Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

Furry traversing

As we enter another month of lockdown, with the majority of the population still sundered from friends and family, there comes news that increasing numbers of people have been signing up to a virtual world, where they can customise their avatar, decorate their homes, craft their own clothing, and experience the social contact that has been denied them in these difficult times, recreating all sorts of communal gatherings, including weddings. All this has drawn the attention of big brands, who are rushing to establish a presence in the metaverse.

This story might sound familiar to readers who have been around since the early days of this blog. However the virtual world in question is not Second Life, but New Horizons, the latest instalment of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

ACNH does have some things in common with SL – a non-linear structure, user-generated content, and an emphasis on social interaction – but also some key features that have helped propel it beyond being a niche interest, like the easy-to-grasp user interface, the cute graphic design, and the highly-regulated family-friendly ambience. Its biggest advantage though is that it can be accessed on a relatively low-cost console, or on mobile devices using the NookLink app, instead of forcing would-be residents to shell out for a PC with a high-end graphics card.

Linden Labs’ persistent failure to produce an iPhone or Android app has always puzzled me. It’s clearly technically possible – there are plenty of graphically-intensive mobile games around, and a third-party viewer was available for Android for a while – and even if the smartphone client didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop viewer it would still be enough to keep more casual residents engaged. I suspect it has something to do with the somewhat extortionate revenue-sharing terms that both Apple and Google apply to their respective app stores, but other developers seem to be able to make money in that market, so I don’t see why an SL app wouldn’t be viable. If one existed it might give ACNH a run for its money, particularly among more mature demographics.

Perhaps though the real problem has been one of timing. If current events had unfolded back in 2006, then SL might have been well-positioned to meet the demand for a virtual social hub, and could even have cornered the market for remote business meetings. As it is, a combination of the ubiquity of smartphones, the popularity of social media, and much-improved video-call technology has left the erstwhile pioneer nothing but a cautionary footnote in metaversal history. Sometimes it’s possible to be too far ahead of your time.

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

Mitt of Pandaria

Republicans in Maine have launched a series of attacks on Democratic State Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz, over her love for playing World of Warcraft; apparently they feel that it is unbecoming for a serious politician to spend time in a fantasy world. Perhaps they should tell that to their Presidential nominee

Win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me

The New York Times had an interesting piece this week profiling top online poker player Daniel Cates, and seeking to identify the secret of his success. The short answer seems to be “Asperger Syndrome“, but the details of how hours spent playing resource-management games like Command and Conquer sharpen the skills needed to triumph at the virtual card tables are certainly fascinating.

The key message though is that even a good player is at the mercy of fortune, and skill will only out over the course of thousands of hands, with many a losing streak along the way. It evidently helps to be able to see money as just an abstract way of keeping score rather than something actually valuable, especially when one can lose over $4 million in a few hours.

My own poker habit is nowhere near that level thankfully; I don’t win, but I lose slowly enough that it qualifies as cheap entertainment. Even when the cards don’t fall my way it can still be fun – just the other day I went all-in with a King-high flush only to see my opponent turn over the Ace, but I was able to smile at the thought of him gathering in my cash while whistling the greatest song about gambling ever written.

The wrong move at the right time

Regular readers will know that I have an interest in internet addiction, but I came to that via impulse control disorders in general, and pathological gambling in particular.

The BBC reported this week on the release of the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010, produced by the National Centre for Social Research for the Gambling Commission. It’s a fairly hefty document, and I’ve only managed to read the executive summary, but even that contains plenty of food for thought.

The headline figures are that 73% of the adult population gambled in the last year, up from 63% the last time the survey was done in 2007. Problem gambling, as measured by the DSM-IV criteria, was up from 0.6% to 0.9% in the same period, though it hadn’t risen significantly on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (0.5% in 2007 and 0.7% in 2010). These numbers are similar to the rest of Europe, but lower than the US and Australia.

One thing that surprised me was that the prevalence of online betting hadn’t increased much in the last three years. Excluding online purchase of lottery tickets, which they didn’t measure last time, the rate was 7%, up from 6% in 2007; 81% of gamblers place their wagers exclusively offline. Within this certain types of online betting are more popular though; 39% of casino gamers play on the internet.

The betting landscape has certainly changed a lot since I was a child. My grandfather liked to play the horses, which back then involved visiting the local bookie, a sinister establishment next to the pub, with blacked-out windows and a permanently smoky atmosphere, frequented by the shadiest-looking characters in the neighbourhood. He used to take home the little pens to give to me, which my mother would immediately confiscate, lest I take them to school and shame our family with the association of vice. I take after my grandfather in a lot of ways, but I must have internalised some of his daughter’s disapproval, because to this day I have never set foot inside a betting shop. I’m rather ashamed of this, as it feels like I’m betraying my working-class roots in favour of a notion of bourgeois respectability, but my mother’s scruples have probably saved me a lot of money over the years.

My grandfather’s other flutter of choice was the football pools; a sacred ritual in our family was gathering around the television at about ten to five on a Saturday to listen to the classified results. As eldest grandchild I had the responsibility of recording the scores as they were announced; the mention of lower-league English teams like Huddersfield or Gillingham still takes me back to cosy teatimes all those years ago. I was sad to see that the explosion of alternative gambling opportunities in recent times has all but killed off the pools; only 4% of the population put on a coupon now.

The change in social attitudes to gambling can be traced back to the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994; overnight gambling became a government-approved leisure activity rather than a disreputable habit looked down upon by polite society. The whole industry was deregulated, with bookies allowed to put signs in their windows advertising what went on inside, and to install seats to encourage their customers to linger; a far cry from the dens of ill-repute my grandfather used to frequent.

Card gaming, poker in particular, has had quite a makeover too. It used to be a game associated with cowboys and gangsters, or at best the idle super-rich in places like Monte Carlo. I do remember, in my youth, being quite taken by Steve McQueen’s character in The Cincinnati Kid, but “professional poker player” was never going to be among my career choices. The advent of internet and televised poker tournaments has changed all that, and now the game is played by a whole host of perfectly respectable, and decidedly unglamorous, doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like.

A year or so ago I was seeing a client who had a bit of an issue with internet poker, and, out of curiosity, I registered with one of the online casinos and tried playing for a while. I’d like to say that this plunged me into a House of Games-style maelstrom of underworld intrigue, but since a) I limited myself to a $10 roll and nickel-and-dime tables and b) I am a dreadful poker player and lost all my money in short order, nothing nearly so interesting happened.

Every so often, usually when I am bored at work and daydreaming about alternative income streams, I return to the virtual tables, generally with the same result. This last month was different though; despite playing my usual ham-fisted game I went on a pretty good run, boosting my $10 stake up to over $60, before enduring an equally persistent losing streak, which had, by yesterday, reduced my stack to $15.30.

This experience has given me a bit of insight into some of the psychological phenomena associated with gambling that I had previously only read about. Simple arithmetic tells me that my latest session has been much more successful than previous forays, since I have ended up 53% ahead rather than 100% behind, but that’s not how it feels, and the temptation to chase my “losses” by playing more, or moving to a higher-stakes table has been pretty strong. It’s also been interesting to note how my feeling for the game mechanics, particularly the balance between luck and skill, has changed as my fortunes have varied; when I was hot I was convinced that I was playing masterfully, but as the money ebbed away I found myself cursing the bad cards I had been dealt.

I guess I should be happy that I’ve received some valuable professional education, and been paid $5.30 into the bargain, but I can’t help thinking about the $45 that got away, and how, if I just kept playing a little longer, the law of averages would throw a few good hands my way again…

Downhill Racer

It’s kept on snowing over the last couple of weeks, so I thought I should follow through on my plans to go skiing. I still couldn’t summon the energy to go up to the actual mountains though, so I figured I should see what Second Life had to offer in the way of winter sports. I got myself kitted out at the Zagoskin Ski Shop, for a surprisingly modest sum – skis, boots, poles, ski-suit and goggles for under L$500 – then headed over to the Nakiska Ski Club to hit the piste:

The panorama was certainly impressive, and the run ahead was invitingly steep, so I pushed off and shot away down the slope:

Down at the bottom there was a futuristic mountain train waiting to take me back up the hill:

It was fun for a while, but after a few runs it began to get a little dull. The AO that came with the skis allows one to steer from side to side, but one can’t really do anything more complicated than zig-zaging down the slope. I guess it might be more exciting if there was a slalom course laid out, or if one was racing with someone else. I should probably check out some of the other Second Life ski resorts to see if they are any more thrilling.

The experience reminded me of nothing more than the classic ZX Spectrum game Horace Goes Skiing. I’ve been similarly underwhelmed by other interactive activities on the grid – nice graphics in the service of eight-bit gameplay seems to be the rule for such things.

I was also a little disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to find that I was the only person at the resort, since I always feel that the conviviality of the après-ski is a crucial part of any winter holiday. It’s a shame it was so quiet, because the one big advantage that Second Life has over stand-alone simulations, the thing that makes up for all the limitations, is its social aspect. Maybe next time I go it will be a bit more lively.

Panorama on video game addiction

Tonight’s edition of the BBC’s flagship current-affairs programme Panorama covered the topic of video game addiction. I had been looking forward to the show but it was rather disappointing; it contained no information that anyone with even a passing interest in the subject wouldn’t already be familiar with.

After featuring the usual suspects – reformed addict, concerned parent, industry spokesman, academic (Mark Griffiths in this instance) – and taking the obligatory trip to South Korea, the reporter did come to a reasonable, if uncontroversial conclusion – games are fun, most people have no trouble with them, a few develop problematic use, this might become a significant issue as more people play.

I guess it was a good enough introduction, but it felt like a missed opportunity to discuss some of the more controversial aspects of the issue, like the exact nature of the disorder, and treatment approaches, in greater depth. A half-hour TV show has its limitations I suppose.

Anyone who is looking for a (slightly) more substantial review of the topic could do worse (I would humbly suggest) than to refer to this article that we posted earlier this year.

Upon the dismal shore of Acheron

While browsing at the AV Club the other day I came across a review of the film The Dungeon Masters, a documentary following the lives of three devoted D&D and LARP fans. It sounds fairly interesting, though the director’s main theme – “people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones” – won’t win any prizes for originality.

More intriguing was a link I found in the comment section of the review, leading to this cautionary tale. Who knew that D&D could be so exciting? I played for years, and I never once got invited to join a coven of witches.

Looking around the Chick Publications site reminded me of when I was about 6 or 7. There was an old lady who stood outside the gate of our primary school at break time, handing out similar illustrated tracts. One story sticks in my mind to this day; a young boy has the temerity to question his pastor about the truth of the Bible, and the very next day he is hit by a speeding truck, sent to Hell and tortured by demons, all depicted in graphic detail. I guess she was sincere in her belief that it was necessary to put the fear of eternal damnation into the minds of young children in order to save them from evil doctrines like communism or evolution (not to mention Catholicism, Islam and, of course, homosexuality), but even at that tender age my reaction was to think that her religion was pretty messed up.

I sometimes wonder if this early experience was what put me off religion for life, but if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t) I was a confirmed unbeliever even before that. In fact I can’t remember a time when I ever had any sort of faith, which I’m not sure how to explain. I did grow up in a basically secular household, but my parents weren’t militant atheists or anything, and Christianity was part of the fabric of our community. I repeated the prayers at school assembly, went to church at Easter and Christmas and was generally exposed to the idea that being a Christian was the normal thing to do, but none of it ever clicked with me. In the years that have followed I have learned about many other religions and belief-systems, ancient and modern, but my interest has always been cultural rather than spiritual. I’ve never felt that there was any sort of void in me that yearned to be filled by religion, or that my lack of faith meant I was missing something. Perhaps I just don’t have the religious gene.

(I have been politically active most of my adult life, and pious types have often told me that I am sublimating my religious impulses in radicalism, that The Communist Manifesto is my bible, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t see politics as a moral issue, but more a technical question of how to efficiently organise society. I certainly don’t think that being a communist makes me a better person than anyone else, and I’m not expecting any eternal reward for my labours).

I don’t really have a point here; I’m just musing nostalgically. I’m definitely not suggesting that all Christians are hate-filled bigots; I’ve known plenty over the years and hardly any have been like Fred Phelps. Indeed one of the saving graces of the Christian faith is the fact that its adherents are mostly content to be fuzzy about the details of doctrine. Even the Pope thinks that non-believers can go to heaven, which, to my mind, seems hard to reconcile with John 14:6, but I guess that resolving such contradictions is what keeps theologians busy. (Personally, I’d probably pass on Paradise; I’ve always thought that the first circle of the Inferno sounded much more interesting). I imagine that the followers of other religions behave in a similar way; none of the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists that I know are particularly devout, though I’d have to admit that my deadbeat friends may not be entirely representative examples of their respective faiths.

I used to be more actively anti-religious in my younger days, and I would argue with people about how clearly nonsensical their beliefs were, but with age I have mellowed into a position of liberal secularism; I don’t care what people think or do in their homes and places of worship (or where they build those places of worship), as long as they keep their dogma out of the schoolroom, and don’t try to tell me who I can or cannot marry.

I still think that, on balance, religion is a pernicious influence on society, but no amount of reasoned discourse is going to make it disappear as long as the material conditions that underpin it persist. Everyone knows Marx’s comment about religion being “the opium of the people”, but the full quote is more illuminating:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If we ever make it to a society that is free of inequality and injustice, the illusion of religion will no longer be necessary, and it will fade into history. We will look upon Christianity and other modern faiths in the same way we regard the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans; interesting cultural phenomena that have no direct significance in our everyday lives. Whether I’ll be around to see that day is another question, but I can always live in hope.

That gum you like is going to come back in style

I don’t look at the TV much these days, and I very rarely find myself following an episodic drama series. The last time I even partially got into a show was when I caught most of the first season of The Wire, which I quite liked, but the effort of committing myself to regular appointments with the box was too much, and I never made it past the first episode of season two.

I was thinking about this the other day when I read an article at the AV Club which considered the cultural impact of David Lynch’s cult 90’s series Twin Peaks. It reminded me not just of how slavishly I had followed that programme, but of the way that even left-field shows like Lynch‘s unsettling masterpiece could attract mass audiences at that time.

Compared with today it was both easier and harder for a show to be a big hit back then; easier because there was less competition for the audience’s attention – the UK had only four terrestrial channels to choose from, satellite and cable were niche products, and there was no internet – and harder because there was no way to see things other than by sitting down in front of the TV at a set time – no DVD box-sets, no Tivo, and no internet TV. We did have VHS recorders I guess, though the elderly model I had at the time was much too unreliable to trust with an unmissable event like that week’s Twin Peaks.

I had been a big David Lynch fan since I saw Eraserhead late one night on TV, and I’ve liked everything he’s done since (even Dune), especially Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (the latter is in the running for my favourite film of all time), so it was always likely I was going to be a Twin Peaks devotee, but what confirmed my addiction was the community that grew up around the show on campus. I was already hanging out with most of what became the Twin Peaks crowd, but we certainly bonded that little bit more over long evenings of coffee and cherry pie (actually, “coffee” and “cherry pie”) discussing our various theories of what the story was about. I’d like to say that we still get together every year to reminisce, but, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t talked to any of those people in the best part of twenty years. Probably best to leave the memories undisturbed.

Anyway, the point that I’m meandering towards is that often what sticks with you about a cultural experience is not so much the event itself, but more the social connections that surrounded it. What’s changed since my Twin Peaks days is that, thanks to the wonder of the interwebs, it’s no longer necessary to be geographically co-located with your fellow fanatics to feel part of a community.

Certainly my experience over the last three years has been that, while it was the virtual eye-candy that initially pulled me into Second Life, what’s kept me around is the narrative that unfolds in the relationships between residents, played out partly in-world, but mostly in the SL blogosphere.

I don’t want to overstate the profundity of the SL storyline – it’s more potboiler than classic literature – but it’s diverting, harmless, and, best of all, it creates a pleasing illusion of interactivity. I can tell myself that I am involved in writing this tale, in my own small way, and that makes me just committed enough to stick with it through the many, many dull patches.

There’s an interesting paper by Wanenchak in the latest edition of Game Studies entitled Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and Livejournal Roleplaying. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, but the part pertinent to this discussion is the brief review of Goffman‘s frame analysis as it applies to a collaborative online narrative:

… frames allow players to engage with the gameworld in such a way that their narrative construction and interactions become sensible to themselves and to each other.

What I find most fascinating about the Second Life narrative (and what I think gives it a claim to being a unique cultural phenomenon) is the fact that the frames that people are using are often unclear, shifting and overlapping. To put it in different terms, although they are operating in the same “gameworld”, which includes not just the SL grid but also the associated blogs, tweets and what have you, people are engaged with often wildly differing levels of immersion.

The effect of this is, more often than not, to render the meta-story unintelligible, but occasionally it all comes together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile. I would give some examples of this, but I suspect that, like real dreams, the beauty of these moments is highly subjective, and that any description I attempted would sound hopelessly prosaic.

Which brings us back to David Lynch. What I think he does better than any other director is capture the fractured reality of dreams and nightmares, in a way that is at once unsettling and beguiling. Sometimes – just sometimes – being part of the world of Second Life is like living in Twin Peaks.