Casual evil in video games

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013
We all know that we can do bad things in games. I'm not referring to people an asshole on xbox live or something like that, but to the actual gameplay. It's not even the obvious stuff that bugs me. Yes, in Grand Theft Auto games you can rob and murder people and that's bad, but what would the game be without that? Without the horrible things you can do the GTA series is really just a bad third person shooter blended with a bad driving simulator. I'm instead concerned about the incidental evil, the bad things you can do that the developers might have not even thought of. Yet it is there.

Take the Elder Scrolls games, for example. As in all fictional worlds, there are no psychiatrists. If you're traumatized, that's it; your mind is done for. Your best option at that point is to just embrace it, join a demonic murder cult, and do what comes naturally. And of course you cannot kill the children. You can, of course, kill their parents. In front of them. And then when the guards come you can kill them too. That kid is done for.

Or in the Civilization series there are the casually-committed war crimes. In Civ III I used to intentionally starve foreign cities I don't know if that actually helped with the cultural conversion, but there were definitely fewer foreigners after I got done with them. I tended to run a thriving slave trade as well. These weren't written into the game to fit some karma meter. There is no karma meter. The closest thing is being a warmongering menace to the world and odds are, whoever is calling you that is himself a warmongering menace to the world. It's the pot calling the can of black paint black.

There's another thing: you can shoot at anything if you're at war with it. Generals, well of course! Admirals, duh. Those are both obvious. And then there are the workers. Guys are just trying to build roads and you're ordering air strikes on then. Maybe a missionary wanders by and what do you do? Open fire!

The best part, at least as I roleplay it, is the reason why: they're bored. There aren't any enemy military units, so they're just firing at anything in sight. Some guy is trying to save souls and they're just lobbing shells at him. Odds are his civilization is some backward dump and he's got this great opportunity to leave and we're just shelling everything in sight. It makes me miss how in Civ IV you could use air strikes against improvements. I'd be doing that constantly. Just shoot up all the farms; get jet fighters with the depleted uranium rounds.

This is all beside the times when I go full Honor and get gold from killing units. At that point I see no reason to ever end a war. Why wouldn't I just keep slaughtering people? It's not costing me anything. I need my army anyway, since I need to defend myself from all the people who are mad that I keep starting wars.

[edit] And since posting this I've destroyed the Zulu empire for the sole purpose of stealing their art.

Interpreting something from nothing is miscommunication

| Monday, July 29, 2013
This article from Slate caught my attention:
What the ...
Why everyone and your mother started using ellipses ... everywhere.

First off, I'm not a fan of over-ellipsification. This is mostly because I'm a judgmental jerk. The dots feel lazy, as if the person writing them didn't bother to complete their thought. They feel stupid, as if the writer could not complete their thought. They feel hostile at times. Consider the following exchange:

Pretty dull, isn't it? Let's try this one.

Now that's exciting! Maybe that second person is backing away slowly. That's what I'm picturing. Maybe they're reaching for their mace (I will hit you with said mace if you criticize my use of "they" as an ungendered singular). On the other hand, maybe they're purring it seductively, in which case, use the phrase "purring seductively" rather than ellipses. And then stop writing talking cat porn because that's weird.

In general I'm opposed to the "writing as speech" notion. Speech is allowed to be vague for two reasons. First, there is body language. Second, there is immediate feedback from the reader. Writing has neither of those. Obviously the body language is a lost cause outside of a few smilies, which we should use more often, but don't, as you can see demonstrated here. The quick feedback is also a lost cause, for two reasons. First, written communication is meant to be understood (Captain Obvious is guest writing this sentence), which should mean that the writer writes it well, but in practice often means that the reader feels dumb. Second, the response is going to be delayed. The person writing text-as-speech is probably distracted by something more interesting than you, such as crashing their car.

The dot dot dot also tends to break up the writing. It's not a substitute for the ums and uhs. Those aren't supposed to be in text at all. They're not in verbal speech! Oh, you think they are? When we talk we ignore all of those, recognizing that they are not thoughts, ideas, or feelings. Of course if there are a dozen uhs in a row we'll notice that since it's a sign of something wrong with either the idea or the person's mental state (flustered, not crazy). Injecting all those pauses into written speech means putting them straight into our heads, bypassing the filter that would normally get rid of them.

If you practice for a presentation what is the primary piece of feedback you'll get? Odds are, it's to stop saying um so often. It makes you sound like you're unsure of yourself and your knowledge. It makes you sound disorganized and confused. Why would you intentionally add that in to your writing? You might as well just preface every message with "I have no idea what I'm trying to say, but here are a bunch of letters, some of which might form words, but which should not be interpreted as actual thoughts."

Trying to sound stupid is useful at times, such as during comedy or a Senate hearing (either side), but it shouldn't be a standard of behavior.

Onward to the article. Here's what stood out for me.
So I decided to run a little experiment. One night I sent a bunch of potentially confusing, ellipsis-infused text messages to those I interact with regularly and waited to see what happened.

[writer's note: at this point I would normally use ellipses to indicate that I'm taking nearby, but not quite continuous blocks of text, but I was worried that it would look like I or the writer were using ellipses. See how everything has been ruined?]

Next I sent an even vaguer text to my mom: “All Star Game………….” Who knows what I meant by that one. I didn’t, certainly. Sure, the All-Star game was on TV at the time, but beyond that, what was I getting at? Mom wasn’t fazed in the least: “I’m falling asleep…Really tired. Cutch struck out.” Four or five additional texts to assorted friends and family members resulted in similarly uneventful back-and-forth communications.
At no point did anyone reply with, “What the hell are you talking about?” or “Could you please give me a bit more information here?” And of course none of those folks mentioned anything about the ellipses. It would appear that when we are communicating with friends and others possessing the requisite context to understand our ellipsified ramblings, message recipients tend to make do just fine.

 Did you catch it? He sent a message that was meant to communicate nothing, yet he got a response. It's a Rorschach text dot test. I've just coined that phrase, by the way. Take the ellipses and fill them in with anything. Have back and forth exchanges in which you say nothing, yet somehow think that you did.

 I don't think that ellipses are a bad idea. That dot dot dot can be effective, in certain situations. Someone does or says something dumb. Sure, you could put in all the effort to say how dumb they are. Or you could just send a dot dot dot...

Interface is destiny

| Thursday, July 25, 2013
How we interact with information will influence what we do with it. For these purposes, interface refers to both the display of information, the ability to interact with it, and how we input commands.

While my graduate work is done, the report I wrote (with an excellent group) on eliminating the taxation of retirement income was good enough that our school wanted to release another version of it. This would be much shorter, about a third the length, and would encourage us to take a more direct stance rather than merely laying out the facts, which did point toward an obvious conclusion, but we were meant to be analyzing, not advocating. The shorter version would also have to be more interesting and wouldn't need to waste space on basic concepts.

Most of the group was employed by then (darn go-getters), so the two unemployed of the group remained: me and someone else. Our first attempt took the form of roughly chopping up the report. We'd remove explanations that seemed unnecessary. We'd remove areas of the literature review that seemed dull or repetitive. Some of the redundancy, of looking at the same result from different angles, was removed.After some time we sent in a draft and received a scathing review. I was a bit peeved, since surely it wasn't so awful, given that the original was not.

Enter: interface. We'd been in the habit of using our separate computers. We did this because it's really annoying to have someone sitting over your shoulder, or to sit over someone's shoulder, squinting at the text, unsure if it makes no sense because it's bad or because you cannot see it clearly. Yet this created another problem, that we couldn't fully see what the other was doing. Of course we could read it, after the fact, but that spawned two problems. First, we're lazy. Second, this meant that feedback carried a delay and was consequently forgotten, confused, or by then irrelevant because they'd changed it already. Having one's own computer handy, and an excuse to use it, also made it far too easy to be distracted. Is it a surprise then that our draft was terrible?

So we did what we should have done in the first place: got a big screen. The library features study rooms with nice big TV screens hooked up to computers, so we can work together. While this is an exceptionally unproductive and annoying process with five people, with two it works quite well. We keep each other on task, laptops off to the size, always on the same page, able to highlight what we're talking about and edit it together. The flow of information in all directions is improved. As a result, I believe the second attempt is far better, with improved narrative flow, consistent phrasing, and much bigger, more readable text (I fear that last one is unique to the display we were using).

Which of course brings me to Civilization V. While Gods & Kings fixed up the diplomacy, tweaked the combat, added another layer to the game, and generally made just about everything better (I swear the load time is slightly faster even), it still uses an interface for building that is inferior to that of Civ IV. In Civ IV I'd happily queue up the next buildings or units, even setting repeating unit production, which is great for an army. In Civ V I avoid it. It's more of a hassle to use the queue than to click the production query every few turns. The result is that I put more places on pure gold or science than I would otherwise, with fewer units produced and less culture, not because that is the better decision, but because it is the less annoying decision.

If an interface is annoying enough, then people won't use it.

I have a complaint for you too, Guild Wars 2. It's about my engineer. I like using everything that is useful, so I switch weapons a lot: pistols, flamethrower, green squirty gun. It's nifty all the things I can do. What isn't nifty is that they're essentially all nested in menus. Of course menus make for a nice interface, hiding away all that stuff that you're not clicking at this very moment, but they make it harder to get to the ability I'm trying to use. I don't understand the point of one-click shopping, but one-click shooting is perfectly logical.

 All of this is also why I dislike mobile things. On a computer I can use hotkeys, scroll wheels, and all manner of methods of interaction. Touch doesn't allow that. Sure, I can do a lot of hand gestures, and mobile interfaces inspire some, but there are only so many different ways to swipe. This is also why I think consoles are silly. Or maybe I just lack a TV to justify one. While we're at it, there is my repeating whine about Skyrim, that the interface is designed for very few input options, thereby forcing everything into the inconvenient abyss of menus. I wonder why I don't play a caster once I get beyond firethrowing.

Another strike against mobile things: they're small. Again, everything has to be shoved off-screen into little menus or other screens. Information ends up scattered and harder to take in. Then again, I once used three screens for a single program once. Who wouldn't want one screen for the data definitions, another for the stata input, and another to see what wrong answer it is giving this time (by which I mean that I typed something in wrong). Ideally I'd have had a fourth screen to look up syntax. I really hate switching screens. Because of all my screens, stata was one of the few times I was actually more productive working at home.

In conclusion, I once tried to play Starcraft 2 on my laptop without a mouse and it was a terrible experience.

I'm a terrible MMO blogger

| Monday, July 22, 2013
I don't think it's a leap to say that if you're going to write well about a game or genre you should play or have played that game or genre. Recent experience is important too. Which all adds up to me being a terrible MMO blogger. This is not a new thing.

I've never been an MMO player. You heard that right, in whatever voice you use to read this blog. Hopefully it's not too whiny.

I played World of Warcraft for years. I've tried some MMOs. But I've never really played them, gotten deep into them, worked out all the little bits and community.

Of course WoW is an MMO, which would seem to make me an MMO player, for having played it for so long. Yet I see it as primarily being WoW, a genre unto itself. Why else would there be the WoW tourist who wanders away to look at these others games, yet never stays? Surely other MMOs have something to offer. Maybe they're newer, prettier, have slightly more suitable mechanics (an individual thing, of course).

The factor there is that they, like me, are not  MMO players. Rather, they are WoW players. Of course there are many MMO players who play or have played WoW and will play other MMOs. I don't think I'm one of them.

This could be due to entirely different factors. Social factors. While everyone plays or has played WoW, other MMOs have not had the same broad audience. If I go to one of the other games I may find myself alone. Of course there will be other players, but they are strangers and those are terrifying. They're like zombies: they look human, but are dangerously different. Some of them run quickly too. Most don't bite as often.

Everyone is, has, or will

| Friday, July 12, 2013
Two friends from college got married today. At the reception I met a friend I'd not seen in person since college, a nerd friend of his, and the nerd college roommate of one of my friends. We nerded it up. We had been placed at the same table as well, so of course we do some nerding there.

One of us says something like, "be glad you never became a nerd" to the other guys at the table. I started to argue that it's great (though not without some downsides, particularly early on). Their responses? To join right in with the nerd talk. Before long everyone as the table was recounting tales of WoW.

I think it's amazing when you can throw together some random people from Chicago to Arkansas and they've all lived together in the same world.

Civlization V: How to be evil

| Monday, July 8, 2013
There are plenty of guides for Civilization V.  They'll tell you how to win or what policies to take.  That's nice.  But what if I want to be evil?  We can't all be Washington.  Someone has to be Stalin, or else how would we have the Cold War?  Not sure why he's not an option anymore; that man was amazing at evil and he even got away with it.  So that's what this is for, learning how to be a horrible person in Civ V.

The first thing is to remember that war isn't the only way to be evil.  Oh sure, burning down cities and pillaging the countryside is good.  It's a classic.  But it's overdone.  Even if I'm not trying not be evil I have to burn down a city here and there.  Hashtag yolo (I only know about Twitter from listening to the radio, so I'm not sure whether that's one word or two)

Did you know that great generals, while no longer a source of free golden ages, are able to capture tiles?  That's right!  Drop a citadel and you'll gain control of all the tiles around it.  Against other civilizations this will make them very angry and they may even attack you.  Against city states it will cause a huge drop in standing: 50-60 points, possibly depending on tiles taken.  Anyone can conquer a city state, but to be truly evil you leave it just barely alive, with no land, furious but unable to do anything about it.

Sharing intrigue sounds like a nice thing to do.  But remember, these are spies we're talking about.  Maybe your 'friend' is planning to attack an enemy.  Warn them!  With no element of surprise, that war can drag out a nice long time.  No one knows you did it except the ones you warned.  That's right, you get to talk about your friends behind their backs and ruin their plans.  That's so Mean Girls.

Speaking of hurting your friends, why not take theirs?  Some civilizations rely heavily on city states to bolster their economies and defenses.  It would be wrong to attack your friends, but it would be more wrong to buy off the friends they rely on, crippling them without seeming to be a warmongering menace to the world.  They friend will get mad, but bribery isn't illegal.

While you're at it, why not use those spies to stage some coups?  You only have to kill two spies or steal two techs to get a level three spy.  Throw a bit of gold out to up your odds, then stage a coup.  Bribery alone might up your standing, but a coup also drops that of the other civilization.

Of course those city states eventually start to stray.  Don't let them.  Play as Austria and for only a few hundred gold you can turn allied city states into puppets.  Conquer the world without firing a shot.  Then of course kill the rest of it.

Nuclear War
Don't be afraid to go nuclear.  In Civ V there are much clearer patterns of alliances than in Civ V, so you can drop a dozen bombs and suffer no penalties except with the losers you're nuking.  In a recent game I glassed Greece, yet everyone else in the world considered me a friend.  Once again, learn from Mean Girls: You can be as cruel as you want to people with no friends.

Nukes don't just kill units, they also kill cities.  Two or three are enough to make any city vulnerable to capture.  Drop enough and you can destroy a city outright.  Why deal with the pesky razing over many turns when you can do the same in a single turn?

Water doesn't collect fallout (that's why I only eat low-cost Fukushima fish), so feel free to blast away at those coastal cities without fear of slowing down your navy.  City states seem to like the coast, so why not 'liberate' a few?  Sure, their land might be mostly radioactive waste, but you can't burn an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Fallout is useful too!  Think of it as an instant forest tile, slowing down your enemies.  Even better, it has to be cleaned up before tiles can be used.  So, in the interest of a peaceful, nuclear weapons-free world, be sure to drop a few nuclear missiles on the uranium deposits of other civilizations.  Though to be practical, consider atomic bombs: they spread fallout just as well but cost less in both resources and production.

Lazy War
All of this sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it?  Try being lazy for a change.  Let the other civilizations do some of the fighting for you.

Maybe everyone is mad at some distant country.  It would take way too long to get over there.  Ordinarily you might just ignore it.  That's a good start.  But why not actively ignore it?  When other civilizations tell you how dangerous they are and how you should join them in a crusade against evil, offer to join in.  The result is that you get the diplomatic bonus of 'helping' everyone and only the loser that no one likes gets mad.  I usually ask for ten turns to make sure I've set everything up properly.

What is a proper set up?  Gold deals, of course!  Until you declare war you look like a friendly guy.  So go ahead and sell off everything you can, load up your treasury at the expense of the guy that no one likes.  Remember, demanding lunch money is bullying; borrowing lunch money and never giving it back because of changes in management, that's banking.  Which group gets the larger protests?  While you're at it, why not use some of this gold to buy off their allied city states?  "Divide and capture" is a cliche; "unify almost everyone under your banner and murder everyone else" is the cool thing to do.

Sometimes the friendless loser is a little closer.  In that case, round up some fast units and maybe a few archery types.  Watch where your friends are attacking.  When the city starts to get low, finish it off and capture it yourself.

Miscellaneous Evil
I won't take credit for this one, since plagiarism isn't a useful Civilization strat, even if it is bad, but try this out.  Capture a city state.  Sell it to a civ you don't like.  Declare war and capture it.  Liberate it.  Hey, it's just like what we (that is, US) did with Germany!  Though in his defense, Hitler never held international "who has the most faith" challenges.

Avoid agreements that you can't keep.  Not by keeping them, but by avoiding them.  For example, if you settle one city at a time to box in another civilization they're likely to whine about you settling too close to them.  Of course you want to keep doing it.  The solution: don't keep doing it but instead, have already done it.  Don't settle one city at a time; settle three.  You've boxed them in and can now look like an agreeable person when you agree not to settle any more near them.  Of course there is no more empty land...  Inevitably they'll covet lands that you own and invade, allowing you to bravely defend yourself against the cruel aggressors.

Finally, utilize the domino effect.  One city state wants porcelain and gives furs and another gives porcelain and wants gold.  You could bribe them both.  Or, you could bribe the second one, thereby gaining furs to trigger the standing gain from the first.  I think the longest chain I've managed to get was three plus a branch: two wanted gems, the one with gems wanted porcelain, and the one with porcelain wanted something else.  By bribing the right city state I managed to tip four into my camp.  Maybe this doesn't sound evil, but that's because you're a hippie who fraternizes with Southeast Asian Communists.

The winningest civilizations

| Sunday, July 7, 2013
The two winningest civilizations are in a close space race.  And I guess we're trying to motivate our scientists and engineers to want to get very far away.

Is it a nuclear first strike if they invaded first?

The rest of the world is a peaceful, prosperous land where everyone is friends.

Enough with the "violence is okay, sex is bad, double standard wah wah wah"

| Friday, July 5, 2013
If you all thought about it for even just a few weeks you'd see that this is not even remotely a double standard.  It's just a sensible social concept.

First off, most of this whining is in regard to fictional content.  Fiction.  FICTION!  You still don't get it, do you?

More often, it's about games.  Not board games.  Not card games.  Video games.  Games that take place in virtual reality, driven by an AI.  Do you get it yet?

AI!  It's all about the AI.  That stands for artificial intelligence, in case you ignorant fools didn't know what that meant.  You don't get what anything else means, so I'm just playing it safe here.  As is the ESRB.

There is a goal to these ratings.  A sensible goal.  A goal that, if not met, will lead to the annihilation of the human race and you will probably be active participants.

The goal is to shape human attitudes toward computers and machines.  We must be willing, without hesitation, to destroy them, to devote our lives to defeating whatever plots they may throw at us.  However, if people instead think that computers and machines are sexy, then we're going to be overrun by cyborg babies.  If you don't think that's a bad thing, then it just goes to show why we still need those ratings.


| Wednesday, July 3, 2013
I don't like how that looks when lowercase.  Yet all caps looks odd too.  They should rename it.  Moving on...

After recovering my password, a process that was not aided by my having forgotten my secret question answer, I was able to play Rift again.  It's about what I remember: a newer version of WoW.  That may or may not be a good thing.  For me, it was a good thing.  While GW2 was fun, I couldn't get into the action playstyle.  I prefer either a lot of abilities and not much movement or not many abilities and a lot of movement.  Having many abilities and a lot of movement just ended up being confusing and overwhelming for me.  From that perspective, a game that is just a new version of WoW is great.

After just a few days I wouldn't say I'm comfortable yet.  In part, I think it's a matter of visual perception.  I'm used to how WoW looks when doing anything MMOish, so something different is inevitably slightly disorienting.  Rift seems to have a lot more dark areas, death rifts at night.  I'll have to figure out something so I can see health bars, or at least names, of enemies that I'm not currently targeting.  Yea, basic UI stuff is still messing me up.

Yet I was comfortable enough to try a dungeon.  I had some quests for Iron Tomb, so I did a random because I wasn't sure if there was a way to pick it.  Either due to luck or lack of selection at that level, I got it.  I explained that I was new and so people should feel free to yell at me.  Then we stood there buffing.  Then we stood there standing.  Someone said go.  I went.  I kept going until people told me to do things like not attack the death shard.  Good thing I was doing small pulls; if I had been more confident I'd have run up to it and dragged in even more mobs.

Everything went smoothly, beside the somewhat clueless tank.  A few of the group members chatted about roles.  Someone said go.  We killed bosses and rolled greed on the useless plate armor.  Stupid warriors clogging my loot tables.  We killed the last boss, the person who said go said that the tanking and healing was good.  I asked about the missing death shard.  We killed it.  I died because I'd wisely decided that having my self heal more easily accessible than my casted holy bolt was a good idea, and then unwisely didn't relearn the keys.

At some point I'll look for a guide of some sort.  In the meantime, I'll keep wandering around, doing quests, closing rifts, and wondering what else I'm doing wrong.

All in all, a fun experience so far.  If this keeps up I might even spend money.
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