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.