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?

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(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

libertybell

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!

Do Fantasy Worlds (Indirectly) Reinforce Racism?

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(photo credit to chief-orc on deviantart)

I’ve written two other entries about how video games and fantasy games deal with race issues. I’ve also written a well received entry on racism in America (in the real world). But in today’s entry, I want to discuss the ways in which our media can reinforce our tendency to stereotype. Specifically, how might fantasy tropes be guilty of this. What do you think of when someone says she is playing a dwarf, or another friend says he wants to play an elf?

If you grew up like me, reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons, you probably have some specific traits in mind for these characters. The dwarf is stubborn, fond of drinking ale or strong drinks. She is greedy, tough, single minded, and gruff in action and words. Few people play sickly, weak dwarfs. They are the embodiment of a kind of grit in fantasy worlds, and they are fond of caves and beards and are basically short Vikings who live underground and think only about precious metals and battling goblins or something.

The elf is taciturn, or at least somehow noble and aloof. Elves have a timelessness to them in fantasy worlds, which makes them graceful and elegant; they take the long view on life, because they live VERY long lives (perhaps forever, depending on the setting). They are bound to nature. Elves are naturally good with a bow, capable of sliding down stairs on shields due to their agility. However, they are also a bit arrogant, as they think other races are beneath them.

There are other common fantasy races, like the inventive gnomes, the bloodthirsty orcs, the mischievous halflings (ie hobbits). More disturbingly, there are evil versions of many of these races, such as the drow elves, who are separated from the other elves by having darker skin. Subtle. Of course, they couldn’t be a reference to Africans, because they have white hair. So it’s totally not racist.

Possibly a Drow?
Possibly a Drow?

But seriously, even if we set aside the fact that elves that supposedly live underground have evolved or somehow been given dark skin (underground…where there is no sunlight!), their evil is a character trait of the entire race. If you look them up in the D&D monsters manual, they are evil. Most are lawful evil, so at least they have rules!

Later editions of games like D&D often got rid of these limitations, including the idea that only humans can be paladins, or holy warriors. However, for those of us who grew up with the idea that all drow are evil, or all orcs are monsters, or even that halflings like to eat and are lazy, these easy categories almost certainly affected our worldviews. Certain groups (races) have character traits that are common to all of the members of the group. Or at least, the exceptions to this are so rare that when they happen they are quite remarkable (Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow ranger, rejects the evil of his race and becomes a hero of the Forgotten Realms, for example).

Sometimes, after you had played a game like this, or read too many books that copied Tolkien, you started to look for these alternatives. You might decide to play a dwarf who hates alcohol and loves goblins, or an elf with an inferiority complex. But this too reinforced the tropes. What made these characters interesting is their contrast from the normal.

Interestingly, when I first read Tolkien as a teenager, I thought the humans were the worst. I liked the dwarfs and the elves, and even the hobbits. When the Return of the King ends, and the elves leave Middle Earth forever, I was upset. The Fourth Age would be the Age of Humans, Tolkien explained, but it would be a world of industry and not magic. Everything that I loved about Middle Earth would be ruined by humans, who bred like rabbits and had few redeeming qualities.

There’s something satisfying about knowing exactly what you are dealing with, and humans are unpredictable. Some are good; some are bad. Some are charitable; some are greedy. Some are intellectual and rational; some are emotional and irrational (this contrast of rational and emotional is something I now reject; but as a teenager it felt right).

Psychologists call this cognitive ease, and it happens in cases where we’ve heard the same thing repeated so often that we simply take it as a given. Having it challenged is difficult for us to process. It strains our minds, so to speak, and thus we tend to avoid such challenges. Yes, this applies to political and religious views too, but that’s a separate discussion.

This cognitive ease that we use when dealing with fantasy tropes regarding race can easily transfer to our real lives, especially since we (rather colloquially, and erroneously) use the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities, and even different physical traits.  How could a teenager, who learns that different races have different character traits, not transfer that to the ‘races’ in real life?

I’m certainly not arguing that people who read fantasy books or play fantasy games are somehow more racist. In fact, I’ve said elsewhere that exploring different characters can heighten our empathy for people different from ourselves. A good group (including a good GM!) can use fantasy tropes in order to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In fact, I often think of this as a sign of a mature group–when the players look for empathy rather than reinforcement of stereotypes. Still, there is often good and bad in most of our habits, and the bad in this case is one we should avoid, assuming it isn’t too late.

What do you think?

Stop Excluding Persons of Color from Fantasy Games in the Name of “Realism”

linkasafrican

In a previous post, I discussed how Valkyria Chronicles does an exceptional job of dealing with race issues via alt-history. In that post, I also mentioned the infamous controversy around Resident Evil 5, which depicted African zombies. Many people find the former example to be a sensitive way to deal with a very difficult racial issue, while the REV approach is often seen as problematic at best.

This led me to wonder about how race is depicted in video games in general. This is a huge topic, and it’s something I’d like to explore for several posts, but I want to start with a basic observation about the ‘realism’ argument for race in games. There are some people (and I won’t link to them because I don’t want to give them any traffic) who have a problem with depicting persons of color (POCs) in fantasy video games. The argument is often similar to the ones made against having women be warriors or have the same strength caps as men—realism.

There certainly have been games that tried to inject a bit of realism in gender differences by giving men higher strength caps. Some of the old SSI Goldbox games come to mind. These games were based on the D&D editions of their time, which had separate caps on stats for men and women. The result is that most of your fighter types in those games have to be men, if you want the best bonuses. Some of those games compensated by giving women higher charisma caps, I guess on the grounds that women are more attractive than men, even though charisma is not the same as attractiveness. I seem to recall a few giving women higher wisdom caps as the compensation, but I could be misremembering. In any case, the goal was to reflect some sort of biological reality. Whether that’s needed in fantasy games could be the subject of another post (in my view, these caps are silly), but I want to stick to the race issue for now.

If you go to almost any article that shows a particular fantasy character being reimagined as a POC, you’ll see comments complaining about political correctness and/or lack of realism. In many cases, the people making these comments see fantasy worlds as analogs to medieval Europe, which in turn they see as exclusively white.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is historical. Turns out there definitely were POCs in Europe, even in the Middle Ages, and many were prominent members of society. Yes, for historical reasons, most people were white, but people of all sorts of ethnicity and background lived in Europe, even back in Roman times.

But I think the second problem is more important, which is that the realism argument is silly from the start. The idea of race is a social construct. At one point, Irish people were considered a separate race in the U.S., and the idea of race being akin to culture is fairly new. The article linked in the previous sentence shows how difficult it is to say what ‘white culture’ would even mean. For racists, it likely means whatever views they currently hold as acceptable, but again this shows how artificial the whole thing is.

I do not mean to suggest that we should therefore be colorblind or that race does not matter. Even if it is a social construct, it still matters, and it has real effects on people. Ignoring that does no one any favors. But it does mean that racial distinctions are largely created, and we can examine history to see how and why. In fantasy worlds, with completely different histories than our own, who knows what would or would not be constructed. What we can say with confidence is that racial divisions, as we know them today, are not historical necessities. So fantasy worlds don’t have to make them. There’s nothing necessarily realistic about including them in a made up world.

Perhaps the realist will now counter by admitting that race is a construct but still insisting that there are evolutionary reasons for skin color. Darker skin is found in Africa because of the climate, where people needed a way to resist the effects of the sun. Lighter skin in Northern Europe comes from the longer winters and colder days, which led to less sun exposure (and the blue eye mutation, I guess!). Let’s assume this is not a way to re-introduce race, but is a sincere attempt at maintaining willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy setting.

I still don’t buy it. If your fantasy world has magic, with flight, teleportation, or even just dragon riding or other means of conveyance that would far surpass our own medieval methods, then people in your world can migrate with ease. Unless all of these things are very new, no one is stuck in a particular climate or subject to the same rules of our own world.

None of this means that you can’t have critical ethnic differences, culture clashes, etc. in your fantasy world. These kinds of things will happen. But the separation of people based solely on physical features of the sort that we today identify with the term ‘race’ are historically isolated in our own world. They aren’t necessary for realism in a fantasy world. So the creators of those worlds can and should be able to present their denizens in whatever way they wish. If the creators want to have a world where physical differences have led to unfair prejudices, that’s fine. But they don’t have to have that, especially not in the name of realism.

Games are a form of entertainment. More people being able to enjoy that entertainment is a good thing, and part of the beauty of roleplaying games is that you get to explore different aspects of our world in a sandbox where the consequences do not affect you outside the game. Many people like to use this opportunity to play a different version of themselves. They still want to relate to their character though, which means they should have a choice of what gender they want to play, and what physical characteristics they want to have. There is no reason to limit these options.

Furthermore, people like to see themselves represented in games. If you are African American, and even fantasy games suggest that you don’t exist, or that only white people matter, that’s more than just frustrating. It undermines your status as a person. There’s simply no good reason for fantasy worlds to do this. More inclusiveness in fantasy-based games means more people enjoying the amazing worlds that fantasy writers can create.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the more obvious analog to racism in fantasy worlds, which is really about species (elves, goblins, humans, etc.) and sub-species (High Elves, Sylvan Elves, etc.). Race is not really a formal biological term anymore.