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Category: Definitions


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.

White People Talking

In this post I’m going more game-of-life, philosophical, and political than usual. A few things have happened in the past few days: my local university had another case of deplorable posters. Twitter user @jaythenerdkid posted an excellent sequence of tweets on how social justice work isn’t always just. Another man in the USA was executed by police for the crime of being black. About all of these things, white people will be talking. We will be talking about racism in the media, about policing, about political correctness, about what makes “us” good white people as opposed to those “bad” ones for whom making America great again is making it white again. Last week I wrote about when it is better to not play than it is to win or lose. This week I will talk about what that means in some very serious games.

Full disclosure: I am white/cis male/straight/middle income/no specific disabilities. When I speak of “white people” I am not talking about someone else. I’m talking about myself, most of my friends and family, and others who make up the majority in Anglo-North America.

Yep, this is basically what all my dinner parties look like while we discuss the world’s problems.

One bad habit white people have is to to criticize “political correctness” as a failing. It may be true that there is something there to criticize if you use a very specific definition of it, but the way the term is thrown around generally doesn’t refer to a nuanced critique of insincere theatrical performance of opposition to bigotry. In general, being opposed to “political correctness” equates to the deliberate normalization of dehumanizing terms and false assertions against anyone who doesn’t fit that demographic I belong to. It requires a person to believe that life is a finite, zero-sum game in which the winners rightfully exploit the losers, and it’s right to put winning before any other ethical principle. If it wasn’t white people doing the winning, then we’d be doing the losing according to this wildly defective way of thinking. When talking to someone who rants about “political correctness” it is not worth trying to win arguments with then because the facts won’t matter when fundamental principles clash. I implore my fellow white people to choose better principles, and to “win” against those who choose the zero-sum game by depriving them of an audience rather than pummelling them into submission. Agreeing to and playing by their rules will not lead to anything good.

But what about those people, often white self-styled “progressives” who seem to have appointed themselves the language police? The ones who delight in the gotcha moments of showing how good they are at finding and denouncing bad white people for using the wrong words and phrases. They aren’t interested in the messy work of improving our society and our culture. Their concern is about burnishing their personal reputations and those of the institutions they manage. This is what I think @jaythenerdkid was calling out in that series of tweets. Criticism and discussion should be about understanding and improving the societal and cultural environments in which we live together, not about sorting out the good people from the bad. The winners from the losers. Being an even better racist prover than Señor Chang. This is a game we should not play.

I agree with her that it is particularly odious for a white person to seek the mantle of the saviour, as if it is possible for us to be so liberal, so progressive, so free of the “problematic” that we can solve all the others’problems without having to actually make any room for the people for whom we presume to speak. That’s just not the way it works. Sure, I’m white and I here I am saying anti-racist things, but I claim only to speak for myself and not for the people who suffer from systemic prejudice. They can speak for themselves. They don’t need me to speak for them. My responsibility is to speak for myself and into the spaces which they do not have access. I am concerned with keeping my own house in order, not in winning titles.

So, what does that have to do with white people talking about acts of evil, both small and large? I think we can reasonably come to two conclusions:

  1. White people must accept that there are some ugly realities about our society and culture and that it is our responsibility to do our part in making things better. A failure to do so, and seeking to debate the problem out of existence, doesn’t just perpetuate the unjustified termination of life. It ensures that such happens in unheard silence, and that is evil.
  2. Doing our part to make things better doesn’t mean getting into a pissing contest to see who is the wokest white guy there ever was. In fact, that is counter-productive. Don’t even try. People of colour don’t owe you a stamp of approval for proving yourself worthy. You don’t even need one in order to work on making things better, so just keep making it awkward anyway. If you have the chance to do good without getting an award for doing so, just do it.

So, that’s me, a white person talking about racism. Take from it what you will, feel free to criticize me all you like, but whatever you do please don’t stay silent while this kind of thing keeps on happening. The problems large and small are all getting much harder to ignore. If we keep going the way we are going, allowing people to be dehumanized and killed in silence, we’re gonna have a bad time.

First Impressions in Game Worlds

“A finite game takes place in a world… A world provides an absolute reference without which the time, place, and participants make no sense.” – James Carse, pp. 89-90, Finite and Infinite Games

There is a lot that can be said about the importance of the world in a game. Today I will be talking about the importance of visual elements in making first impressions, and one of the first games where the world itself made a big impression on me, Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle.

First, let me be clear about what I mean by “world.” This word is often used as a synonym for the planet Earth, but that’s not helpful for looking at the worlds that games take place in. The world, to any given group of humans, is how we collectively make sense of what we see around us. This is how you can have a “world economy” or a “world war” or a “western world” that do not encompass the entire planet Earth. Some of those come very close, while some exclude most of the planet. The point is, the world is everything a game’s audience could possibly interact with in the context of playing that game. In Pong, the world is comprised by two paddles, a ball, a centre line, a scoreboard, and the boundaries of the screen. It is not a terribly compelling world, but it does not detract from the game because it’s a simple amusement; people don’t play Pong to escape into another world. If a game is designed to be large and meaningful in some way, the world needs to be many times more complex and engaging than that.

It’s not just a matter of appealing graphics, nor the absence of apparent boundaries that make a world seem interesting right from the get-go. Visual elements (such as screen graphics, printed cards, boards, tokens, etc.) are usually the first thing that introduce a player to a world. That’s why they’re not just there for the wow factor or to make marketing easier, though they do help with those things too. The look of a game is the first tool the audience gets for making sense of the game’s world.

That brings me to one of the first video games I ever played a lot of, the Commander Keen series. For those of you who haven’t reached age level 30 by now, this was an episodic series of games for the PC in the early 1990s, a time when PC gaming was a niche interest compared to the popular consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis. I, however, was not among the kids my age who had those consoles in their homes. We had no consoles newer than the Intellivision until I was in grade seven and the age of the Nintendo 64 had arrived. I did not grow up playing Sonic, Super Mario Brothers, or Metroid. My PC gaming nostalgia is brought to you today by the letters D, O, and S. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Ultima Underworld — these are the games I remember from the 1990s. I played plenty of demos and shareware, but Keen was to me what Link or Mario was to most gamers close to my age. And it was playing Commander Keen that gave me the first experience of truly appreciating the world in a video game based on the visual elements of the levels.

Mars, as presented in episode one of the Vorticons trilogy. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as lime green.
Mars, as presented in “Marooned on Mars,” episode one of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Most of the game looks a lot like this. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as teal and lime green. This blog does not receive any advertising revenue from multinational beverage corporations.

Before the age of DLC, there was a way that game developers could release part of a game and then charge for the rest. It was called shareware. The additional content, whether branded as sequels or additional episodes, were not truly distinct games. You copied a game for free, then you (were expected to) pay for the remainder of the content beyond what the developer deemed to be enough of a teaser. Commander Keen is ostensibly a series of six episodes, but it’s really two games: the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy and the Goodbye Galaxy trilogy. For the sake of simplicity, I am counting Aliens Ate My Babysitter in the second trilogy because it plays the same as episodes 4 and 5 even though there were differences in story arc and license/distribution that set it apart from episodes four and five. Six episodes, two distinct games. At one point I had both of the shareware episodes: “Marooned on Mars” (#1) and “Secret of the Oracle” (#4). I was offered a choice: my parents would pay to complete one trilogy and not the other. I had to choose between sticking to the chronological order and continuing Invasion of the Vorticons, or getting the rest of the newer games. I chose the latter. If you asked me at the time, I would have told you it was for aesthetic reasons. I wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s what I would have meant when I said “better graphics.” It’s actually quite remarkable how far things advanced between December 1990 and December 1991. But the appeal is not just in the fact that the Mars presented in “Marooned on Mars”looks kind of like a maze made of molded plastic, while the Shadowlands of “Secret of the Oracle” contain diverse biomes rendered in stunning 256-colour VGA graphics.

It’s apparent when you walk around the first few levels in Secret of the Oracle. The backgrounds imply a bigger world than the maze you are currently navigating. You can go in and out of doors. And most strikingly, there is a new feature: you can look up, look down, and see that are other areas in the level where life goes on without you needing to be there, right in the middle of the screen. The difference a year makes is not just in aesthetics, but also in the little mechanics that help me believe the world exists outside of the boundaries of my screen.

The rich visual splendour of 256-colour VGA graphics make a good impression. The picture shows the same stretch of path looking up and looking down.
This game was released one year after the game pictured above. Shown here is same stretch of path with Commander Keen looking up and looking down.

The visual elements of a game’s world doesn’t have to involve sprawling, highly detailed landscapes in order to make a good impression. The blocky worlds of Minecraft and Terraria do just fine without realism. If the game world gives me the tools I need to feel like my place in it is meaningful and relevant, then it becomes something I can get invested in. Sometimes that can involve beautifully rendered landscapes with the appearance of horizons. Sometimes that can involve something as simple as being able to look up and look down. And so, to conclude, I leave you with the recreation of the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket I built in a Terraria world I named Gnosticus IV. The concept of a world in that game is really neat, but will have to wait for a future post.

The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.
The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.


Roles, Titles, Names, and Fatherhood

In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse defines some dichotomies other than finite vs. infinite in order to speak more clearly to real life situations, particularly things that fall outside of what we normally call a game (recreational, relatively inconsequential pastimes) but can still be understood with a broad enough definition.  Things like war and romance. I find that thinking of these aspects of life in terms of games is not a purely intellectual exercise. It helps me make sense of real-life things and events, provides a neat way to discuss ideas with others, and I think that how we live life influences the kind of smaller games we play and those in turn loop back and influence how we live.

One of these dichotomies he draws is between the theatrical and the dramatic. Like finite and infinite, one of these is not better or more important than the other. We are both of these things in everyday life. Theatre is analogous to the finite: there is a beginning, a sequence of events, and an outcome. Drama, in this context, is analogous to the infinite: it is not confined to specific points in time or specific outcomes. Theatre is dramatic while you are experiencing it, because the outcome is not yet known. Once the actions have been taken and can be fixed into a narrative or a script it becomes theatre. In order to play theatrically, a person assumes a role. In order to play dramatically, a person does or becomes the role.

For example, last Sunday was Father’s Day in Canada. In order for the designated celebration day to be about more than increasing sales figures for greeting cards, fashion accessories, and hardware store gift certificates it is necessary for us to wonder what a father is and why we should celebrate that. It is abundantly clear that siring offspring does not qualify a man as a father. The men we celebrate are often stepfathers, adoptive fathers, or other father figures. To be celebrated as a “real” or “true” father a man must assume the role of father and all that entails. When a man has, as a matter of record, met the expectations and obligations associated with the role this is theatre. The fathers and stepfathers who do this well are winning in finite play. They receive the title of father, while those who fail to meet the standard are said to be undeserving of the title. A title is only as good as it is recognized and deferred to by other people. Our society ensures this by attaching powers to and celebrating that title. That is what we did on Sunday the 19th. We, as a society, reinforced a theatrical role. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this at all, as long as we are aware of what we are doing. Perhaps it was most appropriate then, that my brother and I celebrated this with our father by attending a movie at a theatre.

Mother and father are titles; mom and dad are names.

In section 25 of Finite and Infinite Games, Carse introduced the infinite and dramatic counterpart to the title: the name. When you address a man as dad that is not a title, it is a name. It is not something that can be won or lost. It does not matter than you may be the only human being in existence who refers to a particular man by that name. It carries no inherent power, as any power that man may have in your life depends entirely on the level at which you recognize his title of father. We don’t celebrate the name of dad on Father’s Day, we celebrate the title of father. That makes sense because the sort of things we do on those designated celebration days are often more theatrical than dramatic. To celebrate someone’s name is not to have a specific day, it is to use that name in everyday life. I celebrate the name of dad simply by calling him that and engaging in the drama (the word drama itself derived from the Greek word for action) of being his son. That can mean different things to different people, but again I think we do well to recognize how we honour our dads in the dramatic as well as the theatrical. The drama and the theatre are linked, but distinct.

So, that’s how I see fatherhood in terms of playing games. It’s not something that is normally thought of as a game, but the celebration of fatherhood becomes more meaningful to me to recognize the limitations of our societal recognition of a title and to see that there is much more to it than that. We can look at many other roles and aspects of life in a similar way, and discover more about what we’re really doing when we use a name or recognize and defer to a title.

Thesis Statement

“There are at least two kinds of games. Once could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” – James Carse

I want to write about games and philosophy, but before I really get into it, I want to try and explain the rationale. Let’s start by looking at how Mr. Carse distinguishes between finite games and infinite games:

Finite Games Infinite Games
Have a precise beginning, which is important to finite players. Have no clear beginning, and infinite players don’t care about this fact.
Requires players to consent to play within pre-defined rules which should not change during play. Requires players to consent to play, but the rules must change during play to prevent anyone from “winning” and therefore ending the game.
Rules are externally defined and available to all players before play begins. Rules are internally defined as the game is played.
Played within boundaries and with limitations (such as temporal, spatial, and numerical limits). Have horizons rather than boundaries. Play is not bounded by limited by things such as time, space, etc. Boundaries are eliminated through play, and it runs on its own time.
The purpose of playing the game is to win. The purpose of playing the game is to continue play.
The game ends when someone wins (this may include a ranking system). The game doesn’t have a defined end.
Table 1: Characteristics of games, as defined in an obscure philosophy text I found in my house and decided to use as a philosophical basis for writing about my ideas related to games. It’s worth reading if you are a strange enough person to be into this sort of thing.

So, why do I want to create a body of writing about games? The idea to do this was conceived when I was looking for one of my books about writing (if there is one thing writers enjoy writing about, it’s writing) and stumbled upon an old philosophy text. I don’t know how or why this book made it into my collection, as the edition I have is about one year younger than myself. Perhaps the title caught my eye several years ago when I was moving out of my parents’ house. Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse: it must be a book about games, right? Hey, I like games, why not give this a try? It took me by surprise how broadly it defined games because we usually don’t think of World War II as a game, but that’s because it was my first introduction to taking a philosophical look at game theory (the academic and philosophical kind, not the silly hat and sexual frustration kind).

As I read and reread the book, I found that looking at games in this way actually helps to explain a lot about why I like the (finite) games that I do, and how to understand things that are happening in the world, like the Trump candidacy.

This is my central idea: games, as we understand the term in plain language, can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Games can also be used to reinforce injustice and as a glorified form of mental and emotional masturbation. This is true whether we are talking something serious, like an election, or recreational, like a card game. Infinite games, including finite phases that support infinite play, are bigger and worthier pursuits than finite games. For example, the infinite game of life itself (which Carse asserts is the only infinite game) is much greater and more rewarding than a game of chess. It doesn’t mean chess is necessarily bad or useless, it just needs to be kept in its place alongside other finite endeavours.

Although there are more game states of chess than there are particles in the observable universe, chess is a finite game.

The outcome of a single chess match is unimportant, but a person teaching that game to a child who is gaining knowledge about fair play and logic does matter a little bit. And when you look at the game of chess as a whole, it becomes more and more relevant to the larger picture. My goal, in writing about other games or designing my own, is to see finite games used to promote a mindset of infinite play.

Infinite play, being an infinite player, why do I speak of these as being “good” things? Well, as I said above, it is not necessarily a good vs. bad distinction, but I think there are distinct virtues in infinite play. Who doesn’t aspire to be the kind of person whose view of life embraces horizons rather than boundaries, continuation of play over competing to win, and trying to keep as many people in play as possible? There are people who are obsessively finite, but most of us tend to think they’re jerks (or at least acting like one out of ignorance and/or immaturity). The guys in The Big Short who brag about scamming immigrants because it makes them a lot of money, the egotistical football player who pushes the boundaries of showboating upon scoring a goal, the six year old who just flipped over the checkers board because it became clear he is losing. These are not people I would want to be identified with. I may play football, or checkers, or financial investment, but in all of those I hope I can be the kind of person who supports infinite play.

This post allowed me to get a lot of heavy stuff out of the way so that my reader(s) can understand where I am coming from. I promise more levity and snark in upcoming weeks, but rest assured there is a point in all of it. If this sounds like a good deal to you, come back Saturdays at noon, mountain time. Follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page to receive regular updates.