Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars the Last Jedi


I am struggling to figure out the motive.

How and why could they make such a stupendously awful Star Wars movie?

The film is a masterclass in anticlimax. The vast majority of what you see on screen is of zero consequence. Hour-long subplots about infiltrating enemy ships go nowhere. The return of Luke Skywalker, a character that we just spent an entire movie building up, turns out to be almost totally pointless. The much teased mentorship of Rey by Luke ends with him teaching her nothing. (like she needs to be taught anything anyway...) The great mystery of Rey's parents turns out to be irrelevant, doubling down on the Mary Sue criticism of her character. The enigmatic Snoke, a powerful Force user able to throw lightning and use telepathy across light years, is tossed away with zero payoff. If you were at all excited about any of the mysteries and questions raised by the previous film, The Last Jedi does a thorough job of both disappointing you and insulting you for caring in the first place.

The Last Jedi is methodical in its deconstruction of the franchise. The Force, that mystical thing that required both a natural affinity and years of study to master, is now just a random super power. Luke Skywalker, the great hope of the galaxy who risked his own life to redeem his genocidal father, is a useless hermit who considers murdering children in their sleep. Just as The Force Awakens cheapened Han Solo by making the former hero into a bumbling old smuggler shown up by Rey at every step, The Last Jedi continues sullying all of the good elements of the previous movies. Some have argued that the purpose is to push a feminist agenda.

I don't know that I agree with that theory but it is true that there are no competent male characters in the story. Not a single male character achieves the goals they pursue. Finn spent the last film being shown up by Rey. He spends this one being shown up by a no-name pudgy Asian chick. Kylo Ren, the only decent character remaining, is completely neutered as a threat as he is again bested by Rey and then later by a Force hologram. Luke has nothing to offer Rey and offers nothing to the rebellion except five minutes of stalling time before keeling over and dying on a rock. A wondrous sendoff indeed for cinema's most famous hero of the past forty years. Ace pilot Poe is a reckless fool who gets most of the rebel fleet destroyed senselessly and wastes an a chunk of the movie's runtime on a cockamamie plan ending in a failed mutiny. Snoke and Hux of the First Order are also both miserable failures.

Honestly I really hope female empowerment was not the goal here since all it takes is a moment's reflection to see that the women are just as dumb as the men in this movie. The purple-haired commander gets most of the rebels killed by simply not telling people her plan. Leia, revealed to be a Force user of near godlike power, does nothing of value. The previously mentioned Asian chick (I refuse to be bothered to remember her character's name or look it up) fails at disabling the First Order's tracking system and then helps the bad guys break into the rebellion's fortress by suicide ramming Finn's ship. She does this to save his life by the way in spite of the fact that this move should have killed them both. The only female of real talent is Rey but she barely counts as an actual character. Apparently women are supposed to feel empowered by a young girl who never makes mistakes, never needs to learn anything, and never fails. Were I a woman I would find this insulting.

There's a cynical flippantness to the film. The joke's don't feel like the old Star Wars movies where they helped develop characters and had an air of optimism. The humor instead feels like Reddit. Spiteful, forced, self-aware, and unfunny - eager to undermine any sense of reverence. The incredibly powerful moment when Rey hands the lightsaber to Luke is played for laughs with Luke petulantly tossing it away. The First Order are shown to be bumbling fools unable to defend themselves from a single small fighter, overtake a single rebel ship, destroy a single rebel base in spite of overwhelming military might. Oh, and light-speed kamikaze ramming is a thing now. A single ship can destroy an entire enemy fleet by just using warp drive. Why this was never done in the seven other films is inexplicable. The rebels could have crushed the Death Star with a single warp speed fighter had they wanted.

I could go on for days about all of the plot holes and stupid details that ruin earlier Star Wars movies. Not one scene bears scrutiny. Here's the thing though: They know all of this. Disney, Rian Johnson, all of the producers, writers, actors - they are not idiots. It's not like they would gasp in surprise if you pointed any of this out to them. They know how dumb all of this stuff is. They know the implications for the previous movies. They know how thoroughly the older characters have been destroyed. Believe me, they know.

With all the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and films like Frozen and Moana, it should be obvious that it is well within Disney's power to make simple crowd-pleasing films. There was some effort in that direction with The Force Awakens. That film was basically a copy and paste of the original Star Wars movie. Derivative as it may have been there was at least one clear goal: They wanted to please the fans.

You can't say that about The Last Jedi. The entire film is basically Disney spitting in the face of anyone who has been invested in the franchise for a long time. So again, the question is: why? Why do this to a flagship franchise that you spent billions procuring? Surely they knew it would be easy enough to buy the needed critical acclaim. Surely they knew they would make tons of money no matter what dreck they put out. But I would have happily taken cliche-ridden schlock over this. The Last Jedi is worse than just a bad movie. It is a bad movie that goes out of its way to drag down other good movies and good characters. It is a film that proudly soils one of the most iconic franchises in all of modern culture. Worse still, it doesn't even seem to have any profound reason for doing this. There is no big dramatic twist. No grand idea or challenging theme. It's the cinematic equivalent of an artist tearing up a beautiful hotel room and vomiting all over the walls and then proudly showing off his work expecting praise for being bold enough to "break conventions," and not give the fans what they want.

The Last Jedi is the worst movie I have seen in a very long time. It is the last time I will ever spend a penny on a Star Wars movie while Disney owns the property. It is, quite simply, a shameful film.

So the question remains: why?

Grade: F

Movie Review: Justice League

Justice League


Justice League was more fun than it had any right to be.

It should have been absolute trash. It almost was. Coming off of Batman vs. Superman, it should have been impossible to make a decent movie. Killing Superman was ridiculously stupid. As a result of that decision, they were unable to have Superman in any of the trailers. Imagine how much more hyped people would have been if they had seen three trailers with Supes leading the full team and kicking ass. Tonally, Justice League is at odds with all of the previous DC extended universe films, including Wonder Woman. The movie feels like it is actively trying to forget that Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman exist.

Justice League is a film riddled with flaws. The villain was forgettable. The plot was sheer hokum. Some nonsense about human fear attracting space bugs. The acting was mediocre and the writing even worse. Aquaman didn't have enough to do. Cyborg looked awful. The Flash wasn't even that funny. All in all, it is a surprisingly forgettable film for the first live-action film of the most well-known superhero team in the world.

And yet somehow, in spite of all that, the movie put a smile on my face. Maybe it's just that I have gotten really good at lowering my expectations. I went into the theater expecting it to be awful. Instead, I got some really great action scenes, some very fun anime-esque moments (Superman vs. Flash was awesome) and by far the best version of Superman on screen since Christopher Reeve back the 1970's. The effects were good and the action was scripted in a way that demonstrated consideration about the different heroes' abilities and power levels. Maybe that's a nerdy thing to worry about but I don't care. After The Last Jedi I will take any instance of directors actually caring about details.

I can't emphasize enough how much I liked Superman here too. This was the version of Superman that we should have had at the end of Man of Steel. He's strong, bold, hopeful, and yet still human. In the middle of battle he makes it clear that saving civilians is top priority. He cracks a few jokes and takes his rightful place as the boss of the team without a moment's hesitation. Who knew Cavill could do such a great job? Flash and Aquaman didn't do much for me. Cyborg was well-acted but looked terrible. Wonder Woman was the opposite of that. Batman was solid and it's a shame that Affleck may be on the way out. Yet Superman easily steals the show. I don't care if they scrap every other future project for the DC movie universe. I want a Man of Steel 2 now.

Grade: C

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Argument from Pettiness

A Short Fable


A man owns a nice bit of land. On it he has a great big apple tree. He loves the tree very much. His neighbor is jealous and wants the tree for himself. One day the neighbor drops a brick in front of the tree. The man sees it and asks the neighbor about it. The neighbor responds, "Oh, don't worry about it. It's just one silly brick." Each day he drops another brick and each time makes a similar excuse about how the man need not worry about it.

One day the man wakes up and finds that a brick wall is blocking his tree. Irate, he asks the neighbor to tear it down. The neighbor is mystified. "Tear it down? But why? You didn't have a problem with this brick, or that brick, or that brick, or really any of them. Tearing it all down now would be rather extreme don't you think? Perhaps we could have a discussion about adding bricks more slowly?"

The Moral

"Is this really the hill you want to die on?"

"It's just a stupid movie. Who cares?"

"Really? You're going to sperg out about some commercial?"

"How can you be such a man child as to get upset about a few changes to a video game?"

You hear these sorts of responses when people argue about social issues. Conservatives do it to feminists when they are mad about a sexy character in a TV show. Progressives do it to conservatives when they are upset about some celebrity talking about politics. The goal is to shame someone into feeling that their complaints are petty. Because the offense is small, we are told, tolerating the offense is the virtuous thing to do. However it only takes a moment's examination to see the irrationality. An evil doesn't become good simply because it is small. A small amount of poison is still poison.

In social disputes the general rule is that whichever side is least tolerant will win. The social justice left understands this and it is why they still are culturally quite powerful. While edgy right wing YouTubers make "Feminist FAIL," and "SJW ownage" videos, the snowflakes are busy running higher education, news media, public schooling, Hollywood, sports leagues, tech companies, regulatory agencies, and legislative bodies across western governments. They're even dictating to religious denominations. These "intolerant," "cringey" SJW's are literally codifying their world view into law. The tech giants handle the censorship of dissidents while the surveillance state is empowered to punish people for "hate speech."

How have they managed this across the last several decades? There are many reasons, but one approach was simply by working one brick at a time and effectively employing the argument from pettiness. It has worked well because the argument from pettiness plays on a very simple cognitive bias; the desire to feel strong and generous. People don't generally like to complain. When we detect a small offense, we want to be kind and overlook it. It makes us feel magnanimous. We feel that we are doing a good thing by simply letting the other person get away with it. We often don't realize that this reaction is exactly what the other person hoped to trigger by specifically using a small offense.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dating is Stupid


Imagine you were trying to land a dream job with a really cool company. You go to the company unannounced one day, chat up a few employees, and make a good impression. They decide to let you work there with no contract. You start working there immediately. You put in extra effort to make a great impression. The company loves you. They start paying you an amazing salary because they love you and want to keep you around. Everything works out so great that after a few years, your manager says, “Lets make this official and sign a contract to keep you as an employee for the rest of your life!” The contract is actually blank; all it says is that you’ll work there until retirement. You shrug and say, “Why not?” and sign on the dotted line.

After the contract is signed it isn’t long before things start to change. The company gradually starts to treat you differently. They reduce your benefits, cut your bonuses, and eventually just outright pay you a lower salary. You don’t like this, of course, but what can you do? The contract is blank, so they can do whatever they want. Then you realize one day that the blank contract works both ways. You start putting in less effort. You show up late and take lots of sick days. You do just enough work to not get fired. Before long, you hate your job. You cannot imagine what attracted you to it in the first place. You’re miserable. The company is miserable. The relationship ends badly.

The structure of modern relationships is very similar to this story.




The fundamental error in dating as a means to achieve marriage is that the process entails negotiating the terms of a relationship while engaged in that very relationship. This would not be so bad if people actually put those terms in writing and held each other accountable. But since most people do not – rather they just get married with a blank contract – dishonesty is rewarded. Both parties have an incentive to offer more than they can sustain. A man can lavish a woman with expensive gifts, vacations, jewelry, and dinners, all in the hopes that once they get married, he won’t need to keep it up. A woman can put more energy into her looks, maintain a flawless figure, be extra adventurous sexually, pretend to enjoy her boyfriend’s nerdy hobbies, all on the assumption that once he puts a ring on it, she can dispense with the facade.

Now to be clear, I do not think most people do this out of malice. Most of the lies we tell in relationships are small and well-intentioned. The act of putting the best version of yourself forward in order to win commitment from a romantic partner can be motivated by love and admiration – positive things. We justify the little embellishments about our careers, the lies of omission about our relationship history, the implied but unstated promises we do not intend to keep. It’s all swept under the rug out of the blind hope that once the wedding day comes, it will all work itself out somehow.

Often it doesn’t, hence the near 50% divorce rate in western countries. And of those couples that manage to stay together a large portion are unhappy – trapped in loveless marriages of convenience and complacency. Those in unhappy marriages often feel as though their partner has gradually stopped putting effort into the marriage. Unfortunately, precisely what 'effort' is needed is hard to determine since the expectations were never clearly established.

Why do we no longer understand marriage as a contract with mutual obligations? Most would take issue with the idea that romantic relationships are comparable to employment relationships with written agreements. Certainly there are differences, but I argue that the two are similar enough to share some basic principles. Both marriage and a job are at root a relationship between two parties seeking mutual benefit.

In a career, a detailed, thoroughly negotiated contract allows a person to do their best work. The boundaries it creates paradoxically grant you the freedom to take risks. With your salary guaranteed in writing you can budget and plan for the future confidently. The company benefits similarly. Written marriage agreements could create the same outcome by keeping both parties honest.

Some might argue that a contract shouldn’t be necessary and that if you need to put relationship terms in writing then you are with the wrong person. I don’t think evidence bears this out though. Most unmarried romantic relationships end. Marriages have a higher probability of not ending. Furthermore, marriages already involve a written contract. This is why divorce creates legal obligations in the first place. The reason divorces get messy is because people do not put any thought into the contract they create when they get married. So they end up in divorce court arguing he said she said.

Dating as a means to secure marriage makes acrimonious divorce more likely. Dating itself is a time-consuming, inefficient process. People often go through several multi-year relationships, particularly frustrating for women given their limited fertility. While dating, couples rarely settle the hard questions that come up in divorce cases. In most modern relationships people spend years trying to tease out their romantic partner's intentions about career, children, life ambitions, etc, while simultaneously trying to entice commitment. At no point do the two people actually sit down and write out their expectations because that would be, you know, awkward and not cool.

Dating also fails because it is historically recent. Throughout most of human history, marriages were arranged by families and communities. Before that, in the prehistoric era, most pair-bonding was tribal and often coercive. Courtship has only been around for a few centuries and 'dating' in the modern sense only a few decades. It should not surprise us that societies that have embraced dating all have undergone massive declines in marriage and birth rates. They have millions of years of evolution working against them.

So what is the solution? Perhaps there are multiple. Critical as I have been, dating does clearly work for some people. There are things people can do to make dating both enjoyable and a decent path toward marriage. For others, perhaps we need a new paradigm – a modern form of courtship where marriage terms are clear up front.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Five Movie Reviews

I enjoy superhero / sci-fi flicks from time to time. Most are not very good by any fair standard of film criticism. They tend to be riddled with cliches, plot holes, and often just straight up bad writing and acting. However I grew up reading comics and my morbid curiosity compels me to see how these stories are interpreted on the big screen. I also can enjoy them on a technical level by just focusing on the directing, music, effects, costumes, and set design.

So as an exercise in concision I present five quick reviews all just one paragraph in length. Enjoy!

Wonder Woman


Wonder Woman is the DC movie universe's first completely inoffensive film. The best word for it is, "passable." Gal Gadot looks great in costume, the story is coherent, the themes are straightforward and exemplified by the plot, the special effects are solid, and the directing is competent. That said, it is vastly overrated. Gadot is not a very good actress. The final scenes and battle were awful. The plot was predictable and boring. There were a lot of missed opportunities given the unique setting and all the build up about the First Wonder Woman Movie Ever! But DC played it safe and we ended up with a serviceable origin story. Oh well. Wonder Woman is at least a pleasant film that is easy on the eyes. Sure, it's a sexist appraisal, but it's also an honest one.

Grade: C+

Spiderman: Homecoming


Mediocre on most fronts. Homecoming is Marvel at its laziest. Instead of letting Spiderman tell his own story the film uses the reliably bankable Iron Man as its foundation. Robert Downey Jr.'s snarky Avenger provides the film with its villain, moral authority(!?), comic relief, and multiple deus ex machinas. It's a tedious story that only works in moments, such as Childish Gambino's two brief scenes. Given the tangled web that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is remarkable how unnecessary this film feels. The film's only real saving grace is the delightfully menacing Michael Keaton as Vulture. He looks like he's having fun. Tom Holland also put in a good effort. He is a natural at embodying Peter Parker in a way that feels true to the comics.

Grade: D+

Valerian


Valerian is a beautiful mess. It is ambitious and earnest, but still, at root, a mess. It was supposed to be a classic sci-fi adventure. It shoots for the stars (bad pun) but falls way short. The consensus view that Dane DeHaan is unbelievable as a leading man is accurate but he's not the only bad casting. Cara Delevingne is also exhausting to watch. Her character, ostensibly the heroine, was written to be as surly and unlikable as possible. This of course makes her irresistible to the male lead who throws away all of his convictions in the film's final big choice just to make her like him. There is zero consistency both in terms of story and characterization.  It's a shame because, as with Luc Besson's other films, Valerian is just really pretty. Watch the film on mute and every few seconds you will be treated to some gorgeous and imaginative work of CGI. It is a successful technical exercise but a bad film.

Grade: D

Blade Runner 2049


Blade Runner is a solid but frustrating film. In its best moments it really shines. In those moments the movie is not just a cheap cash grab nor is it trying to recreate the magic of the original. In those moments the film is blazing its own trail. There are a number of great scenes. The cinematography is fantastic as is the sound design and music. The movie is A E S T H E T I C. It plays with great ideas about artificial intelligence, identity, memory, and genetics. And then in comes Harrison Ford to ruin everything. In comes Harrison Ford taking top billing in all the trailers and posters for about ten minutes of phoned in screen time looking like he didn't even bother to get in costume. Even his action scenes seem cheap and forced, as if Ford himself insisted they be there to make him look tough. His contribution to the film is to make it overlong and convoluted. The story is so well paced for the first 90 minutes and then just goes down the drain by outgrowing its own carefully crafted frame. It's a shame because the original was so good in part because the plot was so simple and small in scale. Blade Runner 2049 had the makings to surpass it.

Grade: B-

Thor: Ragnarok


MCU's formula is still meeting Disney Corporation's quarterly profit expectations and getting decent reviews. Even as a comic fan who can enjoy, "turn your brain off," action movies, the formula is wearing thin for me. This movie felt like a long episode of Family Guy. I cannot recall a single scene that didn't have some forced quip. Even towards the end of the movie when Thor and his people befall an incredible tragedy, the scene is punctuated with a joke. They just couldn't help themselves. They are so terrified of sincerity. It just makes you not care about the story or characters at all. Viewers need some contrast. Thor: The Dark World was awful but it at least had the nerve to be serious occasionally. The funeral for Thor's mother is the best example. It is the film's most powerful scene. Ragnarok is funny at times but shallow and unmemorable. As bland as Ragnarok often feels there are two decent consolation prizes: Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett. Both are fun to watch. I also have to give the film credit for its amazing costume and set design. The technical effects are generally good. Also, given my recent article about Black Panther being an Alt-Right story, it was funny to hear Odin remind Thor that Asgard is, "a people, not a place." An interesting bit of likely unintentional right wing nativist ideology.

Grade: C-

Saturday, October 21, 2017

How the Internet Is Ruining Gaming

TL;DR

Unlike for other media such as books or movies, the internet connection makes it so that we play games while stuck forever in a game store with a salesman harassing us every five minutes.

More detailed breakdown:

DLC


The cost of developing a triple A game has increased dramatically over the last two decades. As a result studios have had to find ways to milk more revenue out of them. Downloadable content (DLC) is one common approach. With the spread of broadband internet in the 2000's, consoles started to see regular DLC and updates during the PS3 / XBox 360 era.

Most players do not mind DLC that feels like a genuine expansion - a separate story that isn't necessary for completing the main game. However game studios have become more cynical with the practice and now regularly cut out plot essential content from a release only to resell it later often as on-disk DLC (meaning the content is already on the disk you paid for, you just need to shell out extra money to access it).

Game companies have begun pushing this even further with the trend of selling separate "season passes," with games. Every big title that comes out now includes a $20 - $40 season pass promising access to future DLC. This has incentivized companies to release barely finished versions of games. Capcom has done this twice recently with Street Fighter V and Marvel vs Capcom Infinite. They get away with it by promising updates (released over several months and years) and eventually more content (which you will have to pay for) all downloadable for you to enjoy.

While it is good that internet access allows for patches and bugfixes, the negative consequence has been companies treating version 1.0 players like beta testers. Several games have launched totally broken. Ultimately what is happening is that gamers are being conditioned to tolerate poorly tested "minimum viable product," games in hopes of hooking them into a games as a service model.

Loot Boxes / Microtransactions


The whole point of the "games as a service," model is to change the basic nature of what it means to buy a videogame. You are no longer purchasing a discrete, well-defined piece of reusable content that is solely yours. Instead, because of the internet, you are now purchasing the right to temporarily access some company's private servers. Many games now just don't work at all once the company shuts down their online service. This is intentional. The game is a means to a constant internet connection and the internet connection is a means to get in your wallet. The paradigm has switched from 'make a good product and sell it' to 'leverage the consumer's connection to our system to continually extract money from him.'

Loot boxes and microtransactions are obvious manifestations of this. The former is a version of the latter. Microtransactions are often what make free-to-play games profitable. Like DLC, they are not necessarily harmful. If someone wants to spend $3 for some virtual furniture, that's their business. It gets a bit annoying when it is shoved in your face, such as fighting games that show you selectable characters and skins but then take you to a shop when you try to use them. It becomes even more of a problem when the microtransaction system starts getting in the way of playing the basic game. We have seen this in the several of 2K's sports games, Forza, and Gran Turismo, to name a few.

Loot boxes add an additional shady element of gambling to the wonderful microtransaction mess. Forza 7, Injustice 2, and Star Wars Battlefront 2 are just a few of the recent games relying on these randomized goody bags to generate additional revenue. Nothing makes you feel more like a number on some big corporation's spreadsheet than paying real money for the privilege of spending hours clicking through loot boxes in hopes of finding that one cool skirt for Supergirl.

eSports


The internet has done a lot to make eSports popular and lucrative. I'm not really a fan, but I don't have a problem with the concept per se. While I may not be interested in watching a professional StarCraft tournament, I do not begrudge the people that enjoy it. I think it is great that there are more opportunities for hardcore players to pursue their passions and win recognition.

The problem is that, now that there is so much money to be made from eSports, game developers are beginning to cater more toward that scene than traditional fans. Some recent examples can come from franchises I have already mentioned: Gran Turismo Sport, Marvel vs Capcom Infinite and Street Fighter V. In the case of Capcom's recent fighters it was clear to anyone who bought them at release that they were half-baked games released as quickly as possible to get in on fighting game tournament revenue. Particularly in the case of Street Fighter V, if you were not interested in online competitive play, there just wasn't much to do in the game.

With Gran Turismo Sport, the issue is a bit different. Gran Turismo Sport is not a half-baked game. Given that it is not meant to be a complete official entry in the series (Gran Turismo 7 is still years away) I did not have a problem with the reduced car count and simplified tuning options. I was however frustrated by the lack of single player content and the fact that the game needs to always be online.

Why is Gran Turismo Sport so focused on online play? Because they plan to be formally licensed by the FIA and do several big eSports events every year going forward. Very cool. Unfortunately it means that the things old-fashioned car nerds cared about are no longer a priority to the developer Polyphony Digital. No longer is Gran Turismo that one game where you could probably buy your IRL car, tune it up like crazy, and then race it on famous tracks. For my money, nothing was more fun than crushing the campaigns in Gran Turismo 2 with my tricked out Mitsubishi Eclipse, the same car I got from my older brother when I was in high school. Gran Turismo Sport is so online focused that players can't even access single player campaign content or even just save their game data without an internet connection. The game is virtually unplayable when the servers are down for maintenance. As eSports become more popular I can't help but wonder which franchise will be ruined next.

Piracy


There is some debate about whether or not piracy really hurts company bottom lines. I have read stories of small studios that claim to have been ruined by piracy. Others argue that it is just a way to test a game before buying it. As a software developer I am somewhat biased and in general I don't agree with most of the justifications individual pirates offer.

Leaving aside the question of its effect on sales, what is unarguable is the awful consequences of studios trying to fight piracy. For one, it means fewer games get ported to PC, since the internet has made piracy as easy as a Google search. It also means more "always online," functionality baked into games and more intrusive DRM to eat up your CPU cycles. Companies also use piracy as a justification for things like season passes, loot crates, DLC, and microtransactions, as they argue that they need to monetize more aggressively to make up for lost revenue. And so we end up with a vicious cycle where the industry uses piracy to justify bad practices and pirates use the industry's bad practices to justify piracy, with neither side willing to change until the other side unilaterally changes first.

Honorable Mentions

Dishonest Marketing and Hype: These are not new problems, but the internet has made them worse. No Man's Sky is a good recent example. The carefully crafted trailers from E3 - the slow tease over years that results in a final product that looks nothing like what was promised. The constant contact studios have with consumers via the internet gives them more opportunities for dishonesty and goalpost shifting.

Politicization: I wrote about GamerGate years ago on this blog and my opinion remains unchanged. Similar to the NFL anthem protests what I find sad is the injection of politics into a space that should transcend such divisions. Both sports and gaming have had political moments (Metal Gear Solid 2, the Olympic black power fist, etc) but they have been the exception and not the rule. I never wanted a new normal where every Sunday I get to look forward to some new political protest no matter what the cause. Likewise I'm not crazy about implicit diversity quotas in games, endless pearl-clutching about sexy female characters, and on-the-nose anti-Trump commentary in every other open world game. At the very least let's at least be artful about this stuff. Greater character variety is good. Tackling mature subjects can be good too. But please, spare me the sermons.

Toxic Communities: Maybe it's my own fault for being terrible at Dark Souls. The fact that every game these days has an online component seems to have energized a wider community of griefers and trolls. Most gamers know what I am talking about here. I don't dare play any first-person shooter online with people using microphones or headsets. I have received some pretty horrible hate mail from defeated opponents in fighting games. I have had people sabotage my game multiple times in Souls titles each time forcing me to start over. The pseudo-anonymity mixed with the sense of power is apparently a drug to some people.

Conclusion

The internet has done a lot of good things for gaming too. It's created new communities, new game genres (MMOs), and a range of new possibilities for competitive and cooperative play. Unfortunately the market has sort of failed us in terms of incentivizing game companies and publishers into doing right by the players. We have the industry that exists today because people are willing to pay for what is offered. As a result there are no easy answers to improving things.

If it were up to me, I would say that triple A games should just cost more. Perhaps if they cost between $80 and $100, publishers wouldn't have as much of a need to bilk players every five minutes. Then again, maybe it wouldn't make much difference. The existence of the internet connection just fundamentally changes the game (pun very much intended). It gives the suits a seat right next to you in your living room, hounding you with paid extras, loot crates, and cool new costumes after every load screen. The logic of capitalism makes it hard for companies to ignore that.

All I can do is be more discerning as I get older and play fewer games anyway. I can't help but imagine how much worse things can get as a new generation grows up playing games with no memory of how things used to be. Maybe it's better that way. No nostalgia to ruin their fun.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Japan and White Entitlement

A friend referred an interesting blogpost to me the other day about Japan. It is from a British photographer who goes by the handle Uchujin. He had lived in Japan for many years and in the post, he explains in detail his disillusionment with the society and his reasons for ultimately leaving.


Storey is clearly a very smart and creative guy. His bio reveals a number of successes in film making and photography. Thus I cannot help but feel a bit bad being critical of his post on Japan. I was bemused by it. It is a fascinating read in so far as it really exemplifies many white people's incredible sense of entitlement when they go to foreign countries. Here is the short version of his complaints: He is annoyed that Japan does not have a western style criminal justice system, a western style work culture, a western belief in gender egalitarianism, a western belief in multiculturalism, and so on. Why he should expect a non-western country to hold western cultural values is a mystery.

Do foreigners have a right to live in a country for years and then aggressively criticize it? Sure. As I wrote in my piece 'Standing,' foreigners have every right to their opinion. Hell, I even agree with a lot of Storey's complaints. The work culture in Japan is pretty awful. There is an underbelly of racism. The criminal justice system does not have the same protections as in America. The country is so safe that I don't worry about it much, yet if I had to choose between getting arrested in America or Japan, I would definitely pick the former.

Another point I made in my 'Standing' article is that the views of expats need not carry much weight. And Storey is an expat not an immigrant. By his own admission, he only speaks, "a reasonable level of Japanese," after living in the country for 10 years. One might think it praiseworthy that a country is able to allow foreigners to thrive for decades even if they don't bother to learn to communicate with natives. I don't dispute the specific facts and observations in his piece. However if you haven't spent hours drinking with Japanese coworkers after a hard day's work - if you haven't had several lengthy social experiences exclusively speaking and understanding native level Japanese - then maybe people need not put much stock in your opinion when you call an entire race ignorant (as Storey does of the Japanese).

Storey isn't the first case of this. Three times I have met foreigners that have lived in Japan for more than ten years yet did not speak the language. All were white. I have seen tourists in Japan loudly complain about the lack of English signage or the fact that a restaurant only has chopsticks and no forks. Always whites, usually Americans but also sometimes Australians. It never ceases to amuse me - this assumption that western culture is some sort of international default. It is a natural consequence of globalism. Hell you could even call it white privilege - this taken for granted idea that they can fly anywhere in the world and expect to feel at home.

I specifically call out white people here because I almost never see people of other races do this stuff. In Japan I have met Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians, Arabs, Africans, and all manner of nonwhite men and women. Not once have they ever lamented Japan’s lack of progressive values. From the Thai waitress to the Brazilian street musician to the Indian IT worker – every one of them busts their ass to assimilate and make a good life for themselves and their families.

They tend to master the language much faster than white people from wealthy countries, often because they have no choice. They don't have cushy office jobs where people will try to speak to you in English and kiss your butt because you correctly pronounced konnichiwa. The Vietnamese dude working 12 hours a day in some kitchen getting yelled at by a Japanese boss learns real quick how to properly conjugate honorific forms of verbs because he's out on his ass if he doesn't. But even middle and upper-class nonwhites do a better job of acculturating. Nonwhites may not care for a few specific Japanese customs. They may miss some of the foods and traditions of their homelands. But they adapt and thrive in Japan without complaint. Their attitude is generally, “This is Japan. They do things their own way here. It is on me to adjust and get used to it.”

So where does this specific form of white people entitlement come from exactly? At first I thought maybe it was because white countries are wealthier. Perhaps all people from wealthy countries have a kind of arrogance about the superiority of their own culture. This seemed to make sense as it explained why whites from poorer countries tended not to complain as much about Japan in my experience. For example, I have met several eastern Europeans who have lived in Japan for years and absolutely love it. Yet immigrants from wealthy nonwhite societies (South Korea, Singapore, UAE, etc) tended to thrive in Japan. So if the cause isn't economic, could it perhaps be cultural? Is it perhaps something about the nature of societies that value multiculturalism and diversity?

Many predominantly white countries make tolerance one of their most fundamental values. They define themselves by their lack of a norm-imposing identity. This I think gives them a confused understanding of precisely what a culture is. A culture is, at root, a series of norms. Norms can be small or large. A small norm in Japan is that people slurp their noodles loudly when they eat in restaurants. A bigger norm is that women are expected to quit their jobs once they have kids and become housewives.

When your cultural identity is defined by a lack of norms, it can be jarring to try to live in a place where norms are taken for granted. It isn’t merely that you disagree with the specific norms. Rather you are outraged that the people have the nerve to try to impose any sort of norms in the first place. It makes sense that people coming from a culture defined by its ability to accommodate foreigners would find it difficult to live in a place that expects foreigners to adjust themselves. I think this is also part of why we are seeing more ethnic tension in western countries, be it racial division in America or Muslim and migrant populations in Europe. The only culture white western nations can impose is a judgment-free non-culture that leaves a void nonwhites will inevitably fill with their own values.

So in a way the entitlement of white foreigners is kind of sad. It reflects just how thoroughly modernity and globalism have gutted their heritage and shared identity. It's as if they have forgotten what it means to have a culture in the first place. Good immigrants recognize norms in their new homelands and try to either copy them or at least tolerate them. They do this in part because they have an implicit understanding of the importance of norms having come from a homeland that imposed its own.

I have no illusions about Japan after three years living here. I recognize many of its flaws. I don't love every cultural norm. I accept that as a black man I will always be an outsider. That didn't stop me from becoming fluent in the language (not really native level yet, but trying) and assimilating as much as possible. It doesn't stop me from bowing in social situations, buying cheap souvenirs for coworkers when I'm on vacation, and ending meals by saying, "Gochisousama deshita." Japan is my home after all. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Don't get mad that the Romans aren't acting like Egyptians.