Does “Good Writing” Mean Something Different for Video Dames than for Novels?

For all of the storytelling opportunities that videogames offer, I have to recognize a serious flaw they face: they are frequently poorly written. Most FPS games don’t even have a plot or characters, and if they do, they aren’t exactly well-crafted. The biggest efforts I’ve seen at developing a great deal of story come in the RPG and RTS games- Blizzard’s Starcraft and World of Warcraft come to mind.

Some might argue that because all stories are fundamentally, even necessarily, formulaic, this can’t be a complaint. What, then, really differentiates the lore of League of Legends (The Journal of Justice) from Dickens or Tolstoy or Austen? If videogames can be art (as I’ve contended) and videogames are “phenomenal” storytelling media, what do we need to have a Great American Videogame?

Subject matter is one key component. I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution poses some fantastic questions and deals with relevant and deep issues. Like other classic examples of literature, it explores the human condition and asks basic questions about life and being.

Great literature uses devices of language, imagery, symbolism, and so forth to present multiple layers of material. Videogames have settings, but do the settings take on their own meaning the way that locations do in The Great Gatsby or Cold Mountain or The Odyssey? I would like to see videogames make more use of the cinematic qualities of the game. Writers may repeat phrases, words, or constannts or vowels to create a layer of depth to their text. Directors use a camera angle, a sound, a color, or a light level to the same effect. Videogames could surely find something similar to add depth and significance to the experience.

Characters might be the most difficult element to tackle in videogames, yet they are often the most salient feature of novels. For me, this seems to be the biggest difficulty in creating a literary videogame: allowing for characters that grow and develop in meaningful ways. Moral choice systems are a good attempt at this kind of development, but these systems tend to fall short because they only recognize extremes and come packaged with immutable judgments about morality that lack the kind of robust discussion that might be packaged into good literature (e.g., a videogame might decide it is wrong TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but it would miss out on a discussion of why this is wrong and would fail to provide an analogy of this act to the larger story arc in the game- or even differentiate it from shooting a rabid dog in a populated area).

Mainstream Sponsors for e-Sports Begin to Arrive!

I’m excited by the concept of eSports. The very idea of watching competitive video game playing is so delightfully bizarre and futuristic- and I am awestruck every weekend when I watch professional gamers play. I am mostly enthralled by the social dimension of it- seeing announcers and crowds get as excited and wound up over a video game as others would get over physical sports (e.g., baseball, football, hockey, etc.). I am excited, then, to see a few “mainstream” companies (rather than niche video game peripheral companies) signing on to sponsor eSports teams: Nissan, Samsung, and Pringles.

The biggest question with eSports is whether it’s a passing fad or whether it will come to be a long-standing, mainstream form of entertainment (or even whether it will match or surpass traditional sports entertainment). I’m still not certain that eSports will rise to the level of traditional sports, but I think companies that invest in sponsorships will see rewards on par with the sponsorships of traditional sports.

Why I am not Scared of Hollywood’s Image of the Robot Apocalypse: Something Much Worse is Much More Realistic.

Professor John Searle is noted for the example of the “Chinese Room” as a way to demonstrate something that artificial intelligences lack that humans seem to posses. Computers can detect certain strings of characters, but cannot grasp meaning, purpose, or significance. Just as a person could translate between two languages without understanding them, computers only relate symbols according to a set of instructions given to them. AI does not grasp meaning or significance. It does not act out of will, but out of code. Combined with (related?) difficulties of whether AI could have something akin to consciousness, I am not worried about the Hollywood image of the Robot Uprising.

The greater worry is the dependence we have on a system that can vanish. Our lives are made of user IDs and passwords. I have over 50 now. Some I don’t have to memorize: passport number, driver’s license. Sometimes I have to look up my social security number, which is unthinkable to my parents who did not have to hold 5 e-mail account passwords, 3 social media passwords, 2 computer logins, 3 videogame passwords, and 2 bank account logins  in their heads.

The real fear is not that the system will awaken to self-conscious and the robots will rise up, but that someone will trip over a mainframe plug and suddenly jerk the system offline. As more businesses go paperless and more of our data and information is stored “on the cloud,” I think questions of system security and system integrity are far more pressing than the concern of whether the system will become sentient, develop a will, and then turn that will against biological life.

Announcement: No New Feature (Yet?)

I’m trying to come up with an idea for a way to let this blog serve as both a project of personal interest as well as a tool for my legal education. I’m still working on it, but I hope to come up with a specific line of postings aimed in a more legal-specific direction. This might allow me to write more whimsical posts without feeling the overall blog has to make a trade-off.

Employer Facebook Checks: How the Law Struggles with Culture and Ignores Metaphysics

Question of privacy in cyberspace cover a vast range of applications. One that I find interesting is the use of social media as a tool by potential employers to research prospective employees. This is interesting because it is at an intersection of cultural, technology, law, and metaphysics.

It is increasingly common for employers to check on a prospective employee’s Facebook page (or other social media). I like to use the case study of Stacy Snyder in this NYTonline article:

The issue is that a student-teacher was dismissed over a photo on her MySpace (that dates the example a bit, eh?) that was captioned “Drunken Pirate.” This situation becomes the image of concern: an employer delving into your personal (yet published) photo album to look for objectionable material.

Let me divide up the issues:

1) The legal and/or cultural claim to privacy. Before Facebook or MySpace, it would be extraordinary for an employer to ask to see photos from your latest party as part of the application process (barring government security clearance checks). Although social media has allowed us to share such personal material with a wider range of friends, we are not culturally comfortable simply surrendering previously private/personal material to the entire public sphere.

2) Context is everything. Bill Waterson’s iconic character, the rascally 2nd-grader Calvin, once explained that people are wrong to assert that “photos never lie,” for, in fact, all they do is lie. To illustrate, Calvin clears one area of his room and puts on a tie to have himself photographed as a clean, tidy young boy (he is normally dressed in a t-shirt and has a notoriously messy bedroom). So it may be argued with Facebook photos, Tweets, etc: Can a single snapshot, sentence, or post represent an individual- even partially? Can it be completely incorrect? Without further explanation, how badly can it be misinterpreted? This claim speaks not only to the protection of the poster, but also raises the question of whether investigating an applicant’s social media is truly helpful in obtaining accurate data about the applicant. A related issue here is the notion of Performance Identity online (see: Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle). Many posts and photos may be uploaded not as a reflection of actual identity, but as an effort to entertain or amuse a particular audience.

3) The Metaphysical puzzles of being and identity over time. One of the core points of the NYTonline article linked above is that the internet makes possible the storage of everything we say or do- FOREVER. One question is whether applicants ought to be judged by high school or college photos or posts. Indeed, the question is founded on an ancient metaphysical quandary: what is the relationship with one’s self over time? We have a cultural concept of “not being the same person” at age 15 as at age 30. Yet right now, many 30 year old job applicants could be in the position to defend the digital traces left by their 15 year old selves.

The final point to note here is that Facebook was not designed to be a massive social media platform through which employers scouted and screened applicants. It was a way for college (and later high school) students to communicate and make limited broadcasts to a select audience. It was a kid’s toy, really. To me, it still is- I think that’s why my generation sometimes feels weird that our parents have Facebook profiles. The platform was never made for “grown-ups” or “grown-up things.” That was an accident, and treating it otherwise is a mistake.

The Metaphysics of the Corporation: A Nexus of Contracts.

The Supreme Court issued a total of 5 writings in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission.  The metaphysical nugget at the heart of this politically charged case was whether corporations (and other legal entities without physical personhood) could claim certain constitutional rights or protections. The outcome, that a corporation could be considered a “person” and so have “free speech rights”, shocked many and was ridiculed somewhat. The core of the joke is obvious: a “corporation” isn’t even close to a “person.”

Corporations cannot be touched. They do not smile, they do not cry. They cannot get a driver’s license. They cannot go for a walk in the park. They are concepts. They exist as legal entities, as shorthand for a set of agreements. They are a nexus of contracts.

And yet, corporations can own assets, owe debt, pay taxes, and even die (no one escapes those certainties, right Benny F?).

So the metaphysical puzzle is presented: how do we assess the nature of the corporation’s existence? I’m interested in this question for two reasons: First, I think it is extremely similar to many of the questions of the metaphysics of cyberspace (things that appear to have ontological force without physical presence). Second, corporations and business entities are enormously important in countless ways to the developed world (and, in a different way, important to the developing world). I find it striking the Internet and the Corporation are the two most dominant forces of the 21st century and have (potentially) similar metaphysics. Politicians and jurists need to take questions of metaphysics and ontology seriously as entities and locations of legal importance become less obviously physical. When policies or rulings are handed down without proper reasoning, the door is opened for the kinds of rulings in which a person is prison is not found to be “in custody.” Courts are forced to work backwards from statutes and precedent to the facts before them, and if their starting point is problematic, those problems can be magnified in the court’s efforts to force the square peg (the law without proper basis or explanation) into the round hole (the facts of the case at hand).

The deeper joke is that the word “corporation” comes from Latin word “corpus,” literally meaning “body.” In one sense, the corporation is the joining together of many bodies into one unified body, and yet it has no actual body of its own. Why couldn’t the late-night comedians and pundits glom onto that hilarity? Or at least meet this level of humor:

“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” -Ambrose Bierce

Is “Good” Design Worse for Everyone?

 (A personal background note:  I was raised by an engineer and a linguist. Two persistent frustrations I face in life are poor design decisions and misuse of language.)

As we design technologies to be more “user-friendly,” we demand less of the user. This means the user needs less knowledge to use the product. Those who used computers in the 1970s-1990s needed some measure of understanding of the computer to use it. In today’s point-and-click interfaces, everyone can use the computer without understanding a thing about how it works. This is the kind of democratization that leads to ignorance.

There are two ways to open something up democratically: 1) Elevate the populace to meet the entry standards, 2) Lower the entry standards so that more people can meet them in the people’s current state. The enthusiastic talk about how digital technologies democratize is not necessarily encouraging because it is often another way of saying that people need to know less in order to participate. All that means is the average participant is more ignorant.  The great hope is that digital technologies can be used to challenge and educate the populace rather than to coddle and welcome their ignorance.