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CAGEO: Drama In New Eden

“Fake News” is today’s hottest buzzword in real-world current events. We all want to think that other people, whose political opinions we disagree with, are the stupid ones. Being on the correct side, we are immune to being taken in by fake news because our opinions are based on facts. Last week I learned that I’m not smarter than that, I was taken in by a ruse that I wanted to believe in. Fortunately, I learned this in EVE Online rather than in the real world. Last week, James 315 confirmed that the massive theft from his alliance that I mentioned on February 18 was a ruse. In my own defence, I started to suspect something was amiss when he kept posting his daily blog without even mentioning what should have been a huge event. But really, to be honest, I fell for something I read on reddit because I wanted to believe that I was witness to something really big happening in the EVE universe. It wasn’t true, or at least what I believed was happening wasn’t what was actually happening. The space mafia is stronger than ever. Thank goodness.

Reports of CODE.’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

At this point one might be wondering why, as an Alpha clone and something of a high-sec carebear I care so much about CODE. and vacillate between describing them using terms normally reserved for organized crime, then heaping praise on them for being in the game. It’s because nobody sold me on EVE properly before I started this series. It was sold to me as a game about spaceships and industry, which I don’t think it really is at a fundamental level. It’s a game about drama, framed by a risk vs. reward gambit. That there are pretty starfields and spaceships with lasers that go pew-pew is just the package it comes in. It’s not fundamentally about that any more than 7 Wonders is fundamentally about building classical monuments. The CODE. alliance plays a big role in making high-security a place of drama rather than a place of mindless grinding for ISK. There are other groups out there, this just happens to be the one I continue to find to be the most entertaining.

For more experienced players with fewer restrictions on their gameplay (have more time to put in, more in-game friends, willing to pay for a subscription), drama is still the main attraction. The New Yorker Radio Hour’s piece entitled Populists Stage a Coup in Space provides us with a story about Goons and BoB (two large factions in null security space). I highly recommend giving that a listen whether you are a veteran EVE player or will never play the game and only ever read about experiences on blogs and news sites. They go out of their way to explain what the story is about in plain English, much like I try to do. People don’t play EVE for the same reasons that they play other games.

Although the player in this RPG is a custom character and has choices to make, there are predefined paths to follow and a finite number of win and loss conditions determined by the game designers. Drama exists in the moment, but is in the end a theatrical experience. (Baldur’s Gate Enchanced Edition)

This all stands in contrast to games which are theatrical rather than dramatic. Most other video games are theatrical. Western CRPGs typically feature character customization and branched narratives, but there is fundamentally a beginning and an end to each instance of the game. It can be dramatic during play, but it always comes to a conclusion. Players can make choices, but in mot cases the ultimate arc of the narrative will have been something pitched, written, and designed for the player.

Neither CODE. nor the The Great War were scripted by a developer. These factions and events are 100% generated by other players and therefore have a sort of realness that a scripted story can’t attain. And that’s why the Kusion Ruse is a cautionary tale. Using the magic of science fiction can help people think outside their normal boxes. It’s easy to be smug about being a North American liberal when you see the facts as being on your side. But in this case I don’t get to be proud of myself for being smarter than those other people who believed in the absurd things like Pizzagate. I have never fallen for a player-created ruse within a game like this, but having experienced it myself, it reminds me to keep my pride under control before writing off “those fools” as idiots not worth listening to. It doesn’t mean giving up on having opinions and voicing them, but it does mean occasionally checking to see if the idiot in the room is me. I can’t say that I have ever had this kind of insight caused by playing simpler, more theatrical games.

As I am approaching the end of the road for skills that Alpha clones can learn, the next post in this series will be the last. That is not to say I will never write about this game again, but on a less frequent basis. It is my hope that people have found this series to stand out from the many other pieces written about this game. The resources on how to play the game are vast and mostly indecipherable if you don’t actually play the game. It is my hope that the Casual Alpha’s Guide is a good reference for why a person would play the game and why it’s an interesting concept for study by people who don’t play.

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.

When the Gods Hate You

“You’re Green, You’re Ugly, and the Gods Hate You” is the tagline for a tabletop RPG called Great Ork Gods by Jack Aidley. In this game you play as a series of Orks rather than a single character, because it’s assumed that every character will die at least once. The only way to get ahead is to use your dice to beseech the Ork gods to hate you just a little bit less.

The first interesting thing about this game is that the GM is not in charge of everything in the same way that they are in a game of D&D. Each player around the table, in addition to their Ork, receives control over one of the Ork gods. The GM still sets the scenario and tells the players what they will be rolling to accomplish a specific task such as breaking down an unlocked door. However, once it is decided that breaking down the door is a feat of strength, it is the player who has been handed the card for the relevant god (in this case, Lifting Stone, Pounding Rock) who decides whether the task is easy, moderate, or difficult. Any of the gods can then contribute a resource called “spite” which incrementally increases the difficulty, to potentially ludicrous odds. Normally it is on the DM/GM to make sure the dice rolls being asked of the players offer the right balance of probabilities for success or failure using either their intuition, notes, or guidelines from the designer of a module. In this case, it is the players around the table who have the most say over what an Ork must roll to live or die. It goes from the GM as a storyteller to the GM as a referee with the players developing grudges whenever another contributes too much spite during their Ork’s finest hour.

Scenarios can be run completely ad-hoc, or they can be framed as a quest-based adventure. In the particular scenario I got to play, our job was to do a train heist to send a message to the humans who desecrated our sacred mountain. The final boss in this scenario was named Mr. Conductor. No magic dust, but a worthy adversary nonetheless.

When you are an ork, this is what a monster looks like. (source)

Which brings me to the second thing I found interesting. It’s not that the game challenges the assumption that Orks are violent, smelly, green men who can be killed with moral impunity because, well, they’re Orks. When it comes to portrayals of Orks, I generally see them on a continuum between Tolkien’s Orcs which are mindlessly and irredeemably malevolent and Warcraft Orcs which are a misunderstood proud warrior race with a strong honour code and who can be reasoned with in the absence of demonic possession. Other settings, such as most found in official D&D source books, put them somewhere in the middle. Great Ork Gods does not even try to subvert the stereotypes. Players are encouraged to play them as simple brutes who like to solve all their problems with axes. Other games and stories subvert the trope that it’s okay to kill people if they’re ugly and green (because are they really people?) by making the Ork more human. Thrall is shown having a tender moment with his wife in the Warcraft film because we, the audience, need to be told that underneath their appearance that Orcs live and love like Humans do. When Orcs are playable races they can often be honour-bound warriors like what the Klingons became when Star Trek: The Next Generation started to explore them beyond being generic antagonists like they were in the original series. Their rough aesthetic and fondness for sharp weapons need not be erased, but to become more than violent enemies they become more human-like. So, in a typical role-playing game, Orkishness is inversely correlated with playability. Orks become eligible to be heroes once the player is allowed to play as one, and it seems less like the gods hate Orks.

This isn’t as much the case in Great Ork Gods because the player is not asked to make a green-skinned bipedal creature with tusks into a what is essentially a human with a fantastical appearance. The player is asked to play the disposable brute. The player is not the human/dwarven/elven hero mowing down faceless antagonists, the player IS the faceless antagonist. So in a way it does challenge our assumptions about Orks, but not in the same way that other stories and games do because the function of the Orks does not change just because which side the players are on does. It’s a different way of looking at things. It’s also simple fun to play an absurdly gimmicky Ork named Kudatah who solves any and all problems by cutting things with a seemingly infinite supply of axes. For what was described to me as a fun one-night diversion from a regular campaign, it turned out to be more thought-inspiring than I had assumed it would be.

CAGEO: The Best Ship

This is the fifth post in my series the Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online. At the beginning of the series I thought it might be a good idea to distinguish these from my other posts by using the acronym in the title. Now every time I write a new post for the series the acronym feels sillier and sillier. I just wanted to keep it clear that I write a blog about games that sometimes talks about EVE Online, not an EVE blog that sometimes dabbles in other things. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here? Let me know in the comments if I am right in feeling silly about the acronym, or if you think it does not detract from the content, or if you have anything to say about the content. I like feedback.

I don’t think it is an unreasonable assumption that a massively multiplayer online game is best enjoyed as interactions between players. One of the criticisms of “high-sec carebearing” (that is, playing the game in ways that do not involve shooting at other players’ spaceships, in space that is deemed to be more secure though not totally safe) is that it gets to be more of a grind than a player-vs-player experience. But, being a sandbox type game, people vary in their opinions on what the right way to play the game is. For myself, learning how to do things like ratting or hacking has not only been a fun experience, but also one that provides in-game income that can be used for other purposes such as getting into PvP or recovering from a big loss. Indeed, a person could just pay extra money for in-game currency, but to seek an in-game solution to the problem of your shiny warship being blasted into tiny bits seems a bit more fun than whipping out the Visa card. And let’s face it, the kind of ships you can get for free or almost free are made of papier-mâché. For example, my Probe class exploration frigate that got ganked in a small pocket of low-sec space a few weeks ago.

This is what using a sledgehammer to kill an ant looks like in [simple_tooltip content='The fictional setting for EVE Online, if you are not already familiar.']New Eden.[/simple_tooltip]
This was my first player-on-player combat. I lost horribly. What napboi does is lurk in the Enden system keeping an eye out for exploration or mining vessels, then flies in and pins them down while his friends FEDERAL OFFICER and NAN0FIBER warp in for the kill. I know this because a look at napboi’s killboard shows this pattern. I was pinned in place then they brought in a supercarrier to squash my probe. It’s a bit like using a tank to kill a bird. But the point of this post is not to offer faint praise for their use of three advanced ships to squash one worth Ƶ2.5 million (which I estimate to be about $0.04 USD worth of spaceship if I paid for my in-game currency with real money). The real point here is that whatever they’re hoping to accomplish with ganking ships like mine, these guys appear to be having fun doing it together (the Tengu alone should have been able to make short work of my Probe if shooting down my ship was their only concern). There is no way I could go get revenge by tactics nor by attempting to pay-to-win. Sure, if I had Omega status and a yuge pile of ISK I could put up a ship more comparable to any one of theirs than the paper airplanes I’ve got in the hangar today. But the reality is that I would likely need a team, not a better ship, to take these guys down. My skills at convincing other pilots to join my revenge fleet would matter far more than my skills at fitting or flying any ship in particular. And since my only causus belli is that these guys shot down my fail-fit exploration frigate, this would be very difficult unless I had several space-rich friends who wanted to do me a favour on a whim.

Or, I suppose if I was a fleet unto myself like Jason Kusion I might be able to solo those guys. Kusion is a famous ganker known for being a big part of CODE.’s larger kills. For those not familiar, CODE. is the alliance that I characterized as basically the space mafia in my post Pirates, Carebears, and Emergent Gameplay. Jason Kusion uses a technique called multiboxing which allows him to control 15 instances of the game at once, with his alternate characters all named Kusion. The following is what it looks like to be fifteen and one at the same time:

Jason Kusion is a fleet unto himself. (source)

Very, very different than what my game looks like. But even a one-man army like this was part of something bigger, the CODE. alliance. The reason I am talking about them so much today is that I was online for a little while last night and saw the Anti-ganking chat channel explode over a breaking news story: Jason Kusion has apparently betrayed his alliance and made off with over Ƶ500 billion. That is as estimated USD value of $7500 (I know it is not exactly Ƶ1 billion ISK for each extension, nor exactly $15 USD in real money, but I like to keep the math simple when precision is not necessary). It is enough to use in-game currency to buy a couple years’ worth of subscription for fifteen accounts. The story broke on reddit here first, followed by this thread allegedly posted by James315 himself admitting that CODE. is dead and his blog, Miner Bumping,will be archived. However, as of right now, a post went up on that blog today that did not address any of this. It certainly didn’t take long on the thread in the official EVE forums for people to start speculating that it this is all a ruse. It is hard to say how all of this will play out. What I know for sure is that this level of drama based on player interaction is what makes EVE special and I hope that if CODE. is really dead and Miner Bumping is over that some other group of people will take its place as the villainous evil empire of high sec. I will have to follow up on this in a future post.

At another point in the past month, I also had the chance to be given a tutorial in high-sec carebear mining, the kind of thing that CODE. was founded to oppose. I really don’t think that is my game (watching my ore hold fill with space rocks while I point a laser at a virtual asteroid), but I think that people who play EVE differently do need to understand what real mining looks like. The beginners’ career missions introduce the basic concept of what buttons to press, but there was NOTHING in that or the new tutorial that covered anything like what I saw that day. It was during this mining run that I discovered why people talk about Orca class ships and mining boosts; it makes a huge difference compared to using mining lasers on an entry-level mining ship. It’s a very different environment than getting ganked in low-sec or watching high stakes alliance drama unfold, but the conclusion remains the same: it’s alright to be good at flying spaceships, it’s not a bad idea to have good spaceships, but the best ship will always be friendship.

Characters and Kayfabe

Professional wresting isn’t something I normally think of as being a thing I enjoy. I understand it for what it is, and I feel like I gave it a fair chance in my younger years. I watched a little bit of it, and got to go see it live with a friend (who loved the whole spectacle) when the WWF came to my home town on a tour. I even made one of those little signs to get into the fan rivalry. My sign proclaimed Kurt Angle to be “our Olympic zero” riffing on his gimmick of Olympic hero. It was fun, but even at that peak I never fell under the spell of wrestling fandom in the way I could be drawn into science fiction and fantasy. If I was going to do pretend violence, I wanted to do it with fireball spells rather than folding chairs.

So, when I was offered the chance to play World Wide Wrestling, a tabletop RPG based in the world of wrestling kayfabe rather than one of magic or spaceships I wasn’t sure how much I could enjoy this if it has been over fifteen years since I last felt compelled to engage with this kind of show in any way. But at the table with my group that usually plays World of Darkness or D&D, we started roleplaying as professional wrestlers. It turned out to be loads of fun.

This kind of scene does not occur in my usual tabletop games (source)

One thing I would recommend for anyone who isn’t already a wresting fan who wants to play World Wide Wrestling is to have a cheat sheet of professional wrestling moves handy so that you can narrate your character’s actions in the language of professional wrestling. Like the theatrical performance of professional wrestling, WWW is heavy on the narrative side. Reading your character sheet and the rule book give you a lot more information about who your character is than about the specific techniques he or she can employ. It’s up to you to know how to describe the thing you want to do, and it’s helpful to have an extra reference if “seated senton” is not part of your usual jargon. There are a couple pages of this in the WWWRPG Final Play Aids document, but I found that having Wikipedia’s list of wrestling attacks to be more helpful.

What I found is that while the real-life performance of this art is theatrical, the tabletop game plays out surprisingly dramatic. Yes, as it is in the real thing, management plans out who is going to win each match before it begins. However, how we arrive at that conclusion develops spontaneously based on dice rolls, and the narrative arc that connects the matches changes in unpredictable ways based on character choices. It’s up to Creative (that’s the role equivalent to DM or GM) to line up the matches and decide the outcome, but to weave the matches together into a coherent show is an interactive process that includes the players. The end result cannot have been predicted by Creative before the players arrived. It’s not unlike the process of sketching out a plot for a fantasy RPG and then having it warped and twisted by the schemes and actions of the players.

In many ways, this is a gaming experience that is not fundamentally different than what I consider to be more typical tabletop roleplaying games. Like the theatrical performance, I don’t think I could get into this one week after week, but every once in a while I think it’s good to try something a little bit different and I have found World Wide Wrestling to be a good way to do that.

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: Pirates, Carebears, and Emergent Gameplay

One of the most intriguing things about EVE Online is that CCP, the developer, does not make any attempt to use their ability to manipulate the rules of the EVE universe to artificially impose the acceptance of the title to property. Pirates are not ruled out of existence; they are incorporated into the rules. There are computer-controlled NPC enemies referred to by the game as “pirates” which players call “rats” in EVE slang. And then there are the actual pirates, the other players who shoot at poorly armed ships for fun and profit. In what is called “high sec” space (sec being short for security), there is a police force called CONCORD that will come in and exact retribution upon those who illegally shoot another player’s ship. I know that we’re going through a log of jargon here, but this is so you don’t have to play the game for a few months to have any idea what I am talking about. That’s the idea behind this series.

In other MMO games, there would be a no-PvP zone, but even the developers say that there are no safe places outside of stations. So while it may be illegal, and punishable by the invincible CONCORD, nothing stops players from shooting another player’s unarmed mining ship. But what prompts the developers to remind us of the face that nobody is safe in the most secure of high sec space? This is where I have to start talking about CODE. It’s the bogeyman supposedly hiding in every asteroid belt. I mentioned in the private chat channel for the corporation I joined that I had flown out and set up a mining frigate to work away while I wrote Skills, the previous post in this series. I was warned that this kind of mining was going to get me killed by CODE. Who is this monster hiding under every capsuleer’s bed?

CODE. is the alliance of players and player-corporations founded by a player named James 315 which enforces the New Halaima Code of Conduct. James also publishes a daily blog chronicling the exploits of the alliance. If you choose to browse the website, please be aware that it’s a beautifully Orwellian work of propaganda. If it feels a bit icky and cultish then you are just reacting like any normal human being should. But once I accepted the premise, I became hooked on the entertainment value.

CODE. as a group is basically a space mafia centred around a personality cult. They shoot pacifists and run a licensing scheme that amounts to an extortion racket. And you know what? I love them for it. Consider the following groups of players in EVE: so-called “carebears” who don’t shoot other players and just want to shoot rats, mine minerals, and build stuff; griefers looking to shoot down unarmed player ships, enforce a player-created code of conduct with religious zeal, and run an extortion racket; and toxic players who spew obscenities and abusive language. You’d think that the last two groups would have the most overlap, but if James’ blog is a reasonable sample then I am inclined to believe there are more carebears who are engaging in verbal abuse than there are CODE. agents doing that. They get into the roleplay and have fun with it. They play the game. They’re the space mafia, but they’re a damn good space mafia. I even agree with some of their points about bot-aspirancy. Of course, not all carebears are abusive jerks and/or bot-aspirant. I’ve met some in the field (strangers, not even corporation-mates) who went out of their way to ensure I knew how to avoid getting killed. But there does seem to be a steady stream of very salty carebears who really do need to take the agents’ advice and calm down.

What do I find so interesting about this conflict between peaceful miners and zealous pirates? It’s that all this isn’t the brainchild of some writer working for the developer. It’s all created by players. All of the drama, all of the anti-CODE. resistance, it’s all content that emerges from players playing the game. Incidents like the death of Lord British or the Corrupted Blood Incident are rare exceptions in other games, but in EVE Online it’s entirely by design that content emerges from unexpected events. The developers never intended for CODE. to exist, some guy named James invented it and now it’s part of the folklore. I think that’s really neat. I only wish more carebears who got blown up sought in-game solutions to their in-game problems instead of spewing abusive language and threatening to file spurious reports to the moderators. Groups like the High Sec Militia might not be able to hold a candle to CODE.’s blogging game, but they exist in the game and their chat channels are active. There are options for players who wish to resist without being toxic. As for me, I choose to use the in-game tools available to avoid CODE. and other player-pirates altogether while going about my business.

Fans of the 2003 television series Firefly fondly remember this scene where the pilot of Serenity is playing with his toy dinosaurs while Serenity is cruising along, but at no point does he completely abandon his console. He’s got to be vigilant in case there are hostile Alliance ships in the area. Sound familiar? It’s the end of his little vignette that I am reminded of whenever I see a threat to my ship.

Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal! (source)

So, that’s me when I’m mining in high sec: perhaps blogging rather than playing dinosaurs and watching the in-game chat channels Gank-Intel and Anti-ganking rather than a radar with an audible alarm, but with the same idea. I can mine while writing, but getting careless with it would see my ship blown up by those who claim ownership over all the rocks in all the space. Isn’t that better than sending hatemail to other players and getting made fun of for it?

And, at the end of the day, I won’t be upset if I get ganked by a CODE. agent. First, because they would have to be quite good at what they do to ever find me to begin with. If they can catch me I’m dead, but I will respect the skill and talent of any agent who is capable of catching me. Second, even if I lose my stuff, I am centred in the knowledge that I am playing internet spaceships in a PvP universe. It’s not to be taken seriously. If I don’t take it too seriously, there is no reason to have a tantrum and say horrible things. If it ever gets to be too much, I can just move on to another game.

Now, does using internet spaceships to mine internet asteroids sound like a life for me? Not really. But is it way more fun doing so for a little while with an element of danger and feeling like I have in some small way flouted the space mafia by mining without a licence? Absolutely. I don’t know how long I will continue to play this game or what I will move on to doing within it if I do. The only thing I know for certain is that I am not in the market for a a mining permit. Not now, not ever.

Hail To The Chief

When I started this blog I knew I wanted to write about things that can be framed as “games” even though they’re not the recreational pastimes we usually think of when we hear that word. An odd choice to be sure, but one I hope sets this body of work apart from the gaming-related noise on the internet. So I knew at some point I would have to address the phenomenon that is Donald J. Trump, the unlikely prospect for the Republican nomination. At first, I thought I would wait until his primary campaign flamed out and write a retrospective. And then he became the nominee, so I planned to watch the rest of the campaign and write the post-mortem in November. Then I had to wait and see if there would be a stunning upset in the electoral college. And now, as of yesterday, he is the president of the United States of America. Whatever the founding fathers of their nation may have envisioned 240 years into the future, this one man has come to define his nation’s politics. This election result has already changes the political landscape in North America, and it’s only just beginning.

We’d better include some measures in this constitution to prevent the rise of a demagogue…

A lot of ink and pixels have already been devoted to gloating, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and analyzing the causes of the final score in the political game that was the USA 2016 election. I’m not going to rehash most of that here. If you have seen Almost Infinite’s Twitter and Facebook cover photos then you know how I feel. But what interests me as a writer is the remarkable scale of the dissonance between the rules of the game and what people think the rules of the game are. No matter what the game is, this disconnect can be responsible for a lot of unnecessary grief. The remedy I propose is to understand and change rules rather than shout at the world about how things should be but simply aren’t.

One thing I am tired of is hearing American liberals complain that Clinton “won the popular vote” as if achieving a simple majority is the magic threshold of legitimacy. It can be argued that in a bipartisan system this would not an unreasonable standard to adopt, but I am not taking a position in this post about how they should run their elections. I am merely observing the way they do run their elections, and that this way has nothing to do with winning the popular vote at the national level. Their rules are complicated, and seem downright Byzantine to Canadians like me. These rules, though complex, are not vague: the candidate who wins the most votes in the electoral college wins the election. They might be terrible rules, but they are the rules all the same.

Peace, order, and good government: no simple majority required.

This disconnect between what we think the rules and and what they actually are exists in Canadian politics as well. Every time a majority government is elected with less than 50% of the vote you will hear people shout about how ~60% of the population voted for someone other than the Conservatives/Liberals yet the Conservatives/Liberals still got a majority of the seats. “It’s not fair!” Well, maybe it isn’t; I am not taking a position on Canadian electoral reform in this post. What I am saying is that our 39% majorities are a fact of life in this country because that is what happens when the game is played by our rules. It is entirely legitimate to wish to change the rules to something better, and it is quite possible that there are better ways of electing a parliament than the first-past-the-post system we use. However, to suggest that a Canadian government lacks legitimacy without achieving a simple majority is simply absurd (and is usually coated in a strong partisan bias; Liberals seem to have no problem with 39% majorities when it’s a Liberal majority and vice versa for Conservatives). We have not had a federal government that “won the popular vote” since 1984, when the Mulroney Conservatives in a “landslide” just barely cracked the 50% mark. There are many silly things about our antiquated Westminster parliament, and several changes I would like to see, yet I love our parliament for its quirks and its ability to deliver relatively stable governments that most Canadians can live with even if they detest the governing party. Being snarky about the legitimacy of our government because you don’t like the rules is useless at best, and dangerous at worst. Working for a better alternative, changing the game itself, is entirely more worthwhile. Or, get better at the game under the current rules and defeat your opponent like Justin Trudeau did to Stephen Harper. And yes, like Donald Trump did to Hillary Clinton. Despite all his faults, despite all the faults of the system, he won the game as it was intended to be played.

So, what does liberal America do with their situation? It’s not an easy thing to figure out from here and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. But one place where I think disgruntled Democrats can start is to flush the pee jokes out of their system and get to work on improving their game under existing rules while also pursuing electoral reform. Trump is POTUS and just wishing it wasn’t so doesn’t change anything. The same rules that allowed him to win also allow for the Democrats to win back their congress and senate over the next couple years, for impeachment of the president, and failing that they have another run at him in 2020. Their victory is not guaranteed, but there is a path towards it. Americans who oppose what their president stands for have options. As an interested observer, I am hoping that the vast majority of them choose something more productive than complaining about it on social media to their friends and followers who think the same way. Protest. Get involved. Do something about it. The USA is a weird, sometimes frightening, sometimes amazing country that deserves much more than a steady stream of snark piped into a series of echo chambers about what shouldn’t have happened.

Alright, the political rant is done. Back to writing about internet spaceships next week, then more tabletop RPG goodness on February 1.

The Magic is Missing

I haven’t rediscovered it yet. That Civilization magic that keeps me up into the wee hours of the morning, hopefully not on weeknights. The third, fourth, and fifth instalments all in their own way refined and built upon this magic. But when I tried to play Beyond Earth, I found it wasn’t there. Oh well, I thought, the magic wasn’t in the spin-off but it will arrive with the new one in the main series. But I have been trying to play through Civ 6, and it took longer than I expected to make it through my test run on Settler (lowest) difficulty.

Truth be told, the main reason I’ve made it as far as I have in my Civ 6 games is that I committed myself to write about things other than the series I am working on about that other game. My deliberate effort to stay casual rather than a part time job has meant that I was able to make time for Civilization, though I could just as easily have spent 100% of my gaming time there. Sort of like how Civilization used to perclude playing any other video games…

Inside the game, the part I am having the most difficulty with right now is that the new idea of districts struck me as brilliant. What I am finding less than brilliant is that the cost of building them is so high that it has made both of my attempts so far into production queue logjams because I have to wait so long for district construction to be complete. Technology and social policy acquisition are hardly limiting factors anymore; it’s being able to build the districts in any sort of reasonable time frame while still pumping out industrial and military units.

Planning Mumbai’s expansion: the cost of the districts themselves seems a bit steep.

But my beginner’s misadventures in virtual city planning are probably things I could learn to avoid given time and practice with the new rules. What concerns me more is the interaction with other civilizations. Although it has long been the case that interaction with your neighbours consisted mostly of them finding excuses to declare war on you because you deign to exist next to them, sometimes it almost feels like a geopolitical game. I fondly remember a round of Civ 5 where I propped up the Roman Empire with huge gifts of strategic resources because it was the only buffer between my land of peace, science, and cultural advancement and the Huns’ sprawling empire based entirely on brutality. The fact that I could use game mechanics to create a narrative was neat. This was more of an exception than a rule, but if that sort of shenanigans could become common then the whole idea of foreign relations could be a lot of fun. My experience so far is that it’s the same as it ever was, except now the leaders will insult me for having a small navy or not adopting their religion before they declare a war of naked aggression because my land is next to their land. It doesn’t make that part of the game much more compelling than it used to be.

So, while I like the new ideas, until I rediscover the magic that drew me to Civilization in the past I won’t be grappling with the prospect of pouring infinite amounts of time into the game. It has stood the test of time for 26 years, but if I start to feel about Civilization 6 the way I do about Beyond Earth, I may yet be cured of the obsession with getting through just one more turn.

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.