nearest textual medium to video games is poetry. And so Braid, instead of telling a narrative story about rescuing a princess, instead offers an extended poem in which video game mechanics, growing up, the apocalypse, and love are all intertwined into a... well... braid.

It is impossible to port this approach directly to Gyruss, simply because there's not enough formal complexity to have the multiple moving parts that so enliven Braid. And yet all the same, there is something to it. These endless loops and circles that stretch the solar system as an infinite tunnel straight through the back of my television. The spinning about in giddy circles, dodging and destroying wildly as all the cosmos lifts off my screen and through me. This is what games are for.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Indentured Servants In Disguise (Gyromite)

The Other Nintendo Generation always seemed cooler. Long after reason had concluded it couldn't possibly be as cool as I thought, it still seemed cooler. How could it not? It had a robot.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB, was actually just a bit of marketing. After the 1983 crash, no retailer would touch a "video game" system, seeing them as a dead fad. As the legend goes, Nintendo created ROB so that they could sell the NES as a "toy" rather than a "video game system."Obviously it worked, but once it worked and the NES was launched as a viable product, ROB was quietly relegated to that most ignoble dustbin, completely being ignored forever.

The Nintendo Generation is used to this dustbin, lingering as we do in this abandoned space before the crash. Somewhere, without our consultation, there is the sense that a decision was reached as to where it was decided which generations would be able to live out their lives in a functioning society and which ones would be left to rot, and that the cutoff hit us squarely in the face. This is the driving engine of a society in which the marriage rate is plummeting. Why start a family with no prospects?

Of course, there are perils in chasing this analogy too far. For one thing, it leaves us as the equivalent of ROB. Which is to say, a temperamental piece of plastic used to control a lousy video game like Gyromite. This is, by many standards, a degradation too far. Tens of thousands of dollars of debt spent earning useless college degrees, moving, as far too many of us have, back home, the complete abandonment of any future, these are things we are gradually coming to terms with. Saying we're as bad as ROB? Ouch.

The biggest problem with ROB was not that it sucked, which is an impressive accomplishment for something that sucks. It's biggest problem was that it was actually a viable robot. This is what those of us who were not in the ROB end of the Nintendo Generation did not realize at the time, and still to some extent resist fully wrapping our heads around. Robots, in video games, serve a very limited purpose. They are giant killing machines. This is literally their only function. Yes, in Mega Man Dr. Light screwed up and made a bunch of robots that were not giant killing machines. Then Dr. Wily helpfully came along and repaired them all.

(There is admittedly a slight window for helpful sidekick robots, but let's face it, that's basically just Rush.)

But ROB is actually a robot of labor and utility. ROB's function is... well, actually, he just moves objects around among several stacks. But still, this fits in with our understanding of the world fairly smoothly. He's a glorified forklift. He is less a buddy than a source of cheap - free, even, labor. And in Gyromite, that's basically what he is - the robotic assistant who helps a scientist get his laboratory back under control.

Not that slave labor dynamics are terribly unusual in video games - it's why I was able to mine Gradius for comedy. But generally it's the player who is forced to work for free. The player doesn't usually get to join the ranks of the bourgeois. Certainly the player is not encouraged to take home a friend and exploit their labor as part of the gameplaying process.

Which is perhaps why ROB was ultimately doomed. Designed as he was to make video games masquerade as toys, once the basic deception was completed and people liked video games, he served no purpose. Or, worse, he served a negative purpose. Nobody wants to force toys into a life of cheap labor. Toys are things we form emotional bonds with. Things we love. It is not good to love the face of your slave.

But perhaps the problem is that we ever had a distinction between "toy" and "video game" in the first place. If both are modes of leisure, why the effort to distinguish them? Surely the appeal of something like Katamari Damacy is that it's a video game that acts like a toy, just as the appeal of a Nerf gun is that it is a toy that invites a simulated game. The flaw with ROB - other than sucking, of course - may never have been the frisson of inappropriatness generated by an enslaved toy. It may just have been that the video game required a slave in the first place.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Welcome to Warp Zone (Gun Nac, Gun Smoke)

Gun Nac is one of those games of glorious weirdness. The sort that just sail gamely past "sense" into that bizarre twilight realm of juxtaposition and absurdity. On the one hand, it is a bog-standard shooter of the sort that the NES had far too many of. I'm nowhere near enough of an afficianado of the genre to identify gradiations of quality. This one seems pretty good, but honestly, I don't know that I'm the one to comment. What's interesting about it, frankly, is how often you're attacked by giant rabbits. As is kind of implied by the screenshot, which is one of the most surreal moments in an opening crawl.

These willfully strange games - often the ones that prompted us to declare the non-existence of Japan - play an important part in the Nintendo generation. The pieces of childhood that endure in our memories are, after all, the bits that we cannot quite make sense of at the time. I remember vividly a single image of a picture book in which, if my memory serves, a forest full of animals was possessed by some unsettling presence. The image was of a forest with numerous pairs of pale blue eyes staring out of it sinisterly. No context of this book remains for me, and I am at an utter loss for what it was. I remember only the bit that was too strange and too scary for me to quite make sense of.

Gun Nac, although not scary, belongs to this tradition - the sort of bizarre and incomensurable game that occupies mental space out of sheer weirdness. These are what we should demand of our games, frankly - that their images and play mechanics entrance and drive us mad long after we play them. Video games shouldn't be disposable entertainments, but permanent mindwarps. They should change who we are forever, like any art. This need not be universal. Not every game need warp every person. But every game should be able to warp someone.

For better or for worse, Gun Smoke is a game that does that for me. It's an oddly difficult game for me to get a clear critical bead on. I think I hate it, but I'm utterly unconvinced that I have any good reasons for it. It's entirely possible that my reasons for disliking this game come down entirely to the person who introduced me to it.

See, my main Nintendo phase was in elementary school. But I had a secondary run at the NES in college, and in the course of that, I had a very close friend. This friend was one of the few people I've ever met that I felt intellectually awed by - a seeming virtuoso in several subjects with an intellectual certainty that I found appealing. Plus he was one of the most popular people in my larger social circle. Never being one for mass popularity, I'd long since learned (and still from time to time exercise) the trick of being a close friend of the most popular people as a far more efficient path to social acceptance.

(There is a cold strategism here that even now leaves me uncomfortable - a cynicism to the way I approach social circles and friends. All I can say is that people came to me much less easily than how stories work or arsenals of facts. I had to learn social interaction consciously, and I approached it like I approached learning anything. Yes, it's left me as a weird and kind of fucked up person. It's still preferable to crippling social anxiety.)

And so I became, for lack of a better word, entranced by him. I wasn't the only one. The intellectual falling out with him I'll describe shortly was not the only falling out I had with him. The larger one involves personal matters that are not mine to tell about.

Suffice it to say that I was enormously invested in this friendship - with an investment that, much more through my own fault than his, made it a very one-sided friendship and not an entirely healthy one. (This is not to say that he was blameless - merely that I clearly was in part at fault for any unhealthiness in that friendship.) And in my defense, I still care about many of the things I first came to care about through that friendship - absurdist theater, aesthetic philosophy, Kant, a particular band of film, television, and, as it happens, video games. He, after all, shared my love of the old NES, and we enjoyed exposing each other to games. One of the ones he exposed me to was Gun Smoke - a novelty in that it was effectively a Gun Nac style shooter in which you were a cowboy and cold only fire on very precise and defined angles. It was a pretty good game. But I can't separate it from all the other feelings I have about him to judge it.

Which is odd. It is not like the game was an important part of the friendship. It wasn't. It's just that that I have never really heard the game mentioned by anyone else, and so I have no other associations with it. In truth, the bulk of my entrancement was intellectual. The result was an unfortunate flirtation with what amounted to a fusion of Kantianism and Objectivism - a combination that should amuse anybody who, like me, had a longer Ayn Rand phase than you want to admit to.

What it came down to was a very standard sort of libertarian anarchism. Believing in the supreme importance of individual free will, any restrictions on it whatsoever came to seem unjust. The end result of this logic, if followed with ruthless consistency and a prioritization of the ethical over the practical, is pacifist anarcho-capitalism. I understand very, very well how one gets to the conclusions that declare that taxes are an unjust threat of force on the part of the government and amount to theft at gunpoint, and how one decides that one has an inalienable right to say no to someone begging you for help because their life depends on your sacrifice of something.

After all, I reasoned, there was something fundamentally unfair about the social contract. I had never signed off on it, and never consented to be a member of this state. Why should it have power over me? Why was I never given any alternative to fealty to it?

Over time, as I said, the friendship crumbled. I took issue with some decisions he made about his life and about his relationships with people I cared about. He did not so much take issue with my objections as not care, which was certainly his prerogative. This coincided with my changing my mind on a lot of intellectual matters as I got to reading more extensively than he had on several topics. In time, alienated from him both personally and intellectually, the friendship by and large withered.

What this means, however, is that I can point to the specific essay that made me a liberal. Appropriately for my overall status as the embodiment of all that is evil it was by a French Marxist who (seemingly consensually) murdered his wife. Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," which everyone really should just read.

To condense a lot of philosophy, what that essay ultimately made me realize is this: it is impossible to have a conception of the self or of "I" absent a social order. There is no way to exist or experience the world in the first place, to conduct any observations or theorizations about the nature of the world, or even to think without the existence of a society. Our sense of who we are, the language in which we think, the entire structure of our minds, these things come from existing in a community - from responding to other people and to often unstated norms and structures of society.

If there is no way to imagine ourselves separate from our neighbors and our community, suddenly the virtues of libertarian self-interest crumble. If I understand myself not as the divine center of the universe but as something that only exists as part of a larger society, suddenly it becomes a lot harder to justify personally profiting at the expense of that society. Combine this with more realizations like that social anxiety not withstanding, life is generally improved by a sense of community and by having people you care about and you get... well... liberalism. If I, and with me my entire sense of reality and everything I have ever loved or enjoyed, exist only because of the rest of the people in my town, state, country, and for that matter planet, then it suddenly becomes very difficult to come up with any compelling explanation why we would ever allow one to die of a treatable illness or be bankrupted forever by the bad luck of getting sick.

Or, put another way, I no longer saw the social contract as some irritating burden foisted upon me. Rather, I saw it as a pre-requisite for "me." I did not consent to the social contract because I couldn't exist to consent without it. Through circumstances utterly unrelated to my free will, I was part of a culture and society. I've still not come close to working out the consequences of that, but it's very clear to me that they are far more complex (and fascinatingly wonderful) than those I had previously embraced.

And that is, in the end, how I moved on from an emotionally destructive friendship that still troubles me in some ways to being a liberal. I stopped being able to accept the idea that my health and well-being should come at the expense of somebody else's.

Some day that sort of progress might include liking Gun Smoke.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Behaving Idiosyncratically (Guerilla War, Gumshoe)

Before we say anything else about SNK's 1987 video game Guerilla War, we should first confront the fact that it is literally impossible that this game would come out today. This is not a commentary on its play mechanics, which are actually quite solid. No, this is far simpler. Guerilla War is a port of a Japanese game entitled Guevera. The playable characters are Che Guevera and Fidel Castro. This was only narrowly hidden when the game was ported to the US, with the opening screen still being a picture of someone who looks exactly like Che Guevera and the caption "Hail the Heros of the Revolution!"

This game simply could not exist in 2011. Just imagine the ferocious media shitstorm that would be whipped up if a company were to release an overtly pro-Cuban revolution game in 2011. Even if it were lightly redressed, just think for a moment of what the speech where Michelle Bachmann rails against these Marxist multinational video game companies and their indoctrination of our youth. Think of what it would look like when Glenn Beck got his teeth into this. I mean, dear God.

Playing the game, this mostly seems like a terrible shame. It's quite a good run-and-gun game. What's particularly novel about it is that it gives the player a sensation that it is possible to believe might in some way resemble the feeling of being involved in a guerilla war, except that you generally play the game as a privileged American instead of as a revolutionary in constant mortal danger crawling through the mud to kill people. But other than that, I'm sure it's the exact same thing.

That sounded more cynical than I am about this. Guerilla War really is a pretty great game. I find myself stopping the blog to go play another round of it with some frequency (twice in under four paragraphs, in fact), which, if I'm being honest, rarely happens. But this just makes whatever changes have happened since 1988 that rendered this game unreleasable now all the more aggravating.

The problem, and this is something that should seriously disturb anyone who is interested in video games  as an artform, is that video games are, along with most mass media in the United States, intensely filtered via a level of de facto censorship that puts the overt efforts at censorship in other countries to shame. Consider - it is functionally impossible to distribute a video game with an Adults Only rating, despite the fact that content that would only pull an R in the movies gets an AO in video games. Only 24 games have ever been released with an AO rating, in fact. An AO rating was given out for the "Hot Coffee" modification to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, despite the fact that the content was not accessible to a normal user and wasn't all that explicit.

But beyond that there is the fact that the video game industry, along with television and film, are trapped in the horrific censorship of "voluntary" ratings. The way this system works is this. First, some complete fuckface in Congress - usually Joe Lieberman - begins complaining about moral corruption and children. Then, fearing Congressional hearings, whatever industry is being criticized comes up with a voluntary ratings scheme. The thing is, these "voluntary" schemes are wildly more censorious than anything that would be legal for Congress to enforce. Stuff that attempts to censor legally would be laughed out of any courtroom gets censored freely, and it's all OK because it's "voluntary," where "voluntary" means basically "at threat of gunpoint."

The result is a de facto censorship far more chilling than legal censorship. An overtly Marxist video game could not exist in 2011 simply because the distribution mechanisms for games wouldn't touch it. Gamestop wouldn't distribute it, none of the three console digital platforms would take it. That's it. Game over. Because the video game industry, like television, has choke points on distribution (you can't make television, after all, without a channel to show it on, and those are owned by a handful of companies). Yes, independent distribution for PC gaming exists - hence Super Columbine Massacre RPG! But let's face it, the PC is a dying gaming platform.

What's interesting about the impossibility of Guerilla War in particular, though, is that the game itself serves in part as a manual against this censorship. Guerilla warfare itself is a style of warfare evolved to deal with grotesque mismatches of power - when one side, for instance, has an impressive array of tanks and fighter jets, and the other side has a couple of angry dudes with guns.

It is important to define our terms with at least some care here. Guerilla warfare is not equivalent to terrorism. Terrorism is the willful confusion of military and civilian targets in order to spread fear and chaos in a population. Guerilla warfare is when a rebel force within an occupied territory engages in hit and run attacks on military targets while avoiding ever having direct confrontations. Terrorism, while potentially effective, has massive ethical downsides. Guerilla warfare, on the other hand, is the exact right tactic to use when a massive mismatch of forces exists.

Given our relatively revolutionary theme at present, this is of interest to us. We should start by noting, for those with particularly radical inclinations, that it has been decades since a meaningful attempt at a guerilla insurgency in the United States was tried. Of course, the lack of an overt military presence in the US itself makes it difficult to stay on the guerilla side of the guerilla/terrorist line, but the fact of the matter is that it's been disturbingly long since we've had any acts of leftist aggression in the US, and disturbingly short since we've had any of right-wing aggression.

But the fact of the matter is that paramilitary tactics are the boring part of revolutions. I mean, yes, it's basically an inevitability that as our generation bankrupts itself paying for the retirement of the baby boomers while the richest 1% continues to horde resources forcing the other 99% into a doomed game of scarcity economics that violent insurrections are going to happen. It's just...

OK, look, I don't know about you, but I'd make a fucking terrible paramilitary insurgent. I'd be the most rubbish rioter on the block. I'm a fat bastard who grew up playing video games. However grouchy I may have been about always being picked last in gym class, I had to admit the tactics involved in trying to avoid me were sound. So violent revolution may be on the cards, but the fact of the matter is, I, and I expect most of my readers, are not going to be the central figures in this one. We're going to be the ones holed up under our tables whimpering for our mommies.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have our own tactics in mind. Or that those tactics should not, broadly speaking, be modeled on guerilla tactics. We are, after all, hopelessly outgunned by the institutional structures of power. Society as it exists is not going to help us. If you are in your late 20s or 30s and working a low rent job with no benefits, you are very probably fucked and it is not going to get better for you. The standard advice is that if you want a comfortable retirement this is when you need to be putting money away. So basically, if you're more than 30, even if a good job with benefits drops into your lap, you'll have to work it until you die.

This means that we are going to have to fend for ourselves. This is not a disaster. As we've already observed, happiness is cheap. Once you solve the happiness issue, it's just food, shelter, and medical care. Two of those three are easy. So let's look through the major approaches to dealing with the problem of fending for yourself.

First off we have survivalism. Several problems exist here. First, we are geeks. We are going to make very, very bad survivalists. We will get eaten. Possibly within seconds. Second, survivalism is a really stupid idea anyway. Planning for the utter collapse of society is a poor idea. As others have pointed out (though the one I am remembering is Margaret Killjoy in the pages of Alan Moore's sublime underground magazine Dodgem Logic, to which this entire revolutionary jag owes much), you will not survive the apocalypse. This is why it is the apocalypse. If the way this all shakes out is the complete collapse of civilization, frankly, most of us are in fact going to die and there's not really much point in planning for it. (There is a third massive problem with survivalism, namely its deeply flawed conception of individualism, but that's another post.)

No. Let's assume that we're going to have to function within an existing civilization. What are we going to do? One answer, and an answer worth taking seriously, is "behave idiosyncratically."

Which brings us to our other game, Gumshoe. There is no particular reason why Gumshoe should be an obscure game. But it is. The game is a straightforward platformer - you try not to fall off or get hit by bad guys. Except that your avatar progresses inexorably towards the right, and you control the game with the Zapper. And there's the problem - other than the title that comes with it, almost no peripheral has a meaningfully played catalog of games. The usual reason for this comes down to simple math. Even the most successful games for a given platform have relatively small sell throughs - the best games for the Gamecube, for instance, managed about 33% sell through. (That is, 33% of people who bought a Gamecube also bought Super Smash Bros. Melee) So even if your peripheral does blockbuster business, and then your game for the peripheral does phenomenally as well, your absolute best case scenario is that  11% of console buyers will buy a peripheral game. In practice, the math never actually works out that well. Especially because any video game company can do that math, and so they never devote serious resources to peripheral games, leading them to be poor-selling shovelware.

With, of course, a few exceptions. Such as Gumshoe, an improbably difficult but strangely fun game. It's a game of the sort I have referred to in other entries as rabbit holes - games that only a relatively small number of people have played, but that are quite beloved among those who have played them. They are thus objects of intense fascination that nevertheless put their players somewhat apart from everybody else because of a lack of larger social context.

Rabbit holes seem to me a good goal. The creation of objects that seek not so much a mass audience as an effective audience. Whether these objects be artistic, pragmatic, or otherwise. I am, essentially, calling for a smarter, leaner version of communes - groups of people with relatively compatible ideas of happiness and interests pooling resources both to accomplish a defined goal (albeit possibly one of limited interest outside the group) and to survive.

The trouble, of course, and what will have to sustain this "8-Bit Revolution" thread for at least another post in the future, is this: history is littered with failed utopian communities. They seem not to work.

Can we make them?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Climbing the Starting Blocks (Gremlins II: The New Batch and Guardian Legend)

At some point, these blog entries collapse towards solipsism. It's bad enough when this happens purely because the games in question are so mind-wrenchingly bad that there is nothing to say about them. It's far more annoying when it happens on basically decent games. I mean, here... one of the games is Gremlins II! If nothing else, I ought to be able to bash out a nice bit of autobiography about the Gremlins movies, how they were my first horror movies, and how good they are at being first horror movies because they give you a throughline of something to enjoy other than the gory spectacle. Even though the Gremlins movies are really about the comedy of putting a cute fuzzy Mogwai into a horror movie, they are also, by extension, about the comedy of putting a horror movie into a kids movie full of Mogwais. The most traumatic scene for me, then, was the one where the Mogwais start to turn, because the cute things were going away and they were the best part. (Accordingly, think how horrible the movies would have been if not for Gizmo remaining unchanged. That decision is what makes those movies.)

Instead of that analysis, we crash towards this pathetically masturbatory nested structure of posts as if neo-Borgesian structure games make up for a lack of definitive insight. I mean, look at this crap:

The line one has to walk with these more political posts is one between stridency and useful engagement. Sure, I can fire off a great blog post about the fundamental flaws of the Less Wrong crowd. I can even agree with it, since I think the Less Wrong crowd is chasing a poorly defined dead end that is siphoning energy off of actual pragmatic social justice to create what amounts to a manual on how to live a consumerist middle class life as robotically as possible.

But why? Who does that benefit? I mean, I'm genuinely concerned that this is an essentially narcissistic and masturbatory act. I mean, let's look at what I was writing before I gave up:

I wrote several hundred words of this entry before I stopped and realized something wasn't working in it. This happens every once in a while, and since I'm banking entries hardly even counts as a problem - no real time pressure was created by my dead end. The problem with this dead end was this - I was largely confident in the basic angle. What I wanted to talk about in these two games was definitely the problem of the rough start in NES games.

We'll use the example from Gremlins II, since the draft material of the original entry is mostly Guardian Legend. Gremlins II is a perfectly nice Zelda-esque overhead game. Actually, the nearest cousin I can think of is Startropics. But man, the early difficulty is lethal. Mowgli is just a bit too fragile, the enemies a bit too durable, and the tomatoes you throw a bit too puny to make it a fair start. And it's discouraging, and that interested me. Because there was nothing wrong with either game - they just pissed me off to the point where I didn't want to play them. And that was what I wanted to talk about. But as I said, clearly it went wrong. So let's look at what I had and see where it went wrong:

The largest tool of oppression that the universe has ever created is inertia. On every level and in every effort, whether it be a large scale political movement or a small scale personal improvement campaign, intertia is the absolute bugger all. To some extent, this is a statement of such blithering obviousness as to not be worth making. If oppression is simply defined as a bad situation that requires change, then the fundamental tendency of objects to resist change is, from a social justice standpoint, basically the worst thing in the world.

But picking up on the theme from Tuesday, if we are to take as our fundamental revolutionary act deciding that we are not obliged to earn our happiness and we may simply opt to create it, it is inertia that proves the most immediate barrier.

So far as I can tell, neither Gremlins II nor Guardian Legend are bad games. I say so far as I can tell because in half an hour of trying, I made very little progress in either one.

From what I gather, however, Guardian Legend is quite the classic game with a wide variety of genres effectively blended. But the first of those genres - the Gradius style shooter - proved a fairly insurmountable barrier. Half an hour of trying and I still couldn't quite clear the boss.

The big philosophical question here is simple - the declaration that we will be in control of our own happiness is not equivalent to an absolute right to be happy. The entire point of the exercise is that happiness is not going to be treated as a commodity that we must earn, but rather that it will be treated like a craft project or a work of art - something that we are entitled to build. There will still be work required to make ourselves happy.

The question is what degree of effort ought be spent trying to overcome inertia.

This problem is worsened by the fact that inertia and momentum are actually basically the same thing. Just as it takes an unusually large exertion of energy to get something to start moving, it takes added energy to stop it. Thus we have a Scylla and Charybdis situation going - we both are disinclined to put in effort to start doing something new and are disinclined to stop doing something old, leading to problems like "throwing good money after bad."

Much as I would like to declare an easy and obvious solution to this, it is an intensely intractable problem. Even if we ask it only on the level of basic happiness, it proves surprisingly difficult to straightforwardly resolve. Exactly how much time should I spend trying to beat the first boss on Guardian Legend once I begin to get frustrated?

Part of this, though, is a matter of bad design. The first boss of Guardian Legend is surely no harder than most of the levels of the recent indie game Super Meat Boy. And yet I am happy to spend large amounts of time flailing at Super Meat Boy in a way that I don't want to with Guardian Legend. This is because Super Meat Boy tries to minimize the penalty for death - you splatter and there's a half second delay before you get to try the level again, and each level is fairly small. Whereas in Guardian Legend, a single death results in a game over such that I have to start a new game and play for 90 seconds before I've earned the right to die again. (Amusingly, when I went to time how long it takes to get to the first boss, I beat it finally and got to the next bit of game. Where I flailed for a bit, then died. Somewhere in here is a lesson.)

In game design, the concept in question is the death penalty. Basically, it's the matter of how you punish players for failure without getting them to give up playing the game. For the most part, in most game design, it turns out that low death penalties make for better games, and most games have progressed towards that.

The problem with all of that seems to me this: unless I had intended for the entry to be a mocking parody of the Less Wrong crowd - which, to be fair, would not have been out of line as an entry - it's complete rubbish. It falls into the same trap that the entire "lifehacking" movement seems to me to fall into - an obsessive focus on optimizing functionality wildly out of proportion to actual utility.

I mean, let's use a real example. I just pulled up Less Wrong, and picked not quite at random the following article: "Suffering as attention-allocational conflict." Now, let me be honest - I more or less like the Less Wrong crowd on a personal level. But jeez. Ostensibly the post is a lot like ours from Tuesday - a piece about cognitive approaches to making your life a more pleasant one.

But I think there's a rather key difference. I point out that there's a fundamental flaw in our ideological construction of happiness from a childhood level up, and suggest a contra-social approach to remedying the problem, or at the very least, suggest that pursuing our own happiness and demanding good compensation for willingly being unhappy is a good idea. Mostly I view this as post-consumer ideology 101: do not approach late capitalism as if its end goals are equivalent to personal happiness.

The Less Wrong essay reduces the entire concept of human suffering to an analogy about error messages on a personal computer, and determines that suffering comes from failing to adequately acknowledge an expressed desire by part of your overall psyche.

The problem with this... well, it's tough to articulate. Especially because any time you try articulating something like this to the Less Wrong crowd they just start whacking you with "can you be more concrete about that" like they're trying to see if you slip up and they can declare that you fail the Turing Test. Not that they'd ever accuse you of it. They'd just make some snide comment about how you clearly don't know enough about Bayesian Inference, then strip naked and worship at their big giant airstrip in the jungle waiting for the Cargo Singularity to come.

But the problem is this. Less Wrong far too often consists of a bunch of middle class technocrats coming up with clever Wittgensteinian word games to play in order to optimize happiness, and they are far too willing to engage in these games even on concepts like human suffering. The entire piece is about an attempt to rework how you think about things in your life to make you happier. It's Doctor Phil for the techno-libertarian crowd. Even before you get into their odious dislike of postmodernism, there's something wrong here. And it's the word choice. "Suffering." I mean, they're not just offering tips for working with depression. No, no. They're tackling human suffering - a problem usually more associated with things like starvation, lack of adequate medical care, and the fact that we willingly divide the world into an isolated and rich elite and a vast poor underclass.

I mean, let's be blunt here. The root problem of Less Wrong is that it's a bunch of privileged technocrats discussing lifehacks to optimize their happiness. And that this may be an acceptable way to spend your time, but that it is in no way an acceptable activity to describe as meaningfully utopian or focused on human progress. The basic message of Less Wrong - try to be more rational - is a fantastic one. But rather ignores the pressing matter of what one should be rational about.

So basically, aren't we just prissy mc-authorpants here. But look, the point stands. Anyone using the word "suffering" for the purpose "blogging about how sad conflicting social engagements makes me" is so spectacularly out of tune with the actual material conditions of people in their world that one wonders if there is any remedy beyond simply abandoning them in one of the urban slums of our "emerging economies" (Mumbai or Sao Paolo would be fantastic choices) and seeing how that goes for them.

When asked this way, one starts to wonder about this whole concept of individual happiness in the first place. Certainly it doesn't seem to be working out very well for us. All we've managed to produce is a massive wealth gap where the people who have wildly more than everybody else on the planet then sit around and write blog posts about how if they could only optimize their decision making algorithms they could stop being so unhappy. If we're thinking on a remotely big picture level, the fact that depression appears to exist as a recognized problem only among technologically and economically "advanced" western people should be a big honking warning sign. (The answer to this warning sign may well simply be that "depression is less of a problem than dysentery," but this begs the question of why any medical research at all has gone into SSRIs while the whole dysentery thing is still going on. Oh yes. Because health care is a consumer commodity. Somewhere, someone quietly points out that when you can actually use the same measurement of value to cover flat screen TVs and chemotherapy and can express a round of chemo in "how many televisions that cost," you have basically gone so completely wrong that merely being "less" so isn't gonna cut it.)

I mean, here we are consuming finite resources with no plan B and in wholesale disregard for the fact that we are actually cooking the planet to death by doing so, and it's not even fucking making us happy. Surely whatever solution we cook up to that silly little "inertia" problem in the original draft of this entry would say that when you are throwing sufficient effort at a problem that you are quite literally going to KILL US ALL with your efforts and you are still not actually getting anywhere meaningful on it, maybe, just maybe, it's time to back off.

Or at the very least to ask again whether we are simply too hard on games. Returning to Guardian Legend, which, in between attempts to figure out where this blog post is going wrong, I've been playing, I find I'm actually getting the hang of this Zelda-esque section in between space fights. I'm completely lost and sure I should have been drawing a map, but I'm increasingly realizing that this is a game I would have really enjoyed at the time. And yet I'm not going to beat it. I'm going to give up on this fun thing and move on to something else. Why? That something else will likely cost money - whether it be a comic, a book, a movie, at some point I am going to expend money to have fun when I could just play Guardian Legend.

Seriously, cry me a fucking river. The underlying problem is that my entire lifestyle is supported by cruelly exploitative labor practices while I piss and moan about my lack of a cushy academic job? I've got virtual slaves stitching together my clothes and picking my food so I can survive long enough to write witty remarks about video games, and I'm unhappy that I can't get paid to stand in front of other middle class fucks and tell them about literature?

Never mind Ben Stein's bullshit about the have-nots hating the haves. I'm perfectly willing to be the haves hating the haves. Perhaps depression is a wholly appropriate consequence. Here we are, cooking the planet, and what do we have to show for it? Who wouldn't be depressed to realize that?

More money went into producing Guardian Legend than some people will see over their entire lifetimes. In the face of stark reality like that, does whether the game is good or bad even have any bearing on whether or not we should suck it up and play it thoroughly before we move on to other things?

I made it to the next space shooter bit, but got eaten by a giant fish.

But then I hit continue.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shiny Happy People (The Great Waldo Search, Where's Waldo?)

The idea of doing two entries on Where's Waldo games did not make me happy. So I decided to only do one, pulling the W-starting game forward. Also, just as a note, between now and June 15th, I am banking posts and writing ahead so that I can take a week off in June without disrupting the posting schedule. This, for instance, was written back on Saturday. 

This shouldn't affect you in any way, but if for some reason a blog entry posts that seems like it should be responding to some world event and isn't, it's probably because I wrote it days or weeks before you saw it. 

Here's a question for you. Did you spend a lot of your childhood staring at a souped up television screen feeling bad about yourself?


Me neither. Which begs the question of why Facebook has now become the most visited site on the Internet. Not that it's not possible to have a good time on Facebook. Just that so few of us seem to actually get around to the step where we do it. I'm as guilty as the rest of you here, using it primarily to refashion my own sense of self-loathing and political anger into bon mots to see if I can bum a few precious "likes" from my friends.

How the fuck did we get here? What diseased aspect of our childhood left us confusing clicking on a few pixels arranged in the shape of a human thumb with meaningful social contact? Where did we, the Nintendo generation, go wrong? How did we learn this absurd excuse for behavior? And what else did we learn?

In school, of course, the answer is a bleak truism: we learned obedience. Regardless of the quality of one's teachers - and let's face it, most of us had a mixture of good and bad - this is the content of much of our instruction. My public education is littered with monuments to this process. A fourth grade teacher who advised me that I'd be more popular if I stopped acting so smart. A high school math teacher who treated "if" and "only if" as equivalent statements, marking me wrong on a logic problem that I was right on, and who, upon my producing a college textbook from my parents' library establishing that I was unequivocally correct, told me that since I didn't learn it in her class it didn't count. A substitute who openly admitted his educational philosophy was "the nail that sticks out should be hammered."

These lessons are unambiguous. Truth is determined by the people with power. You are not a person with power. So you should just shut up and obey.

Perhaps the best example of these perverse structures of authority comes in the form of the age-old punishment of having your name written on the blackboard. Let's look at this punishment for a moment. What, exactly, is the disincentive? Why is having your name written on a blackboard a bad thing? Some argument about social stigma might be made, but public shaming hardly requires the mythical totem of the blackboard scrawl. No. The blackboard scrawl is far simple. Its lesson is this - here is an authority. Obey.

With obedience comes the other lesson: the acceptance of tedium. Public education, especially on the primary school level, is based on a curricular structure called the spiral curriculum, in which each lesson is approximately 80% reiteration of past lessons and only 20% new material - if that. Accordingly, each lesson is designed to be boring, designed to teach you things you already know, designed expressly not to challenge you or enliven your life in any way, shape, or form.

Happiness is a reward that must be earned. A commodity. The default state is misery, and you must strive to get out of it. This psychological abuse is codified in America's founding documents. "The pursuit of happiness," as though having a good time is some obscure thing that requires an elaborate quest instead of, say, grabbing a book and kicking up your feet in a patch of sunlight.

Our freedom from this rat race was video games. Which is what makes Where's Waldo so galling. Widely recognized as one of the worst NES games ever, Where's Waldo consists of moving a cursor around some indistinct 8-bit graphics attempting to find Waldo. The seeming problem is jarringly obvious. As a concept, the "I Spy" game depends on a level of visual clarity and on an object with a reasonably well-defined color scheme and silhouette so that a prospective searcher can find it. In the books, this is accomplished by giving Waldo a distinct color scheme (red and white stripes) and body type (lanky, and with accessories such as a hat and cane) that make him recognizable. When the game, instead of detailed cartoons, consists of a bunch of pixelated smudges, the game loses more or less its entire point. And I'm really not exaggerating. This game is less about "finding" Waldo than it is about clicking to see if the thing you are looking at is Waldo or not. Generally, when one finds Waldo, it is a mild surprise. "Oh! That was Waldo! Who knew?" (Seriously, look at the picture. Can you find Waldo?)

In other words, the game is a mind-wrenching exercise in abusive tedium ostensibly masquerading as "fun." Needless to say, of course, there was a sequel.

It's arguably the case that nothing more horrific than the title screen of The Great Waldo Search, a memorable entry into the canon of "the terrible things that happen when white people attempt to insert rap into things." Bad chipset music with a bad synthesized voice shouting "Where's Waldo" at frequent intervals. In that exact tone that evokes "Oh God, white people hired a black guy to add a brief moment of rap to this in order to make it cool." For other examples, try R.E.M.'s "Radio Song" or, of course, Don't Copy That Floppy.

Past that... see, you'd think that by making Waldo actually in any meaningfully sense visually recognizable they'd be improving on the original Where's Waldo game. You'd think that, but, astonishingly, you'd be wrong. It turns out that the complete lack of fun has nothing to do with the game being impossible, and everything to do with the fact that staring at a screen trying to find where the magic pixel is is just bloody stupid.

But here we should perhaps stop and look at the entire idea of Where's Waldo. I mean, yes, the first game is legendarily bad on its own merits and in its own special ways, but if we're being honest, the entire concept is a bit dodgy. The books offer nothing but displaced pleasure. We are encouraged by them to stare for hours at a single picture that tells no story and offers no pleasure in an effort to find Waldo. Our reward for doing so is the sense that we have earned the right to turn to the next page.

To be clear, my objection here is not to the idea that a book should require patience and extended study. Far from it. My objection here is that a book should not be long stretches of nothing happening punctuated by a brief and token rush of accomplishment which earns only the moral right to go on to the next boring stretch, or, if one reaches the end of the book, make your parents buy you another one. I will happily celebrate anything that gets children to spend hours with a book just so long as they're actually doing something with the book for most of that time. But Where's Waldo falls afoul of this. It just teaches us, once again, that fun is about earning it.

Simply put, this is a lesson we must unlearn.

Have you seen every Academy Award nominee for Best Picture? Read all the books on the Modern Library list? Played all the games on any of the best games of all time lists? Of course not. Hardly anyone has.

This begs the question of why we tolerate boredom in the first place. It is something that nobody ought endure without being well compensated for it. In a world where a cheap netbook can readily be picked up, either for actual retail value or just from someone getting rid of one to replace it with a newer model, there is literally no excuse for boredom. Stock up on media at a Starbucks and knock yourself out. Not a books and movie kind of person? Perhaps walks outside are more your speed. Or some creative pursuit? It hardly matters. Not much in the way of things that make people happy is actually very expensive. Hardly anyone has as their hobby "sitting naked in a ten bedroom mansion." Most of us can get by for much cheaper.

So how do we even manage boredom? How is it, in a world where there is more good free or nearly free entertainment than can actually be consumed in a lifetime, that we are ever bored? Other, of course, than that we are so inured to boredom by thirteen years of public education that we forget to avoid it. We have, in other words, a horrific case of Stockholm Syndrome in relation to our own happiness.

This is not to trivialize the very real phenomenon of depression. But with the rate of depression among the adult population of the country being somewhere terrifyingly close to 100%, one starts to wonder why we are so depressed. Is it really the case that every past culture just suffered in abject misery for most of the day because nobody had yet developed the SSRI? Or is our depression a consequence of something very obvious like the fact that we endure thirteen years of education that have as their primary lesson the fact that we should shut up, listen to our elders, and be miserable?

Not that the SSRI isn't a tremendously effective device in dealing with depression. I've loved my SSRIs when I've been on them, and I only stopped because I hit the end of my prescription and, having no health insurance, found the logistical hurdles of forming a relationship with a primary care physician or psychiatrist in order to get a new prescription to be daunting. They're great stuff. So is therapy. But in the end, nothing quite beats actually doing things that make you happy and avoiding things that make you unhappy.

And we should stress that this is a revolutionary act. What makes you happy? How much does it actually cost to make you happy? What are the actual minimum material conditions necessary to achieve happiness in a regular basis?

What would happen to your life if you started making yourself happy? The answer is surprisingly larger than you might think - much more than just "well you'd be happy." Think of how much of our economic system is based on people accepting misery as a fact of life and treating happiness as something that has to be earned. Why is it minimum wage jobs are all particularly miserable ones? Surely if we're actually expecting people to sit in toll booths taking quarters from irritable commuters for eight hours a day we ought reimburse them more for the abject misery involved than we reimburse people who, say, get to play with computer code all day.

What if the people with power couldn't lord our own happiness over us? What if we were in control of whether we were happy?

For most of us, I suspect, it would be downright... revolutionary.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Camel Screaming At An Onrushing Piece of Straw (The Great Gatsby)

Haven't heard of The Great Gatsby NES game? Check out this site for information on this exciting recent find in NES history.

This post is going to be political.

There's a school of thought that says I shouldn't do this. That this blog is, in the end, a form of entertainment, and that politics have no place in it. It's the same school of thought that goes into criticizing the backup story in Action Comics #900, of which Chuck Dixon bewilderingly said "The expression of personal politics has no place in mainstream superhero comics."

The trouble is, this is rubbish. Politics is the practical system by which we manage the structure of society. Anything you do that involves society at large - say, publish a comic book that thousands of people read - is political. Stepping out of your house in the morning has a wealth of material political consequences. How do you choose to visually represent your identity, including gender presentation? What sort of house did you walk out of? How big? How much of that house is conspicuous consumption? What is the grass you are stepping on like? What is used to fertilize it? Once you are outside of your house, what is your mode of conveyance to your destination? Car? Bicycle? Foot? All of these are decisions that are impossible to separate from politics. Indeed, anything you do in public is political, because anything you do in public by definition a claim about how relationships between and among people should be conducted.

While we're on the subject, can we also rubbish the inherent goodness of agreeing to disagree? I'm firmly pro-choice, but I in no way see why someone who genuinely believes that a fetus is a living human being should simply "agree to disagree" with me on this point. In their eyes, I support the systematized murder of babies. Frankly, if you genuinely believe someone is providing material support to the mass murder of babies and are still willing to have a drink with them, there is something seriously wrong with you. Similarly, if one believes, as many on the pro-choice side do (I am not actually among them) that abortion comes down entirely to an issue of a woman's autonomy over her own body, it is difficult to come up with a compelling account of the ethics of casually breaking bread with someone who believes that the government ought strictly regulate women's bodies and that if a woman gets pregnant she is nothing more than a breeding slave for the next nine months. Which is, let's face it, what the opposing positions amount to if you actually firmly and unwaveringly believe in your own initial premises.

As the extremely smart and quite fetching JD I'm running bits of this entry by points out, however, this viewpoint, although potentially logically consistent, would have the unfortunate result of reducing our society to thuggish tribalism. The smart and fetching JD is half correct. Certainly this is one of the major and obvious ways of handling the ethical obligations of political viewpoints. There is, however, another that is worth taking very seriously: that the consequences of this observation ought to be a pronounced skepticism towards moral certainty. Not a complete ruling out of moral certainty - without that we'd be really ineffectual humans - but a skepticism towards it whereby one remains open-minded to the possibility that other ethical worldviews might be accurate and seeks actively at all times to test one's own viewpoints and see if they require adjustment.

Here, then, is a testing of mine. As Tuesday's post might have indicated, I am in some ways deeply unsatisfied with the progress of my life vis a vis my decision to spend eleven years in higher education, seven of them working towards a PhD. My objection, roughly, is this.

I got a PhD out of a desire to spend my life in public service. I want to spend my life engaging in research and teaching people. Make no mistake, committing yourself to a career teaching at a public university is a life of public service every bit as much as a commitment to armed service in the military is.

In pursuit of this goal, I spent five years making wages equivalent to what I'd get in a minimum wage job. And it was a job. Yes, I took classes as part of it, but the classes were in pursuit of a PhD in English - a degree that literally qualifies you for exactly one job: college professor. An overwhelming majority of college professors are hired by state governments. So far from being a service bestowed upon me by the University of Florida, let us treat my classes as what they were - training for a public service career for which I was given token living expenses while I conducted.

Let us also admit the reason my PhD program existed and was the size it was. PhD students in English teach two to three courses a year for wages of, for most of them, around $11k. That's $3667 a course. Starting salary for a tenure track professor of English in Florida is $48k for four courses a year. That's $12,000 a course. At less than a third of the cost, any courses you can offload to PhD students are a money saver. So universities build large PhD programs specifically for the cheap labor.

In an even remotely fair system, then, in exchange for five years of my working life at minimum wage while training for a career in public service, the state that exploited me for those five years would return the favor subsequently with, say, a job. But, of course, the entire point of exploiting me was that I was far cheaper than hiring someone they were done exploiting at an actual reasonable wage. And so, after spending my 20s making minimum wage while training for a job, I now reach the point in my life where no such jobs actually exist.

Except it's worse than that. These are not the normal budget cuts that are done with some patina of regret where politicians pretend they don't want to cut jobs in my field. No, now we are at a point where one of the major political parties in America actually actively demonizes public employees as "freeloaders." (Yes, this happened.) In other words, it is not merely that budget cuts have left few jobs in my area - a situation that would be gallingly unjust considering the five years of cheap labor I have already given the states whose budgets are being cut. It is that my entire willingness to work in public service is now the actual grounds on which I am being declared undeserving of a job.

So when I suggest that I have snapped in my previous post, this is why - because I have given eleven working years of my life to a system that has exploited me and abandoned me. Now, in practice, and I feel obliged to stress this, I'm OK. I've got a support network in place and am working actively on transitioning into freelance writing. (We call this "portfolio building." That and "acquiring the discipline to write an average of 2000 words a day so that when you reach the end of either blog you can transition seamlessly into bashing out stuff for money." Speaking of which, we do accept paid writing gigs. And do birthday parties. Though really, hiring a writer for your kid's birthday party is a surefire way to lose Dad of the Year.) But the thing is, my situation is not even remotely unusual.

So the question is, what degree of moral certitude is appropriate here? I find it fairly difficult to escape having some degree of it. There is something fundamentally unfair about building a system that solicits people to work at substandard wages for five years to train for a public service job, and then uses the existence of people willing to accept those terms as a tool to reduce the number of public service jobs of the sort they train for. Creating a charade of training people for a job that doesn't exist and then using the marks you draw in as cheap replacements for the job itself is wrong. In a functional system, the state of Florida would actually hire its own PhDs, using its PhD programs as training for its own job rosters.

In other words, I am left with the inexorable sense that I have been deliberately conned and swindled by, most directly, the state of Florida, and, more broadly, the entire American education system and thus, by extension, the entire country. And I am angry about it. The most obvious manifestation of this anger is an increasing inability to deal with Republicans (the party most visibly seeking to ensure that I can never be hired in the field I trained in for eleven years) on a social level. Sorry, guys. But you've kind of been engaging in a massive and deliberate campaign to leave me unemployed, and frankly, it makes me want to cause you intense physical pain.

All of this, however, amounts to little more than one angry shouty man with a blog. Let's look at things that have little to do with me. First of all, there is money that used to go towards things like hiring tenure track professors at state universities. Where is this money now? The answer appears to be that the money is where most of the money is now - in the hands of the wealthy. In fact, at present the wealthiest 1% of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. To ground that in numbers, that means that for each of the wealthiest three million you can line up over ninety people and that one person has more than all of them combined.

This is a new situation. Incomes among the wealthiest 1% have been skyrocketing since, actually, the heyday of the NES. Incomes for everybody else have been stagnant. This is the grand legacy of trickle down - a phrase that has always seemed more suitable for an outhouse than a global economy. Radical gains for the wealthy, fuck all for everyone else. The result of this is that, as a practical matter, there are people with miles more than they need or can ever plausibly consume in a lifetime who are hoarding it while others can't afford health care.

The math here is telling. The per capita GDP in America would have everyone making about the $48k of an entry level college professor. The very existence of people with an income of, say, a million dollars a year means that the equivalent of 20.83 people need to have their incomes zeroed to allow that to happen. Everyone making six figures is zeroing at least one other person. This is the chilling, callous math of scarcity economics. So when you have a runaway wealth gap where 34% of the wealth is concentrated in the top 1% and 2.5% is among the poorest 50%, well, that means there's a lot of other people who have hit around 30 and realized that their country has no investment in their ever being able to make a living.

Which, after what has to be some kind of a record for how long a post has gone without mentioning a single video game directly, brings us to The Great Gatsby. I suppose I should give up the joke and admit that this is in fact just a flash game in the style of an NES game, but really, where's the fun in that. Especially because the central joke of the game - the fact that Fitzgerald's baroquely modernist dialogue fits relatively seamlessly with the conventions of Engrish-laden NES games - depends on that knowing misdirection. (On the other hand, the end of level two, which I cannot bring myself to spoil, is flat-out hilarious like nothing I have seen in a video game since the original Portal.)

But more to the point, let's pause and look at the novel the game is based on, at least briefly. At its heart, it is a book about conspicuous consumption and the unsustainability of it. Written in a time period with a wealth gap comparable to that of 2011, the heart of the novel is the question of whether money alone accounts for the difference between the wealthy and the ordinary. Its answer is that it doesn't - that there is still something fundamentally different about the old money of Tom and the new money of Gatsby, and that Gatsby can never truly bridge that gap no matter how much money he has. In other words, the novel establishes that there is, in the realm of conspicuous consumption, no such thing as "enough." And, equally crucially, it does not establish this as an absolute condition. Nick, after all, turns his back on the world of conspicuous consumption and returns to the midwest in the end. But he remains pessimistic about the possibility of the destructive rat race ceasing, saying "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning --"

Notably, the ending crawl on the game uses this as well. The thing is, Fitzgerald was wrong if he saw this as futile. Since it's very difficult to view the Great Depression and World War II as anything other than a complete and revolutionary transformation of American society. This is because there is a relatively straightforward causality to revolution. Contrary to the beliefs/wishes of many, revolution, broadly considered, is a wholly straightforward phenomenon that has nothing to do with the supposed apathy of a population.

Take any population and give them high unemployment, particularly high unemployment among younger and more educated citizens, remove all evidence of a long-term solution or even that the government cares about this, add in rising food prices, and crank up the temperatures to summer levels and you will have an explosion. So how are we doing on that?

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, of course, revolution is not inherently a violent process - although violent revolution is a very easy and DIY process requiring only a brick and the window of a corporate office to commence. Bullets and billionaires are two tastes that someone is bound to decide might go well together. But this is hardly the only route available.

Remembering that avoiding political action is essentially an impossible task, we might ask what the Nintendo Generation's revolution would look like. If, as seems increasingly inevitable, a flashpoint is coming, our concern should be one of steering it. In other words, how do we, scattered children of the NES that we are, understand our relationship with broad social change? Or, to put it in pragmatic terms, why is it that putting The Great Gatsby on the NES is so strangely apropos? What is it about the NES that leaves it with a strange suitability to the task of commenting on a novel that is about a society on the cusp of collapse?

This entry is not the one that gives the answers to that. But it is the one that inaugurates the theme that interests me at the moment. 8-Bit Eschatology. Let's have ourselves a fun summer, shall we?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Pataphor of Academia (Gradius)

Don't saunter in like you own the place. Why would you? You're not here for glory or fame, nor even for thrill. It is not that you don't enjoy it - only a lifelong love of reading and learning leads one to strap one's self into the cockpit of Vic Viper and single-handedly defend Gradius from the unceasing onslaught of the forces of Bacterion. But that enjoyment is not that of a cheap dilettante, but rather a calling - a duty.

No. Remain humble. Think about the weight of expectations. How proud your undergradius mentors and family are. Resolve to stay in touch with your mentors, and seek their wise counsel even as you learn more about advanced theoretical concepts in your field like "Option" and "?" and to, as necessary, embrace them in lieu of the neo-Aristotelean principles previously instilled upon you.

Be puzzled at the lack of significant orientation, but not too puzzled, as this might be misconstrued as not being up to the task. It's just like undergradius, surely. You show up at your classes, do the reading, pay attention when it's not brain-sporkingly banal, and bash out some papers. Remain puzzled why the minimal orientation there was seemed mostly there to get the Marxist stoners in your department girlfriends, but figure that Marxist stoners by their nature have it fairly rough and leave well enough alone. Select "1 Player" and get on with your course schedule.

Flail about. By and large this is acceptable, at least for now - a tap of the reset button and you're back to square one. Grades don't come in until December, and it's all riding on the boss battle anyway - one final 20 page seminar paper where you have to shoot the core. May as well use these early days to work out the kinks. Call it a post facto orientation.

Eventually make some real progress. Feel almost confident as you go into the boss fight, laden with upgrades and ready to roll. Get knocked flat on your ass with a B-, which you are reliably informed is basically a failing grade in Gradius.

Worse, discover the black hole of error. How one error sets you up for more. Flub anything and be set back ten paces with all your upgrades taken away, told "Try that thing you failed at again, only this time start from a worse position," and sent on your way. Realize that this describes your life - that the C you got in a high school math class because you were a depressed teenager and blew off your homework did keep you from the Ivy League college that would have gotten you into a top tier graduate program. Marvel at the insanity of a gameplay mechanic in which early errors metastasize that aggressively.

Start over, enjoying the illusion that "Spring Semester" and "Fresh Start" are synonymous. Take it slow. Be methodical. Cut out distractions.

Eventually realize that if you'd just stuck around and looked puzzled instead of confidently signing up for Dismantling Heteronormative Fortifications: The Dialectic of Laser and Double, someone would have explained something. Belatedly find yourself getting oriented. Remain puzzled why this apparent mentor figure gets to start out with considerable advantages that you don't. Especially because he is apparently incompetent, since you figured out that you want to pick up the power-up items ages ago and not just blaze past them.

Narrowly survive the boss fight this time. Decide you've got the hang of this. Wipe out on level two.

Year two. Begin to question the basic structure here. Wonder why the good people of Gradius are so opposed to giving you decent armaments to start. Why is the military defense of a planet subject to a scarcity economy in the first place? It's not like you're out in deep space getting blown up for your own good. You could be working a nice corporate job and making four times the $11k you're pulling out here. You wouldn't even need loans to feed yourself. Instead you're pursuing a career in public service. The least they could do is give you free speed ups. And photocopies.

Become increasingly politically active about state cuts to the planetary defense budget. Wonder why giving corporate tax breaks to attract business is preferable to having an educated pool of workers. Wonder how these supposed businesses are going to succeed on Gradius with Bacterion hordes marauding them constantly and no basic composition skills in their workers. Impress Marxist stoners with your determination, and be invited to their parties. Accept. You can get a girlfriend there.

Discover belatedly that the system has a built in "cheat code" that enables you to continue where you left off if something goes wrong for you, thus at least removing the possibility of ultimate and cataclysmic failure. Ask at the next Marxist stoner party why nobody told you about this. Be told that everyone already knew you could take an incomplete.

Realize that you hate Marxist stoners and become a hermit who doesn't leave the house except for library books. Write e-mails to your department chair suggesting needed reforms to the departmental system. Be thanked for your feedback. Mistake this as an accomplishment.

Armed with your newfound cheat code (and nothing else because you just died again), begin preparation for the big one - a continual assault, taking incompletes as needed to get to the prize at the end - defending your dissertation, beating the final boss, and getting a tenure-track job as a planetary defender.

Bog down in basic research, trying to figure out the extent of your task. Discover that there is no optimal path on the upgrade curve. Wipe out in an awkward spot from which even with continues you cannot effectively recover without more weaponry.

Discover to your surprise that you have passed your exams anyway.

Learn that budget cuts mean that there is no funding for planetary defenders past their fourth years. Rush to graduate. Finally learn about the cheat code that gives you a decent set of weapons on command. Wonder why the fuck there's a cheat code to get to where the game is actually playable. At last feel capable of making a serious and determined effort to finish.

After more deaths than you can count, stagger into your dissertation defense and discover the final boss is basically a complete wimp that you never needed any weapons or skill to defeat.

Beat game.


Discover that post-graduation life is just the same thing again with faster enemies.

Discover that planetary defense on the professional level is still a scarcity-based economy and that they are moving towards a model where part-time defenders defend against large swaths of bactereon invaders via "online sections." Discover that there are no jobs.

Discover that you are thirty and unqualified for any meaningful job and will reach middle age without health care or significant savings.


Friday, May 13, 2011

The Adventures of the Spychild (Golgo 13: Top Secret Mission, The Goonies 2, Gotcha!)

Episode 1: His Exciting Origin

The spychild slips unheeded around geographies borrowed from other childhoods. Behind enemy lines without so much as a concept of what emnity meant except in the post-scarcity economy of suburban public schooling, he winds his way through decor that is not his and that, not being his, serves no understandable function. The finer points of interior design are not so much lost on him as denied shipping in the first place, marked with insufficient postage and held at the central office for later pickup.  Allowances are made for his own house, where painting or statue exist to occupy the space in which they are placed and do not require further explication. But here, ensconced in the contours of a social order that is not his own, each rug or coffee table gadget requires interrogation.

Absent an understanding of the state as anything more than the determination of what flag is the object of the meaningless recitations of his daily pledge, he moves without assignment. Under no flag, and unaware of a purpose for flags beyond providing pledges with objective correlatives, the spychild lacks even the idea of assignment. His intelligence gathering serves no purpose other than his own.

He does not even, as a rule, consider the collection of intelligence as a task. With a plastic imitation of a boom mic, he siphons away adult conversation not out of any interest in the banalities of middle age, but out of a commitment to the very task of intelligence gathering. There is no data mining operation here, no sifting through of intricacies in pursuit of greater knowledge.

Sleuthing his way through unstated mysteries for reasons unrelated to their solution, the spychild's life is an undifferentiated mass of codes without plaintext and dead drops without mail - a ciphertext without translation, ink so invisible it never leaves a mark. The dialectic of history is indistinguishable the progression of dinner from the wrong brand of tins bought from a grocery store incorrectly laid out into food that, while appetizing, is never quite right. All things are either familiar or strange to the spychild, the former category unconsidered, the latter spied upon.

Episode 14: His Laser Tag

Working carefully through analogy the spychild can see paintball as the more totalizing version of a video game, or more obliquely as a visceral laser tag. War allegorized into, basically, a slightly more colorful war. The spychild is admittedly puzzled, not entirely getting the juxtaposition between combat fatigues and militaristic weaponry and being shot with hot pink balls of paint.

In truth the spychild flits around the edges of the experience, recognizing it as the uncomfortable midpoint of video games and gym class. The experience can be modeled. Stalk inadequately through half-familiar basement playrooms with dayglo orange handguns firing dime-sized plastic frisbees, or lay down suppressive nerf fire. Conscript furniture as defensive structures, ducking and weaving your way around simulacra of danger.

Or Zapper in hand, unload imagined clips of digital ammo at a smear of pixels rendered in deflected beams of electron. The spychild is aware that the furniture, comprised as it is of physical particles instead of defracted electrons, is of no use here. And yet he still crouches behind chairs and sofa, shielding his body from the hail of bullets imagined into being, blown forth from the chamber of these guns of vapour by an explosion of metaphoric power.

Episode 27: His Kidnapped Sidekicks

The spychild surveys each location for hiding places, these being the most intelligible currency of his espionage. The obvious possibilities of closets and underfurnitures are noted instinctively. It is the deeper patterns of hiding – the elaborate prisons that must be meticulously sealed up behind you lest you give the game away – that the spychild searches for.

The life of the spychild is such that accomplices are in short supply. Although an ally can sometimes be found among the proper inhabitants of these houses, the path of the nerdy kid sneaking around with a boom mic is not one of broad socialization. More time is to be spend designing hideouts in improbable detail than hiding out. With no gang the point of the exercise is lost.

The spychild has little use for a gang. Already his intelligence gathering provides him with more data than he can deal with. The value of a gang to the spychild is instrumental. Mapping their hiding places over a terrain and exploring it to get them back, their value to him is in their absence, their disappearances at last a motive to understand these terrains.

But even here there is the problem of rescue, the maddening corpus of reality left behind with real play. Better the virtual, imagined people, sequels to an assumed original, whose existence does not alter the landscape beyond motivating it, and whose rescue carries no obligations, can be undone with the press of a button. These are passageways he knows better than any real life.

Episode 32: His Introduction to Foreign Relations

The Condor’s four and a half +/- 1.5 days irrespective, the spychild stalks down the street. A miasma of genre tropes distill to an experience much like any other – a street, dotted with foes, that must be walked from left to right.

The spychild does not know of source anime, or of changing character professions from CIA assassin to CIA spy. He does not know what city is signified by stations such as Potsdam. The KGB are recognized at least, but only as the generic opposition. The spychild recognizes that the CIA are his good guys and the KGB his axiomatic foe, but has no sense of what this means.

The Cold War plays out relentlessly in the zeitgeist, but the spychild does not see himself in it. His life is the hunt, the working of paths, and perhaps, someday, the understanding of the purposes of those paths. The genealogy of an oriental rug looms larger in his mind than Yugoslavia. The shibboleths he seeks to know are virtual. The appeal of a real gun is negligible – lead is far heavier than the sleek orange plastic he favors.

He is unaware of the cave, or the warmth of the fire behind him. He does not distinguish between shadow and thing, nor even know that two such things exist. For all his data, this fact sits beyond knowledge, in ciphertext he may not read.

Inevitably, his adventures continue.