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Month: December 2016

Annus Horribilis

It has become cliché to bemoan this year of the calendar among liberal intellectuals with the two biggest news stories of the year being Brexit and President Trump. These losses laid bare the simple fact that history is not on a direct and inevitable march towards our own personal vision of society which will look back on us as the people “on the right side of history” and everyone who disagrees with us as awful backwards people who were always doomed to fail. Life simply does not work that way. It’s far too complex a game to “win” simply by having the right opinions on social matters. However, one who aspires towards being an infinite player seeks much more than to win titles. That means these temporary obstacles do not end play, but must be taken into play.

But even for those who aren’t disgruntled liberals, it’s hard to escape a sense of annus horribilis about the year coming to a close in twelve hours. Terrorist attacks and seemingly endless civil wars don’t discriminate based on political alignment. We must be okay with acknowledging that. But we must also avoid blaming the number on the calendar, or the alignment of the stars, or whatever other intangible scapegoat we can come up with. There are people who can make 2017 a better year. If you are looking for the nearest one, please check the nearest mirror.

Something worth keeping in mind. (source)

As for this blog, I intend to continue to use it as a platform to oppose toxic gaming culture, comment on various recreational games of the video or tabletop variety (because these can be an important part of who we are as people), and to continue to explore those non-recreational or “real life” topics as the games that they are. Solving the world’s problems remains out of my scope, but every little point of light goes a little way to banishing the darkness. I hope to be a small part of that. And I am quite certain that there will be many, many good things to be happy about in 2017.


What is a gift? A gift is different than an incentive. An incentive is not strictly quid pro quo, that’s a transaction. An incentive is freely given but with an expectation attached. For instance, in EVE Online this week I received a new ship as a gift from the owner of a player-owned corporation. If it were to come with the expectation that I join the corporation, this would not have been a gift. It would not be a transaction, as I would be required to take a specific action in exchange. In the case of an incentive, I am still not obligated to work with this corporation in any specific capacity for any specific length of time. However, it does come with an implicit ask. I would consider this to be of a much different nature than a gift in honour of a celebration. It would, after all, be somewhat tacky for me to give my fiancée a mundane household or kitchen appliance unless a particular desire for a certain item was expressed. The implication is that I expect her to use the item to do something for the benefit of the household. As it stands in EVE, though, the ship seemed to veer towards the side of being a gift because I wasn’t specifically asked to join the corporation, though I applied anyway. I will be writing more about corporations and the social side of that game as I continue the series in 2017.

Another example of an incentive is the recent news that the BC government is going to *ahem* “help” people, mostly in my age bracket, feel like real adults by giving them an incentive to buy real estate. This is anything but a gift, as it is so intricately tied to a future obligation. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will know that I’ve got some opinions on the meaning of the title of homeowner. Likewise, a “gift” from the Bank of Mom and Dad for this purpose is similarly an incentive to take a specific course of action, no matter how it’s dressed up. If they’ve got money to give, and your alternative plans to invest in your kid’s RESP and/or travel abroad and/or have a great big wedding and/or whatever else you would do with it just aren’t good enough, it’s an incentive. Don’t take my word for it, just please go ask someone who is qualified to give specific advice on financial matters before you offer or accept any “gifts” of this nature. And please, think twice before supporting a political party that is willing to play a political game like that, brazenly stoking the FOMO of my generation.

A gift is different than a perk. A perk is a small token of reward given to someone with an existing title. The winter jackets I received as service awards from companies I have worked for, company lunches, volunteer appreciation events… all of these relate to something accomplished in the past and point backward in time to what we have already done. I appreciate staff lunches and service award jackets as much as any working person, but these are not gifts from employers. If you receive something because of a title you hold, it’s likely a perk rather than a gift.

So what, then, is a true gift? It is one given without expectation and not as a reward. There can be a sense of obligation to give a gift of some kind, as it would be a little bit odd if I gave gifts to relatively distant friends and skipped one for my brother or my partner. That does not, however, invalidate the gifts I might give to these people as long as it’s not seen as an incentive or a perk. An ideal gift is one you would give regardless of the terms of your relationship with the recipient, and in an ideal relationship one would be happy to give gifts of an appropriate nature. Even if “giving gifts” is not your love language, there is likely some kind of non-material gift that someone you love would appreciate.

What does it mean to give or receive a gift?

Perhaps you were lying in bed on the night of the 21st of December, listening for the sound of hooves on your rooftop, wondering what gifts Woden has brought for the children as he rides through town on Sleipnir’s back. Perhaps tonight and tomorrow you will be contemplating the benevolence of a God who so loved the world He gave His only son to us. Maybe you are looking forward to the airing of grievances around the Festivus pole. Or maybe all your holidays are at other times of the year and you’re just looking forward to stat holiday pay. In any case, go ahead be grateful for those conditional gifts such as perks and incentives. But I implore you: celebrate and treasure the experience of giving and receiving true gifts. That’s something I think we can all do at this time of year.

Don’t forget to vote in the Steam awards for the “Test of Time” award today.

Not A Game

Dear Esther; this is not a game. Spoilers ahoy! On the recent occasion of celebrating the anniversary of my birth, my wonderful fiancée bought me a gift. She is not a video gamer, but set up a Steam account so that she could conveniently browse my wishlist as well as those of our friends. Yuletide gift shopping can be rather simple and convenient for people who like PC games. However, the item on my list she picked is something that people struggle to define. Is Dear Esther a game? Interactive fiction? A walking simulator? What is it? The best short answer I can come up with is “it is hauntingly beautiful.” It is a psychologically dense fictional story. But it’s not a game.

If the words “graphic novel” didn’t already refer to a specific kind of printed book, I might have considered using those words. It is not a finite game because there are no objectives to be met, titles to be won; with its boundaries it is finite but the essence of the game is missing. It is therefore as far from an infinite game as I can imagine, being decisively neither of those things. It is not interactive fiction, because although the viewer/listener controls the pace and direction of the camera, there is almost nothing to interact with. It’s not a simulator because it didn’t try to replicate a real world process or operation. It’s not a book or a movie. It comes in the form of a video game, but does not function as a video game. It’s just… a story. One I can more easily recommend than describe.

Night time on the abandoned Hebridean island where the story takes place. I loved the aesthetic throughout the experience.

When I said “almost” nothing to interact with, I was referring to one critical moment in my experience where I actually felt like I made a choice that affected how my experience was to play out. Ian Danskin, in his video Story Beats: Dear Esther, identifies the scene at the bottom of the pool as the critical part of the story where the viewer/listener experiences doubt over what is real and what is not. I don’t disagree with this, though I don’t think I found it as jarring as he did. In assuming the persona of the narrator, I immediately worried about my sanity and ability to perceive reality in about the first minute of play. It was when I saw the structural formula for ethanol scrawled in luminescent paint on the inside of a ruined shed. That’s just not normal. The picture above? That’s mostly normal for an abandoned island, save for the seemingly eternal candles that I certainly didn’t light. I was wondering what was real and what was not right from the start.

The scene at the bottom of the pool was, for me, the critical point because that is where I made the choice that mattered. Throughout the rest of the story I could choose which way to walk and what to look at, and indeed I ended up doing some unnecessary and unintentional backtracking when I missed where the path ahead is. I could loiter as long as I liked, but there was only one path for me to go forward on. Except at the bottom of the pool. I didn’t linger at the bottom, even for a minute. In-character as the narrator, I was still trying to piece together my own story. Yes, there was a lot of doubt over my grasp on reality, but even in the craziest parts I still felt somehow tethered to reality as I understood it. Finding the accident scene at the bottom of a pool in a cave was just too much for me. Too unreal. As soon as I saw what it was, my in-character reaction was along these lines. The first thing I did when I saw the scene of a street was swim right back up to the surface, which dropped me back into the relative reality of the island. I didn’t even bother to look at the car or anything else at the bottom of that pool. That is when Dear Esther felt most interactive, if not a game. This is where I wondered what this kind of storytelling medium could accomplish with something more interactive.

In the end, I enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone who likes thick psychological literature as well as people who are interested in storytelling itself. It is far from necessary to be a gamer to enjoy Dear Esther because it is not a game by any definition that I work with. As a lover of fiction, this is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy. I think my fiancée made a pretty good call on this one.

CAGEO: Fitting a Frigate

This is the third post in my series Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. You will see that I am now linking to a nifty new index page that you can access from the sidebar. The other thing you might notice is that this isn’t a Saturday feature. I will be doing some EVE posts during the week when I have something else in mind for Saturday, because I know not everyone wants to read about this one game all the time. Some of these extra posts won’t be as long or as detailed, but I will still be doing one for every two hours I actively play.

OK, enough housekeeping, let’s get to talking about the game.

When I last left off, I was docked in a station with a few hundred thousand ISK in my wallet and a beginner’s mining ship. This week I started running some industry missions for the career agent so that I could learn more aspects of the game, generate some income, and keep my skill training queue in motion. I am finding the learning curve is treating me well so far and not living up to the rumours. The first mining mission was neither hard to figure out nor was it a paint-by-numbers experience like the tutorial.

I had a little hiccup when my first mining ship, a Venture class ore miner, was told it did not have enough cargo capacity to complete the mission. I had to do a Google search to find out that this warning message was only considering the space available for items, and that being a specialized mining ship, my Venture had more than enough capacity specifically dedicated to hauling ore. Without the EVE forums just a few clicks away, I would not have been able to play this phase of the game according to the rules as I understood them. Fortunately, those who play this game have the ear of the demons who come when you call their name: the EVE community seems very responsive to anyone who is willing to engage with it. While the game may be very deep indeed, most questions one has can be answered in the forums if not the many Wikis, subreddits, etc. Simply by mentioning the game in my tweet on December 3, not having posted it anywhere in particular, I got a small spike in readership of this blog. I haven’t even reached out by posting on the forums yet, and already I know the community is there. That is really neat.

Anyway, it took me a while to figure out that the feldspar I mined in my first career agent task was supposed to be reprocessed into tritanum for my second task. I went back out to the asteroids looking for the finished product when all I had to do was refine the stuff I was already asked to do in the previous mission, which I could do while sitting in the station. Doing these little missions require a little bit more effort than the tutorial, but it’s still all about learning the basics. Eventually, though, I did get to the point where the industry career agent is offering me a mission in dangerous space. This is when I decided I needed to outfit the frigate hull I bought last week when thinking about pursuing the military agent. While I doubt the hostile NPC drones will actually present an existential threat to any beginner ship, I wanted to play with the idea of putting together the best ship I can with my small budget, even if it is a tad unnessecary. I ended up with a Blast class frigate, which I renamed Genesis because I enjoy naming ships rather than just having it designated by owner and class. I think it’s how the Star Trek fan inside of me imagines a science fiction character talking about his ship, rather than how in real life I refer to my automobile by make rather than by a name.

“Aleff Knoll’s Burst,” renamed Genesis.

As I am outfitting the ship it occurs to me that I can buy a few components to make it pack a little punch and be tougher than a child’s birthday party piñata. Not by much, being my first ship, but I figured I should make an effort. So I bought some upgrades for the Genesis which happened to be eight jumps away. I quickly figured out what this actually means: I have to actually go to the station where the part is to pick it up. This involved going out to the edge of “high sec” space, which worried me a little bit considering I hadn’t even got the skills and the ship upgrades I wanted to. The ones that I hope at least buy me a few additional seconds against beginner-level NPCs and other new players who aren’t well equipped for griefing guys like me. I was a little bit worried when I noticed the security rating on the system where I had to go for my new part. As it turns out, going from systems where the security rating is 1.0 (the highest) down to 0.5 is still considered “high security” space. I was relieved to know that I wasn’t taking as big a risk as I thought I was when I saw that security rating dropping. While high security is no guarantee that someone won’t try and blow up my ship for the lulz, it is at least comforting to know that the in-game police force will come harass them if they do.

And lastly, I find that I am cheating on my time limit, a little bit. One of the restrictions of being on a free account is that I can only have my character training three skills at one time, and the third skill must be scheduled to start within 24 hours. This means I could have been wasting oodles of training time (which increments in real-world time, not in-game time) if I didn’t go in and queue up more skills (which can be prerequisites for using cool new ships and components). So I’ve popped on for a couple minutes at a time each day outside my play time to keep the queue running and claim my Youil Festival gift crates. I expect this will calm down once my skills are up to the point where the next level is 7+ days away so I can leave it alone on any day when I am not actively playing. All of this to say, I am quite a fan of the balance CCP has achieved in giving me enough game for free that I want to check back in almost every day, but not too much for me to fail to see the value in subscribing and not necessarily drawing me in for huge amounts of time. I’ve got a brand new copy of Civ 6 sitting in my Steam inventory for when I am ready to risk having a video game attempt to eat my soul. I am at least saving my delve into that rabbit hole for an evening when I don’t have to work the next day.

CAGEO: A Measure of Property

This is the second post in my series Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. Today I will be talking about property, represented fundamentally in EVE Online by ISK. It’s the in-game currency which sort-of has a real world equivalent value. I say sort-of because CCP Games (the developer and publisher) forbids any sort of direct conversion of in-game currency to real money which, I assume, is done to cut down a little bit on exploitative farming. They do, however, let you convert your real money into in-game currency (one can buy a monthly subscription for about $15 USD, or Ƶ1,000,000,000 ISK at current market rates). That’s why people can estimate the dollar value of ships in EVE, such as the $10,000 keepstar that’s under attack as of ten minutes ago at the time of posting (18:50 UTC-Reykjavik).

Buying Aleff his first data analyzer.
Buying Aleff his first data analyzer blueprint. I’ve got about Ƶ400k to play with at this point, which is 0.004% of the ISK I would need to buy myself a month of “Omega State” time, which is the upgraded experience for paid subscribers.

In the first hour and a half of tutorial missions, the tutorial bot Aura taught Aleff Knoll how to buy blueprints in the market using ISK. Using such small amounts of money, and the fact that I have done nothing to earn it but follow the very simple instructions in the tutorial, means that I understand the process of exchanging currency for merchandise, but not the value of money – much like the kid handed a few dollars to buy an ice cream.

Fleet Commander Vadari, the quest-giver NPC from the tutorial missions for my faction (Minmatar), does come off a little overdone. The narrative serves as an adequate framing device, but it’s not going to be winning any awards. Which is perfectly OK, because this isn’t the game for people who are looking for witty dialogue (these people are better off browsing the Bioware catalogue). EVE Online is a game for people who are looking for the biggest, most player-driven sandbox in the world that has enough lore in the background to make it work. I can forgive a little NPC ham here and there. The only reason it really sticks out is that I know how little the challenge and accomplishments were despite the effusive praise being thrown at me. Indeed, the significance of property hinges upon being seen and recognized. But I can claim all of New Eden as my property, and nobody would recognize my title no matter what kind of hero Vadari thinks I will become.

Recruit, you have consistently BLOWN AWAY my expectations by demonstrating the ability to follow simple instructions and click on highlighted buttons! You are a legend!

“One reason for the necessity of a society is its role in ascribing and validating the titles to property” (Carse, p.47, Finite and Infinite Games). We can presume that at some point, the title to property will be enforced by coercive force. In the context of EVE, it is presumed that my ISK and everything I buy with ISK belongs to my character. It is therefore a measure of my titles, that is, the sum of the public recognition of all the little finite challenges I have won.

Titles to property can be enforced by coercion, but no amount of force can truly make a person acknowledge a title – this is voluntary. As V says in the 2005 film V for Vendetta, “stealing implies ownership; you can’t steal from the censor.” No matter what kind of coercive force the Norsefire regime could apply, nothing could possibly make V recognize their titles. If enough people with enough power come to agree with V, then the regime loses all their titles to all their property no matter what their laws say. In order for laws (and the coercive force backing those laws) to be truly effective, the owner must persuade others that the titles are legitimate.

Legitimacy of the title is based on how well the owners can show that it is compensatory. “There must be an equivalency between what the owners have given of themselves and what they have received from others by way of their titles” (Carse, p.47, Finite and Infinite Games).  And so, whether it’s my first frigate or a keepstar, in order for my to rightly consider a ship in EVE Online as property, it must be seen as appropriate compensation for the effort put into its acquisition. Although the game is more complex that a simple matter of property acquisition, it can be said that earning ISK and visibly consuming it by building bigger and more elaborate starships is one measure of how much I am winning the game. To get started on this road, I must therefore start acquiring currency.

In order to facilitate my accumulation of ISK, and get me started on the way to worthwhile measures of property, the end of the tutorial pointed me at some career agents.

Aleff’s first visit to a career agent.

It will be interesting to find out how my fun can be had in this area of the game. The ISK I earn from doing these career missions will represent something, whether it was “I completed a set of challenges for beginner players and am moving up the ladder” or “I put lots of time into grinding.” I hope for more of the former than the latter, as the grind can become a chore and I have more than enough of those to do offline.

I spent my last half hour of play time this week messing around with my skill training queue such that the valuable days in between sessions do not go to waste. Having training occur in real time rather than game time seems like a boon to players like me, whose characters can continue training while I am away for a significant amount of time. There are lots of guides out there, but I just started picking up whatever looked kind of useful. Bonus to shields? Sure, why not? I can specialize more later once I can actually understand those user guides. I will have to check in and see how things are going tomorrow, since I don’t think I will enjoy the time dilation I expect will be affecting the rest of today.

The Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online

MMO. The TLA that became famous shortly after I graduated from high school. Despite enjoying Warcraft III, I never picked up WoW because I felt that a game that never really ended wouldn’t be good for me. I had some reservations about being able to pay a monthly fee for something I could get too involved with. Indeed, the lifetime cost of a WoW account kept current from 2004 until now exceeds $2300. Which is fine, if in 12 years you’ve derived enough entertainment value from the game relative to how much one might spend on theatre tickets, sports/hobby equipment, board games, rule books and miniatures, etc. It’s not fine if the daily grind has long ago become more of a chore than a way to have fun, because you are paying to work. If you are going to do something monotonous that you don’t like (anymore), it’s nice to at least get paid for it.

My main fear, though, was not that I would waste money or even time. It was that I would get sucked into taking the game too seriously. I can look upon my time spent playing any other video game without a sense that the outcome still matters to me. The experience still matters to me, but not the score. The key concept here is that infinite players “enter into finite games with the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players.” (Carse, p.14, Finite and Infinite Games) Therefore, to enjoy infinite play, one must approach a game playfully rather than seriously.

And so, to prevent myself from taking this game too seriously (a pitfall I anticipate for a game derided by detractors as “spreadsheets in space”) I am introducing the following limitations on my play:

  1. I am going to start with an Alpha clone. This is EVE jargon for “free account.” This was a recently introduced feature to encourage expansion of the user base, with Omega clones being the characters associated with paid subscriptions. I am doing this at least initially to reduce the risk that money spent on this becomes a sunk cost which makes playing feel a little less voluntary. I am not ruling out the future possibility of a subscription, but this will come much later if at all.
  2. I am going to be decidedly casual. I am going to limit myself to two hours of active play time per week, even if I feel like I have the time and the desire to keep playing. This is being done to ensure the experience is applicable to people who have busy lives outside of video gaming. I would expect that playing EVE is a very different experience for people with lots of their time on their hands, and I want to focus on the experience of people who don’t. Remember, it’s a limit rather than a minimum.
  3. Every weekly play session comes with a blog post, but it won’t necessarily be my Saturday feature as it is today and will be next week. I assume that people reading this blog will also want to read about things other than EVE for the next few months, so I will keep on writing about other subjects at least 2-3 times per month.

The goal I have for this series is not to tell the readers of this series of posts how to play the game. Indeed, there are many resources readily available for that, which quite quickly delve into numbers and tables and that’s not something I will be doing at all. My goal is to provide a narrative about my experience as a casual Alpha with my thoughts on the gameplay as it relates to the philosophical concept of infinite play. A good narrative about the experience of playing EVE Online, rather than guides and references on how to do it, is something I haven’t yet found on the internet. That is what I hope to provide here.

Creating a mask to wear, the face of Aleff Knoll.
Creating a mask to wear, the face of Aleff Knoll.

I started this morning with the character creation screen, a common experience in video roleplaying games. I could have spent all day here. In the finite aspect of playing a game, play is theatrical rather than dramatic. No matter how trivial it seems, I like it when I get to choose my own name and have lots of options for the mask and costume I will wear. Do I try to represent myself or play as something else? I settled on going halfway, not the opposite in every way to my appearance but absolutely not a self-portrait either. I find it a little easier to separate the character from myself when I make the character physically different from me in one or more ways. I chose the name Aleff Knoll as a reference to Aleph Null, the smallest infinite cardinal number. What that means is explained in plain language by Michael Stevens (Vsauce) in his video “How To Count Past Infinity.” I imagine all of this physical appearance stuff to be trivial when it comes to the actual dramatic play of the game, but for some reason I can’t help getting engrossed in detailed character generators.

I will say this about the tutorial mission in my first hour and a half: it’s more intuitive than I thought it might be considering how fast many of the beginner guides to EVE go from “this is a science fiction game based on far-future space colonization” to “here is a table full of numbers.” There is a lot on the screen that I don’t know about in depth, but the experience so far has been relatively easy to follow. The plot seems a little overwrought given that I know a new character in this universe is a gnat in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t want to get too nitpicky. I know that it’s the open sandbox that makes the game popular, not the quality of the NPC dialogue.

At this point, I’ve just learned how to manufacture my first “civilian data analyzer” (which I imagine to be, in terms of computers, more or less this level of advancement) and am ready to start going on some beginner missions. But that will have to wait until next week, as my play time has expired for now.