Saturday, April 25, 2009

RPS Essay

This is my submission for the contest at Rock Paper Shotgun.

I think that the best science fiction film was Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. I wanted to pick a Star Wars film, as I believe the series is the most influential sci-fi series in changing film and fiction in general. However, I feel that the original films are not indicative of the rich and deep political climate that is present throughout George Lucas' Star Wars universe. Episodes 4-6 are very classic examples of good versus evil, and while they are rife with interesting and shocking plot twists, they do not move us to change our outlooks on life or what is right and wrong.

Episode 2 is by far the best at making us think about the actions of each of the characters in the movie and ask ourselves whether they are right or wrong. Each of the main characters has their own particular moral compass, and this causes them to make many interesting choices throughout the film. Each time this happens, we are presented with a delightful dilemma - was what he or she did the right choice?

For our first example, we can take Obi-Wan. He's a pretty forthright, straightforward good guy. When we see him interact with Anakin in the early scenes, he is often stern with Anakin, chastising him. To some degree, Obi-Wan even belittles Anakin, in moments such as when he is questioning Anakin for why he would use Padme as bait to lure out the assassin. Are all of his decisions right in the movie? If everything had gone as he had wished, would Jango have been captured, or was the combination of Anakin and Padme's recklessness required in order to find Zam Wessel and later, Jango Fett?

Obi-Wan's caution is seen often in The Phantom Menace as being the voice of reason, but in Attack of the Clones his caution would have left him to forego opportunities that other characters, such as Padme or Anakin would push the story into exploring.

Anakin is the character that defines the moral ambiguity of the trilogy, though. He battles constantly with things like his love for Padme and his mother, things that the Jedi code discourage. These feelings get him into trouble and contribute to his eventual fall, but his expressions are all too human. While we frown at the way he murders the Tusken Raiders in vengeance, we also understand his fury at the loss of a loved one.

When we watch Episode 2, each of us has a different view of Anakin. Maybe we see his instability and arrogance as his defining traits, and frown on him because of that. Some of us might see his passion as a strength, rather than a weakness, though. Compared to the other Jedi, Anakin is much more 'human' and expresses emotions that we ourselves are likely to feel. The murder of his mother driving him to vengeance is something many people can relate with. I think that it is too easy to look at Anakin and condemn his feelings when he really is more like us than characters such as Obi-Wan or Yoda.

I can't talk about Anakin without mentioning Padme, though. She's every bit as reckless as he is, and her recklessness is almost always seen as a good thing throughout the movie. She is motivated to do the right thing at any cost, even if it puts her or others in danger. Even her arrival at Coruscant at the start of the movie is a decision fraught with peril. Numerous characters express concern that she should not have come. The major difference is that Anakin makes 'wrong' choices that end up getting people in trouble, while Padme makes choices that generally help the good guys out. However, it's important to note that the intent of these two characters is usually the same.

Although he had a pretty minor role in the movie, the morality of Chancellor Palpatine should also be addressed. In The Phantom Menace we see that the Republic is a slow, ponderous political beast with no real power, and that there is need for change. Palpatine, as the center of this change to a more stable system of government, is not truly a bad guy. Although we know that he becomes the "evil" Emperor later, and that he is the Dark Lord of the Sith, I think labels like "Dark Lord" serve to mask the unity he is attempting to bring to the galaxy.

In Attack of the Clones, Palpatine makes his second step towards gaining control of the Republic by getting emergency executive power. He is also never clearly portrayed as both the Chancellor and Darth Sidious at the same time. If the viewer had never seen the prequels, he or she might even be fooled into thinking that they were not the same person. Palpatine is almost always shown as impeccably nice to everyone, and only Obi-Wan even speaks ill of him during the movie (in a line that mentions him as being just like all other politicians).

But the blurred moral lines are not the only things that make Episode 2 excellent. Attack of the Clones also has excellent pacing, and covers a lot of key events in sequence that makes sense and is easy to follow.

When I rewatched the movie in order to better elaborate on the morality points that would be the focus of my essay, I noticed a lot of excellent plot flow. The chase scene with the shapeshifter Zam Wessel was particularly interesting because although it had a lot of twists in the chase (Obi-Wan getting blasted off the droid, Anakin jumping off his speeder to land on Zam's, and the final 'showdown' in the bar) they do an excellent job of making the viewer feel like all these crazy occurrences are plausible and could reasonably happen together.

If summarized, the events of Episode 2 seem ridiculous. Why does Anakin go from Naboo to Tattoine to Geonosis... with Padme in tow? If one were to explain these things to anyone else, these events would sound absolutely crazy. But when actually watched, these events make total sense. The actors do a surprisingly good job of justifying where they are going and what they are going to do there. Each plot twist in the movie feels right. When we are watching, we don't ask ourselves, "How is Obi-Wan on Kamino?" When I thought about the movie before watching it, I couldn't remember how Obi-Wan got there (it seemed like such a big logic leap). But when watching it, it made total sense.

Another thing the plot does well is handle many characters in different places. In many television shows and movies we get confused about who is doing what, and where. Obi-Wan is headed after Jango to Geonosis, Anakin is on Tattoine, and so on. The information about the characters is presented in an easily digestable and memorable way so there's never any confusion. This is a pretty impressive feat and most movies that do this screw it up.

Lastly, the movie does a great job of playing homage to the movies that came before. The Lars family, little riffs of the Imperial March here and there, and lines like "Anakin, someday you'll be the death of me," serve to really bring the old memories back. I do think that knowledge of the old movies does detract a bit, since we have certain expectations in this movie because of them. However, for those of us who did see Episodes 4-6 many times before seeing Episodes 1 and 2 for the first time, the homages were a nice touch.

I feel that Attack of the Clones is highly underestimated as a film. I agree with many of the criticisms such as weak acting (especially by Hayden Christensen) and poor scriptwriting, but the actors deliver a compelling tale that keeps you entertained from start to finish. It also lets us look at real life ethical dilemmas instead of a clear-cut battle versus good and evil.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this essay. It took me quite a while to write, and required rewatching of Attack of the Clones and a few trips to Wookiepedia.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully I've motivated you to take a look at what is really a great film.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pride and Glory

Okay, so I suck and haven't written in a couple days. I'm sorry, really.

Today I'm going to talk about the difference between pride (bad) and self-confidence (good!). I'm also going to talk about how to help with self-confidence, but it's something you'll have to find for yourself.

One of the things that I harp on a lot in this blog indirectly is pride. I don't outright say that pride is a bad thing, but virtually everything I get upset about, such as elitism or exclusive community values is a direct result of pride. Today I'm going for the jugular.

Pride is a state of mind that most nerds fall into. I'd suggest that it's a huge ratio, like over 90% huge. When I was at Kumoricon last year, pretty much everyone I met exhibited pride. When I was in the military (not nerds, but worth analyzing), virtually everyone fell into this state of mind.

Pride is the feeling where you need accomplishments, particularly those that compare you to other people or that require other people for validation. Pride is what changes a philosophy like playing to improve into the aggressive, heartless "playing to win." Pride is what takes us and turns us into hostile beings. When we are prideful we treat attacks on our beliefs as attacks on ourself.

Pride is so bad that in the right amounts it can create massive amounts of nationalism and foster beliefs like the Crusades or the Holocaust. Pride leads to belief without testing - the idea that one can believe something "just because" without any real evidence. Pride makes us think that Horde players are better than Alliance players, or that ganking people on PvP servers (or in EVE) is okay because the game allows it.

What's worse really, is that pride is extremely hard to get rid of. I use this in bold because it I cannot emphasize it enough. I blame Dale Carnegie (who wrote How to Make Friends and Influence People) for getting me out of that mindset, along with certain key individuals in my life who pushed me along the right path. I would have never got rid of pride on my own.

There's really no right way for a nerd to escape the cycle without help. You'll need backup, and that backup most likely isn't going to come from the people you hang out with now. Most of your online friends you keep are going to drag you down. Most isn't even the best choice of words, but there are people you likely associate with who are keeping you in that state of mind.

The first thing I'd suggest is to set goals for yourself. I write a lot of articles about good mindsets to have, so point yourself in one of those directions. If you're not a gamer nerd, a pro writer, or some other nerdy person, you'll have to think of something that will point you in the direction of self-advancement. I 'leveled up' by wanting to be better at marketing, which naturally meant I wanted to understand people better.

The goals you set for yourself need to put you on the course of self-betterment, preferably for its own sake. Being the best player in the world at Street Fighter is not a good goal. It requires other people to validate whether or not you are. A better example might be to understand mindgames better, or to advance yourself in some other independent way.

But, beyond that is the belief that you don't need to be better than others to be valued. Alternatively, you might need to lose the belief that you need other people for validation. I'm not going to say "you should quit raiding" or "you should quit playing to win." Maybe your goal can be mutual respect (something I talked about) or some other worthy goal.

Next on the list of things I need to unfortunately tell you is that you are gonna have to get some new people to hang with. I think you saw this coming. If we want to get some sort of value in our hearts, we need to reduce the amount of time we spend with people who don't have these values. It's pretty obvious. If you're in a guild full of griefers, it's definitely time to get a new guild. If you're in a guild with a couple of problem people who cause lots of drama, you should try to reduce the amount of time you spend around those people. If you can, you should try to get them to change too, or barring that, maybe get them kicked from your guild (diplomatically, don't do anything underhanded!).

If the environment you're in is not conductive to you losing your pride, sadly you may have to quit your scene. I've seen people do this and it sucks, but sometimes you have to. I will not name any communities like this, but most MMORPG communities are big enough that you can get a 'fresh start' away from whoever was dragging you down without actually quitting. Most of the time, you won't even need to migrate servers or anything like that. But if you play a small competitive community where everyone drags each other down, it's time to go somewhere else.

Don't let jerks get in the way of your own personal self-fullfillment. Pride is a very hard thing to overcome. It's not something you do overnight. The first step is knowing that you are prideful, and the next step is wanting to change.

After that, it's all you, baby. Don't let us down!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Because there's no such thing as Internet Ninjas

Piracy on the internet is really rampant. I'm sure everyone is saying 'no, really?' but the rampant growth of internet piracy is important for today's topic.

I'm not going to talk about something boring like whether software piracy is a moral thing or not. I'm sure you have your own views on it. I'm pretty sure that if you guessed, you could figure mine out too.

What I am going to talk about is the impact of piracy on content providers.

The bottom line on content such as music or literature or software is that someone has to pay for it to get produced. It costs money to put CDs or books on the shelves, and it takes time to write books or make music. If they don't make a return on that time and money, they come out at a loss. So if we don't buy their stuff, they lose money, right?

This is seemingly not actually the case for many content providers though. Blame Society Productions has nearly all of their content available for free, either on their website or on youtube. It's pretty hard to pirate it when it is already free! However, Blame Society also sells DVDs and merchandise, and they make fairly good money even though the DVDs contain material you can already get on the internet for free without needing to pirate.

Other small-time content providers are also following this trend - all of their music, videos, or whatever can be seen online for free. They sell CDs and MP3s of their stuff and they still make enough money to live off of, and continue making music. Many of them do exceptionally well using this model.

Contrast this with Adobe Photoshop. PS is a very detailed and expensive program, but the development time for PS is laudable compared to the development time for most video games. Still, PS costs way too much money - far out of the reach of most internet artists. Although there are cheaper alternatives, PS is frequently pirated because the price is so out of reach for normal people that it's clear Adobe does not actually care about their product being pirated.

From my observations, I can see that the main people who are 'hurt' by piracy are bloated corporations who abused the existing marketing system and are too invested in the current marketing system to change. Big name bands have a lot to be hurt by piracy, because they already have all the publicity they need (who hasn't heard of Metallica?) and any money lost dips into their ability to live completely extravagant lifestyles.

We may lose a lot from big name companies not being able to make products, though. For instance, if movie companies could not put millions of dollars into movie production and make money, the overall quality of product may drop. Obviously this means nothing for the music industry or for books, but games and movies could drop in quality if we don't pay for their products.

Somehow, I don't see that happening though. The console gaming market is going very strong, and even PC game sales are steadily rising even in our garbage economy. Movies are also having strong increases in profit so I doubt that movie quality is going to drop anytime soon.

I think it's worth noting that a lot of content providers that aren't free, like gootecks, advocates free sharing of his content if you buy it. He's just looking to get by and he wants his information to be heard. I think, again, that is pretty awesome.

I don't think piracy or the internet are going to ruin the economy in any way. I do think it will continue to do damage to big music artists, but really, that market is so lacking in real talent right now that it deserves to be flipped. And honestly, there is not a lot we can do about it either way.

Again, this is nothing about the morality of piracy. You can draw your own conclusions on that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Winning Isn't Everything

I had every intent of writing 2 articles to make up for not writing one on Friday, but I was stumped for a topic. Fortunately, someone awesome decided to give me an idea for a preachy article.

This article is about fairness and "playing to win." Playing to win is a concept coined by David Sirlin, lead designer for Street Fighter HD and the author of the gaming blog In a nutshell, playing to win is having the mindset that a person should do anything it takes to achieve victory. All avenues to victory should be explored, and the concept of what is honorable should be condemned.

I agree with this view. I would not write a real article about it though if I did not have some sort of unique statement on it. It is not my intention to regurgitate his material; it's present on his website.

Playing to win is probably a bad idea for most people. In fact, I feel that the idea of playing to win is sort of a flawed view. I think that on many levels it is not a good idea. Only in one circumstance is it worth following - within the realms of tournament, league, or other ranked play. In these scenarios you should do everything you can to win, within the rules of the game. I don't think that disconnecting to avoid losses is a winning move, so perhaps I should restrict ranked play even further to say, ranked play that actually matters (eg. not XBL ranked matches or something).

The crux of my argument isn't what most people expect when they hear I dislike the playing to win mentality. I think that 'unfair' tactics should be used, because they're probably not unfair. I think that concession should not be given to a weaker opponent, such as a handicap or letting them get up without being harassed or whatever.

I dislike playing to win because it creates awful, egocentric player attitudes. If you adopt a 'win at all costs' mentality, you may win the games at hand, but you lose out on much more. You lose out on potential friends who may be offended by how you play. You most likely also lose out on good competition because if you pummel your opponents mercilessly, they may never get a chance to figure out how to beat you. Playing to win teaches people disrespect. It teaches people how to treat others poorly and how to look down on people who do not follow your ideals. This is a poor philosophy.

Instead, I believe in a philosophy of playing to learn, or playing to improve. In actuality, Sirlin and many pro SF players believe in this philosophy too. However, many people who read about playing to win miss the point, that the goal of playing to win is to shed the restrictions that hold us back so we can improve. It is not the actual victory that is the important thing. However, Sirlin and many of his friends were brought up in a world where there were numerous people who criticized them for their excellent play, and they saw themselves as clearly better. Such an idea as playing to win was very natural for them to create for themselves.

But this is 2008, not 1992. Playing to win is shouted over the internet as a phrase used to discriminate against "scrubs." This mentality is not something I can abide by.

Playing to learn is about improvement. Improvement at any cost, even winning or honor. No expense should be spared to get better. Instead of trying our best to defeat the enemy we're now trying our best to exceed our previous limits. If we can do this, winning is natural, because we're getting better and better.

Playing to learn is also about sharing and helping your other players get better too. Why would we care about other players? Even the most selfish player can agree with this - if you play better competition, you get better, period. This is absolutely undisputable.

Once upon a time I played Guilty Gear. I was decent at it. I played /slash and #reload, for reference. I played Ky in both games. Relative to the people near me, I was not as skilled, but I could compete. But one day they went to Evolution and suddenly I was far, far weaker than them. Then I played against them for a while and my skill level jumped dramatically higher in only a few weeks. Then I quit GG, mostly because my fingers were not skillful enough to keep up with my expectations for myself.

Helping people get to your skill level also helps you gain an understanding of overall play. If you see how other players develop and their tendencies and habits, you can adapt some of these things into your game plan. For instance, I am generally a 'safe' defensive player in fighting games. I like a relaxed, slow-paced game with few twists and thus, my play style is very boring. Many of my friends run the full range between overly cautious (more than me) and very aggressive and risky. Helping them improve by teaching them little nuances of play has also let me see how their playstyles work. In particular, the high risk players have taught me quite a bit about how to play a little edgier game and press advantage more. At the same time, my 'textbook' type play helps them improve their defense game too.

As a side note, I discovered 'The Book of Nothing' because of collaboration with a friend playing Street Fighter 4. I noticed that there were times when both of us would do really dumb things, like jump at each other at the exact same times. I looked a little deeper to find little habits embedded in each of us. I told myself, "hey, maybe it's because doing things at the first opportunity might not always be smart" and I explained it to my friend. That day, we practiced hard to not do things at the right time, and instead do them later, earlier, not at all, and so on. We got a lot better that day! I feel sort of lame explaining that I learned all of that playing SF4, like I should have known it sooner.

Back on topic, playing to learn means throwing away all concept of victory sometimes because when you are playing casually, either on console or at the arcade, you want to mess around. I'll use a more specific example to illustrate this more clearly.

In Soul Calibur, being knocked down is really bad for you. It's highly dangerous to get knocked down because you are totally at your opponent's mercy. They can hit you on the ground, they can hit you while you're getting up and they get way more choices about what to do than in a 2D fighter. Your opponent has tons of tempo advantage and your options are very few.

In this knocked down situation you should experiment with any and all options you have because you may find that you have some new option you didn't know about. For instance, as soon as you start rising, you can start inputting attacks. Your attacks have almost zero chance of beating your opponent's, because they get to start their attack very early. But you could do a move with some sort of evasion or parry to try and deflect their attack. If they guess a certain way, attacking becomes actually a viable option instead of just having to guess blocking high or low, or staying on the ground. However, the specific options available to you need testing. In a lot of cases your character might not have any good attacks to use. Some characters might have several!

Another situation is with 'cheap' moves. Playing to win is very clear on this issue. Abuse the cheap moves! But playing to learn is not so clear. If it is clear your opponent can't beat a particular move or series of moves, the best option you have is to teach them how to beat it. If you don't know, you should try to figure out a way to beat that move. For instance, if your friend dies every time to a proxy gateway rush, you should teach him how to defeat it. Instead of playing lots of 3-minute games where your friend is frustrated, you beat him once then talk it over. "How do you beat that?" Once you explain how to defeat your strategy, then you're naturally forced into developing new counter strategies. And maybe the same can be said in reverse, if your opponent figures out something tricky, he will be more apt to show you how to beat it if you taught him how to beat your proxy gateway rush.

Playing to learn is a journey of cooperation. If the people around you grow, so will you.

I am not the only person to hold these philosophies. Ryan Gutierrez, better known on the internet as gootecks, has a program in his local area that he calls "Scrubs to Winners' Clubs." His friends take players that suck at Street Fighter, and give them training time, teach them basics, and help them become winners. Ryan and his crew are doing awesome work for the SF community, and I applaud their efforts. I know that they don't quite understand all the concepts of 'playing to learn' the same way I do (good players aren't as good at explaining things, fortunately I am not very good!), but they do know that building the community will help everyone get better. You can check his stuff out at, he has a ton of podcasts and a blog too.

I could explain a lot of anecdotes about how playing to learn has improved my skills at various games, even if the 'scrubs' I taught never really made it to the winners' clubs. But as I understand more about how people learn things, I'll get better at teaching and my competition will get better at teaching me new things too.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck being only good at Soul Calibur, lol.