Why do I support a state welfare system?

(image found just about everywhere in some form, but this one is credit to quora.com)

Sometimes I answer questions on Quora, which is a website dedicated to having people with different viewpoints discuss issues and give perspectives. Some questions are very straightforward, like “What is the best router out there right now?” I don’t answer those, because I don’t find them interesting. Some I answer because they fit me: “As a teacher, have you ever had X happen?” These are good opportunities to share experiences with people new to the profession. However, I also answer some political viewpoint questions. One question that was asked was: “How come so many liberals support the welfare system but don’t collect on it?” I’m posting my answer in full below, with some followup thoughts on the matter. The very short answer is this: I think it’s the most efficient way to help those in need in our country. Here’s the long version:

I can’t speak for others, but I support the welfare system because I believe that a government run safety net is a better way to get people help that they need than private charities. Private charities tend to reward people that the givers either know personally or agree with in some way. Much of the money a church collects, for example, will go to members of that congregation in need or to people deemed worthy of helping by that congregation, which can be based on whatever criteria they see fit.

This means that if you do not fit the criteria (perhaps you aren’t a Christian, for example), you are FAR less likely to get help, even if you need it.

Now, I will grant that the more math based approach govt. takes isn’t perfect either. Simply being below the poverty line does not in itself mean that you deserve help. Perhaps you did something foolish or reckless to be in that situation. In general, I think that the people who deserve the most help are those that are experiencing misfortune through no fault of their own. So, one might think I would prefer the private charity approach, where help is based on merit. However, in my experience, merit gets defined, again, as being similar to the person giving, or to somehow fitting the arbitrary criteria of the private donors.

So, I take a welfare system to be the better approach. It’s far from perfect. But it has established criteria, that are not arbitrary, that can get help to people in need. I once read that in order to replace welfare in the U.S., private donations would need to be ten TIMES higher than they are now. While some believe that lowering taxes would allow private charities to make up this difference, I see no evidence for that. People who give to charity do so regardless of taxation. People who get breaks on their taxes, who were not giving before, do not suddenly give. They spend the money on themselves, in my experience.

As a result, I support the public welfare approach to this problem, even though I do not get welfare, and I am unlikely to ever need it. Together, my wife and I make 6 figures a year; we don’t have children and will not have children. We have no debt, other than our mortgage. I support welfare as a means to helping the needy in our society.

Followup thoughts: I’ve gotten a lot of positive response to this question on Quora, but I left out some things for the sake of brevity. First, I did not always think this way. In my youth, I would have called myself a social liberal and fiscal conservative. I probably even used the label ‘libertarian’ at several points. I now shudder to think back to how easily I adapted that label, without really understanding libertarianism. I basically thought that the government should stay out of economics altogether. People should sink or swim on their own, since we all had opportunity. If you didn’t take advantage of it, that was your fault. If it wasn’t your fault, charities would help you. The government would just mess it all up!

I was very naïve. Perhaps I still am. In any case, what I didn’t realize at the time is fairly simple to articulate now. We don’t all have the same opportunities in this world. Libertarianism assumes an equal playing field that simply does not exist in the real world. As a white, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, well educated, male not only were certain doors open to me that were closed to others, but in many cases, I could take the closed doors and open them with a simple request. If I made a mistake, it was never damning. I would always get another chance after that one. I didn’t realize that I was living life in easy mode until I started to examine the system in more detail in grad school. I became more politically aware, and I understand how the US system pretends at social mobility but only fulfills that promise to select groups.

More simply, I didn’t understand the ways in which factors outside our control could influence our opportunities. I should have seen it; no excuses. I should have. But when you are benefiting from an existing system, you tend not to question it. You buy into the narrative that it’s good for everyone. Sure, I had black coworkers try to explain to me what driving while black meant, and the ways in which they were judged all the time, with people expecting them to make a wrong move. But I didn’t listen. I just never saw this happen. I mean I knew they believed this, but it struck me as unlikely. This wasn’t the 60s. Racism was largely a thing of the past, I thought.

Then, I became a college professor. I started to see how the different upbringings of different groups (racial, economic, etc.) influenced the way students thought, their ability to write, the information available to them when making arguments…it was so obvious. I thought back to how I arrived where I was, and I realized all the advantages that were given to me: a private education for the first 6 years of my schooling, which set me ahead of all my public education peers, a safety net that meant I would never go hungry or wonder where I might sleep each night, a support system for emotional problems…the list goes on and on. But even aside from these things, I could think back to the times where I was doing something wrong (kid stuff), and the police and other authority figures would give me the benefit of doubt. I’d get a warning, or a slap on the hand.

I read the studies showing that just having an African American sounding name made companies less likely to hire you. I listened to women tell me their stories of harassment, the ways they had to endure leering, suggestive language, etc. as the price of trying to make a living. I looked at my peers in academia, and we all looked the same, talked the same, shared worldviews.

Hopefully, my point is clear. There are many people who are disadvantaged in life through no fault of their own. Sometimes these people get sick or lose their job, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were unlucky. They may lack the support structure that you or I take for granted. I’ve had so many students tell me stories like this. They have no one to help them. No one. If something goes wrong, they are doomed without help. If they make a mistake, they are condemned for it. In many cases, even if they do everything right and earn a degree, they may be unable to find a job in today’s world. I’m not talking about people who got degrees in things you think are worthless. I’m talking about geologists, psychologists, business students….doesn’t matter.

Sometimes people need help to get back on their feet. Social safety nets provide that help. Can they be abused? Yes, of course! And we should limit that abuse. But study after study suggests that welfare fraud isn’t that common and doesn’t cost that much. I’m willing to accept this as the cost of such systems, in the same way I accept that the taxes I pay so kids can go to school will often be misused. It’s worth it to have a system in place that can help the people that really need it.

Since When Is Kneeling a Sign of Disrespect??

Here we go again. A while back, I wrote an article about Colin Kaepernick’s attempts to raise awareness to various injustices in the U.S. by kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games. My conclusion was that Kaepernick has every right to protest in whatever way he sees fit, and that he seemed to be trying to respect the country in how he went about his protest. That is still my view.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen comments on Facebook ranging from “Yeah, he has the right, but I don’t like it” to “I support this fully and would do the same” to “This is totally disrespectful to the Flag, and he should be in prison!” I’ve even seen some people claim that Kaepernick himself has changed his story on why he knelt. As far as I can tell, his story has been very consistent. He originally sat during the Anthem because he felt that standing was giving at least tacit consent to the injustices he saw, especially towards veterans and minorities. In fact, here is an article from last year showing him with the Green Beret that advised him to kneel instead, as kneeling before the flag is seen as a sign of respect.

Of course, I understand why critics would see it differently. They will say that standing is the respectful thing to do, and I’ll go ahead and assume that while they are at home watching the game, they get up off their couches and stand while the Anthem is being played, with their hands over their hearts and their hats removed. But surely there are different ways to show respect. Kneeling is a very traditional sign of respect, for example. In the Wiki I just linked there is a photograph of a military officer kneeling with the flag, as a show of respect to someone who lost a loved one (and to the flag, by extension).

But Kaepernick and the NFL players who have joined him are kneeling as a form of protest. That’s certainly true. So, they do disagree with at least certain aspect of American society. Is that what is disrespectful? I’m not sure how. The U.S. has a long tradition of peaceful protest, and many of our most important civil rights came about due to such protests, some of which were very inconvenient for others in society.

One of the things that continues to baffle me throughout this conversation is the question of ‘proper’ protesting. Protesting, by its very nature, is a sign of disagreement. A person can respectfully disagree with another person, or even with an idea or a nation. Disagreement, by itself, is not disrespect. However, it is almost always painful or slighting to the person on the other side of the disagreement. This is human nature. If a person tells you that he or she strongly disagrees with you, it’s hard not to feel hurt, perhaps even attacked. If the person says, “I still respect you, however,” this lessens the blow, but doesn’t completely eliminate it.

I suspect this is how many people feel when they see NFL players kneel. The players say that they are protesting injustices in our society. Some people might think “But I didn’t cause that injustice! Why are you attacking me?” That response, while understandable, is misguided. These players are not attacking specific people. They are trying to raise awareness of a problem that has not yet been solved. Certainly, things are better for minorities in America than they were fifty years ago, but they are far from fine. We need to be reminded of this from time to time.

That’s going to ruffle some feathers (or some flags?), but it’s not disrespectful. There is nothing in the original Constitution about honoring the flag. In fact, the history of fetishizing the U.S. flag as some sort of symbol of the country and purity of ideology is relatively new. The rules about how to treat the flag are less than 100 years old, and many of the things we take for granted about respect for the flag are even more recent.

But what I find more troubling is the selective use of this flag worship. In 2006, Kid Rock wore the flag as a poncho during a Superbowl concert, and I don’t recall people up in arms over it (though a Democrat from Georgia apparently didn’t like it!). I’ve seen flag bathing suits, scarves, and even beach towels (the flag isn’t supposed to touch the ground!). But kneeling before it as a sign of protest is somehow disrespectful? Come on. You tell me why certain people are bothered by this form of protest, but not by the flagrant ways other people treat the flag, contrary to the rules we were taught as children.

I personally don’t care about those rules. The flag isn’t America. It’s an object. If you are religious, you aren’t supposed to worship idols. If you aren’t, well…you probably don’t worship the flag anyway. Nothing in this world inherently deserves our praise. That must be earned, and when your own nation is doing things that you think are not only unworthy of praise, but even problematic, then you should speak up about it. How you go about it matters, of course. You can’t harm other people, for example. But kneeling during the anthem doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s a basic right we have as Americans. It’s the First Amendment. It’s first because it’s very important for protecting our liberties.

The truth is that there is almost no way for NFL players to protest that would make certain critics happy. Anyone who complains that they are millionaires and/or ungrateful isn’t going to care about how they protest. They will criticize them regardless, as long as they are still noticeable. But a protest that isn’t noticed is pointless.

When President Trump decided to wade into this (at a rally in Alabama, no less, which just made me have to hear even more jokes directed at my home state…and I can’t even defend it because damn…those people cheered him!). . . when he decided to take a stand, as President, by calling on American citizens to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights, he made a big mistake. The NFL is more unified on this issue than ever before. Their cause is growing, not shrinking. They are linking arms; they are unified.

Frankly, I’ve never seen NFL players show each other more respect than they are right now. Owners, coaches, players, even the commissioner, are all on the same side on this. It’s a strange thing to see, and it’s coming from a group of people who are tired of being told that they must remain silent to the injustices that they see in our country.

Do they respect the flag? Sure seems like it. In any case, I respect the hell out of them for making a stand….so to speak.

The Importance of Travel

When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.

I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.

My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.

These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.

Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.

Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.

I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.

If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.

Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”

Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.

So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!

Bioware Is Trying to Make Romance More Diverse, but Has a Long Way to Go

(Image from Afterellen.com-credit to them)

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.

But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.

Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.

I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.

Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).

Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.

However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).

Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…

As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.

That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.

Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.

Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….

Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.

Blondie has a new song out. Is that OK?

On my Twitter feed today, I saw a link from NPR that said Blondie has a new song, and it’s great. Click Here to see that article and listen to the song. I have to agree. It’s catchy; it’s poppy; it’s Blondie. Sure, Debbie (I think she prefers Deborah now?) Harry sounds a bit older, but it’s a great raspy effect. She still sounds amazing. The band sounds good, too. The effects are a bit more than I prefer in my music, but again, they are classic Blondie. They’ve always used a lot of chorus, layering, synth sounds, and the like. That’s their thing.

And it really works here. As the article notes, there are hints of “Heart of Glass” in the song, which can sometimes indicate a band trying to recapture a particular high point of their own history. But while I agree that it’s self-referential, the song elevates beyond a simple echo of the past. I think it stands alongside many of their hits.

Sadly, it almost certainly won’t be a hit song, and that’s what I want to discuss. There have been many articles about why the public seems unable to continue to fully support bands that have faded from the spotlight and attempted to return. I’m partial to the theory that the problem is one of zeitgeist, a word that roughly refers to the spirit of culture. You can see this theory (indirectly) in this Forbes article, which is actually about the loss of the Rockstar. As the article notes (about halfway through, if you aren’t interested in all the talk about how new bands will never be like Led Zeppelin), many of the big bands of yesteryears either reflected or created cultural movements.

So bands like The Rolling Stones are associated with the late 60s through early 70s, even though they continued to produce hits into the 80s to some degree. But they are a band from the era of Altamont. They represent the era of free love, where sex and drugs went hand in hand and were considered equally cool. A band like Def Leppard, technically part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM in short, awkward acronym form) are associated mostly with the late 80s, thanks to the monstrous status of the Hysteria album. Despite continuing to make some good music, they and other bands of the day like Motley Crue, were relegated to the 80s once the Grunge movement hit, which itself is a zeitgeist for people like me, who graduated high school in the early 90s.

A few bands have continued to remain relevant over time, notably bands like Metallica, though even they are still remembered more for their earlier work (up through the Black Album) than anything recent, despite decent success with newer music.

However, bands like Blondie find themselves relegated to a particular time period, perhaps in part because they were effectively the pop music of their day. Radio saturated them into the public consciousness to such a degree that anyone who was alive in their heyday cannot help but associate those songs with those years. In fact, a whole nostalgia driven music scene has popped up in the last couple of decades, fueled by people in their 30s-60s trying to recapture a moment in time for a few hours as they watch one of the bands they loved in their youth.

But new music? They don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t transport them back to a familiar time, where things were simpler (if only in our memories) and certain songs became entwined with special events in our lives.

There is nothing wrong with this, at least from the fan’s perspective. You do not owe an artist your loyalty or your money. They provide a product, and you may take it or leave it. However, as a musician myself (though not famous), I can only imagine how disappointing this must be to the artists. They rightly see themselves as better musicians than they were in their 20s, and yet no one wants to hear it. Instead of thrilled anticipation and praise, their new music is received with the same level of enthusiasm as the person who gets out an acoustic guitar at a party when the stereo is already playing what everyone wants to hear. At best, they might be tolerated. At worst, they might be asked to leave. In most cases, people will simply roll their eyes and wonder why they are offering a substandard interpretation of a classic sound.

This is totally unfair, of course, but it’s also natural. Our past belongs in the past, except when we wish to revisit it for a momentary escape. We don’t invite it into our present, and with good reason. We aren’t that person anymore. We may wistfully dip our minds into a momentary glimpse of who we were (or try to), but we don’t want to be that person anymore, and we expect our idols to respect that.

But here they are anyway, with a great new song.

More on Grim Dawn

In my Halloween games post, I noted that people should be playing Grim Dawn, by Crate Entertainment. This was a game that I kickstarted because I really enjoyed Titan Quest, which is a Diablo clone style game that brought some interesting new elements to the genre. Sadly, TQ didn’t do enough to keep its development team together, even after a great add-on/expansion pack. It’s still available for cheap on Steam, and probably GOG. If you haven’t played it, go get it. The settings include Ancient Greece, Babylon, and China, and it’s just a fun game.

Grim Dawn picks up many of the best elements of Titan Quest, and then takes it all a bit further. Let’s start with class options. Like TQ, Grim Dawn has you choose a primary class at level 2. You do this by spending points to build up a base ability in the class itself, a bit like working on your character’s potential to perform in that class. This will allow you to purchase higher level skills within the class (using the same points; so you have to balance increasing potential with actually using that potential to buy skills or upgrade them!). This creates some intriguing decisions. Do you upgrade your favorite skill to make it more powerful, or build your potential so you can get another skill?

At level 10, you may choose a secondary class, allowing for different class combinations. Want to have a fire mage who can also wear heavy armor and swing a sword? You can do that. Put points into demolitionist and warrior. Want to have lots of pets helping you out? Be an occultist/shaman and grab all the pets. These are your choices, and if you are like me, you will have about 8 different characters, trying out different combos. Some will work better than others, but you’ll keep trying out new ones all the time.

Beyond the purchased skills, items can give you new skills as well. There are times where I find myself holding onto items that have inferior stats just because of the cool skill I’m allowed to keep as a result. While the actual item loot is varied and interesting, there are also add-on drops, which can be combined together in order to create cool additions to all of your items. For example, you might have a crossbow and add an item to it that increases your fire damage. Some of these add-ons also provide new skills. The possibilities appear to be practically endless, adding more decisions to your character development.

If all of that seems overwhelming, I guess sometimes it can be. But in general, the game does a good job of adding things slowly enough that you learn about them before you become confused. You’ll be making these decisions with a bit of agony, due to the opportunity costs, but rarely any pain due to confusion about what will happen if you try a particular item. There are plenty of stats on your character sheet that you can check as you swap out items. And yes, you can have alternate layouts on the same character and switch between them on the fly for different situations. I never use this option, but it’s there.

How about the setting? Well, this is a subjective taste thing, but it’s dark. It’s a desolate world, where undead wander what were once lush farmlands, and everyone is pretty much despairing that it’s the end of days. I’m not a huge fan of such settings, in general, to be honest. I play Fallout despite the setting, for example, not because of it. I like the quirky fifties nuke-punk stuff, but not the post apocalypse setting in general. Too dark for me. Grim Dark is similar, but a bit more gothic, I guess…for lack of a better word. Perhaps steam punk would be more accurate, since there are flintlocks and such. IDK…imagine a fantasy world set in the 1700s or 1800s, and you’ll be close to the feel of the world…well, if you add in an apocalyptic event!

Some people will love this setting, but even if you don’t, this is a game worth playing. It’s not expensive (on sale constantly for about $15), and it’s got a LOT of content to it. According to Steam, I’ve put in 122 hours (what? That can’t be right! Steam lies!!! Ok, that could be right….I find this game relaxing). I’m not near the end with any of my characters. So, it’s got a lot of playability to it.

Anyway, give this game a chance. It deserves it, and I want a sequel!

Thanksgiving Games?

turkeygame

(image is from Assassin’s Creed III; used under Fair Use)

So, I did a post about Halloween Games, since Halloween is my favorite holiday. Seems only fair to have one about Thanksgiving games, especially since people usually get some time off for Thanksgiving and might be looking to play!

Let’s start with the one from the image. The Assassin’s Creed series is excellent for immersing yourself in historical time periods. I loved the second game in the series, which was set in Renaissance Italy. I wish I had been to Italy before playing it, but I have been since, which makes me want to play it again! Unfortunately, I have not played the third in the series, which takes place around the American Revolution. However, there are Native Americans in it, and they aren’t portrayed as savages. So that’s kind of Thanksgivingy, right?? I’ve heard the gameplay is weaker than other games in the series. For charm, 2 is amazing. For open world gameplay, 4 is probably the best choice, as it allows you to be a pirate on the high seas. This one happened between those games, so…..

Ok, continuing the theme of lackluster games around a holiday that doesn’t have much of a theme to begin with, other than “Food is good! Have it with your family!”, I’m going to recommend you play Madden 17. Like many other games in the Madden series, this one incrementally builds upon the previous games in the series. It lets you play football with real NFL teams!

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving? If you have to ask, then you aren’t a football fan. In that case, this game might not be for you. The rest of you already have this game. Play it after you eat turkey, during halftime of the real games.

Since Thanksgiving is all about food, how about playing Cooking Mama! The title is a bit ambiguous. You will not be cooking your mother in this game. You ARE a cooking mama! You cook, and you are a mama. Cooking. Mama. Here’s the android/google play version: Cooking Mama. But I recommend getting this for DS rather than your phone. Still, some families don’t like it when people are playing games on Thanksgiving, and the phone is still the best covert way to play games, at least until the Oculus Rift comes in handy contacts form!

My last recommendation is old school…way old school! Duck Hunt came with my original Nintendo Entertainment System, back in the 80s! That’s right. I’m super old! This is a game about hunting ducks with your dog. Turkeys are a kind of duck that can’t fly and have more meat. I think that’s right. So Duck Hunt is basically a harder version of Turkey Hunt, and you are a gamer, so you are hardcore. Hunt Ducks, not Turkeys! There are Deer Hunter games, of course, and they are harder still. But who eats deer on Thanksgiving? Everyone knows that deer is for Arbor Day.

Anyway, did you know you can now play Duck Hunt via Flash right in your browser? Now you do! So here is the link!

Well, that does it for my Thanksgiving recommendations. Did I miss any Thanksgiving classics??? Tell me in comments!

I just voted for a woman for President of the United States

Politics aside, and I get that people will disagree with my choice for political reasons, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the gravity of voting for U.S. President like I did in this election. I just voted for a woman to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and it’s been my first opportunity to do so. It’s 2016, and only now have we even had the option of voting for a woman for POTUS. That’s insane to me.

As I drove back from voting, I was talking to my partner about how historic this event really is. I said to her “You know, first I was able to vote for a black President, and now a woman. That’s two historic firsts, so close together!” Then I thought about other historic firsts, and there were none. Before Obama, every single POTUS was a white man, often older, but certainly mainstream. Every single one. No major candidate was black. None were women. Now, we get both, back to back! It’s an amazing time to alive.

Applying the Two Concepts of Liberty to U.S. Political Parties

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In the previous article, I discussed the two concepts of liberty in a political context: negative liberty, which is when there are no political obstacles in the way of our choices, and positive liberty, which is when the state aids us in achieving our goals. Like any quick definition, I’m oversimplifying both concepts a bit, for the sake of clarity and concision. But the basic concept holds and shows the difference between being allowed to do something versus being able to do something.

As a quick reminder, then, most of the Bill of Rights are negative liberties, which tell us things the government cannot do. It cannot arrest us for speaking our minds; it cannot prevent us from bearing arms; it cannot force us to incriminate ourselves in court. Positive liberties in the U.S. also takes many forms: public education gives us the tools we need for a successful life; public roads give us ways to get places; federal grants and student loans help us go to college.

Unfortunately, some of these liberties may conflict, both with each other, and with other values that we hold dear in society. For example, you might feel that you have a right to keep your children from hearing certain viewpoints, with which you disagree, but those children also have a right to public education, which might include some of those viewpoints. A fairly recent example that is still causing controversy is freedom of religion versus tolerance of alternate lifestyles. On the one hand, people with deeply held religious convictions believe that the First Amendment should allow them to deny services to others on religious grounds (the obvious example is denying services to homosexual couples because of a religious belief that homosexuality is a sin). On the other hand, the people being denied these services see themselves as being discriminated against for something that is a critical part of their identity, something they cannot simply change.

Resolving these conflicts can be very difficult, because any compromise will involve one or both sides feeling that their liberties have been violated. Isaiah Berlin, whom I discussed in the previous post, believed that some of these conflicts cannot be resolved without loss. In other words, he thought that we are constantly making hard choices among our values in cases of conflict. Such decisions result in a tragedy of sorts; we cannot maximize all of our values at the same time. We must make sacrifices.

But those sacrifices become especially problematic, politically speaking, in cases where the conflict is not within a single person or group but between individuals and groups. And this is where political divide emerges. One political party promises support for one group, while the other sides with the other group.

We can see this pretty clearly in the case of religious freedom versus tolerance for homosexuality mentioned above. For the most part, the Republican Party has found itself on the religious freedom side of the debate, which pleases the Evangelical segment of its base. The Democrat Party has tended to side with the LGBTQ community in opposing legislation that allows discrimination based on religious belief.

If we put this debate into liberty terms, we can see that both sides are fighting for liberty, while accusing the other side of trying to deny liberties. And both sides are right about that….to an extent. Whatever decision we, as a society, reach here, some people will have their liberties reduced and others will see their liberties protected (or expanded).

So let’s look at a few key social issues that are happening in the U.S. right now and try to categorize how the parties view these issues in terms of negative and positive liberties. A few of these will be obvious, but others might surprise you (check the abortion one, for example). As always, these are my views/observations. In each case, I have tried to present the position from the perspective of that party. I am not saying the party is right or wrong; I am only putting their view into negative or positive liberty terms. You are free to disagree with my categorizations in the comments. Just explain why, please! (note that I included ‘Libertarians’ in order to get a third party involved; I chose them over the Green Party because they tend to get more of the vote and because they’ve named themselves after liberty!)

 

Issue Republicans Democrats Libertarians
Abortion Positive- seek to protect right of the unborn to become born (to live) Negative- seek to protect the right of women to choose whether to give birth Negative- could vary, but in general want govt. to stay out of it, and allow choice
Racial Equality Negative- believe the market should take care of this, and equality is up to those who want it. Positive- believe some minorities need extra aid to make up for disadvantage starting points Negative- again, want govt. to stay out of this.
Gun Control Negative- support the right to buy weapons with minimal restrictions Positive- support restrictions in order to protect people from gun violence Negative- seeing a trend here? Govt. go away!!!
Healthcare Negative- favors existing marketplace method, with private insurance Positive- favors public options to ensure that everyone gets access, regardless of wealth Negative- favors full marketplace approach, completely privatized in every way (in theory, no Medicaid/Medicare)
Gender Equality Negative- generally leaves this up to corporations, opposing govt. mandates and quotas Positive- promotes gender equality through various aid programs and restrictions against discrimination Negative- surprise! No govt. involvement at all; total merit based capitalism
Gay Marriage Positive- varies, but more likely to promote legal restrictions on gay marriage in order to protect sanctity of marriage Negative- govt. should allow any consenting adults to marry, regardless of sexual orientation (some include gender identity in this as well) Negative- similar to Democrats, but more likely to include gender identity as well; again, govt. shouldn’t decide this.
Marijuana Positive- favors restrictions in order to protect people from drug use, thus ensuring a better life Negative- varies a lot! More likely to promote loosened restrictions on certain drugs Negative- goes even further; would likely allow any and all drugs to be legal, but would still keep restrictions on DUI (at least Johnson would…his party is all over the place on this one)

Of course, couching all of these issues in terms of liberty, whether negative or positive liberty, is overly reductive. These are complex issues, with many facets. The chart above is meant to illustrate that each major party focuses on a mixture of what could be viewed as enhancing negative or positive liberty, depending on the issue. Libertarianism presents a nice contrast, because it’s a view that is focused almost solely on negative liberty. Basically, libertarians want the government to protect the country from external threats and protect citizens from direct domestic violence. Other than that, they want little or no government involvement.

If you disagree with how I have characterized any of these viewpoints, let me know. I am not asserting that any of these approaches is the correct approach to take. My goal is to help people understand the ways in which our politicians talk past each other and confuse issues by using the term ‘liberty’ in a very sloppy way. As Americans, we all value liberty; we just value it in different ways.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll look at the specific issues that are happening in this year’s (2016) election. I know I can’t wait……..

 

Some Video Game Companies that Try to Include Ethics

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(image is from Enderal; image owned by GameStar.de)

Everybody loves lists, right? In planning out the future for this blog, I’ve been thinking about the various companies that try to incorporate ethics into their games, in a very willful way. I’ll admit from the start that I tend to think about RPGs when I think about morality in gaming, but that’s a bit unfair. Lots of games try to incorporate ethical decision-making.

So here’s a list of companies that I think are making a genuine effort to include some examination of ethics/morality in their games. The order is a bit arbitrary, but those at the start of the list are the names I thought of first, which means I more strongly associate them with intentionally dealing with ethical issues.

  1. Bioware- Bioware has been at the forefront of trying to bring into video games more of what makes tabletop games great. Back in 1998, when Baldur’s Gate was released, you could really tell that Bioware was trying to transport D&D to the computer. Yes, games like the Ultima series had included virtues, and several of the Might and Magic games asked you to choose between light and dark. But Baldur’s Gate felt like you were playing a classic module. It gave you dialog options that ranged from heroically noble to selfishly petty, and there were consequences for your choices.

Unfortunately, Bioware tends to present ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ choices as being a selfish jerk. One of the problems that video games have, when compared to tabletop games, which are much more open-ended, is that the programming limitations mean that your choices will be limited. You can’t allow complete open freedom in choice making and still have consequences for each available choice. So if you want to play a monk that has been broken by the world and decides that it would be a better place if he took over everything, you probably can’t, unless that’s the actual plot of the game. This will be true even in open world games, which leads to the next company!

  1. Bethesda- Way back in 1994, a game called Elder Scrolls: Arena was released, which allowed your character to walk for miles across a seemingly endless world. Daggerfall took this a step further, and Bethesda continued to tighten each game in the series while adding more and more depth. Bethesda builds worlds for you to explore, and those worlds allow you to create characters that can be as ethical or unethical as you want. Once they took over the Fallout series, they took these choices even further, allowing you to either a savior of the wasteland, or just another mercenary taking advantage of everyone around you. There aren’t many games that allow you to nuke an entire town; but Bethesda created one of them! As an aside, doing so isn’t really ethical.

In the latest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, you can start a family, build a house, have cities like or dislike you, etc. The same is true in Fallout 4, which includes all sorts of choices in the quests, factions to join or annoy, etc. Bethesda is one of my favorite gaming companies right now, because their approach to world building draws me in like no other RPGs out there. I love what they are trying to do, and I love the fact that they get closer to achieving their goal of placing players in a living world with every iteration of their products.

If you want a nice bonus, check out the Enderal total conversion, which takes Skyrim and creates an entire new world, with new gods, a cost for doing certain magics, and a lot more philosophical thought than you tend to find in Skyrim. It’s still heavily about exploration, but they reward that pretty heavily by basing skills on finding books that enable you to raise your abilities. This one has some interesting world building and decision making and is well worth checking out. Plus, it’s free! It is NOT made by Bethesda, however. It’s made by a company called SureAI, and is thus an indie project, essentially. Probably has some bugs, though it’s been solid for me so far.

  1. Obsidian- Since I’m only looking at current studios, including Obsidian allows me to capture a bit of what made Black Isle and Troika so great as well. Obsidian is at their best when building on existing games and taking them a step further. Two games really exemplify this: Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. The former took the Fallout engine that Bethesda created and added a real sense of a thriving world. There were factions that cared about whom you helped and whom you hindered.

The latter (PoE) built a brand new Infinity Engine style game and crafted a new world to go with it. The writing is superb, with characters who ask deep questions about religion and philosophy, and others who twist those questions in horrid ways (looking at you, Durance!). Obsidian deserves a ton of credit for understanding how to make worlds more immersive by having your actions affect the game itself. Unfortunately, they have a reputation of releasing buggy products, a problem that likely led to the downfall of Troika games, which made classics like Vampire: Bloodlines and Arcanum, both of which allowed you to try different playstyles and make different choices that would affect the game.

There are other companies out there that are trying to incorporate ethical decisions into their games. These are my top three, but a lot of independent studios are stretching the boundaries here as well. If you have other publishers/developers that you think are doing a good job of this sort of thing, let me know in the comments!