Skip to content

Category: Philosophy

Myth and Place

Every game occurs in a place. Each instance of a finite game, certainly, has a very specific place it occurs. Superbowl LI tool place at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. In general, American football takes place not in a specific place, but at any number of places that can be considered football fields. But we know that American football, especially at the college and professional level, is not just a matter of a ball and players on a field with goalposts. It is a cultural phenomenon. To really be what it is, it must either take place in the USA or if it happens somewhere else then that place must be seen as an other place, a different place, considered in relation to the USA. In Canada, we have Canadian football, which is a very similar game. It is not the same game, not just because of the small differences in rules, but also because the places where it happens are different.

The American election of 2016, a political game, also took place in the USA. There are many differences between that and Superbowl LI, but the thing they have in common is that both are, to some extent, affected by the fact that their place is in the USA. The existence of such a place rests on its mythology. It is therefore inevitable that the game is affected by American mythology. The word myth does not mean “false.” It means “story.” Specifically, a story that explains why something is, with more regard to meaning than to historicity. Every game has a place, every place has a people, and every people has a myth. Therefore, to understand a game, one should be aware of the mythology that surrounds it. Some games are affected more than others: a game of chess is more easily divorced from its context than the Rose Bowl Game which is more easily divorced from its context than a general election.

American football isn’t American football without American mythology.

Turning our attention to the sort of games I spend more time writing about and playing than football, the typical tabletop RPG is saturated in myth by design. It needs to be, because in construction of a fictional world we have to explain why the kingdom is good (and therefore the current evil king is an aberration rather than a normal leader), or why life is so rough under imperial rule, etc. In games where the place is either the real world itself or a fictional facsimile we can assume certain things: we usually don’t have to explain what Britain or China is in order for us to understand that the games which take place there. We do have to do that for players pretending to be characters in a fictional world. It is not necessary for every DM to do world-building to the same extent as Tolkien because of the metamyth that most people who play these games are already aware of. We have assumptions about the existence of wizards and elves and dwarves and fair folk that ease us into the particular mythology being created for games like Dungeons and Dragons whether in famous settings like the Forgotten Realms or the DM’s own creation.

Joeseph Campbell identifies four functions of myth:

  1. The Mystical: connecting us as individuals with something much larger than ourselves, whether it is considered formally divine or secular awe and wonder
  2. The Cosmological: explaining how and why things came to be the way they are in form and function
  3. The Sociological: shaping and justifying the power of society
  4. The Pedagogical: teaching what is and how to live a good life

Some games are very limited in scope, and therefore do not interact with all of the functions of the mythology of their place. American football, for example, has very little to do with cosmology. It does, however, have a lot to do with American beliefs about social order and how to live a good life. Other games try to build an entire universe, and must therefore concern themselves with all four functions. The bigger, richer, and more detailed the universe, the more time and effort must go into constructing the mythology of the place.

There are different ways to go about building a world and I am not here to tell anyone how to do it, but the approach I am taking right now to the world I am building for tabletop roleplaying is to consider the mythology of the place using Campbell’s four functions, in order to guide where the details need to go. I will try not to get too bogged down in the practical aspects (names, maps, pantheon, characters) until I can see the need for each of those things to serve at least one of the four functions. The goal is to make the tabletop adventure as inseparable from its setting as American football is inseparable from America. It’s a bit more work, because players don’t enter the world with as much experience with the mythology, but success in this endeavour will be a place that endures by the power of myth.

Cultural Diversity

There is a vast variety of recreational games that we humans engage in. So vast that when one claims to be a “gamer” or enjoys “games” it’s usually slang for being fond of particular kinds of games and participation in a particular culture. None of the “gamers” I know are going to pay equal attention to what happened at the GDC Expo and what’s going to happen during March Madness.

Basketball is a good example of a game where I can understand the appeal of the finite iterations of the game but not the infinite aspects of the culture. It is something I could play myself, and could probably have fun doing so if I was matched against people of similar enough skill and athletic level that we could play a fair game. I have tried watching college/professional basketball on TV. I can see that the action is fast-paced and that the game isn’t just about who is tallest or fastest; the players at the highest levels have to be highly skilled.

A game that I can see the appeal of, but just can’t get into.

I can see all that, and yet, I have no plans to watch during March Madness or during any other time of year. I’m just not into it because although I can like the finite iterations of the game, the infinite culture that supports playing that game is not something I am a part of. If I had a reason to make a conscious effort to join that culture, maybe I could get into it. It’s not likely to happen. But that doesn’t mean I have anything against basketball.

When it comes to the gaming culture that I am a part of, I am glad to see the increasing volume of people talking about inclusion and breaking down barriers to participation whether based on ability or sociological constructions. However, I am at times reminded of the need to balance our enthusiasm for our own game culture with respecting that not everything is for everyone. I don’t need to convince everyone of the need to play any particular game or class of game in order to be welcoming of those who are actually interested. So yes, I encourage newcomers to be interested in the kind of tabletop games I run and give it a try. But I am not going to try too hard to convince them, because I know that it will not be effective for the same reasons that getting me out to a basketball game might not be an easy sell. It’s not because I would be turned away, but because I don’t really feel the pull. That I have my culture and that football, basketball, and poker players all have theirs is something I see as valuable diversity rather than a competition for an audience.

Except By Righteousness

Back in June 2016, I found myself recalling the week following an act of evil. Today I’m there again, this time closer to home and on my side of the Canada-USA border. I was saddened by the news, then heartened by the compassionate response across my country, then angered by those who would callously exploit it to promote their conspiracy theories. As a rule, the game played by any kind of “truther” is one that should not be played.

A lot of what needs to be said has already been said, but there is one thing I’d like to be said louder and more clearly: we can’t just blame Trump for this. To do so would be inaccurate, irresponsible, and unethical. I have no doubt that the political tide that swept him into power may have encouraged this and other acts of evil, but we must not delude ourselves into thinking we are special. Canadians, we’re not better than Americans just because we’ve got a prime minister with better virtue signals and glorious hair. The roots of racist violence in this country go very deep. There is no contest among nations where Canadians can say they score higher than Americans at being less racist, less violent, less evil. And indeed, within this country, some of us seem to think that racist violence happens somewhere else – probably in Alberta. And indeed, while my home province has produced an infamous holocaust denying teacher and a sensationalist far right media network, we are not special. From the yellow peril on the west coast to the starlight tours in Saskatchewan, from the Christie Pits riot 84 years ago to the Hérouxville code of conduct 10 years ago: this is a national problem that cannot be scapegoated onto east, west, rural, or urban. It is not new; it was not invented by Stephen Harper nor Donald Trump. The antecedents to this recent attack belong to all of us.

“For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Can we be better than that? Absolutely. In big ways and in small ways, chipping away at the big problem has not been an even or an easy process, but I believe it’s not only worth doing, it’s worth doing right. That’s why my posts on political topics lean towards self-critique more than just calling out what I see as being the wrongs of the world: the internet provides us with a vast surplus of hot takes about how bad the bad people are. That’s low-hanging fruit. What I want to reach for, what I want to signal boost, is the more challenging ideas about how we can build the kind of society where it’s harder to imagine a man walking into a mosque and shooting people. To me, winning is not being on the right side of history or being better than that other person. It’s living in a world where this kind of evil is unheard of. One place I can start is remembering that I am not a better person because I live in 2017, in Canada, or in a city. My religion does not confer any special status upon me, nor do my political views qualify me for some kind of title. It’s easy to say that of other people, but worth asking of oneself too.

In remembering not to take false pride in my origins, I am reminded of the words that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is quoted in the hadith as saying: “There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness.” This I can only assume was said to declare the faith as universal, mirroring Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 about there being neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither female nor male in the faith of Jesus Christ. No matter which tradition we were raised in and/or still practice, there is a wisdom in these words which transcends cultures and religions. I think we would do well to not only affirm the obvious meaning when it comes to visible differences, but also to check ourselves for other sources of misplaced pride. For there is no virtue of a Canadian over an American, nor a Torontonian over a New Sareptan, nor a Californian over an Alabaman, nor a Republican nor a Democrat; except by righteousness.

CAGEO: Skills

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable new year. I am getting right back into continuing the Casual Alpha’s Guide series.


Let’s talk about skills. In character-driven video games, our avatars learn how to do things that we can only imagine, whether that is summoning a fireball with a magic spell or piloting a starship that’s faster than the speed of light. For us in the real world, our skills are limited by four things:

  1. What is possible according to the physical laws of the universe. This is why it has never helped for me to shout fus ruh dah at any of my cats when they jump back up on the table yet again.
  2. Access to training and materials. I don’t have access to spacecraft or the trainers who could teach me how to pilot one.
  3. Physical and intellectual capacity to learn the skills. Even if it was possible for a human to attain the near-superhuman skills of the Batman, it wouldn’t be me doing it.
  4. Desire and inclination. While it may be realistic and possible to go salsa dancing, I live near enough to places I could learn, I probably have enough money to pay for lessons if I were to prioritize this, and am at least able-bodied enough to give it a shot, in order for me to learn this skill I must put in the requisite time.

What video games do, for our entertainment, is to exempt our characters from the first three requirements and drastically commute the last one. The games offer us a vicarious experience by redefining the rules around what is possible. However, in the absence of the normal restrictions, the game must preserve a sense of incentive/reward in order for the title that goes along with the skill to mean anything. Remember, a title must be seen as compensatory for some kind of effort put in.

In some games, simply progressing through the plot unlocks new skills. In others, “experience points” are rewarded for killing enemies or for accomplishing other tasks on the side. EVE Online, however, indulges in the ultimate technological fantasy: being able to plug our brain into a computer and downloading knowledge and practical skills while sleeping. From a game design perspective, what EVE does is make learning skills a question of allocating real time that the player does not have to spend in front of the computer rather than incentivizing the player to spend as many hours at the keyboard as possible to grind the EXP to get the level-up in order to get the skill. The following is a snapshot of Aleff Knoll’s skill queue from a few weeks ago:

Training will be complete in two days, eleven hours, and four minutes.

Yes, that’s over two full days of offline training I’ve got queued up in there. If I was a subscribed user, I could have a month or more in this queue silently ticking away whenever I am not online. While there are many new character skill guides out there, I have decided to follow my experience rather than metaknowledge gained from the various wikis and guides available online. I acquired a destroyer and I can look at the details for this model which tell me what skills I need to fly the ship with increasing levels of expertise:

Aleff Knoll’s skill training Curriculum

So that’s what I have been doing instead of what would have been my assigned readings from EVE University. Now in tandem with the “skills” of the character come the skills of the player. For these, the career agents in my starter system have been quite helpful. The quests they give out are nothing special, like go haul this or kill bandits there. What I found is that the player-skills I picked up (such as how to use the targeting system effectively rather than the clunky way I was doing it during the introductory tutorial) all emerged from trial and error rather than having a big flashing sign that said “click here.”

This, rather than some kind of EXP grind, feels more rewarding because understanding the game for myself is a small personal accomplishment, whereas simply having a character that holds certificates and “skills” doesn’t mean I know anything or can do anything in particular. A few years ago, one of the richest players in EVE spent an inhuman amount of ISK on creating a brand new character with maxed-out skills. No grind, just the character skill reward for “cash.” Of course, one must have at least a basic understanding of the game to know how to use the in-game items to make this happen, and the guys who do this sort of thing aren’t plunking down $28,000 in real money to CCP in one shot. These are top tier players paying with ISK made in-game; the dollar values are usually used to illustrate the scale of these things to people who don’t play the game. What that case does prove, in principle, that this game can be pay-to-win but only if you consider your character’s skill level to be a valid ranking. And the truth of the matter is, while it certainly does give an in-game advantage in some areas, having maximum skills doesn’t end the game. You don’t get a certificate saying you’ve won an academic victory. Life in New Eden simply goes on. Both character skills and player skills are essential to winning, but you have to decide what winning means. In this way, it’s a lot like life. It’s great to know things, and be able to do things, but really: what you choose to do with what you’ve got is what matters, not what you could do if you chose differently. It is perhaps more important to have a good sense of what winning is than it is to have the skills to get there.


The next post in this series will be on January 28th, 2017. By then I will have left the local environs of my noob station to explore a little bit more of the local neighborhood, if not the whole galaxy.

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.

Gifts

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.

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.

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.

The Difference Between Not Losing and Not Playing

If you are losing at a finite game, there are two ways you can win within the rules:

  1. Change your opponent: defeat them by circumventing their advantages, coerce them into make fatal mistakes, or overpower them by whatever means are allowable within the game. For example, in a political contest, you change your opponent when you are able to stick a label on them like lyin’ or crooked or racist. In a war, you change your opponent’s resolve by killing their forces. This doesn’t always work because some games are pretty tight with the rules; I don’t know of many things one can do within a chess match to change the opponent aside from dubious methods of “psyching out” the opponent.
  2. Change yourself: this is the generally accepted method of defeating your competition in future instances of the game you are either losing or have already lost. You change your own tactics, practice your own skills, train harder, and so on. Become better somehow.

The third way is to change the rules of the game. Whether or not this is successful depends entirely on the consent of the other players in the game. This happens all the time in online multiplayer games where an update “nerfs” some aspect of the game to improve balance or when you are playing a friendly game and need to improvise a little bit to keep the game going. Either the players agree to the rule changes, or they stop playing. More likely, the game is played to its end and then the rules are changed for the next iteration to prevent the same strategy from winning again. When participants in a political contest talk about campaign finance reform, it’s always for the next election rather than the one taking place right now.

When one tries to change the rules in the middle of the game and does not receive consent from the other players, that is cheating. However, if you see that your opponent is breaking the rules and consent to keep on playing (perhaps the rules provide for some kind of penalty), then the opponent is not cheating and you are still in play. A professional hockey player who drops his gloves and starts punching an opposing player is not breaking the rules of the game. The rules allow for that. Of course, he’s going to receive a penalty or other sanction. But if hockey fights were truly against the rules, then the moment one breaks out, the game would stop and the local police would be called and the assailant would be facing criminal charges. Although this can happen in extreme circumstances, it’s not a common outcome of a hockey fight.

That this will result in a trip to the penalty box does not mean it is against the rules of hockey; it means that the rules of hockey allow for this to happen.

Not playing is the fourth way to go, and it should be distinguished from accepting a loss. Not playing is walking away from the table without conceding a loss, even if the other player(s) yell “forfeit!” as loud as they can. It’s also the hardest thing to do in many serious games. It’s easy in recreational games. I barely have a handle on the rules of Go. I’m not going to play in a highly competitive game of Go. Isn’t that easy? But what happens when it’s a political contest? A war? Isn’t political apathy a bad thing? Doesn’t pacifism mean the fascists/communists/fundamentalists win? Hey buddy, my human rights are on the line here. The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

How, then, can we ever listen to the Buddhist monk telling us to let go of suffering when the struggle is real? How then can we respect Ghandi when his commitment to pacifism is strong enough for him to tell the British to let the Nazis slaughter them?

“I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength, whether expressed through the muscle or the brain.’ Your muscular bravery is an established fact. Need you demonstrate that your brain is also as unrivaled in destructive power as your muscle? I hope you do not wish to enter into such an undignified competition with the Nazis. I venture to present you with a nobler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. ‘If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
― Mohandas Ghandi, 1940

How can a good progressive liberal not participate in a shouting match on the internet with a proud Brexiter or Trump supporter? It’s difficult. I am still working on wrapping my head around this. But I know there is value in taking this fourth option, and I can understand it in the context of one of my favourite games being referenced on one of my favourite television shows. In the Community episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” the party does not defeat Pierce through changing him, themselves, or the game. It’s when they stop playing. Pierce is defeated not by dice rolls in the AD&D game or by an out-of-game display of superior charisma, but when he loses his audience.

It is one thing for a person or faction to lose a contest according to accepted rules, but true defeat comes not with infamy but with irrelevancy. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice, but the art of not playing is perhaps one of the most important to master.

A Modest Proposal

This week I will be taking a break from writing about video or tabletop games due to something big that happened in my personal life. On Wednesday I asked someone special a very special question. I went to the coffee shop where we first met three years ago, secured the table we sat at, and when my partner arrived I proposed marriage.  Today I will be talking about the silly games that were played leading up to this fateful event — not personal drama, but the things that our culture and society have built up around the tradition of the marriage proposal.

Ring shopping was an exercise in reminding me why financial literacy and thinking critically about non-recreational games is so incredibly important: because without it, I might have been to play by an insane set of rules. Three months’ salary? One month’s salary? Nope. Such rules are hokum invented by the people who want to relieve you of as much of your salary as possible. “There will always be the question of who has the bigger ring, with girls comparing and boys not wanting to be outdone.” Count me out. That is a game I refuse to play.

I knew going in ahead of time that my budget was much lower than what might otherwise be expected, and that salespeople would try and upsell me because it is their job, but I was surprised at how viscerally I felt when that happened. It is frightening to think that I would ever have considered monthly payments. I don’t think I was ever the type who would go have overboard on a massive rock, but I have only recently become the sort of person who must restrain himself from projectile vomiting all over the display case when hearing the words “investment” and “financing” come up in this context. It is terrifying to think that I might have signed up for something like this if I was in this market even just three years ago. Like war, there are some games best won by refusing to play. This is one of them. I think more people ought to speak honestly and openly about how terrible this show-off contest is, and hopefully it will come to be seen as antiquated as a dowry. I happily made a purchase of something shiny and beautiful to imbue with sentimental meaning, but neither I nor my fiancée are competing with anyone in the process.

Dans le love game

And so I managed to obtained a ring to rule them all without getting sucked into trying to prove anything to anyone. Now let’s talk about venue for the proposal: I’m not out to judge other people, but what works for some people would be abhorrent to my sensibilities. I realize that once you get to the point of asking this question you should know that the answer is going to be “yes” unless there are some serious communications problems going on. However, it’s not a question if there is only one answer.

There was no way I was going to put her on the spot in front of a stadium full of people or anything like that. I would not have gone in with the expectation she would say no, but I would consider it a simple matter of respect not to ask the question in a way that “oh, um, can we take a little more time on this?” would have caused extreme public embarrassment. “Yes” is the only answer when you are put on the spot like that, which is why I was so appalled when I heard what happened to He Zi on Sunday. I am sure Qin Kai meant well, and they both looked extremely happy about it, but this is truly the antithesis of what my modest proposal was meant to be. Rather than labouring to produce a moment, or capitalizing on someone else’s moment, why not allow the moment to stand on its own? I can’t imagine looking back on that moment at our favourite café and wishing I had done it in a way that proved I was more clever and powerful than every other man alive at the timeParticipation in that sort of contest ultimately endorses the finite view of sexuality where the winner’s prize is not just won by defeating the opponent but where the prize is a defeated opponent (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 79). Although I may relish the titles of fiancé or husband, obtaining a title is not the endgame. It’s not about winning her hand in marriage. I do choose to make certain traditions part of my story, but I seek to make the story about chasing a horizon rather than crossing a finish line.

I also don’t understand why some people think they have to deliver an award-winning speech when keeping it simple will do. If you are successful, you will have the rest of your life to weave flowery purple prose in honour of your partner. If not, well, then you won’t have written a speech for naught. Either way, in the heat of one of the most emotionally stressful moments in your life, why not just get it out? An infinite view of sexuality is not serious but joyous, and revels in open and honest self-discovery (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 84). There is therefore no reason to get it perfect in the moment, and every reason to be more dramatic than theatrical. I was far less nervous about the whole thing precisely because I had no lines to flub. There was no success or failure to be had, only a simple question that would define how we proceed with the stories of our lives.

I refused to play silly games according to rules that would have seen me make a much bigger, more expensive production over something that was simple and every bit as meaningful. Declining to compete with others in a crass display of wealth consumption is allowing me to focus on what’s really important. All in all, I think we decisively won this round in the game of love. I’ll be back to writing about storytelling and rolling dice next week.