The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 30-03-2011

At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labour exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs. In the midsummer of 2009 one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers or ‘discouraged’ workers. What could be more irrational than that? – David Harvey The Enigma of Capital (2010)

In my previous column, I cast an eye over the different ways in which strategy games depict the world and how these distorted visions of reality mirror the distortions that affect people when they become part of large institutions, such as governments and corporations. In that column, I discussed strategy games such as Civilization V (2010) and Europa Universalis III (2007) and god games such as Populous (1989) but I omitted to mention games that set out the simulate what it is like to run a business. Continue reading “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”


Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-03-2011

0. A Tendentious History of Strategy Games Leading Up To A Question

All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.

– Chuck Palahniuk

Some video games require greater imaginative leaps than others. For example, games like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) were so graphically primitive that the gap between the things on the screen and the things they were supposed to represent could only be crossed with the use of a rocket-cycle; this collection of squares over here is an alien. That collection of squares over there is Earth’s last line of defence. The little squares moving up and down are particle weapons… or possibly missiles… or shoeboxes filled with explosive. It was difficult to tell. Continue reading “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”


Halo and post-franchise worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 01-02-2011

Here’s a link-heavy post at MetaFilter rounding up a whole bunch of bits and bobs about the fictional universe of the Halo game franchise. Over a decade old, Halo has propped up seven best-selling novels (one of which was penned by long-term friend-o’-Futurismic Tobias Buckell), a radio drama, a handful of Hollywood-grade short films… and then there’s all the fan-created content, too.

I mention this not because it’s impressive (though it is, really), nor because it represents a potential future ecosystem for creatives (which it does, be they writers, artists, film-makers, whatever). No: what interests me is that they’ve reached a point where someone has written a lengthy treatise on the nature of canon in the halo universe, and what will happen to it when Bungie, Halo’s creators, decide to move on to something else. I just tried reading it, and I bounced right off after the first few pages – if you think sf academia produces tracts couched in impenetrable language, you’ll find the SVMMA CANONICA as welcoming as a concrete wall, though I suspect the obfuscatory language is a deliberate and ironic affectation – so I’m not going to pass comment on its content; what interests me is the amplified persistence of fictional universes in the internet age. Fan-created content isn’t new, of course, but the ability to share it easily with a post-geographical community means that a certain momentum or mass can accrete around the original source material, and – in quite a few cases – eclipse it.

Who owns a world when its original creators decide to stop creating within it? How far into the future will fans still be working within the Halo canon? What are the odds of a schism in said fandom? If you have two competing fictional histories of an orphaned fictional universe, which one is more valid – the one with the most followers? The one with the greatest logical consistency within the parameters of the pre-schism history? Might the two factions war over their interpretations of the canon? Could said war be restricted to the fictional universe itself, or might it spill out into the parent reality… or even leak across into other fictional universes? When immersive virtual worlds are cheap and commonplace, how many will there be? So many questions… and enough ideas for a dozen novels*, were I skilled enough to write ’em.

[ * I’m put in mind of Walter Jon Williams’ Implied Spaces, which goes somewhat in that direction; I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, so do pipe up with suggestions in the comments, won’t you? ]


No recession in the metaverse, either

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

A sweeping statement, perhaps, but still: having already established that the “global recession” isn’t actually global, there are signs that some things are still selling hard and fast here in the West. The weird bit? One of those things is access to a hyperreal virtual universe. I’m talking, of course, about World Of Warcraft; I’ll let Edward Castronova sum it up in a few sentences.

Blizzard’s Cataclysm broke a single-day sales record for PC games: 3.3m copies in a day. At $40 each, that’s $132m revenue in a day.

The weekend box office for the latest Narnia move this past weekend was $24m. The other fantasy releases like Tangled and Harry Potter, came to $24m in their second or third week.

OK, granted, WoW was an international release, and those box office figures are (I presume) US-only. But even so, the entertainments that we value sufficiently to pay money for are changing, and changing fast… and no matter how much “can’t live without it” rhetoric you might hear from its regular users, I’m pretty sure no economist in their right mind would describe WoW as anything other than a leisure luxury.

And hey – looks like Blizzard’s managing to make a pretty dime in a piracy-riddled digital world, too. How’d you like them apples, Hollywood?


The sex Kinection

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

We’ve already looked at people with privacy concerns over Microsoft’s freshly open-source-driver’d Kinect controller, but there’s another end to the spectrum of attitudes to new technology: while some folk worry about what the Kinect might do in the wrong hands, others are busily and cheerfully working out what it could do while something more personal is in their own hands… or elsewhere [via grinding.be]. Look away now if geeky people discussing smutty uses of consumer electronics products is likely to offend…

So what can the kinect bring to sex? Well, probably not a good real time rendering of your cock, or strap-on, or really any genitalia a usable way for pornography. Why? Because that’s not really what it was made for.

Microsoft put a ton of work into making the kinect track the human body as a whole, so you can play games by jumping and running and generally acting the fucking fool and feel like you’re in the game instead of just sad. Genitalia, for the most part, are not a major geometric feature of the human body when taken in perspective of physical size (as opposed to say, genitalia perspective in relation to the ego, where they may actually make up more than 100%). Neither are they normally used in the control of video games, be they rated everyone or AO. Not to say that experiment hasn’t been tried, but it didn’t turn out too well, and we’re probably a few years off of the video game market being ready for Mike Tyson’s Super Cockslap-Out. So why even try to track that small part when you’re interested in the whole body? You may be able to see it, but it won’t work well.

[…]

The kinect alliviates the need for having hardware, because now as long as we have a shot of the “action”, as it were, we can use that “gesture” as a control. Not only that, the gesture itself is the toy. Or you could employ a toy under the gesture. The possibilities, they may or may not halt.

With masturbation, however, the kinect does not make this a trivially solved problem. Due to the close contact of the hand with the body, possibly with some inanimate object in between, there will still have to be some calibration and thresholding to figure out exactly where the genitalia versus the hand versus the surrounding body parts are. We’ll have the image and the depth data, but it’s not like the above above video where the hands are being held far out from the body, which is a situation the kinect is made for. Masturbation and general self-manipulation is something that’s out of the kinect’s normal operating procedure, but I’m sure we’ll figure something out. We’re smart and bored, after all.

Bonus: here’s Penny Arcade with some, ah, commentary:

Fundamentally accurate - Penny Arcade

*ahem*

And here’s Jonah Lehrer at Wired talking about the Kinect in terms of less explicit – but arguably more fundamental – unions between the body and the machine:

For most of the 20th century, [William] James’ theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the early 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was mostly right: Many of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their orbitofrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh – they weren’t paraplegic – they could no longer use their body to generate feelings. And if you can’t produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion – the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear – then you can’t feel the emotion. As Damasio notes, “The mind is embodied, not just embrained.”

[…]

Although we might look a little foolish flailing around the living room, the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren’t far behind. As a result, we are more scared by the possibility of virtual death (and more thrilled by the virtual victory) because our body is fully engaged with the game.

For decades, video game designers have been obsessed with visual realism, as if the eyeball was the key to our emotional brain. But accurate graphics have diminishing returns. At a certain point, we don’t need more pixels – we need more physicality. And that’s what’s so exciting about the Kinect (and the Wii before that): For the first time, video games are able to deliver a visceral emotional experience, as our body is tricked into confusing fiction with reality.

The Kinect is admittedly a pretty basic implementation of all this potential, but then the first product to market usually is. Interesting times ahead.


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