Twixt and between

Although I have a link to heavyweight academic virtual world weblog Terra Nova in my blogroll, I must admit that I hardly ever look at it. This is partly due to time constraints, since when I do start reading it I often end up spending hours browsing through the papers they link to, but is mostly because I hate to be reminded that it is possible to build one’s career around research in this area, instead of having to work for a living.

Anyway, I visited the site the other day, and came across the story of Loyola University (NO) professor Dave Myers and his alter-ego Twixt. It’s a bit involved, but I’ll try to summarise; Myers is a fan of MMORPG City of Heroes/City of Villains, commonly referred to as CoH/V, in which players take on the role of, you’ve guessed, comic-book good- or bad-guys, and battle it out to save/destroy the world, or whatever. As I understand it the bulk of gameplay involves players banding together to fight computer-controlled adversaries, known as PvE play. However there are also areas set aside for PvP play, that is for direct conflict between the players’ characters, with one side, Heroes or Villains, supposedly emerging victorious.

Myers noticed that in one of these PvP areas, known as Recluse’s Victory, or RV for short, not a lot of fighting went on, contrary to what might be expected. Instead the players would fraternise across the Hero/Villain divide, using the space as a social club instead of a gladiatorial arena. Myers decided to see what would happen if he disrupted this social equilibrium by attempting to achieve the ostensible goal of the zone, that is defeating the other team. His heroic avatar Twixt began enthusiastically killing villains, a course of action which had not entirely unpredictable results; he became spectacularly unpopular, was vilified on CoH/V-related web forums and received death-threats.

Myers wrote up his take on the events that unfolded in a paper “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt” which he published last year. The story came to wider attention when his local paper covered it last month; this in turn provoked responses in the blogosphere and a lively debate in the comments section of Myers’ own blog.

Myers is an academic who has been writing about video games for years, so, as might be expected, his analysis of the matter is somewhat impenetrable to a reader unfamiliar with the finer points of the field, but as far as I can see his argument is this; he was playing by the Rules, as set by the game designers, and where these conflicted with the social conventions established in the RV, he had the right, if not the duty, to breach the latter, since the Rules are the same for everybody, and thus more democratic than the conventions established by what may very well be an unrepresentative clique of players, and which, like all social conventions, apply differently depending on where you are in the social hierarchy.

His critics attack him on several fronts, most cogently when they say that he is wrong to distinguish between the Rules and the conventions that have grown up around them through player consensus; both are important in the production of the game experience. Some note his apparent delight in the annoyance he caused to the established community and accuse him of being a griefer, or even a sociopath. Others charge him with violating academic ethics, on the grounds that his study caused upset to a lot of people who were never asked for their consent to be part of it.

I am not particularly impressed by Myers’ position; he has a point in his observation that socially-generated rules can be oppressive, and favour one group over another, but the solution to that lies in constructing a more democratic society, not in sticking rigidly to some code of conduct handed down by an external authority. It’s unclear why he gives so much weight to the intentions of the game developers, who are after all fallible humans, and who he himself attacks for failing to defend the integrity of their creation. He does himself no favours with the style of his response to criticism, which is needlessly antagonistic.

Myers’ whole attachment to the ideal of the Rules seems a little extreme, given that we are talking about a video game. He repeatedly makes the point that social rules poison the purity of game rules, and that this is important because of the crucial role that games play in human development. I presume that he expands on this thesis in his other work, but it seems awfully heavy baggage to hang on a minority pastime involving imaginary men in tight lycra costumes. One can only imagine that he intends it as a metaphor for some weightier social issue, like the Death of Respect or somesuch.

It all positively begs to be analysed, something that Myers himself seems to have anticipated in his blog post “Four types of game-related bloggers“, where he identifies “The Psychoanalyst” as someone who “believe[s] that play is best evaluated with reference to the outside-the-game intentions of players rather than the in-game outcomes of their play [and] that different players play games for different reasons, which may or may not be (but most often aren’t) determined by the game”. That sounds reasonable to me, especially if we broaden our definition of “playing the game” to include things like “writing about the game in a blog”, or “publishing game-related learned papers”.

So where do we start with Professor Myers? What did he mean when he likened his journey as Twixt to a “bad high school experience”? Is it significant that he teaches at Loyola, a Jesuit University? Does he worry that some in the academic community might feel that the study of video games lacks gravitas? What’s with his identification with a superhero, battling not only the villains, but also the treachery of his supposed allies?

With a little imagination (OK, with a lot of imagination) it’s possible to flesh things out a bit. We can see an unhappy young Dave at high school, resentful of the popular clique he outwardly disdains, but secretly longs to be accepted by. There may be unrequited love – for the girl next to him in science class who he can’t pluck up the courage to talk to, or perhaps the captain of the football team. His parents are emotionally distant, and he can never meet their expectations however hard he tries. His Jesuit education teaches him to respect and fear authority. He chooses as a career the study of technologically-mediated escapism, but he is painfully aware that he is living vicariously at two degrees of separation, only able to watch as others live out their fantasies in a virtual world. On the outside he is a mild-mannered professor, but inside he seethes with rage, with dreams of destructive omnipotence that at once seduce and terrify him.

Of course it’s equally possible, indeed rather more likely, that Myers was perfectly happy at school, dating every member of the cheerleading squad on his way to being voted “most popular” and “most likely to succeed”, before delighting his loving parents by embarking on a stellar college career. He’s probably not even a Catholic, never mind a Jesuit. He is perfectly happy with his job, which consists of being paid to play video games, then jetting around the world to address conferences about it, and is at ease with his self-image; a playfully intellectual merry prankster, who punctures pretension and fights injustice wherever he sees it.

Does it matter that I’m able to conjure up such widely disparate images of Professor Myers’ psyche, or that I could come up with a dozen more if I thought about it for another ten minutes? Not really, because we’re not talking about Dave Myers, resident of New Orleans La. here, but “Dave Myers” a character in an ongoing game/narrative of which the “Twixt” episode and my awareness of it is but one chapter.

I’m not sure if I have a bit-part in Dave’s story – as a snarky psychiatrist/blogger who appears in an exposition-heavy cut-scene to fill in some backstory – or if he’s a player in my drama, part of an interlude in which we establish my character as an an uncannily perceptive student of the human condition. I can only hope that some meta-blogger is following all this, and will explain it to me sometime.

Flogging a dead zombie

I know; enough already with the zombie shtick. But I was thinking that we hadn’t done a Second Life-themed post for a while, and it would be nice to round off our undead week with a look at ghoul culture on the grid.

Many people would say that, with their awkward posture, lumbering gait and blank expressions, regular SL avatars are zombie-like enough for most purposes, but if you really want to get into the living-dead lifestyle, a quick search for “zombie” at Xstreet brings up a range of avatars, skins and AO’s for the full “reanimated corpse” effect.

Cheap bastard that I am I went for a free skin from Bloody Hell, though I did pay L$100 for the t-shirt (from CC’s), and L$190 for the zombie walk (from Azumi):

zombie01

There are dozens of zombie role-playing sims, so I chose Zombie Valley at random, and teleported in to lurch around for a spell:

zombie02

I was rather hoping that some Buffy-style chick would leap out of the shadows to rough me up a bit, but, this being Second Life, the place was entirely deserted. I tried the Zombie Crypt, and Zombie Island, but they were devoid of the living too, so my putrefying body remained unmolested.

I decided to try a different tack, and headed over to a reliably busy place, the Fermi Sandbox, to see if my unhealthy pallor would elicit any concern there. No one seemed particularly alarmed by my appearance though; certainly no one felt moved to destroy my brain, which, as we all know, is the recommended course of action when faced with the living dead. While this bodes ill for SL‘s chances in the event of a full-scale zombie invasion, it does say something about the tolerant nature of the average resident that he or she doesn’t let a little decomposition get in the way of social discourse.

I eventually started just teleporting around at random, to see if I could find a place I felt at home. I was right into the zombie mindset by now, and it felt strangely relaxing to shuffle around the mostly empty suburbs and shopping malls, gaping mindlessly at the virtual recreation of our consumer culture.

Perhaps I’ve been too quick to dismiss our undead brethren as mere senseless flesh-eaters. Maybe we can learn something from their unhurried attitude, and delight in the simple pleasures of living death, like groaning incoherently or snacking on fresh brains. I’m just grateful that Second Life has given me the chance to embrace my inner zombie.

Zombie Bites

Further to the mathematical analysis of zombie infestation, here’s some more undead-themed academic enquiry:

Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has written a paper on zombie neurobiology. It turns out that zombies have exactly the brain lesions one would expect in an ataxic, insatiable cannibal with impulse-control problems and poor social skills – underactive frontal lobes, a dysfunctional anterior cingulate cortex, cerebellar/basal ganglia problems and a misfiring hypothalamus.

Some time ago I offered a brief psychoanalytic interpretation of zombie-phobia; for more in this vein read “Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill by Marc C. Santos and Sarah White. Through a Lacanian deconstruction of the games’ dynamic the paper analyses the role of the player/avatar in maintaining symbolic order in the face of the “impossible, cataclysmic infinity of existence”, represented by the zombies, with their “near-sexual drive for consumption a constant reminder of the discursive construction of our own desire”. The authors conclude that “Resident Evil establishes a more conservative (Freudian) position that Silent Hill playfully (Lacanian-ly) problematizes”

There is more psychoanalytically-informed zombie literature around than you might think – “Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic On Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious”, for example, or “Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film”. If you like all this undead-psychoanalysis stuff, why not make your own Zombie Freud?

Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis wrote about his experiences with the Vodou practitioners of Haiti in his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis’ theory that zombies are created using a powder containing, among other things, tetrodotoxin is not widely accepted, but his account of the hidden power structures of the Vodoun secret societies is certainly fascinating.

Columbia College in Chicago runs a course on “Zombies in Popular Media“; the reading/screening list is a good starting point for further zombie study.

And finally – Let me tell you ’bout the way she looked…

Zombie Epidemiology

Confirmation, if any were needed, that zombies pose a grave threat to the future of humanity comes in the paper “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical modelling of an outbreak of zombie infection” published by Robert Smith? (sic) and his team at the University of Ottawa.

Using advanced mathematical modelling the authors come to a conclusion that will be no surprise to students of zombie behaviour; civilisation is likely to collapse rapidly in the face of the undead onslaught, with aggressive eradication the only strategy that might save mankind.

Readers will recall that I am somewhat paranoid about the risks of zombie attack, and this paper has only heightened my state of anxiety. It’s just as well that we have the internet, so that we zombie-phobes can prepare for the doomsday scenario.

Paging Dr Galt

I’ve worked for the National Health Service in various parts of the country for just about all my adult life, and the whole time I’ve felt that I was doing a good thing, helping troubled people get better without worrying about whether or not they could pay me.

Now it turns out that all these years I have in fact been in the employ of an evil state-sponsored killing machine. Who knew? All those patients who tell me “Thanks Doctor, I feel much better now” are just spouting Orwellian Newspeak – what they really mean is “Curse you, you enervating quack! Ayn Rand was right! Your concern for my welfare is sapping the essence of my humanity!”

Well, now that I’ve been enlightened, I’m going to change my ways. No more ensnaring the unsuspecting poor in the corrupt web of socialised medicine. Only Objectivists who can pay on the nail will be getting my attention from now on.

Deliver us from Facebook

Reading Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ thoughts on the evils of social media made me think that I should give it another go, since, generally speaking, anything that the Catholic Church is opposed to, I’m in favour of. (Though the Vatican is giving out mixed messages on this subject; the Pope himself is on Facebook).

Regular readers will recall our last dalliance with Twitter. I was reluctant to tarnish the Zen-like purity of that single-tweet feed (which, despite a six-month silence, has managed to garner 61 followers, perhaps disproving the theory that Twitter users need constant gratification), so I set up a new account in my name, and while I was at it signed up for Plurk and Friendfeed too.

I’m not intending to document all the humdrum details of my life, but just to publicise this blog by sending out tweets and plurks whenever I put up a new post. I’ve set the services up so that they all cross-post each other; the resulting feedback will hopefully get the message out. What I’d read about Friendfeed had led me to believe that there would be some way to automatically submit posts to places like Digg, reddit and Stumbleupon too, but that doesn’t seem to be possible. Maybe I need to read the instructions some more. There’s probably some other service that I haven’t heard about that will do that, since I can’t believe that no one would have thought of developing such a useful thing.

Anyway, all this took a few hours, which, on reflection, would probably have been better spent just writing something interesting. “Content is King” used to be the mantra, but in our Twitterfied world it seems that what you say is a becoming less important than how many “friends” you have to say it to, whether or not they are really listening. Maybe the good bishop had a point after all.

Deadly therapy

In a tragic footnote to last month’s story about the use of electroshock therapy to treat internet addiction in China, the authorities in that country are investigating the death of fifteen-year-old Deng Senshan, who was allegedly beaten to death by staff at a clinic in southern Guangxi province shortly after arriving for treatment for cyberaddiction.

Excessive use of the internet is regarded as a serious public health problem in China, with some reports estimating that nearly 40% of net users show signs of addiction, leading to a proliferation of centres dedicated to treating the problem. The more reputable clinics use modern psychological treatments, but other establishments are military-style camps offering a regime of harsh discipline, of questionable therapeutic value. Whatever one thinks the best course of treatment is, the fact that parents can be so desperate that they are willing to send their children to a place that promises “necessary approaches including punishment to educate the teenager” gives some idea of the level of distress that the condition can generate.

Sarah Palin – Secret Socialist?

While we’re on the subject of Sarah Palin, there’s an interesting article in the Washington Post today, which examines the thinking in the McCain camp ahead of his choice of Palin as his running mate. There’s nothing terribly surprising – McCain needed someone who would bolster the “maverick” credentials of the ticket while at the same time appealing to the Republican base, and Palin appeared to fit the bill. What’s perhaps more revealing are the reasons he didn’t pick Joe Lieberman, who, in retrospect, might have helped make the race a bit closer. Lieberman’s liberal position on social issues, particularly abortion, were too hard to sell to the GOP faithful, despite the appeal they might have held for the wider electorate.

McCain’s real problem was that he was the candidate of a party that was hopelessly out of touch with the sentiment of the nation. He was fighting two battles – one to convince the GOP rank and file to come out and campaign for him, and one to persuade the nation that he was fit to be President. Unfortunately (for him, not for us) winning the former doomed him to defeat in the latter, since, almost by definition, someone who was acceptable to Republican activists was never going to appeal to normal people. Palin was just the icing on the cake, a clear message that McCain cared more for placating the wingnuts in his party than selecting a running mate who had even a modicum of competence.

Optimistic conservatives may argue that Palin has the potential to be a 21st century version of Barry Goldwater, who, despite his crushing defeat in the 1964 Presidential election is widely seen as the architect of the conservative takeover of the Republican Party, a process that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bushes Sr & Jr.

This ignores two important points. Firstly, the GOP in Goldwater’s day was run by a relatively liberal East-coast establishment, whereas the Republicans today are so far down the neoconservative rabbit-hole that there is no room for a further move to the right. Secondly, while Goldwater certainly ticked conservative boxes with his militarism, belief in small government and hostility to civil rights, his libertarian support for abortion and gay rights, anathema to present-day Republicans, provided some counterbalance.

Anyone hoping that Sarah Palin will reinvigorate the conservative cause is likely to be severely disappointed. If her time on the national stage is to have any long-lasting effect, other than providing stand-up comedians with an almost inexhaustible source of material, it will be to prove that the Republican Party must escape from the clutches of the extreme right if it ever hopes to win back the White House. Palin may go down in history as the woman who put the final nail in the coffin of the Republican Party as we know it, and in so doing shifted the whole of US politics to the left. Who knows? Maybe that was her secret plan all along.