Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Linear versus Exponential Progression

The past few days I've been playing Clicker Heroes. Well, "playing". Like Cookie Clicker before it (or even earlier, Candy Box), the game is entirely about finding the most efficient path to getting bigger numbers. It is literally just progression and nothing but. Buy things to automatically do more DPS, which kills enemies faster, to get more money, to buy more things to automatically do even more DPS. It's totally ridiculous, yet it triggers some number-happy portion of my brain.

According to the legend on the right, I currently have 1,162 Quintillion Gold, or 1,162 x 10^18, or 1,162,000,000,000,000,000,000 gold.
To make the game mechanics work, all of these clicker games use exponential progression. It's pretty similar to how WoW does progression these days as well. The pro of exponential progression means that you absolutely must get the new tier's worth of gear to really make a dent in the next tier of content, allowing developers to easily put a stat/gear cap on progression.

In Clicker Heroes, I can't really wail away at level 97 using heroes that only gives me 1 Million DPS, not when enemies have 350 Quintillion health. That would take me over 31,000 years! Or in WoW, you can't use gear from TBC to defeat bosses from Cataclysm. Heck, it's difficult or impossible these days to hit the next tier of content with gear from the previous (i.e.: jumping straight from Heroic ToT to Heroic SoO and beating it completely without any SoO gear at all)

WoW's power curve, from my own calculations nearly a year ago.
It also means you really feel upgrades. Every upgrade feels weighty and like a huge difference to how powerful your character is. Contrast that with a linear power curve, and upgrades become less noticeable over time.

For example, imagine if you had 50 Strength and you find a set of armor that between all the pieces increases your Strength by 10. That's a 20% increase in power, and you'll feel that. But imagine the second set of armor only increases your Strength by 20, 10 more than previous. That's only a 16% increase in power from the previous set of armor (60 Strength + 10 more, versus 50 Strength + 10). Now imagine 5 tiers later, and you have a set of armor that again only increases your Strength by 10 over the previous tier. That'd only be a 9% increase in power that tier (110 + 10). Basically, the more tiers you have, the less each individual tier actually increases your total power.

But there are cases where a linear power curve is handy. If your system uses small numbers, like Paper Mario, an exponential power curve isn't going to be helpful. Or if you purposefully want the differences to be small. Look at D&D 5th Edition, for example:

The difference between a level 1 character and a level 20 character using a skill they're proficient in is only a difference of about +5 to +7 total once you take into account attribute boosts and proficiency bonus boosts. At best, a level 20 character can be twice as good as a level 1 character. Since everything is rolled on a d20, you're looking at values of 5 - 25 or so for a level 1 character, or 12 - 32 or so for a level 20 character. It allows lower level characters the chance (albeit small) to do really heroic things, and gives the level 20 character the chance to still fail at moderately complex tasks (rather than always succeed).

It also all depends on the scale of what you're building. If you expect a really long power curve--like in an MMO--exponential might be a better choice because of that diminishing returns on linear. But if your curve is relatively short, a linear curve is quite easy to balance and maintain.

Both are useful depending on the scenario, just like any other tool in a game designer's toolkit. Either case, you can balance encounters and enemies around them, and they'll feel relatively similar in the moment, but it's all about how things should feel if you're going backwards (or jumping ahead!) in content. Should a high-level character be defeatable by a mid or low-level character? Should even mid-level enemies potentially provide a challenge? Or should you only be able to be effective/balanced within a given tier of content? That's all up to the designer and how you want your game to play/feel.

#DesignExperiment, #DnD, #WoW

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why I Give Final Fantasy XV's All-Male Cast a (Mostly) Pass

I'm a big proponent of having a diverse cast of characters. I've asked Blizzard in the past to increase the different types of people in their Massively Multiplayer Online game, I'm on record for vocally standing up for other people, and a proponent of diversity in gaming in general with conventions like GaymerX and the Diversity Lounge at PAX Prime and East.

Cast Image, courtesy of Kotaku.com
Final Fantasy XV has been announced as having a playable cast that are entirely male. Well, technically there is only a single playable character (Noctis), but the party that goes with is all-male. Director Hajima Tabata echoes Blizzard's "boy's trip" statement:
"The party members being all men was something that [former director] Tetsuya Nomura had kept as a very important element of this journey. He wanted to depict a story in which a group of men, a group of friends, journey throughout the world. So that’s something that I kept in Final Fantasy XV."
So you might be wondering, why the double standard here? Why does Square Enix get a pass from me, but Blizzard does not?


Blizzard has struggled mightily with representation of female characters in their franchises. They've done some good work--Warcraft 3 Jaina comes to mind, and Sylvanas is particularly interesting despite the lack of clothing--but the bad and non-existent outweighs the good. There are other examples, but not many that are anywhere near as prominent.

When you look at the Final Fantasy series, though? Interesting, strong, respectful, and different representations of women abound. There's fanservice-y moments--Tifa from Final  Fantasy VII comes to mind immediately--but she's still a good, rounded character alongside that aspect, which makes her a better character still than most.


Final Fantasy III (1990) is the only game in the primary series with no playable ladies.

Final Fantasy VI not just has playable women, but Terra is the primary viewpoint in the first half of the game, and Celes is for the second half. Not only that, but Terra is shown in a mother-role in the second half and clearly struggles with the question of running off to be a hero, or staying and protecting her children. Celes struggles with loyalty and authority. Both characters are extremely powerful and have great development.

Aerith, Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII has Aerith, who actively chooses to die for the world and for her friends. Independent to a fault, she runs off on her own knowing she puts her friends in danger to do what only she can do. For many folks, her scenes are some of the first in video games that really moved them to tears.

Final Fantasy VIII has Quistis Trepe, an instructor who's incredibly gifted, but has issues handling her success correctly. While Squall is the defacto leader, Quistis is the one with her head screwed on correctly and handing out good advice on what to do.

Quistis, Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy IX brings Freya, a dragoon from a ruined kingdom, compared to the less warrior-like Princess Garnet who does embody a few of the damsel in distress tropes, though she goes looking for help rather than waiting for it to show up. And while not playable for long, Beatrix is a General of the kingdom of Alexandria, and she is pretty badass.

Final Fantasy X, while Tidus may look like the main character, it's really a story about Yuna's pilgrimage to save the world from an ever-regenerating monster. A young woman who marches off to her death with a smile because it will bring joy to the people of Spira, and how she wants her journey to be one full of laughter. While Tidus helps shake up her worldview, ultimately together they triumph without sacrificing her life. Not to mention Lulu's big sister role--and while the belt dress is classic Nomura-fanservice with the fur bra line that would have to be taped to her breasts to stay up the way it does, she's still a great character who has her own worldview changed over the course of the game as well.

Yuna and Lulu, Final Fantasy X (image from http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Mushroom_Rock)
Final Fantasy X-2 is actually an entirely female cast! Rikku, Paine, and Yuna one year after FFX, living it up as treasure hunters. All three ladies bring formidable and diverse personalities to bear--Rikku being ultra cheerful and melodramatic, Paine being the taciturn one with a terrible past, and Yuna loosening up a bit after being the hero. While one could argue they were sexualized in a number of their costumes (as class changes came about via "dress spheres" which would change their class by changing their costume), for the most part they were just dealing with the world around them, rather than mooning over men. The game actually passes the Bechdel test extremely handily, and is a fun, refreshing change of pace for a Final Fantasy game.

Final Fantasy XI, an MMO like WoW, has a number of prominent female characters, but by far the most popular and representative character of the game is Shantotto, the Tarutaru Black Mage and hero of a number of wars. Actually, you'll notice that the most popular NPCs in FFXI are primarily women.

Shantotto, Final Fantasy XI
Final Fantasy XII plays the same trick as FFX, where the primary character seems to be Vaan and Penelo, street urchins, but in actuality revolves around Princess Ashe, who is fighting to retake her kingdom from an invading force far more powerful than her small country. She's pretty business-like, for good reason, but she's still an impressive character. The game as a whole is less about the characters' individual growth than it is the over-arching plot, however.

Final Fantasy XIII has a cast that's split 50-50 between men and women, but arguably the ladies play the much bigger roles. Lightning, a soldier who's actually pretty badass; Vanille, who apparently grated on a lot of people with her happy go-lucky ways; Fang, Vanille's elder compatriot. The series revolves around Lightning mostly, but Fang and Vanille are integral to the plot, and we learn a lot about them as the game goes on, about how Vanille is compensating for a difficult past, and Fang is there to help her along the way, feeling somewhat responsible for the situation. And even moreso than FFX-2, FFXIII passes the Bechdel test and then some.

Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2 has Serah, Lightning's sister, to help Lightning throughout the game. Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns is again all about our pink-haired soldier of time and space, being the only playable character throughout the whole game.

Final Fantasy XIV, another MMO, has ladies in a number of prominent positions. The rulers of all three kingdoms are female, and one of the primary NPCs that you interact with throughout your quests, Y'shtola, is a capable White Mage in a very exclusive group of adventurers investigating strange occurrences throughout the land.

Y'shtola, Final Fantasy XIV, A Realm Reborn
All of this to say, Square Enix actually has a pretty good track record for lady characters; far better than Blizzard's. They have a balance between the busty fan service ladies that some people seem to enjoy--I am not one of them, mind you; I'll take the busty fan service men instead, thanks--and characters that are more conservatively dressed. Most of their female characters are well-developed, varied, and interesting. Many of them are even revered by many Final Fantasy fans, with Celes, Terra, Aerith, and Shantotto immediately springing to mind. Balance here is key.

It's both an argument that having female characters is excellent for your game, and also that if Square Enix wants to put out a game with only male characters, I feel like they can do so because they've done pretty well. As a company, they're clearly more about the story and great characters than just having women as props, so I'm less concerned about the prevailing attitude behind the Directors' words. It's not a pattern.

Granted, their timing kind of sucks, given all the issues cropping up recently. But then again, this is a game like seven years in the making so far, so one can't really predict that sort of thing anyhow. All in all, I think I'd rather use the opportunity to highlight places where they've been great, because Square Enix has some awesome characters. Were there any I missed that should be on that list?

#FinalFantasy, #Diversity

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Blizzcon 2014 Prediction: New WoW Expansion

Go big or go home, right?

So let's break this down, because stating that I believe a completely new WoW expansion will be announced at Blizzcon is pretty out there, especially given the fact that they'll be in the midst of launching the current one they've been working on.

Blizzard is on record many, many, many times stating they want to get to faster releases, to delivering an expansion every year if possible, or at least faster than every two years. Tom Chilton of Blizzard was recently asked about why they haven't delivered on that promise:
The reality is that scaling up the number of people that we have, to work on multiple projects at once has slowed us down. Honestly, it should have not come as a surprise to us. We increased the size of the team by 50% and the majority of those people had never worked on World of Warcraft before or any other MMO, so it is really difficult for them to create content right away, without getting up to speed. So we ended up redoing a lot of the content that we were doing for Warlords to make sure that we would get it at the quality level that we would expect.
Having been on a team that literally tripled in size overnight and being responsible for their education, I can tell you it's extremely unrealistic to expect the team to not be negatively impacted in terms of delivering content. A good rule of thumb I have from experience is that it will take 3 - 6 months before a software developer can be truly independently productive on an established team/product. Closer to three if you have area expertise and/or just a lot of experience in general, and about six if you're totally new to the area and need to catch up. On top of that, the experienced folks need to take a lot of time mentoring the new team members, so their productivity is negatively affected as well.

This isn't a new concept by any means. If you're in any sort of management, The Mythical Man-Month is, frankly, a must read. Specifically:
"Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later" -- Brooks' Law
I don't care what software project you're working on, this maxim holds true time and time and time again. Blizzard paid the price of violating that maxim with a later release than they wanted. However, now that the workforce is trained and up to speed, I expect that they'll be able to increase their content delivery velocity.

So if Blizzard wants to have expansions out every year, with possibly only a couple of raid tiers an expansion (I think 6 months per tier is the perfect amount of time for a tier of 10 - 14 bosses), then it makes sense that Blizzcon is their opportunity to announce this. Blizzcon next year would be too late as it would be when such an imaginary expansion would launch, though given how much they like GamesCom, perhaps they could wait until next August, but that still feels way too late for such an announcement, so no, I think Blizzard would likely feel this is the perfect time and place if this were the case.

With the launch of Warlords of Draenor the week after Blizzcon 2014, most of the excitement for it will already be at a fever pitch. Given the kinds of folks likely to be at Blizzcon or watching announcements and like are probably already getting fatigued with the amount of WoD information we've been inundated with, I don't really think the announcement of a new expansion would undercut the currently upcoming expansion too much. Frankly, I don't think there's much information about Warlords left to even go over. Even the cinematics have all been revealed.

We shall see if my prediction is correct. It's definitely a risky prediction, but really where's the fun in the small, incremental predictions? But we shall see in about two months if I am correct!

#WoW, #Blizzcon

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I've Got Theatrhythm, I've Got Music

Who could ask for anything more?

Over the weekend I picked up Final Fantasy Theatrhythm for my 3DS--or more accurately, Amazon delivered the game to me on Sunday--and proceeded to play the everliving crap out of it, to put it mildly. For those unaware, Theatrhythm is a music game using Final Fantasy music from the ages. You make a party of four Final Fantasy characters, out of a total of sixty available, who have levels and abilities that you get to kit out, and go through battle and field stages.

Fighting Jecht inside Sin to the tune of "Otherworld". Pretty sure Shantotto wasn't in FFX, though.
Many of the songs come with game-appropriate enemies and backgrounds, which makes for a very fun nostalgia romp if you're familiar with the games. if not, the music in the Final Fantasy series has been top notch, and alone is worth the price of entry at a default of 221 songs available. This time around instead of sticking to the main series, they've also included tunes from spinoffs, like Final Fantasy Tactics, Crisis Core, Mystic Quest, Dissidia, and even the movie Final Fantasy VII Advent Children.

If the music wasn't a big draw to me, the new control scheme alone would be worth the price of entry. If you're familiar with games like Elite Beat Agents or the original Theatrhythm, you'll be familiar with using the stylus to play the game. Taps, slides, and holds all come into play. But now you can use the buttons, too! 

Novel, I know. But I've always had difficulties getting the slides correct with the stylus, often lifting the stylus in preparation for the next note too soon and screwing up my current note. Now instead I can just flick the thumbstick and call it a day. Far more accurate for myself. However, I still have issues in the Field Music Stages (FMS) where you use the thumbstick to follow the hold line, and then have to flick it at the end. I screw it up royally every time so I'm sticking to the stylus for those.

Quests come in short, medium, and long formats, and you get bonuses for completing them!
The game also includes a quest mode, where you go from level to level, collecting keys, items, and so on, and your health bar is the same one for the entire quest. So if you do poorly on an early battle, it'll be an uphill struggle to stay alive if you're not so hot at rhythm games for the rest of the quest. But of course you can just use a potion!

As a former DDR junkie, seeing that 1 great kinda makes me want to throw my 3DS. SO CLOSE!
And like any rhythm game you are graded on each stage, where it tells you just how well (or terrible) you did. Interestingly enough, it also keeps track of what control style you use (buttons, stylus, or hybrid where you use both), and displays it with your score. I guess unlike controllers versus mouse/keyboard in FPS games, we'll be able to determine which control style is the best with this kind of data.

So basically, RPG trappings around a rhythm game, though no real story to speak of. If you want a rhyme or reason for running around this game, you won't find one. It's all about the mechanics and the motif of the game. Toss in an online versus mode that does random things to your opponent (and to you) to see who has the best score, and just an insane number of unlocks that comes at a very steady pace, they've done a pretty damn good job of polishing this game to keep you interested for maximum hours, and to keep playing just one more song.

Given I love the Final Fantasy series music, I love RPG mechanics, and I love rhythm games, this is a serious no-brainer for me to pick up. So far I have not been disappointed. Now excuse me while I go try to figure out how to optimize Terra for maximum Firaga ownage.

#FirstImpression, #Theatrhythm

Thursday, September 18, 2014

[Indie Dev] Synchronizing UI Flows Across Multiple Players

In a multiplayer game, it's a pretty basic requirement to be able to have UI for that's synchronized between all players. An example might be all players are watching a dialogue, but you don't want to move the dialogue forward until everyone has voted on which response (ala SWTOR). In Eon Altar, everyone has their own device, and so if we want to show UI across all screens, including the central device, we need a way to ensure that everyone is ready to move onto the next step in a given flow before actually moving people to the next step.
Really old media material. Screen shots are from a PROTOTYPE build and do not reflect the final product.
Now, with our game, the central device is an authoritative server. Think of it like World of Warcraft or any other MMO. The server (central device) has the game state, and takes commands from the clients (in our case, handsets), but doesn't trust the clients. The server is what dictates the state of the game. So our requirement to have UI flow be synchronized requires the server to track who is ready and who is not, and when everyone is ready, tell all parties to move to the next stage in the flow.
To use an existing example, in Wildstar, Adventures allow the party to vote on what area to do next. The state flow for that might look like:
Wildstar Adventure voting, in a nutshell.
Each box is a UI screen, or a state, and each arrow is the conditions to move to the next state, or a state transition. Basically, a super simple state machine.
So the server has to keep track of the current state, the clients need to know what state they're supposed to be on, and the server has to wait for all clients to respond before moving to the next state--where a response in the Wildstar case is either everyone voting, or players completing a quest. Not to mention be resilient to players losing connection, or new players joining, etc.. Perhaps some cases you want a time limit (like for voting) so you may need the server to force the clients to the next state regardless of whether they completed their step.
Networked players are pretty similar to threads in a sense. When a computer needs to do a bunch of disparate tasks that are independent, you spawn a bunch of threads and let them run off. When you need to wait for everything to come back before moving on, you use a synchronization technique called a Barrier.
In our case, instead of a single thread continuing on at the end, we just kick off another set of arrows to hit another barrier. Oh, and we need it to work across a network.

What a single round of Voting-Quest cycle might look like.

With Unity's networking, this isn't actually a terribly difficult thing to achieve. Unity allows you to create objects that can talk to each other across the network via Remote Procedure Call (RPC). So to get everything hooked up, the server can determine it needs to show a UI flow (say, all players are dead, so it needs to show a GameOver screen), and once it's determined that it can do this, we can Network.Instantiate a Barrier object such that the server and clients all have a linked object.
By using Network.Instantiate, any RPC calls made by that object will automatically go to the other versions of that object on other clients. We can choose to make a call to just the server (RPCMode.Server), to all others (RPCMode.Others) or to everyone including ourselves (RPCMode.All). The latter is quite useful in the case where you want to move everyone, server and clients, onto the next state--though one could do this more performantly if one were to special case the logic to have the server call it's own internal method instead of the RPC, but given we're network bound regardless, meh. It's simpler to write this way, and simpler to write means fewer bugs.
The server version of the object can keep track of all the players, and send RPC calls to the clients to say StartFlow, GoNextState, FinishFlow, and the clients can send RPC calls to say they're ready to go to the next state. The server can then determine when/how it wants to go to the next state and tell the clients when to switch over.
If you're particularly clever, you'll also notice that you've basically got two separate objects here: a Barrier, and a State Machine. You could split the two apart and have the State Machine encapsulate the Barrier to make the logic far more organized, at the expense of having to coordinate the two objects over the network, which requires a bit more programming overhead. But having them organized correctly means it'll be easier to write more complex State Machines later (like ones that aren't just a linear set of steps).
So that's all the depth I'm going into. Further implementation details are left to the reader, but once you have the flow worked out and understand Unity's APIs, it's not actually terribly onerous to implement. Took me a day and a half, and that was with a lot of testing and some prototyping as well.
For those who aren't developers and are reading for funsies, hopefully this gave you some insight to how something as simple as trying to keep everyone on the same page, literally, across a network works. Even the simplest concepts within a game can take a fair amount of programming effort!

#Programming, #IndieDev

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

[D&D5] Krull the Ugly Half-Orc Cleric of Love and Beauty

So my group of friends are starting a 5th Edition D&D campaign, where I (finally!) get to be a player in. it's funny, but the vast majority of my time playing Pen and Paper role-playing games has been as a GM. From the homebrew system in high-school the evolved to be the game I'm helping make today, to D&D today, I'm almost exclusively the one running the campaign. So when my friend said he was starting a new campaign, I jumped to join.
I'm pretty well love both the tactical and role-playing aspects of the game. Previous characters included a Halfling bard (where I actually wrote poem/song lyrics while we played about the party); a 2nd Edition-style Chaotic Neutral (read: unstable) Fire Mage who ended up burning down the ship we were on after a party member pulled a prank; a gnomish wizard who thought the souls of his ancestors who were trapped in gems, so he had to look at EVERY gem the party found. So I like my characters a bit quirky.
Our party is pretty magic heavy. With two Wizards (one of whom is a Tinker Gnome with 19 intellect but only 4 Wisdom, that'll be fun), a Wild Magic Sorcerer, and a Barbarian, we needed someone tanky-healy. So Melee-Cleric it was. Turns out that in 5th edition, if you choose the Life Domain, you get Heavy Armour proficiency automatically.
And so Krull the Half-Orc was born. Needing some good martial combat abilities meant boosting my strength and constitution rather than the normal just go for your primary statistic, which is nice. But of course I needed to figure out which god I worshipped. All of the Life deities in Forgotton Realms sounded pretty boring, until I saw Sune, Goddess of Love and Beauty. Half-orcs aren't traditionally seen as pretty, so I figured, there's a twist. Second twist: a cleric with only 8 charisma. So I'm not just ugly, but bad at proselytizing.

We start playing in a couple weeks, and my GM wants us to hand our backstories in. I figured, why not make a blog post about it? So, I present, Krull, the (ugly) Half-Orc Cleric of Love and Beauty.

Krull grew up in a small city on the outskirts of civilization. Being a half-orc was a strike against him, but he was blessed with the gift of great beauty, which allowed him privileges that his other half-orc brethren could never know. A fairer half-orc you would never find. While he lived with his human mother in the town, he was approached by some clerics of the goddess Sune when he was 15, who recognized his fantastic beauty. And so he became a disciple of the order of Love and Beauty.

His year at the temple was enjoyable, though he missed his mother terribly. He would make the 3 day trek to his hometown every other month to visit her. It was on one of these trips where he was assaulted by a number of unruly half-orcs, both disdainful of his kow-towing to the humans, but also jealous of his looks and ability to fit in. With a vial of acid, one of them disfigured Krull's face in the attack, and left him on the side of the road with the warning that if he ever showed his now-ugly face ever again, they would finish what they started.

It's been another year. Krull is 17 years old, and he has spent it in seclusion, training to be able to protect himself better. He hasn't left the temple since, and spurns the help of his more lovely compatriots, ashamed of his scarred face. He's taken to wearing a hooded cloak, covering his visage. While he still technically believes in the tenets of love and beauty, his experience has left him a little warped, that perhaps love and beauty are meant only for a select few, and those who aren't blessed with them should uplift those who have.

#Personal, #DnD

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Importance of Speaking Up

A lot of, for the lack of a better term, shit has been going on in the Twitterverse and Blogoshpere the past week, namely yet more death threats and the like being slung at prominent females in our gaming community--though, interestingly enough, none of my friends in real life or on Facebook even noticed this was going on, which really just enforces the idea of the Internet being a number of smaller echo chambers.

As a game developer, as a gamer, as person who has empathy for my fellow humans, I certainly cannot condone such behavior, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with someone's actions. If someone is wrong, you can disagree with them civilly. If someone isn't living up to your moral standards, you can tut-tut them without threatening their person. And if someone is being a jack-ass, you can call them out on it.

Once you've resorted to insults, death threats, or anything of the like, you've signaled that you have nothing more to add to your argument. An old lawyer adage goes:
"If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table."
What you're doing when you resort to insults is pounding the table. Making lots of noise in the hopes that the loudest argument wins. You're effectively conceding the argument.

Social Contracts

Recently on my Facebook feed there was a discussion about people being jerks. My comment touched upon the idea that ideally someone would be socially castrated in the case where they were acting poorly, and I was called out for it: that we shouldn't be focused on the negative aspects. That social justice shouldn't be used as an attack.

And to an extent, I agree. I dislike the use of "privilege" as a way to shut down conversation, largely because it dilutes the actual meaning of the term and weakens the argument as a whole. The term has a very specific meaning, and is useful in conversation as a way to encapsulate a concept such that you don't need to spew a whole allegory about bicyclists in a car-based society every time you want to talk about it.

But that's not what I meant when I said "socially castrated". Society as an aggregate has a set of social mores (pronounced mawr-eyz) and norms. As something becomes more or less acceptable to society as a whole, members of that society enforce those mores and norms by punishing deviants within said society.

For example, currently, for better or ill, the idea of nudity in media is far worse to those in North American society than violence in media. When television shows breach that social contract, people decry the show and people involved, and in some cases they're even fined (based on the laws created by that society). Whether you agree with it or not personally is largely irrelevant, as it's about the populace in aggregate.

However, individuals in a populace can come together to create movements to change what the social contracts are. And that's where "social justice" comes into play. As more and more people speak up, the needle of culture shifts what is acceptable and what is taboo. Once that shift has gone far enough, society does the rest by tut-tutting those who break that social contract and laws are enacted (or repealed) to solidify said contract.

That's why it's important for as many people to speak up and speak against things like misogyny, bigotry, homophobia, and general jack-ass behavior. The more people speak up, the less acceptable it will become to espouse those ideals.

In before someone complains about censorship, you can still espouse those views, but it doesn't mean you're free from other people judging those views. No law is preventing grandpa today from saying something derogatory about black people, but you would still react and say, "Grandpa, you can't just say that!"

The Silent Majority

On the other hand, not all people will or can speak up. Many don't even know the conversation is occurring (like my Facebook feed), some don't have particularly strong opinions one way or the other, or someone can feel threatened, concerned that if they speak up they will be attacked in some manner: social castration in action.

Story time: when I first moved to the US from Canada, just over seven years ago, I was both really excited and very worried. I was going to the land of opportunity to make pretty much double to triple of what I could ever earn in Canada, but I was also going from a country that had anti-discrimination laws for sexuality and gay marriage to a country that was in the throes of banning gay marriage entirely and had anti-sodomy laws until 2003. Being a second-class citizen because of who I am was a pretty scary idea (as opposed to being a second-class citizen due to immigration laws, but that's something everyone moving to another country generally experiences due to protectionism).

The first few weeks of my job went by, and I started to get into the groove of being in a new country with new coworkers. Then, during an event I said something, probably with a lilt to it, and one of my coworkers responded with, "Could you be a little more straight?"

I was floored. A causally homophobic comment slung in my direction that made me feel unwanted, like complete, utter shit because the implication was that being gay was bad. I didn't have any clue what to do. I didn't understand at the time how the HR policies worked, or even if I did, I didn't know how strictly they'd be enforced. I had just pulled up everything that I owned and knew and wasn't sure if I reported this if I would get fired or embroiled in a conflict that would end with my dismissal, and my dismissal would end up with me being deported back to Canada.

So I stayed silent. I withdrew. I certainly stopped dealing with this person, and to this day anytime I see them it completely ruins my day. Note that I don't work for that employer anymore, but later during said employment I learned that HR totally would've backed me up on it. But I didn't know at the time.

The silent majority isn't tacit approval of one thing or another. The silent majority is just that: silent. Sitting on the wayside and not actively participating in the cultural war for what could be any number of good, bad, or neutral reasons.

On the other hand, the silent majority is perpetuating the status quo. Change doesn't occur in a vacuum. It requires an impetus; if you're not making waves, you're not causing change. So anytime you don't speak up against opinions that are damaging, you're allowing that, whether you like it or not. So by not speaking up against that coworker, either in person or via HR, I was allowing myself to be dehumanized, and other coworkers, too.

At the time, it felt like the right decision, the safe decision. If the same thing were to occur today, I'd denounce them in a heartbeat. It helps that I'm far more confident in who I am as a person, as well as my abilities. Being an awesome software developer with a lot of excellent experience under my belt has freed me to an extent to go against the grain of popular if insular opinion, because even if I were to get fired for it, finding another job in the industry wouldn't be terribly difficult for me. But not everyone has that luxury.

Changing Society

Make no mistake, culture is constantly changing, constantly in a war of differing opinions. From nudity, to violence, to television, to comic books, to video games, to women's suffrage, to African-American civil rights, to LGBT rights, to radio, to women showing some ankle, to eugenics, to language, to cars, to factories, to labour movements and unions, and so on. The list is endless.

And the list is different depending on geography. Australia has different notions of sensibility from the United States, Uganda has different ideals than Canada. Even within the European Union, many countries have extremely different notions. Rural cities versus urban population centers often show radical differences of opinion.

The Internet has had an interesting effect on culture; a globalization of opinion, a community or society separate from the real world that is often seen as a monolithic entity. While it reflects the real world to an extent, the melting pot of cultures that make up the online world means there's a lot of friction because geography has been removed. But at the same time, it's still our community, our world. And it's at the center of today's cultural revolution.

Waves are being made in all directions, and while I'm loathe to admit it, sometimes the loudest argument truly does win, at least for a little bit. Pounding the table does work on occasion. But the more people see that concepts of misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, and the like are unacceptable and dehumanizing, the more people will begin to denounce them publically.

There'll always be a contingent of sociopaths who, regardless of what side they sit on, you'll never convince one way or another, and they'll toss death threats and violence, verbal or physical, at people they disagree with. If possible, don't waste your energy on convincing them. Denounce them, show other people why what they're doing is damaging. But you'll never turn their opinion.

It's the silent majority that you need to get on your side. Convince them that being silent is the wrong thing to do. Appeal to their empathy to show them that we're all just people, and that everyone should be safe in their person. History shows, via Woman's Suffrage, the African-American Civil Rights movement, and LGBT rights in some countries (and ongoing today in the US), that this is how (relatively) peaceful cultural change occurs.

And if you're in the silent majority but don't condone this behavior? Please speak up, if you can! Every voice helps, no matter how small. As I mentioned above, not every can or is in a position to do so. But if you're able? Go for it! The more, the merrier.

It's an incredibly slow and frustrating process. I think we're going to see it get worse before it gets better. But history ultimately is on the side of empathy, not dehumanization, as long as people speak up and speak out.

#Diversity, #Sociology

Monday, September 1, 2014

PAX Prime 2014: Diversity and Handheld Lounges

There'll be further posts on some panels, like Dragon Age: Inquisition, statistics about the video game industry, and some board games that I played that were neat, but today I will be talking about lounges: specifically the diversity and handheld lounges.
The Incredible Shrinking Handheld Lounge
One of the big pros of PAX has traditionally been a lot of space to sit down on a beanbag and decompress with your 3DS, iPhone, tablet, whatever, or even nap. But there's been a curious trend occurring at PAX Prime where the space set aside for the lounge has been shrinking every year, continually being displaced by Nintendo demo booths.
Two small sections. That's it.
It's ridiculous to think that the space given in the photo above is even remotely sufficient for the sheer number of tired attendees. I realize that the AFK space is available if you're overwhelmed, but if you just want to veg and play your DS?
This was early in the morning, and represents about 60% of the space available.
PAX Aus admittedly didn't have many beanbags, but the space set aside was generally full after 1 PM nonetheless, and a much bigger area than PAX Prime, with a third of the population. I really don't understand how the PAX organizers can justify taking away the space, especially given the event is supposed to be for the attendees, not the businesses, no?
Absolutely glorious. Place beanbags, and they will come.
PAX East is the nirvana of handheld lounges, though. Beanbags as far as the eye can see, and yet still full! Which only proves that given the space, the gamers will fill it. Otherwise you see hallways of people on the cold, hard floor leaning against the wall to play their games. Uncomfortable at best, underfoot and in the way at worst.
To be able to get that moment to sit down and get my energy back, I had to go home! So my plea to the PAX organizers is to get rid of the Nintendo demo stations, leave them on the Expo hall floor where they belong, and to bring back the handheld lounge. We need the ability to have downtime and just play our games.
Making the Saving Throw for Diversity
Some may remember my piece on the Diversity Lounge from PAX East 2014. Well, the organizers took another shot at it for PAX Prime, and I daresay it went over a bit better this time.

The "lounge" on the right, about 10 booths.
It had a couple more booths than East, but the location was much, much better in my humble opinion. Rather than being in a room, it was at the top of the primary escalators to get to the top floor of the Expo Hall. A prime spot to get people's attention, and to get a lot of foot traffic. I ended up chatting with some folks from a couple booths that were at both PAX East and PAX Prime to get their opinions.
One of the booths was for AbleGamers, who describe themselves thusly:
The AbleGamers Foundation, also known as AbleGamers Charity, is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit public charity that aims to improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.
Another booth I chatted with extensively was Press XY: Exploring Transgender Issues in Gaming.

The prevailing opinion was PAX East was a great first try. On the first day, the doors were mostly shut, meaning it didn't have much visibility into the hallway, whereas once the doors were open, they had a fair bit of foot traffic, and despite not being on the path to the Expo hall, at East they were still on the first floor around a major thoroughfare.

Prime, on the other hand, was a fantastic space because it's just up the escalator before the Expo hall. It's super high visibility and out in the open. People didn't need to walk through any doors to check it out.

The downside to Prime's location, however, was that it was a bit too noisy. There was nowhere really to relax and just chat, or sit on some beanbags and decompress (I'm sensing a theme here for PAX Prime as a whole), or to get away. While there were a couple of tables with chairs in the lounge area, the location really wasn't conducive to using those effectively. And to be fair, again, the AFK Lounge was billed as the place to go if you're overwhelmed, but I think the organizers really underestimate the need for those spaces to just sit down and take a load off.

Finally, it was noticed that while there were a number of booths for LGBT and Women in gaming (hooray!), they still lacked that racial diversity that should also be represented. It was, as one person put it, still pretty white. Regardless, it seemed like Prime was better executed than East, and the feeling was that East was a good jumping off point.

All of which really just feeds into my theory that education spaces and "safe" or relaxation spaces are mutually exclusive. You can't be both without sacrificing something, as people who need to escape aren't in the right mindset to be providing explanations.

Education is incredibly important in my mind because if we aren't teaching folks these things, they'll never really learn. Despite those who decry it as "common sense" and that people should "just know" how to treat people right, I don't think they truly understand until someone shows them why the status quo isn't a good thing. But if you're rightfully angry because you've been treated so poorly your whole life, in real life and on the Internet, you may not be capable of providing that education. That's okay, other people can do that job. Which is why you need to have education as a separate thing from a "relaxation" space.

I think that with Prime really embracing the education side of things, they're truly focusing on the right aspect. While the entire convention should be a "safe space", there's still a need for a place to have some downtime to escape from the hustle and bustle of the convention. But separating the diversity lounge from that relaxation space is, in my mind, the correct thing to do. Focus the lens of the diversity lounge, and truly set the tone for treating other people so much better.

#Diversity, #PAX