Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Desire The Science Of Youth" (a post about gaming - eventually, and a bit of a rant)

Damn, just one post last month ... even the spam-bots have lost interest at this point (which is curious, but something I observed every time I'm not doing anything with the blog for a period of time ... wonder what that's about). It's not that I don't feel the urge to write, but right now (as so often) life keeps me busy. Anyway, here we are, you reading, me writing. Let's talk about how technology separates us and how that can turn out to be a problem with f2f gaming. It might turn out to be a heady one, but please read it as a love letter to our little hobby.

InspiroBot did this ...

I felt that spell, it's almost intoxicating: an infinite array of random inspirational quotes. It doesn't get more lonely than this. Think about it, this is solely for the one individual using it. You might share it, as so many did, but in the end it's a very personal experience and even what others share with you is disassociated through technology and avatars. Just concepts of real persons.

That's what the machine is telling us ... [source]
It's all shits and giggles as long as the "machines" aren't able to allow full immersion. But the whole development of AI right now gives us a hint what will be in store. It's like those kids in Japan that never leave their room or apartment, because all they need is a Internet connection: real life social contacts already aren't a necessity anymore (a phenomenon called Hikkimori). I mean, we are in a dialogue (of sorts) right now because of this technology, although I'm already feeling "old school" for using the written word. But if you even leave the technology-filtered and enhanced social interaction behind, it'll be trouble. Not at first, but most definitely if happening en masse.

Life among people is about compromise more often than not, because you can't always get what you want when interacting with others. That's ultimately why we get along with people or not: the less we have to compromise, the more we like others. And the other way around. Hate, in a way, is when compromise isn't an option for some reason or another. You'll find this true in most, if not all human interactions.

The strive for association and acceptance had always been (strangely) above that for harmony. I always thought this somewhat disconcerting, but we are tribal monkeys after all, so as long as it's all an option we are good to go (I think). At least there is a potential. The InspiroBot shows a different future, though, one of total customization. AIs will write customized books and movies (movies? shows! never-ending tv shows that can run until you die ...), create customized social contacts, customized sexual partners ... all those things already exist to some extent or another and will get first more available and then more common.

Just the other day I saw an article asking if we should grant AIs copyright for the art they produce. Give it another 5 years and you can meet a customized AI online, fall in love and have her printed a body. Or is that hard to believe? They can already print organs and houses, ffs. Welcome to the 21st Century.

And you know what? It's very tempting to think that there is no harm in actually always getting what you want. Until it generates intolerant mind sets, that is.

It might already be worse ...

"Studies show ..." is something of a joke at this point. Mostly because although science actually comes to conclusions and new discoveries all the time, it never transits well into mainstream. In a sea of fake news, the truth ends up being one option among others. That's just how it is, I'm afraid. Anyway, +Tag Schatten pointed the way to one of those studies and you may take from this what you want, but that one study shows that smart phones (The Irony!) actually make you dumb just by being in the same room with you.

So take the machine with the addicting quality of making an unlimited supply of quotes, take the addiction that is associated with mobile phones and now think about your last face to face game with your friends and how our little tools distracted The Game. Do the math, extrapolate.

Enough said? Maybe not. Add computer games to the fold. Right now it's still something like a shared experience. With lots and lots of echo chambers abound and tribal as hell, but shared nonetheless. Now imagine customized games like discussed above, with every simulated social interaction being better than "the real thing". Everyone is playing his own game in a rich world of smart content .. you wouldn't need anything else, really.

This is pretty much my reason to write this post ... [source]
The near fiction aside, we already feel the implications of all of that in our daily life. Maybe it connects to some of the bigger issues out there (well, most definitely), but just take a look around in your immediate meatspace, subtract all the connections that depend on some sort of technology and I bet that most of you will find what is left pretty much stretched as far as we are willing to travel in a day. Because we are already living in highly customized environments and it's getting harder and harder to meet the demand that is generated by that without technical support (shit, scratch cars or public transportation, just think about what your life would be like without it).

To some degree we are formed by our surroundings, that's just a fact, and it must have implications if we are able to form our surroundings to our will. That kind of thinking is one of observing a transition, though. The transition of an individual from being surrounded by people to one surrounded by technology. We still know the first and can compare it. The tricky part is after that transition isn't an option anymore, when you are born into this. "Digital natives", if you will. Want a glimpse of that, look at our youngest.

The end result might have the individual so disconnected from everything: absolute isolation and no personal growth because it isn't needed anymore (you don't interact, so you can be everything you want to be, right?). It's like in Aldous Huxleys Brave New World, everyone is happy, so why should we care?

Role playing games and spirituality

All right, stop laughing. Hear me out. I'm not saying playing elf games is a transforming activity all the time, but it sure can be. Like reading books it'll give you an understanding of what life is about through experiencing stories. Other than with books, it happens in the company of people. There is something powerful in all of this, the creativity, the level of involvement, the idea to explore as a group things you normally wouldn't. It's that x-factor you can't have in computer games ... yet.

Our hobby really is an odd ball, if you think about it. It's getting more and more diverse and popular every year, but it's in its pure form completely analogue and you can get all of it for free if you are willing to do it yourself. See, that's the beauty right there, it's not about consuming or solely about entertainment. Sure, we have that. I collect rpg books, buy more than I could ever use. But than I sit down and write a module or prepare the next session or write a post ... okay, for that I use technology, but I'm doing so actively.

And it's not about the producing, as anyone here will tell you, but about the sharing and about the way to get there, where ever that is. It can very well be a spiritual journey, just as playing the game has aspects of meditation ... Or at least I think so. Well, plus it's already used in therapy and teaching and all that jazz.

It's really a anything goes kind of affair and it offers potential for personal growth. Doesn't have to be that way and I know there are people out there who think that this is taking silly games with dice way to serious. Each their own, I say.

Well, that's just it. Our hobby is among the last bastions against consumerism, because it offers growth that emerges from social interaction and doesn't rely on technology beyond dice, pen, paper and the old wetware. 

I actually like this one ... [source]
Or it's all not true?

Maybe it'll all end well and we will be better for it. You never know, I certainly don't. But all this change manifests in a culture of consumerism and this is where I see trouble. Many, many people already welcome a way out. Offer them a virtual cockaigne (love that word, btw) and they will indulge to the death.

I just can't see how we could still grow in a totally customized consume-oriented environment. Ask yourself, how many players would still be available, if the job can be done better by an AI and with augmented realities and what not? None? Not without some work, is my guess.

Telling stories is more and more reduced from something that brings people together to something individuals consume and I think we should ask ourselves if that's a good thing. To stop on a more positive note, I'll leave you with a question: how can we step up our game as a hobby? Because we are at the heart of it, opposing the problem if we want to or not and I believe we have reason to care ... And that's my little rant about how consumerism destroys gaming culture. :)

Not a machine ... [source]


  1. Good one. I missed your posts, and I don't think I'm a webbot. Pretty sure....

    I think that just 1986, the astounding growth in the popularity of tabletop rpgs will eventually eat itself and die. Those who were only there because everyone else was there will go elsewhere, and the people who actually love it will continue onwards.

    Let it be.

    1. Thanks, man! And you might be right. Or our hobby is what'll save a piece humanity ... here's hoping :)

  2. In observation:

    In Korea, video-game exhibitions where people come to play in front of fans are a massive phenomenon (where, incidentally, the best players are treated like rock stars).

    You cite the consumption of computer games as depersonalising and isolating, but the community created by the shared knowledge of that consumption also allows people to be part of a mass participation event.

    Maybe it's fair to compare computer games with (I'm going to show my age here) 'records' whereas paper-and-pencil elf-games are more like a guitar. You can consume (and immerse) yourself in what others are producing, or you can 'do it yourself' and start a band (or probably, a bit of both).

    I'm sure there's a distinction in German between different sorts of community (I think it's Gesellschaft und Gemeinschaft) but I can't any more remember which is which. But records (ie, the 'consumption' of cultural artefacts) don't preclude also going to concerts and being part of mass-participation events.

    Anyway that might be by the way. I'm not sure I really have a point, other than I don't think it's as bleak as you seem to be making it (maybe I've been reading too much Carcosa, the real world seems kinda cute and neat after that).

    If we didn't have to rely on technology, our meatspaces would be much smaller, yes. They're bigger because they can be. My parents, my brother and I live in a triangle 200km on one side, 300km on the second and 400km on the third. If we didn't have cars, we wouldn't 'never see each other', we'd arrange ourselves much closer together. Without technology, any technology, we'd indeed be limited to where we could walk in a day. So that would be our lives: we'd make it work.

    I think I'm saying 'don't worry Jens, humans are adaptive and robust, though a bit crazy; we'll sort it out in the end!'

    1. Yeah, Red, I agree :) In general, I think I'm a person with a positive outlook. It's just not done by standing by and letting it happen. To some degree you have to push back or at least talk about it. Pushing a bit harder by being somewhat alarmist just means aiming for the healthy middle ground ;-)

    2. Well that's definitely true, if you aim high you might not hit the target, but if you don't aim at all you definitely won't hit it!

  3. I love this article, Jens. The DIY nature of the game is what makes the game a hobby. We could have computers put together models of ships in glass bottles, but they aren't worth anything.

    There is a difference between mass market discount furniture and the antique stuff that was hand-carved and built to last. As far as Computer DMs go, why? Designing and running a game is mentally and creatively stimulating, why even teach a computer how to do it? As players of these games we are already giving the system the middle finger. We are putting the endless mass media machines away, and escaping the brainwashing.

    D&D is not mass media friendly, you've already got people trying to say what we can and can't do in our games. As it sits, these people have no teeth, we can do it anyway, a robot is not capable of refusing to conform to public demands, which are self-serving and weird anyway, but while they would comply to the strict guidelines of the thought police, these games would be dead. They would be just as pointless as any of the other soulless media that they keep passing off as approved entertainment.

    1. Tanks, Ripper! That analogy about ships in glass bottles is really bringing it home for me. I think it's an aspect we often forget. Many of us like to be on the "doing" side of things instead of just consuming. And my feeling is that it's not even especially hard to find an audience or players, even 2017, so maybe the outlook isn't actually that bad after all :)