Why?

My joke, non-answer is “Why not?”

To be serious, though: I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions for a very long time now, starting with whenever it was when I first started thinking about the role of the individual in society.

I keep trying to answer questions as they arise, and no matter what I say, it doesn’t seem quite right. I never know why it doesn’t feel right, exactly, but every answer I’ve given—and received to my questions—feels flat. It doesn’t matter how in-depth my answer to a question has been, it always seems like there’s just one more dimension that I could be utilizing.

To illustrate, it’s like every conversation on ethics, government, religion, philosophy, or whatever, is part of an interstate. Each conversation—more importantly, each answer—is like that part of the interstate you’re on when you’re going from Point A to Point B. It may seem like you’re arriving at a destination, but you know that, beyond that exit, there’s another one. Further, you know that they’re interconnected, and that if you went one step further, you might feel better about where you end up.

Some people don’t seem to have this dilemma. Well, no, that’s not right. Most people I talk to don’t seem to have this dilemma. That, probably, is because I spend a lot of time observing and off in my own bubble—moreso than a number of people who are out doing instead of thinking.

Point is, I always walk away from a conversation with a person who disagrees with my standpoint very underwhelmed. They may have made very salient, intelligent points, but something about what they say inevitably leaves me disappointed.

That kind of sounds like a prick thing to say, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t mean it like that. I fully recognize that my understanding of what constitutes “fun” is more at home in, say, a philosophy course than a bar, and this is why I’m a huge downer at parties. I tend to try and have arguments about existentialism or objectivism when the other party would rather be trying to hook up with someone.

Once again, I’m a huge downer.

Careening back to the above points: I think that the reason I walk away from an argument more perplexed than anything else isn’t because the other party has changed my mind—though, of course, that happens—it’s more that I often come away thinking, “How could they possibly think that way?”

For whatever reason, I try to see the entirety of an Interstate than the few miles between exists. You could say I’m a big-picture kind of guy, I guess, though that’s usually a term reserved for coked-out producers in Hollywood.

See, I think that ultimately, when I have an argument about what sort of tax structure we need in the U.S., I’d much rather be having a discussion that boils down to “What, at the base of it all, do you believe? What do you think about the ‘nature’ of man? What do you think about what that says about how man should interact with the world? Is that your definition of ethics? Why should we act that way?”

That’s right: If you want to have a conversation about Real Things with me—and not, say, whether or not Mordin Solus is the best professor in the history of all fiction—then you’d better be ready to define your entire bloody worldview, starting with what makes up the human body.

This, also, is why I have a very small, but robust, group of friends: It takes a long time for me to get a very good judge of character.

This, then, got me to thinking about what it is that I believe about everything. Of course, I didn’t think that in one swoop. It hit me as a series of shouts by those different parts of my brain, all screaming at once.

I spent the entirety of my bus ride ignoring high school kids screaming, state workers muttering, and then, after I left the bus, the whooshing of traffic as it whizzed by me, thinking about all of that. How it all fit together, whether or not I could easily get it all down in one blog post.

Of course, no. I can’t. That’s a ton of thinking. That’s a huge amount of topics.

So I started thinking some more. This time, I thought back to what little I remember about proofs in algebra and geometry. Break everything down, step by step. What causes “ethics?” What is the role of humanity? How does humanity relate to the world—all of the questions from a few paragraphs before, just in reverse order.

So, I then thought about how to implement that without spending several years doing so and pulling a Montaigne—who all of you should read if you haven’t. Even just a few of his essays. You can find Best Of collections all over the Internet. Go!  Read him! He’s much more interesting than I am!

For those of you who stuck around after that flurry of exclamation points, hi.

I’m going to try to break down what makes my philosophy what it is. When I can, I’m going to back it up with links and citations (further reading, you see), but my main focus is going to be just getting everything down in writing. Apologies if something I write comes across as thin. If I don’t have anything to back it up, I like nothing more than to have a nice, long, protracted discussion over Guinness.

So, that’s what I’m doing with this. That’s why I’m doing this. It may not be interesting to you, and if it’s not: Sorry. The six entries that follow this one will probably be over pretty quickly, and after that, if I haven’t alienated you, then I’ll go right back to faking e-mails, yammering about video games, and writing shitty one-act plays about how inept Tennessee is.

But I’d like to end this first post by trying to get you to think down to the root of whatever you believe. Why do you believe that? What made you that way?

As Socrates said: “…the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living…” (Apology, Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates)

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Vault-Tec

From: Don Langley
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 8:45 AM
To: _EVERYONE
Subject: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

ON THIS DAY

On March 28, 1979, America’s worst commercial nuclear accident occurred inside the Unit Two reactor at the Three Mile Island plant near Middletown, Pa.

Consider, for a minute, please, what you should do if a news flash announced a ‘significant’ radiation spill in the Cumberland River of a magnitude endangering human life .  .  .

 

.  .  . please do not lull yourself into thinking that we in Nashville need not be prepared to react intelligently to a radiation threat.

…don

Don Langley

Safety Czar

 

From: Aaron Simon
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 8:53 AM
To: Don Langley
Subject: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

Don,

Thank you so much for bringing this to people’s attention. I often wonder about the threat of every nuclear facility in the state exploding simultaneously—for reasons varying from terrorism to Ragnarok—and it’s great to see that someone else shares my concern.

I think you’ll be interested in knowing that I’ve been rather proactive in my concerns about this threat. I have taken the initiative and found a company—very hush hush, so you’ll excuse me if I omit their name for the moment—that is preparing an initiative to protect a significant percentage of the American populace from the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

Think of the bomb shelters in the 1950s, except at a much larger scale. The “Vaults,” as they are called, are built to withstand thermonuclear blasts that are far, far greater than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—not to mention they are being built into the sides of geographic features like mountains and canyons.

If you’d like, I can give you more information, but you must swear to keep it on the down-low, okay? There’s only so many slots open, and the screening process is quite thorough.

Quite. Thorough.

Aaron Simon

 

From: Don Langley
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:00 AM
To: Aaron Simon
Subject: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

AARON

Good to hear another person has the same thinking ive already gottenemaisl from people who think im overreacting to something that hasn’t happened in ages and wont again but I just said LOOK WHAT HAPPENED IN JAPAN!!!!!

Whats the name of this company Im sure interested….

 

You said that the screening is thorough……. What does that mean? My wife is interested too

Best,

Don Langley

Safety Czar

 

From: Aaron Simon
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:12 AM
To: Don Langley
Subject: RE: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

The company is called Vault-Tec. Don’t bother running a search online for them; you’ll only get results from some childish game that took inspiration from their efforts.

They’re a group of people who have the best interests of humanity at heart, hence the thorough screening process.  The philosophy behind the way they operate has been criticized as “nearly eugenics,” though that is little more than hate- and fear-mongering by those too short-sighted to acknowledge that the way the world operates is a one-way track to destruction.

The screening involves a complete genetic analysis, psychological profile, and several tests of your willingness to engage in martial combat.

On a somewhat ironic note: Do you recall in earlier in this e-mail, when I mentioned a video game? Well, Vault-Tec, displaying great magnanimity,  has, rather than sued the makers of the game, arranged for the games to be used as part of their screening process.

I have to go take care of a few things, but if you have any more questions, please let me know.

Aaron Simon

Enrollment Guy

 

From: Don Langley
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:30 AM
To: Aaron Simon
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

You are darn tootin Im interested!!! Don’t know about playing a vddeio game to get into it though… that seems just a BIT WEIRD but if that’s what the man wants. That’s what he gets………

Get back to me when your’e back. I need to know who to contact!

Don Langley

Safety Czar

 

From: Aaron Simon
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:08 PM
To: Don Langley
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

Hi Don,

It so happens that the way they’ve got their organization set up is that interested parties contact proxies. It’s kind of like how you don’t go up to a Masonic Lodge and be like, “I’m a Mason now.” You know someone who’s a Mason, then they ease you in.

Same thing.

Lucky for you, Don, I am your proxy. I’ve already got a few things lined up in terms of getting your foot in the door. All I need you to do is run a couple of the simulation/appraisal sections of the game, and then we’ll ship off the data and see if you meet the cut.

Don’t worry: If you’re in, they’ll write your wife in as well.

Enrollment Guy

 

From: Don Langley
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:14 PM
To: Aaron Simon
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

Great!!

What do I need to do?

Don Langley

Safety Czar

 

From: Aaron Simon
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:16 PM
To: Don Langley
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Their ‘Oak Ridge’ Could Have Been Ours

I’ll bring in my console tomorrow, hook it up in your office, and show you what to do.

Good luck!

 

Aaron Simon

Enrollment Guy

 

From: Aaron Simon
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:30 PM
To: Chris Flynn
Subject: VICTORY IS MINE!

Dude! You remember me telling you about that part in Old World Blues I couldn’t get past? The part with the Robot Radscorpions and when you have to deal with the Doctor?

Anyway, I got some rube at my office to beat it for me! He thinks there’s an actual Vault-Tec and he’s doing this to get a place in one of the Vaults in case of a nuclear explosion!

Aaaaahahahahahah!

 

From: Chris Flynn
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:35 PM
To: Aaron Simon
Subject: RE: VICTORY IS MINE!

You are a sad little man.

 

 

On Ownership and Mass Effect 3

I’m going to take a break from writing fake, passive-aggressive e-mails to stand-ins of coworkers and come at you about a very interesting topic Ownership of an artistic/creative franchise.

Put another way: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means in the modern era to be a fan of a medium that is, intrinsically, an interactive experience. That’s right! I’m going to be talking about the snafu with the ending of Mass Effect 3. Now, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers in this, but it might be difficult to remain vague, since the ins and outs of the debate have very much to do with the specific events of the ending of the game. So, you know, don’t flame me if I let something slip.

For those of you who don’t know, Mass Effect is a trilogy of sci-fi games. They’re hybrids of the RPG, third-person shooter, and adventure genres. Think Star Wars, Star Trek, Call of Duty, and the old Baldur’s Gate games—if you’re nerdly like me and played them.

Criticisms of the video game medium include things like brainless action, excessive violence , poor dialogue, and “they’re for kids.”

Now, Mass Effect stands apart from a vast swath of games on the market because the installments are very well written, very immersive without seeming to try, and—thank God—have great voice acting. In many ways, the franchise is a great counterargument to people who look down at video games.

(Of course, that’s not to say that they’re perfect. There are plenty instances of clunky dialogue, gore, and plot holes—not to mention the unique problem of glitches. However, I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find any film or novel that is flawless. Dickens is long-winded; Hemingway lacks willingness to create complex, impressive sentences; and Joseph Conrad—the shithead—should have stuck to sailing.)

I’d go into why the franchise is a great example of what can be done with games, but this is a blog post, and not a dissertation. Suffice it to say, Steam runs fantastic sales every season, and the first two games would be well worth the $15 you’d end up spending.

The games have amassed a huge following, with a whopping number of players immensely invested in the game. When the third game launched, the anticipation was staggering. Bioware, the studio that developed the game, released copies into space, for God’s sake. They also promised a large amount of endings, all based on the player’s in-game decisions.

See, that’s another thing that highlights Mass Effect is the importance of choice. Through the three games, the player has the opportunity to import and use a character from the previous game, thus allowing the choices made in-game to carry over to the next.

This results in vastly different playthroughs for different people. For example: I was out at dinner with a couple people last week, and one guy had made a habit of killing characters who I did not know could be killed. It, uh, well, it’s got more of an impact when you play the games. Trust me.

Anyway, it’s all built up to expectations in the community that the end of the third installment would be—and I’m using this word in the proper sense—epic. If we lived in the Viking age, it would have been expected that a skald would have sung of it in a mead hall.

What happened, though, was something entirely different. Rather than an epic ending—the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example—we got the ending to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. A very oddly-placed-in-tone conclusion to the saga that may have been a better fit in a game on rails instead of a relatively open-world adventure trilogy.

That said, the ending wasn’t bad—at least, I don’t think it was bad. I thought it was underwhelming and asked questions where there should have been answers—not to mention that it felt that the writers were really trying to be memorable instead of doing what was natural.

But, if you look online on comment boards and reddit, you’d come away with the conclusion that the ending was a crime against humanity. Yes, the developers promised varied endings, and, ostensibly, the ending does not deliver that. However, as Mike from Penny Arcade pointed out, you can otherwise take the view that the third game is the ending. And, well, there’s truth to that.

Trans-species wars are resolved; individuals gain redemption; others gain prestige within their people; robots are destroyed or saved; daddy issues are resolved. All of those are significant plot points in the series and, based on your choices as the player, they are wrapped up in the third game. Thus, you could say that ME3 is the ending.

But the interesting thing about all of this is the reaction the ending has garnered from the fans. Yes, it’s enraged in many cases, but there’s one that struck me as incredibly symbolic of what the Internet has done to the gaming community:

Retake Mass Effect.

As you can see, it’s a charity drive with the aim of getting Bioware and EA’s attention, with the end goal of getting some more solid closure out of the ending of the ending. And, further, as you can see, it’s a charity drive donating to Child’s Play, the organization started up by the guys at Penny Arcade to benefit kids in hospitals by giving them video games.

First off, I think this bit of semi-altruism is incredible. Too often you see the stereotype of enraged gamers as a variant of The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy—and it’s often reinforced by the community. But with this drive, we’re seeing a group do something very smart—getting attention via positive action.

While what the group wants may seem trite, it’s something that matters a lot to a large group of people. And while it may seem like they don’t know what they want—there are a lot of variations on what “closure” means—it’s a striking example of a pretty fractured group acting as one(ish) voice.

(I could make a connection to the Geth here, but—AAAAH FINE! They are coming to a consensus.)

But even more interesting is the implication that the game has changed.

In the modern era where the community has unprecedented access to developers in the form of forums, interviews, e-mail, Twitter, and facebook, the question has become: Has the idea of creative ownership changed?

I think we’re going to see that, at least when it comes to video games, it has. The point is often made in this movement that since Mass Effect is so dependent on player choice, the narrative is as much the player’s as it is the developer’s. There’s room for debate on either side, but there’s more backing on the side of the player than ever before.

As the idea grows that the community owns the game just as much as the developers, the belief grows that the community is entitled to some sort of acknowledgment of that ownership from the developers. Now, that’s a very tricky subject, and in many ways, you can see parallels between it and the severe hatred of the prequels in the Star Wars series.

So, what do I think?

I’m somewhere in the middle, I think. While I was disappointed by the ending, I acknowledge that we, as gamers, are playing by the rules of the creators. We don’t have an intrinsic right to demand the progress of a work any more than a reader of, say, Harry Potter would demand certain things of J.K. Rowling.

Would I like a “happier” ending? Or even one that eschews the messy contradictions of the game’s heroism and willingly ignores the whole organic vs. synthetic resolution that my Shep accomplished? Hell yeah I would.

However, I recognize that this isn’t my baby, no matter how much I’d want it to be. It’s Bioware’s baby, and they’re the only ones—well, EA, too—who have the final say.

So, protest on, dudes. If you guys win out, that’s great. If not, well… sorry?

I wrote some super happy endings you could read if you want…