sunset

Yoga by Alliance Russe.  Creative Commons License via Flickr

 

Everything is fine
And you know the sun will always shine
Two and two always equals four
And life is simple when you’re sure
The world’s on someone else’s shoulders
Leave it there ’til it gets colder
Two and two always equals four
Did you never hope for something more?

 

Jesus Jones, “Two by Two”

Oddly enough, the election result hasn’t shaken my faith in the US electoral process.  However the tidal wave of idiocy it has unleashed is coming perilously close to destroying my faith in democracy in general.  What is really dispiriting is not so much what I’m seeing from Trump apologists; their reactions have been entirely predictable.  But the cluelessness being demonstrated by some liberals has been jaw-dropping.  There are entirely legitimate reasons to be pissed off at this election result.  And people should stay pissed.  Because there is a lot of stuff being brought out into the open now that has always been there, but to which large sectors of the nation have been blind.  It is virtually impossible for you to be a young person growing up today and not know that racism is alive and well in the US or, at the very least, that race is still a primary yardstick by which we measure the success of this perpetually evolving national experiment.  It is difficult (although, unfortunately, not impossible) to be growing up today and not realize how misogynist your culture is.  Awareness followed by denial is of course always an option.  But I’m going to be strongly tempted to slap the next person who says “I’m not a feminist but. . .”

A lot of progressive anger at this result stems from the fact that it all just seems so damn unjust.  A temperamentally unstable merchant of hate won.  The party that engineered a shut-down of the entire government, took the nation to the brink of a ruinous debt default, and raised childish tantrum politics to an art form, now gets to pretend to be an adult and control all branches of government.  That, however, is a hard but useful lesson: there is no necessary connection between democracy and justice.  Often you get justice in spite of, not because of democracy.

However, the election aftermath is, sadly, providing ample additional evidence of what I wrote about in “The Trump Card:” the biggest threat to democracy may be Americans’ own piss poor knowledge of how their system of government works.

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testPlease don’t tear this world asunder
Please take back
this fear we’re under
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop wanting you
I might just stop wanting you
Please make sure we get tomorrow
All this pain and all the sorrow
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop needing you

David Bowie, “A Better Future”

Well, as has been obvious to the rest of the world, the US has been on a bit of a drunken bender for the last year and a half, behaving a lot like a college student when his or her basketball team loses (or, let’s be honest, wins or loses): smashing shit, blowing things up, setting things on fire, tipping things over.  Decency, taste, respect, fairness, democracy.  Stuff like that.

Then on November 9th America, bleary-eyed, mouth like sand, head pounding, woke up, rolled over. . .and discovered it was in bed with Pennywise the Clown.

“Did you and I. . .you know. . . Oh God!”

This was to be the third in a sequence of posts (after “The Griefing of America” and “The Trump Card“) that was going to look at some ways in which adapting concepts from the world of game design could improve some elements of the democratic process.  A couple of them were going to be tongue-in-cheek but there were also a couple of serious ideas mixed in there.

Now all that is beside the point.  The challenge is now a lot more basic.  To attempt to safeguard the democratic process from further abuse and to hold on to the idea of America as a nation that welcomes difference, celebrates diversity, and doesn’t spend all its time immersed in a fearful haze of mutually contradictory conspiracy theories.

Yeah, only that.

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I’m tethered to the logic of homo sapiens
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith

David Bowie, “Quicksand”

This piece continues the argument begun in “The Griefing of America

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this fiasco of a US election season is that when it is over it still won’t be over.  If Trump wins, there are some pretty likely outcomes: attempts to lock up his political rival, trade wars, economic chaos disproportionately impacting–in a dreadful irony that will probably escape them, as has every other empirical fact up to this point–many of Trump’s “little guy” supporters.  If Clinton wins on Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Thursday, or however long it takes for all the votes to be counted) there’s a better than even chance that Trump won’t accept the result.  Or that his brainwashed supporters won’t accept the result.  And some Republicans in Congress are already vowing to attempt to impeach Clinton as soon as she takes office, to block all her nominees, to take to an entirely new level the Politics of No that have already made the US a laughingstock worldwide.

But here’s the important part: even if  the Trumpet loses this election, he has already won.

Who Doesn’t Love a Good Fairytale?

There are three great lies that underpin the US electoral process.  I’m not sure many politicians really believe these things, but in the BOE (Before Orange Era) they had to pretend to believe each of these things, at least when the microphone was on:

  1. The US voter is rational;
  2. The US voter is smart and well-informed;
  3. The news media secures the rationality and information quality of the system by playing an engaged watchdog role.

The Trumpet has called bullshit on all of these.  Let’s look at them in reverse order.

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Rage

Rage this way, Flikr image by Anne. Creative Commons License.

The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything.

George Orwell, 1984

Recently I’ve turned my attention again to the question of the connection between games and what we often refer to, in all seriousness, as real life, more specifically, to the potential for games to intervene in reality and transform it in some way, hopefully for the better.  The is the concept of Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) popularized by Jane McGonigal (although not originating with her) which is distinct from the co-opted cluelessness of “gamification” (whose only purpose is to sell you stuff).  It is also different from the concept of Augmented Reality Games where reality serves as a platform for the game, but the purpose is more traditionally one of entertainment and diversion only (think–gah–of Pokemon Go).

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is, not surprisingly, as a response to the horror of the current US presidential election season, which feels as if it has been going on since about three weeks after the last election was decided.  Many conservatives and liberals in the US, who can’t even agree on what to put on their toast in the mornings, seem united in their belief that the current election season has not simply plumbed new depths but has in fact powered up a giant drilling rig (drill, baby, drill!) and is boring straight for the center of the planet.

Before we can talk about how games might improve the US electoral process in a couple of small but significant ways, however, we have to look squarely at the nature of the problem.

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Image of Solitude

“Solitudes” by ArTeTeTrA. (Creative Commons License)

Go Outside and Smell the (Paper) Roses!

It is no secret that videogames are blamed for a lot of the world’s ills.  Simplistic associations between videogames and societal violence persist despite the ambiguous and often downright flawed research in this area.  I suspect this particular gaming albatross is never going to disappear, but just in case that it does, the forces of reaction are lining up new evils to associate with interactive entertainment, chiefly childhood obesity and addiction.  This of course is nothing new.  Governments have routinely targeted the new media of the day in order to try and expand their control over information; parents have regularly lambasted the media du jour in order to dodge responsibility for their own parenting decisions.  I am, however, routinely shocked at how effective the level of societal brainwashing has been.  Many of my students have absorbed the “evil influence” argument to some degree.  This is perhaps not so surprising in those who don’t consider themselves gamers (although many of them are; they just don’t play “those games,” you know, the bad ones; playing Candy Crush obsessively doesn’t make you a gamer but playing Call of Duty does, in their minds).  Yet even people who have been playing and enjoying all manner of games for years, who think of “gamer” as part of their identity, have absorbed some of these negative stereotypes.

Yet behind all of this there is often a much more basic dismissal directed at games, a snooty high-mindedness that declares that those who play videogames are simply “missing out.”  What they are missing out on is sometimes unspecified; the proposition is left hanging, a vague assertion that gamers are missing out on “life” in some unspecified way.  Sometimes the criteria are established: they are missing out on “social interaction” or “the great outdoors” or “creative play.”  Such charges are, of course, usually based on hopelessly romantic notions of what each of those entails.  Anyone who has stood in line to get coffee at Starbucks with a group of people who can barely look up from their phones long enough to voice their order (and in fact usually continue texting, etc. without even offering the person serving you your drink the courtesy of eye contact) should know better than to offer platitudes about the vast and exciting world of stimulating social interaction that is waiting for people just outside their front door.  Moreover, it is worthy of note, isn’t it, that this “gamer generation” of “millennials” (and I honestly have no idea what that word means anymore, if it was ever supposed to be anything more than a term of abuse ready-packaged for deployment by grumpy curmudgeons like me) are actually those who are seeking out experience, the extraordinary and the extreme, in unprecedented numbers.

With all of this as background, it occurred to me recently, that the real hidden tragedy associated with videogames is that it is the people who don’t play them who are missing out. Read the rest of this entry »

St Cuthbert

Saint Cuthbert? Or a modern videogame designer?

It shouldn’t by this point be any surprise that the mainstream media does a lousy job commenting intelligently on videogames.  When they aren’t talking about videogames as a business (in which case they are always awesome) the standard narrative remains that playing games is bad for you.  Games either actively damage you in some way or prevent you from engaging in activities which are supposedly a lot better for you.  Sure, the mainstream media does occasionally flirt with the idea that games may be beneficial on the individual and social level.  But this is really the equivalent of the fake compliment, something they know they have to say to keep the wheels of conversation moving, when what they really want to say is that those jeans do make you look fat.  When something new and game-related appears, however, the media reach for their default frameworks. It took all of two days after the release of Pokemon Go, for example, for the Washington Post to come up with a story built around the stock “games are dangerous!” frame.  Like all such stories, it takes a few anecdotes and while it never explicitly argues that this is a trend, strongly implies it, and relies upon readers’ familiarity with the broader frame to come to the necessary conclusion for themselves.  (The Pokemon Go phenomenon is obnoxious but for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the supposed potential to make people so self-absorbed that they walk into lamp posts or in front of cars; in terms of massive levels of screen-based self-absorption society has left orbit on that one already).

But there’s at least some evidence to suggest that it may be making videogames that is hazardous to your health.

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I’m not even going to pretend that there isn’t a conflict of interest here.  A better, more ethical person would take steps to maintain their objectivity and protect their sense of integrity.  But in a world where news anchor Brian Williams can singlehandedly drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan, and the US Supreme Court has declared that money is people, I will simply press on.  In the immortal words of Brian Williams, once more unto the breach!

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