Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Courage of Class 2-A

So I finished watching the Negima anime yesterday. Hopefully it goes without saying that this upcoming blog post, like the last one, has spoilers for the anime (and probably the manga as well) in it. And if it doesn’t, well, I just said something about it, so you’ve been warned.

That said, though, I didn’t go into the ending without expectations. While it’s hardly on the same level as the details I’m about to reveal, in a conversation with some of my friends, I was informed that the ending wasn’t great. And the setup for that ending in the two episodes prior to the finale did nothing to dispel that belief. I was expecting to dislike the ending of the series when episode 26 began.

Then I actually watched the final episode and promptly forgot about that. There were one or two scenes that set off my inner nit-picking nature, and five or six more where I just sat spellbound watching Negi and Class 2-A beating the crap out of demons. The break point, though, the part that I would bet determines whether a person likes the ending or not, is what happened to practically the second lead character of the series (after Negi), Asuna Kagurazaka.

...This is the last spoiler warning you get, and this is one hell of a plot twist to reveal. Warning has been duly given. Of course, if you’ve seen Negima and/or don’t care to see it, feel free to read on.

You see, in episode 23, Asuna dies. This is kind of a big deal, pretty much shattering class 2-A to pieces as far as their emotional stability is concerned. The rest of the series, however, is not just moping around and getting past her death. As it happens, the time machine comes out in episode 25.

And this is where I can see why some people might not like the ending. I think it depends on how cynical one likes the plot lines. If one would prefer the message in the story to be about how death is inevitable and would have preferred to see Negi deal with Asuna’s demise rather than try to bring her back to life, the ending will look like a cheap dodge that avoids that truth. Star Trek fans tired of the endless time-travel plots will likely have an issue with this one, especially since this time travel appears to be run at the demands of the plot more than most. And those who have an issue with the primal forces of evil and the making of contracts with those forces will likely have a word about this whole thing as well.

Then again, if one wants gritty realism and cynical plot lines, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m surprised you endured 22 episodes of a ten-year-old boy in charge of a class of thirty girls that all seem to be crazy in some way or another to make it to these last four. Realism (or more precisely, “verisimilitude”, since magic is not exactly realistic to begin with) is not exactly high on the list of goals for this story, and it doesn’t try too hard to be cynical.

The message of the Negima anime isn’t one about death, or betrayal, or any kind of cynical theme. As far as I’m concerned, Negima concerns itself with courage. Which at first glance may seem kind of odd. After all, this isn’t a series about war or fighting, that much. Most of the season is taken up with the tensions inherent in placing a ten-year-old girl magnet in charge of a class of thirty girls.

As far as courage goes, there isn’t much courageous posturing or determined last stands in this one. Negi does get one of those last stands (and is dragged away from it by Asuna), and the entire class practically jumps to fight for Asuna’s sake in the final episode. But that isn’t the courage that I’m looking at. In fact, it really wouldn’t have helped for there to be more of that display.

No, the courage of Class 2-A isn’t the will to march into battle or the determination to stand up for a friend, important as those are. The courage of Class 2-A is the courage of Nodoka Miyazaki in episode 17 or the courage of Asuna herself in the final episode. It’s the mental fortitude to express yourself and your feelings to others.

It may not seem like much. As I touched on with my last post, some people don’t seem to have a problem with that at all. But who among us would willingly express all of their secrets to even their closest friends? At the fear of being branded insane, silly, over-emotional, who would try to tell someone that they know they’ll die in two hours?

Perhaps I over-value this kind of emotional courage simply because it is something that I know I lack. When it comes to my college life, I’m confident in my ability to handle my classes, and face down tests and the like with something that could be called courage. But when it comes to expressing myself? When it comes to saying those three little words that Nodoka managed in episode 17?

Regardless. In the end, the only conclusion I can come to is that the ending only reinforces what I’ve already said about Negima. This isn’t an anime about death or even about the magic that Negi wields. It’s an anime about relationships. As far as I’m concerned, Negi and Class 2-A are an inspiration - a reminder to have courage. And not the courage of fighting or of risking oneself physically. Whether a plea for help or a declaration of love, the courage of Class 2-A is the courage to speak a word (or three) that can change the course of a life.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Reaching Out

So lately I’ve been watching an anime series called Negima. The premise can probably best be called “insane”, but hardly in a bad way. Ten-year-old Negi Springfield, the main character, is an aspiring wizard (or “Magister Magi”, if you prefer the anime’s title for them) and is in training to achieve that end. But this latest phase of his training involves the young English boy becoming a teacher at an all-girls school in Japan, and as far as I’m concerned, the challenges to Negi’s magical skills are nothing compared to the task of keeping the girls of class 2-A under control, especially when it seems like half of them are in love with Negi.

One of those girls that can’t seem to take her eyes off of Negi is possibly one of the most unlikely candidates ever: Nodoka Miyazaki. I call her an unlikely candidate because at the beginning of the series, she’s all but terrified of men, period. When Negi saves her from a hard fall off a stairway, her reflections later on center around being touched by a boy (Negi, obviously), and she seems to be confused as to why she doesn’t hate or fear the idea.

Nodoka proceeds to spend a good portion of the series trying to work up the courage to even admit to what she’s feeling, much less tell Negi about it. (Well, as far as I’ve seen, anyway; I’ve seen 18 out of the 26 episodes.) Since, after all, Nodoka seems to be just cripplingly shy with everyone, this ends up taking quite a while, even when they do end up on a date in episode 17 by the machinations of Nodoka’s friends.

And yet, out of all the characters in the anime, I find myself rooting for Nodoka and sympathizing with her more than anyone. Even over Negi himself or Asuna Kagurazaka, who practically seems like the second main character of the show sometimes, I want to see Nodoka be successful.

…I guess that makes me one of those crazy fans that goes on and on about the relationships he wants to see in the different shows that he watches. At least I haven’t created any little combinations of their names, like… wait, never mind, where was I?

Anyway, I can see why Nodoka might take some criticism for her general attitude. I know people who would likely tell her to stop cringing and speak her mind clearly. (They’d probably also tell her to cut her hair, especially since she practically hides behind her bangs when talking to someone directly, but that isn’t as important.) And I think that’s emblematic of society as a whole. As a general rule from my own experience, people don’t really sympathize with the shy introverts; they simply tell them not to be shy.

See, part of the reason why I sympathize with Nodoka over the rest of the cast is because I think I’m the same kind of person. As far as I’m concerned, the hardest thing I did this afternoon was to call someone that I didn’t know, looking for a job. It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do by any measure, and yet I was agonizing over it for a good ten minutes before I actually made the call.

For people like Nodoka and myself, even reaching out is hard to do. Nodoka seemed to be practically terrified of talking to Negi even after she finally told him about her feelings at the end of her little date in episode 17, avoiding Negi for much of episode 18. And I? I didn’t want to feel like an idiot, which as far as that little voice in my head is concerned happens every time I try to do something I’m unsure about.

As a side note, that same little voice is stridently protesting what I’m about to write... it can be quite insistent sometimes. And yet, my more logical side can’t find a hole in it.

Simply put, though, sometimes it has to be done. Nodoka had to get around to the admission of her love for Negi eventually, and I had to make the attempt to find a job. Practically the hardest thing either of us does on a day to day basis is to actually break away from the books (Nodoka) or anime/games (myself) and interact with other people. (I am assuming on Nodoka’s part, but I don’t think I’m far wrong.)

There are miscues, sure. Sadly, my call was one of them. Not that it went badly, simply that I did indeed feel like I should have expected the negative result that I got. Logically, nothing really happened, but I still spent a minute or two after the call feeling like I was an idiot. (I finally decided to write something about to take my mind off it. This is the end result.)

Thankfully, Nodoka had it better off. A side effect of having your entire fate decided by writers that like happy endings, I suppose. While Negi didn’t exactly leap into her arms, they’re now much better friends than they were before, and Nodoka seems to have fully taken in the lesson here about courage when it comes to reaching out. If nothing else, she got her symbolic “I’m not hiding anymore” moment when she brushed her bangs away from her face and looked Negi straight in the eye, something she had had severe difficulty with before.

When all is said and done, reaching out is rarely something that you regret after the fact. And maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll actually learn that one of these days.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Restraining Voices

A year ago to the day, I posted the second part of a two-part post about high technology. About the promises made regarding the development of scientific knowledge, and the validity of technology’s constant promise to make the world a better place. It’s one of the opinions that I still hold strongly: that the pursuit of the answers to life’s mysteries should not be undertaken simply because questions still exist.

And now, having seen the movie Angels and Demons just recently, it seems like a good time to revisit the subject. Because one of the subjects that I didn’t touch on in any great detail is also a subject that is at issue for the characters of that movie: what role does society or religion play in the growth of technology? Who governs what questions we pursue? And how is one of the most age-old conflicts in history, religious tradition versus scientific progress, to be resolved in today’s world?

On both sides of the divide, arguments can be made against any interaction between the two. In Angels and Demons, one of the priests in the movie gives a speech to the College of Cardinals about the war that they are in, the war between the traditionalist Catholic Church and the science-based Illuminati. While that speech isn’t openly militant, that same priest reveals his true colors later in the movie, considering the development of antimatter and its characterization to be sacrilegious.

 Likewise, although it isn’t as present in the movie, from the days of Galileo and his persecution by the religions of the time, science has had little reason to like religion. The attitude expressed by the priest in Angels and Demons may lead some with those views to openly attack the development of technology, but the responses are far too often as intolerant and hostile as their provocation was. For the movie, the chosen response of the “Illuminati” (complicated story there…) was probably ever so slightly over the top.

The fault lies in considering it a war at all. The fault lies in thinking that religious beliefs are incompatible with scientific study. Certainly, it’s not regarded as unusual for even devout followers of a religion to turn to scientific study, and no small number of books professing to link religion and science have been written. We’ve come a long way from the days where scientists had to recant their studies or be branded as heretics.

The question, then, turns to the role that religion will play. Or should there even be one? With its ever-increasing separation from the levers of power, organized religion has (in the Western world, at least) lost much of its power to control scientific progress, it would seem. Not only is religion no longer inclined to continually decry scientific progress; even if they did, progress would likely continue unchecked, since heresy is no longer a crime as it was in older times.

And while I certainly don’t think that a return to that level of religious power would be a good thing, I do think I will mourn the loss of influence there. Because with its passing, yet another check on humanity’s completely unrestrained growth is gone. In his speech before the cardinals of the Catholic Church, in the movie, the priest in question advocated the Vatican’s striking back, firmly, at the never-ending progress of science. He suggested that they act as a restraint on the continued development of science, as a moderating voice.

And maybe that is a good thing. Maybe the world needs a God… not necessarily as an arbiter of our morality or as the final judge of our actions, but as a reminder that some mysteries will remain mysteries. No level of scientific effort will conclusively prove or disprove the existence of a deity. To living members of the human race, the question of a higher power will remain just that: a question, an unknown.

That, I feel, is what the human race needs right now. I feel like we stopped needing to answer questions about the world around us five or six major answers ago. I will not deny that our technological growth has brought with it major advances in the human condition, but I feel like the benefits we gain from continually pursuing mysteries have ceased to be the point.

Today, we don’t unravel the mysteries of the universe to better our condition. Either we’re simply questing after greater power (at a cheaper price) for ourselves, or we’re simply answering questions because they exist. And I think it’s about time that halted. I think it’s time that we started looking at why we seek for all the answers to the mysteries around us, and more importantly, came to grips with the idea that some of those mysteries will never have answers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Destiny's Commander

So theoretically I’ll be writing about relatively new things. For example, I’ll probably post something about the new Star Trek movie soon enough, since I saw that recently. (It was awesome, of course.) Realistically, though, I’ll be writing about whatever inspires me to write, as long as I haven’t done so before. And since I’m still sorting through my thoughts on the Star Trek movie, I’ll have to resort to the movie Wanted, which I also saw for the first time last weekend despite it not being new.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, the basic idea is that there’s the secret society of assassins that preserve the balance of history and are directed by fate. Or something like that, I don’t think the plot was the strong point of the movie. Especially not after blatantly ripping off one of the oldest plot twists in history: “No, I didn’t kill your father, I am your father” and so on.

… Oh yeah. There may be spoilers for the plot of the movie in here. Should I have gotten to that warning earlier?

At any rate. Despite the plot not really being the movie’s strong point (I would have to give that role to the crazy things they were doing with the large amounts of weaponry they all possessed, or to Angelina Jolie), I’m going to tear apart the motivations of the heroes and villains anyway, for two reasons. One is because it’s kind of the point, that I can find lessons related to the real world even in a movie that maybe isn’t the most plot-heavy one out there. And two is because there’s nothing I love more than mercilessly mocking the rampant stupidity of your standard movie heroes and villains. (Well, okay, maybe video games or anime or… never mind.)

You see, the main character of the movie is your standard office drone who feels like his life is worth nothing and that he has no control over it, pointless as it is. About the only thing special about him, from his perspective, is that he’s got this weird anxiety condition that requires medication to control. And, of course, that’s not a good special condition that helps his self-esteem any.

The impetus that drags him out of that state is the aforementioned secret society of assassins. The leader of whom explains to him a few things, namely that his little anxiety issue isn’t a bad thing at all; rather, it allows him to do insane things (like, oh, shoot the wings off of a fly). Also that this could be controlled and directed to his benefit, and that his father was killed by a former member of this society that went rogue. He’s also the guy who controls the society and is the only one who interprets the fabric produced by this “Loom of Fate” that directs who the society is going to kill.

Putting aside the insanity of allowing imperfections in the fabric that a loom produces to direct assassinations for a moment, it would appear that all the power so far is with the society. That the leader of this society, to throw in the obligatory reference to the title of this post, has the power to command destiny. He reads the prophecies and the commands from fate (from a loom… urge to mock the ridiculous nature of this plot rising) and directs his subordinates to carry them out.

However, this gives one person all of the power. And in the most original plot twist ever, it turns out that that old adage about power corrupting was right all along. The leader of the assassins wasn’t acting on the orders of fate (from a loom… no, I’m not letting that rest) after all, but faking the orders to carry out assassinations for money or, as far as I can tell, for his own personal enjoyment.

That wasn’t the entire story though; he made a lot of noise near the end of the movie about being able to direct the course of history. And you know, he has a point. Barring the United States with its effective system of succession of leadership, assassinations have usually caused no small amount of a stir when they’ve been carried out, potentially altering the course of history. We can’t be sure, of course, since we have no idea what would have happened otherwise.

Besides, assassination isn’t really a tool of fate, and being a “thug that can bend bullets” (the hero’s characterization of the villain) doesn’t make you destiny’s commander. The destiny of a person will always remain in the hands of that person. People have the ultimate command over their own actions, and short of physical force, that command cannot be taken away. Sure, a person can be killed, but that amounts to little more than a reset button, a removal of the influence over destiny that a person had created.

The hero could have remained an office drone for his entire life, and never taken control of that life. But as he expressed at the end of the movie, he wasn’t going to do that. He took control as any person can. As anyone can choose to change what they do. Destiny and fate are not powerful or unknowable forces outside our ability to understand. Because we all have command over our own destinies.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


… Alright, I guess the first and most important thing I should do here and now is apologize to any of the people that have been checking this site at all in the two months now that I’ve been not posting. While I’m not going to get my hopes up regarding how many people have actually done so, I know for a solid fact that at least one person has. So for those of you that have been checking, I do sincerely apologize for not offering so much as even a quick note saying that posts weren’t coming anytime soon.

I could point to a number of different reasons why this has happened, but since I’m not really in the habit of making excuses, I’ll refrain from that and simply state the obvious: I haven’t been posting. Trying to say “well this is why” feels too much like making pointless excuses to me, so instead I’ll just vow to change my behavior. And that means posting again on this blog. (Although if you want the reasons, I’d be happy to give them; just ask and I’ll explain myself.)

And one of the things I really want to hit on in this return to blogging is my eternal nemesis: scheduling. As you all may have noticed, I’m really bad at planning these things. I would just write posts and put them up when I’d done, but since I tend to do my writing in spurts, I’d end up posting three articles in the space of five hours and then have nothing here for the next two weeks.

That said, though, I believe I will try to just put stuff up here when I finish it and to hell with a regular schedule. I’ll take advantage of the scheduling tools to space posts out if necessary. I’ll probably have no fewer than two or three days in between posts, and no more than two weeks at the absolute maximum, but other than that I’ll post things when I finish them from now on.

I’d also like to take this chance to redefine what I’m doing here with this blog, or at least re-state it. This blog is titled “A Video Gamer’s Perspective” for a reason, namely that I really feel that video games have been a major part of my life. I think that one of my defining labels is that title of “video gamer”, whatever that means, and thus feel it’s perfectly justified to label this blog as the perspective of such a person.

This holds true regardless of what’s caught my attention in any particular post. Sure, I’ll usually try to relate things to video games in some way. But in the end, there are almost as many of my posts with the “anime” label as the “video games” label, and that’s unlikely to change. I’m writing in the end about what I do for fun, which isn’t limited to video games.

And that leads me back around to what I do with this stuff in the first place. I’m not here to break new philosophical ground or come up with life lessons that have never been heard before. What I’m doing with the anime or the games that catch my eye is see what value they have beyond simple entertainment.

I’m not trying to be new and revolutionary with the lessons themselves, but rather where I find them and what reinforces them. I can’t even claim to be revolutionary in claiming that video games have worth; after all, that idea too has been discussed in scholarly articles and books written by those far smarter than myself. All I’m trying to do is explore individual games and see just how much of a waste of time they are.

This blog is on some level a challenge. It’s a challenge to the moral guardians and the religious fundamentalists of the world that refuse to view video games as anything other than a source of moral degradation. It’s a challenge to every parent that’s ever said, “That thing will rot your brain, you know,” to their kid sitting in front of the TV.

So let’s all see just what I get out of video games, or anime, or anything else I do for fun. Let’s see if video games are a moral sinkhole, or a waste of time. That’s what I’m here to do: to show through anecdotes and through my own example how these games are about the farthest thing from a waste of time that I can imagine.  I’ve got a good thirty or so posts on the topic already, and now that it’s summer, I’m in the mood to make that number grow.

Oh, and five days ago, my blog hit it’s one-year anniversary; my first post was on May 2nd, 2008. Since I kinda didn’t post then, we’ll just mark the occasion now. Let’s get back into exploring the world of an anime-obsessed video game fanatic. Hope you all enjoy the ride.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Authority to Command

Issues regarding commands and who has the authority to give them are part of everyone’s life. We are all subject to the commands of one person or another, with a tiny minority of possible exceptions at the highest levels of authority. For that reason, everyone’s going to encounter questions of authority and the right to issue commands.

One wouldn’t think these would be difficult questions to answer… and one would be surprised. In the anime series .hack//Sign, for much of the series, there existed a player organization called the Crimson Knights. Throughout the first parts of the series, the goals of the Crimson Knights are obvious: they work to help keep control of the game world. They try to bring players that are violating the rules to “justice”.

All well and good, right? It can’t hurt to have people working to help keep the game under control. Game masters of MMOs across the world are overworked trying to do that job; surely some help is a good thing. There doesn’t appear to be much of a problem at first; the knights are loyal to their leader Subaru and follow her orders.

The problem develops over the series. A conflict slowly develops between Subaru and the second in command of the Knights, appropriately named Silver Knight. The problem is of course a question of authority. Silver Knight wants to take as much control as possible, and be as active as possible in hunting down and punishing anyone who breaks the rules.

This forces Subaru to constantly remind him as the series progresses that they are merely players. She never says any more than that, but the implications are obvious: the Crimson Knights are not the game’s police force. Nor are the Crimson Knights the administrators themselves, as the Cobalt Knight Brigade was in .hack//Legend of the Twilight. The Crimson Knights do not have the authority to command other players to do anything, nor do they have the authority to sanction other players for breaking the rules.

It can’t hurt, though, to have additional people keeping an eye out for rules violations, right? Keeping an eye out is not a problem, but what Silver Knight wanted was to have the authority to punish players for their actions. And that most assuredly is a problem.

Any kind of authority carries with it a responsibility. The two cannot be separated; if one has the authority to punish those who violate the rules, one has the responsibility to the players to fairly and evenly mete out punishment. Any authority carries the responsibility that that authority be used appropriately.

This holds true with all kinds of authority, as well. A commanding officer of a military unit has a great deal of authority with regards to that unit. He issues all of the orders to that unit, whether it be a platoon of soldiers all the way up to a carrier battle group, and directs its actions. With that authority comes the responsibility to ensure that unit’s well-being and direct it wisely.

The President of the United States is one of the few people in the world to whom my earlier exception about taking orders may apply, and has a wide range of power inside and outside that nation’s borders. But with the massive amount of power that comes with the position is a very heavy responsibility to use it wisely to the benefit of the American people and society at large; this is why the election of a new President is such a big deal both inside and outside the United States.

As with the President, because of the responsibility that comes with authority, people are only given authority if they can be shown to be able to handle the responsibilities of that authority. Which brings us back to Silver Knight. The problem was not that he wanted to keep the game under control (although last week’s post has more to say about the desirability of that). The problem was that he and the Crimson Knights were trying to take on authority without recognizing or appreciating the responsibility it carried with it.

One of the many dilemmas of command is the heavy responsibility that comes with it. One of the problems of carrying authority is having to be aware of that responsibility. Silver Knight and the Crimson Knights behind him cared for none of that. They tried to take on the authority of the police without being recognized by anyone as able to handle that responsibility. And partway through the series, they were disbanded by Subaru when she realized these exact problems.

The authority to command is not merely power. It is also the responsibility to those that one commands. One who merely gives orders for the sake of feeling strong or authoritative is not a commander, and can truly only be called a bully or a thug. To truly command, one must recognize that one’s duty to the people or rules above you must be balanced by the responsibility to those one commands.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Order, Control, and Gaming

Control. There are those people that like to have it, over themselves and the environment around them. There are others who could care less. This is one of the ways to look at the old Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 alignments of Lawful and Chaotic. One values order and control, the other sees them as unnecessary or even a hindrance.

And, in the story of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, it’s pretty obvious where the system administrators of the biggest MMO ever created fall. To quote, “What cannot be controlled must be deleted.” To be fair, it’s on some level an opinion shared by every single game designer and developer ever to make or run a game. Even the most basic games in real life have rules. Have a winner and a loser, and a set of regulations governing what can and cannot be done in the game.

Order and control are thus very important to games of any kind. It is the knowledge that the rules will be enforced that prevents a game from disintegrating. Who would play World of Warcraft if a high-level monster could just teleport into the low-level zones and wreak havoc, killing off all the low-level players that can’t fight back? It is the order present in the game world that allows it to function. That reassures players that low-level monsters are here, and higher-level ones won’t be found there.

And when that order, when that control, breaks down, it must be dealt with. If a player starts cheating to gain an advantage, they need to be removed; if a bug comes into the system, it needs to be fixed. This is a philosophy shared by both the administrators of “The World” in .hack// and the admins of World of Warcraft or any other MMO.

So then, it is clear that a Lawful alignment preserves the game and allows it to function freely and evenly for all players. But then, aren’t there some things that can’t or even shouldn’t be controlled? Surely it’s ridiculous to assume that everything can be brought under strict order, and even more so to think that that’s a good thing. Such is the Chaotic argument.

In today’s games, the systems and worlds are tightly controlled. There’s really not much chance of anything too odd happening. But in .hack//Legend of the Twilight, “The World” is a massive MMO, with far too many details to easily monitor… far too many details to keep control of. And maybe in a world like that one, it’s better to leave some things be.

An element that cannot be controlled is not automatically evil or unbalancing. It can be, but the default position need not be the above quote. Maybe it’s better to let the world change. If something isn’t harmful or dangerous, then why does a lack of control need to mean destruction?

It’s not just the massive world of .hack// that can’t be entirely controlled. In fact, there are elements of chaos in any game, even in our own tightly regulated games. There will be a lack of balance in any system we create. We aren’t good enough to create a perfectly balanced, perfectly fair game world; what’s more, we never will be. So we might as well recognize that some things need not be controlled.

The dichotomy, the divisions between Lawful and Chaotic opinions, can be seen in modern games. In the MMO EVE Online, there are rules to protect the newer players. Certain systems are under the protection of the law, and any act of aggression in those systems will merit a response from the police forces of the world. What’s more, surviving their attack is considered an exploit by the game’s designers. Again, we see that tight control over what can and cannot be done.

But. Unlike in some games, there are no restrictions on who can be attacked; many games with a Player vs. Player element give new players immunity to this warfare as protection. Nothing of the sort exists in EVE, only the police forces that, like in the real world, can’t respond immediately to a threat. And so, chaos works its way back in. EVE players can always be attacked, anywhere and at any time. There will be consequences for the attacker, but that may not save the victim any grief.

And in the systems where the law has no authority? That’s where the players come in. There are several major player-created alliances in EVE, and they’ve managed to fill in the hole that the designers left behind. The systems that the designers left chaotic and uncontrolled? The players have sovereignty over them now, and they can do whatever they like there.

The designers of EVE could have created a police state. They could have created a sprawling empire of powerful police forces that control every known system, lockouts on targeting systems that prevent the targeting of newer or weaker players, and a regimented system of growth and development that would have guided a player up the ranks. They could have controlled everything in sight, and removed any trace of chaos from the game.

But they would have destroyed the fun of the game in the process. By backing off, by creating a system that combines law and chaos, they created an incredibly compelling system. They control what needs to be controlled, to allow players some sense of security, and they leave the rest chaotic.

There’s a message in there somewhere. Control and order are important, to be sure. Without them, no one could live without being hindered by the random whims of others. And order is far more often than not designed for a good purpose. But also, not everything can be controlled. And sometimes, one needs to just let things run unchecked. At times, life needs to be kept on track through order and control. And at other times, life needs to be allowed to run free in a celebration of chaos.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dreams of the Enemy

So, who else doesn’t really like all of the generic evil villains out there these days? For a lot of games, it’s enough just to have a villain that is simply evil. Not morally gray, not well intentioned, just evil. Same goes for movies… as far as one can tell, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars is evil for the hell of it. Really, what does he want? Because “power for its own sake” is about the only answer visible.

Building a massive planet-crushing Death Star and destroying a civilian pacifist planet is another excellent example of what I’m talking about. What point was there to that, beyond just being evil for the hell of it? Try this plotline: Empire captures princess, puts her in Star Destroyer prison cells. Rescue team saves princess, but Empire plants tracking device on their ship.

About the only differences are: the Empire has a lot less ill will (you know, that whole not-blowing-up-a-planet deal) and a lot more Star Destroyers, since they have a lot more resources to spare. The other problem, though, is that it’s less dramatic, which is why in Star Wars the villains needed to be over-the-top; why they needed to be purely evil for its own sake.

It gets old after a while, though. Why doesn’t Team Rocket from Pokémon go into the mechanized construction business? With the number of robots they’ve built for the sake of screwing with Ash and friends, they clearly have the aptitude for it. And they wouldn’t have to go blasting off all the time. I guess it’s just not evil enough (or funny enough) for them to make an honest living and send money and Pokémon to Giovanni that way.

It certainly seems in a few different cases that there’s no internally consistent reason for the villains to act the way they do. The demands of producing an interesting movie or TV show, the demands of drama or comic relief, are the reasons for creating villains that act in these ways. But treating those stories as worlds in their own respect forces the view that they’re acting evil for the hell of it. That the villains have no goals beyond being the antagonists; that the dreams of the enemy are non-existent. And people don’t usually act that way.

So it’s awfully refreshing once in a while to get a series like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s. As the series opens, the antagonists seem pretty clearly marked. You know, those guys over there that are the guardians of the Book of Darkness. That cursed book that has never been used for anything other than destruction. That tome that will gain limitless power once all 666 pages have been completed. Frankly, at first, it’s a little bit of a cliché storm. (link to TVTropes)

But, much like the first season does, it doesn’t remain clichéd for long. The motivations of the “villains” are laid bare before the season is half over; the dreams of the enemy are apparent to at least the viewer, if not the protagonists. And the master of the Book of Darkness isn’t the textbook villain lusting after power; likewise, the guardians aren’t just the textbook mini-boss squad that seems to gain nothing from being evil. Oh no.

In fact, they’re about as far from that as it’s possible to be. In a refreshing turn from the standard “bwa ha ha I’m evil and I like it” villain, the master of the Book Of Darkness specifically ordered the guardians not to go out and complete the book. She hardly qualifies as an antagonist, and even if one did try to fit her into that category, she’s definitely not seeking “power after power, ceasing only in death,” as Hobbes put it. (Yeah, I can reference political theory too.)

But then, why are the guardians completing the Book? Clearly they must be more typical villains, right? Well, actually… no. Actually, their leader accepted that order fully and completely. Until they learned that the Book of Darkness was killing its master through a curse, one that would lose effect if the Book was completed. Yes, that’s right: they’re acting as they are to save their master’s life.

What does this mean? People aren’t usually mindless drones that are only supposed to act as the antagonist for some greater story, and it’s nice to see a story that reflects that fact. Although they do exist, it’s the rare person that really does act evil for the hell of it. In the world that we live in, everyone has some kind of dream or goal. Even one’s enemy or opponent has their own wishes and desires. Sometimes, those are even noble ones.

It’s all too easy to look at an opponent and dismiss them as nothing more than an object. Nothing more than an enemy to defeat, even to kill. But that’s not what people are like. When war breaks out, the dead are reduced to numbers and the enemy is reduced to just some monolithic force that must be defeated in battle. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the people behind all of those numbers and uniforms.

Note, I’m not saying that war as a whole is wrong because of this. Unfortunately, sometimes force is the only solution to an opponent who carries a destructive dream. But there must be that awareness of the opponent’s status as a human being. And that awareness is one of the things that will help to ensure that we go no farther than we must.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Protection and Destruction

The line between the two is incredibly thin. All too often, the effort to protect something requires that something else be destroyed. This is most obviously seen in war, when armies do battle. Usually with both sides claiming justice; all claiming that their goal is to protect. And all the while, more destruction rains down. Sometimes, it reaches even what’s being protected; the old joke “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” is a classic for a reason.

But then, where can the line be drawn? Just yesterday, I watched the eleventh Pokémon movie, Giratina and the Sky Warrior. (It’s on again tomorrow, February 15th, at 1900 hours. Although I will spoil a good deal of the plot, so if you want to watch it, I’d read this after you do so.) And interestingly enough, the story of a reversed world and its role had plenty to say about the line between destruction and protection.

The villain of this tale was a man named Zero. Who knows why someone would actually be called by that name, but whatever. And his goal was to take control of the Reverse World by basically taking power from the Reverse World’s sole inhabitant, Giratina. Sacrificing that legendary Pokémon in the process, of course.

But he of course had his noble motives. You see, the fight between Dialga and Palkia from the tenth movie (I didn’t know the Pokémon movies had this much continuity…) had put strain on space-time, and the Reverse World was relieving this strain. The results of this process were fairly severely polluting the Reverse World. And Zero billed himself as its defender, working to prevent the real world from polluting the Reverse World any further.

The strain is visible. Protection, or destruction? Or both? For Zero’s plan, a fairly major amount of destruction was called for. To protect the Reverse World, the real world would have to be destroyed. To even get there with the power to do anything, Giratina would have to be destroyed. In this specific case, it’s fairly obvious where Zero falls. In actually watching the movie, the sheer madness is obvious more than any desire to protect.

Likewise, the heroes are also fairly apparent. But still, the line between protection and destruction exists. By trying to stop Zero’s efforts, Ash and his friends (along with the titular Sky Warrior, Shaymin) were basically saying that the pollution of the Reverse World was acceptable. Along with, of course, doing indescribable amounts of damage to Zero’s Pokémon and assorted gadgetry.

So why is it that the destruction endorsed by the heroes is acceptable while the destruction of the villain isn’t? What is it about their actions that makes them better than Zero? There are a number of answers to that question.

Some philosophies dictate that the massive amount of destruction that Zero would have caused versus the smaller amounts that the heroes caused in the end justify their actions. That purely weighing the different sides of the balance show how Zero’s actions were worth stopping. Likewise, Zero was protecting an abandoned world in which only he would live while the heroes protected the real world and all of its people. That’s a perfectly valid answer to that question.

Personally, though, I prefer the one rooted in intent. Zero’s intent wasn’t really to protect. Sure, he tried to claim that he was protecting the Reverse World. And it’s certainly even true that his actions would have stopped the pollution of the Reverse World. But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to forcibly take power from Giratina, killing it in the process. He wanted to rule over the Reverse World and destroy the real one. He wanted to destroy.

While the heroes? The heroes at all points were protecting something. Ash and his friends spent much of the movie trying to protect Shaymin, or at least accompanying it when it didn’t really need protection. They put no small amount of effort into protecting the real world, of course. Even more, they knew that it was sadly the natural order of things for the Reverse World to react as it did to the strain on space-time. It can even be said that they were trying to protect the natural order of things. They wanted to protect.

And when Giratina was at Zero’s mercy, Ash, Dawn, Brock, and Shaymin put no small amount of effort into protecting it: a legendary Pokémon that they had actually fought earlier in the movie; one that certainly had no real desire to help them at the time. Shaymin had been terrified of Giratina earlier in the movie; now, Shaymin nearly exhausted itself helping Giratina.

Intent and the will to carry it out can change the future. As such, intent must be where morality is rooted. There are those with the desire to destroy. They can claim that they’re protecting something: Hitler can say that he was protecting the German people; Zero can argue that he was protecting the Reverse World. But intent is what matters: Hitler wanted to rule the European world, Zero wanted to rule the Reverse World.

And if the heroes have to engage in destruction to stop them, then so be it. If the Allied Nations have to engage in World War II to protect the free world; if Ash and Shaymin have to accept the pollution of the Reverse World, then so be it. The line is indeed thin between destruction and protection. And in so many cases, both will be seen at once.

But it can be determined who is in the right. Destruction may be all too common, on all sides of a conflict. And in many of those conflicts, the intent of each side is paramount. Whether to claim protection in order to destroy, or carry out destruction in order to protect… I know which side I fall on. I will make no excuses. I will destroy if I must. But I will do no more than I must, and I will remember why I act in that way.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Need for Honest Effort

In some cases, I know that I’m going to make a two-part post before I even start writing. Not so this time; I realized about two minutes ago that I could extend what I said last week. (Well, two minutes before I started writing, anyway.) And really, it’s more that I realized I could use similar titles than a realization that I had more to say.

Regardless. Last week I discussed some of the rewards that I found in the effort I put into Pokémon. But there’s more than that in what video games have to say about effort and hard work, at least for me. You see, like many activities, video games offer rewards to dedicated players.

It’s visible all over: the amount of effort required to even clear a lot of games is almost enough right there. The idea of an “achievement”, first seen in Xbox titles, has spread all over the community of Internet flash games, even spawning a parody game (Achievement Unlocked, produced by Armor Games, link to that has nothing but such achievements. Even after clearing a game, usually there’s even more to do for 100% completion (link to TVTropes). And unsurprisingly, these kinds of rewards for reaching goals, even if those rewards are nothing but the satisfaction of success, do encourage the kind of motivation and effort that can translate into all areas of life.

And an excellent example of one game in which this applies more than any other is Dance Dance Revolution. Dance Dance Revolution (or just DDR) is a kind of rhythm game where the challenge is to respond to a song being played. Predictably, having a good sense of rhythm is unendingly helpful when playing these games. DDR in particular is a dancing game, in which the player has to step on arrows on the ground in response to the arrows on the screen. The game, like most rhythm games, thus requires a special controller to play. In this case, a pad with four arrows on it.

The difficulty ranges from really easy to insanely hard. The songs with difficulty levels around one or two are usually easy enough for anyone to handle, while songs up at eight or nine usually cause people unfamiliar with DDR to stop and stare. The legendary level ten songs are usually impossible for just about anyone, even experienced players. The odd thing about all of that, though, is that surprisingly enough, it requires no small amount of practice and effort to become any better at the game.

I can barely even remember when I first tried DDR. I know it was in an arcade somewhere, and I seem to recall being immensely proud of myself after doing a really easy song. That lasted about until I finished, and the person waiting for the arcade machine got up and played a song that was much, much harder than anything I had attempted. Better yet, it seemed like every time I went to the arcade, there was a large crowd of skilled players around the machine, and I didn’t dare interrupt them.

Because of this, I wasn’t really getting any practice. I wasn’t improving significantly at all. Now, I certainly could have just written it off as unimportant and done something else. Certainly, there are plenty of people in the world who write off video games in general as unimportant. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get better at DDR; I harbored my dream of being able to one day walk up to such a crowd and force my way in on the basis of my skill. And I knew that if I wanted that, I had to practice.

I could have backed down overall. I certainly could have just thought about that dream and satisfy myself with those thoughts. But that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. Setting a goal or having a dream is only the first step. It’s a first step that’s meaningless without the willpower and effort to make it happen. I could have saved my money and my time for other pursuits. But all of life is making choices and allocating resources to the goals and dreams that we possess. And in this case, I chose to put my effort into realizing this dream.

In addition to the arcade versions, there are DDR games sold for home consoles as well. So I went out and got the only available DDR game for the only major console I had at the time: DDR Mario Mix for the Nintendo Gamecube. And I practiced and (slowly) improved. Unknowingly, I had bought a DDR game that was easier than most other available games; I can’t say whether or not this affected my development.

I eventually got to the point where I wasn’t being challenged anymore by any of the songs on that game. By this time, we had an Xbox as well (still in the previous generation), so the obvious solution was to pick up one of the DDR games for that system. After getting DDR Ultramix 3 as a gift, my improvement continued.

Two more recent events have shown the culmination of all of this effort. My old high school held a talent show every year, and by the time that my senior year rolled around, I was confident enough in my ability (and encouraged by all of my friends) to play DDR for the crowd. I chose what is known as a “boss song”, one of the insanely difficult songs that on the hardest difficulties are almost always difficulty level ten. I did not play at that level, instead going for the level nine difficulty just below that.

It went about as well as could be expected. I missed all of three steps in a lightning fast song that demands quite a lot in terms of physical ability. And I led off the talent show in style as the first act; according to some of my friends in the audience, I drew at least a partial standing ovation. I had gained the respect and admiration of a crowd far larger than I had ever dreamed of performing for.

Much later, at a club meeting for video game players at Brandeis (yeah, CGX shout out!), two highly skilled club members had brought a DDR game on the computer (not technically called such, but it might as well have been the same thing) that several members were enjoying immensely, including myself. And with a massive selection of songs from any number of different DDR games, I had a lot to choose from.

Near the end of the meeting, I found the song that I had played for the talent show in the list, a song called The Legend of MAX. And I decided that, since I had improved in the intervening months, it couldn’t hurt to try it on its highest difficulty. Yet again, I stood in front of a crowd of people and demonstrated my skill. One cleared level ten song later, I had finally reached that goal that I had set so long ago.

And now? Now I can do things like, well, the video below.

That’s a level ten song on DDR SuperNova for the PS2, called Xepher. (Obviously, I was the one dancing in that video.) I’ve cleared six level ten songs since then, and I’m still practicing. The nature of songs of this difficulty means that really, one has to individually break down each one. Unlike at the lower difficulties, where the ability to clear one level nine or level eight song usually translates into the ability to clear most of them, level ten songs usually require a lot of individual practice before they become possible.

It took me about a year to get from being a complete novice to being able to handle level eight or nine songs. And it took me about another year of practice after that to finally clear a level ten song. For the truly motivated, video games like Dance Dance Revolution aren’t just a waste of time; they’re a skill in their own right, one that like any other requires time and effort (that is to say, practice) to master.

And over the years that I improved, there were so many chances for me to turn back. Either before I got any DDR game, or before I got Ultramix 3, or just at any time to get tired and quit. But nothing in life works that way. Not Dance Dance Revolution, not my classes, not my extracurricular activities, nor anything else. If one has a dream, one has to put in the effort and the will to make that happen. And that’s a lesson that if nothing else is reinforced by the challenges presented by the video games that I play.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Rewards of Honest Effort

In today’s world, Internet connectivity for video games has progressed past a novelty into a requirement. Almost all decent multiplayer games have a system in place to connect with other human players anywhere in the world these days. But that isn’t always enough. In most cases, these systems will have limitations, especially Nintendo’s systems. Without having other ways of communication, without knowing a person in some other manner, it is usually impossible to connect with that person over a Nintendo game on the Internet.

Thus, the need for other means of game play. There are programs that can be downloaded that replicate certain functions of games and allow these competitions to be held online with less restriction. Not just video games, either; there are systems that emulate things like trading card games as well, to allow their play over the Internet.

I’ve tried some of these emulators. As a Pokémon trainer, when I learned about the world of competitive battling for that game, I wanted to try my hand at it. So I got a simulator called Shoddy Battle (their website is here, for the curious) which has as its stated goal “to create and maintain… a computer program that offers an online RPG battle experience similar to one found in the Pokemon games.”

And honestly enough? I don’t really like using it all that much. Now, before I continue, I want to make it abundantly clear that this dislike has nothing to do with the program itself or with any of the people involved. The program works beautifully; the people I’ve battled have (usually) been fine people and a fine challenge for my skills. No, after some personal examination, I’ve come to realize that my dislike has to do with the idea of using a simulator in the first place.

When it comes to Pokémon battle, there are two major parts to the planning. In the real world, strategy is generally long-term planning for a wider situation, while tactics are more immediate methods in a single battle. Pokémon is divided much the same, with the art of team building alongside the actual use of that team in battle. Both are highly complicated affairs for which experience is a major asset.

And when actually playing the game, both require a lot of effort and skill to properly manage. As I write this, I’m laying initial plans for a new competitive team. Even after I finally decide on what Pokémon I’m actually going to use, which is a challenge all to itself, I’ll still have to get those Pokémon with the right natures (natures affect their statistics) and train them properly to optimize those statistics for each Pokémon’s given role. This is a process that will likely take up several hours of game play, spread over days or even weeks, in its completion.

Once all of that is done, I’ll start battling with them and figure out what works and what doesn’t, along with having to deal with the fallout from any mistakes that I make. Each battle will be a challenge all its own, as I’ll have to figure out how to deal with anything that comes my way. And more often than not, I’ll probably fail and end up losing, as competition between human players is something for which experience is important… and I don’t have much of that yet.

But after all of that effort, I get its due reward. I do have a team designed for competitive battling already, after all. And yes, it did take a lot of effort to set up on my game card. It isn’t the greatest team in the world, but it is mine. After all of that effort, there is nothing I enjoy more in the Pokémon games than bringing it out (usually on Pokémon Battle Revolution for the Wii, since I can battle random people over the Internet with that) and trying my level best to take down the opposing team.

I have also constructed a competitive team on Shoddy Battle for use on that program. And after battling with it several times, I started to notice that I didn’t really enjoy those battles as much as the ones I did with the actual game. It eventually got to the point where I all but ceased using the simulator entirely; I haven’t really logged on to that for a while. And I think it has to do with the effort involved in using the simulator.

There’s a reason why I emphasized that the team I built on my Pokémon Diamond game card was mine. After I spent the amount of time that I did, and invested the effort that I did in creating it, I feel like that team has become more than just a few Pokémon that I trained. There’s more than just that time and effort in them now. I feel like I’ve invested a part of myself in that team.

And when I battle with that team that I built, I feel like I’m displaying that; I feel like I’m putting my effort forward for the world to see. The people that I have challenged probably aren’t too impressed with my effort, but that was never the point. I enjoy battling with my Pokémon; I enjoy challenging myself in attempting to lead them to victory.

The problem is… I don’t get that feeling from dueling on the simulator. I haven’t put much effort into creating that team. I still had to decide what Pokémon to use and what roles they would play, yes, but once those decisions were made the rest was nothing more than clicking buttons to do what took me hours in the actual game. The feeling that that team is a result of my effort just isn’t there.

I have no doubt that there are people who would dismiss much of that as irrelevant; this isn’t the Pokémon anime show, in which the relationship between a trainer and his or her Pokémon is of paramount importance. But until computers can simulate the kind of interaction between trainer and Pokémon that is seen on the show­­, I think that what I feel playing with the team that I built is as close as I can possibly come to that same camaraderie.

And maybe it is irrelevant. It certainly doesn’t affect game statistics; in fact, the Pokémon team I constructed on the simulator is superior in that respect, because I have more power to alter certain aspects of the Pokémon on that than I do in the game. But there are still rewards for that effort that I put in. There is a sense of joy that I haven’t found elsewhere, in taking the results of my work and pitting it against the work of other trainers.

Finally, I turned on Pokémon Battle Revolution and played a few battles against people that I’ll likely never see again just a few days ago. It was as enjoyable as it always is, despite the loss that I took. In contrast, I haven’t activated Shoddy Battle for several months now. That, more than anything else in my opinion, shows what my rewards are for the effort I put in. Maybe it’s only me, but I take pride in that effort, and that gives both the results and the process of that effort a joy that I haven’t found without it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Past and the Future

Going back to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, another thing that only really becomes apparent late in the series is how annoying linear time is, at least for the villain. We all know how that works: the past has already happened and cannot be changed; the future is unknown and affected by the events that come before it. And it was both of those facts that created a problem for Precia, the primary villain of the series.

Decades before the events of the actual series itself, Precia had an important research position and a daughter named Alicia. That said, though, she was conducting illegal experiments, and in true mad scientist illegal experiment fashion, those experiments ended in a catastrophe. When the dust settled, she was exiled from the city and her daughter was dead. That was her past, the events that came before.

But then, what future became of that chaos? With Alicia gone, Precia descended into madness. She chased after myths and legends in an effort to change what had come before, in a manner that promised yet more harm and suffering to anyone nearby. Essentially, Precia chose to ignore the future, to change her future by reclaiming her past rather than by moving forward. And it was that desire that created all of the problems in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

There are people much like her in the world today. There are those who look at their past and see nothing but regret, nothing but events that need to be changed. Unlike Precia, they usually aren’t villains that end up causing more harm, but they share her anguished lament of “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be!” For better or for worse, it is a reaction to loss and sorrow.

But it can be carried too far. The past will not change, no matter how much one laments on what could have been different. As Crono Harlaown, one of Nanoha’s allies in that final battle, put it, nothing’s ever the way it’s supposed to be. Nothing is ever perfect, and anyone who wants to find only what could have been done differently will be paralyzed for months, doing nothing but regretting the mistakes they’ve made.

What, then, can we do? How can we balance learning from the past with having a positive effect on the future? No one should become completely consumed by taking back their mistakes. We will all make them, and we can’t demand of anyone that they put things back to the way they were. Sometimes, such a restoration back to the original order will be impossible, as it was for Precia.

We cannot change the past, and we cannot always reclaim it. Because of that, we need to focus on what we can change. When mistakes are made, we can’t look to the past and try to reclaim the world before those errors. We need to look ahead. Move ahead, to the future that is shaped by the events that come before. The events of the past will remain in place, so all we can do is look to the future and create those events that will bring about a better one.

Precia had her attention fixed on the past. She stated, “I’m going to change what was, and create a brand new future for me and Alicia!” I find that statement more than any other to be a contradiction. She may have wanted a different future, but she didn’t pay it any mind. She was devoted to changing the past, not the future. The problem was not in the events of her past but rather in herself.

Statements like that have no place in the creation of the future. A fixation on the regrets of the past is no help in forging a better future. We may not be able to change the events of the past, but we can change and shape the events of the future. And thus, it is on that future that our attention must fall.

The choice is one presented to anyone who has ever lost something, whether it be a few hours of play time from forgetting to save before quitting all the way up to the people that are important to us. We can fixate on that loss, and pine for what was. With some lesser events, we can try to exactly recreate what we lose, as one could with a video game. We can allow our own lives, and reality as a whole, to lapse in our grief over what is no longer there.

Or we can take that loss and build a new future even with it. We can play the game again, not caring for what exactly happened the first time but enjoying the second no less. We can fondly remember our losses yet move forward with our lives anyway, learning and changing from the events around us and doing what we think is important. Those losses and that past will always be with us, and shouldn’t be ignored. But they do not deserve our entire focus.

I know what I would prefer when I leave this world, as I no doubt will one day. That could happen tomorrow; it could be a hundred years in the future. But when I do, I would not want to see the people around me overly devastated by grief. I would not want to be completely forgotten. If I could, I would want to see those around me remembering yet moving on. Looking to the future even with the losses of the past.

Again in the words of Crono, we can choose to run away from reality, or we can face it head on. We can take our losses and mistakes of the past and make them part of our future. We can choose to not let our grief and regret rule our future, but rather make them a part of our future. We can carry the past, which will remain unchanged, and look to the future, which can be changed.

To create a better future, to truly do what Precia was trying to do in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, both the past and the future will be important. The past will inevitably be part of our future, but so too will our decisions and our outlook be important. And as long as only one of those can be changed, then I know what I’ll focus on. Not the past, as Precia chose, but the future.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Security and Responsibility

The games that bear the title of Command and Conquer are usually hailed as welcome additions to the list of real-time strategy games available. And they deserve that acclaim, too: the games are enjoyable and challenging additions to that genre of games. Lately, though, Electronic Arts, the company that is behind the latest Command and Conquer games, is coming under fire from consumers for something completely unrelated to the quality of the games.

I personally own one of the latest additions to the series, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3. After playing it for a while, I find it to be an enjoyable and challenging game, one that certainly lives up to the Command and Conquer title. The tone does border on the ridiculous at times, what with the introduction of Empire of the Rising Sun and its army of Gundam-style transforming mech units alongside other crazy units from the series standard Allies and Soviet sides, but that doesn’t reduce the tactical challenge any.

So after all that, I must say I was somewhat surprised to see the average rating of the game on With 154 total reviews, the average rating was a mere two stars out of five. (I got those numbers at 1617 hours on 12-31-08.) This alongside a review from giving the game an A- grade. I was pretty curious as to why the Amazon reviewers seemed to dislike the game so much; I certainly hadn’t found that much to dislike.

Well, as it turns out, there is a digital rights management system called SecuROM that Electronic Arts uses in an attempt to protect the game from piracy. And a good deal (not all of them, but many) of the negative reviews on Amazon never even mentioned anything about the game itself, only this security system that comes with the game. Now, I know I haven’t really had any problems with it. My computer hasn’t had any issues; the game runs without problems.

All the same, though, I do respect the decisions of people to refuse to buy the game with that system. After all, the power of the consumer in a capitalist economy is the power to choose what to support. If people want to refrain from buying the game, that’s fair. What I do have the problem with is the victim mentality that seems to be developing here. From what I can see, people are intent on punishing EA, because it’s the evil corporation that’s punishing innocent consumers with this restrictive system.

And frankly, that view makes little to no sense to me. It’s not just seen in the real world, either. From what I can see, some people have an interesting view of the way responsibility works, specifically who has responsibility for a given end result that develops. It’s not one that I agree with. Another example, this time from the annals of role-playing games, helps to illustrate what exactly I mean.

This is an example culled from the forums of Giant in the Playground Games; I have no idea who first proposed it. In this hypothetical scenario, a group of evil cultists are casting a ritual to summon a powerful demon to the world, a ritual which requires a human that the demon will possess. A group of heroic adventurers reach the room in which this ritual is being cast. That said, though, they are all but depleted, having fought through most of the cultists and their allies before reaching that room.

Knowing that the demon is far more powerful than they are, and fearing for the results if it is summoned, the adventurers must attempt to halt the ritual, but they don’t have the remaining strength or time to defeat the cultists that are actually casting the ritual. Thus, their choices are presented as a dichotomy: allow the ritual to complete and the demon to arrive, or kill the innocent human themselves to prevent the ritual’s completion.

Those presenting this scenario usually go on to argue that the morally correct choice is the second. The justification is presented thus: anything other than the assured halt to the ritual that that second option offers is tantamount to allowing the ritual to complete, allowing the demon into the world to wreak whatever havoc it likes. Furthermore, it is impossible to claim that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent, because refusing to do so makes the adventurers responsible for the summoning of the demon and any further havoc that it causes.

The idea that a third choice is present almost never comes up initially. Even when someone does ask, “Well, what about if they fight like all hell anyway, using more morally correct means,” the usual response is, “No, they’re still responsible for the ensuing chaos.” And again, we see this idea of responsibility. We see this idea that a group with limited resources and means that does its best within those bounds becomes the party responsible, regardless of who else is involved.

In the RPG scenario, with the demon, I cannot in good conscience give the adventurers much of the responsibility for the summoning, regardless of their choices. If they do their best within their bounds to halt the summoning and fail, then the responsibility falls primarily on the cultists that summoned the demon and the demon itself. Even if they stand by and do nothing, the responsibility still must be evenly split between them and the people who did the actual summoning.

Likewise, Electronic Arts is not the oppressor doing horrible things to the victimized consumers. Both EA and the consumer are the victims in this case, just as the adventurers and the populace are both the victims of the demon in the role-playing scenario. The analogue of the demon in the real world scenario is not Electronic Arts, but rather the people that lead EA to think that things like SecuROM are necessary.

Electronic Arts isn’t out to screw their customers over. Their stated intent (from the support section of their website) is this: “This solution serves to protect our software from piracy.” If we don’t like the digital rights management that EA put in its game, then we do have every right to refuse to buy from EA. But it seems to me that it would be more productive to go after the true root of the problem: the people that attempt to avoid paying for the game.

The customers may be the victims in this case, but Electronic Arts isn’t the demon that’s entirely responsible for attempting to add security to their games. The real demons in this case are the people that want to cheat EA out of what they deserve for producing such a good game. If such piracy could be shut down, then things like SecuROM wouldn’t be necessary. That seems like a better focus for our efforts than demonizing EA, when the true responsibility for this lies elsewhere.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Power of a Gentle Heart:
Part II: A Flawed Power?

For some people, the kindness that I illustrated in Nanoha Takamachi from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is nothing but weakness. People that act kind are weak, incapable of using their power to solve problems with violence. People that act kind are suicidal, because helping the enemy only delays or hinders one’s own cause. In the dangerous world of Dungeons and Dragons or on a battlefield of any kind, those emotions are nothing but a luxury that anyone who actually wants to win cannot afford to have.

And I can understand such accusations. I believe that they are rooted in nothing more than misunderstandings of what it means to act in that manner. Kindness, honor, and respect are never luxuries, and can be reconciled with the demands of wartime. The question can then be reversed: are we willing to make the effort to meet both the demands of violent conflict and the demands of gentler ways of life?

To some eyes, acting with kindness or honor means holding back. It means not using either one’s full strength, in an effort to be kind to an opponent, or refraining from the use of certain methods due to the demands of honor. Detractors then point to these values and say that they must be a luxury. With lives at stake, all our force and all our methods must be employed to defend them, regardless of the consequences, because anything else may put those lives at greater risk.

The first is clearly a misunderstanding. Showing respect and honor toward an opposing force never meant holding back. In fact, I would be extremely displeased with someone who intentionally held back and tried to call that respect. Respect and honor to an opponent are shown by treating them as equal and recognizing that by using all of one’s talent to fight.

And that is exactly what Nanoha did. Once she had resolved to fight Fate, she used everything she had. In fact, that was the first thing Fate took note of when she recovered late in the series: that Nanoha had always treated her as an equal. In that case, then, clearly the demands of kindness, honor, and respect are not completely opposed to those of conflict.

But what about limited methods? What about, for example, when a person (or a sylph. Insert shout out to Order of the Stick readers here…) refuses to kill on moral grounds? Or when a person refuses to commit an act that they think is dishonorable? Surely such restrictions are incompatible with the demands of a war. As Haley Starshine in Order of the Stick touched on (in this strip), surely such principles must give way to practicality.

And maybe there are times when that is the case. But then again, maybe the reason why those principles end up giving way is only because people aren't trying hard enough to hold to them. After all, the immediate fighting that Haley was drawn into wasn't ended by the defeat of the villain involved, unlike many D&D combat encounters. Rather, Celia, the sylph in question from Order of the Stick, brought about a solution that ended the warfare without betraying her principles. And starting with this strip, the immediate battle ground to a halt in favor of a more peaceful solution to the situation.

I may not be able to offer a certain statement about whether principles or practicality should give way in all situations; what I can say is that it will always be worth the try. Maybe those principles, such as the power of a gentle heart, will be incompatible with war. But one can never be certain until the attempt is made. If Celia hadn't tried to negotiate, it would have obviously failed to end the conflict; if Hinjo (in this strip, over 200 strips back as I type this) hadn't tried to talk to Miko, a surrender could never have happened. Whether it succeeds as it did for Celia, or fails as it did for Hinjo, surely the benefit of using this power, the possible end to the conflict in question (detailed in last week's post), is worth the risk.

One final problem that some see in reconciling conflict with kindness is the idea of helping even an enemy. Even the Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook that describes the highest level of good in that game, the Book of Exalted Deeds, states that healing is not inherently good because of the possibility that such power can be used for selfish or evil purposes. And it seems obvious: healing or otherwise helping an enemy seems like a foolish act to many, because if you do offer them aid, they will use it to further their ends - those same ends that you’re opposed to.

But then, why? Why would Nanoha go to help Fate knowing full well that unless Fate died there, they would have to fight again? Why would Harry Potter stop Sirius and Lupin from killing Peter Pettigrew in the third book of that series? And didn’t both of those acts backfire? Nanoha did end up having to fight Fate again, and Fate gained more of the power crystals that they were competing for. Had Nanoha not intervened, the plans of the villain would have been heavily set back. As for Harry Potter, it was Pettigrew that helped Voldemort to come back, so isn’t it the case that if he had stood by, they might not have had to deal with him again?

The past, however, is a tricky thing to pick apart. While the plans of the villain may have been set back in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Fate would have been killed had Nanoha not intervened… and it was Fate that saved Nanoha’s life later in the season. Who can say if Nanoha would have survived without showing that kindness to Fate? When you help someone, they usually remember that, and may very well respond in kind at a critical moment.

Similar events came to pass for Harry Potter as well. Much later in the seventh book, Harry was able to call on that past debt. With that example, though, the argument remains that Harry might not have been in that situation in the first place had he not acted as he did in the third book. But that is still only “might” not have. No one can say for sure what the consequences of one specific act are, or whether certain things might have happened anyway.

While that kindness and aid shown even to enemies can thus seem like it is a hindrance, it can end up becoming an important source of aid in the long term. Without the ability to know for certain what will happen in the future, why should it be a weakness to show kindness or respect to anyone? Without the ability to read the future, who can say when that favor might be returned?

Kindness, honor, respect… the power of a gentle heart will never be a weakness and can never be casually tossed aside. None of those require that one has to be stupid; none require that one submit to an enemy. Ultimately, the power of a gentle heart is the ability to remain in control; to preserve the emotions and attitudes that have their primary home in peacetime even when a fight breaks out. And it is that control, that power, that will bring any battle or war to an end faster than any weapon ever will - but only if we're willing to use it. So again I ask: are we willing to try to meet the demands of both superior firepower, necessary for a time of war, and the power of a gentle heart, necessary for a time of peace?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Power of a Gentle Heart:
Part I: To End a War

So due to the many references to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha on the TVTropes website, I started thinking that it would be nice if I could watch it myself. And thankfully, it was finally released on this side of the Pacific back in December. I bought it as soon as it came out, and have watched it several times since, both in the dubbed English and the subtitled Japanese. (Hopefully it goes without saying that there are about to be spoilers for that series.)

Now, this is not at first glance a series where the battles are resolved through love and kindness, the powers that one generally associates with the phrase “gentle heart.” Nanoha Takamachi’s preferred solution to most actual combat is much more reminiscent of the ideal of peace through superior firepower. With the several different ranged attacks she employed throughout the series, culminating in her only use of the mighty Starlight Breaker in the eleventh episode, it’s all too easy to think that she focuses on overpowering her foes.

And that view, while it has some valid points behind it, is ultimately wrong. The reason for that lies is the use of the phrase “most actual combat.” The battles themselves, taken individually, are never really resolved through anything other than firepower. (Or in later duels, the flight of one side or the other.) From Fate’s first knockout of Nanoha with her Photon Lancer, all the way to their final fight, the battles ended with one side or the other being knocked out or driven away.

But any competent strategist should be able to see that individual battles aren’t what really matter. There’s a reason why the saying “lose the battle, win the war” exists, and that’s because it’s the overall victory that matters. And it is the power of a gentle heart, the power of kindness, that brought about that overall victory in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. When we look at how Nanoha conducted her little personal war with Fate Testarossa over the course of the series, it becomes much more clear just how powerful kindness can be.

Nanoha didn’t want any harm to come to Fate. At first glance, such a position would seem impossible to maintain, considering the number of times they had to fight one another. But the key concern for Nanoha was never to kill Fate. Rather, Nanoha’s goal for most of the series was to re-secure the ancient artifacts that were causing havoc in her area. The only reason that she fought Fate at all was because they were both trying to take possession of those artifacts.

And as the series proceeded, it became abundantly clear that Nanoha was never solely devoted to defeating Fate in battle. It became ever clearer that all Nanoha wanted was to break through the walls of solitude that Fate had put up around herself. In the seventh episode, she insisted on getting only one thing if she actually defeated Fate: a chance to talk to her. In the eighth, she stood in the way of a newcomer about to fire on Fate. Neither is consistent with the idea that Nanoha solves her problems through superior firepower alone; if that was the case, why would she take so little from Fate in victory or intervene to protect her?

The ninth episode of the series confirms once and for all that Nanoha truly possessed the power unique to a gentle heart. When Fate overstressed her power and was about to burn herself out, her more pragmatic superior ordered that they do nothing, and wait until Fate went down before moving in. Nanoha proceeded to refuse that direct order, and moved to aid Fate rather than watch her die. In a truly stunning act of kindness, she went to aid the person she had fought with several times already and agreed to evenly split the artifacts gained, rather than fight over them.

At this point, though, the war between Nanoha and Fate had not been concluded. Neither the firepower of Nanoha’s ally nor the kindness of Nanoha herself had truly solved the conflict once and for all. Again, however, it certainly does appear that the final conclusion was settled by firepower, by the knockout blow delivered by Nanoha’s Starlight Breaker. And again, the battle may have ended in that fashion, but the kindness and respect that Nanoha showed to Fate was far more important.

After all, Nanoha didn’t kill Fate. Even after hitting Fate with her final attack, she made sure that Fate wasn’t killed as a result. And when Fate finally recovered, it was that kindness and that respect that she remembered. It was that kindness and respect that not only kept Fate from striking back at Nanoha but also led her to go and help Nanoha. It was superior firepower that ended most individual battles in their war, but it was a different kind of power that ended the war entirely.

It’s as true anywhere else. Unless one side or the other is completely and totally annihilated, there are still going to be people on both sides of the divide when all is said and done. And those people are going to remember how they were treated, both during and after the conflict. Individual battles will never end a war until those battles become apocalyptic. It is the power of a gentle heart, the power of kindness, respect, and honor, that ends a war. And far more importantly, it is that power that acts as a shield against a future conflict.

If at the conclusion of a war, one side feels slighted or mistreated, future conflict is all but inevitable. If nothing else, the path from the First World War to the Second demonstrates that fact. But if the victor has acted with respect, honor, and even kindness throughout, defeat does not have to be humiliation and does not have to lead to future conflict. This is why the power of a gentle heart, all too often ignored or dismissed, is such an essential part of even a nation at war.

That said, though, some argue that this power is actually a luxury or even a weakness… but that’s an issue for next week.