Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review of Tomb Raider (2013)

 I've written a lot of reviews over the years. I intend to repost some of my favorites.

This is a long review. It has four sections: History, Pros, Cons, Conclusion. Feel free to skip the parts that don't interest you.
Introduction: Some History

Tomb Raider was one of my favorite PSX series. It stood out not only for its female protagonist (unusual for the time) but also for being one of the first truly 3D platformers that also incorporated action and puzzle-solving. For their time, the first two games are the best in the series, while Tomb Raider III and IV are solid games in their own right. After the underwhelming Chronicles and the ill-conceived Angel of Darkness, the series got a sort of soft reboot with Legend, the first game released on a seventh generation console. I say "soft" because the fundamental character of Lara Croft was not changed that much; it was more that the series had been written into a dead end with Croft's "death" in The Last Revelation and the poorly received follow-up on PS2.

Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld are all solid if imperfect entries, but they all suffer from being released right around the end of the sixth console generation. They came out in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively, and were all released on both PS2 and PS3. When a game comes out on multiple console generations, you can generally infer that the game is not really designed to take advantage of the more sophisticated hardware. Such was the case with this Tomb Raider trilogy. All of the games lack the features and content depth you'd expect of a PS3 or 360 game, and graphically all look like HD remixes of PS2 games.

The series needed a facelift after Underworld. That could have come in the form of a sequel, prequel, or another reboot. Crystal Dynamics opted for the latter - redefining both Lara Croft and her game in a number of fundamental ways. The result is an impressive triple A title that succeeds depending on how much you enjoyed the original series. If you know little or nothing about Tomb Raider, you may love this game, as it is well-done for what it is. If like me you are a long time fan of the series, you cannot help but feel disappointed. As this was a relatively successful remake, we can only assume that this is what Tomb Raider is now. We old fans have to move on and get over it.

The next section lists four pros and four cons. Both the cons and pros are listed in order of importance/weight.

Pros: Four Compliments

1. Graphics
As I mentioned above, the earlier "seventh generation" Tomb Raider games are not terribly impressive graphically. Underworld is the only decent-looking game, and even it was far outclassed by games released that same year. TR2013 by contrast is a very attractive game. The character models are very detailed, especially Lara. We can literally see all of the gear she carries along with every modification for each weapon. With maxed settings on PC, the frame rate is pretty consistent, hair and face models are sharp, and the environments are crisp and rich. The island is a visual feast of caves, shanty towns, mountains, and forests. TR2013 is not only the best looking Tomb Raider game, but one of the best looking games of 2013, and remember this is the year we got Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto 5.

2. Combat

Combat has never been a strong point for the series.It has never been a main priority. TR2013 however has a TON of action, and so the developers clearly put a lot of time into refining the combat system. The result is a slick, fast-paced mix of melee and ranged action. It's a lot of fun, and modifying weapons over time is also cool. I appreciated the sheer variety: Sneaking up on enemies and stabbing them with an arrow, throwing dirt at attackers to blind them, spraying crowds with the machine gun and finishing off stragglers with the climbing axe - all of these are fun moments that the game lets you engineer in arena after arena. It's on par with any 3D shooter of the seventh generation.

3. Atmosphere

TR2013 has really good sound design. I love how you hear Lara breathing throughout. You really get the feeling of her struggle - her being out of breath and exhausted from her trials. The ominous little noises you hear in caves are great, as are the sounds of maddened prisoners during one part late in the game. Combined with the fine graphics, the game overall creates a truly bleak, gritty vibe from beginning to end. What's more the game has a ton of cinematic flair. The QTE's allow for some really dramatic moments. Just like with The Last of Us you feel sucked into a Hollywood movie thanks to strong voice acting and cinematography.

4. Content

TR2013 offers enough content to justify its price tag. You have hidden tombs, multiple difficulties, hidden diaries to collect, trophies, and an online multiplayer component. Not all of these are flawlessly executed of course; the multiplayer isn't great, and the hidden areas are all laughably simple and small. Still, I enjoyed scrounging around for salvage and finding random artifacts and journals. It was neat the way you could rotate items and Lara would discover new things about them. These kinds of features would have been great in older Tomb Raider games.
Cons: Four Complaints

1. Genre-Switch

The original Tomb Raider games were 3D platform / puzzle games with some action elements mixed in for fun. TR2013 is a third person shooter. It has about as much platforming / puzzle-solving as Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. That is to say, you have some climbing sections in between shootouts. At root, this is a 3rd person cover shooter in the mold of Gears of War. It aims for the same vibe as Uncharted with some exploration / survival / scavenging thrown in, but as I will describe in another section, those elements aren't terribly deep. This switch, from archeologist exploring ancient ruins, to Rambo in the body of a pretty coed, is my fundamental problem with the game. I wanted to play Tomb Raider, I got Uncharted with boobs.

2. The Difficulty

TR2013 is, to use the Dark Souls community term, beyond casual. It was the easiest game I beat in 2013. Even Saints Row IV was harder, and that whole game is one big parody. TR2013 is billed as the birth of a survivor, but there are hardly any genuine survival mechanics. Ammo is plentiful thanks to all the mobs of dudes to kill. You don't have to worry about eating. Your health regenerates. Stealth is almost never necessary and rarely even possible. Don't worry about puzzles too, since you have a detective mode to highlight solutions for you. You have color-coded platforms anyway - just look for white and you'll immediately know where to go. The more dramatic death-defying moments are all QTE's anyway, and you can just keep retrying them as needed.
Essentially the game holds your hand from start to finish.

I wish these crutches could have been relegated to an easy mode. If you really want a dark, survivor feel, make it so that every single encounter is life or death. Make it so that you have to hunt for food and rest occasionally. Make it so that getting shot disables limbs and demands time and resources to fix. Make it so that there are multiple solutions for getting past enemies - from stealth, to complex platforming, to setting traps, to camouflage, to going Rambo (which should be extremely difficult). Metal Gear Solid 3 did all of this nine years ago. What you have in TR2013 is a dumbed-down shooter with the occasional break for a cutscene or climbing section. If you really want a survival experience, go for Fallout or even I Am Alive for something more contemporary.

3. New Lara

My last two criticisms are the most subjective. I personally preferred the older Lara Croft to this new one. The new Lara (and the whole game frankly) suffer from the Nolan-effect of the last decade - that is, the obsession with gritty, "realistic" remakes. Her personality and appearance are believable. What she does on the island is not. Still, she feels like a more believable character and looks relatable thanks to a breast reduction and a thousand repetitions of the line of "I can do this!" Some people like that. I prefer sexy supermodel James Bond Lara. I prefer the wisecracking and voluptuous Lara, who was more Indiana Jones than girl-next-door. I prefer politically incorrect cheesecake Lara with her fun outfits, tongue-in-cheek narrative and posh supergenius rich girl archeologist gymnast back story. It's the same reason why I like the old Dante over the new in Devil May Cry; he was just more fun.

4. The Story

In broad strokes the plot of TR2013 isn't bad. I lived in Japan for a few years, so I appreciated the WWII history and legend of Himiko. What bothered me was the execution. This is a game aiming for gritty realism with a story that seems to go out of its way to break my suspension of disbelief. As I alluded to in my criticism of the game's difficulty, it really doesn't make sense that an untrained college girl would be capable of gunning down scores of ruthless cultists and mercenaries. She is literally impaled on a metal spike in the first fifteen minutes of the game and later gets caught in a bear trap. We are apparently to believe that tendon lacerations and internal bleeding are injuries one can just walk off without concern. By the seventh time she'd fallen off a collapsing bridge, survived a massive explosion, or miraculously escaped murderous captors, I didn't care anymore. It also doesn't help her tough girl feminist credentials that she survives only because of several men sacrificing themselves for her throughout the story, something old cheesy Lara generally didn't need. The anticlimactic ending following the joke final boss left me feeling that there was no point in ever picking up the game again. All in all, the details of the story undermine the theme and decent plot ideas.
Final Thought
Tomb Raider 2013 exemplifies much of what I dislike about modern video games. The pseudo-realism, the lack of challenge, the focus on 'realistic' as opposed to 'overly sexy' female characters, the "Call of Duty" game flow and body count, the prioritization of "cinematic experiences" over engaging gameplay - all of these issues combined with the fact that the game was fairly successful, really irk me. This is what audiences want now, and developers are strip-mining beloved franchises to give it to them. If it were not called Tomb Raider, this would be a decent game in its own right; At the very least, you have a fun action game with a lot of drama and solid production value. Alas it is called Tomb Raider and I am left only imagining what could have been had developers opted for a true seventh generation globe-trotting adventure instead of another Uncharted clone.

Rest in Peace, Lara. You were too beautiful for this world.

Friday, November 14, 2014

GamerGate Thoughts #3: Picking Sides

As I wrote in my last post, the conventional narrative on GamerGate is that it is either a battle against reactionary online misogynists, or a consumer revolt against corrupt gaming journalists. Those are the two sides and you have to pick one, supposedly.

A handful of more thoughtful commenters have noted that GamerGate actually reflects a broader culture war. Consider the fact that for Time Magazine's annual poll about which word should be banned, this year readers selected 'feminist' by a wide margin. To be fair, it's likely 4chan / 9gag / Reddit had a lot to do with that result. However the fact that so many people organized so quickly is suggestive. GamerGate is not the first nor will it be the last time people push back against what they perceive as co-option of their communities by the activist left.

Progressive intrusion into predominantly white male nerdy subcultures such programming, video games, comics, etc. is a fairly new phenomena. It's only become prominent in the last decade or so. Before the turn of the millennium, the social justice culture warriors were content to ignore these communities. This was in part because they were perceived to be too small and inconsequential to try to reform, hence the activists focused more on workplace norms, schools and the media.

With the resurgence of tech as one of the few powerful and growing sectors in America combined with the growing economic power of 'nerdy' industries like gaming and comic book movies, the activists have started to take notice. This is in parallel with the nerd / gaming scene being adopted by mainstream society as I wrote in my post on the progression of subcultures.

One of the advantages the social justice crowd had going in was the fact that the tech / fantasy nerd scene was already a fairly progressive community. Whether leftist or libertarian, on social issues most gamers and geeky types are fairly liberal. As a result, it wasn't hard to get the Hacker News crowd to go along with things like outreach to get more girls into tech, or seeking our more ethnic diversity for speakers at tech conferences. The tech community is full of people that pride themselves on being open-minded, rational, and free of bias.

I think where the progressives crossed the line, particularly in gaming, is when they started to outright attack the demographic most closely tied to the nerd scene. I have to again be clear here and point out that it isn't all progressives. A number of left-leaning people are frustrated with the social justice crowd over this issue, as a similar problem happened with Occupy Wallstreet. The activists started demonizing whites and men, painting them as racists and misogynists in response to any disagreement with their agenda. This, among other problems, caused the movement to peter out.

As a longtime gamer and tech nerd, I have no grudge against whites or men. Much of the technology, games, and culture I enjoy today was created by white men. Most of my nerdy gamer friends and programming buddies are white men. But what is the activist left's take on a culture largely created by white men? Assassin's Creed: Unity doesn't have a female playable character? Misogyny! A game has a male protagonist rescuing a woman? Damsel in Distress trope! Minority characters aren't the center of attention? Racism! Female characters in a fantasy setting are wearing sexy armor? Objectification!

The problem is not that there are people who want more women or minority characters in gaming. The problem is the blanket assumption that people who don't share those priorities must be bigoted in some way. Most of my favorite games have involved white protagonists. Does that make me racist? Some people (including women!) like sexy female characters in chain mail bikinis. It doesn't make them misogynists. Gamers are not religious zealots. They're a pretty laid back and inclusive demographic more than willing to widen their tent. They will not, however, tolerate being attacked unfairly. They will not, and should not, tolerate blanket condemnations branding them as unjustly "privileged."

The unfairness of these attacks is one thing. What also frustrates some is the inconsistency. Stereotypical portrayals of whites are never criticized. No one cares about objectification of men. No one complains about Japanese people being privileged in Japan, or Jews having disproportionate representation in various professions. It's only a particular set of anointed groups in prosperous majority white countries that get the "disadvantaged" tag and are entitled to all manner of outreach, affirmative action, and consideration. And hey, that's a fine belief system to adopt, but lets be clear that it is political, and demanding that people adopt that frame or face being eternally labeled a bigot, is the worst sort of rhetorical chicanery.

By the same token I disagree with the anti-feminist campaigns from places like 4chan and Reddit that are trying to "take back" gaming and declare the progressives illegitimate. Not only are some of the tactics vile (rape threats, doxxing, etc.) but I think it is a fundamentally misguided effort. It isn't our politics that makes us gamers. It's our love of gaming. That's what they need to focus on.

Nothing is lost when companies like Bioware try to be more inclusive. At the end of the day, the argument for tolerating more gay characters is the same as the argument for tolerating 'boob plate'; if it offends you, don't play it. No group is entitled to have their particular preferences enshrined as 'right'. The more reasonable progressives understand this and just want more variety. They're entitled to their opinions and can be left alone.

I don't believe we need to try to kick progressives (or any group, really) out of the gaming industry. I don't begrudge feminists and multiculturialists who want videogames that celebrate fat acceptance and transgenderism. Let them agitate for the games they want. Even better, lets give them the tools to make their own games.

So if you ask me "Which side of GamerGate are you on?", my answer is 'both' and 'neither'. I think there are legitimate grievances against the industry and the journalists both on grounds of pushing politics and corruption. I also want the progressive left to have its place in the community and be able to get the games they want. Both sides need to make a concession: The progressives need to be tolerant of those who disagree with their agenda, and the old guard need to accept that the industry is big enough to cater to the social justice crowd among other communities.

We need not have this zero-sum attitude about the gaming industry where every progressive game is a defeat for older gaming fans. Instead we should all learn to be tolerant of each other's preferences, and work to build a pluralistic industry where all communities can be served. There need not be one right answer on the portrayal of women or heterosexual characters, etc. If one game wants to do strong independent female protagonists who defy conventional beauty norms, let 'em. If another game wants a sexy damsel in distress, let 'em. People can vote with their wallets and time.

I still think schism is the most likely outcome. The media is just too biased and the discourse is too toxic for there to be a return to tolerance as I would want. A split still isn't such a bad thing. It will entail a lot of name-calling and people claiming to be the 'true' representatives of the gaming subculture. I'm sure it will be a lot of fun for people who enjoy internet fights.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rhetoric II: On Snark

There is a specific category of argumentation I want to single out because the internet has made it so common. It is the argument from snark. It often involves phrases and terms such as:

"Because reasons."

"Wow. Just wow."


Snark-based arguments are common when one is preaching to the choir. As I mentioned in my last post, when people are writing for an audience they know already agrees with them, they are more inclined to use humor to 'argue' their position. Sarcasm is a version of this, however it can be used to argue against opponents too. By feigning extreme incredulity at opposing viewpoints and laying on a superior attitude drenched in sarcasm, one can undermine the confidence of those who think differently.

You can call it a type of 'Appeal to Authority', or argument from intimidation. Essentially you are saying to your opponent, "What? You actually believe in that? Seriously???" You want to convey a sense of surprise that you even have to explain yourself at all. To make it a proper 'Appeal to Authority', you have to work in some supposed expert opinion, however the beauty of the argument from snark is that it has the same tone and feeling of invoking an authority without actually having to reference some outside perspective.

Hearing the argument broken down plainly, you might think that the argument from snark isn't terribly effective, and that no one with any sense would fall for it. You would be wrong in this assumption. The argument from snark is very effective on the 50th percentile crowd. This is because it plays on a number of cognitive biases as well as one very human inclination: People want to be liked.

Most people respond viscerally when they get the feeling that they are being ostracized. For most humans, when in conversation with another person, they become physically uncomfortable when they identify nonverbal cues of disapproval. This is exacerbated when the other person creates the impression that it isn't merely them but rather some large segment of society that disapproves. The discomfort caused by this disapproval is often sufficient to get someone to acquiesce and either change their opinion, or at least pretend to change, which softens their conviction.

Unless you're at least mildly sociopathic, you are bound to experience this discomfort on some level. Even antisocial nerds experience it on some level, at least within their peer group or subculture. The argument from snark plays on this psychological tendency. It takes mental practice and active thinking to become immune to it.

To a rational, clear-thinking person, the argument from snark actually undermines the position of the speaker. It reveals the speaker's contempt for those they disagree with, which in turn reveals an emotional investment in their position. When someone relies on trying to intimidate their opponents with snark, you can infer that this person has invested their sense of identity in their position, and thus feels personally threatened by disagreement. Arguing with such persons is usually a waste of time.

In my view, our society is far too sarcastic. I'd go as far as to say that irony is ruining our culture. I dislike sarcasm both in social interactions and in our public discourse. The default decadent smirking, too-hip-to-actually-care-about-anything pose of today's youth is a symptom. The post-modern obsession with irony is indicative of people's fear of conviction - fear of actually standing up for something and the fear of failure. The ironic pose protects you from ever being wrong because you can always just say you weren't being serious.

It takes nerve to just be serious. It's one of the reasons I respect Christopher Nolan's films. Whether it's Interstellar or Inception, he's not afraid to just run with an idea. There's no winking at the audience. Even when the story is full of completely absurd happenings like in The Dark Knight Rises, there's an unsmiling seriousness I find admirable.

There is a place for humor and irony. Good writers can make art of both, provided they are brilliant. Read H.L. Mencken for an example. I don't put myself in that league, so for now I am content to be serious. My writings here will, if I can help it, be free of pretentiousness and snark. When I get good, I will attempt humor and irony where it might add something.

Rhetoric I: General Principles

Video version:

Inherent to any argument is an audience. Either a specific singular opponent in the moment, a readership, or some particular group of people you wish to reach. Audience often dictates argument; the way in which we go about trying to convince others of something is informed by who we believe we are talking to in that moment.

Here is where writers have to make a moral choice to appeal to the best of us or the worst. We can choose to preach to the choir, rally a mob, cater to the lowest common denominator, or engage with the most rational and thoughtful.

Preaching to the choir is easiest. You don't have to think about the substance of your arguments at all; just say things that you know your faction already agrees with and watch them lap it up. When in doubt, resort to jokes and name-calling. Even that can be passed off as an argument on Twitter, Fox News, or The Daily Show.

Arguing for the mob is similarly easy. All one need do is give people justifications for whatever emotion or cause you wish to use. There is a lot of this going on with the whole Mike Brown debacle in Ferguson. Protesters there are saying that, regardless of the evidence, it is the duty of the grand jury to indict the officer that shot Mike Brown. They threaten to shut down the city if this does not happen. The arguments used by the leadership of this mob talk of "historical injustices" and the unfair treatment of blacks by the police. You can judge for yourself whether or not these are rational justifications for ignoring the facts of a grand jury investigation.

Catering to the lowest common denominator is about simplifying an argument to make it palatable to the largest group of people possible. It focuses on the 50th percentile of intelligence and knowledge of relevant issues, a group that doesn't require terribly sophisticated argumentation. This strategy is used by politicians, and was employed to sell everything from the war in Iraq to Obamacare. It involves a lot of misdirection and lying by omission.

What all of these approaches have in common is that they tend to employ a lot of logical fallacies. Here's a good refresher from our friends at /pol/:

Logical fallacies are shortcuts that feel like good arguments but actually aren't. The problem is that they require active thinking to identify. With practice you get good at it; you can catch people employing one mid-sentence and be ready to counter. Unfortunately, 50th percentile and below people don't tend to be great critical thinkers.

Writers employ logical fallacies and lazy argument styles either by choice or by default. Either the writer is too cynical to try to appeal to rational, clear-thinking people, or too lazy. I gauge the quality of a writer or speaker by their fidelity to reason and their refusal to resort to arguments that, while perhaps more effective at ginning up the masses, are mendacious at their core.

In my own writing, I try to be neither cynical nor lazy. If I fail, I hope to be called on it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

GamerGate Thoughts #2: The Schism

(If you prefer watching videos:

#GamerGate is one of those big messy stories that people can easily use to push an agenda. In most cases, the pieces I have read on the story tend to reveal more about the author than the story itself. It is actually difficult to find an even-handed, dispassionate rundown of the facts. Instead you will find a number of articles about victims of Twitter harassment, doxxing of personalities on both sides, and the sordid details of Zoe Quinn's love life. To me these are all uninteresting tangential issues. People being mean online and girls cheating on their boyfriends are not new things. The more interesting issue is what GamerGate says about the state of gaming media.

I was a gaming journalist for two years while living abroad in Tokyo. I wrote reviews and editorials for a print magazine as well as one fairly big website. I can say firsthand that it isn't a very glamorous field. The pay is pretty crappy, for one. There are legitimate problems that GamerGate could focus on, such as game companies directly or indirectly buying reviews, websites pushing political agendas, and consumers being flat out lied to by both the industry and its supposed watchdogs.

The root problem with game journalism is the lack of agreed upon standards known to both the public and writers. Much of the problem comes simply from the fact that it is such a new field. Escapist as a pithy comic addressing this. Unlike traditional journalism, which sets objectivity as the standard for all coverage, video game journalists are still figuring out if they are writing about toys, consumer software, or works of art.

Game journalists today tend to think of themselves as part book critic, part editorial writer for the New York Times. Some are very good writers and reviewers. Some are extraordinarily pretentious and clearly only interested in pushing their agenda. Either way, what consumers and the public want is some consistency - a set of shared principles so that they can at least know where these writers stand. Without that, all you have is a disingenuous effort on the part of game journalists to portray themselves as unbiased agents able to speak on behalf of the gaming community.

No one can truly speak for the gaming community on any social, cultural, or political issue. The only thing a writer can say that legitimately speaks for all gamers is "I love playing games." That was sort of the point of my first piece on GamerGate. Whatever your politics, the thing that makes you a gamer as opposed to someone who likes games, is that your love of the medium unites you with others. For political partisans, the ultra-religious, and more casual gamers, fidelity to other values comes first; they won't play a game that violates their ideals, nor do they want to play with people who don't think like them. This is no different for the progressives who see GamerGate as an opportunity to push their agenda.

To be fair we should remember that there are actually two camps here. Gamers who happen to be progressive, and progressives with an interest in gaming. The former group may agree with the SJW crowd - they may want to see more feminist deconstruction of the industry and may want more multiculturalism in their games. They are not, however, reflexively offended by games and gamers that disagree with them. They don't freak out when someone uses a mean word over XBox Live, or a game has a white male protagonist. This is generally because they have been a part of the gaming subculture longer when it was even less diverse. Their love of gaming predates their love of left-wing politics.

The latter group, by contrast, are activists who feel that the gaming subculture is a useful target. Their priority is spreading the gospel of progressive ideals to communities that reject them. They feel they have an 'in' with the gaming subculture by arguing for diversity and painting their critics as misogynist racist homophobes. What's more, they have the tide of mainstream culture on their side, and feel they can redefine gaming culture by branding their ideological opponents as illegitimate. You see a good bit of this tactic with GamerGate now, where a number of sites are not only declaring the gamer identity to be dead, but are already declaring victory and proclaiming GamerGate to be over.

Declaring victory prematurely is a very old and cheap rhetorical tactic. You hear it from talking heads on cable news programs all the time. The way to identify that this is rhetoric and not an honest assessment is to examine the evidence offered. When the evidence is something like "See, all these people who already agree with my views are on my side and say we already won!!!1" then you know it is just rhetoric.

But whether or not the hashtag 'GamerGate' fizzles out, the fact remains that we are in the midst of a schism. As I laid out in my piece on subcultures, this divide is the last stage for subcultures that thrive and grow to be adopted by the mainstream society. The gaming subculture is in the midst of a painful, public split, which will end with the sanitized, mainstream version of gaming culture on one side, and the authentic culture on the other. People will pick their online and IRL communities accordingly.

I make no moral judgment of either of these sides; they simply are what they are. The mainstream side will likely be larger in terms of number of people and revenue. This isn't really a surprise. The same is true of authentic country music vs. pop country. The commercialized, mainstream co-opted version of a subculture is where the marketers and big corporations focus their efforts, whatever the medium.

This will mean that game companies will invest more money in appeasing the mainstream audience, which may depress some people. As a game developer, I simply see it as an opportunity for the market to democratize itself and become less dependent on the big incumbents. There is more authentic country and folk music today than ever before if you know where to look for it. Let the Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood fans have their fun.

Sometimes segregation is a good thing, which may sound odd coming from a black guy...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Nerd Test

I've heard a lot of pointless arguments about "Nerd Cred" online and at comic conventions. With a lot of nerd culture going mainstream over the last decade or so, there is concern about authenticity - who is a "real" nerd and who is just a poser, especially so with the "gamer girl" trend of the last few years.

It's not a terribly interesting or important debate. However as a former English teacher, I believe strongly that words matter. As much as people claim to hate labels, we need them to accurately describe and characterize the world around us. The word "nerd" ought to mean something.

My criteria for thinking of someone as being a nerd is the following three characteristics:

1. Above average intelligence
2. An unconscious indifference to trends and social dictates
3. An obsessive passion that overrides all other interests, including relationships with human beings

Nerds are not dumb. Furthermore they are not trendy. A "trendy nerd" is a hipster whose priority is being seen as a nerd, not actually pursuing knowledge or some interest about which they are passionate. Real nerds don't actually worry about being acknowledged as nerds. They are sort of like gangstas in that way. Finally, nerds are obsessive about something to a degree that impacts their social lives.

This isn't to say nerds have no friends; quite the contrary, many have several friends from D&D campaigns, online gaming, and fantasy meetups. The difference is the order of priority. For non-nerds, hobbies are a way to spend time with friends. For nerds, friends are a way to enjoy a hobby.

Here's an easy test:

What sounds like a more fun Friday night:

A. Some version of going out with friends, drinking, partying, exploring a new club, socializing, etc.
B. Home alone with your computer, your games, your books, and time to hack away on some side project.

Think about how you spend your free time and your weekend nights. If your honest answer is B, you meet the third condition.

A lot of people satisfy one or two of the above conditions. I know some very smart people who are passionate about their work, yet obsessive about following trends and social norms. I know smart quirky people who are not constrained by society but they have no strong interests or passions. I've met obsessive and weird people who just lack the general intelligence to be called nerds. I think of people in that last category as 'geeks'.

Regardless, the above is just my own personal criteria and it works well as it properly excludes 99% of humanity which is roughly the percentage of humanity to which I cannot relate.

Another Side of Diversity

I'm on Hacker News a good deal and yesterday I came across this article, The Other Side of Diversity, by a black female software engineer. I don't usually read these sorts of pieces but I figured I'd give it a shot to see if there might be some shared experience or understanding I could glean considering that I am also a black software engineer.

Turns out there really isn't any.

She writes about how out of place she felt in majority white and majority male environments. When she found herself in environments where there were more blacks and more women, she was more comfortable. I suppose this is a common experience. It's just one I cannot relate to at all.

I have never had a need to be around people with the same skin color or genitalia. In fact it has frequently been the opposite. Growing up on Long Island, most of my friends as a kid were Caucasian girls. I played clarinet in the school orchestra and did a numerous extra-curricular activities. I was surrounded by white girls, and they became my friends. I never really felt out of place. When I moved to Manhattan to attend NYU, I found I had little in common with "black America," and even less with stereotypical inner city urban culture.

The places where I have felt the most ostracized have been majority black environments. When I lived in Jersey City, I was taunted by other black people for the way I spoke. When I taught at a charter school in Harlem I was called an "Oreo." The staff at that particular school was predominantly black and Hispanic, and I recall the white teachers struggling to discipline students and work with the administration. There was a strong racial divide among students and staff, and it was the whites that were at the bottom of the food chain. I got fired from that job because I disagreed with the school's pedagogical philosophy. A minority woman gave me the first and only pink slip of my life.

The two places I have felt the most at home in my adult life have been environments where there were almost zero black people

I lived in Japan for three years and felt more at home there than I ever did living in New York City among my "brethren." I learned the language quickly and made a lot of friends. I didn't mind wearing a suit to work every day, taking my shoes off at entrances, and bowing when handing out business cards. I loved the food, the wacky TV shows, Akihabara, the fact that adults aren't seen as weird for loving videogames and anime - all of it. The people were awesome too. Once they saw that I spoke the language (or at least tried) they were great.

To be sure, that is not to imply that Japanese people are never racist. Quite the contrary, they are very openly racist in many situations. When I tried to rent an apartment in Tokyo, I was casually told about a set of landlords who do not rent to foreigners or blacks. Housing discrimination is apparently legal and openly practiced. It didn't really bother me; I prefer my racism open and honest.

The other place where I felt really at home was working at a majority white male startup in NYC for four years. I watched the company grow from 30 to two hundred people, and most of that time I was the only black guy there. Yet it was the best professional environment of my life.

I never felt like a token. From day one I was just part of the team. When people made salty jokes I didn't pretend to laugh to fit in; I laughed because they were funny. If anything I was the worst when it came to off-color / politically incorrect humor. As the company brought in more minorities and women, I got in trouble with HR more than a few times.

I remember the coworkers who stayed late and played video games with me in the lounge of our old office. I remember the guys who committed to a several months long D&D campaign every Wednesday night and battled monsters with me late into the evening. I remember all of the mentoring I received - the dozens of times a developer sat with me and patiently explained how some piece of code worked. Almost every one of these people were white men.

The irony is that I felt most excluded at that office whenever people went out of their way to "be inclusive." As a non-drinker, I was on the outside of the culture of bar-hopping and late nights spent getting hammered at Karaoke bars. When we had diversity training seminars or people passed around articles about the benefits of multiculturalism, I had to bite my tongue. I remember all the knowing smiles and comments I got when Obama won re-election and I would tell people that I didn't vote for him and quickly change the subject.

As in my last post I recall Graham's What You Can't Say. I wouldn't have lasted a week at that job if I had been forthright about my opinions. Playing along with the accepted progressive orthodoxy of today's tech scene is a small price to pay for all I learned while there. I never felt stressed or isolated. Three years in Japan had taught me how to turn on a work-focused frame of mind and not worry about office culture. As I alluded to in my post about being a gamer, I don't need people to agree with my political views in order to be friends with them. What's more I don't consider my or any of my coworkers social views relevant at work. My colleague could be a hardcore white supremacist and it wouldn't matter so long as he did his job and treated people fairly at work.

Discrimination is not inherently evil. We all discriminate in our daily lives. We all have the right to choose who we associate with and who we do not. I know the sort of people I like to hang around and what sort I prefer to avoid.

The issue is complicated in a work environment. Companies (especially startups) want work to feel like fun - like an extension of your social life. They want a fun office environment where people can joke around, shoot nerf guns, and don't mind staying (and working!) late because the people are so cool. The problem is that work environments must also be tolerant and professional - two things people generally don't want to have to be in their private social lives.

In my social life, I can choose not to be friends with women, or blacks, or gays, or hipsters, or trombone players - whoever. At work, I have to turn off whatever biases I might bring and be able to work with whoever the company has hired. For me personally, this has never been a problem. I've never experienced a work environment where any significant number of people have even remotely similar ideas about the world as me. Thus I've become very practiced at getting along with people of diverse backgrounds. This is clearly not so for everyone. Some people need to be around those who look and think like them in order to feel comfortable.

To that end, we should remember that ostracism is not always the fault of whites or men. Women and minorities can be just as discriminating when they are the majority. When I was at NYU as one of the few men in the majority female education department, I experienced some of the worst ostracism of my life. I figured it was my nerdy personality or lack of agreement with the hyper-feminist politics of the department that kept me out of the sisterhood. When I saw that other guys of varied racial and political persuasions were similarly excluded, I realized something else was at play.

It did not matter that most of the guys there agreed strongly with the left-of-center politics and social agenda of the faculty. There were a number of informal gatherings and social events to which none of the males were invited. There were also several explicitly 'women only' seminars and meetings in the name of "diversity." This shouldn't come as a surprise as public school teaching is a predominantly female field. Particularly at the primary school level, there are precious few men, yet we rarely criticize the culture for being 'sexist' or 'unwelcoming'.

I don't know what the solution to all of this stuff is nor do I have any easy answers. All I can say is that I am grateful to everyone who has exposed me to new ways of thinking about things.