The Importance of the Passive Voice.

 The passive voice allows us to posit ideas and scenarios in ways that are open. They allow for a multitude of people to be both cause and effect in the scenario. They turn the focus away from the individual and towards the idea at stake. The rejection of the passive voice is the rejection of possibility, openness, and imagination.

Compare these statements: “X could be understood in terms of Y” rather than “X is a function of Y,” These appear to be very similar, but they have very important distinctions. The latter is certain and definite, while the former allows for interpretation, disagreement, caveats and qualifications. While some scoff at this as weak hedging, I steadfastly maintain that there is a general value in allowing others to build on an interpretation. Moreover, the more we are inclined to think and speak of the world in definite terms that do not permit multiple interpretations, the more difficult it is for our minds to face situations of disagreement and multiple perspectives. I think our language has developed an active and passive voice as a reflection of the understanding that some parts of our reality are objective and concrete while others are subjective and abstract. (Also, there are times that we want to focus on the actor and there are times that we want to call attention to the action.)

Though there are many inappropriate uses for the passive voice, it is dangerously narrow-minded to instruct students to simply avoid the passive voice without properly explaining why. I use the passive voice often when writing because it serves my goals for the type of writing I tend to do. Without an understanding of what the passive is and why it might be useful, I could not make a deliberate choice either to use or not use the passive voice. To truly allow someone to choose not to write passive, they must be taught when and why they should write passively.

League of Legends and the Famously Vitriolic Online Gamer Community

(NOTE: LoL is not alone- or even the worst case- in problems of bad behavior of online gamers. I use it here only as a case study.)

Riot Games, Inc.  reportedly hired psychology PhDs to improve the community. Predictably, they failed—what would a PhD know about the real world? The “Honor” mechanism (which did not require a PhD to invent) was met with some dramatic decreases in reports of bad behavior (perhaps because it felt like punishing others to just not give them Honor). But players continue to rage. I wonder: how much raging and toxicity can be attributed to poor communication?

 The common scenario is this: an event happens in the game (like a team fight), and one player on my team feels it went badly (probably because he died). That player considers why it went badly and perceives a failing of another team member. But in what did this other team member fail? To follow the strategy envisioned by the first player. Yet in all likelihood, the second player feels that the first has failed to follow her strategy. It may even be the case that either strategy- if effectively communicated and executed, would be entirely successful.  Yet each players feels the other has simply performed poorly, even though each player had a carefully considered plan and executed that plan with precision. There may be other psychological factors (e.g., a supporting role may pre-emptively blame a damage-dealing role in anticipation of receiving blame), but it seems from my experience that much of the toxic behavior: 1) Only starts after a player perceives the game to be going badly (even though by all objective measures it might be going quite well for our team), 2) Involves vague accusations of the failings of others to succeed (though RARELY does it include specific, helpful criticism) 3) Denies personal responsibility for any role in the perceived failing, 4) Makes little to no effort to understand the actions of the accused fail-er, 5) Quickly disintegrates the team, becomes unnecessarily (and even psychotically) vitriolic, extends to “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face,” and often the efforts of complaining about one’s teammates cause losses more than the actual activities of the teammates about which one complains (both in time wasted typing insults and useless remarks as well as in animosity among team members).

While others’ imperfections are often frustrating, I think LoL shows how bad our society is at social problem solving: our population consistently lacks the skills to bring people together to solve a problem. We toss around terms like “communication skills” and “team player” on resumes and in job interviews, but I estimate fewer than 10% of the population actually has these skills, for they are antithetical to selfishness, insecurity, self-doubt, suspicion, mistrust, greed, envy, apathy, anger, and most of the other characteristics our culture subtly lauds and rewards. At the end of the day, it is hardly of any consequence how immature strangers may be while playing a videogame. However, my deep and serious concern is that these are the same people who consume our media, who vote, who teach, who manage, who run our public services and our private industries. They are the people of our democracy, and I am gravely worried that they are fundamentally immature, unaware, ignorant, selfish, and fearful.  Hopefully, most LoL players are just 10-18 year olds acting their age, but I suspect this is not the case. And it isn’t just something that makes my hobby a little less fun: it’s something that makes everything about my society- from the news, movies, and music to the literature, politics, and communities- much, much worse.

Thoughtless Atrocities: Why Lots of Shooting is preferable to a Little Raping.

I address a debate between Penny Arcade and Jim Sterling.

The issue is: For videogames, is shooting morally different from raping? They’re both bad things, obviously–  but isn’t the point of video games to let us go into a different sort of reality where we can do bad things without actually hurting anyone? There are at least three recognized approaches to questions of morality: Utilitarian, deontological, and virtue.

Utilitarians are interested in total net outcomes, so if no one is actually hurt and someone is happy because they played the game, it’s probably ok. (If the player ends up hurting people as a result of playing, the utilitarian might object.) Deontologists have to decide whether the rules that govern morality apply to imaginations and simulations of immoral behavior (18th century Kant doesn’t say much about virtual reality as we think of it).

Virtue ethics is general more concerned with how a person is motivated and what traits she or he cultivates. They might want to know: “Why do you want to simulate shooting or raping?” If you have a desire for immoral behavior for which you are simple finding a socially acceptable outlet, the virtue theorist does not approve. Goodness, on Aristotle’s view, is not wanting to do something bad but choosing not to. That is mere continence. Being good consists in wanting to do good things, not in merely avoiding the evil one desires to enact.

There is another approach to this issue, perhaps from the camp of the phenomenologists (who are interested in what we experience and how). In modern video game, I can shoot and kill 100 “bad guys” in minutes. I can shoot them with sniper rifles from hundreds of yards away. I can surprise them when they turn a blind corner. Not that we would want to, but could we imagine a simulation in which our avatar rapes 100 people in only a few minutes? Without wanting to get too into the awful details, rape seems (and I’m lucky that I wouldn’t really know) to be a very personal and intimate crime. It takes more time than does the pulling of a trigger. It involves being in the other person’s space— part of what makes it horrid is how up-close and deeply personal it is. It has a feel and an experience altogether distinct from running into a room of enemies and spraying bullets and running out. The murders of video games may be considered more acceptable than the simulations of sex crimes because the experience of the simulation is decidedly different. One can be uninvolved or unaffected by a repeated and impersonal slaughter-simulation, but one cannot be aloof or disengaged in a simulation of a personal, knowing, invasive act.

(NOTE: I have never done, nor ever intend to do, EITHER of these things! Sometimes explaining hell means imagining hellishness. Maybe killing a room full of people feels just like committing a sex crime. I hope I never get to find out empirically.)

Most videogame slaughter can be understood as mechanical and impersonal. It is inconceivable that sexual crimes could be simulated in a comparably impersonal and wholesale fashion. I conclude that the impersonal slaughter of videogames poses less of a moral problem than does the simulation of rape because of the distinctly different phenomenology of the experience. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to accept the same conclusion that do not conflict with the reasoning I offer here.)

Fake Geek Girls Controversy: Subcultural Elitism

Apparently, there has been a controversy over “Fake Geek Girls”, particularly manifested as attractive women without an obsessive background in geek culture appearing in revealing costumes at comic and games conventions. The accusation, I take it, is that these women are not devout followers of the Geek Way, but only arrive for attention and approval by the primarily male geek population. Some have responded with outrage and indignation at this behavior. Others have responded with outrage and confusion directed at the outraged and indignant. Though a multitude of factors play into this phenomenon, I feel it is not altogether confusing to understand why devoted Geeks might be upset at the alleged “Fake Geek Girls.” (Please remember that explaining the actions of people is not an endorsement of their sentiments; I can explain how or why someone commits murder, but this doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it.)

My view is that Geek culture evolved through the 80s and 90s as a subversion of mainstream culture. It attracted those who would not or could not fit into the main culture, often as a result of valuing intelligence and academic rigor over physical appearance and insincere social bonding. If Geek culture is understood as a reaction to a culture of artificial appearance and vacuous social interactions, it becomes much clearer why “FGG” might be so upsetting. Geeks left main culture in rejection and created a new world in which they felt safe and comfortable. FGG represents an invasion of that new world by the world they rejected (and that rejected them). Geeks may very well feel threatened by the apparent imposition (or at least the arrival) of the values and norms they deliberately excluded from their newly created culture. This might be understood as the children who didn’t get picked for basketball (“Geeks”) going to another part of the playground to play a different game, and then the popular kids (who previously rejected the Geeks) left the basketball game to go play with the Geeks.

This understanding does not justify such anaphylactic reaction, of course, but the meeting of different cultures (especially those viewed as in conflict) is always challenging. Yet it certainly seems that seeking common ground and earnestly desiring to share ones hobbies and values is a healthier reaction that withdrawing from newcomers and seeking their immediate eviction.

Logic: A Forgotten Principle of Discourse.

What should discourse have that it often lacks? Logic is not “what seems reasonable” or “what feels right.” Like chess or mathematics, it has a strict set of formal rules. We use logic to show the connection or lack of connection between concepts. It is machinery into which we put our perceptions and values. Used correctly, it has an important role in quality discourse, but it is not the totality of discourse. Logic bears on how we express ideas, but it does not determine the ideas we express. When we make meaningful arguments, there must be proper and improper ways to interpret and understand what we say. If we do not make the boundaries of our statements clear, they may be interpreted liberally. The more possible interpretations a thing has, the weaker its effective force as an argument. (Note that excellent fictional prose or poetry often lauds multiple interpretations. Also note that arguments of formal logic are a very different sort of poetry.)

This touches on the greater abuses of statistics and imagery in everyday arguing: statements that sound large but are undefined and unbounded. You may tell me a tremendous-sounding statistic, but without context. You may show me a striking photograph, but without significance. All too often, we are given a sound bite or image and expected to “see” some inherent rightness or wrongness. Good arguments are more than only conclusions; they explain what is being asserted and upon what grounds such an assertion could or should be believed. (Some may cringe at my glossing over the “belief is not closed under implication” issue. I sympathize, but just go with the shorthand.)

Perhaps the greatest threat to good discourse is assuming the speaker advocates the opposite of what he argues against. (e.g., when I criticize the way “privilege” is used in debates about race or gender theory is bad, people assume that I favor oppression of others or fail to see it.) This makes it hard to have clear and careful discussion about sensitive (emotionally charged) topics. By making assumptions about the position of the speaker, we forbid constructive criticism- and therefore the growth- of progress on important issues. Avoiding logical fallacies is not a neat academic trick without relevance to daily conversation. Just as the rules of mathematics or science or language can help us in real ways, logic can help us better understand ourselves and each other, and make progress in debates and discussions, and avoid misunderstandings and unintended offense.

Why are Video Games Art?

An ongoing debate that interests me is whether video games are art. Some critics feel this debate is meaningless, impossible, or pointless. I disagree on all counts. This requires careful definitions of both “art” and “video game,” and neither side in this debate seems good at defining either. Film critic Roger Ebert has said that video games are not art because they have a point and you can win. Others agree that fine art can’t result from player choices, so the structure of video games precludes them from being art. I argue that most understandings of “art” require involvement by the viewer, and video games only underscore that involvement – but do not deviate from the structure of art.

Art has been defined variously through history: Plato (the forms), Hume (discerned taste), Kant (play between imagination and understanding), Schopenhauer (romanticism), Hegel (expression of universe), Collingwood (emotion), Bell (formalism), Benjamin (art as political), Merleau-Ponty (phenomenology), Sontag (erotics). Under any serious definition that allows architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, and film to be dubbed “art”, video games must also be embraced as art. Note that I speak of potentiality: one may crudely smear paint on a canvas or crack one rock against another, we do not call these artistic paintings or the broken rocks sculptures. Likewise, we are not inclined to call the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster remake of an action film “art like Citizen Kane.” We need not defend Call of Duty or Madden ’12 or pretentious broken indie game #403 as “art.” My argument is not so much that “video games are art” as it is “there are no inherent barriers to prevent video games from consideration as art.” As I present it here, the argument will have two parts.

The first part of the argument is defensive: Why should player choice negate the artistic quality of a game? A good portion of thinkers, artists, and critics (if there is any difference) have valued the interpretation of the artistic piece. Is not a player’s control over the gameplay only a manifestation- a bringing forward- of the interpretations of art? Is it truly an act different in kind to navigate a character through a room than to navigate one’s eyes through a painting? If fine art involves a spectator and interpretation—someone to appreciate the form or interpret the content—there should be no qualm here. I posit that controlling gameplay is aesthetically identical to appreciating and interpreting other art: the viewer makes choices of what to see, where to “go”, and how to approach what is encountered. If there is a complaint about video games, it is that they make clear and obvious the processes that are often hidden from ourselves about our interactions and interpretations with The Aesthetic.

The second part of the argument is affirmative: Video games are art because they meet the requirements of the definition (of art).  I don’t have space here to outline each of even the major theories of art. But many concepts of art center around either the nature of the art itself (“formalism”) or the content it expresses (a focus on emotion). Video games have shown they can excel in either or both of these categories. Kant’s explication of beauty (in Critique of Judgment) relies on a notion of “play” between one’s faculties of imagination and understanding. Certainly, no medium “plays” more with a person than a game. Perhaps, on this view, all other beautiful art- paintings, sculptures, movies, and the rest- are actually games. And what’s more— the better the game is, the more beautiful it is.

If video games are not art, they are “superart:” some new mesh of artist and patron, their combined efforts of creativity and interpretation brought to new levels of involvement and interactivity. Perhaps the complaint that video games are not art is a cry of jealousy that no previous medium has the potential to explore the Aesthetic at this level.

Rich OR Famous?

A great metric of the appropriateness of a reformation of copyright for the 21st century is the extent to which fame can be separated from fortune. Throughout the 20th century, “fame and fortune” rolled off the tongues of English speakers as a sort of single concept as a duo of nouns. Yet YouTube allows enormous masses the opportunity to be viewed by hundreds of millions of people without earning a cent. The emergence of “meme pics” has resulted in the almost spontaneous celebrity of people, turning candid photos by friends into mascot-images of sentiments and situations. Warhol is famous for noting that we would all have 15 minutes of fame in the future. What he did not mention is that we might not have 15 minutes of wealth along with it.

The splitting of fame and fortune seems right to me, in the example of Jonas Salk. Society is better off when thinkers and inventors give their work freely to the public to use, improve, develop, and enjoy. I would be interested to see a world in which these two approaches are taken to the extremes because I would be interested to see who would win: the artist who carefully protects and charges for the enjoyment of his work, or the artist who freely circulates his work. My initial reaction is that the artists who charge are those who think their work merits profit (that is, the good stuff will cost the most). Yet I wonder: if artists create out of their passion for their craft, might we see at least as good art from those seeking some goal other than wealth? Greed motivates, certainly, but I do not think it is necessarily the greatest motivation nor am I convinced it is any assurance of superlative quality. There is a book on the subject of how ideas are transmitted in a digital age entitled If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead. If the title is correct correct, fame and fortune are not only separable, but may be pitted against one another in cyberspace. To pursue fame is encourage the spread of the idea. To pursue fortune is to erect a barrier to the spreading of the idea.

I would like artists of all walks to face this “would you rather” question: Would you rather… have everyone listen to your music/watch your movie/ read your book but make only a modest paycheck, OR have your work enjoyed only by a few but make more money?

As Metric put it: “… Who would you rather be: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?”