Review: Sense8 Will Change Television

When I was a drama major at the UofG, we sometimes spoke of “theatre value”: the extent to which the story being told had to be told through theatre, and could not be told as effectively, as successfully, in another medium.

What Sense8 gets very, very right, is its grasp of an equivalent principle: “television value”, the extent to which its story must be told through the medium of television. Or to be more specific, the medium of an internet-based video-streaming television service. In fact I think the show’s television value will change the nature of television.

Before I begin: a quick note about what the show is about. It’s the story of eight people, very different from each other, living in seven different countries around the world, who share each other’s memories, feelings, thoughts, sensory experiences, and sometimes specialized skills. There’s a computer hacker, a business executive, an actor, a criminal, a scientist, a police officer, a bus driver, and a DJ: the spread of complimentary skills makes them a kind of modern-day D&D adventuring party, really. Finally, it’s the product of JMS and The Wachowskis, whose previous sci-fi credits include Babylon 5 and The Matrix. Here’s the trailer:

Here are a few reasons why I think this show will change the nature of television.

First, it is stunningly beautiful just to look at. The first moment when this occurred to me was in an early episode when Daniela Velasquez storms into Lito’s bedroom where she discovers that he’s gay. The frame has Lito’s boyfriend Alfonso in one half of the frame, lying on the bed, very calm and cool and perfectly happy to have been discovered, and Lito’s face in close-up in the other half of the frame, laughing desperately and crying at the same time. A frame like that belongs in an art gallery. Sense8 tells most of its story through framed images like that. I sometimes got the impression that the narrative and dialogue served only to add value to the visual frames. One might say that this means the show is giving short shrift to its narrative. A more charitable interpretation might be: the show is using images and sounds to tell its story, not just dialogue alone. It’s a “sensual” show, in the “sense” that it’s engaging one’s artistic and musical sensibilities, one’s eyes and ears, and not just one’s capacity to follow the logic of a dialogue-driven narrative. This is something film and television can do, very very well.

Second point about television value: time. Even before the advent of internet video streaming, the average American was watching between five and eight hours of television every day. Now that we have internet streaming services like Netflix, we can spend those same five to eight hours watching just one show. (That’s how I watched it: I took in four episodes at a time, over three nights.) This makes the experience of the show more “immersive”. Moreover: freed from the time constraints of broadcast television, a show doesn’t have to be exactly 42 minutes long. It can be exactly as long as it needs to be, to tell the story well. It doesn’t have to have pointless mini-cliffhangers just before a commercial break. In fact the show doesn’t have to be interrupted by commercials at all– again, making the experience more immersive. This makes television viewing a far more pleasurable experience.

This leads to my third point: Sense8 is a very “slow burn”: something that works best when you have several hours at once to spare for TV time. The pilot episode, “Limbic Resonance”, does not introduce heroes, settings, crises, and villains in the usual way. It assumes that viewers have the patience to figure these things out for themselves after taking in a lot more world-building information than a pilot can normally convey. But with the expectation that viewers are prepared to sit down for several hours at a time, starting at a time of their choosing, the show can reveal itself the pace of the director’s choosing, instead of the pace demanded by the nature of broadcast media. You simply cannot have a slow-burn plot when you have a 42 minute window to fill, multiple immersion-breaking commercial interruptions, and a fixed time of day for broadcast. I grant that many viewers don’t have the patience for slow-burn plots. But this leads to another of Sense8‘s smart moves: the sci-fi and fantasy fan is precisely the sort of viewer who will give a slow-burn plot a chance to unfold.

Let’s look at the show’s premise now. What really catches my attention is the way these eight characters are such radically different individuals, compelled by their biology to share each other’s lives. Sense8 a sci-fi exploration of the nature of empathy.* I watched the first episode of Sense8 again with this in mind, and it cast Nomi’s gay pride day speech in a new light for me. In that speech she observes that Christian theology treats pride as the chief of the seven deadly sins, but does not include hate on the list of sins at all. This observation is powerful: it will stay with me for a long time.

This emphasis on practical empathy stood out for me because of what a radical contrast it makes with other popular slow-burn television dramas, like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones. In those shows, many of the lead heroes are deeply hateful people. In fact they’re ruthless, spiteful, aggressive, territorial, demanding, and violent. They are shows about terrible people doing terrible things; they presuppose a kind of social Darwinist, dog-eat-dog world. Shows like House, and (I almost regret to say it) Sherlock, are shows about characters who are on the side of the angels but they are nonetheless terrible people, incapable of normal human feelings. Moffat’s Sherlock proudly declares himself a “high functioning sociopath.” And we’re supposed to admire him for that. In Game of Thrones, as another example, we’re treated to numerous instances of artfully-shot sexual violence, followed by hand-wringing pronouncements from fans and the show’s writers about the importance of telling the victim’s stories and showing the violence they endure for what it really is.

Then comes Sense8, a show about people, some good, some bad, most of them both, compelled by their circumstances to identify with each other, compelled to psychologically put themselves in each other’s shoes.** They see themselves reflected in mirrors as another person in the cluster. They feel each other’s heartbreak and trauma. They hear each other’s ear-worms. They fall in love with each other. They kiss and have sex with each other — there’s a lot of sexuality in this show. A lot of homoerotic sexuality, too. But it isn’t really sexuality for the sake of prurience. It’s sexuality for the sake of portraying the different ways that different people love each other. Love, not violence, seems to me a much better way to make an audience care about people whose lives are different from their own. As we saw several times in the series, but most triumphantly in episode 12, this is a show in which characters win their victories by empathy, co-operation, teamwork, and compassion. We’re now at a place in pop culture where a story about empathy, compassion, and co-operation, is radical and edgy and boundary-pushing. And that, I strongly suspect, I strongly hope, is how Sense8 will change television.

If you don’t mind, let’s look at what I think is a big fault in the delivery of this premise. Bringing eight major characters together makes the show very complicated. Viewers who aren’t paying close attention might be unsure who is who, whether we’re watching present events or flashbacks, what’s happening in the world and what’s happening inside someone’s mind. I suppose the producers wanted to spread the story around the world as much as possible; and besides, eight characters alliterate nicely with the word “sensate”. But this gives us very little time to explore each character’s backstory and depth. The result is that most of these characters feel a bit wooden, sometimes more “checklist on a Facebook page” characters than real people. Had I been designing the show, I would have written only four or five of them. We’d have more time to get to know them that way. Indeed one of the sensates is a sadly disappointing character: Riley Blue, an actress whose other work shows how talented she is. Here in Sense8 Middleton’s talents seem unused: she’s doing the best she can with a poorly written character. Through most of the series Riley has almost nothing to do. Late in the series we’re shown a trauma in her backstory: one which I identified with very strongly. But she doesn’t seem to have skills she can contribute to the rest of the team. Other members of the team include a martial artist, a crack driver, a scientist, an actor and grifter. Riley’s skill as a DJ seems out of place; it’s not a skill the other cluster members need. (Not yet? Hard to predict.) In the last episode Riley is captured by the villains and needs to be rescued — by the heart-of-gold handsome-prince American cop, no less– the same tired old “damsel in distress” trope that made the Wachowski’s last offering, Jupiter Ascending, into a high-res failure.

Having said all that, I still think that for its television value, and nature of its heroes, Sense8 will change television. The anti-heroes of Breaking Bad or House of Cards are fascinating to watch, but we should not want to be like such people. We should want to be like the Sensates: people of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, languages, and even different moral codes, nonetheless learning to get along with each other and help each other. Because that’s the human race: seven billion people, different from each other in thousands of ways, who have to learn to get along.

I might want someone like Sherlock Holmes or Frank Underwood on my side. But I want people like Kala, Nomi, and Capheus in my life.

In fact, I want such people in my head.


* The fictive metaphysic of the show rests on recent discoveries in biology concerning co-operation and symbiosis (which the show doesn’t explain in much detail, alas.) I’ve studied a bit of the science of symbiosis: my PhD was in environmental philosophy, after all. Complex forests often have “mother trees” which use underground root networks and mycorrhizal fungi to assist the growth of younger nearby trees. Biologist Lynn Margulis has shown that symbiosis and symbiogenesis — organic co-operation at the cellular level — is a stronger force in evolutionary biology than competition. Scientists have also discovered structures in our brains called “mirror neurons” which allow us to learn from each other and experience another person’s emotional state as if it was one’s own.

** This is a point that writer JMS has alluded to before: in his flagship show Babylon 5, an alien character named Delenn says that “Humans share one unique quality: they build communities. If the Narns or the Centauri or any other race built a station like this, it would be used only by their own people. But everywhere Humans go, they create communities out of diverse, and sometimes hostile, populations. It is a great gift and a terrible responsibility–one that cannot be abandoned.”

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My marketing experiments: and what I think the first job of a writer should be.

Recently, I spent $100 advertising my novels on Facebook for two weeks. Here’s the results so far:

  • 13,600 impressions.
  • 151 clicks.
  • 18 sales of the Kindle editions.
  • 3 sales of the paperback editions.
  • 0 sales of the Kobo editions.
  • More than 200 new “likes” on my Author “fan” page.
  • And a handful of extra “likes” on recent entries on my blog.

A few months ago I spent $100 on Google AdWords. The result was broadly similar: around 50,000 impressions; around 250 clicks; but only 27 sales.

Facebook also generated a lot more “buzz” than Google Adwords. More people were talking about the books with me and with each other. I even found a few long-time Facebook contacts who had no idea I was writing fiction, even though I’ve been trying to promote my fiction for several years. So this is good.

But “likes” do not generate revenue. Moreover, after some quick math in my head, I discovered that spending more money on Facebook campaigns might not be helpful. For the campaign to be cost-effective, everyone who clicks on my ad would have to buy at least four of my books.

As you can see here…

Sales of Kindle editions of my self-published works. The ad campaign began on 14th May.

Sales of Kindle editions of my self-published works. The ad campaign began on 14th May.

…that isn’t happening.

I think it’s safe to conclude that automated marketing systems are not cost-effective for independent writers.

There you have it, indie and small-press writers: I spent my money on this experiment so you don’t have to.

Now, I don’t mind spending that much money for such a small result. I have an excellent day job which allows me enough time to write a book and pays me enough money that I can safely lose almost four thousand dollars in the process of publishing and marketing it. (As long as that $4k is spread out over a long time, and not spent all at once. I’m not rich. I’m barely in the middle class.) What I do mind, if anything, is the emotional effect this publicity work is having on me. I’m beginning to resent the way the publishing industry is forcing me to think and talk like a businessman. I resent that my sense of worth as a writer ends up tied to whether I made a sale on a given day. I grow increasingly annoyed at websites and publicity consultants who offer nothing but cheerleading, coupled with dire warnings about financial failure for not going along with the cheerleading. I get angry when publicity consultants tell me I’m bound to get rich as a writer, or when the claim involves weasel-words to the effect that I “might” some day be as big as J.K. Rowling, or that it “could happen” that my books will be made into movies.

I can already hear some of the readers of this blog, some of them writers and artists themselves, clicking the “Comment” button to tell me that if I don’t think like a businessman then my books won’t be read. I’m seeing more and more indie writers treating self-publishing as a path to glory and financial success. Indeed I’m seeing creative writing programs at good colleges and universities releasing graduates who think and talk like competitors in a market, instead of like artists. This is the machine-mind, invading the world of art. The machine-mind is a structure of value priorities which imagines that the production of art could be industrialized, and that the quality of the resultant art could be measured by market forces. I don’t like it.

Some people might be about to tell me that by complaining like this, I’m putting ‘negative energy’ into the universe, or ‘attracting failure’ to myself. No, I tell you, I’m not– and I know this because there is no such thing as negative energy or the ‘law of attraction’. No, really, there’s not.

Finally, I can hear some of my musician, painter, designer, and artist friends prepare to tell me that they should not expect to work for free. You’re right. You should demand that your clients pay you what your work is worth. You’re right to be angry when concert venue managers or literary magazines offer to pay you with “exposure” instead of with real money. I’m not trying to tell you to work for free. I’m attempting to describe a pitfall that the machine-mind takeover of art tried to push me into, so that hopefully the next indie artist won’t get pushed into it after me. The pitfall of irrational expectations. The pitfall of following bad advice. The pitfall of producing bad art.

The first goal of a writer should be to write something interesting, because it is socially or politically important, or thought provoking, or beautiful– or all of those things together. These goals should overlap with the goals of attracting new readers, and creating interesting conversations about the books. But the goal of selling books should actually come second.

Without meaning to sound too self-aggrandizing: I’ve found that the best way to attract attention to a book is to publish the very best work that you can. I learned that lesson by releasing three novels without editing them. They’re edited now: that’s what my third Kickstarter campaign ensured. I also follow a few guidelines for writing better fiction, as detailed in another blog post.**

Only after you’ve written a really good book should you think about promoting it. In case you’re curious, I’ve had the best results promoting my books by doing the following: asking for help from friends and associates; building a mailing list (and here’s where you can join it); and asking for help from people with bigger mailing lists than mine. But I think the most decisive thing an indie writer should do is accept that you’ll never be rich and famous as a writer, then continue writing and promoting your work anyway.

do something awesome

Still, every author writes in the hope, perhaps the faint hope, of being read. I’m not afraid of spending money to promote myself — that was the whole point of buying ads on Facebook and Google, after all — but I want the business end of things to serve the art. It’s the art, not the money, which should be the end in itself.

As an aside: I also think it’s important to write in multiple styles and purposes. When I think of musicians I admire, for instance, I think of musicians who have changed up their styles and re-invented themselves several times over long careers. The Beatles, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Mike Scott and the Waterboys, for instance. There are writers who are similarly varied in the nature and range of their work. Margaret Atwood has written drama, and science fiction, and nonfiction. Neil Gaiman has written graphic novels, fantasy novels, children’s lit, and journalism. Umberto Eco has written historical fiction, and philosophy. I look at these writers and I think, that’s what I want to do, too. Hence why I’ve written fantasy fiction, and poetry, and nonfiction works about religion, human rights, the history of ideas, game theory, climate change, and logic. Fifteen books published so far– the sixteenth will come out this summer. But I digress. So. Carry on as you were.

Follow-up, 4th June 2015.

Here’s a video in which renowned fantasy author Ursula LeGuin, making a broadly similar point about the difference between producing a commodity and practicing an art.

And here’s a video in which my favourite musician Mike Scott also makes a similar point about musicians who think and talk like businessmen.

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Spiritual Positions: Six Ideas That I’m Reasonably Sure Are True.

Having set aside some ideas that I’m very sure are false, the way is opened to investigate alternative positions that might be true.

I use the word position in a multifold sense: first, as the opposite of a negation; second, as a statement which is proposed; third, as a posture or a pose to adopt, much like a fashion model might “strike a pose” in a certain costume; and fourth, as a place on earth where I make my stand, a ‘position’ I might mark on a map and say, “That’s my house. That’s where I live. Come visit!”

Mine is a kind of spiritual humanism. This means a point of view in which physical embodiment, rationality, sociability, emotional experiences, and mortality, hold spiritual significance. I don’t necessarily mean something entirely atheist, but I do mean something that emphasizes the inspirations, and the questions, that emerge from human life. Here are some of the positions which I’ve found by committing myself to this point of view. Tomorrow I may think differently, for I do not claim to know everything, and it’s possible that something here is wrong. But for now, following Luther: I shall say: “Here I stand I cannot do otherwise. Gods help me.”

1. The life of every human being is only her own to live.

You are ultimately responsible for your own happiness. Strictly speaking, no one lives ‘for’ anyone else, no one dies ‘for’ anyone else. In moral terms, this becomes an affirmation of freedom and mutual non-aggression. Following philosopher J.S. Mill, I am free to swing my fist as much as I like, so long as it does not injure my neighbour. This is the basic position of individualism, perhaps the most important value in the world-views we call modernism and liberalism. It is also the source of important hero-values like courage, autonomous reason, and the will to power. And it is the source of our loneliness; but I’ve lectured about that already.

2. Yet no one is an island.

The life of every human being is inextricably bound to relationships with others. As affirmed above, I am an individual; but paraphrasing the philosopher Charles Taylor, the significance of my individual choices depends upon their standing out from a shared horizon of meaning. This horizon comes to us from community, language, history, art, music, philosophy, foodways, religion, politics, family life, romantic love, and the whole inheritance of culture. The most satisfying kind of happiness tends to come from what we do with others: what we share with them, what we accomplish together, and so on. Feasting and drinking and storytelling around a fire at night; making music with your friends; sharing sexual pleasure with someone you love and someone who loves you– these are sacred things. The sacredness here isn’t just the sum of the separate individual choices: it’s something at emerges from the relationships.

3. The life of every human being is fragile.

We are born as infants, unable to walk or even lift our own heads. Should we live to the end of our natural time we must bear the infirmities of old age. In between, we might enjoy healthy adulthood most of the time, but we might get injured or acquire a disease, and thus find ourselves in need of the care of others. Some people might be held by diseases and disabilities for most or even all of their lives: think of people with arthritis, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, or depression. And some people’s life-long burdens have to do with social constructions like racism, sexism, homophobia, religious hate, and the like. We affirm that all human lives matter; but we must also affirm that some human lives are more endangered, more disempowered, more vulnerable than others. I acknowledge the groundwork laid here by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Cornell West. I also acknowledge the potential incongruity between this position, and the individualism noted above. How to resolve this problem is one of the ongoing questions in political philosophy, and I am still in search of an answer. But as a ‘holding position’, I think the fact of human fragility translates into ethics as a presumption in favour of generosity and kindness.

4. Every human being must, at various times in life, encounter the immensities.

This has been a theme in my private philosophy for a very long time. It first came to me just after encountering a storm in the forested midlands of Germany, in the summer of 2004. It grew in my mind as I read philosophers like Levinas and Ricoeur, and early european hero-epics like The Táin, and Beowulf. The Immensity is the event, experience, or circumstance which reveals something absolutely different from, and even greater than, the self; it calls one’s powers into question; it demands a response. You can’t control it; there’s nothing you can do about it; and there’s no way to avoid it. I take my hint from Stoicism here. Yet in the act of responding to it, your life is configured. You set yourself on a certain path, or into a certain way of being in the world, perhaps irreversibly, whether towards flourishing or towards bereftness. There are four such immensities for everyone: the vastness of earth and space, the otherness of other people, the imprisoning grasp of solitude and loneliness, and finally the inevitability of death. There may be more than these four, but these are the four that concern me the most.

5. The good life is one in which you respond to the call of the immensity in a way that brings out the best in you.

To explain: the best response to the immensity is the one that stretches your natural potentials toward excellence– and in so doing, transforms your choices, and also the call of the immensity, into an affirmation of the goodness of life. To be clear, the immensity itself doesn’t really change. But your encounter with the immensity can change from an occasion for fear and despair and doubt, to an occasion for affirming the goodness of life in this world. Here we find a new configuration for those individualist hero-virtues like courage and will: here we find a way of affirming them that doesn’t assume a strict black-and-white dichotomy between the individual and society. And this leads me to the most important position:

6. Life on earth is good; life on earth is worth living!

The proposition must be enacted in all one’s practices as an essential resolution of the will. Were I to be more rigorously philosophical, I would treat that proposition as an open question, something we could reasonably doubt. But in the everyday practicality of human life, the proposition “Life is good” must be a deep commitment. For its alternatives lead the way to injustice, suffering, despair, suicide, and The Nothing. If the gods exist, and if they have any kind of plan for humanity, their plan is fulfilled in its entirety in any present moment where people come together to discover something wonderful, create something beautiful, and fall in love with each other.

I have more positions than these, but I’ll have to explain them later. (Some are already explained in my previous published works.) At the moment, it’s exam-marking season here and I suppose I should get back to work. 🙂

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Spiritual Negations: Ten Ideas in Religion and Spirituality Which I’m Very Sure Are False.

“People don’t care about knowledge and enlightenment. What they want is validation.”
–Heathcliff Weatherby, “Hallowstone“.

People in many religious communities are fond of “affirmations”: proverbs, wisdom teachings, “laws of magic”, and the like, usually in the form of only one or two sentences, which express a specific inspirational thought. “As above, so below.” “You are made in the image of God.” “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” You get the idea.

Religious and spiritual people often also discourage “negativity”: they discourage statements that assert that some belief or concept or expression is wrong. I get why people do this: they want to demonstrate open-mindedness, non-judgmentalism, and acceptance of differences of opinion and practice. But the practical effect of avoiding negativity is actually to produce more negativity: more frustration when the content of the affirmation does not match the reality, for instance. Also, it makes people angry at those who decline to validate their beliefs.

In order to help counter this needless stress, I suggest that some negation-statements may actually be helpful and good for us. And here’s the main reason why.

  1. In science, one aims to falsify a theory in order to clear the way for a better theory, one which better explains observable phenomena and which predicts experimental results more accurately.
  2. Similarly, in logic, it is often far easier to be certain that a proposition is false, than it is to be certain that a proposition is true. Therefore, all other things being equal, one assumes propositions to be false when there is enough reasonable doubt surrounding them, so that other propositions which are better supported by evidence and argumentation may take their place.
  3. By analogy, in religion and spirituality, one may wish to examine and dismiss affirmations which have been shown to lead people away from the path to redemption, salvation, moksha, nirvana, or whatever other state of peace and enlightenment the religion offers. Having rejected the affirmations that lead one astray, one may have an easier time finding and following affirmations that lead one ahead.

So here is my short and work-in-progress list of negations: that is, ideas concerning religion and spirituality which, in my own life and in the lives of others whom I trust, have been shown to cause frustration, cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, dispossession, irrationality, misery, and in general to lead people astray from whatever they’re seeking. I’m ordering them from the easiest to the hardest: that is, from the ones which I think most people would find acceptable and easy, to those which I think more people are attached to, and thus less willing to let go of.

1. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is eternal. Nothing is forever.

And isn’t this one obvious. Many things last a long time– some things, like our planet Earth, last billions of years. But even so, things are never “still”. They change. Life is change. You yourself are changing, as you read these words. You’re growing older. Some day you will die. Let us not be distracted by thoughts of afterlives and immortal souls– such things may or may not exist anyway. Looking at your present situation, in this very moment, the most unambiguously true statement we can make about what’s actually happening to you and the world around you is that all things must pass.

2. You do not deserve to suffer. You are not born sinful.

The reason I left the Catholic Church back when I was 16, and the reason I will almost certainly never go back to any kind of Christianity, is because of the Doctrine of Original Sin. In my rational judgment it is a principle of obvious misanthropy. Sure, I’m well aware of the evidence in its favour: lots of people do, in fact, treat each other horribly. Yet there is abundant counter-evidence, too. Lots of people treat each other lovingly. It is part of the function of religion to teach us something about the nature of human suffering, injustice, and evil, and what can be done about it. But the idea that we have misery and injustice in our lives because of a fault in human nature, for which reason we should be condemned to lives of privation and toil, is utter nonsense. Best to be done with it, and move on.

3. You do not know everything.

This one should also be obvious. Some spiritual and philosophical traditions, notably NeoPlatonism and its heirs, up to and including contemporary occult traditions, claim that there’s a part of our souls which already possesses all the knowledge of the universe. Learning, therefore, is really a matter of remembering. If you meditate, or pray, or invoke that knowledge by magic, or somesuch, then— nothing will happen. Because you don’t know everything. The universe is so vast, so huge, so varied in shape and form, that no matter how much you think you know, there will always be more to know. Other people will always be so different, so unique in their perspectives and experiences, that no matter how much you know, there will always be others who know something you don’t know. It’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to acknowledge that you do not know everything. Take it from Socrates, of whom the Oracle of Delphi said no one is wiser. (Or, take it from Hank Green, who is way more theatrical about it.)

4. The world, as presented to your eyes and ears and other senses, is not an illusion.

It can be fun to speculate about whether we’re all living in Plato’s Cave, or The Matrix, or some other elaborate illusion. There are some varieties of NeoPlatonism which teach that the world of the senses is a dream, and when we die we will wake up. Twenty-five years ago when I was learning about neopaganism for the first time, there was a popular idea that reality was consensual: things are what they are because enough people believe that’s what they are. Even brute physical realities like rocks and our own bodies. But someone who believes their physical surroundings are a dream would entirely fail to live. You’d expect to wake up at any moment. Or you would think you can magically manipulate reality just by imagining things differently. So you’d fail to appreciate the wonder, the beauty, the amazingness, of the real world: and you’d fail to live up to your basic responsibilities, even your absolute responsibility to yourself to live a good life.

5. You are not a machine.

You are not controlled by your nature, your emotions, your biology, or your fate or destiny. You are the author of your own decisions, in every moment. You might not choose your circumstances or your situation, including facts like whether you were born with a learning disability or whether you were born in a very poor family. Similarly, you might not choose how other people or various social and political forces affect you. But you choose how you feel about them. You choose what they mean to you. Most of all, you choose what you do about them. Think of Sartre’s and DeBeauvoir’s concept of “bad faith“: to claim that you don’t have a choice about something, even to utter the words “I have to do it, I don’t have a choice, do I?”, is to turn yourself into an object, a mere thing, a kind of machine; it is to deny the most important fact about yourself, which is that you are a person. Whatever that might mean. Don’t take that away from yourself.

6. You do not have a destiny.

Each of us is absolutely unique in the world: there will never be another person like you, ever again. From this obvious fact, it does not follow that any of us are particularly selected for anything. There are no forces at work in history or in the soul which, a priori, pick out one person or another for any kind of greatness. You are not “evolving”; and you are not a “chosen one”. Your spiritual books and teachers might be telling you that you have special knowledge or talents, or that you are an “old soul” or an “indigo child”, or that you are awakened, or ascended, or the reincarnation of an important historical character. You’re not. You’re the same as everyone else here on earth. Completely unique, completely irreplaceable, completely different from all others– but not necessarily special for that reason alone.

7. You do not have a soul mate.

Related to the previous point: there’s also no person on earth especially selected to be your lover, life partner, or husband or wife, or whatever. Yes, I’m well aware of how badly used the concept of “soul mate” can be. I’ve patiently sat through hours of explanations of how one’s soul mate need not be a sexual partner, but could be a business associate, a parent, or even a pet dog. Even admitting that broad redescription, the essential point of a soul mate is that there’s a person uniquely and even magically marked out as a perfect love for you. But there’s not. There are people out there who are well-matched and poorly-matched with you, for lots of different reasons and purposes. But there is a spectrum in between. And lots of people filling every place along that spectrum. And those people, like you, are not permanent, not eternal, not forever.

8. There is no such thing as “The Law of Attraction”.

Among the most popular New-Age spiritual teachings today is the “Law of Attraction”, an idea which, as near as I’m able to find, appears in Frazer’s The Golden Bough (where he says it’s mistaken anyway). Most recently it was popularized in Rhonda Byrne’s multimillion-selling book The Secret. This law teaches, among other things, that people who think “negative” thoughts (meaning: doubts, fears, guilty judgments, self-critical questions, and basic rational skepticism) will attract “negative” realities to themselves (meaning: bad luck, failure, defeat, poverty, disease, and even natural disasters). For example, Bob Proctor, a popular promoter of this way of thinking, claimed that people in poverty-ravished countries attract starvation to themselves by their thoughts. The fact of the matter is that the Law of Attraction is shit. It’s contemptuous of the poor and oppressed; it’s wrapped up in the observer-bias of the successful; it promises wealth and success that it cannot deliver; and it lies to you about who you are. Better to let it go. It may help give people confidence and may help shore up their willpower, but it buries you in an invisible prison.

9. The past had no Golden Ages. The future shall have no Utopias. There are no Promised Lands. We are not living in the End Times.

It may be obvious that there were times in the past that were “better”, according to some metric, than now. There might be again in the future. But to imagine that there are supernatural or spiritual forces at work leading us toward, or away from, “better” times, is to commit the logical error of observer bias. The same could be said of Hegelian-Marxist views which hold that economic forces are leading us toward one state of affairs or away from another. And this would be an obvious, non-controversial statement, if not for the way some leading American politicians do deeply believe we are living in the “end times”: and this is why they support going to war in the Middle East, for example. Or why they oppose the political effort to curb global warming. If we’re living in the End Times, we can just wait to let God clean up our messes for us. I’m here to say, no, we can’t. To paraphrase another spiritual teacher I admire, God will not save us from global warming. Or any of our other messes, either.

10. The worship of the gods is not what matters.

Regular readers of my blog have heard me say this before. Two years on, I’m still feeling the cold shoulder some of my once-close friends gave me after I published this argument. Nevertheless, this thought was among the most liberating ever to cross my mind: indeed it took me years to grasp its significance, and years to explore its implications. It has opened up to me a new way to be spiritual: one that is humanist, pantheist, rational, small-G gnostic, and philosophical. And, importantly, fruitfully ongoing.

Remember, for each of these negations, there may be more than one excellent alternative. None of these negations are involved in either-or dichotomies. The point is not to state that their opposite is necessarily true. The point is clear the illusions and falsehoods out of our way, so that we can look more earnestly and honestly for what more substantial truths there may be.

With thanks to V.C. for a conversation that sparked this course of thought in me.

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“Elderdown”, and a New Book Giveaway!

Two days ago, I finished the second draft of “Elderdown”, the fourth and final part of my Kickstarter-funded urban fantasy series. I sent it to the editor and designer. Want to be among the first to read it?

Of course you do. 🙂 Then simply write a review on Amazon for any of the previous books in the series, any time during the months of May or June.

Don’t have any of the other books in the series? No problem. If you promise to review it on Amazon, I’ll send you one. Paperback or eBook, your choice.

The complete series, as of today.

The complete series, as of today.

Please, if you can spare a few minutes to go to the books’ listings on Amazon or other online retailer, and write a comment, review, or kind word about your favourite book in the series, any time between now and the end of June 2015, I’ll send you a copy of book 4 when it is published this summer.

Book One: Fellwater. Book Two: Hallowstone. Book Three: Clan Fianna.

Reader reviews are essential for promoting anything in this very crowded indie publishing world. Promotion work doesn’t have to be aggressive: after all, no one who reads one book is prevented from reading another. But promotion work does have to be spirited and lively, and especially reader-driven. Many companies that offer promotion services to independent writers will not touch a book that has fewer than 20 reviews or an average rating of less than 4 out of 5 stars.

Alas, at this time, there are very few reviews of the previous books in the series up on Amazon. (For reasons I don’t understand, Amazon ported the reviews of the first edition of Hallowstone over to the second edition, but didn’t do the same to the other books in the series.)

You can also post this link to the books’ homepage to your Facebook and Twitter streams, and simply recommend them to anyone who you think might enjoy them. If you have constructively critical remarks about the books, I’d be grateful if you would email them to me– critical engagement with readers is one way writers become better, after all.

Thank you for your generosity and enthusiasm in supporting my work.

Paperback editions of the complete series, including the two spinoff novellas.

Paperback editions of the complete series, including the two spinoff novellas.

Postscript: What will I do now that Elderdown is soon to be published? I am beginning work on a nonfiction project that I’ve had on my mind for a few years. I am also going to continue the world of the Hidden Houses with short stories and novellas, featuring characters who were marginal in the main series, as well as new characters. I’m thinking of running a Kickstarter project to pay for an illustrated edition of these new stories. And I’m also thinking of a sci-fi project.

As long as I have a book to write, I have a reason to live. 🙂

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Fictive Metaphysics, The Neverending Story, and The Nothing

Science fiction and fantasy, two distinct genres of storytelling, have at least this in common: fictive metaphysics. That is: there’s some regular feature of reality described in such stories which clearly doesn’t exist in our world, or which could not possibly exist in our world. Star Trek’s warp drive. The monoliths, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Phillip Pullman’s Dust. As a child and a teen, my favourite fictive metaphysic was The Force, from Star Wars.

This was me at that age: always sneaking away from everybody to a creepy attic, in order to read books.

This was me at that age: always sneaking away from everybody to a creepy attic, in order to read books.

But I think the most philosophically interesting fictive metaphysic is The Nothing, from Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story. (Here’s the trailer from 1984 film.) The Nothing is not a person, nor a political movement, nor a criminal enterprise, nor anything comparable. It wouldn’t be quite right to call it ‘evil’ or ‘the enemy’, even though it serves in the story as the primary antagonist, because it isn’t an object to which one could ascribe the attribute. It’s a not-thing; it’s literally nothing.

How, then, can The Nothing be a counter-factual ‘thing’ with an effect on the world? Maybe, as Heidegger would say, it ‘nothings’. (Using the noun as a verb– reading Heidegger requires you ram your head against the walls of language.) I think a better fit might be the existentialist concept of the absurd. This is the proposition is that life is inherently meaningless: there is no pre-defined reason why we exist, nor any pre-defined human nature; nor is history or the world designed for any special purpose or plan. In the existentialist view, the only true statement one can make about metaphysics is that “existence preceeds essence”. Here’s Sartre explaining what this statement means:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.

This reminds me of The Nothing because The Nothing is precisely a literary representation of the experience people have when they encounter the absurd: it feels like a force (even though it’s a non-force) that deprives one’s life of its meaning, its substance, and its point. It is the oncoming wave of emptiness, the empty pit of despair. (Don’t even think about trying to escape.) I dare say that most people on earth simply cannot bear the thought that their accomplishments are without meaning, their plans without hope of permanent success, their lives ultimately “about”, well, Nothing.

Ende’s books say that The Nothing is in some way controlled by mysterious beings called The Manipulators (who have an agent in Fantasia: the werewolf G’mork). He also says that things which fall into the Nothing get transformed into “lies and delusions” in the world of ordinary mortals. And if that isn’t frightening enough, Ende also recognizes a political implication: those who have succumbed to the Nothing are easier to control. Here’s the dialogue from the film, which explains it:

G’mork: Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasies. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has not boundaries.

Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?

G’mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So The Nothing grows stronger!

Atreyu: What Is The Nothing?

G’mork: It’s the emptiness that’s left. It is like a despair, destroying this world … People who have no hopes are easy to control, and whoever has the control has the power.

Still, what I think makes The Nothing so effective and so terrifying is that it invites you to think of whatever is most important to you, especially your ability to imagine something that could be most important to you: and then to imagine that thing, and with it your capacity to imagine that thing, falling into a bottomless abyss, never to emerge again. And, more ultimately, The Nothing invites you to imagine yourself falling into that abyss– a loss of meaning so complete it culminates with the loss of existence itself.

Heavy stuff, for what is marketed as a children’s book.

Also, philosophical conversations with giant turtles. What's not to love about this film?

Also, philosophical conversations with giant turtles. What’s not to love about this film?

The counter-force in the story is AURYN, the medallion which allows the hero Atreyu to locate the Princess. In the novels, it is always spelled with capital letters, and never has a pronoun: it is written of as if it’s a person. On the front are two symmetrical serpents, consuming each other’s tails: a symbol that invokes the sense of eternity. On its back is inscribed the sentence “Do What You Wish”. This, too, reminds me of existentialism, especially its ethic of authenticity and radical freedom. You have to decide, for yourself, what the meaning and the point of your life shall be. Nobody, not even God, can decide this for you. I suppose AURYN could also be favorably compared to Nietzsche’s ethic of the Will to Power, or perhaps to Crowley’s Law. But the story makes it clear that the most important counter-force to The Nothing is unfettered childhood imagination and wonder. The fact that all the heroes are children and all the villains are adults is one sign of that. The final scene, where Bastian and the Childlike Princess, both of them children, recreate an entire universe from a single grain of sand, is another. The hero Atreyu is a “warrior”, but he is not, as Nietzeche or Crowley would have him, a patriarchal-heroic conquerer of the weak. His enemy, after all, is The Nothing, and, as an afterthought, it’s G’mork– although Atreyu does, in the end, die in battle against G’mork. It’s a very Nietzschean way to go.

This leads me to a critical question: is childhood imagination really the best counter-force to The Nothing? This is perhaps the great un-examined question of the story. One of the best moments in the film is Atreyu’s encounter with the Magic Mirror Gate, which Engywook says shows people who they really are. And, he adds, most people can’t handle what they see:

“kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!”

Watching the film as a kid, I thought the mirror showed people from Fantasia a “real-world” person who was presently imagining Fantasia; hence why Atreyu sees Bastian, who was at that moment reading about Atreyu in the book. But it’s a very adult kind of insecurity that Engywook describes: Engywook is, after all, an adult and not a child. Watching the film again as an adult, it reminds me of the existential principle of “bad faith”– the condition of one who pretends to himself that he is other than who he really is. The story perhaps implies that children are not subject to bad faith: but are there no advantages to adulthood which could help here? Surely it is the truly “grown-up” person who could look at the mirror directly and not run away screaming. The very point of maturity is to have no illusions about yourself.

I hesitate to call that question a fault in the story. Actually I think it may be a counter-factual strength: it is a place where the story has something to offer adults. While children might struggle with bullies, math tests (oh no!), and the weird rules adults keep pushing on them, adults might struggle with The Nothing that gets inside their heads and turns them into a G’mork. A child might not worry about that: hence why Atreyu is puzzled by the mirror, but not afraid of it. Perhaps the message the story offers adults is something like this: The Nothing can get you too, just in a different way.

Regardless of that critical question’s answer, Atreyu’s quest to stop the Nothing ultimately engages all of us. It is the struggle to push back the frontier of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. His quest is the work of creating, by act of imaginative wish, a life that means something, and a world worth living in. All of us need to do this, every day, sometimes every moment of each day. This struggle is– wait for it!– a never ending story.

Bet you didn’t see that last line coming.

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Bren’s Capitalism Game: Another occasion I used games as a teaching tool in a college philosophy class

Last year, I invented a game about capitalism which isn’t really about capitalism. It’s really about ethics: it’s about how to build trust with competitors, and how fragile that trust really is.

Here’s a brief summary of how my game works, when I use it as a teaching and evaluation tool in my philosophy class. Students form teams, each representing a generic manufacturing company, producing generic supply goods: metals, plastics, fasteners, and the like. The teams have to trade with each other to assemble a ‘widget’, which is then sold to the Market (that’s me) at auction. I tell the students that whichever team has the most money at the end of the two hours wins the game. There’s more to the game than this, but I plan to publish the game eventually, so I’ll save the complete rulebook for later.

Most of the time, students hit upon a strategy like this one: In the first few rounds, each team would try to barter its goods for the other goods it needed, usually at a rate of 1 for 1 or 2 for 2. After a few rounds, they would have one or two complete widgets, but they would not sell them right away. Instead, they would hold on to them, and also hoard their own supply goods, in order to drive up the prices and control the market. The idea was to make it impossible for other teams to assemble more widgets. And when all other teams sold the last of their widgets, the team that hoarded its widgets longest could sell them for the highest price.

I say that this strategy was the most popular: but I do not say that this was a winning strategy, because it always turned out to be a losing strategy. When everyone tried to follow it, they all quickly found themselves in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. Eventually, no one was willing to trade, and therefore no one made any widgets. And therefore the game’s economy as a whole stagnated. Sometimes no widgets were assembled for five or six rounds in a row. Students also found that the team which produced the fewest units of its trade good became the most powerful team in the room. Therefore teams often rationed out how many of their goods they would agree to trade away. “Scarcity creates demand, even if it’s artificial scarcity, and that’s what drives prices up”, one student wrote in her report. Some students compared the situation to Ponzi schemes, and to the Marxist principle of fictitious capital. Some compared the situation to real-world artificial shortages, such as the near-total monopoly on diamonds that the DeBeers corporation held for most of the 20th century. But, again, when one team adopted the strategy, other teams followed, and then the game’s economy would freeze and nothing would get done. Students wrote in their reports about the need for flexibility, quick thinking, and co-operation.

On one occasion, one team categorically refused to sell their supply goods for the first several rounds, and then later demanded a price for their goods that was very, very high. They thought that their competitors would have no choice but to pay their high prices. But the other teams were annoyed, and they refused to pay it. The result was that no widgets were assembled by anyone, for almost two hours! When I made a theatrical show of the suffering of the consumer, who could not buy a widget for love nor money, a student pointed out that “in business, it’s the shareholders who matter, not the customers.” I recognized the proposition from the works of certain economists we had studied earlier in the semester. In terms of business strategy, the student was, in the main, correct. But something about it bothered me. The interests of the customer should matter, somehow. And something’s wrong with an economy in which a businessman can win by making the customer lose.

It was after this occasion that I introduced new rules to represent operating costs, and to give players the chance to buy goods at a (very high) flat rate directly from the market. These new rules made the simulation a bit more true to life: all businesses have expenses and liabilities, and in most cases no one has a complete monopoly on anything. With these new rules, players could still manipulate the market for personal gain, but it became harder to do so.

Teams which created artificial shortages also found themselves at the receiving end of some rather nasty revenge efforts. Several teams formed coalitions and bought each other out precisely in order to ensure that the team which created the artificial shortage would lose the game. A rough “balance of power” tended to evolve, and the most powerful team would often find itself paradoxically the most vulnerable team. Several students wrote something like this in their reports: “We realized we could not possibly win, so we simply stopped playing to win, and started playing to control who the winner would be.” They reasoned that if they couldn’t win, then they would ensure a win for a team that treated them fairly. And if the team they wanted to win did in fact win, they considered that a victory for themselves as well. There are some real-world examples of precisely this kind of behavior in the market. The best known example is that of Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, who threatened to bankrupt his own multi-billion dollar company in order to destroy Google’s Android cellphone, which Jobs believed was copied from Apple.

Incidentally, this buy-out strategy was always enacted in the last round of play, and never in mid-game. Students knew that if they launched a buyout gambit to prevent a leading team from winning, they had to launch it in the final round, to prevent anyone from retaliating. In the real world of business, of course, there is no final round of play, except perhaps in the sense of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famous statement, “In the long run we are all dead.” I suspect this strategy would play out very differently if the players did not know which round of play would be the last round. But in my classroom, we were ultimately limited by the two hours of our lecture period.

The students also discovered the importance of certain intangible factors, especially to do with the minutia of negotiations. An offer that was both accessible and clear, and presented by someone with a confident and friendly posture, tended to score a deal more often. Even their clothing mattered: some women found that they gained better trades when they wore heels; some men made better trades when they took off their baseball cap, combed their hair, and put on a tie. An excessively expensive price, or a price that changed too much, or a negotiator with a shifty or reluctant demeanour, was usually rejected. Some players also engaged in minor acts of deception, such as by convincing another team that they had traded something to a third team or made a secret deal elsewhere, which in fact they had not done. This usually had the effect of motivating the other team to make a better offer. Of course, two negotiators doing that to each other usually ended up trading nothing. If any impasses were created that way, I do not know how they were resolved.

It was also surprisingly easy for misunderstandings to occur, and grudges to form because of them. Teams often set their prices or joined certain coalitions in order to punish rivals for rudeness, excessive selfishness, or general ‘unreasonableness’ (however perceived). And on one occasion, one team punished another with a trade embargo in order to perpetuate a pattern of bullying and online stalking that had been going on among the students outside the class. I must admit, I did regret using my game as a teaching tool on that day. But in their reports, some students researched real-world examples of business decisions made for very personal reasons. Not all entrepreneurs play to make the most money: some play to dominate a market and force their rivals into the poorhouse, and they might pursue that goal at great cost to themselves.

There was one occasion when the game ran very smoothly, with productive negotiations among all teams and a steady supply of widgets for the customer to buy. It began when a student stood on a chair and suggested a global strategy to the whole class: “let’s all trade our stuff one-to-one, and sell our widgets to the teacher one at a time for twenty dollars each, so that every widget will be sold, and no one will lose, and everyone will win.” In that student’s report, he explained that he was attempting to foster a spirit of Ubuntu in the room. Ubuntu is a humanist philosophy, originating in writers from southern Africa. It states that the best solution to any given problem is the one where everyone co-operates in trust and friendship, and in which no one wins unless everyone wins. This strategy worked for about five consecutive rounds. Then one team decided to sell three widgets at once for a lower price, thus profiting very handsomely, and at the same time cutting two other teams out of their sale in that turn. Trust in that team instantly vanished, never to return. The market became more cutthroat and aggressive as everyone else attempted the same thing in the next round. Several students wrote in their reports that the mood in the classroom had become “very dark”. A few commented about the fragility of trust, or the inherent selfishness of human nature. A few wrote their reports on the morality and immorality of greed. One line from a student report that stands out in my mind went like this: “The system isn’t broken, it’s deliberately designed to screw people.”

Many students wrote in their reports that they learned how important it is to be trusting and honest with one’s negotiating partners. Some students noted how co-operation tended to ‘pay’ better than competition. They learned that power flows from alliances and not simply from one’s own resources. Some wrote that they also learned how cheating, deception, and even backstabbing can actually lead to profit in the short run. Therefore, some concluded that it is better to be aggressive. Others concluded that since cheating leads to success, therefore something is wrong with the system itself: excessive aggressiveness, they argued, shouldn’t be rewarded. But at the same time most students saw that aggressiveness can turn all of one’s trading partners against you. Indeed the deceitful players were often punished by being unable to find trading partners later on. But most of all, nearly every student said they enjoyed the exercise. Certainly, they found it preferable to ordinary essay-writing. Students were laughing and relaxed. And they were thinking.

Laughter and happiness during an exam. That’s what success looks like in my profession.

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Republic Of Tamriel: Things I think computer games need to do differently.

When I’m taking a break from writing another book, I like to play console-based role play games. I do this for perhaps no more than two or three hours a week, but over several years that was enough time to finish Elder Scrolls Oblivion, and Skyrim, multiple times. I’ve also played all of Dragon Age (I just finished Inquisition last week!), Mass Effect 2 and 3 (twice), all of Fable (gorgeous scenery, but very short story!), Dragon’s Dogma (lovely scenery, completely stupid story), and Child of Light (which I count as the most beautiful game I’ve ever played.)

The game I play most often is still Skyrim. But even Skyrim has things which annoy me to the point of either not wanting to play the game ever again, or to the point of wanting to make a better game on my own. Here’s a short list of them. Most of my comments will be about Skyrim, but they’re applicable to other games, too.

– The politics.

In all the games mentioned above, the government is some kind of monarchy. Tamriel has an empire; Albion has a king; Dragons Dogma and even Child of Light has a duke. It’s as if we modern people have a secret love affair for aristocracy. But it’s also a fantasy about being at the top of that aristocracy. And I get that an RPG is fantasy– really I do. But I’d like to see a fantasy world that is not just simple escapism. Let’s remember that real-world aristocracies were brutally oppressive to the majority of their members: no freedom of speech, or of movement, or of religion, or of association, and the like. Most Western-world aristocracies were overthrown centuries ago for that reason. Or, is the message of the game that aristocracies are always benevolent and benign, and that working class people should accept their position, and grow to like it? Because that’s the message being sent by all the salt-of-the-earth working class NPCs in the game. Some NPCs complain about their lives, but not one of them utters anything like a statement of serious rebellion. Why is no one talking about a Republic of Tamriel? Or, if the game’s writers really want to commit to portraying an aristocratic society, why not show more of the turbulence in that kind of society? The faction infighting, the competition for prestige, the private armies, the oppression of the poor?

Related to that: in too many RPGs, the player takes down a criminal organization by killing its leader. Politics in the real world is never like that. When you kill the evil dictator, or the crime boss, or the cult prophet, or whatever, the organization does not disband. Rather, it immediately breaks up into factions, who immediately start fighting each other– or, if the organization is very well organized, a new leader is installed instantly and it’s back to business as usual. Politics in the real world is about who is loyal to whom, and why; it’s about who wields power and who is the target of that power; it’s about whether power is shared or whether it is seized; it’s about who gives the orders and who obeys them; and it’s about whose model of social organization is to be preferred. I’d like to see an RPG which reflects that reality.

What if there was:

– A way to investigate the leader of the world, or one of the world’s guilds and organizations. What if that leader could be blackmailed, or ousted, by some damaging piece of info which the investigation reveals?
– A way to become the leader of some faction through some means other than killing and replacing the previous leader? For instance, what if the organization is subject to periodic elections, which the PC could influence, or in which the PC could stand as a candidate herself.

– The economy.

Every game I listed above, even the ones with the most artistically satisfying UX such as Child of Light and the Fable series, has basically the same economy: “kill the monster, steal the treasure.” Of all the features of computer RPGs, that’s the one that pisses me off the most. Characters become more powerful, either in terms of treasure gained, or in terms of improving stats like hit-points, almost entirely by means of breaking things: things like the bodies of enemies. There simply isn’t a computer-based RPG about anything else. Why are there no 1st person RPGs primarily about building things? Why is it that PCs in games don’t have to consume anything? I suppose Minecraft could count as a game about building things, but I found myself still unsatisfied with it; the player only gathers and re-purposes resources; she doesn’t need to consume anything. There’s no through-put. And there’s still monsters to kill. Economics in the real world is about things (like money) flowing through a system; it’s not just things accumulated and stored for later, and it doesn’t always reward people for breaking things.

What if there was:
– A fast-travel system in which players have to go to a travel point, like an inn, to fast-travel; and then they have to pay to hire a carriage. Skyrim already has this; but it’s toothless since players can fast-travel to any point they’ve already visited, for free.
– A fatigue system in which the PC has to eat and sleep fairly regularly, and may suffer minor penalties for going without for too long. This suggestion, together with the one above, could add a dramatic “survival horror” element, without making it too horrible.
– A merchant’s guild quest line, which involves securing rare resources, or productive facilities, or trade routes? This could be no less exciting than the usual four guild quest plots (fighter’s guild, thieves’ guild, etc.) It could open for players the possibility of buying any house or business in the game, for use as a source of income, so that they’re not just killing monsters for a living.

– The relationships.

In Skyrim, your PC can get married. Once the relationship is established, however, it’s basically “over”. Your partner gives you gifts once in a while, but there’s nothing you need to do for the partner any more: you don’t need to bring gifts of your own, or even say “I love you”. Real world relationships require constant involvement. What if your Skyrim spouse was not just another achievement to unlock, but instead was a regular quest-giver? And what if your spouse left you if you turned down too many quests? Related to the point about economics above, what if your “household” had a regular daily or weekly maintenance cost, influenced by whether you are married, whether you adopted children, how big the house is, and so on? And if players want to think of the relationship as an investment, there might be additional benefits besides occasional gifts of money or homecooked meals.

– The religious culture.

Ever notice how the gods in the Elder Scrolls are a bit like ATM machines? You touch their shrine and “withdraw” a blessing that stays with you for a while. You don’t have to do anything else for the gods in return. But religious communities in the real world do make demands of their members. Suppose there was a game feature in which a player could commit to a certain deity, and thereby gain a certain benefit, but must act in certain ways in order to preserve the benefit, such as always killing certain kinds of monsters, or always leaving certain monsters alone, or always using a certain kind of weapon, or always visit shrines regularly, or vote a certain way, or the like.

What if there was:
– side quests which put those commitments to the test?
– Religious groups are also often political groups as well: they may require their members to live in certain ways, vote (or not vote) in certain ways, favour certain models of social order above others, and so on. This could intersect with the political dynamic described above.

– The intellectual culture.

The mage’s guild quest line in the Elder Scrolls games represents the only serious appearance of educated people. But they, too, are involved in the same ridiculous cycle of “kill the monster, steal the treasure”. The only difference between the Mage’s Guild and the Fighter’s Guild / The Companions, is the type of weapon that the PC uses. There must be a way to make scientific research and discovery into something exciting and game-worthy.

What if there was:
– a quest line involving mages and/or other intellectuals (scholars? scientists?) which involves progress on a technology-tree, a bit like what we find in games like Sid Meyer’s Civilization?
– What if information, or access to information, could be a source of someone’s power- thus intersecting with the political dynamics that I described above?

– To play the game I want, I might have to make it myself.

Well, there’s more things that bug me about Skyrim and the genre, but I’ll leave you on a more constructive note. (At any rate, it seems likely to me that no one in the management of any big game studio will read this blog.) Here’s a screenshot of my second attempt to create a heightmap for a 1st person RPG, using Unity. Yes, it is deliberately designed to look like Ontario and Quebec, although with some details re-arranged to fit the space.

2nd terrain map

At 8000 meters by 3000 meters, it’s slightly larger than Skyrim. But so far, the main thing I’ve discovered while creating it is just how big an undertaking top-shelf game design really is. I know about the logic of game design; I regularly use games in my classroom as teaching tools, and I teach the math and logic of game theory. I’ve also published a tabletop political strategy game. But I don’t know how to write computer code. Anybody got ten million dollars to spare, so I can hire a team of programmers and designers, and turn this map into a real game?

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Christians, Pagans, and Doctor Assisted Suicide

The argument about doctor-assisted suicide (and its kin) is really, really old. Like, it’s around 1,600 years old. Maybe older.

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that doctor-assisted suicide should be legal in Canada. A report on the CBC website described the decision as follows:

The Supreme Court of Canada says a law that makes it illegal for anyone to help people end their own lives should be amended to allow doctors to help in specific situations.

The ruling only applies to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives.

The same link above includes the text of the court’s decision, where you can read it for yourself.

On reading some of the things said by people who disliked the court’s decision, I was struck by how often the discussion was framed in the terms defined by two very basic, and very ancient, worldviews of value.

One, the idea that human life is a thing of such special moral importance, that its existential moments of birth and death are not to be interfered with. To do so is to commit the moral wrong typically known as “playing God.” Let’s call this the “Sanctity of Life” worldview. Usually, although not always, it comes from religious arguments concerning how we are all “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27)

Two, the idea that the thing about human life which makes it so valuable is not the mere fact of membership in the human race, but rather the happiness, the joy, the flourishing, of each person’s experience of life; and whether that happiness outweighs whatever misery or suffering that person may also be experiencing. Let’s call this the “Quality of Life” worldview. It tends to appear in arguments grounded in the logic of utilitarianism, or humanism.

Today I just want to point out how old is the rivalry between these views. Here’s Augustine of Hippo, from the 4th century CE, author of The City of God, and Christianity’s most important early theologian, describing what annoys him the most about the Pagans of his time:

I am at a loss to understand how the Stoic philosophers can presume to say that there are no ills, though at the same time they allow the wise man to commit suicide and pass out of this life if they become so grievious that he cannot or ought not to endure them. But such is the stupid pride of these men who fancy that the supreme good can be found in this life, and that they can become happy by their own resources, that their wise man, or at least the man whom they fancifully depict as such, is always happy, even though he become blind, deaf, dumb, mutilated, racked with pains, or suffer any conceivable calamity such as may compel him to make away with himself; and they are not ashamed to call the life that is beset with these evils happy. O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it! If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy?…

And therefore those who admit that these are evils, as the Peripatetics do, and the [philosophers of the] Old Academy, the sect which Varro advocates, express a more intelligible doctrine; but theirs also is a surprising mistake, for they contend that this is a happy life which is beset by these evils, even though they be so great that he who endures them should commit suicide to escape them. (book 5, part XIX, chapter 4.)

What you should see here is that Augustine thought that Christianity and Paganism (late Roman imperial Paganism, anyway) was separated by precisely those two aforementioned categories of moral value: Christians held to the Sanctity of Life worldview; the Quality of Life worldview was Pagan.

Augustine exaggerates for dramatic effect the idea, which he attributes to Stoic philosophers, that one could find happiness in the embodied world even while being tortured on the rack. The idea appears in Cicero’s Discussions at Tusculum, but other philosophers of the time criticized him for the obvious absurdity. It certainly wasn’t the universal opinion of the pagan philosophers, not even in Cicero’s own tradition.

Augustine’s bigger mistake is the way he attributes to the pagans a logical error that they do not commit. The meaning of the Pagan claim that “human life is happy” is certainly not the unqualified and childish thing Augustine says it is. Rather, the pagan claim is that we are all responsible for our own happiness; and that if happiness is to be found anywhere at all, it’s to be found in this life, in this world, here and now. Therefore if by some bad turn you are unable to find your happiness in this life, for instance if a disease were to make your life so unbearable that its continuation would only prolong your suffering, then it is right to end the prolongation of your suffering.

That long guiding theme, that human happiness is to be found in this world if it is to be found at all, appears in nearly all the early Pagan philosophy: from Socrates– it’s in the Apology he made when he stood on trial for his life, on charges of blasphemy– to Porphyry and Plotinus and the last Pagan philosophers before they were all put out of work by Emperor Justinian.

But that’s a red herring anyway. For suppose that Augustine admitted that he misrepresented the Pagan view. It wouldn’t alter his view that “the supreme good” isn’t to be found in the embodied world anyway. It’s up there in Heaven:

If, then, we be asked what the city of God has to say upon these points, and, in the first place, what its opinion regarding the supreme good and evil is, it will reply that life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly…

As for those who have supposed that the sovereign good and evil are to be found in this life, and have placed it either in the soul or the body, or in both, or to speak more explicitly, either in pleasure or in virtue, or in both… all these have, with a marvellous shallowness, sought to find their blessedness in this life and in themselves. Contempt has been poured upon such ideas by the Truth, saying by the prophet, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (or, as the Apostle Paul cites the passage, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise”) “that they are vain.” (cite: ibid.)

So there you have it: the oldest documented account (that I could find) of the debate between these two points of view concerning the meaning and value of human life and death.

It’s interesting, I think, that the Supreme Court has sided with the Pagan view– interesting, because the decision was unanimous among the nine judges, six of whom, a clear majority, were appointed by Stephen Harper, our conservative Christian prime minister.

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Think Outside the Clickbox: Storytelling, Facebook, and HyperReality

A popular slogan of freedom and individualism goes: “Think Outside The Box”. But what is the box? Where are its edges? What does it really mean to think outside it– and does anyone really know how?

I’ve been thinking about this slogan for a long time. It is, after all, one of the things philosophers claim to be able to do better than anyone else. Facebook’s “real name” policy, and how it affected friends of mine, prompted me to think about it in a new way.

The policy requires people to use their legal names, that is, the names on their birth certificates, with their FB profiles. The company says that they want people to use their real name for safety reasons. There is some sense to this: I don’t want anyone using the shield of anonymity to stalk, harass, bully, or threaten me, nor to try to pull a scam on me with multiple sock-puppet accounts and an ongoing campaign of manipulation. (This actually happened to me.) FB’s intention may be to reduce bullying by removing that shield. Therein bigger the problem is the bullying, not the naming, of course, but I do acknowledge FB’s general point.

To which it may be objected: the intention might be sound, but the practical result is that Facebook has effectively claimed the right and the power to tell you who you are. There were people who people objected to the policy for that very reason. Some were artists who wanted to be known by their stage names, or writers who used a nom-de-plume. Some were transfolk who had already begun using their new gendered names although the legal process of changing their names was incomplete. Some wanted to be known by a chosen name for religious reasons, or personal reasons.

It may look as if I’m late to this party. Drag queens have already won the right to use their stage names on Facebook; they even gained an apology from the company. Similar concessions have been made for other groups.

Here I’d like to point out that even before the aforementioned controversy, Facebook has been telling you who you are from the moment you signed on to it: and even before the aforementioned “real name” policy, Facebook had been doing this to its users since its creation. So has every social network out there. All of them, without exception.

The nature of any computerized social network is that it requires users to describe themselves in ways that are mathematically quantifiable. A social network is not in the business of telling stories of people’s lives—however much they may make it appear otherwise, for instance with “year in review” features that create photo streams set to cheerful music and graphics. Rather, they are in the business of managing a database of information which they rent to advertisers—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else, for better or worse. This means the only kind of knowledge about you that interests them is mathematically quantifiable data. They want a fill-in-the-blank list with one’s age, hometown, employer, or school; they want a checklist of “interests” such as the movies, musicians, sports, and books one likes—literally, since there’s a button marked “like” attached to everything, with which you add data to the database. All of these things certainly are part of anyone’s identity: they are the elements with which we build the stories of our lives. Your social network, however, treats you as if this checklist of quantifiable facts is all that you are. You might be the one who decides what to check off the list, but they define the list. You are nothing more, and nothing else, than that which you fill into the blanks they provide. In other words, that checklist is your “box”: it’s what that aforementioned slogan invites you to “think outside of”.

Think being a geek makes you a healthy, nonconforming, unique individual? Think again– because you, too, have a checklist to fill.

Where once we used to say “You are not the car you drive“, we now need to say “You are not your Facebook profile.”

(Although, as an aside, I think it’s interesting that we use the word “profile” to describe this digitized identity. A profile, after all, is a two-dimensional image: it’s flat, and it doesn’t face you head-on. It’s a simulated person, not a “real” person. Tuck that away in your mind for later.)

I wonder if the trend among writers and artists and geeks to assert that human life is a story has emerged precisely as a rebellion against the mathematical quantification of identity by means of computer networks.

You find this proposition in pop culture. “The soul’s made of stories, not atoms,” says Doctor Smith to Clara in The Rings of Akhaten. Award-winning fantasy author Charles de Lint wrote, “We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time.” You find it in academia, too: the earliest instance of which that I have found appeared in phenomenologist Wilhelm Schapp’s In Geschichten Verstrickt (“Entangled in Stories”, 1953); then Barbara Hardy’s 1968 masterwork “Towards a Poetics of Fiction”, a chapter in Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, and Paul Ricoeur’s 3-volume monstrosity “Time and Narrative”. Here’s Ricoeur on why stories matter:

Our own existence cannot be separated from the account we can give of ourselves. It is in telling our own stories that we give ourselves an identity. We recognize ourselves in the stories we tell about ourselves. It makes little difference whether these stories are true or false, fiction as well as verifiable history provides us with an identity.

“History as Narrative and Practice,” Philosophy Today 29 (1979).

Stories are what we ultimately care about, from the personal to the political. Stories are the foundation of that pagan form of immortality, apotheosis. They’re the foundation of justice and the proceedings of courtroom trials: it is why we demand victim’s impact statements for certain kinds of crimes. It is why we establish Truth and Reconciliation commissions, with senior court judges, to record the experiences of people under dictatorships or periods of state-sponsored injustice: South Africa’s Apartheid, Canada’s residential schools.

So when Facebook and other social networks turns your story into a mathematically quantifiable database entry, they decide what story to tell, and they decide how to tell it. Your story becomes nothing more than a mere variation of what is ultimately a banal and conformist consumer product: an arrangement of selections in a pre-defined checklist of pre-approved possibilities. In effect, again, they tell you who you are.

Let me “up the drama” in this argument– because for the problem as so far described is still only the easy version of the problem. There’s a harder version, which I think is far more serious, and it goes like this: people in general often prefer the mathematically quantified database-version of their stories, the profile, the simulation, the “avatar”. Further: the more we treat that database-avatar as the real person, the more we may become entirely unable to tell the difference between the profile, and the real person who stands somewhere behind it. Philosopher Eugene Beaudrillard’s idea of the HyperReal is appearing in our computer networks now. Beaudrillard saw the hyper-real in places like theme parks and shopping malls (especially Disneyland!)– places where we find the pre-packaged, available-on-demand, safely unthreatening simulation of things, instead of the messy, complicated, demanding, unpredictable, and labour-intensive reality. Think of the theme park safari ride, where the robot alligator jumps out of the swamp at just the right moment, every time: he scares the children, but never truly threatens them. Whereas a “real” alligator on a “real” safari ride might not jump out of the swamp at all– it’s asleep somewhere else– or it might overturn the boat and kill someone. Better to go to the theme park version. Then trick ourselves into thinking we’ve seen the real thing.

Now, with the social networks the hyperreal can simulate human persons with the consent and collaboration of the persons so simulated, and eventually take their places. You read someone’s “About” info, and peruse their checklist of “likes”, and then you think you know who he is. We no longer speak with people, but with the masks they wear. And people actually want this. They deliberately choose it. They become unable to distinguish their masks from their faces.

And we might still call them free, if only they design their own masks– but they don’t. The network does.

We now find ourselves in a society which celebrates itself as a “free”, yet is composed of people who lead profoundly conformist lives. We defend our freedom of expression with extraordinary gusto and desperation, but we have so little to actually express.

We tell our stories with pixels now. But pixels are sanitized, airbrushed, catalogued, unthreatening, unsurprising. Even someone whose FB profile is graphic design of the word “Fuck!” conforms to the basic pre-defined user-experience layout that the nature of the network provides. Stories told face to face are complicated, messy, demanding, full of ‘différance‘, and the weird. Better to deal with the hyperreal data-man, not with the reality, if there is such a thing anymore: the real person is somewhere out there, a tattered shadow of what he imagines himself to be, and he clings for dear life to his sharper-focused hologram, without which he fears he will cease to matter.

Thus we adapt to our “box”, become existentially identified with it, become cognitively unable to think outside it. The theme park and the shopping mall of Beaudrillard’s argument has moved to the internet, into the “cloud”, and from there into people’s minds.

This rant is taken from notes I’ve made over the last few months, in preparation for a nonfiction book I’m writing. I just thought I’d test the idea out on you. Please use the comments section below to reply.

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