Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon Stay

Everybody's playing Pokemon Go. I got into it for a while, then got tired with the grind. Don't get me wrong, Pokemon has always had a grind aspect to it (lots of RPGs do), but the lack of interesting battles and the emphasis on finding multiples of the same Pokemon is tedious.


Watching some of my co-workers get into Pokemon for the first time, two decades after I first got into it, has me feeling nostalgic. The memories: playing Pokemon Red for hours on my new Game Boy color, getting up on Saturday mornings to watch and record the show on Fox Kids, getting my mom to bring us to O'Brien's 5 & 10 to buy new trading card packs, reciting the Pokemon rap during lunch at Catholic school, and finally, catching all 150 through trading with kids at summer camp, only to find that my ultimate reward is a certificate that can only be printed with a Game Boy Printer. That was where I left Pokemon.

And here I am twenty years later cursing Amazon for being out of the "New Nintendo 3DS XL," as I try to find some way to justify dropping $300 on a system I'll only use for 2-5 games tops, instead of paying off my credit card debt.

In the meanwhile I'm playing Pokemon Fire Red on a Gameboy Advance emulator because I can't not scratch the itch. I want to play Pokemon. Not Pokemon Go, but what a buddy and I are calling "Pokemon Stay," or what a coworker called "Hipster Pokemon." The real deal. It's great. I mean, it's exactly the same as it was twenty years ago, but I'm happy to look at it with fresh eyes.


The cool thing about Pokemon is that everybody in the world of Pokemon is on the same page. To live among the pokemon is a privilege. To catch them is a test of strength, will, and character. To train them is a cause of the highest honor. While Pokemon is a game, everybody in the world of Pokemon is serious about what they're doing. You can't walk a few feet without being called out and challenged to a fight. There's a ritual to it; you can't say no to a trainer battle, and you can't run away from a trainer battle. There's a singularity of purpose to the world that everybody shares. Questions like the economy, food, healthcare, and the quantum mechanics of Pokeballs are all waved away in the utopian pursuit to catch more pocket monsters.

Like I said earlier though, the grind gets kind of tiring.

Nintendo is this sexy femme fatale that I keep falling in and out of love with. It'll be a while since we've last seen each other, and she'll catch my eye, and the next thing I know we're hooking up. I'm talking sweaty, steamy, in the corner. At first we're just catching Pokemon, but then they show me Majora's Mask 3D and it's like I have a window into this magical world that I only ever dreamed of when I was a child.

One week later, I'm browsing through the virtual console, realizing there's no GBA games on there, and thinking that maybe this relationship doesn't have long-term potential.


When are you going to get your shit together Nintendo? I want so badly to love you, but you're not ever there for me the way I need you to be. It's bad enough that you don't have good third party games, and that you make me buy the old good games again every time a new console comes out, but the fact that there are tons of old games you don't even offer is what really makes this not work. All I wanted was Metroid Fusion, babe. The new Pokemon is fine. I like what you've done with Zelda. But it's not enough. I can't let you into my home again.

I'm sure you'll find some young "founder" that hasn't been burned by the likes of you yet. That's fine. I have my PC over here. Sure, it might not have all the flashy gizmos that the New Nintendo 3DS XL does, and the things I play on it aren't so innocent and joyful, but it doesn't do me wrong. It treats me with the respect I deserve.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Honor, Dignity, Mutual Respect

Once upon a time I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about "honor culture" in The South. They said how most of America had moved on to "dignity" culture, while honor culture was still strong in the southern states. What makes a culture an "honor" culture is a focus on personal justice - you wronged me or something I hold in esteem, so you must pay. Think of vikings and Klingons when you think of honor culture. Honor culture keeps people polite by maintaining the ever-present threat of a confrontation.

Dignity culture, on the other hand, contains a more subtle approach to offense. Somebody part of a dignity culture will contain their reaction when offended. They know that the offender is in the wrong and should be embarrassed. The dignified person wouldn't deign to correct the offender or even stoop to voice their offense. Dignity culture keeps people polite by shaming people who don't conform to it.

Those were the two cultures they contrasted. I don't remember what they said about demographics or trends over time - I'm sure you can look up the original piece. But I was just thinking that there's another way to react to offense, another way to relate to people: mutual respect.

In a culture of mutual respect, all parties in a conversation are free to converse without threat of confrontation or shame. In a mutual respect culture, both parties can be sure of the following:
  • I respect you, and so will not intentionally disrespect you or your boundaries, and will endeavor not to do so unintentionally.
  • You respect me, so I feel comfortable talking about things that are true for me without unintentionally offending you, as well as calmly voicing my offense when my boundaries are crossed without worrying about being personally criticized.
The important thing here isn't that nobody is ever offended - that's impossible. What's important about mutual respect is that it allows for benefit of the doubt on both sides. In fact, it requires it.

I think the really beautiful thing about a culture of mutual respect is that it keeps people polite by actually creating polite people. Somebody who is considerate of others, who seeks to make anybody and everybody comfortable, is the definition of polite.

People of a culture of mutual respect won't be afraid of speaking their honest minds: both their views, and their views on others' views. But they also won't be afraid to own up to and apologize for an offense when committed, because they have respect for the other person.

I don't think you can look at any given region and say, blanket-statement, that they have an honor or a dignity culture. I've seen these cultures manifest in families, in individuals, in businesses and in subcultures. Living in a metropolitan culture like Austin definitely presents a mix, though I'm thankful my job definitely has a culture of mutual respect.

This is just something I've been thinking about more often, with the current tenor of political conversation in this country, as well as an interesting uptick in "outrage culture."

I think the interesting thing about the difference between mutual respect and honor/dignity cultures is that both honor and dignity require some claim to The Truth. Honor requires a personal truth, while dignity requires a group truth. Mutual respect, however, requires temporarily abandoning one's personal truth (that is, pre-conceived notions about the world, both experiential and philosophical) in order to fully consider somebody else's. That makes mutual respect kind of post-modern, right?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Job Simulator - Owlchemy Labs



I got to play with the HTC Vive yesterday for the first time. The difference between sitting down with a VR headset and moving around with it on combined with motion tracking is astounding. This particular demo gave me an incredible sense of actually being there in the virtual world.

The last time I got to play with VR was early this month, when Juegos Rancheros had Superhypercube on display for people. THAT was a lot of fun too. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any videos up yet that do justice to that experience.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Meditation in The Witcher 2


The Witcher 2 can be a frustrating game to get into, with its long intro sequence, unconventional combat, sophomoric sexuality, and lack of clear instructions. One of the features I initially shied away from is protagonist Geralt's ability to meditate.

Meditation in The Witcher 2 is a glorified inventory and stats menu, but the way combat is structured in the game (which I'm beginning to think is genius) demands you use it a certain way.

You get four options for meditation: alchemy, drink potions, meditate, character. In "alchemy" you make potions out of ingredients and in "drink potions" you do exactly that. "Character" is the skill level up menu, while simple "meditation" allows your character to wait until a certain period of the day.


Because The Witcher doesn't allow drinking potions or accessing these menus during combat, the player is forced to sit and prepare for battle in the wilderness beforehand, considering possible enemy types and combat strategies as they upgrade their skills then mix and drink potions. These potions can help protect Geralt in battle, as well as grant him certain strengths. They tend to last around 10 minutes (but I'm not very far in yet, this probably varies).

The difference between running into battle and sitting down beforehand to prepare and upgrade has a huge practical effect - Geralt can take more hits and do more damage. I also think there's a psychological effect on the player. By forcing them to sit before combat to organize resources, the game encourages the player to form a strategy. Thinking in game terms going forward in time, the player becomes immersed in the experience.


I've found meditation important in my life for a lot of reasons, but this game reflects one of them well - the need to have a moment of silence and consideration before acting on a task. I meditate every morning, focusing on my breath, letting thoughts rise and subside until I reach a point of relative stillness. I do this for about half an hour every day because it lets me shake off mental "residue" from the previous day and the night's dreams. It provides me a blank mental slate that allows me to give full consideration to the tasks and people of the day. Then when I go out and do those things, I can give them my full attention, feeling confident, prepared, but most importantly present.

That's why this meditation mechanic works well in The Witcher as a tool for immersion. It forces the player to be present in the game. Through alchemy it trains them to internalize the root mechanics of the game as they weigh them against the challenges ahead. These considerations fill the player's consciousness, drawing them further into the world. Then when they do engage in combat, it's so intense that they can't possibly focus on anything else without dying.

As I play The Witcher 2, I'm getting used to its quirks and mechanics and finding them rich in detail and it excites me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Austin Suck?

Whiskey-infused bacon. Why is that cool? What may once have been a delicacy made on a hot-plate next to some piss jugs in a dorm room is, in Austin, an artisanal treat. Things like whiskey infused bacon, or fried PB&J sandwiches, or the ability to buy breakfast tacos anywhere, or the lineup at any given venue on any given night: these may vary in quality, and may not even justify their existences, but the ability to experience these things says something about Austin.
It’s a sweltering, congested sub-metropolis full of slack-asses and yuppies who simultaneously take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. It's a place where spending $11 on a sandwich is considered a societal good. - friend and fellow former KVRX DJ Luke Winkie, in an article for Vice.
What's not said in that quote is that $3 of those dollars may have gone in the tip jar of the food stand he bought it from. There are tip jars EVERYWHERE in Austin. It won't be long until people start wearing them as accessories. But that's part of the point that I'm getting at:

Austin is full of believers. Yes, it's full of slackers too, and yes, there is a sort of "inertia":
Living in a city where things are actually expected of you is hard. It’s much easier to blame your professional and personal failings on the lack of inertia in Austin. It’s just so much nicer to hunker down in an inclusive local scene than trying to reach your potential as a human. Austin is like the safety school of life.
But what's better than an inclusive local scene? Really? Inclusive local scenes are great! Fantastic! We have five to eight farmers' markets a week, food trucks all over the city, tech startups everywhere, small and growing businesses of all kinds, meetups and places to perform... because people believe in the dream.
You don’t give a shit about whiskey-infused bacon. You’re pretending to, because that’s what keeps the whole city from feeling like a big lie.
Whiskey-infused bacon isn't important. It's what whiskey-infused bacon represents on a macro scale that's important. It's the thing that's keeping people in this city employed. It's what's bringing millions of dollars into town. People believe in each other. They're giving each other the benefit of the doubt. If you have a stupid idea, just go ahead and do it - somebody will pay for it (gourmet donuts the size of your head? Duh!).  And if not, just wait until night when everybody's drunk. In this town, that's a winning formula.
Nobody has a clue what his or her job is... When you build a city on the promise of employing every vague Comm-degree'd asshole in America, ye will reap what ye sow... When you settle down here you separate yourself from any childhood aspirations and settle with a job you're not sure actually exists.
Luke is talking about himself here, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. The way young people in this city get paid is different than the typical model in America. Yes, like everywhere else, work = pay. But in Austin the question of "work" and "jobs" is an existential one. People, at least people in their 20s (like myself), don't tend to hold down stable 9-to-5 jobs. A lot of young people hold down some kind of part-time job, then do other things for money to make up the gap. "Freelancing" is the word here. I know journalists, game developers, graphic designers, sound engineers, directors and people who wear a few kinds of figurative hats. I don't tend to agree with the Robert Heinlein quote about how a person should "...be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion," etc, but in Austin it certainly helps.

The logic is this: It's hard to find a job here... so why not go into business for yourself?

There lies the place on the venn-diagram where the "big lie" overlaps with the "big dream." No, Austin is not some jobs metropolis where they're handing out financial security to everybody with a degree and an idea. It's nothing like that. It's a place where enough people believe in the dream that they're willing to give everybody a chance, because then people will give them a chance. You can call it lowering your standards, or "taking yourself seriously and not seriously enough," or being a "slack-ass", or "a series of personal and financial failings", but that would be looking at it with a rule set designed for a different kind of game.

Austin is a place where you, as a young person developing your artistic and professional voice, can hustle your bullshit and people will give you a shot. And they'll give everybody else a shot, and you'll give 'em all a shot as well because that's what's keeping everything afloat.

And really... the only safety net in this city is the one you brought in with you. I've seen people from out of town move in, try the dream, fail, and move right back out of town. Some people don't have the financial security, the immense privilege, the know-how, or the skills (or degree) to do well here. But I've also seen plenty of people work hard and flourish. Luke Winkie is one of them.

When I moved here, a friend was talking to me about the hipster situation here (hipsters were more of a going concern back then). We were talking about how hipsters are defined by cascading irony, and how that's different in Austin. "Hipster" doesn't quite describe the Austinite. Neither does "hip," really. As ridiculous as they can be sometimes, people here mean it when they do and consume things.

Sometimes I can't shake the feeling that I'm living in Monty Python's camelot: "...it is a silly place." This is not what I was told adult life looks like. Maybe one day I'll graduate to that realm.

Until then I'm going to try to get a non-job and make enough money to start my own business.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Play and The Cosmic Calendar

I love the concept of the Cosmic Calendar as presented in Cosmos. It does a good job of making comprehendible something that's impossible to comprehend - the billions and billions of years it took to get where we are today. The Cosmic Calendar is a visual metaphor that divides up the history of the universe into the 365 days of the gregorian calendar. All of human civilization takes place on the last day, December 31st. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all did their thing within the last five SECONDS of this calendar.


It's mind-boggling.

On the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned that sex - referring to the biological process of cellular reproduction, minus the bulk of its cultural meaning to us - is as old as early November. That's about 2 billion years ago. And all of humanity, starting with apes? About 5 million years, or starting in the morning on December 31st.

So I wondered, with all that time between the beginning of sex and the beginnings of humanity, when did Play come along? Huizinga's Homo Ludens begins thusly: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequaty defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men."


Despite this compelling introduction, Huizinga's book is a historical account of play in solely the timeline of human civilization and culture. He accounts for play in the last few thousand years, but before that? When did the animals learn to play? Is play as old as multicellular organisms?

What if it's older than sex?

Maybe it's only as old as consciousness itself. For Huizinga says, "in play, there's always something at play." Perhaps the object of play, whether a concept or a ball, requires a field of consciousness to exist in. Or perhaps play gave rise to consciousness. I'm shooting in the dark here.

Still, it's an interesting question. How old is play? To answer this question would shed light on the nature of play itself.