Internet Memes are Destroying Civilization!

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? Part 6
(read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

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My last post was on happiness, this is the exact opposite.

As you all know by now the US has elected a ultra right wing dictator wannabe who the only hope he gives to continued freedom in this country is that he has no idea what the hell he is doing.

This comes just months after the UK did something extremely stupid and voted to leave the European Union.

Both were campaigns built on lies, both were billed as “protest votes” of the status quo.

Both got their start as internet memes.

Nobody thought the UK would vote to leave Europe, the very idea was ludicrous. At the same time nobody thought an illiterate celebrity would become President of the United States.

And yet here we are. Both results created overnight economic recessions that we may never recover from.  The desire to “stick it to the man” is a universal one, but sticking it to the man is not smart when “the man” signs your paychecks.

But don’t think this is isolated to just the US and UK. Awful people and policies are being voted on around the world for the same reasons.

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The Role of the Internet Press

Old fashioned media is dying. News today is all about the click bait, paid advertising, and getting eyeballs and email subscribers. The internet is becoming filled with “humor” websites that just rehash lists and funny news stories from two or more years ago (so you forget if you already read it) and turn them into slideshows that slow your internet down with advertisement gifs and videos.

(Personally, if one of these sites publishes something I am interested in, I will just google the title and find the original story sans ads, or barring that, right click and view source and see all the slideshow text right there buried in the code. But I digress.)

The thing is, the news is driven by clicks and memes. If a story can’t generate clicks, it goes unreported.

Brexit generated clicks in the UK, people were fascinated by the idea of Britain without Europe. Eventually they lost site of the fact that it was a really bad idea, but less educated working class thought it might be fun to try something different.

Similarly, Donald Trump generated clicks in the US. For some reason, people have this myth that if we ran government like a business, it would work better, and therefore a businessman should run government.  No one bothered to find out that it NEVER works! Every businessman elected to high government office has failed miserably. I give you Governor Evan Mecham as a typical historical example.

It is estimated that Trump got $4 Billion in free air time from the complicit American media.  In a campaign season that cost $5 Billion, that is a lot of free advertising.

The media wouldn’t report on Trump so much if it didn’t bring in clicks. TV news got higher ratings with Trump, and internet based news got millions in new ad revenue.

The media is not going to turn that kind of money down in the interest of equal time.

For that reason, I blame the media — all of it, both “liberal” and “conservative” — for Trump’s victory.

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Memes are Ruining Democracy

The term “meme” originated from the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The  meme is a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, and like a gene the best ones replicate themselves into human culture.

Memes have always been a part of US politics. From “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” to “Yes We Can” the meme has been a major factor in elections. And they are not always positive. “Daisy“was a negative meme that won Lyndon Johnson the White House in 1964.

With the internet, memes find a huge petri dish to replicate rather rapidly into millions, sometimes billions of minds.

In an article in the Guardian by Daniel Haddow, he makes the case that this petri dish has a major negative effect on intelligent discourse:

What’s novel here is an inversion of control – political memes are no longer rare flashes of uncensored personality or intensely manicured visual messages. They are now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up. They have grown into a form of anarchic folk propaganda, ranging from tolerable epigrams to glittering hate-soaked image macros akin to a million little rogue Pravdas.

Like me, you probably have more than a few Facebook friends who make it their life’s work to circulate political memes in hopes of influencing how you see the world. They are our deadbeat uncles, former co-workers and long-forgotten high school acquaintances. They are agents of nowhere, apparatchiks of nothing in particular. And through the raw power of mass replication, even their most insipid ideas are able to surface from below. By typing some text on an image and sharing it with friends, they too have a voice capable of reaching a critical mass.

The reason why it is now possible for Darryl from Accounting who hates “social justice warriors” to have the same communicative power as a television network is down to the DNA of the medium: speed and lack of gatekeepers. Memes thrive on a lack of information – the faster you can grasp the point, the higher the chance it will spread.

He then links to a Breitbart article written by  propagandist Milo Yiannopoulos (a very pro-Trump web site) which explains the use of meme warfare, or as he calls it “Meme Magic” in getting Trump all that free publicity:

Trump’s supporters have treated the campaign as one long trollfest. First Jeb, then Marco and finally Lyin’ Ted all stumbled and fell before the chaotic power of Trump’s troll army. Facing a hilarious combination of in-jokes, YouTube remixes, and Photoshop mashups, Trump’s opponents were subjected to non-stop ridicule from the cultural powerhouses of the web.

The internet made them look stupid. The internet made them look weak. And what begins on /pol/ and leaks out into Twitter has a way of colouring media coverage and, ultimately, public perception, even among people who don’t frequent message boards.

The power of Trump’s branding is partly down to the media’s hunger for drama — but it’s also in large part due to his internet supporters, who have an uncanny ability to create and popularize cultural tropes. Or, as we on the internet have come to know them, memes.

Haddow continues:

At their most basic, meme warfare presented an opportunity for individuals to seize control of the means of media production from corporate interests. It was a viral and open-source medium that would allow individuals to compete for attention against the all-consuming hydra of advertising, marketing and public relations.

This line of thinking was, in retrospect, breathtakingly naive. It assumed that the act of meme generation by a non-corporate entity would be innately good. Like many instances of the tech-centric idealism, it would unravel in spectacular fashion. It’s not that anti-corporate activists were wrong about how the internet could be leveraged to change politics – it’s that they were terribly right.

To Meme or Not To Meme

The success of internet trolling in shaping the debate in this election will go down in history as a watershed moment.

Do we condemn it? Or do we create an actual meme war — debate social issues with nothing but memes devoid of intellectual honesty as long at it infects the viewers brains.

Science and rational, logical thought should be the tools of debate.  Meme warfare has undermined rational though in favor of easy tag lines, which are often false (“England is better off without Europe”) or too simplistic and unrealistic (“Let’s build a wall”).

George Orwell was absolutely right! “Newspeak”, the language of propaganda and control, is now alive and well in internet memes.

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Memes are a Symptom of Democracy Run Amok

Back in the 90’s I was big into philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s Republic parts 8 and 9, Plato describes the tendency for different forms of government to morph into others. History has proven Plato right time and time again. His most upsetting is the transformation from democracy to tyranny:

“Can liberty have any limit? Certainly not…By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses…The son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom…Citizens…chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority… they will have no one over them…Such…is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny…Liberty overmasters democracy…the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction…The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty… “

So what does this mean? I’ll explain shortly in more modern terms.

But first, Andrew Sullivan took this as a starting point in an excellent article written in May of this year, which turned out too prescient: Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic

Democracy to Tyranny in the Internet Age

The internet has democratized media, putting every poster, blogger, and vlogger in charge of the news to their followers. This ultimately created “bubbles” of followers who follow their favorite internet media stars to the exclusion of actual researched and vetted information.

These “bubbles”  have their own version of reality often very at odds with actual reality: “Obama is a secret Muslim!”,  “Immigration is killing our jobs!”,  “The government is hiding space alien corpses at Groom Lake!”, “The “rapture” will happen soon so we don’t need to worry about the environment!”

The mainstream media no longer has control of public conscience, and as a result there is no common understanding of “facts”. Civilization requires a common understanding among its citizens.

Once lies become widespread among many bubbles, it becomes a substitute for the actual facts, thus a new fantasy reality is born.

We have self sorted ourselves into different groups who live in different realities and moralities. It is no longer possible for people living in one reality to communicate with members of another reality and convince them of anything.

Eventually, as Plato predicted, one “reality” will become tired of the belittling of its fantasy reality and will seek a tyrant to impose the “new reality” on the unenlightened.

Democracy becomes a dictatorship. Trump has all the qualities of a tyrant, if we let him become one.

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The Internet is No Longer a Reliable Source of Anything

Since I wrote this a new chapter has arisen in this drama. “Fake News” is being blamed for Trump. Specifically, Facebook and Google’s complicity in spreading fake news reports without identifying them as fake.

At the start of this series, I mentioned that the internet as it currently stands is predominantly controlled by a handful of websites. Facebook, Google and Wikipedia are among them.

The problem with this consolidation is it reduces what it takes to control the truth. This TED talk explains “astroturfing” or fake grass roots movements to control “research” with marketing.

Google is trying to do its part by cutting off paid advertising on fake news sites, thus cutting off their main source of income. Considering how easy it is for fake news to bubble to the top of Google News, I am not sure it is enough.

Facebook is quietly figuring out what to do. Earlier this year it was revealed that Facebook adjusts their “trending” list based on the readers perceived biases. This caused a bit of a conservative backlash which halted moves to expand the program to keep “fake news” from trending. Due to their complicity in creating “President Elect Trump” they will no doubt do something eventually.

As the video above points out, Wikipedia has its own problems with what is truth and what is fake.  They are supposed to have their own safeguards, but increasingly it is not working out that way.

And so we are left with a conundrum: Where can we get the truth? An even worse conundrum: How do we survive in a world where the “majority” believes the lies?

Happiness: A Reminder

My personal life is a bit in chaos right now, and it doesn’t help that here in America we have been going through over a year of added stress with election stuff.  I feel I need a reminder of what is REALLY important, and so I am rerunning (and updating) a trio of posts I made a few years ago on the subject of positive psychology and something we all crave: HAPPINESS!

Happiness 101 (Originally posted May 2010)

I learned the secret to life from my cat: Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be. Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff. They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

The American Dream Is Killing Us

I recently ran into a blog post that summarizes everything that is wrong with America. It is called The American Dream Is Killing Us and it points out that our American view of success and how to get it has been wrong for decades now, and yet many Americans (especially “boomers” who actually lived during an era when it was true) still stick to this fiction: With enough hard work anyone can be successful.

That hasn’t been true since the 1980s. According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant. Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings. Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest. The result is we are working harder for less.

The reality is that success requires luck, not hard work. The vast majority of rich people got that way by inheriting wealth, and the vast majority of poor people got that way by inheriting poverty.

Because of our belief that “With enough hard work anyone can be successful”, the rich are praised as good people and the poor are vilified as bad people. This belief is so common and so entrenched in our society, it has literally become the religion of most Americans!

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World delivers a similar message. The theme of Karate Kid, and many, many other American movies and TV shows, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, “All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month.” So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down

All of it comes back to having those massively skewed expectations of the world. Even the people you think of as pessimists, they got their pessimism by continually seeing the world fail to live up to their expectations, which only happened because their expectations were grossly inaccurate in the first place.

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”. In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you. Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

The solution to these false beliefs regarding effort and success is to redefine effort and success.  The correct solution  can be found in an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid:

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you can’t always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert. This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy. Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great. Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it. Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”. It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head. One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose. Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret. Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?” The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing. Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy. Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

Happiness 102 (Originally published March 2011)

Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure. Who would ever think that?

🙂🙂🙂

Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable. It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it. Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package. Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.

In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy. Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance. Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work. Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.

Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time. There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“.

My own attitude pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video. All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work. The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.

So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.

My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy. I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work. There are three reasons why people enjoy their work: 1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape. OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?

“Meaningful” hard work

Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say. The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run. (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).

Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting. Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.

Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)

Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something. Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say? Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.

But does it necessarily have to be service to others? In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it. And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery. Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not. So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards. We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.

Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people. Humans are social creatures, doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others. It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.

Finding a Purpose

We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli: money, praise, status, material goods, etc. The reality is that it does not. We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting. In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.

What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.

Motivating Hard Work

Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment. Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work. There are many misgivings about motivation. The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy. In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all. Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:

The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.

Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay. In the last essay the idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative effect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction. Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing? Not if you understand how they relate to happiness. Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process. Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.

Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.

We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point. The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a purpose, and pursuing this purpose our own way.

Are these two ideas contradictory? From an abstract point of view, yes they are. How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue? And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.

Any questions? Yeah, you in the front row…

“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff? What does it have to do with gaming?”

Actually, it has everything to do with gaming:

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review (Originally published March 2011)

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time. After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog. In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book? So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer. She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time. McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming. She believes the world is better off with more gamers. Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more. I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games. I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book. The first is the one that resonates the most for me: Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.

Consider what I wrote earlier about “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games. Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories. From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking. Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?

No, not according positive psychologists. Dan Gilbert himself says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.  See the video posted earlier.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality. McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds. She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality. The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes. She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading. I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work. More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues. McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil”.

In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil. The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities. Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world. But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them. Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21. That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming. The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of? She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess:

  1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.
  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.
  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.
  4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional. Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is. Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis. I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem. Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are. The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance. McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

So is the whole point of all of this that video games make us happy so we should just play video games all day?

Well, no it isn’t. The point of all of this is that what we think makes us happy and what really makes us happy are often very different things.

Things we think will make us happy are never as good as we like, especially if we spend a lot of time and effort we don’t enjoy to get it.

Things we think will make us miserable are never as bad as we imagine them to be.

So stop stressing. Stop worrying that you made the wrong decisions. Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

Time Travel Faux Paus

Timeless - Season PilotIt has been a while since I wrote anything, because there is a lot going on and I have other projects to work on, and really I have not thought of a good topic to write about.

And then I saw the TV show Timeless. This is a new show on NBC about a group of time travelers correcting history that another group of time travelers are changing for some reason. In the first two episodes they mess up and things actually get changed.

Despite decent acting, writing, research, and production values, Timeless is quite possibly the worst time travel show ever conceived. It’s motivations are unknown, its “rules” are absurd and inconsistent.

Are they trying to fix the past like on Voyagers? If so, they are doing a very poor job of it. There is also no explanation of their movement in space as they travel.  One episode in New Jersey, another in Washington. Every other time travel show sticks to the convention that you don’t go anywhere when you time travel.  The exception being Doctor Who’s TARDIS which takes the position that travel in time and space means different planets and galaxies, too.

Not knowing the motivations mean we cannot understand the characters mission, or whether or not they accomplished anything. All we know is that they are making changes to their present but only the time travelers realize this, so there is no motivation from anyone outside the time travelers perspective to correct history, ultimately making the shows premise pointless.

Time Rules

I have been intrigued by time travel stories all my life. Every story has to address certain rules and establish a motivation for time travel.  The biggest of which is: how does changing something in the past affect the future? and how do you deal with paradoxes?

The most common is “time is always set in stone”: In this scenario, if you go back and change something, you later find out you were always supposed to go back and make that change. Your actions are always a foregone conclusion. These are the rules of Star Trek and Quantum Leap.

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The second most common is “changing the past to make a better future” or the Back to the Future/Terminator rules: Making changes to the past will affect how the future plays out, and you can improve or ruin the future by the changes you make. Any changes you make basically creates a new alternative timeline, and you can even erase people from existence.

Back to the Future allowed time travel back and forth so you can see the consequences right away, so you can go back and try again — assuming you did not erase yourself from existence. Terminator only had one way, so the time traveler never knew the result of their actions, but for all its faults Terminator Genisys showed the silliness of that theory as two warring sides trying to use time as a weapon can push agents further and further back in time to achieve their goals.

Some of these “changing the past to make a better future” universes like Doctor Who create rules to prevent history from getting destroyed. In Doctor Who, there are “fixed point” events that cannot be changed as they would destroy time if they are avoided.

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The Best Rules

That is why in a way my favorite time travel story is Continuum. The show starts on the premise of Terminator rules, that you can go back and change some stuff to prevent a bad future. But in reality there is another simpler rule in place: causality only works in one direction — past to future. It’s rules regarding paradoxes are even better: paradoxes happen so get over it.

On Continuum, stopping another time traveler from being born in the past does not erase them from existence, because they were already born in another time line. This happened at least twice on the show.

Even more bizarre, if you go back in time just a week, there are now two of you and you are both real. If the person who is supposed to go back a week fails to do so, it does not erase the second person. This also happened at least twice on the show.

The premise of the show is that a group of “terrorists” go back in time to prevent a dystopian corporatocracy, but because of their mistaken ideas about time travel, their actions are only creating paradoxes for themselves.

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Frequency

Which leads to the best new time travel show this season: Frequency.  Based on a 1999 Dennis Quaid and Jim Cavaziel movie about a radio that allows communication through time, no one is actually traveling in time but knowledge of an action and its consequences are.

The show uses Continuum rules: paradoxes happen. It is also tied to a specific time and place which makes the stories more personal so no mucking about historical events. They have only aired one episode at this writing, but it is so far my favorite new show this fall.

The Innovative “No Man’s Sky”

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Just when I thought I was done talking about original and innovative games, No Man’s Sky comes out, which is very different than any game out there.

I got the PC version, whose launch was problematic. I got a pretty good gaming rig, and ended up with frame rate problems that plagued many players at launch. After updating drivers, disabling the steam overlay, and setting frame rate to “max” it got a lot better, but it still randomly freezes.  No doubt there will be patches to fix this stuff eventually.

But graphics problems were not the only complaint I heard. It seems a lot of people had a false idea about what this game was. For some reason, a lot of people thought the game was multiplayerHello Games never said this, and no it cannot be.

Here is what the game is: Using “procedural generation”, they built a universe of over 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets.  For comparison, the universe is comprised of 10 billion galaxies, which on average contain 10 billion stars, for approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. No Man’s Sky is about a 10th of the the size of the known universe, so adding code to make it multiplayer would be a complete waste of time, as the planets you visit are unlikely to be visited by anyone else.

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A procedurally generated landscape using Terragen.

What is “Procedural Generation”?

Procedural generation is the use of random numbers to make all the decisions, then using a known infinite random number, say the digits of pi, to create the same world every time.

This technique has been around a long time. Back in my Commodore 64 days, there was a space trading game called Elite that used procedural generation to generate the galaxies, the planet names, and the prices of commodities between planets.

Many other games use it to expand their game. The Sims 4 uses procedural generation to create new non player characters in the game. Star Trek Online uses procedural generation to create random missions in “unexplored” areas of the game.

And its uses are not just for gaming, Terragen is a program designed to create natural 3D environments. Many game developers will use programs like Terragen to create new maps, then edit them to the needs of the game. This is how “natural” environments in games these days feel more natural: they let the computer generate the placement of trees and bushes and boulders and grass.

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NMS: A “Procedurally Generated” Universe

In No Man’s Sky, every system, planet, resource, rock, creature, ship, etc are all randomly generated.

I have been to 6 planets so far. My first might have been my best as it was awash with caves filled with resources. The problem was I had to repair a ship that required a material that was “15 minutes” out of my way to obtain. The terrain was rough though, so it took a lot longer than 15 minutes. I think I spent 3 hours on that planet before my ship was repaired. At least it wasn’t boring or toxic.

Some of the other planets I have visited were boring or toxic. I found one awash with materials I could mine to get rich, but it was devoid of life. Another one had vast oceans, but some of the resources I needed were at the bottom of those oceans.

Procedural generation means you never know what you are going to get next.

The downside it this: After a while it all feels the same. Every planet has the same resources, the same bases, the same types of creatures. Even after exploring 6 planets, I already know what to expect on every other planet: mostly just slight variations of stuff I have already seen.

It kind of reminds me of exploring Second Life. In the early days, I could venture out and see new unexpected things people built, but after a while every lot had the same popular props and lots became generic.

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A very different RPG experience

Leaving the game up to procedural generation simultaneously enhances the gaming experience while also limiting it.

On the one hand, you have the biggest “sandbox” game ever made.  On the other, there are no NPCs to hand out side quests.  There are a set of “atlas core missions” which you will be invited to on your 4th or 5th hyper jump. A guy who got his hands on the game early said he finished these missions in about 10 hours.

Before and after that, this is a game where you make up your own missions.  Make money? Upgrade your ship? Upgrade your tools? Learn alien languages? Collect creatures for the exploration bonus? Find another way out of the cave you fell into? Battle a swarm of sentinel robots you have somehow managed to piss off? Become a “space pirate”?

As someone who likes to add stuff to my character definitions and not always stick to the prescribed path, I find this somewhat liberating. Many traditional “gamers” find it frustrating and are already giving the game bad reviews.  This game is definitely not for everyone.

Even for someone like me who can appreciate the game for what it is, I doubt my obsession with the game will last more than a week or so and it will drop to “fun diversion” like The Sims and Guild Wars have become: something fun to play for a couple of hours.

Ultimately, my impression is mixed. As a game that shows me something new and different and original, it deserves an A+, but as a game with long term playability potential, it is about a B-. It’s better than most games where once you complete the main game there is no reason to continue, but not as good as MMORPGs where you can roll a new character and experience content in a completely different way.

Edit to add: I watched a video of someone finally making it to the center of the galaxy only to find all it does is teleport you to a new slightly harder galaxy.  In other words, there really isn’t an end game to this game.

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I enjoy exploring. I found a planet I really like, and have been spending all my time on this one planet. I’m working on getting my ship and exosuit up to 48 slots, though for some reason I have yet to find ways to get better multi-tools.  I’ve unlocked over 100 Gek words.

Knowing there really isn’t much to do in this game outside of exploring puts a damper on my interest in venturing further.  It’s lack of an endgame means I probably have to give an overall grade of around “C”.  The game is not for everybody, and if it does not sound like a game you’d enjoy, I highly recommend waiting until the eventual price drop.

An Augmented Reality Dating Sim?

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With the huge popularity of Pokemon Go, it is inevitable that other “augmented reality” games might happen in the future.

I’m a fan of innovative games. Over the years I have seen innovations in games come and go.  Some have stuck around a long time, like first person shooters.

Others, like games for Kinect, kind of disappeared. Even the Wii controller with its motion control detection never got used to its full effect except by Wii Sports and a couple of other Nintendo titles.

The jury is still out on “Virtual Reality”.  Everyone thinks it could be the next big thing, but VR headset sales have not set any records.  Until a “killer app” arrives, adoption is likely to be lackluster. “Virtual Reality” could be the next big thing, or it could prove to be just an expensive novelty like Kinect. Billions of dollars are riding on this one, but that is another story.

I’m convinced that if it weren’t for the fact that everyone has a touch screen on their phone, touch screen based games would have disappeared by now. Tablet sales for Android and iOS are down across the board, so the only successful touch screen games are the ones that can be played for a few minutes at a time on a tiny phone screen.

And that is where “augmented reality” comes in. It takes advantage of the ubiquitous smart phones, almost all of which have cameras and GPS, and makes the real world part of the game.

Niantic, Inc. created the first fairly successful augmented reality called Ingress then after getting a license deal from Nintendo, they created the international hit Pokemon Go which in one month is the most successful mobile app ever.

The big question is: Is this just a momentary blip, or are “augmented reality” games here to stay?

Part of the answer lies in answering if other gaming genres could benefit by augmented reality. Pokemon Go was a natural fit, with people suggesting it during the early days of Ingress development. But can you imagine other genres of gaming benefiting from “augmented reality”?   If not, this whole thing could fizzle out in a year.

Could a Dating Sim work in Augmented Reality?

The only genre of gaming I am a certified expert in is Dating Sims, and after thinking about it an augmented reality dating sim could be very successful… Or not

On the “yes” side, may I put into evidence Love Plus, the wildly successful  Japanese dating sim for the Nintendo DS which included a couple of very simplistic augmented reality enhancements like the use of the built in microphone so you could say “I love you” to your virtual girlfriend, and use of the built in clock and calendar so you could schedule dates with your virtual girlfriend in real time.

Now imagine if the dating sim were enhanced the way Pokemon Go is. What if you had to go to an actual park, or bar or restaurant or gym or library to meet potential virtual dates? Google maps already has data like that labeled. What if your scheduled virtual dates involved actually going out to places like restaurants, parks, and theaters?

What if the game had 50 to 100 potential dateable characters (both male and female) with different personalities and looks, and you could potentially juggle multiple characters?

On the “no” side, fans of dating sims might not want to leave the house to play.

Still it’s a good idea that will probably happen eventually.

Augmented Reality is not a gimmick

That’s just one idea, there are plenty of others. There is already interest in a possible “Harry Potter GO” game.

I think a lot of people just like the idea of gaming in the real world as opposed to at home in front of a monitor.

That is not to say augmented reality will replace traditional gaming. I am 100% certain that will never happen. We fans of gaming like variety.

But my experiences with Pokemon Go has proven that games like this are fun experiences. The novelty has worn off so it is more of a casual game for me now, but it almost feels like that is exactly what it was designed to be.

Looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Date Ariane The Game: One Year Later

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This weekend marks the first anniversary of the release of the Renpy version of Date Ariane: The Game.

Since its release, it has been downloaded 2.7 million times, which is pretty darn good for an independently produced game. There may be some overlap as multiple versions were released, and people were updating, but in the same time frame I have had over 2 million unique visitors to the web site.

Some numbers: 55% were windows downloads, 38% were android downloads, 6% were Apple Mac, and 1% were Linux.

61% of the downloads were in English, 28% were in Portuguese, 8% in German, 3% in French, and 0.6% in Spanish.

Pretty impressive considering the foreign language versions have only been around since late March. The game has gone viral in Brazil, with 750,000 downloads from there in the last 4 months.

Date Ariane has a gaming channel on You Tube with over 100 videos listed. (almost all the most recent are in Portuguese). A general gaming search produces 473 videos currently.

I’m currently in the process of uploading new versions of the games that include over 100 new renders like the one above. Notice how the window reflects the interior now, which happens when it is dark outside. All the new renders are in the living room and the drive-in diner.

English version build 112 has a number of fixes and tweaks to game play covered in detail here.

I can’t change the international versions much without killing the translation mechanism, so the minor tweaks I made to the English version are not in the International versions. However, the improved pictures are there, and also a new TITLE SCREEN! Once released the French, German, and Portuguese versions will no longer say they are in beta.  More build notes and bug fixes here. All versions should be updated by the end of the month.

Something’s In The Air has now passed 500,000 downloads. There seems to be a lot of call for a Portuguese version, but it would need 6 to 10 translators to do it right. I could release a machine translation that I know everyone would hate.

Got some ambitious plans for the future, including a 6 episode season of stories involving Ariane and Rachel where this is the first episode. I’m also thinking about new games involving SITA girls Paula, Wendy, and Janice. (You are probably trying to remember who Janice was, aren’t you?)

I’m also considering an HD versions of Date Ariane and SITA that I could make available for sale on Steam or something, that would be made from high resolution PNG files like this one or this one.

I think I got my work cut out for me.

Rachel and Ariane GO to the Park

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I’ve caught so many Rattata and Zubats in my house, I’m thinking of calling the exterminators.

Pokémon Go

For those that don’t know, Pokémon Go is a phone based game that requires walking around the neighborhood. Landmarks (public works of art or unique signage) are marked as Pokéstops, where you can get free stuff, and also use lures there to attract Pokémon that anyone can catch.

There are also Pokémon Gyms located at major points of interest, churches, and libraries. These are where battles take place, and can be controlled by three teams: Instinct (yellow), Mystic (blue), and Valor (red). If a gym is controlled by a different team, you can attack it and try to take over for your team, if it is already controlled by your team, you can (if it has the space) leave your Pokémon to defend it, and get stuff if it stays defended for 20 hours.

In my mind, Ariane is on Team Valor (the red one), and probably owned the gym before Rachel successfully took it. So that’s the punchline.

General Strategy and what to buy and what not to buy

I have been playing two accounts, one on an iPad, and one on an iPhone. One I have not spent a single penny on, and one I’ve spent about $20 so far. Here are my findings. Note many of the numbers are arbitrary as neither character is very high in level.

Here ultimately is the thing you need to know in this game: There really isn’t an “end game”.  No goal to shoot for except maybe “catching them all”.

Yes, there is a second goal of capturing gyms for the glory of your team, but that is ultimately a Sisyphean task as the gyms are never unbeatable and so the reward for capture is ultimately defeat, requiring a bunch of potions to heal so you can take it back again (as demonstrated in the comic above).

Many commentators suggest that if you are going to spend money in the game, buy lucky eggs which double XP earned. Especially do this early as the biggest rewards are for new Pokémon, and when you are just starting out, they are all new.

While I have purchased Lucky Eggs for this reason, ultimately Lucky Eggs are not worth it. No “end game” means no reason to earn XP fast. Leveling up fast just means you will have fewer Pokémon when you reach level 20, than someone who leveled naturally, and the more Pokémon you get the more resources you have.

Another thing you probably don’t want to invest in is egg incubators. Players talk that hatched eggs result in rarer monsters, but from what I have seen that is not true. Put whatever eggs you get into whatever incubators you get, but don’t put a lot of effort into hatching them.

It seems to me that the best general strategy is just one of collection for the first 15 to 20 levels. For the same price as lucky eggs, you can buy incense to draw more Pokémon to yourself. If you are playing with friends, buy lures and go to a Pokéstop and everyone will be rewarded.

Evolving and “powering up” your Pokémon is a waste of resources before level 20* or so as you will be capturing high CP stuff later and that is what you want to evolve and power up with the same resources. I’m guessing that when you start running out of space for new Pokemon (there’s a cap at 250 which I am not close to hitting) that it is time to start turning in low stuff for candy to upgrade the high stuff.

Avoid gyms before level 20* unless they are friendly and have space to park one of your Pokémon.You get additional rewards if the gym remains in control of your team for 20 hours, but since I started playing I have never seen that happen. When you do get high enough to attack an enemy gym, team with others to assure victory.

My gaming oriented brain says this is the best way to play: capture all the Pokémon you can until level 2o and never power level, save all your resources until you run out of space.

However, like all solo games, there is no “one” way to play, so do what you like.

Odd design flaw in the game

Throwing Pokéballs at monsters is way easier on my 9 inch iPad than on my 4 inch iPhone. What takes often 3 or 4 balls to capture on my phone usually can be done in 1 or 2 on my tablet.  Size matters.

*Level 20 is a bit arbitrary and that figure is probably lower right now (15?) as few people have hit level 20 yet, but as the number of level 20s increases so will that arbitrary level you need to hit for higher content.

tl;dr version:

Don’t worry about XP or your level, or the stats of the Pokémon you capture, just capture as many as you can and enjoy the outdoors and social opportunities the game provides you with.