Sleeping Dogs is a game I’ve already had the joy of discovering multiple times. First in 2012, when the game was released. I remember being fascinated by the idea of an open world sandbox set outside of the usual United States. Furthermore, it was being released by Square Enix, the same studio behind some of my favourite action games, Batman: Arkham City and Just Cause 2. However, it was a bit expensive for me to buy, so I decided I would wait until it went on sale. In 2013, a Steam sale came along, and I got ready to try the game, only to find my computer couldn’t run it. This was in the days before you could get a refund for Steam games, so I resigned it to the pile of games that, for some reason or another, I wouldn’t be playing. Fast forward to 2015, when a good friend of mine gave me his old graphics card. It may have been used, but it was still miles more advanced than anything my computer had. Dozens of games I couldn’t run in the past suddenly became available to me.
As you read on, you’ll get to know the story of Sleeping Dogs, a crime thriller set in modern day Hong Kong. You’ll also get to know the story of games in my library like Sleeping Dogs, what the game means to me, and specifically, the moment at which it stopped being just another game and became one of my absolute favourite games.
I picked up Arma II and all its various mission packs in a bundle during one of the Steam sales. If I had to guess at this exact moment, it would be the summer sale of 2014. Since then, across five different games, I have logged only 97 minutes. Arma 2 – Operation Arrowhead is just the first one to show up due to the random nature of Full Steam Ahead.
The Arma games are a series of military simulation games. They aim for a higher degree of realism in gameplay than say, the Call of Duty or Battlefield series, with features like bullet drop. The games and downloadable contents in the bundle included the Original Arma II, Combined Operations, British Armed Forces, Private Military Company, and Operation Arrowhead. These five different programs in my library vary in scale and in focus, with some adding new units and some adding whole new campaigns; however, all of these games are based off of the same initial programming, the same graphics, and the same core gameplay. Since I’m going to be encountering Arma II in some form or another four more times in the future of Full Steam Ahead, I want to try and cover some different ground with these posts. For the time being though, we will focus on the game at hand, Operation Arrowhead.
I have been thinking a lot lately about security and safety. In our non-fictional world we can’t stop talking about it. We bring our desire for security into our fiction-based games. After all, what is the point of defeating evil necromancers or eldritch space horrors if not to secure the safety of the ordinary good people in that fiction? Today I will be using an example from EVE Online to explain how risk cannot be eliminated while maintaining reward except by atrocity. There is a bit of a preamble, but don’t worry, I will as always ensure that I am writing in plain English rather than EVE-specific jargon (tooltips will be provided).
In our non-fictional world, safety and security are usually spoken of in positive terms. We generally want children to return from schools and employees to return from workplaces without serious or life threatening injuries or exposures. We expect to be able to walk out of our homes and not die by malicious action or careless negligence. Yet it is impossible to truly perfect our safety and security. Everyone who leaves their house consents to a level of acceptable risk. You know you could lose your life simply by walking out your door, but you do it anyway because the chances are low while the rewards are seemingly endless. You don’t proceed to run into opposing traffic because that kicks the level of risk into being unacceptable: being late for work is not worth your life. You feel safe enough, secure enough, that you would not go to bizarre lengths to drive the chances of something going wrong down to absolute zero. Yet that residual chance of a drunk driver defying the traffic safety rules and laws and causing you harm always remains no matter much more enforcement is applied. As a society we work out where to set the limits, and when we do well the risk is practically zero but not absolutely zero with as few restrictions on individual liberty as possible. We can chase that absolute all we want with ever-increasing zeal for draconian rule enforcement, but somehow we never get there. We know that if there is ever to be any reward, there is a non-zero risk.
Risk vs. reward lies at the core of the mechanics of the finite games we play. Our level of acceptable risk can go sky-high when there is no risk to our physical safety and no real money is involved. Where we are risk averse when it comes to the risk of termination of infinite play, we are perfectly happy to play finite games where we rush headlong into danger and get destroyed when we lose. The boundaries of the game provide a safe space for us to indulge the kind of risks that we would never take if the consequences were not contained within the game. We can construct terrible totalitarian regimes where no threat to our Civilization’s hegemony can go unanswered by military force. We can fly spaceships deep behind enemy lines knowing that we could be blown up at any time. We can take four points for twos at risk of losing our bonus on the top half of the Yathzee card. Depending on the game and the player’s style, finite games played for fun involve different risk profiles. Yet wherever our tolerance lands, we know that a game with rewards but no risks is completely broken.
So what happens when a player doesn’t understand this? This week I have a great example coming from New Eden, the fictional universe in which EVE Online takes place. Since the last time I wrote about this game, I took the plunge: got the subscription, joined a corporation, and moved out to null sec. Security here is different. I no longer rely on CONCORD’s omnipotent but reactionary justice. But I still read Miner Bumping with amusement. That is the blog I referred to in this post about emergent gameplay. Many days it’s more of the same: player in a mining ship in high security space gets blown up by a space mafia enforcer, space mafia engages in a little bit of light roleplaying (the blog being the central source for the in-game propaganda), the miner goes berserk and engages in toxic behaviour, the whole thing gets posted to James 315’s blog where the man himself makes entertaining wisecracks and reinforces his mythology. After a while that starts getting a little old, but then every few weeks something interesting and different happens. This last week Miner Bumping introduced us to a player named Starterrorprime (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This miniseries is exactly why I read that blog.
For those who don’t speak EVE jargon, here is a brief synopsis: dude approaches one of the most powerful groups in a very large game and offers to build their ships rather than pay into their racket. They’re like no, we build our own ships, please pay into our racket. He doesn’t want to, so he buggers off to the area of space (null sec) where CODE. doesn’t operate. Wants to sell ships on the open market to a powerful null sec alliance. The same ships they build themselves and give out to their members for free. He complains on the official forums when his plan for pre-ordained profits fails to materialize. Then he comes back to high sec and goes back to forums with his tale of woe and asking people to donate (in-game currency) to his for-profit enterprise. If he is doing this as a scam, that’s the most perfect EVE gameplay I have ever seen. But if he believes his own BS, if he believes that there is actually something wrong with the game when he can’t just roll in and start making profit at the expense of large groups, that’s where he has a really serious problem. The game would have a serious problem if it rewarded players who are looking to get risk-free rewards, but that’s not the case. If he keeps on trying to mine minerals and build ships out of those minerals in high security space, he is going to continue to face player pirates (CODE. and otherwise) and the heartless reality of the open market where much larger and more efficient operations will be able to undercut him. He is not ruining the game because he is unable to completely remove the risk that he will either get blown up or beaten in the ship market.
Now, if he wants safety and security and the opportunity to take progressively bigger risks for progressively better rewards, he can always give it a try in a different null sec alliance. Do what I did: inquire about who is recruiting, find a good bunch of guys to play with, and be there for the group when they call for help to defend fellow alliance mates. Be there for their team mining boosts, be there for the corporation-level small fleet activities. Sure, my killboard will show that I have lost many, many more ships after leaving the safety of high security space. But my ability to build up and participate in something bigger is far more secure than it would be without being a part of a team.
And this is where we finally get to the part about atrocity: assuming it’s not a swindle, what would it take for Starterrorprime to be able to realize his dream of making profit without interference from opposing players? Would CODE. need to be banned holus bolus? Would a single player be able to find a way to take down a decaying Pandemic Legion? To do this without astronomical risk would take a lot of power, but not just any kind of power: it must be accessible to him but not his opponents. It may not be impossible that he is simply that much of an exceptional player that he could eventually find the hidden path to becoming John Galt in space faster than anyone else, but it seems quite unlikely. How does a one-man corporation reliably take on the masses and win every time (on the battlefield or in the marketplace) when the masses are able to change strategy and have been at the game much longer than our new bro? It is easier to imagine this power coming from some kind of exploit which CCP would make a bannable offence as soon as they are made aware of it. In order for him to use an exploit to dominate very large groups of skilled and intelligent players he would need the developers on his side to allow the exploit to continue. This would be, within the boundaries of the game, an atrocity. Now let’s think about things other than video games: if I came up with a risk-free way to win at board and card games, nobody would want to play with me anymore. I would be banned from tournaments. Casinos would kick me out. In order to keep “winning” I would somehow need to force others to play with me, which is in some ways impossible. The “players” would not really be playing the game, they would be maintaining the facade of a game to keep me placated. I would have to keep changing the rules to keep myself on top, always. The more extreme the drive to zero risk / increasing rewards gets, the worse and more bizarre the situation would have to be in order to make it possible. This why guys like Starterrorprime must be allowed to lose. Hopefully they come back better next time with a little bit more humility and a better plan. Things would need to be really crazy for it to be any other way.
So, the next time you see an embittered player pleading for more safety and security, be wary of what they might have in mind. Are they looking to bend rules to create an unfair advantages for themselves? What would it cost everyone else to see that player get their way? Are they looking to cooperate with others towards a common goal, or to exploit the good will of others and climb to power on their backs? If that kind of behaviour is allowed in the game with a risk of failure, great. But if they have the means to eliminate risk entirely and still get the rewards, some kind of atrocity is sure to follow. If it’s in the context of a finite recreational game then maybe it is time to quit and do something else. If it’s someone who wants to eliminate risk to their real-life fortunes it is important that they are denied the means to make it happen.
Next week at this time I will be rather busy. Last year’s modest proposal has lead to next Saturday being my wedding day. I have said before that this blog will always be free; that you won’t ever be pestered to sign on to give me money via Patreon, etc. just for writing posts. That is still true. However, I did reserve the right to use the blog to promote other projects asking for your money. If you appreciate my work and want to contribute, I do have a suggestion. My fiancée and I have requested of our friends and family to not give us physical things as wedding gifts (we already have enough dishware, thanks) but instead to make a donation to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. So if you, wonderful reader, are the sort of person who’d be inclined to support my work right now please take that money and make that donation instead. To do this, please go to the Universal Hospital Foundation donation page and select “Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute” from the “designation” dropdown.
Almost Infinite will continue to publish while I am away, but comment moderation may be very slow. It should be fine if you have posted before, but new commenters may have to wait a while before their posts show up. And if you are wondering why to care about comment moderation when you don’t post any, I encourage you to make a change there. I hope everyone is enjoying Alastair’s series Full Steam Ahead which will return with “Arma II – Operation Arrowhead” on the 22nd.
Because July 1 falls on a Saturday this year, I would like to take a moment to salute my country on its 150th anniversary. I am, like almost everyone, predisposed to think highly of the country I was born in. But for me, there is more to my love of Canada. It’s more than just because it’s a really big mass of land of many different types.
If you’ve been paying attention to Canadian media (social and otherwise) then by now you will have heard a lot of critical messages asking what we are celebrating when other people have inhabited this land for many centuries prior to confederation. My answer to this is that Canada wasn’t Canada before it was founded, and it was the founding of the current country, the current society that I am celebrating, not the arrival of human civilization. That would push the date back several thousand years. But it’s Canada where my ancestors were able to settle and build a better life than they could have imagined under direct English rule or under Russia’s boot. The country they have built is one where we don’t require violent revolutions or election boycotts or resistance movements when our government is elected in a configuration we don’t like. We can get upset about it, but to change it we organize parties and win elections. This isn’t even as common in the world as we would like to think it is. We have an economic system that, though it fosters some structural inequalities, provides a very high quality of life for the general population. These are great things that we can be proud of.
But we know that there are things we should not be proud of. Japanese and Ukrainian internment, the Komagata Maru, the St. Louis, the head tax, residential schools, and the sixties scoop come to mind. To paraphrase John Oliver, Canada has had, and continues to have, endemic problems that need fixing. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud and not going to celebrate. Rather, it is because we talk about and try to do things about those problems that I love Canada. Other countries to to bizarre lengths to hide the blemishes on their historical records. We are not better than them for not having those problems on our record. If there is anything that sets Canada apart, it’s that we are baring rather than covering those faults. I may not be proud of the bad things, but I celebrate the fact that we are having the difficult conversations and working towards improvements. I am grateful that I live in a country where I have access to clean water, fresh food, non-exploitative employment, and world-class healthcare that I can afford. I know that not everybody in this country has the same access to those things but I believe in my fellow Canadians who are working to fix that. I am proud to live in a country that advocates for human rights even while it struggles to come to terms with its own history. I am free to support any political party I choose, then a few years later do everything I can to see that same party voted out of office. I am free to adopt any religion of my choosing, even if it’s not the majority religion or the one I was born into. I know other religious groups suffer far more discrimination than mine, but I am proud to be part of one such group that is actively working to support religious freedom for all. Nothing is perfect.
I can rant on this blog about all those imperfections and occasionally endorse or conjecture some small measure to improve things just a little bit. If all of these things aren’t worth celebrating, then I don’t know what is. Happy Canada Day.