Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vampires and nostalgia

Browsing the internet just now I happened to come across a short comic protesting a perceived shift in how the was vampires were portrayed. The author, and a good number of commenter on the comic, seemed to believe that vampires were once portrayed as corpselike monsters and were only now becoming sexualized. I suspect this was a response to the Twilight series and similar. Now, I'm no fan of Twilight, but I'll say this: it isn't responsible for the sexualization of vampires.

I'm a mythology buff, so I could probably rant for some time about how vampires and their mythological predecessors were highly sexualized at least as often as not. However, I will refrain, and simply state that vampires are usually portrayed as sexual beings in both modern and pre-modern mythologies. Even so, people feel that there is some change. They feel that there is something sacred about vampires that is no longer as it should be. In other words, they're nostalgic.

We all do it. It's like remembering a time "when men were men." It's a nice idea, but the world doesn't work that way. Things aren't perfect just because they existed a long time ago. Those men who were men had problems too. They got scared, they cried, they wrote poetry, they cheated, they stole, and they did all those other things that humans sometimes do. That's because they were human, just like people are now. They weren't magically better people just because they lived a long time ago. The world doesn't work that way.

So why do we think like we do? We think back to "simpler times" and we imagine an ideal world free of poverty, strife, and discrimination. It's a perfect world, and it never existed except in our minds. The problem is that we forget we made it up. More accurately, we forget all the little details we had to leave out, like poverty, strife, and discrimination, to make our memories so perfect. And that's a problem, because then we think we can just go back.

It's good to have an ideal in mind. We must always strive to create the perfect world, even though we'll never really get there, because that's the only way we'll get closer to that world. The problem is that sometimes we forget that the world was always flawed. When the ideal is an idea, it motives people to move forward. When the ideal is a white-washed memory, it motivates people to turn around and go backwards. Since that perfect world never really existed, backwards is hardly the way to go (excepting cases where the current situation is abnormally bad, obviously; the key point is that it's okay to go back if one doesn't plan to stop moving forwards afterward). A perfect example would be the Victorian period of English history. We remember the Victorians as pure and chaste, if admittedly somewhat repressed. It's a nice idea, a simpler time when men were honorable and women were pure. We forget things like the rampant poverty, the barbaric medical practices, and the syphilis. Those pure and chaste Victorians? Their number one killer was syphilis. So yeah. Probably not so pure. Going back to their practices might not be such a great idea.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that nostalgia plays tricks on us. It tells us that things used to be better, even though a good many things used to be much worse. So don't listen to nostalgia. Take a good, honest look at your memories, maybe look at a history book to see what else was going on at the time, and then decide what was good about the past and what should be left behind. And then instead of complaining about how things used to be, go out and make something better. Someone has to. That's the only way we move forward.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The problem with enlightened self-interest.

The problem with enlightened self-interest is that it's a myth. But let me put this in context. Modern economics seems, to my laymen's senses, to be some mix of capitalism and socialism. In rhetoric, people tend to talk as though either system is flawless, or at least not fundamentally flawed. I seek to logically demonstrate why this is the case, starting with capitalism (socialism's flaws seem somewhat self-evident to me, but I may get around to ranting on them anyway).

Adam Smith's economic theory states that a group of people each working towards their own selfish ends will create a greater good for the whole. This may seem like a dubious proposition, but the evolution of social structures seems to support this idea. If nature's merciless hand determined that teamwork was the way to go, in the name of spreading each individual's genes, then cooperation probably has some merits. The problem is, historically, the Victorians tried pure capitalism, or at least got as close to it as anyone ever has, and it failed spectacularly. Why? Was nature wrong, or was Adam Smith? Or did the English just not know what they were doing?

While natural selection is not a perfect mechanism, and while the English certainly did not do everything right, ultimately the flaw does lie in capitalistic theory. The problem is that Adam Smith's theory relies on people having more than just self-interest. It relies on them having enlightened self-interest, which as previously mentioned, is a myth.

So what is enlightened self-interest, and why is it a myth? Enlightened self-interest, simply put, is always doing what's best for you. For this to work, you need to know what's best for you, and you need to always be right. This requires perfect knowledge of every situation, every rule, every loophole, every detail, and most importantly, what everyone else knows. For example, if you're an underpaid factory worker, you would benefit immensely from an organized labor protest in order to raise wages. If all the workers band together, the company can't help but cede to your demands. The problem is, if you protest by yourself, you're likely to get fired, or at least waste time you could have spent earning money. So all your coworkers need to understand that it's in their best interest to help you. And they have to know that they all understand that, or it might not be in their best interest in the first place. And you have to know that they know that. If any significant portion of the workers don't understand their best interest, or don't know that everyone else understands, then the whole plan falls apart. You all remain underpaid, because some of you didn't act with enlightened self-interest. And herein lies the problem.

You see, in a perfect world, big business CEOs would live in fear of their employees banding together at the slightest infringement of their rights or their worth. Employees, similarly, would understand that the company has to make a profit or it goes belly-up and everyone loses their jobs. Consumers might even buy more expensive local products just to keep the economy up. But people aren't good at that. It's hard to have a perfect understanding of the situation, and it's hard to see the big picture when you're struggling to get by. It's unreasonable to expect anyone to be truly enlightened in their self-interest, much less the critical mass of people necessary to make pure capitalism work.

Note: This rant does not mean I'm a socialist. Socialism is just as fundamentally flawed as capitalism, if not more so. I'm just really tired of people talking about capitalism like it's Jesus and blaming everyone wrong with it on government legislation. The system is inherently flawed, and although many of the legislative "fixes" do more harm than good, the solution is not to throw out all regulation in favor of the original flawed system.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The inventory system and why it's a bad thing.

Hey, folks. This is my rant space, so you either have to listen to me rant or go away. Sorry, but that's just how things work here. First rant is about video games, specifically about equipment and inventory.

When Mass Effect 2 came out early last year, there was a general outcry to the effect of "this isn't an RPG, it doesn't have complex inventory management!" Basically, fans of the role-playing genre have come to expect a certain amount of loot-collecting in games, and the lack of it in ME2 distressed them. Mass Effect 1 had four categories of guns and dozens if not hundreds of individual weapons to choose from, and that's not even starting on the armor, the biotic amps, omni-tools, or upgrades. ME2, on the other hand, had 13 guns (from 5 categories, not counting heavy weapons) on release, and perhaps another half dozen included in various downloadable content. Given this, it's easy to see why people were upset. ME1 had so much more to choose from.

Except not really. In ME1, all sniper rifles were basically the same, except that you found better ones later in the game. Not particularly different sniper rifles, mind you, just better. Often in every way. Sure, there were always minute differences between individual models, but mainly you were just looking for the highest level gun. And then sometime later you found an even higher level gun and used that. Can you see all the choices you're making?

Contrast ME2, in which you no longer loot random weapons after every battle. When you do find a weapon, it's a rare and important event, and the new weapon in generally very different from the old one. Take the sniper rifles, for example. There are four of them, counting downloadable weapons. The first three are about equal in utility, but their uses differ, from tradition one-shot kills to long-range sustained fire. Each gun is a choice, and which is better seems more a matter of play style and personal preference. The fourth sniper rifle is a clear upgrade, easily the most powerful of the four, but it's a unique weapon chosen from an array of potential advantages, and so has importance that a randomly looted gun never could.

What's the difference? Well, in ME1, you use whatever gun is best. In ME2, you use whichever gun you like, and if you invest in the true upgrade, that's a choice you make for yourself. In other words, ME1's guns are random and disposable, whereas ME2's guns are unique and interesting. You're not pulling out a random sniper rifle, you're pulling out the gun that you enjoy using.

So why is this a case against inventory systems? Technically, it isn't. It's a case against the constant quest for better equipment that drives almost all RPGs today. The inventory system, however, is pretty much the heart of that quest. You have an inventory filled with stuff and a bunch of equipment slots to fill with that stuff. Occasionally you find better stuff. At the end of the "Quest for the Sacred Sword" (or whatever) this is ok. You earned your better item with sweat and toil. After killing some random bad guy, or buying it from a merchant, or any other staples of the genre, it's just silly. Any emotional attachment to your equipment is replaced with stat-grubbing power-lust, and even if you do find a weapon you really like, eventually you'll have to upgrade because the game assumes you'll upgrade and if you fall behind it'll become impossible to win. This is especially glaring when you find yourself selling your grandfather's sword because it's just a tier 1 weapon and you're up to tier 4 and it's just cluttering up your inventory now.

This is not to say that all inventory systems are bad. In some games, particularly the post-apocalyptic Fallout series, it makes sense to spend most of the game scrounging for better loot. In those games society is dead, and trying to make do with limited resources and substandard equipment is pretty much the theme of the setting. Even so, it's sad when a favorite weapon gets replaced by one that's statistically superior, as inevitably happens in almost any modern RPG. In the case of Fallout and similar games, I would propose that the weapons be placed on a more even playing field, so that player could pick the ones they like, not necessarily the ones that do the most damage, but that items like food, water, bandages, and traps be made a more central part of the game. In this way, players could still experience the desperation of the wasteland without ever having to abandon their favorite gun just because it doesn't do enough damage anymore.