What Slay the Spire can Teach About Digital Media Access Decisions

When I heard that iTunes was scheduled for destruction, I was baffled and alarmed. I have since learned that the service is being split and re-branded, in a sort of platform-mitosis. But I had several conversations in which my interlocutors were not persuaded of the merits of media ownership over streaming media. Having collected my thoughts, and faced with Google’s Stadia announcement as well as even the phantasmal threat of an iTunes closure, I hope to make a case here that media ownership reduces wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable elements of media consumption.

Slaying The Spire, With Just a Little Luck (Or a Lot of It)

Slay the Spire is a rare case in which combining a lot of ideas into a game doesn’t make the game feel chaotic and confusing. The game consists of progressing through the levels of an eponymous spire, each level consists of some encounter or event—very, very often, a combat event. Combat in this game is a resource-management card game: using a limited pool of “energy,” cards are played that either deal damage or prevent damage from being taken. Each card costs a different amount of energy, so strategic choices have to be made to optimize offense and defense. At the end of a combat, the player is presented with three choices for a new card to add to the deck. The same deck is carried through the spire, so each completed combat presents an opportunity for new cards for future encounters.

Slay the Spire gets its replay value from the unpredictable factors that permeate the game. There is randomness within the combat encounter, as a player’s options are defined by the cards that are drawn from the deck on any given turn. Then there is further randomization in the events themselves (what enemies you fight, if any, on any particular level of the Spire). Slay the Spire adds randomness in the building of the player’s deck: there are no guarantees that you will even have the option to add a certain card to your deck in a particular run of 50 levels in a Spire. (I once spent an entire run through a Spire trying to assemble a deck centered around one specific card that would greatly amplify my defensive capabilities—I never even saw that card, and inexplicably still got to the final level.) And I haven’t even discussed the role of Relics in the game, which can provide small bonuses or fundamentally alter game mechanics. All of these unpredictable, randomly-generated chances and choices give the game replay value and make it interesting, fun, and challenging. Putting choices out of a player’s control can be an element of a great game, but it’s not a part of a great day.

 

Unpredictable Elements

There are a lot of components involved in the everyday digital tasks that fill (and sometimes sustain) our lives. The device has to work properly, it has to connect to a network, the network has to function, and we also rely on the server that hosts the data we want. Anything from dropping a cell phone to a power outage to an unplugged cable somewhere in a distant city can cause the entire process to fail. It is really amazing and awe-inspiring that the entire system works as well as it does. Of course, sometimes, something goes wrong.

For purposes of today’s discussion, I think it’s helpful to divide the possible problems into two categories: those in the user’s control, and those outside of the user’s control. So, whether I charge my cell phone, whether I spill water on my computer, whether I use a program correctly—those are, practically speaking, in the domain of the user. However, the city’s electrical power grid is not something a user can single-handedly maintain or repair. Similarly, the user cannot control conditions at a distant server farm, or control the telecommunications network that links the user to those servers.

This, it seems, is where I diverge from so much of my demographic cohort. I don’t want my access to media to rely on these two additional components (telecommunications and data-holding servers). Maybe I would feel differently if I had better experiences, but I have repeatedly been unable to play games or watch movies because at least one of these components has failed. I have encountered this setback for over a decade- in some cases, I have experienced it daily, over the course of months. In contrast, when I think back to those halcyon days in which I owned my media, the only obstacle was a scratched DVD or a VHS tape that was just too-well-loved (we all have a childhood story of the tape that we watched so many times that the playback became warped and distorted).

Conclusion

The unpredictable nature of the available choices in Slay the Spire keeps an otherwise repetitive game novel and engaging. By forcing the player to consider various probabilities and possibilities, the game creates challenge and the kind of frustration that invites a player to learn, try again, and do better next time. I cannot understand the kind of person who willingly invites this kind of challenge and frustration into the process of trying to listen to music or watch a movie. Conversely, if a player had control over any of these random elements in Slay the Spire, the game would be easier. For both Slay the Spire and media access, generally, the same rule applies: the more control one has over the variables, the less challenging the experience.

There are other issues implicated in this debate that I didn’t touch on: the data privacy questions that come with streaming and DRM protections, the reasonable efforts of artists and publishers to protect their copyrights and profit from their works, the legal status of digital goods, etc. Those issues deserve consideration (which is why I have written about them before and will do so again), but I wanted to keep my focus narrow for the sake of clarity. My perspective on this question can be distilled to one personal point: I do not feel that there is evidence to support the claim that US telecommunications networks are more reliable than I am. I simply trust myself more than I trust those corporations, their services, and their infrastructure. Likewise, I trust myself more than I trust the media companies that provide the platforms and media. This is true on a day-to-day basis (for telecom), and it is true for long-term planning (media providers make no promises that they will last longer than my interest in the media they provide).

I can trust electricity providers—they have proven themselves. Power outages certainly do occur, but their frequency, cause, and duration are within acceptable parameters.* Maybe it comes down to what inconveniences, unknowns, and probabilities we are willing to accept. I can live in a world where my electricity is out for maybe 30 minutes per year. I’m not excited to choose a world in which I can access my own leisure at the leisure of so many other people.

 

 

 

 

*The fact that power failures necessarily cause network failures would be a meaningful riposte if my point were strictly confined to unadjusted uptime comparisons.

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“Come At Me, Copyright Bro” –Google Legal Team, 2015

Making Trades

Most competitive games involve the concept of trading. The idea of a trade is to risk some of your resources in order to deprive your opponent of some of their resources. This is part of a smaller skirmish which is only part of the overall game. The goal is to lose less than your opponent, thus putting you ahead. For most games, successful trades require a proficiency that comes with study and experience. It requires knowing both what you and your opponent are capable of and thereby knowing what will happen. The best players are not surprised by the outcomes of their choices; they know before they act how the exchange will unfold. When chess masters think about future moves, they are performing this kind of trading calculus.

Attorneys make the same kind of considerations. Particularly, those who litigate (though many attorneys don’t) use their knowledge and experience to predict the outcomes of various legal strategies. For a master attorney, the outcomes of legal choices are as unsurprising as the outcome of a chess move is for a chess master. Good attorneys don’t pick legal battles wildly or whimsically. They know in advance what the risks are. They know the possibilities and probabilities, the parameters and requirements.

I have no doubt that YouTube’s new fair use policy comes to us after many, many hours of careful thought by many legal experts. It is bold and brazen, but calculated and deliberate. It is not, strictly speaking, a defiance of a federal law. But this new policy does cast aside some of the protections offered by the law.

Picking A Skirmish

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) covers a wide range of topics, including questions of copyright infringement on the internet. To incentivize websites to host material, as well as to incentivize their cooperation with the policing of copyright infringement, the DMCA offers “Safe Harbor” protections to those websites that promptly take down those materials suspected or accused of copyright infringement. The system is called “notice and take down”: When someone gives a website notice about infringing material, the website simply needs to take it down. This is why so many US-based companies are quick to take down content when a copyright claim is filed: the compliance of the host protects them from a lawsuit for the copyright infringement.

For many years, YouTube took advantage of the protections offered by this law. When a copyright infringement claim was filed, YouTube promptly removed the content in question. It could often be uploaded again, with the content uploader asserting that the video did not infringe a copyright. The dispute would then be between the user and the [self-proclaimed] content owner, Google having excused (or protected) itself.

Google’s new policy is to reject some copyright complaints in certain cases. Those cases are those in which Google thinks that the video does not infringe copyright and is protected by the fair use doctrine. What sounds most impressive is that Google will even defend legal claims against those videos in court for up to 1 million dollars in legal costs. That isn’t actually as impressive as it sounds, because Google has left the Safe Harbor protections when it refuses to remove disputed content. In this act of defiance, Google is on the hook for copyright infringement as though they had been the ones to upload the video.*

The DMCA does not give license to content hosts to make judgments about fair use. That remains the purview of the courts. Google is relying on their legal team’s expertise to predict how a court would rule regarding a video. If they are wrong in this prediction, they could lose rather badly.

Uncertain Factors, Unpredictable Trades

The fair use doctrine is not extremely well-developed. American law schools require all students to pass certain courses, and many of these core courses** feature cases that are over 100 years old. One of the most famous cases in Contract Law is from 1854 (and from an English court, no less). The most famous cases on Fair Use are from the 1980s and 1990s, and they don’t give a thorough, detailed explication of this legal concept. They only apply fair use to some specific sets of facts.

Fair use is far less certain a legal doctrine than the two-hundred (or seven-hundred) year old precepts that guide areas of law such as property, tort, or contract. This makes it harder to predict the outcomes of taking some cases to court. There are no masters for making “trades” with fair use in court. It hasn’t gone to court enough times with different cases for anyone to know exactly what it’s capable of.

This is an incredibly exciting challenge that Google has thrown down. They have stepped out of their sanctuary. They have taken up a weapon that is uncertain and largely untested. They are risking substantial damage if they lose. And they really didn’t have to do any of it. They could have stayed safe and sound, risk-free, and followed the pattern of notice and take down. They didn’t need to change anything. I can only guess what might motivate them to make the world a better place for others. Perhaps Google decided that if they are going to control the world, they want it to be a world more worthy of their control.

(Or maybe Google is throwing their weight behind fair use now that it is it the next defense for Java APIs after a ruling earlier this year that Oracle can copyright the structure, sequence, and organization of an API.)

 

*A little over-simplified to avoid a discussion about the difference between joint and several liability.

**Copyright law is not a required course, and isn’t always even offered as a full subject by itself—making fair use a small part of a lesser-known area of law.

 

The Ethics of Search: Can an algorithm have normative value?

Googling “9/11 Truth” gets a lot of… questionable, if non-canonical, information about the Sept. 11 attacks. A woman looking up information about a company she wanted to sue found a law professor’s final that was based on a previous case of the company with some modifications (the untrue kind) to the facts for the purposes of the final. Finding lots of facts is not the same as finding truth. Prof. Henry Jones, Jr. once told his class, “Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is just down the hall.” I’m interested in fact, truth, and the relationship between the two. Despite the distinction between fact and truth, our interactions with facts lead us to either come to truth or falsehood. Although searches can only find information, data, and facts, we can make no better a conclusion than the information upon which is it based.

This illuminates a broader issue: Can any Technology have an ethical or moral status? It is well noted that that an object does nothing but what someone does with it. Yet technology is designed with a user and a use in mind. Patches and software updates are familiar to us because the designer is looking to improve the relationship between the technology and the user. While it is true that people may misuse any object, I am not persuaded that an analogy exists between the scenarios of someone using a medical tool (designed to heal) for murder and a search engine (designed to find data) leading people to questionable-at-best material first and foremost. The first represents a deliberate misues of a tool. The second represents a proper use of a tool that has failed to perform its function properly.

The issue doesn’t rest here, of course, because someone must judge which material ought to be found first, or how the engine ought to drive someone to arrive at certain material. Perhaps the issue is best framed as the impossibility of objectivity when any outcome can be manipulated and tailored to. If Google is to attempt pure, cold, disinterested objectivity, its methods and algorithms can be abused and exploited. To avoid those results, Google’s only option might be to become interested in both the method and the outcome of search results. Neither scenario is wholly satisfying.