Archive for December, 2012


Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled Reality is Broken. Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.



This is 40

A while back I expounded on my approval of Apatow’s 2007 comedy, “Knocked Up.” I really enjoyed it and I thought there was something very current and contemporary about it.

Apatow’s recent movie, “This is 40” is not, in my mind, as funny as it’s predecessor, but I think it is a step forward for Apatow, and a fantastic film in it’s own right.

The movie is supposed to be a sequel, and in a sense that’s right. Chronologically, it takes place after “Knocked Up.” In reality though, it’s more of a companion movie or an alternate univers that nonetheless has the same cinematic rules and characters. The reason I say that is because it seems to be less concerned with exploring anything that must necessarily happen after “Knocked Up,” and much more concerned with exposing the complexities of Debbie and Pete’s relationship.

Stylistically, there are some interesting things to note. First, the movie leaves nothing on the cutting room floor. There are unconnected subplots and digressions. Second, the cast is like an Apatow movie fan club. Basically, anyone from a previous Apatow film is there, but no toes are stepped on: everything works. Third, the movie is long and without much of a plot. You could summarize the whole movie by saying that Debbie and Pete have screwed everything up in their lives, which is to say that they are completely normal.

And therein lies the essence and the genius of the movie. The movie reveals the individually insignificant but collectively monstrous web of ethical, social, and economic pressures that the modern family lives under. Everything you can think of is presented as a difficulty and then placed into larger and larger webs of difficulty.

For example, something as banal as eating ends up growing into a significant problem. Pete eats too many cupcakes. He’s addicted to them, and his wife pesters him about it but she pesters him about it because she wants him to be healthy, and he himself sees the importance of staying healthy, but we find him struggling throughout the movie. Sometimes he succeeds in keeping the fat and the sugar out of his life, but sometimes he turns to it for comfort and support. Debbie on the other hand is a smoker, and her quest to hide it brings her into conflict with her husband and her kids. In fact, she’s smoking despite being pregnant at one point. You get the idea that she won’t smoke anymore — she’s just having one smoke and she understands the importance of not smoking for the health of her kid — but that’s the point. She’s facing this one temptation and overcoming it just traps her in a bunch of other little problems. You imagine that she’ll be on edge and more difficult with her kids and her husband if she can’t just have a smoke.

And then there’s the financial problems. The family owns a BMW, a Lexus, and a gorgeous house. They take vacations and have all the trappings of a prosperous family. But they’re tottering on the brink of financial disaster. They are an American family that is poor despite having everything one should need to be rich, and the clear depiction of a decaying consumer society is reflected in Pete’s injury by a man who opens his car door on him while he’s biking. The man rejects the idea that he should be responsible for the harm he causes others. He’s just a great exemplification of the mercenaries who sometimes live next to us, masquerading as ordinary people, but couldn’t care less about the dignity or well-being of others and look only to their own aggrandizement.

To further emphasize this point, Apatow brings in a horde of devices. This is a nice touch, but maybe only for the audiences of 2012. In 50 years, the countless and symbolically loaded references to computers, tablets, iphones, dvds, headphones, and the like will seem dated, but in my mind, this movie is the only one that is wrestling with the excessive thinginess of our day to day life, and the way that iphonization of every daily task creeps into our idiom and into our sanity. Pete pretends to go to the bathroom just to get some alone time to play scrabble (or words with friends, it’s not clear).

But all this is really just window dressing for the core brilliance of the movie, which the way it portraits our modern relationships with each other. Pete’s Dad is an incorrigible mooch, Debbie’s dad isn’t even around, and they fight constantly with each other and then worry that their kids are cursing and fighting. They’re worried about all the right things, but they’re overwhelmed about the right way to deal with them. For example, Pete and Debbie spend one night reading through their elder daughter’s online conversations. They find what they think is evidence that a boy is bullying her and Debbie takes drastic measures, abusing the child to the point of tears at school. Not only are her methods, well, horribly immature, but she doesn’t even have the right information. The boy has a crush on her daughter.

A motif that is used to drive this cycle of failed maturation home is that of the “Lost” episodes that the elder daughter is watching. She’s following the show (which is an representative of modern pop-culture, and appropriately named to boot) and assures her parents that she can handle its emotionally heavy themes, while simultaneously preventing her sister from watching. In the end though, she can’t handle the show’s ending alone. Later, she masters her emotions and agrees to show it to her younger sister, making the audience hopeful that they may break the dysfunctional cycle that Pete and Debbie are caught in (though the state of Deb and Pete’s marriage is far from hopeless).

By the end of the movie, almost nothing has happened; just a lot of fretting and worry. The main characters are right back where they started, thinking about what it is to be happy, and pursuing their vision of the good life in the endearingly confused way that only humans are capable of doing.


I finally learned what the fiscal cliff is

The fiscal cliff is a roughly 600 billion dollar reduction in the predicted deficit of 2013 compared to the deficit of 2012. How this got named a fiscal cliff I have no idea. The 2001, 2003 and 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012 and are responsible for 44% of the overall cliff. 

I knew nothing about the fiscal cliff before reading this fantastic CRS report. And I found out that the name is very deceptive. What’s the cliff? It’s just a deficit reduction. In other circumstances, we would be happy about it. 


I don’t think reality is broken

I’m reading a book right now called Reality Is Broken by Jane (?) Mcgonigal. My parents saw her lecture and her book is about how we need to gamify our world. In other words, to use games to help us be happier and more productive.

The book has some really interesting psychology behind it, and I love video games and so naturally gravitate towards a writer who knows the games she’s using as examples.

I am very interested in the philosophy of games and not necessarily the psychology. For instance, M is concerned with how games make us happy. She introduces the italian word Fiero which is like pride, but something different. We don’t have a good english equivalent, but games are supposed to help us achieve this state. I agree that games do this, but the benefit of games is not in terms of how they can be used to make us feel a certain way. Sometimes I recoil at her instrumental language, as if we just need to gamify everything in our life. At one point she says that games can help the elderly “feel” connected to the world. I think she means that in a good way, but I can’t help hearing it as a kind of accommodation. The elderly should not be made to feel better, they should be made better off and their feeling better will follow from being better.

Games for me are not just fun. They are a particular type of rational creativity. McGonigal thinks reality is broken because it doesn’t reward us in the same clear ways that games do. Thus reality stresses us out but games put us in the “zone” where we are fully activated as agents. This activation is crucial, but we should not think that this means that reality is broken. Rather, reality is the fundamental and inescapable game that we all play and love it so much that we don’t stop playing it even when some philosophers try to tell us that determinism makes it useless to act and that there is no way we could ever be in touch with the “true” external world. We absolutely LOVE reality. In fact, look at the evidence. Video games are not becoming more and more addictive by helping us leave reality or by simplifying.

Take two examples. Massively multiplayer games and the morality systems of games that have not ever been fully successfully implemented. Games get better by making them MORE like ordinary social life with all it’s frustration and pain and rewards. The morality system may never be able to be implemented in a game because the fun of playing the game of morality involves there to be certain things at stake, namely, other people’s feelings. Games can change what happens based on what we do, and so, in a sense, can have an ersatz morality mechanic. But since our actions, IN SINGLE PLAYER GAMES AT LEAST, can never be fully moral, insofar as we realize that aren’t interacting with real humans who have interest. Of course, we often don’t take into account the fact that we’re dealing with non-humans, because as many experiments have shown, humans have an irresistable psychlogical urge to treat things that look like humans as real humans. Kids shown robotic people impute thoughts and emotions to those things. Also, think about how you cringe when someone shakes a dog angrily. Now think of someone shaking a camera. You don’t care right? But take something in the middle, like a robotic dog that yelps when it’s hurt. If someone “hurts” this dog, you will be perturbed. If you’re not, then you are most likely a psychopath (a leading indicator of psychopathy is an insensitivity to the pain of animals, and for the purposes of our crudely rational mind, a robotic dog is a dog).

Thus, video games with morality systems are very popular, and more research is being done as to how to add these features realistically to games because morality is for real life is like money is for poker. Poker without money and real life without morality is comparatively boring. Thus, we’ll never be able, in my mind, to make a game as exciting and rewarding and enriching as moral life.*

Of course, morality could be as enriching as reality if we could make games simulate morality. Say, if you hit someone in a game, they would feel pain. If that was the case, then the game would be as thrilling/interesting/enrich as reality, but then, this would just BE moral reality. If your actions have consequences for other people, you are back in a situation involving moral reasoning.

*I take this back. Online multiplayer games already DO have moral elements. If you steal someone’s treasure from a raid or insult them in a form, you DO hurt that person. You take part of the fun from them or you make them look bad. You can’t physically hurt someone in world of warcraft or EVE, but that doesn’t meant there aren’t moral elements in play. I guess my point is only that SINGLE player games with moral systems will always be imperfect. There are no moral interests at stake because there are no people involved. One is only put in MORAL SIMULATIONS of something, like “should I kill this guard or only stun him?” That’s a moral type of situation, but there is no actual morality at stake.


Inspiring Photos

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a cliche but we all know it and sometimes we even want an example to demonstrate that fact, but sometimes it’s hard to come up with something as a good example.

This post on Quora has a huge number of photos that say it all. I find it interesting that the mainly alternate between being uplifting and despairing.

Pawel Kuczynski is an artist whose work was in this stream. For some reason I was struck by his work. I don’t have an art category in this blog. So sad.


Meaning and Humor, Illusions and Games

Here are two connections I would like to explore. They are philosophical in nature. 

1. Visual experience contains optical illusions and hallucinations. It also has theory rich elements, like depth perception, which is imposed on visual data. I wonder if semantic meaning might be a theory rich aspect of perception. Just as a tool is seen as having a function, I think word inscriptions and utterances take on meaning in the same way a scene takes on depth perception, the mind PLACES the meaning there immediately and imperceptibly. My philosophy professor at Tufts had a great example. He said that if an ant walks on the sand and makes lines that look like “god,” one will automatically impute meaning to the inscription, even though one knows that there is no meaning there. Thus, meaning is like a sustained, predictable, hallucination. Words we know have no meaning take on meaning and seem to have it. There might be such things as semantic optical illusions. Take an ambiguous sentence like “Red tape holds up new bridge.” We see a meaning that isn’t there depending on how we “look” at the sentence, just like ambiguous figures. Sometimes a picture looks like two faces kissing or a candle depending. Same with ambiguous sentences. 

2. I’m also continually fascinated by humor. What is humor? In the past I’ve talked about seeing humor as a perceptual capability, and indeed that might be right. But what about the social practice of humor. The giving and taking of jokes. I think that humor is a game we play with words in which we try to represent things in provocative ways. I hate poetry, but grudgingly, I must admit that humor has similarities to poetry. A poem tries to play with words in order to express an emotion by playing with emotive and semantic modes. Humor tries to play with words to do…what exactly? Is a humor just one of the emotions that poems can try to evoke. What is a game? I need to learn more about games to understand how they work, but right now I’m flirting with the idea that games are necessary consequences of our ability to do things intentionally but without any reason. Games then evolve as arbitrary actions that we coordinate and build up with others. I also think games are a way that reason with each other. Just as sign language is a way of talking without words, I think games are a way of reasoning without explicit thoughts. 

I’ve been watching the office so much lately, all the old episodes. I really need to write a piece about the office as a piece of art. It’s very interesting in a lot of ways.