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Empathy Is Not a Zero-sum Game

Fifteen men and one woman have left this world too soon. Local communities and national organizations alike have been showing up to support their families and others who are feeling the loss at a very personal level. The event is one of the saddest things I have heard in the news recently, while the response is one of the most heart-warming. It’s nice to know that we are a society that shares empathy and shows support in dark times.

Unfortunately, not everyone is showing up in the spirit of empathy. An online harassment campaign has started against Nora Loreto, a freelance journalist who simply asked a question about discrepancies in how we as a society respond to tragedies. It was a valid point that didn’t necessarily have to be made at the time the tweet was posted. However, the explosive maliciousness that immediately followed suggests to me that she said something that needed to be said. Jumping so quickly at the chance to destroy an opponent with a torrent of death threats and verbal abuse is not something that decent and respectful people do. It’s what angry and defensive people do. If our outpouring of support was not as selective as it is then there would be no such rage.

How we react to a faux-pas on social media platforms varies widely depending on who is posting it.

We are not only selective in our empathy, but also in how we respond to a social media faux-pas. I know this because I am every bit as guilty as Loreto is of being slightly ill-timed in my tweeting. I’m being dragged on Stalinist Twitter right now for mentioning that it’s a worthless endeavour to try to compare genocides to one another as they are all the worst. I would stand by that statement on any other day, but I should not have brought up the Holodomor in the context of a post about Yom HaShoah. While it might not have been the worst possible example of trivializing whataboutism, it was still inappropriate. It was a mistake for me to let my opinionated self go unrestrained by my wiser and more prudent self. I should not have said anything, but I did. I posted a tweet that was ill-advised — as a white man who was challenging the prejudices of the far left (or far right to the extent that some of those may be their sock puppets). Sure, they said my opinion doesn’t count. Big deal. What are the chances that this incident will cause right-wing politicians to pluck me out of obscurity for Two Minutes Hate? How likely is it that I am going to receive a barrage of death threats? Harassing phone calls? Attempts to destroy my career? Practically zero chance of any of that. These things are happening to a white woman who challenged the biases within her own society, but are unlikely to happen to me. The fact that we both did the same thing and only she gets mobbed shows that our societal outrage is selective.

So, do I think Loreto would have been wise to hold onto that opinion for a few weeks? Yes. Just as I would have been wiser not to take the bait on my Twitter news feed. But here is the thing: nobody honours the memory of the deceased and injured by engaging in online harassment. Nobody honours the victims of the worst crimes against humanity by denying and justifying other cases. None of these are a zero-sum game when it comes to empathy. We may be limited in our ability to provide dollars to everyone we would like to, but we are not so limited in care and compassion unless we choose to be. And those choices will reflect the kind of people we are, so I hope that we choose wisely by showing kindness and empathy to all sorts of people who are grieving a loss and also to people who make mistakes on Twitter.

Characters Need Motivation

There are many kinds of people in any given world. Some are eager to grab the spotlight, while others prefer to mind their own business. Many of the tabletop RPG characters I play tend somewhat towards the latter. I admit that resisting a call to adventure doesn’t make it easy for a DM trying to do her best to get a character into the adventure, but I don’t feel like everyone needs to be desperate to pursue every pickpocket or take up the offer of every huckster that crosses their path just because that’s where the plot hooks are. Some characters have a little bit more Bilbo Baggins in them and need a reason to go if they’re not taken by force into the adventure. The rules of improv tell us to say “yes” to things, but I think sometimes a little bit of pushback from a player who cannot figure out an in-character reason to leave their normal life is not necessarily detrimental. That is, if you want to have characters that aren’t aggressively extroverted busybodies looking to get in the centre of whatever might be happening.

A simple bar brawl probably won’t convince the owner to leave, but if the whole bar burns down…

So, what can we do on the fly if a player character owns a bar but decides to let the brooding man in the corner enjoy his drink in privacy and would like nothing more than to continue operating the establishment?

  1. The hooded figure could use coercive force to remove the bartender from his daily business. This could be physical but doesn’t have to be. Being threatened by a powerful guild that can shut the character’s normal activities down can shake them out of their desire to continue doing what they normally do. The character wasn’t out to get into an adventure, but ends up there due to a situation beyond his control.
  2. Take something important from the character. A paltry amount of money isn’t good enough. If it is money or assets then it has to threaten the livelihood of the character to force them into action. If my character’s business relies on a specific set of tools, then having those stolen is a lot more important than his wallet. Or perhaps it is something with sentimental value. Whatever the case may be, a character can be motivated to go on an adventure if it’s too urgent and important to rely on filing a report with the town guard.
  3. Threaten something important to the character. It does not have to be a coercive and malicious threat. But if the character’s family lives nearby and a plague of the undead is on the rise then she may feel more compelled to join an adventuring party than if it was just a chance encounter with some NPC who spends his time approaching strangers in taverns with job offers. Defend a country, defend a loved one, defend a philosophical ideal. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s more important than going to work the next day.
  4. Tease the character with the offer of a solution to a problem. Perhaps the character or a loved one is sick or in need of significant assistance in some way. He may be motivated to take a hiatus from running his business if selling mead isn’t bringing in enough money, or if all the gold in the world can’t fix a problem it may be an offer of specialized expert assistance. There is a need that cannot be met by continuing to keep ale flowing once the local porters are done work for the day.

These don’t have to be elaborately crafted storylines in order to work. They just need to give a player a plausible reason to say “yes” to the adventure for reasons other than it being necessary to advance the plot. The player can make it easier by offering up some basic detail about the character’s life that would work well with an improvised hook. As the DM I may be really proud of my mysterious stranger NPC, but I can’t count on the players being interested enough in her to drop everything and follow along. If that stranger can do one of those four things then a reluctant hero may decide that it’s time to close up shop and go defeat an adversary. I may even have to abandon that mysterious stranger angle for something else. It’s a bit more work to do it that way, but I think it’s well worth trying to avoid but thou must situations.

Full Steam Ahead – Kerbal Space Program

Today’s game is the first brought to you by Steam-Powered Hope! Plenty of thanks to Charles, who decided he wanted to see an episode about Kerbal Space Program (previously scheduled for game #101) right now, and made a donation to the Calgary Distress Centre. If you want to see a specific game on Full Steam Ahead, ask me for details!

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours

One of the appealing things about many games is the way they can show me different experiences. For a little while, being a greengrocer with a penchant for games slides on to the backburner, and I can experience something very different. We’ve already seen, in earlier posts, games that put me in the shoes of an undercover policeman, and kung fu practitioner, a contract mercenary, and many others.

In most games, the designers are interested in making these experiences easier than they would be in real life. By improving controls, or providing easy to read visual cues, or perhaps including a comprehensive, easy to understand tutorial, game designers put a lot of work into making these experiences easier to jump into, our more fun to play.

Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s not that the designers didn’t care, it’s just that they cared more about providing an accurate rocket science simulator. The good news is that they succeeded. The bad news is that rocket science is very, very hard.

Damn, kind of regretting using Fly Me To The Moon lyrics last episode.

Reader Player One

Two years ago I picked up a novel that I got for free in a Loot Crate as a way to pass the time in airports and on planes while going on vacation. That book was Ready Player One. I wrote one of my first blog posts about it, since I had enjoyed the experience and it had presented some ideas that I thought were kind of neat. I figured that Ready Player One was going to remain fairly obscure; a love letter to geek culture that only people who like to analyze geek culture will pick up. We can see now that I was wrong. Insignificant novels rarely get remade as movies by Steven Spielberg.

I have noticed that there is an undercurrent of hate for RPO and I don’t think it’s entirely justified. It’s not very loud at all on the mainstream media hype machine. If everything you know about RPO is what you learned when you saw the trailer at the theatre when you were there to see Black Panther then it might even surprise you that there are people who aren’t stoked to go see this film. But a quick search of Twitter will show you that in between the fanboys, some people see it as a mirror of the rebirth of mainstream fascism. From what I can gather, the sharpest criticism for RPO falls into one or more of these categories:

  1. The pop culture references are empty and the prose is indulgent, therefore the novel is trash.
  2. The book doesn’t address the dysfunctional relationships that white guys have with their fandoms.
  3. It elevates the “nerd” stereotype into places that it shouldn’t be.
  4. Not having read the book, just complaining about something like the fact that there is imagery of an Iron Giant fighting others and that’s totally wrong.

My intention is to respond to these in a way that doesn’t flinch at the bad parts, but does explain why my experience as the reader was a good one that will drive me to go see the film.

Damaging Our Trust In The Platform

At one time I was an anti-Steam Luddite. I was used to an old model of game distribution whereby a person would go to a store, pick up a disc, bring it home, and the household would be able to play the game. I resented the very notion that my dad, my brother, and myself would EACH have to pay ~$70 for the game we wanted to play. But, as the platform grew, their extreme discounts made things more affordable, and when I was no longer living in the same house as family members with whom I might want to share I was primed for my eventual turn: there was no other way to play Civilization V. It was a choice between Steam and no Civ. We know how that turned out.

So, now the majority of the video games I play are on Steam. Ever since the Full Steam Ahead series started on this blog, at least half of the content here has been related to games that were purchased and played through the increasingly ubiquitous platform. As far as gaming and content goes, I have come to put a lot of trust in Valve’s Steam. Unfortunately, they have chosen to punch a hole in that trust. As of this morning, Super Seducer was still available on the Steam Store. In case you haven’t heard, it’s supposedly a dating sim. I didn’t think I would be writing about this genre again so soon. It’s not normally my thing. But this goes beyond things I personally don’t like. It’s very, very bad. It basically teaches men not to take “no” for an answer, and to pursue in the face of requests to desist. This “game” should not be given a platform, and I already trust Steam less because it’s been available for some time now. Sony’s PlayStation has done the right thing in not publishing this. Good on them.

This won’t be a platform for normalizing stalker behaviour. Steam shouldn’t be either.

Now, before anyone starts shouting “FREEZE PEACH!” at me, let me be very clear: this is not about banning the existence of this game, nor using state-sanctioned coercive force against La Ruina. This is about a private platform that has many times exercised its right to limit the content that they provide on their service. They did so in 2012 when they pulled Seduce Me, in 2014 when the developer of Paranautical Activity tweeted a death threat at the president of Valve, in 2015 when a GLBT murder simulator was removed within hours, in 2016 when Digital Homicide was deemed to be hostile to customers and when a whites-only mod came our for Stellaris, and more recently when they pulled almost 200 “spam” games which were evidently an attempt to abuse the trading card market. The point here is that they have made no pretence that their service is a completely free pipe like the internet in general.

So, if Valve does remove games from Steam for various reasons, then I see no reason why they should permit this. If they don’t want sexual content, it’s like Seduce Me. If they don’t want hostility towards their customers, they need to remember that women use Steam too. If normalizing the stalking behaviour advocated by the incredibly toxic PUA community is acceptable under their terms and conditions, it’s time to make a change. If they are not willing to do this, it is time to reconsider how much we trust their platform. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, everything runs on trust. There was a video game industry before Steam. There will probably be one after Steam. How long that period of time is may depend on how much we can trust the content on their platform.

Full Steam Ahead – Mass Effect

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 50 Hours

Generally, I assume that the average reader of Almost Infinite is somewhat well-versed in video games and gaming culture. That makes some parts of my writing very easy, because a lot of you will understand what I’m talking about without me going into what feels like extraneous detail. While my Steam library admittedly contains some really weird options, chances are a few of you have played a few of the games I’ve already covered. If I’m being perfectly honest, chances are that a lot of you have probably played the game in question.

Today is one of those rare days that I really hope you aren’t familiar with the game I’m talking about. I am actually quite excited by the prospect of introducing something completely new to even a small minority of our readers, because Mass Effect really is something you should jump into blind.

Can we take a second to appreciate this wordmark? The font, the planetary curve, just… yay.

Full Steam Ahead – Half-Life 2: Episode 1

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours

I’m not entirely sure why I chose to tackle my Steam library in random order. Variety perhaps. For the most part, this hasn’t negatively affected how I play these games. After all, most of the games I’ve played have been relatively self-contained. One doesn’t always need to play the preceding games in the series to understand what is happening in current game.

However, I think I would rather not be dropped in the middle of a story-arc as complicated as that of Half-Life.

Welp, you don’t always get what you want. Welcome to the confusingly titled Half-Life 2: Episode 1.

It is possible that loCity 17 has seen better days.

Without Atrocity, Trust

Events in the news over the past few weeks have brought my mind back to a post I wrote on July 15, 2017 called Safety, Security, Atrocity. Some of the recent events inflamed long-standing tensions, which I am not going to name specifically because I will not be able to address those properly today. I also just finished reading Crash Override, which is a great book for anyone who cares about online culture (and if you are reading this, that means you.) The big idea that links that post to the stuff I am thinking about now is that the safety and security that we can reasonable and ethically achieve is 100% based on trust. Not consequences, checks and balances, or coercion. Some of these may be useful tools in protecting trust, but at the end of the day there is no prison, no police force, no banhammer, no government that can ever replace trust. It is therefore pointless to double-down on any of those things unless there is a reasonable expectation that trust may be restored in the process.

Any group of people who share beliefs and material interests looks to community leaders for validation and guidance. Some leaders are officially designated as such, others lead with their ideas and actions. But without trust, none of their titles matter. It does not matter how many men call themselves “captain” if none of them have the necessary trust invested in them. Without any leaders at all, movements fizzle out. This is the main reason that Wall Street is no longer Occupied.

“We may not have enough troops or ships or weapons, but we have plenty of captains!”

So take a look at your leaders. Are they risking something for standing up for what is right or are they sowing mistrust? The “mirror universe” plot device in various Star Trek series is a handy way to examine the importance of trust. In the regular canon we generally have diverse crews of people who implicitly trust one another as they struggle against foes or the environment. But in the opposite-world of the mirror universe there is hardly any trust to be found. The “evil” versions of the leaders from the mirror universe such as Intendant Kira or Smiley O’Brien work on the assumption that nobody trusts anybody, so it never occurs to them that enforcing a draconian labour system that resembles a slave plantation or kidnapping a child and holding them for ransom are the wrong things to do. Every time trust is given and others empowered, their security is threatened. What a person is willing to trade for security tells you a lot about their character, and the character of the leaders that your community follows reflects on the community itself.

Leadership alone cannot build a community. Participation is every bit as important if not more so. For those of us who are comfortable enough to do so, being visible in our participation in rallies and online spaces sends a message to the less committed about what is socially acceptable. Take a look at what members of your community are saying and doing. If you feel more compelled to make excuses for them than to cheer them on, then it is probably a good idea to be careful with your trust and be selective in your participation. A community can never force an individual to participate in it.

So, as I think about how things can change for the better I am thinking not just what’s wrong today or where we can get to by tomorrow. I am thinking about how to keep the wind blowing in the right direction. And right now the thing that my mind continues to return to again and again is that there is no such thing as laws or rules that exist without trust. There is no way to force trust, and it necessarily means giving up on the idea of perfect security. The only way that we can change society for the better is by building trust; societal change can be achieved by brute force but it won’t be for the better.

An Unlikely Romance

Imagine a video game that practically begs me to write about it on this blog. What does it look like? Probably some kind of fantasy or science fiction lore that makes clever game mechanics seem like they belong in play. It is probably ripe for social commentary, has an interesting economic system, and allows a vast array of different play styles for any kind of player. It would most likely involve many players and include choices about what kind of character a player wants to be. Good or evil? Violent or pacifist? Nice or jerk? Any/all combinations would be possible.

Now imagine the absolute opposite of that game. You are probably imagining something closer to Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator than to the games I usually write about. But today, I am going to be writing about playing Dream Daddy precisely because it’s so different than anything I would normally pick up. I received it as a gift in late 2017, and now figure that it’s a good time (around Valentine’s Day) to do something related to romance.

First, I am going to admit to some not entirely justified assumptions I had going in. Dating simulator, I thought, am I some kind of angry basement troll looking to dull his loneliness by playing a game where I can pretend to practice basic decency and be duly rewarded with my very own anime waifu? There are probably many counter-examples, but that’s what I assumed about the genre. When I saw the gift in my Steam inventory I had to look at the store page, and it immediately struck me: this looks way too gay to appeal to that stereotype. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed to have my wife catching me playing this in the same way that I might if I was playing Sakura Spirit or something with an aesthetic like that. So I decided to give it a shot.

The first thing I noticed is that while “gay” and “dating sim” aren’t usually keywords that tag me as the target demographic, there is still an awful lot of fan service for me in there. Corny puns, clever meta-jokes, and pop culture references relevant to the late 1990s had me laughing several times in my first play session. It plays out like an interactive novel but unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home there isn’t much opportunity to linger on some things and skip others even as I progress through a linear plot. Most of my first session was spent clicking through endless dialogue and exposition. It was charming, but kind of odd that not a day after moving into my new neighbourhood it starts raining men.

Hallelujah!

The first encounter I chose after the long introduction made it seem like I could not possibly mess this up, that I was just being offered the chance to say three different nice things. However, upon exploring more of the different options from the main “dadbook” screen, I found that there are some things the player-dad can do that will upset one of his new friends. I didn’t do too badly at that, though I was miserable at most of the minigames and the trivia contest. Things got a bit heavy when pursuing the Joeseph storyline and I had to quit for the day. I appreciated the effective use of the fade-to-black to avoid being too explicit on the intimacy, but the game did not pull any punches when it came to getting real about depression and societal expectations of men. It’s not all cheery colour palettes and cheesy jokes.

From what I can conclude so far, not having played through every possible ending, I would say that it was one of the strangest games I have played but it was rather entertaining. I had many laughs. But no matter how much xennial bait and silly puns that a person could cram into an interactive narrative, I don’t think I will be returning to this genre any time soon. I can, however, say that I should be better about making assumptions because this was far more fun than I would have assumed it could be.

Full Steam Ahead: The Ship

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 11 minutes

If you’ve read my author profile on this blog, you’re aware that I’m a fan of games of all sorts. In board games, I’ve noticed an increased popularity of hidden-role games. Games like Love Letter, Two Rooms and a Boom, and Spyfall all involve keeping your identity and intentions secret from the other players in the room or at the table. These games often have very easy-to-learn rules, and most of the games mechanical weight is carried by the players’ abilities to bluff, act, and occasionally straight up lie to their friends.

One hidden role game that goes a long way back is known, at least to me, as Assassins. This game, often played over the course of days or even weeks, sees all the players assigned a hitlist of other players they need to “kill”. In the version I was familiar with, the “kills” were done with plastic spoons; contact with another player’s spoon meant “death”. However, if you were caught, you were penalized in some way, usually being forced into a makeshift “jail”, or being forced to forfeit your spoon.

What if the game was played on a luxury cruise ship in the 1920s? What if the game was organized by a multi-millionaire megalomaniac? What if, instead of “killing” other players with spoons, you actually killed with a bevy of ludicrously dangerous weapons?

If the preceding question pique your interest even slightly, The Ship might be of interest to you.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII’m sailiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay…