Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Critical Convergence

At some unknown time in the distant past, the foundation was laid for critical convergence in movies. By the time I got my first dose of big screen escapism, the insubstantial idea of the ‘ideal’ film was well entrenched enough to be walking away with very substantial Oscars each time. Just chew on this for a moment: what would the critically perfect film look like? It would have very few characters for starters- offering plenty of scope for ‘character development’. There would be lots of conversation and minimal action. There would almost certainly be a traumatic experience of some sort underlying the protagonist’s role. It would have a narrative pace that would tick over slower than a blue whale’s heart, and it would almost certainly have been made on a shoestring budget. Humour would be rare, absent or accidental; any speculative or fantastical elements would just be absent. This movie would hit critical convergence with ease.

Would I watch such a film? I could describe several improbable circumstances which conceivably might force me to, but the short answer is no. In fact my ideal movie would pick the opposite of most of the ‘design’ choices made in the earlier description. But that’s not what I want to discuss here, because films today have achieved critical convergence to the extent that almost no prominent genre-limited critics exist today. Instead I want to talk about the same phenomenon, still only in the nascent stage but moving fast enough to make me fret, in the field of computer games.

Everyone knows Role Playing Games are the in thing today. It’s likely that even your average non-gamer has seen an online ad for at least one MMORPG flashing promiscuously in the sidebar, and in  a completely unrelated website. But a lesser known fact is that critics love RPGs too. Like before, let me start off with a question: what would the critically perfect computer game look like? It would be an RPG yes, and possibly an action RPG, but not necessarily. Its gameplay would be non linear and it would have more side missions than anyone could care to count. It would have an absurdly complicated plot, and some sort of a dialogue based mechanism to manipulate it. Everything in the game world would be ‘explorable’. There would probably be an immense amount of character customization available.

Again, would I play such a game? Probably yes. In any case, the answer’s not an immediate no, because my design choices match the critically perfect ones in a couple of cases. No game is made worse by increasing the explorability of the in-game world, for instance. What’s worrying, however, is that no one seems to like the old fashioned game with the set-in-stone one path storyline anymore. For me, a significant portion of the ‘kick’ associated with gaming comes from simply progressing through a game. Non-linear gameplay often clouds the sensation of progress, leaving me dissatisfied even after hours and hours of play. Also, I do enjoy a bit of character customization, but why does every game need to have truckloads of it? I would love to play an action RPG that has awesomely depicted environments, but little or no character customization (weapon upgrades, skill upgrades, level upgrades, you get what I’m talking about). And then there are the dialogues – I wonder if I’ll ever get used to them? Right now I hate them like the Nazis. I really don’t care about altering the plot a tetchy bit by spending half my time watching my characters talk to each other.

Computer game criticism hasn’t hit critical convergence yet, but history suggests that it’s only a matter of time before it does. Is there anything at all that can offer, if not a cure, an alternative to this process? The answer’s an easy one: genre-limited reviews. Music today has become so diverse that the process of criticism is almost exclusively genre-limited. Although it makes it harder for you to find the right reviewer (rather than the right review), it works. I know that the review of a metal band on a metal review site will be fair, because there’s no prejudice against an entire genre there. It isn’t like people automatically judge metal music out of 7 because the popular opinion is that it’s not nice to listen to. I just hope that a genre based criticism culture grows quickly in the computer gaming scene. If it doesn’t, and it goes the way of cinema, I’ll be left with only one alternative. Pick the genre, and choose randomly from all that fit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Hope

There was once a time when everyone who fought against slavery was thought a crank.

There was once a time when everyone who fought for women's rights was thought a crank.

Today, most animal rights activists are looked at as cranks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama Bashing

Every morning at work, the first fifteen minutes of fighting dreariness are spent on Google Reader. A small fraction of that time is spent on feeds from Snopes (if you haven’t heard of Snopes, I urge you to check it out); and a significant portion of that small fraction is spent on reading an article that debunks yet another Obama hoax. 

With even a superficial analysis, one can identify features common to all these hoaxes. An example is a persistent insinuation that somehow Barack Obama is less American than the rest. (He’s born in Hawaii? What sensible American is born in Hawaii? Wait, his father is Kenyan? Is there anything more to be said?) There are a couple of points I find incongruous at best (and repulsive at worst) about this view. First, how is being of German, Dutch, Irish or even English descent ‘better’ than being of Mexican, Kenyan or Indian descent? Before anyone answers, I have to hastily interrupt, pointing out the rhetorical nature of the question, and mumble something about the R-word. Here’s Snopes link 1 illustrating my point. Comprehensively debunked as this email hoax might be, the Snopes folks might now be looking at taking a breather from the usual business about alien abductions and levitating monkeys and concentrating on Barack Obama full time. 

Then, there’s the Islamophobia. Every Republican worth his salt has cried himself hoarse about BHO’s middle name and its implications. (The use of the distracting acronym BHO – which for me always expands to Browser Helper Object and nothing more– appears to be a thinly veiled ploy to draw attention to this point.) Barack Obama and friends have, of course, cried themselves hoarse pointing to the mountains of physical evidence that plainly contradicted that belief, to no significant effect. Tinfoil hat status quo, one would think. But then happened the Ground Zero Mosque incident (follow the link for details, like how it’s not exactly a mosque, and how it’s not exactly at Ground Zero), where Obama committed the most unforgiveable sin of them all: he stood up for the secular right of people to follow a faith of their choice. (He later half took back his statement, saying it was only said in a general sense, and not in reference to anything.) With little to cheer for the American population, I’m sure that the Muslim jibe, nothing more than a faint drone up till now, will quickly rise to a cacophonous roar. 

One disclaimer before I proceed with my rant: I’m no Muslim apologist. I’ve been known to be heavily contemptuous towards conservatism, and there isn’t a religion with more conservatism than Islam. Wait, let me qualify that. There isn’t another religion where conservatism has as much clout as Islam, for all religions have their share of retrospectophiles. Yet, through our petty stereotypes we successfully obscure our liberal values and give in to the temptation of narrow mindedness, and effectively become them. Protect the ‘moderates’, let them live a harmless life in the service of their God. Fight the conservatism, yes, but not through conservatism, it only fuels it. A very valid dilemma may rear its head at this point: if I fight conservatism through tolerance, won’t that only empower the not-so-moderate conservatives out there? Yes, certainly, and here’s where I think we should let go of a bit of our pacifism. Just wishing him gone won’t make the Big Bad Bogeyman go away after all. (Sidenote: A whimsical thought interrupts my ruminations. If there’s one thing that’s true about a religious conservative, it’s that he’s never going to agree with another religion’s conservative. So let them fight. Liberalism is founded in egalitarianism, and can afford to watch as the conservatives destroy each other. Right? Not really. At the end of it all, you’ll have one angry murderous beast ready to fight to the death for its ‘ideals’ on one side, and a bunch of saintly pacifists on the other side. I don’t like the odds.)

Another theme common to Obama bashing is woven around the accusation that he’s something of a chronic liar. Speaking of politicians and honesty in the same breath is dangerously close to causing an instantaneous spacetime singularity, but in this case, I feel the criticism is strongly coloured by blind propaganda. Here are links 2 and 3 for perusal. All I can say is: we have enough lies going around already, we don’t want lies about lies to muddle things further.

I know I said earlier that I won’t bring up the R-word, but how can any discussion of Obama bashing do without it? It’s undeniable that there’s a strong undercurrent of racism underlying most of these Obama hoaxes. (Here’s a random hoax that plays with the stereotype without actually having much to do with the topic.) What do black people know about the Great White American ethos? Somehow, conservatives have talked themselves (hypnotized, psychedelic drugged themselves) into believing that tolerance for difference is just political correctness. As a consequence, you get the odd joke about political correctness destroying the world from the precious few conservatives with a sense of humour there are. Dear Retrospectophiles/Great White Males – we’re not being politically correct when we ask you to treat poor African children with dignity, and if you think otherwise, sigh, we haven’t progressed that much since slavery.

Then there are statements so ridiculous that even listing them here would be embarrassing. I vaguely recall some conservative propaganda about Barack Obama’s ‘Yes, We Can’ badges and the lighting on his speeches hypnotizing people into voting for him. For more like these, refer to this.

Barack Obama probably took over the reins of the country at the worst possible time. A shattered economy, pointless wars on multiple fronts, and a country where half the population believe that calling slavery an abomination is political correctness, can anyone fix that overnight? Ironically, if I were to criticize Barack Obama for something, it would be his overly ‘centrist’ approach to everything. Don’t mollycoddle the neocons too much, you won’t get anything done, they’re called conservative for a reason! Let’s not forget how historic his election really is, even if the USA already has. Perhaps we won’t really appreciate the fact until we’re three hundred years into the future. Give the man a chance. There are only so many pieces a teacup can break into before no amount of glue will put it back. Give the man a chance, I say.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Approval Junkie and I - Closure

The Epilogue
The very first time I type the 'approval junkie' quote after writing a long ramble about it, I break my speed record. Here's to approval junkies, and Parkway Drive's Carrion playing in the background. Peace.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Approval Junkie and I

Prelude: The Site
At some point during my third year of college, I discovered this site. You can see for yourself: its concept is as brilliant (and perhaps unique), as it is simple. Who would have thought something as mundane as learning to type could be made so interesting? That is one aspect of it. The other aspect, the one I found much less surprising, was the fact that there were so many people out there who actually wanted to learn to type. I had, at the very dawn of my Typeracer adventure, already constructed the necessary arguments to analyze, and justify, this phenomenon. People who happened to observe me engaged in this particular activity were immediately subjected to defensive diatribes on the pressing relevance of computer skills in this day and age. It’s completely true, of course, that everyone needs to know how to type, and how to type quick. It may even be of more practical significance than learning to write. However, no one said I’d have to do it this obsessively. It’s completely unnecessary to improve my typing speed from a 95th percentile to a 98th percentile, sitting on the site three hours a day for a month. Such a pursuit is frivolous, unless...

Sidenote to the Prelude: The Game
Games always sell, because they satisfy two very fundamental human desires: to get one up over your neighbour, and to not get hurt when beaten (physically that is, I really can’t say anything about mental fragility).

Chapter One: The Quote
There’s another thing that’s great about Typeracer. It makes you type quotes, and not just any quotes at that. Quotes that make you cringe, quotes that make you laugh, quotes that make hillbillies turn in their graves, but definitely not quotes picked up from a lawyer’s manual. And there was this quote that resonated so deeply with me, that I brooded over it long after the race was done. The quote is hyperlinked, so you can read for yourself, but let me paraphrase it anyway:

We do what we do, because we’re all approval junkies.

Even with a superficial analysis, I’m sure most of us can come up with any number of instances to back this claim. Most conformism (think anything from keeping your hair short to not wearing black to eating burgers only at Mcdonald’s) is, by default, approval addiction. The classic case of the neighbours, conformism at its despicable best, is well documented by J.K. Rowling with her portrayal of the Dursleys. (Every day a fresh incident pops up that proves that such portrayal is far from hyperbole, but each time I manage to get shocked.) 

What is interesting is that many acts of seeming rebelliousness are nothing but targeted forms of conformism, and therefore, approval addiction. Heavy metal sub-culture is an excellent case in point. The overwhelming need to appear like a metalhead, and seek the approval of other ‘cool’ people, is just as strong as it is rare. I pick the example of heavy metal, not to deride it, but because it’s something close to my heart. Any strong, niche, fan culture can serve just as well. Like Geekland, and its population of the stereotyped computer geeks. This is one stereotype no self-respecting ‘victim’ ever tries to break free of. All geeks are approval junkies: it’s just that we don’t seek the approval of the average Joe.

Some more introspection, some more generalization, and I realized I was fast running out of things that could unambiguously be classified as not approval addiction. Take for instance, the phenomenon of ambition. I cannot deny that there exist people who truly wish to make a difference to the world. (Sidenote: I haven’t seen any, but that’s no counter-argument. I haven’t seen Mahatma Gandhi either.) Most people however, work hard and move up the organizational hierarchy, not because they care about the organization, but because they can buy that luxury sedan that will finally win their neighbours' approval. 

It was only the other day that something happened at work; an incident that simply strengthened my conviction that I was already firmly in the grip of this addiction. First, some background: At work, I have a mentor, who helps me get up to speed with the way the company works, and I have a manager who I report to. One fine morning, my manager came up to me, and told me that my mentor had a high opinion of me, and that he hoped I would live up to that. It so happened that I’d already developed a strong sense of admiration for my mentor and his technical skills, and it also so happened that I was at that point suffering from a bout of lethargy. Needless to say, any laziness promptly vanished, at about the point I realized I had someone’s approval to seek.

Is it all bad though? It is a fear of disapproval, something that almost always accompanies a desire for approval, that often drives quality in my work. I read a blog post multiple times before I post it, tweaking this and that, because I know there are people out there who’ll read it and judge me on its merit. Code that I submit for review will inevitably be better than code I write for myself. Having said all that, it seems to me that a life driven solely by a pursuit of approval, is a life not lived at all. Things that define who you are: your appearance, your mannerisms, your habits, should never be dictated by others’ judgment. Otherwise, it will be a quick descent into the bottomless pit of insecurity.

There’s one issue that falls on the borderline, something with which I can play the Devil’s Advocate with ease, and that’s the issue of being nice. Diplomacy. Tact. Politeness, or whatever you want to call it. Not too long ago, it was obvious to me that tact is necessary for civilization to work. You cannot have a bunch of people living together, interacting every minute, being rude to each other all the time. It simply does not work that way. Looking at it through the clouded lens of an approval junkie, it’s apparent that most people are not nice because they care about a smoothly progressing civilization. They’re simply afraid of disapproval. 
"Because we're just monkeys wrapped in suits, begging for the approval of others."