Tuesday, January 31, 2012


"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life."
- Arthur Miller, The Crucible

Your name is your identity. I don't mean your socially imposed designation, some tribal pairing of fad and patrilineage picked for you while you were three neurons short of cockroach intellect, but your true name, the one the devil whispers when he's calling you down, the encapsulation of your personality.
It's no accident that this idea showed up in the Matrix (you know, the scene right after they first wake 'Neo' up?) It is one of the great possibilities of virtual worlds. So what does the average ape do with it in our attempted virtuality, the internet? Calls itself 's00pr-pwnzr', 'badass567' or 'hawtgurl'. This is because the average ape has no identity. Its self-image is completely controlled by societal definitions of masculinity, femininity or social rank.

There are two aspects of identity in online games, accountability and roleplaying. 

For those of us with more than a chimp's self-awareness, the anonymity of the internet is still almost irresistible. The lure of the internet is its lack of repercussions. You log into a game, sabotage your team, cheat, trashtalk, then switch to a character with a different name so that you can keep playing without fear of retaliation. Games, however, are not free of morality. For as long as you are logged into the game, it's the game that matters. Your actions reflect your personality, and no player should be allowed to escape the repercussions for his actions.

The importance of accountability increases with the complexity of the game. It's almost a non-issue in deathmatch FPS games, where your reaction to any player, regardless of who he is and what he's done, is to shoot on sight. It is more important in team games, where you can use different names to avoid letting others remember that you're the one who tends to sabotage his own team. Accountability becomes paramount in persistent world games, and it's no surprise that's where it's been the most heavily opposed.
The reason behind both sides of the issue should be obvious. In a persistent world, you can do the most lasting damage to the highest number of players. Griefers have the highest effect. This also means the majority of players will demand to be allowed to grief without repercussions. It makes them feel big. Companies will pander to this, since it's the majority that's demanding it, but here's what they should really be doing.
First off, it's one account per player, one player per account. Regardless of profit, this rule should be monitored and enforced. Do not allow more than one subscription per credit card or per name, or whatever measures you might need to take.
Second, one character per account. No alts. No switching to your alt to farm elsewhere in the game world when your enemies show up. This implies that MMOs should not be class-based. Replay value should be built into the game itself, not in making players repeat the game with different characters.
Third, the game interface should allow players to track and label each other. If a character goes through a name change, its previous names should be viewable in its notes. Players and player groups should be able to set each others' status as friend, enemy or anything in between using the game interface, so that the idiot who backstabbed you last night can be set to have his name flashing red on your screen. The only anonymity, the only dishonesty, should be that built into the game mechanics: sneaking, invisibility, illusion spells, teleporting.

The second aspect of identity is roleplaying. I will grant that i'm biased. I'm always Werwolfe, Werewolfe, Werwulf, etc. in any game. I create other characters, some which i've actually liked playing, but they're not 'me'. I am Werwolfe. I can't really relate to the usual roleplaying experience, changing identities, becoming someone else for one night. I am always myself, and even though my characters are different, they are only aspects of myself. I can see why restricting players to one name may make them feel constrained in terms of roleplaying in that respect, but then again, that game you're playing is really just a single big roleplaying session. You can still be one person in the world of World of Warcraft, another in Lord of the Rings Online, another in EVE, etc. If it's really that big an issue, force players to kill off their old character in a game before making a new one. If the change is what's important to you, and not the lack of accountability, it won't be that big a sacrifice.
I'm also a bit perplexed by the combined pretense of importance of names and their utter lack of meaning. Roleplayers go to so much trouble in creating identities for their characters, down to creating detailed histories and motivations, but then let their names be chosen by a random generator or some similar external method. Even if you want to be your character instead of having your character be you, your character's name should represent something about him. It should be a nickname. Calling your elf archer 'Alaniliriel Greenleaf' adds nothing to the identity. Calling him 'Quiverless' or 'Barnside' does.

I won't even go into the whole issue of Drizzt and Legolas copycats. They're no better than our old friend pwnzerator457.

I left out the issue of enforced player names. They generally do more harm than good. A player's name gives you information about him. The average leet-kiddie plays like rabid rat and is about as reliable. I should be allowed to spot him as soon as i see his name. To that end, let him name himself 'pwnzerator' instead of forcing him to hide his stupidity behind asome overly-convoluted elvish name that doesn't suit him. Your roleplaying experience won't be damaged any more or less if the cluster of dimwits corpse-camping you and shouting "hyuk-hyuk ur noob we rock u bitch" are named bigdick leftnut and rightnut or Legolas, Aragorn and Frodo.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I am such a drama queen

There can be decent character concepts in computer games, especially in RPGs, of course. Here's an odd experience with two of them. Well, just one repeated, really.

The first is Gannayev from the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion Mask of the Betrayer. The second is Morrigan from Dragon Age: Origins. I'm guessing the same person wrote them. I like these characters. They are intelligent individualists. They make their disdain for others' views clear. They are honest (except for the obvious self-deluding bravado as a convenient character flaw) and their dialogue is appealingly trenchant. I can identify with them. In fact, i identify with them a bit too much. I've tried getting myself to pick the dialogue options that would flatter them and build up their disposition toward me, and i consistently fail. I want to get along with them, but it is just too damn tempting to try imposing myself in every conversation.

As it turns out, i'm just as much of a prima-donna as Gann or Morrigan. There ain't room enough in this adventuring party for two overinflated egos.

Dramatic 'sigh'.

Lycanthropic anarchism

"Burn the bridge, stop the machine, cut those ties, come kiss the guillotine."
from Gasoline by KMFDM

I'm an anarchist. I know, intellectually, that peaceful anarchy, willing cooperation without coercion, without economic domination or social manipulation is the one social pattern suitable to intelligence.
Intellectually, i also know that emotionally, my drive towards anarchy is based on anger. My goal of anarchy is peaceful and progressive. My impulse to it is anything but. Like most who call themselves anarchists, i am driven by the wish to burn the world around me, to trod on the necks of all those who have even tangentially to the 6th degree ever stood against me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if i ever were to find myself in a position of power, i would proceed to impose my will ever more narrowly on my surroundings until i tear everything down around me. Anarchy through megalomania is a delightful concept, sort of an exaggeration of the precept of Herbert's God Emperor of Dune but i can hardly justify it. The precedent would ouroboros its way back to megalomania.

I've refused leadership positions even in a couple of online game guilds for reasons like this. I can't trust myself. The alpha dog instinct and my innate viciousness captivate me too often. Anarchy is unreachable, like any worthwhile ideal, and in any power structure, the role of the anarchist is at the bottom.

There are, however, always bridges to burn. One of my main activities in any guild i join is needling the bosses until they kick me out. I like pointing out their every attempt to cheat, their self-serving actions, the values and subservience they impose on others while pretending fairness, kindness and open-mindedness. I like pointing out that all of the rules they create amount to 'we're busy making ourselves feel big at your expense, don't rock the boat'.

I've been meaning to expand on the social possibilities in persistent world games. One of these is putting anarchy to the test. In a game with some character persistence or especially real consequences for one's actions and the chance for buildup, the pretense of solidarity and altruism gets replaced by mercenary motives. Easygoing cooperation gets replaced by feudalism as players flock to whatever alpha dog promises them the highest social standing, the best ways to lord something over others. In such a game, if such a world were to be found, i would be very curious to see how long an egalitarian group can last. How long before one member of the group starts stealing and hoarding resources and 'hiring' others? How long before my rage against every little cretin who ever corpse-camped me or ninjad my resource node makes me start building an army to salt the virtual earth so that none of them can leave their starting zones again?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Names have been changed to protect the unapologetic

I fancy myself a creator. I've tried writing stories and they were trash. I've tried writing poetry and it turned out even worse. Not that i'd surrender it, but the tendency to look beneath the surface, to try to understand events and express them in an elegant fashion, has generally just made me miserable.

I recently found out that, some time ago, a good fiction writer whose work i enjoy married a good songwriter whose work i enjoy. Dagnabbit, that's just wrong!
They're better than me. Therefore, they should be even more miserable than me. It's a very simple rule, a constant of the universe.

Quit muckin with my physics, you gothy bastards.

Addendum: it may be noted that close relationships between two individuals of artistic temperament are hardly the most stable. Schadenfreude pending.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Give it to me straight, doc

I give you four television characters: House, Hawkeye, Becker and Cox.

Broadcast television is intended to be universal. It is the definition of lowest-common-denominator entertainment. It is inoffensive, bland, and frequently actively works to reinforce social norms rather than challenge them. Yet here we have characters, three out of the four being main characters, whose main schtick is pointing out the stupidity of social norms. They're the only characters around who attack the irrationality of inter-human relations, of religion, the pretense of family values, sports, machismo, sexual relationship power games, the armed forces and every other display of primitive simian idiocy that are otherwise lauded in all corners of human society.

So why, even as a fictional character, does an angry nerd need an M.D. after his name in order to be allowed to tell the truth?

"And this guy knew that he wasn't accepted by the staff, didn't even try, didn't dress well, he didn't pretend to be one of them. The people around that place, they didn't think that he had anything they wanted, except when they needed him. Because he was right; which meant that nothing else mattered, they had to listen to him."
(From that episode of 'House, M.D.' where House recounts why he became a doctor.)

There is a mystique about medicine to the common mind, an aura of divinity. Doctors are automatically seen in a positive light, are automatically viewed as pillars of society. The main difference is that unlike other pillars of society, they are visited by commoners in order to acquire truth or facts. You go to a doctor for answers, not platitudes. Priests, teachers, cops, politicians and every other kind of charlatan in a position of power is expected to lie, cheat, beat a confession out of you or at least serve up nothing but platitudes. When you go to a doctor, you need the truth.

Ironically, this is anything but a representation of reality. Philosophers, scientists, thinkers of any type are readily available in the real world, but they are viewed as nerds, external to the human condition, dangerous megalomaniacs of alien motivation and thought which the kin recognition instinct of every ape on the planet labels as targets for ostracism. Only doctors are allowed the luxury of displaying intelligence.

Most M.D.s are idiots. Hardworking idiots, but idiots. They go into medicine because they want to be viewed as pillars of the community and paid as such. Four out of five doctors recommend doping you up, overcharging you and sending you out the door. They are technicians, working off whatever script the pharmaceutical companies feed them. Finding a doctor who is intelligent and interested enough to actually keep advancing the science of medicine, to keep looking for questions and answers like the four examples above do is about as likely as spontaneous cancer remission. You might as well just pray for it.
As far as challenging social norms, well, hah! The mercenary nature of their motivation precludes it. They're in it for the social standing. They're not going to challenge the values that set them above others.

17th of March, the year of Jeebus 2014
The search for nerdy life continues. Add Doc Martin to the list.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Art and economics

One justification trotted out whenever any group wants to crack down on online distribution is 'piracy' or copyright infringement in general. Just some random thoughts on this.

You shouldn't need need to go through publishers to repay an artist for his work. Anyone can set up a paypal link these days, webcartoonists having discovered this a long time ago. Donate to the creator of a work directly based on the value you find in the work, not to the parasites taking the lion's share of 'published' works and deciding for you, before giving you access to the work, what it's worth to you.

The creator should always be given credit in name, but profit should be decided by the worth others find in the work. That this will result in the lowest-common-denominator overshadowing quality is inevitable, but this is still better than the current system, where existing capital(ists) can set prices and use advertising in order to reinforce the trend towards the lowest-common-denominator.

Paper is outdated. I like books. I don't like having to read in a chair. I will have to adapt to using my cheap knock-off of an i-pad instead, so i can still read in bed without justifying the insane waste of printing, transporting, protecting and stocking dead trees. I like books. My whole family does. We were raised around them. My grandfather, mother, uncle and myself spent most of our lives in rooms walled with book-cases. We like the smell of ink. We finger the pages of a book as if every legend, every play, every fairytale, every romance and war story were our own personal bible. We are attuned to the smell of moldy paper. We learn from five years of age the proper way to handle books so as not to ruin them, to preserve book jackets and never crease the pages. We enter libraries as if we're coming home. It is painful to me to abandon the comfort of this childhood nostalgia, but it has to go. We can do better now. The initial material investment for the creation of an i-pad pales in comparison to the cost of a thousand, ten thousand volumes of books. It is a part of my childhood, my identity, but books (or at least their widespread commercial use) and newspapers have to go the way of goose-quills, vellum and scribes.

This also reshapes the lifestyle of most artists. In the past, the creation of art was limited by distribution. Much of the cost of a novel or a CD was taken up by the creation not of the art itself, the expression, the image, sound or words, but of the medium, the physical mode of delivery. These days, a computer, the same machine which can bring us our news, allow us to communicate and work from home is also one of the best repositories of works of art. What's the material cost of e-mailing a picture? Five joules? One millionth of the cost of your computer's wear and tear? One quadrilionth of the wear and tear on the network you're using?

I'm not even sure if copyright was ever a valid concept. It is now becoming an outdated one. If you like something i've written, feel free to reproduce it. Say it was first said by Werwolfe, and plaster it on every web page until i'm more quoted than Nietzsche and Jesus combined. Then pay me whatever you think my contribution to the development of your ego, your mind, your self, is worth, whether it's five cents or a limousine.

SOPA and other inevitables

I wish i had more to say about this, but i'm not really even bothering to look into the matter. I dropped an electronic petition signature in, for all the good it'll do. I'm registered in a large city, and measures against technology pass based on the tacit approval of potato farmers and small-town schoolmarms. It's quaint to see attempts by the populace to work within the system to oppose it.  The system has developed precisely by creating measures like this. It is created to maintain control. It is its nature to clamp down on the populace. The geologic pace of bureaucracy is all that has delayed the measure this long. Even the few politicians that pretend to oppose it do so secure in the knowledge that they will be conveniently defeated. They get to have their cake and eat it too.

'Write your congressman' does not work. The people in power are never going to ask for your opinion. They are worried about outright strikes and revolt, as always, but they already know how much you'll take before actually doing anything. Politics is a show. It's dull. I already know the ending. Whether a measure to restrict freedom and increase control over the masses passes now or in two months or two years, it will be brought up again and again because it is the basic function of any government. If there's too much of an outcry now, they'll just delay it a bit, get you used to the idea then slip it through.

You can't oppose unjust rules by nicely asking the people profiting from them to change their evil ways.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dragon Age: Origins first impression

I picked this up because i;ve heard enough good things about it that i was intrigued. So i install the stupid thing, let two months go by without touching it thinking it'll be just another bit of fluff pushed out onto the market with no rhyme or reason and finally remember i paid money for it so i might as well try it. I roll up a mage and go through the introductory quest chain.

It's ... good.
Gods and devils, this game actually is good!
I don't mean in the Neverwinter Nights sense "at least it's better than television" good, or in the VtM:Bloodlines sense "it stutters and glitches but i can see the sheer brilliance through the unfinished product" good, or even in the Oblivion "it's a bit of a grind but i love the concept" good, but good, as in a balanced, polished, painless to play yet still mildly interesting, professionally made product.
It's not that it's brilliant in any particular way; it has no real strong points. I've played through better writing, better atmosphere, better visuals, better music, better voice acting, better combat. It also has no real weak points so far. It's not groundbreaking, but they seem to have skimped on nothing. Everything was fine-tuned, even the seamless way you can roll the camera from locked to free mode. I didn't even have to adjust the sound settings. It's just a solid game.

I guess it's not so much the game itself that's amazing, but the fact that it exists. Most computer games, especially RPGs, tend to be neither here nor there. If they're popular they're completely dumbed down, simplistic attempts by investors to cash in on what they think is a market trend, something to sell the kids. If they're good, they're also underfunded, buggy, unbalanced chores that you play for their redeeming qualities. This game so far excels at nothing, but every aspect, sounds, graphics, combat, story, has just enough depth to allow for a bit of nuance. Seeing proof of actual professionalism from the conceptual, artistic and business angles of the thing is surprising. Even though i usually commend creativity over professionalism, i have to say i'm pleasantly surprised.

Well, i'll have to play through the whole thing now, i guess. The biggest remaining question is whether the roleplaying side of things holds up.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rocannon's World: Science Fantasy?

It's a minor issue usually. A good book is a good book, genres being fundamentally equal. Still, Rocannon's World is a neat little dilemma. Yes, the setting is basically scifi, league of worlds and all that, but the Fiia and clayfolk are intentionally elvish and dwarvish and most of the action is... let's say 'feudal'. It's a mix, and its charm is precisely in that view of science from a fantasy standpoint, Arthur C. Clarke's famous line that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" but it also lacks the social commentary that is so central to most good scifi. It's more of a romantic-age adventure story, but the question of 'what makes it scifi' still nagged at me, until i remembered that scifi is the most speculative of speculative fiction.
If a story just has a couple of laserguns and spaceships thrown in, it's not primarily science fiction. It crosses that line when it shows some ways in which that science begins to affect the human condition, when it speculates on effects. That we see the effects of sufficiently advanced technology changing both the invaders and the invaded pushes the book past the line.
There: the dilemma has been surpassed, and the world (including old Odo incarnate) can rest easy again.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


The best thing i've said in the past about webcomics is that they represent an unregulated mode of expression. This, as is so often the case, is also the worst thing about them. There is little or no money to be made, so businesses tend to stay out of it and the artists can rarely be said to be out-competing each other, especially given the ease of access which allows bored cubicle-fillers to surf through dozens of comics daily. So, anyone from grizzled, near-respectable artists to twelve-year-olds with leet photoshop skillz can slap something online. The promise of the internet is fulfilled.
This means, of course, that good comics are like the proverbial needles in a haystack of catgirls, dragonball-z ripoffs and utterly pointless rambling about me and my buddies playing video games. In this scarcity, they differ from the rest of human culture only in that the needles are not being aggressively exterminated by cartels of hay-hungry worms with financial backing. In terms of intellectual or entertainment return per time investment, i've found them about as rewarding as looking for good music, movies or games.

Certainly, attempts to make it big abound. In the absence of investors and advertisement, marketing commonly takes the form of pandering. I don't entirely agree with one part of that commentary, though. Good taste, in anything, frivolous or not, does qualify me as discriminating and elite. It's not the only criterion, but even something as trivial and ephemeral as games, anime or a few scribblings posted online can show quality, and this quality can be appreciated through intelligence. Art is expression, and even ideas which do not surprise or challenge can be expressed in a clever, novel or amusing way. There is a difference between self-serving facetiousness and honest, involved, informed opinion. We often go to artists because they are capable of expressing our own thoughts better than we can.

Given the overlap in internet audience, it's not surprising that comics about or inspired by games and anime are among the most successful. It's also not surprising that they take up the most frequent form of pandering. What is interesting is that the authors sometimes outgrow their audience and move on to create better stories. Others, despite being at least partly involved in the whole subculture, seem to put deliberate effort into not allowing their work to get pigeonholed as 'gamer comics'.
They may not be Shakespeare or Monet, but at least some of these people are putting out some actual attempts at creativity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New years and zero years

Ah, the new year. So full of promise, a time of renewal, rebirth, Ragnarok, all that. But no, really, the world is not being remade. It's the same shithole it was on December 31st.

The end of the world nonsense about the Mayan calendar in recent years is amusing in more than one way. First off, there's the obvious: are you idiots surprised that some Mayan number-cruncher with an expected disease-ridden lifespan of thirty didn't continue to chisel out the calendar for more than seven hundred years into the future?
Second, it's nice that at least some pointed out how ridiculous it is to take such an arbitrary point in time (determined by some Mayan scribe getting a hand cramp) and turn it into a globe-spanning superstition, but almost nobody seems to be able to go one further and point out our own 21st century high-rise living tribal superstitions' ephemeral senselessness.

It's not only the religious nonsense about celebrating what is probably not the actual birthday of someone who was born four years before he was born (forget the virgin birth, how's that one for a miracle) but the insistence on such an artificial delineation as the end of December as the 'new year.' If we're going to arbitrarily section time for the sake of record-keeping, could we start the solar calendar with something a bit more noteworthy, like a solstice or an equinox?

Getting back to that zombified one-third of a trinity, it's long past time we stopped using his misremembered year of birth as the reference point for our brief existence in the universe. We can misremember slightly more important things. My personal favorite is the legendary year of the founding of Rome. Maybe we could make a wild guess about when Hammurabi legalized social injustice. Maybe someone can track down the exact date of the first cave-painting.

Think about it. I could be writing this on the twelfth day after the solstice in the year of Romulus 2780. Eh? Eh?