7.28.2018

How do I explain to you, what you are?

Disclaimer 1; This blog entry may, or may not, have stemmed from altered states of consciousness that led to posting to a chat circle of friends between midnight and 1 am.

While a few friends responded in-kind, it was after noticing various memes that one friend in particular posted that captured what I had spent the last 2 hours doing: Contemplating the relationship of man vs. nature. In particular, who runs who.


That friend (We will call him John to protect his identity) posted this GIF that I reference below as the "flower pic": 


What you are privy to below is the stream of consciousness exchange that followed between myself, and "John".  

Disclaimer 2: Note that the comments below, on my end, are in some cases elaborated or formatted for reader clarification and as such, this is not an exact transcript. This is due, in part, that about 50% of the way through the editing process, I realized that I could have been using shit like [sic] to preserve the original format. This is also due, in part, to the fact that it's now 3:17 am and I still have not gone to stare at the moon as noted at the end of the chat exchange, so I'm not interested in starting over with a re-paste of the original exchange and then adding in the aforementioned "shit like [sic]" to make it all legit.


8.28.2011

You, Squared

The universe is a massive system of equations being solved right now through the passage of time. Life represents a unique unknown: the indeterminate ability to affect concious change from one moment to the next. Thus, Earth and other life bearing planets amplify these variable outcomes to cosmic scales in ways we may never grow to appreciate.


So look to affect change in interdependent ways, and these choices will have a positive effect on the rest of the universal equation, even if you only perceive the immediate outcomes.

This is your life.

Solve for (x)

4.06.2011

The [Re:]humanization of the MMO

Foreword

A month ago I posted some comments on the psych-state of affairs within the online gaming experience expecting it to be just another rant in the books. To my surprise, two interesting (and positive) things happened.  First, I got a re-tweet on the article from a total stranger.  Not just any total stranger, but one of the younger demographic that my very rant crucified as a generation of TL:DR gamers.

Second, I received a great email from my good friend Dacian who not only read my post, but had some very insightful points from his unique perspective as a gamer who happens to work for a online gaming company. 

Rather than trying to paraphrase - I decided to post his email (mostly) in tact with the obvious personally identifying details removed so that you might enjoy the journey as much as I did.

~ iRonin

P.S. - I apologize to anyone who ever tried to comment here and had the same issues Dacian had - I never realized the default security setting was so crappy, and have since opened it up so that anyone can comment.

--------------------------------------------

God dammit, this is way too close to the blogging line than I ever wanted to get. I apologize if the thoughts are all over the board, since this was a type and go to meeting, type more and go to meeting, kinda effort. For the love of God set up that remote podcast or something…

I recently stumbled across your The Dehumanization of the MMO post and felt the urge to toss out my two cents, thoughts and experience. Why am I doing this in email and not in the comment section you ask? Well it’s actually relevant to the larger topic and hand and the line of questions you ask such as:  

Do these people try out a new sport or a hobby, and if they aren't immediately good at it, do they just give up? Do they practice enough to get into their first competition, and then as long as they keep winning they'll keep playing? And what if they suck at those hobbies, or their job, do they even know it?  No one seems willing to provide real feedback - or maybe they just don't hear it? Does their boss give them negative feedback and they just blank out, taking none of it to heart and just quit, or nod and move on passively? Are they even equipped to deal with the consequences of failures where you can't just walk away and try some other time or not at all? Is it just me?

Now I shall reconstruct for you the timeline of events and thought process that has lead me here.

Log in for work today… stumble on http://decipi-revera.blogspot.com/... Notice recent post… Notice topic on video gaming… read entire post word for word…. Re-read entire post again….think on post…

I pause here to point out that my time investment for reading that whole post twice has well pushed me into over the 30 minute mark of time I have invested. This is important to note leading into part two.

Click comment link to respond…  Post a comment section comes up… I can’t click in the box to start writing… Hrm… Check top of the page… Oh there is a sign in button…. Oh it’s a google account… attempt to remember google credentials… hrm…. This is getting annoying… why can’t I just comment…. Remember that dthrax wasn’t available try other names…. Finally remember right now…. Now can’t remember password…. Remember password… Sign in…. Ok sweet now to comment…. Click link back to George’s page… hrm still can’t comment…. WTF still not signed in…. Sign back in…. maybe I have to subscribe…. Subscribe to blog…. OK HERE WE GO FINALLY!............... #&$*(@ STILL CANNOT COMMENT OK FU YOU KNOW WHAT OFF TO EMAIL I GO…

Now all this leads up to a realization of “Wait… did I just prove his post right? Am I unwilling to commit to figure out what the problem is and get my just reward? Am just seeking the path of least resistance as a means to an end? I spent 30 minutes reading this and am not willing to invest more than 10 to be able to comment to help ease my friends wondering if people are out there. To participate in lively discussion that I miss so much. To let him know that his post is so awesome and that I recently found the world’s best bacon cure at  http://himtnjerky.com/ and I as a BBQ fanatic endorse this product and for the low price of 6.99 it is super best deal and he buy now! What the hell is going on here?!? How did it get to this point!!!”

Recounting my Journey

My real MMO experience was when as a Microsoft Fan Boy I picked up a copy of Asheron’s Call, installed it and log in. I had zero idea what the hell was going on as back then MMOs seemed to be more punishing and a lack of tutorial and guide to weed out people with short attention spans or inability to logically deconstruct failures and find ways to improve yourself. After figuring base mechanics I set out in the world and found myself in a zone that I did not belong where mobs preceded to play “wack a mole” every time I respawned near my corpse. Luckily for me a more senor player wandered by and took pity on the poor noob, easily killed the mobs, and informed me how to get back to the starting area so. Before leaving he geared me out with higher level gear that seemed to me at the time as if Odin himself had handed me a set of Destroyer amour and Mj√∂llnir.

Point 1: Early MMOs seemed to require you to pay a much higher ticket to entry price. There were no tutorials, no hand holding, if you were dumb the game punished you for it and delighted in doing so. The counter to this is the community stepped up wanting to bring more into their fold and this fostered an early sense of belonging and assistance and help. I can remember nothing about that game, but I still remember that guy rescuing me and gearing me out in a genuine attempt to help bring another player into their community. Current MMOs now having gotten better at tutorials and entry level zones and areas seek to guide the player more through their experience and don’t really foster that sense of belonging until it slaps you in the face in the first time you are “forced” to group to complete your objective. I say forced because giving the high amount of focus on solo content and improvement on things like mob spawning, zone design, etc there really is no reason to group with a stranger when doing your normal quests or grind. And given that most solo content is designed to be well… solo able… you don’t really experience a failure unless you yourself do something stupid, pull to many mobs (harder to do, due to those improvements in mob placement, aggro mechanics etc). So the first time you group and fail its shocking because you’ve been doing all this stuff yourself and haven’t died… so it can’t possibly be your fault…. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to do all this stuff right?!?.

From Asheron’s call I didn’t really play an MMO again until Star Wars Galaxies. Thinking back on it now… Again lack of tutorial, but there we had Fatal Exception, who had figured out all the tricks in beta and was there to hold hands, help gear out and ease the transition of noobs into the world and into the world of an MMO. This was in turn passed on to other people brought into the fold who signed in. Looking back on Galaxies though I think it might actually be a good precursor for what would later happen with WoW, due to the popularity of the Star Wars license suddenly lots of people who had never really played an MMO were picking up the game and trying that game type out. Galaxies further supported this by having the social classes and crafting classes that did not require the understanding, skill, and awareness that more traditional combat roles required. Eventually though the casual player either through their own desires of wanting to try something new or perhaps having to overhear war stories of how awesome it was taking a Rancor down, or destroying the rebel base and owning the revival rebel guild, decided that they too want to start down the combat path. Now I honestly have no idea what Galaxies overall market penetration and share  was or what its subscription numbers were, but it felt big. The power gamers who had long since figured out the OP builds (Rifleman/TKM/Brawler, Pistoler/Fencer/Smuggler, Combat Medic/Anything) welcomed their new casual friends into their fold as they have always done and shared with them their builds and how to own (with one button pushes). It’s here were downfall started I think, and it wasn’t just Galaxies either. Think about City of Heroes, the Matrix Online, etc.

Point 2: The start of the introduction of casuals and MMOs with poor balance and shitty mechanics created the perception that they too were awesome at this combat stuff. I can remember how awesomely proud you were running up a Martial Artist in the Matrix only to go into shock and awe watching the broken mechanics of a Hacker or struggling as a pure bounty hunter against people far, far, far less skilled that just happen to stack the right boxes in skill trees and to them they felt they were awesome. This again started down the slippery slope of “I deserve to be awesome cause I showed up” which is very similar to the “everyone deserves a trophy” mentality that was being pushed outside of the gaming world. I think even those who had been gaming for a while fell into the seductive warm embrace of how easy it was to win with some of the builds.

Out of these new MMOs relationships were formed, the internet was taking off more and more rapidly, social sites were coming up, forums were more and more common. Vent and team speak were taking off so it became much easier to stay in touch. EQ2 and WoW fired up their serves and joined the fray. Whats interesting to not here is both games had very good starting level tutorials and zones. Which we has power players loved cause it made our ramp up time even faster, but also allowed for the casual player to start figuring things out themselves and not having to form those bonds you mention for guilds and groups. Having played both with EQ2 seeming to take more to it’s EQ 1 roots and WoW taking inspiration from EQ, but by seemingly limiting choices on classes, spells and mechanics at higher levels it’s easy to look back and see atleast in my opinion why people moved from EQ2 over to WoW. WoW was less punishing on death. WoW seemed to balance more towards the solo content. And since all your friends new to the MMO scene were having fun over there why wouldn’t you want to play! It’s here where the irony of the Dehumanization of the MMO really starts to come to light. We dehumanized it by inviting more and more people in and setting expectations that they can be successful with little to no effort.

Path of least resistance and Email and choices

Vanilla WoW still held to a lot of the old rules of the grandfather MMOs, but over time the new crowd of subscribers who had not played began to complain. Often times on things that bothered the longer term players. Getting Warlord is a pain in the ass cause Alterc Valley takes too long! No one wants to PVP on my server! I can’t find a group at the time I play! All of these at the time seemed like valid things to us and we happily threw our voice in with the lot. Other shouts began to trickle up from the casuals who were not top end masters of their class or lucky enough to find a raiding guild willing to help carry them through. “We want to see top end content! We are also paying XX.XX a month!” What game designer wouldn’t want to expose more people to their work? What graphics artist wouldn’t want people to gaze upon the assets he spent hours or days rendering? What encounter designer wouldn’t want as many people as possible to talk about how awesome the mechanics he pieced together were? Gradually the bar was lowered whether it was  from 40 man to 25 to 10 for raids. Or introducing buffs or nerfing fights after top end guilds had already made it through so more people could go in and see the parts of the game. All of which again done with the pure intentions of sure let’s help get more of the community in to see how awesome this stuff is. What the designers failed to consider along with the rest of us is that as things got easier and easier and players got more and more choices, people will always move toward the path of least resistance. Just as you point out in your Game Theory PVP balance post.

Even I am subject to this by writing this in email. It’s not that I’m not capable of troubleshooting to figure out why I can’t post on the comment section. But why bother? Do I not get the same result by sending this in email? I have found the path of least resistance and am following it.  I literally had a half dozen choices and ways I could reply to you… and now so does the modern MMO player.

"The game design industry has made it so easy to do things that the time investment isn’t really there anymore. Your logic on waiting for 60 minutes to get in a group has one major fault. It fails to take into account that these players can go do dozens of other things while they wait. They can run dailies, grind rep, work on primary or secondary professions, advance achievements, all things they likely want to do anyway and can now do so from anywhere in the world. Why wouldn't they min max their chances for success. There is no real cost. Sure they don’t get in and may have to wait 60 minute to get back in, but it’s not a real 60 minutes to them. They have a list of things to do in game. We have given them too many choices of things to work on. It’s no loss. It’s not that they suck or even know they suck. Again your Game Theory post sums it up. Why would I invest the effort when there is an easier way with no real loss to me?"

I have dozens of other points to throw out about what BC and Wrath did to the MMO scene and on other games what an increased number of Save Points have done to gamers as a whole or things like Call of Duty Modern World at Special Black Ops Warfare’s multiplayer XP grind have done to a whole… but when I way the choice… it’s much easier to get you to set up a podcast than just keep typing J.

Oh and don’t forget. Super buy offer now on Bacon Cure!

3.01.2011

The Dehumanization of the MMO

15 years isn't a long time to say that you've been around gaming in general- or even to say that you've been around online gaming, but it is a long time to say you've been around MMO (massively multi-player) games.  I was 19 at the time, working for a call center contracted to America Online and CompuServe (R.I.P.)

Tech call centers were the place to be at the time. Sure, on the surface you were just taking calls and troubleshooting hardware and software that would very quickly become irrelevant, but it was the collection of people that were pooled together in that same place. You had people from all walks of life, but more importantly you had a huge, gradient melting pot of hobbies and interests that ranged from "I hate computers but they hired me anyways" to "I'm a hacker and this is just my day job to pay for my ISP".

You have to remember, information had a harder time spreading then. AOL was...well..shit - and the early web pages were still overly focused on self identification while the search engines were still young (I think I used Alta Vista, which was at least decent if you used your +/- keyword logic well).  But as far as really connecting people and groups together, well, that was pretty non-existent -  unless you made your site through some kind of shared hosting like GeoCities, or you were savvy enough to hook into a Webring, or stumbled upon a portal page riddled with links to other sites - (50% of which were broken links at any given time) - and all of it was being delivered to the average consumer at something like 24.4 kb/s while tying up one of their physical land lines, so the amount of surfing possible in one night was a fraction of what I do in an hour on my iphone while streaming the latest Rogan podcast.

But not at the call center. There, we had a T1, baby. Off calls and on breaks, the call center became a hub of information exchange. It was the people I met there that got me into my very first hosted site, 37thchamber.com, hosted out of a then-young Dimensional Communications. It was there that I discovered HTML, and Active-X, and FutureSplash. It was there that I discovered online gaming beyond first person shooters.  It was there that I discovered Everdark MUD.

It was there that I discovered Meridian 59 - my first MMO. The first MMO, by standard of a fully graphical interface.  I was late to the MUD scene.  They already had the idea of a multiplayer, persisted world under their belt, but they were all Text based.  More "choose your own adventure" in that you had to imagine the scene around you.  You had to interact with text as well, no mouse.  This could be frustrating at times - trying to guess at what the command interpreter was expecting and having to word it just right to get a reaction.

So the MUD pros were really just those people who, either by trial and error or by networking with other people playing at the time, had come to figure out exactly how to get around, exactly what to type for each quest, etc.  They were the masters of macros, binding keyboard arrow directionals to the in-game movement commands that were based on the cardinal directions (n,e,s,w) so they could zip through the world map 90-degrees at a time like a Tron light bike rider.

Meridian 59.. and other early graphic based games like EverQuest and Ultima Online reset the playing field for everyone.  We had to port over skills we learned in the FPS world like mouse looking and negotiating terrain in a 3d environment.  These early days of MMO were, in general, slow going and pretty lonely because the greater population of players were getting used to just being in the world, like a toddler still learning how to walk and talk.  There was lots of dying to level 1 beetles, rats, and wolves. There was lots of "where the hell am I" in towns that predated highlight paths, waypoints, and minimaps with tracking.

But something happened after those first few months and years while people were still getting used to their Avatars. They progressed to a point where they were able to get around ok - but things were still pretty hard to find without considerable exploration.  And some encounters were simply too tough to go it completely alone.  Guilds quickly became the glue that brought these individuals together. They were more like families, with a great deal of focus around contribution and nurturing of its members.

Invitations were taken under serious consideration - guilds back then didn't just "take anyone with a pulse".  There were officer interviews, trial periods and whatnot to make sure that a potential member really did fit within the family system.  The fastest you could get in is if you were related or had someone with pull directly vouch for you.  Leaving a guild was unheard of and not usually without a great deal of drama.  Early on, these things usually occurred over something serious - relationships gone bad, personality conflicts, gossip, etc.  Many times, even if the person left, it was really just a cry for help, and after a few days of cooling off and talking things out, they were back in.

And this was life for a while, at least for general questing, crafting, and small dungeons.  It wasn't until the concept of raiding came to be that guilds realized that the family style "no one left behind" system had its short-comings.  Until raiding came around (and arguably even during early raiding) - the rules were simple. Some people understand things faster than others, and it was their job to teach the rest the necessary skills to win.  There was considerable discussion before each raid, hell before each pull, to ensure that everyone understood exactly what their role was and what was expected of them.  If there was a wipe, analysis was done after each attempt to really troubleshoot and look for areas of improvement or efficiency.  But the important thing was this: The people involved were the given. The variable that would not change unless there was a gross imbalance of classes (not enough healers, etc) going on.  If you were on the team, you were on the team and you were, eventually, going to get it down and succeed.

For some guilds - this SOP worked well. Not to toot my own horn, but the guild I led (Illumin Cathari) used this model to train some of the best players on the server - many of which went on later to become guild leaders and "uber guild" officers themselves.  We grew ourselves from the ground up - one member at a time - with patience, training, focus and did I mention practice?

There was a competing model that was starting to develop around the same time. You see, when you build a guild as family first, performance second, the cost you pay is in the ramp time. You are not going to be the first guild on the server to hit end game content.  You are not going to be the guild that only needs to raid 2 nights a week because you can blow through all the content in 6 hours. You're going to be the guild that struggles to fill slots, that has to run lower end dungeons to practice certain techniques. You're going to be the guild that has to wipe and reset many, many times before everyone can get it down.

Other guilds saw this issue from a different angle. They recognized that every guild had a gradient of players from the completely novice up to the gifted.  Rather than cultivating players, they decided to harvest the top 10% of several guilds to form new guilds, like a permanent all-star team that didn't have to deal with anyone below the curve.

It started, as most things do, with competition for resources. Another interesting aspect of old MMOs was the idea of open raid content. "Instancing" didn't exist - raiding zones were simply there for anyone to enter, regulated only be a respawn timer.  The entry fee was literally a guild's ability to "break in" and secure a foothold in the zone, which involved having to blindly zone in to an area that usually had a lot of trash mobs that were ready to swarm, and having to try and pull to a safe spot on one of the zone walls to establish a safe base of operation and proceed from there.

Let me try to paint the picture for you on how this worked from the angle of one of my favorite EverQuest raids: The Plane of Fear.

Imagine a giant, open zone full of hill country, about the size of Hillsbrad Foothills (for those of you familiar with WOW).  You zone in by taking a portal - literally a loading screen - that drops you on top of a hill far out in the zone.  All around you, patrolling randomly, are dozens and dozens of raid-level elite mobs with aggro radii almost as far as you can see.  Now imagine that each one of those mobs are communal - that is - if they see you, others around them can chain aggro.

You are part of the break in team - which consists mostly of tanks, healers, crowd control experts and, most importantly, people who can feign death if things get too crazy.  Everyone calls out who to assist off.  Failure to assist will lead to broken cc's which leads to a wipe. Everyone buffs up around the entry portal and.... 1...2....3.... click!

Loading, please wait....

(Did I mention there was no vent or team speak? all you had was chat. Oh, and remember that you're doing all this over your phone line, so crashing while you zone in is a common occurrence the happened the most to healers and tanks)

Welcome to the Plane of Fear!

Before your screen fully loads, you are already getting beat on by the first mob that saw your crew zone in from a mile away. More are coming. One of the tanks has managed to taunt the scareling off you, but not before it nearly killed you with a backstab. The tank gets a worse fate - after a few seconds of holding threat, suddenly he completely vanishes from your field of vision.  The scareling has teleported him away from the break in area, placing him within aggro range of even more mobs over a different hill nearby.

You realize now why your raid leader said: "Get to the west wall." at least a dozen times. Getting to the wall cuts the raids aggro range in half, and people who get teleported hopefully won't go too much further from the wall.

The zone wall is a steep incline, running up the side you wonder how your toon would ever really be able to have a foothold, but getting to the top, you turn and look down at the situation as it is unfolding around you: a scene of barely-controlled chaos, like a car that's lost its breaks careening down the road whose only saving grace is not needing to turn yet.

One of your friends, an Enchanter, is standing towards the middle, surrounded by motionless mobs. Every 5 seconds he has to pick a different target and "mesmerize it", effectively stunning the mob for about 15 seconds before it wears off.  He's struggling to keep up, there at 6 of them he's having to track, and there are no "spell timer" mods or addons to help him.  He just has to stand there and keep mental count of which mobs are about to break free.

Slowly the rest of the team begins fighting the loose mobs that are being tanked near the wall... it takes a good 2-3 min just to kill one, so if everything goes well, this group will hold it together and finish them all off over the next 30 min, securing a foothold on the south-west corner of the map.


Welcome to the Plane of Fear.


The nature of the rest of the zone is similar... the raid leaders have to decide a direction (towards a boss) and the raid has to progress, precariously, through the sprawling hills pulling and dealing with the hordes of trash mobs between.  Typically, this involves having the bulk of the raid stay still in a secured area, and sending out scouts (druids, rangers, monks) to fish for pulls.  Most of the time a person will discover too many mobs... and when this happens the scout is instructed to NOT lead the train of mobs back to the group, but instead die safely away from the raid so that the mobs will reset.

Sometimes the death isn't in vain... as the mobs wander back from the corpse at random intervals, if you're lucky you get a sickly gazelle that hangs around longer than the others, and a secondary scout can pluck it as a single pull and lead it back to the raid to kill. Sometimes.

And this is the progress of the raid. Inching along a vast zone full of trash until arriving at a boss location, usually a temple of sorts with even MORE trash mobs surrounding it, requiring more careful pulling before you can engage the boss itself. Hours and hours of fun for everyone.

Exciting eh?  Now take all of that - all of the effort that your group had to put in just to break into the zone, and add to it the element of competition.  Your raid zone is not your own instance.  Other guilds that want to break into the same zone, can.  Other guilds that want to establish their foothold so that they can out-pull your team to get to the bosses first, do so without regard.

Now, at first, it was an honorable situation.

If two guilds showed up at 7:00 pm for the reset, questions were asked and negotiations were had.

Are both guilds present, in force, ready to rock?
Did one guild clear out the plane last week, thereby making it only fair that they take turns?
What if the guild that's ready to go is incapable of securing the entrance - do they really get to just wipe all night long until they give up, forcing other raids to just wait on standby until they succeed or fail?

As I'm sure you can already imagine... this "what's fair" negotiating and behavior did not last long.  Guilds who had experience lost patience with guilds who wanted to try it for the first time.  High-functioning, competing guilds argued over whose turn it was, lamenting about how nothing of value dropped the week before, or how they totally got screwed by a server reset.

This gave way to the "asshole" guilds who, regardless if your situation, would show up in force and, without any coordination beyond their own, hop in and start pulling - even if your guild was clearly the one that entered first and established the initial foothold.

The asshole guilds knew that they had the expertise and gear to pull faster than you, so they were perfectly willing to compete for bosses and "leap frog" others to get ahead within the zone.  This led to "anti-asshole guild" behavior, like purposely aggroing a bunch of trash and running it over to the competing raid's camp to effectively "train" them with mobs and cause a wipe.

This retaliation may have left the smaller guilds feeling vindicated, but it had the negative consequence of involving the GMs who sided with the idea of competition, but did not look favorably upon harassment like mob-training.  Their message was clear: If you can't negotiate the zone control with words, you just have to get better at competing for pulls.

Which takes us back to the family structure of guilds.  Whether you were a good player in a family style guild who aspired to one day even SEE the Plane of Fear with your guild, or you were a good player in a guild that managed to raid but had to compete with other capable raiding guilds, week after week you saw the top end gear being distributed to only a select few who could manage to make it happen consistently. This lead to the great guild mergers and the collapse of power.

Greed is a motherfucker. Not only was there the psychology of competition, but even within successful guilds there was a developing sense of entitlement.  It's clear in any kind of team structure that there are some individuals who do more of the work than others - and for some of these guilds, there were people who were basically being carried by a core group of people who were performing above and beyond.  It didn't take long for these elite-minded individuals to get together and share the similar tales and come to the eventual conclusion:  Instead of competing internally and externally - let's just make our own guild and get the best of both worlds.

And so it was, on my server as I'm sure it came to be on others, that the top raiding guilds each had splinter factions break off and form new ones based almost entirely on a meritocracy.  Careful consideration was also given to class balancing - even IF you were an excellent Monk, if the guild already had 2 good ones in it, you may not be let in just to prevent saturation and gear competition.

The guilds who really suffered were the mid-sized ones that were trying to home grow their operation - and I'm not just saying that because mine was one of them.  Think about it: The top players from the top guilds break off and form a new "uber guild".  This guild was made of players who were willing to part from their original family guilds in pursuit of end game gear and content goals. Many of them were nice, but most of them  tended to be more selfish, asshole types with a sense of inflated pride and entitlement that comes with being on the all-star team.  This guild tramples on all the others over content. They can afford to have people do nothing else but sit and "camp" for the appearance of bosses, and their skills and resources allow them to mobilize quickly when they do spawn.

So now here you are, a skilled player, still teaching new people to your guild how to pull properly, or how to heal, while all of this is going on.  Then one day you log in and a representative from the uber guild catches you in whispers: "Hey, I heard you're a pretty good cleric - how would you like to join us?".  Wow - you think - this is like getting called up to the majors! You're excited, but torn - how do I leave my family? I'm the best cleric in the guild - if I leave, their progression will fall behind weeks if not months...

Situations like that happened a LOT, and it was extremely frustrating because it really did establish a sort of caste system within the mmo community.  New players usually started out in small guilds where they learn nothing, but get the hang of the game. Then they want to do "cool stuff" so they try to apply to the uber guild(s).  The uber guilds turn them down because they aren't good enough to join or they have no room.  The player then "settles" for joining a mid-tier family guild (like mine) where they wait and learn all the valuable skills to perform well at a high levels, and then eventually the uber guild recruits them and they leave. The rich get richer, and often times they don't even have to invest the time and energy it takes to build quality players.

But even as shitty as all that might have been - it established an eco system that was still based on two key human aspects: Notoriety and accountability.  Sure, it sucked that a mid-level guild could never aspire to be on the same performing level as a conglomerate uber guild, but individuals form these guilds were looked upon favorably by the uber guilds - and many of us were allowed to tag along on uber guild raids and pick up gear when they were short players or had extra epics. Players also had a clear progression path, from novice to expert, to aspire to. And finally, like I mentioned earlier, many of the people we trained later went on to be officers and guild leaders of uber guilds, because they started out with solid foundations.

Fast Forward to the Present


This week I just picked up RIFT, marking my 10th...that's right 10th MMO to date. It's actually in playing the early release of the game that prompted me to write this blog post.  Let me set the stage for the situation that lit the spark:

I've leveled a couple of toons to level 20 now (20 of 50), trying out the different archetypes to see which one most interests me to stick with.  At around level 17, characters generally have their 3 talent trees and points spread throughout with one class being the most dominant.  It's around this level that you can finally get a feel for the role.  In line with that, the game also presents players with their first dungeon experience to test their characters out in: Iron Tomb.

Now think about this for a moment.  For the first 10 or so levels you were just getting used to the world in general, how to get around, how your class works, etc. For the next 5 you've got the solo-questing thing down and your fleshing out your character's abilities and starting to see some early pvp and limitations.  17-20 your getting this first dungeon to try out probably your first true group encounter where, especially as THE tank or THE healer, the success of the dungeon depends heavily on your direct contribution.

Is it going to go perfectly the first few times around? Probably not.

Might there be wipes? Most likely.

But you gotta start somewhere... right?

... right?

Cut back to reality:
We enter the zone. Tank announces that this is the first time tanking in an instance, so he's going to mark targets and asks the dps to focus on the mob order.  I type "kk, np" as a brief reassurance that I at least will follow his instruction so he can practice tanking. No one else says a word.

First pull - 3 mobs.  I open up on the mob marked "1".  The other DPS opens up... with whatever aoe attacks they have. The mob labeled "3" runs off and starts to beat on one of the other DPS who aoe'd.

The healer, having to heal both the tank and the DPS that pulled threat, pulls threat himself and the mob is now on him.  I run up and Repelling Shot mob "3" away from the healer and hit it with a snare just as mob "1" dies and everyone else moves on to mob "2".

The tank, seeing mob "3" get rocketed back into his range, turns and starts trying to get threat back on mob "3" while everyone continues to attack mob "2". Mob "2" eventually loses threat on the tank and turns to hit one of the melee, but dies soon after.  Everyone proceeds to finish off mob "3", and combat ends.

Sloppy, but we won. No one says anything. Everyone just moves up for the next pull.

Second pull - 3 mobs. As the tank pulls, another 2 mobs that were on patrol come winding around the corner and aggro. 3 becomes 5.  I try to "misdirect" some of the adds onto my ranger pet to buy time, but it's no use, the other dps have already used the opportunity to spam their aoes and subsequently die. Healer dies immediately after. Then the tank dies. When my pet dies, they all aggro me.  I drop a snare trap and book it for the zone out.

Sloppy, but it was a bad pull.

Before my screen can finish loading, I zone out to find that at least one person from the group has already dropped out of the party without saying anything.  Moments later, a second one types "fail tank", and drops.  I begin typing "Wow, one wipe and everyone quits?" and before I can finish my sentence and hit enter, the rest of the party is gone without a thing said.

10 seconds later, still sitting there astonished, I see the healer announce in the general chat "LFM IT". I see 2 of the other DPS also announcing "DPS LFG IT".

It was as if the Men in Black themselves had materialized out of no where and flashed the memories of everyone in the party except for me and the guy who managed to utter "fail tank" before leaving.  There they all were, shouting for groups in the zone like nothing happened.

You see, not only was I shocked at how quickly they gave up - I mean literally 3 minutes into the dungeon - but I realized something deeper: The lack of /ragequit.  Other than the one guy saying "fail tank", there were no harsh words. No words at all after the sloppy pull, no words at all after the wipe or before leaving the party.  Just... nothing.

This is a new psychology that has been developing over the past... almost year now, and I began seeing it in World of Warcraft although I wasn't consciously aware of it until now. Long before this point, the sense of loyalty to a guild or a group was destroyed with the advent of instancing, cross server queues, and pugging, but even then there was at least a sense of SOME communication, angry or not, that aimed at identifying whatever issue was going on and at least trying to put forth an attempt to remedy the problem before calling it quits.

So when the group wipes - sure, maybe the days of calmly looking through the logs and talking about what the tank could have done better are long gone - but at least for a while there was the "3 min heated debate" where someone says "fail tank", prompting the tank to defend himself with "fail dps - I told you guys to focus on 1 mob at a time because I was learning" with the healer reinforcing the point "dps if you pull threat on adds, I'm not going to heal you".

A heated debate where, even if everyone agrees to disagree, internally people still made adjustments and in most cases were able to correct (without admitting fault, of course) to see the dungeon through to the end.

Now sure, it wasn't all puppies and cupcakes. In some cases a person was so fail and such and asshole about it when called out that no amount of debate could help, in which case that person was asked to leave or  is kicked out of the group and replaced with someone with a better attitude.  Again, maybe a 5 min ordeal tacked on? 10 max?

But now.. now it's like people can't even be bothered to deal with that 5 min inconvenience, or having to troubleshoot or type out a debate at all. Their time, apparently, is so valuable and their view of everyone else (or themselves) is so dismissive, so dehumanized, that the entire group may as well be a random bad hand of poker dealt to them with no chips on the table. No feeling, no opinion, soon as you look at the cards and see the 2-7 you have to work with, you don't even bother to Check on your turn, you just automatically fold and wait for the next hand.

This behavior wasn't unique to this one instance - I actually have 2 level 20 characters in RIFT that I've taken into the dungeon, and even into the early battle ground where the goal is for one team to take and hold a flag (shard) for as long as possible to generate points for their side.  If the other team gets the shard early and racks up an early lead, you can physically watch everyone folding their hands one at a time as every respawn generates less and less people even bothering to run out onto the field (much less go for the shard).

I scaled this observation back to World of Warcraft and realized the same thing was happening there.  I realized that in most battle grounds where my side has given up.. I'm the only one even talking shit in bg chat - and when I do, I'm not even met with counter arguments anymore.  Just the occasional "lol", "just give up" or "u mad?" comments which completely diffuse any potential discussion.

Here's another aspect I find particularly baffling: In WOW specifically, they have daily "random heroics" which you can queue for (cross server) dungeons.  Completing the dungeon gives you a bonus daily reward of points which are then used to by the top-end gear for the current expansion from the vendors... so it's always good to run at least one random heroic a day.

WOW, just like most MMOs, suffers from a non-uniform distribution of players across classes. There are significantly more people who play DPS classes than Tanks and Healers, but the dungeon randomization queues are designed to ensure that each group gets 1 tank, 1 healer, and 3 dps when they are formed by the match maker software.  Now, even with the 3:2 ratio, there are still so many more DPS than support classes that when Tanks and Healers queue, they will almost always immediately find a group, whereas a DPS has to wait in excess of 30 minutes to find an opening.

To deter quitting, Blizzard has additional mechanics built into the game. If you leave a group or a battleground early, you are considered a "deserter" and have to wait a minimum amount of time (10/15 min depending) before you can even queue again, and then you go to the back of the line.  So for a quitter that's a DPS class - you're looking at 30 min to make it into your first group, a 10 min debuff for leaving early, followed by another 30 min wait before you get called into a new group.

That's well over an hour of time between dungeons - which (to people like me that live in reality land) represents the minimum effort time I should be willing to invest in cultivating a group that isn't going well.  If I can help them hobble through the dungeon within even 45 minutes, I still will come out on top vs. telling them to piss off and leaving group and waiting for a new one.

Now - you would think that having to sit around for an hour would be enough to promote a least an angry but tolerant community of people who run random heroics... but the bizarre reality is that it doesn't.

I have had situations in Warcraft where - I'm not shitting you - DPS have left the group without as much as a single pull happening.

Literally, after waiting 30 minutes, the dungeon pops, I zone in, the rest of the group zones in, and the mage says "lol tank only has 110k health", and then drops the party.  If you don't get what he said - the mage basically zoned in and assessed, within a mere glance, that the tank will have problems in the dungeon just by looking at his maximum health and determining that it is lower than average.  But rather than try, or even ask if the tank has all his appropriate gear on, or appropriate spec... without seeing if the healer is well geared and capable of carrying him... without any consideration at all beyond a perception... he's willing to drop group and spend another 30 minutes waiting for a new one at a later time.

What's even more insane is - sometimes rather than re-queuing to fill that last gap with another dime-a-dozen dps, in that and other instances the mere suggestion that the tank or healer are in question is enough to influence other members to do the same - drop without even so much as attempting a pull.

And when the tank and healer drop, you're left there with your thumb up your ass waiting for more of those rare support roles to become available for your instance.

One thing I have to admire about these... lets call them binary players... is actually their lack of rage.  I mean the first thing to go in group dynamics is compassion - patience usually gives way to contempt and when contempt is in play, people begin do demean those that they feel are failing at their role.  But even in the worst /ragequit situations, the general feedback can be gleamed from their rant and there is at least SOMEthing to consider, even if it's just that they are misreading the situation.

This new "silent quit" style is nice, I guess, because there is no animosity; which I guess means less stress which I guess is a good thing - but damn.  Could you imagine trying to learn a new skill and the only feedback you get is whether or not everyone around you stays or leaves?  Or being a stand up comedian, telling your jokes and getting only completely neutral looks as the return?

And yet this is the reality that the mmo community is evolving towards even now.  A new game like Rift is supposed to be a reset - the newness and unfamiliarity of the environment and game mechanics which causes people to want to work together more and grow with each other, (at least until people start hitting max level).  You would think...

But instead, it's like all the habits that were developed elsewhere simply carry over with the individual, completely stunting the natural progression that should be occurring - especially at the level of the FIRST dungeon a new character has access to in the game where they SHOULD be making their mistakes and learning.

I'm still not sure if this evolution is an eventuality or something we should fear. I often have to weigh the changing of a mindset vs. simply having the contrast of experience. I mean in a sense the reason why I care so much is because of the years of experience that I lived through up to this point - in a strange way much like our immigrant ancestors that go on incessantly about saving money and the value of a dollar, where as I don't blink twice about the fact that it's hard to get out of a restaurant for under 10 bucks a person or that the cars I like are all more than $25,000.

I guess I wonder about more than just the dehumanization effect within the game is if this psychology carries over into the real world. I mean, do these people try out a new sport or a hobby, and if they aren't immediately good at it, do they just give up? Do they practice enough to get into their first competition, and then as long as they keep winning they'll keep playing?

And what if they suck at those hobbies, or their job, do they even know it?  No one seems willing to provide real feedback - or maybe they just don't hear it? Does their boss give them negative feedback and they just blank out, taking none of it to heart and just quit, or nod and move on passively? Are they even equipped to deal with the consequences of failures where you can't just walk away and try some other time or not at all?

Or maybe...

Maybe it's just me.

I mean, maybe back then everyone just took this MMO stuff way too seriously, investing too much thought and interest in the other human beings sitting at their keyboards on the other side of the wire.

Maybe MMOs should have just been a game like any other - something you can drop and walk away from at any time since it has no real world consequences one way or another.

Maybe massively "multi-player" is just a euphemism  for a single player RPG inhabited by slightly-more-advanced NPCs rather than players - clever AI, but warranting no more attention or regard than a robot servant or a pet hamster in the real world.

Maybe it's the effects of machines and humans, and I'm just noticing it more than others. Maybe this dehumanization is something we are inherently capable of, which is why there is a deeper part of our nature that wants to bond, emotionally and physically, with other people like our families and significant others. Remove that proximity - remove that personalization - remove the consequences of having to tell someone face to face that they are failing, and we become cold and machine line, making purely strategic choices to maximize our chances for success without regard.

And finally, and ironically enough, here I sit - writing this about the dehumanization within a game, all the while typing it out to the empty void of a blog where it is uncertain who - if anyone - will read it much less want to comment on or discuss it further.  The comedy of it is that 100% of the comments that get submitted here and on my core website are from fake bot accounts pretending to tell me my posts are awesome, then linking to whatever product they want to endorse.

What a mad, mad world.

10.19.2010

Thackeray

It's taken me a while to put text to screen on the following topic - not for lack of conviction - but for the irrational fear that "putting it out there", so to speak, would invoke all the psychological slides that come with it from those who hold differing beliefs, and thus the potential damage this might cause to my relationships with those friends and family. I think, perhaps, that I've simply come to terms with this fear, partially realizing that I may be underselling the potential ability for whoever reading to, put bluntly, "not freak out"..

Thackeray. Specifically, one William Makepeace Thackeray, had this to say:
"Mother is the word for God on the hearts and lips of all little children"
You may also recognize the quote from "The Crow" during a particularly interesting scene with the drugged out mother. As you can imagine, then, this particularly heavy blog is about religion, and to me this quote sums up perfectly the core of what I believe in... but I wouldn't wave the victory Jesus flags just yet.

Historically, I was raised Roman Catholic. I attended a Catholic elementary school for the entirety of  my pre-pubescent youth.  I was baptized, participated in Communion, Confession and,. eventually, even completed Confirmation as a young teen. Yep, I made it through all the sacraments you can achieve just short of getting married, becoming gravely ill, or becoming a priest.

As a youth, religion was totalus in that I never really asked about any of the "others" because there was simply so much to learn about this one that it consumed all questions I had, like - Will I see my dog in heaven,  or whether or not I will be stuck there as a little kid if I went early. I can, in all honesty, say that my teachers never specifically spoke badly about any other religion, or hatefully called out others as being evil.  No, religion was instead presented more like the difference between the good student who has all the right answers, vs. the other not so good students who had the wrong answers.

It was not fear as much as pity - that those "other" people are in for a rude awakening when they pass on thinking they had everything figured out, only to find out that St. Peter responds with a blank stare and a  "Who?" when they ask for Vishnu or Buddha at the pearly white gates. Psychologically, I of course felt that I was being indoctrinated into the winning side - which of course anyone would feel going from no side to some side.

My parents of course reinforced everything I was learning, being Catholics themselves and their parents before them - which made it easy to take what these other adults were telling us as fair facts, and as such, I continued learning.  It wasn't until 4th or 5th grade that I encountered the first crack in the foundation:
Noon lunch. Our Cafeteria was a large, open room that the church, attached directly to the school, could open up into and use as an overflow section.  During the week, long fold-able bench style tables served as our Facebooks and Twitters.  These were the social aggregations of age & popularity - of best friends - of post-recess sports discussions and cartoon reviews.  
Above us hovered the nuns, the teachers, and the lunch staff, all there to ensure benign talks, a swift culling of horseplay, and the assurance that our parents' dollars weren't going to waste on uneaten, paid for lunches.  (I spent many an afternoon after lunch sitting in-front of a cold disgusting hot dog  I did not wish to consume, told that I could not leave because it would be a waste of my parents hard earned money.)
On this particular day, they were not serving hot lunches, and as such every student was required to bring their own from home.  I much preferred these days, taking extreme pride in my Voltron lunch box and thermos.  On this particular day, my good friend forgot to  bring his lunch, and sat across from me sulking (although I think it was about 70% embarrassment and only 30% actual hunger binding him up)
 So I did what every kid would do for their best bud, I flipped my Voltron lunch box fully open, and put my bag of chips on his new side of the box. He seemed pretty happy, and I know I was happy, I mean I still had the tuna-fish sandwich so it wasn't TOO much to give up.
Well, a passing police officer nun, noticing two kids eating out of the same lunch box, felt differently. Maybe she thought that he was bullying me out of my chips at first, I don't know, but I remember her angrily asking him what was going on.  He barely got "I forgot-" out before I jumped in to smooth it all over- "No no, it's ok, I gave him my chips, it's ok, I've got enough to eat".
To my surprise, this was apparently worse than if he WAS stealing my chips, because she proceeded to explain (read: publicly lecture)  both of us by explaining how, again, MY parents work hard to provide that food for ME, not "everyone else", and that HE should be more mindful about remembering his lunch if he wants to not go hungry sitting in time-out. And then I said it:
"But... but wouldn't Jesus have shared his chips?!?!".  
Now, while you envision the raw...nasal, wide-eyed.... seethingly facial reaction from the Nun - understand that I was genuinely asking this woman for validation - I mean I was like 9, and woefully incapable of such snap, witty rhetoric at the drop of a hat. She - was not convinced of this. An ear twist followed, as I was, ahem, "asked" to pack up my lunch for my new destination: The principal's office. 
The principal, oddly enough, was not a priest, but a doctor - child psychologist I think, and the man to which I owe a great deal of credit for early exercises in critical thinking that had a profound affect on me.  Upon hearing the story of what happened, he of course had to placate the embarrassed and heated nun, but after she left he spoke quite candidly with me.  I could tell, even then, that he was being mitigative about explaining school policy, but he also commended me for behaving as Jesus would have. Interesting, I thought, that school policy was in some cases more powerful than Jesus policy? 
Then came the obligatory call to my mother to let her know what happened, and that I was suspended for the rest of day as "punishment", but reinforced that this was only to appease school policy for back-talking.  When my mother showed up she - actually looked like she had a good laugh about the situation. She again reaffirmed that even though I was being sent home, that I was right to share.

Now you have to understand, at an early age this showed me something profoundly powerful and subtle about the world I was living in. Until then I believed that all adults were on the same page in their convictions.  But this showed me something different - that not all adults, and certainly not even those of the cloth, were infallible... that religion was much more subjective than I originally believed, and that adults sometimes disagreed with the institutions they were bound to.

Understand too, as an aside, that this one moment is profoundly powerful in that all it took was a glimpse to realize there was more to the story than what I was being taught.  In this realization I have come to understand why most dogmas or political platforms have to be completely rigid and unwaivering - to prevent these situations of undermining challenge.

During my teenage years, "God" took on a persona for me that was rather unlike the powerful, gruff, aged man sitting atop the clouds.  As early as 13-14 I distinctly remember chatting with him... as a peer. We used to go to the drive-in movies a lot when I was young, and I remember getting to lay up on the minivan roof from time to time - I would stare up into space, engage in prayer with a traditional sign of the cross, and literally start with "Hey man..".   It seemed fitting to me that if God had to respond to all people - young and old, Chinese or Swedish, that it would be silly to think of him demanding that I address him in Latin or barely tolerating me speaking in thee's and thou's and other such formalities.  So, I spoke to him in as plain and unmitigated as I could, and imagined he was fine with that.

The language thing then turned into a mental image as well - if God responds to whatever language and literacy you can muster, then why wouldn't he simply appear similarly?  From then on God, was a teenage boy - not a mirror image of me, mind you, but just always a similarly built, similarly height-ed compliment to my current age.  We spoke frankly, but entirely through rhetoric. I can't propose that he ever even actually spoke back to me directly, just mostly that I would ask a question.. wait a short while, and His "answer" would sort of present itself as an optimistic realization. It's important to note that I still believed that "He" was definitely someone else, so it wasn't like I was being clever ahead of my time - I just happened to give him a bit more credit that you can get more people to relate to you by relating to them, rather than being this stone-cold judge of the clouds that strikes fear into the hearts of men.

It was simultaneously natural in that it quite literally just came to me to view Him in this way without outside influence, and equally scary because I was surrounded by adults and other kids who clearly would not have agreed. It wasn't until much later (17/18) that I felt comfortable enough to share my relative view of God to my family (my mother in particular) who actually thought it was kind of neat rather than scolding me.  I guess I felt by then I could no longer "get in trouble" if such blaspheme was ill-received.

And this, admittedly pleasant relationship was the mostly-catholic view I carried with me until well into my late 20s.  I wasn't much of a church-goer.  When I would go I prefered the open masses, like the beautiful Basilica  of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver - a church that allowed anyone, even the homeless, a free walk in to service - which was much different than the tightly-knit parish styles of obligation and popularity and the "oh we noticed you weren't at last Sunday's service..." attendance-taking  that I had seen elsewhere...

From there it became a topic that I focused less and less on as time went on and became more preoccupied with my career, my new life down in Texas, etc. Then, at about age 29, something happened. I became voraciously obsessed with history, having before studied only enough to get me to pass tests. My disdain for this old knowledge was not, at least in my 20s, for a lack of care. My apathy was fueled by the knowledge that history was often falsified - a lesson I learned when I was 19 in a progressive Sociology course I was taking at C.U. Boulder that introduced me to the first piece of counter-propaganda I had ever encountered- Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

It probably began just like anything else - a passing revisit on the internet which uncovered a mountain of new information to read about - and more importantly - enough of the right kinds of information sources that made me interested enough to dive in.  And somewhere along the way, I introduced and reintroduced myself to people who I had never heard of, and some that I had heard of (Freud, Jung) in College, but lacked the heart-felt spark to really attach to what they were saying and really think and reflect on them.

It.. didn't take but about a year total in research to come to some of the very most sobering and oddly empowering conclusions of my conscious life - that everything that I had been told - indoctrinated to believe about Catholicism and Christianity as a whole - was (bear with me) a complete fairy tale.  I say bear with me because it's important to note that at the time I was quite upset, as you could imagine, because it undermined all the time I had spent/wasted learning all that "nonsense" in church about the one Almighty God, his Son our Savior, the Holy Trinity, and all that other crap that was about as wholly-unique onto itself as a quilt is to any one piece of fabric.

I felt.. stupid, honestly, for a time because once the realization hit home, I began to see all of the obvious signs and clues that existed around me during my time that I never paid attention to or even entertained until that moment.  It was like I spent the first 28 years walking around with all this "green stuff" in my pocket and then realizing that it was money, and that I didn't even knew I had it or that I could spend it much earlier in the game.

After a while, and as you may be able to now surmise from the theme of this blog - I eventually came to terms with this revelation.  Where I once felt more rebellious, wanting to "fight the power" and join the cause of exposing this farce to the poor duped masses who were being controlled and used - I instead gained perspective offered by people like Joseph Campbell and Father Thomas Keating which led me to realize the importance of the metaphor of Religion - and how at their core, they represent a belief system that people can get behind, guiding them to a better life wherein they may not have the same will or circumstances to do so themselves.

I realized why it has such a profoundly positive effect especially in areas of substance abuse recovery, crime rehabilitation, etc - sometimes people need something external to themselves that they can believe in - something they an focus on and feel accountable for because, when left to their own devices, they cannot must the same fortitude alone.

What angers me is that the spiritual journey, near as I can tell, is supposed to lead a person out of that external dependence and into a realization, eventually, that everything they needed was within themselves and that there really was no "Other".  This is immensely empowering! It's like working with a person who is learning how to walk again, telling them that you will help them and be their crutch, and getting to that final, beautiful revelation that they thought you were still helping them, but in fact they were able to walk on their own!  How much more joyous and wonderful could that be?

It was like the famous Footsteps poem could suddenly become 10x cooler, ending with a single set of footsteps and the final insecure inquiry as to why God had abandoned the man, only to gain the knowledge that he only thought God was walking with him the whole time, when really he was able to do so on his own.

Instead... many organized religions stop at needing the crutch part, focus on externalizing this entity and even going so far as to cripple man by claiming that he was carried during parts of his life.  That it is only under the constant struggle, under the constant fear of external consequence and disappointment that we can be "accepted" into this special place.  That all the good things that we accomplish weren't really us, but oddly accredited to God as one of "his graces", stripping us of any kind of accomplishment other than the lonely guilt that we are capable of evil that should be atoned for.  And then we wonder why people pray for ridiculously materialistic things like money & cars. Or why we would praise Jesus instead of brilliant medical staff when they help our loved ones.  It's no wonder his "mysterious plan" had to be invented to fill all the gaps.

The answer, unfortunately, is retention - which is a form of control - You see, empowering people to realize that they are their own wonderful beings capable of great marvels doesn't exactly keep them coming back - much in the same way that actually helping people lose weight is terrible for the pill or shake selling business.

I'll stop here on the rant - I imagine what I've said already might be enough to force some to stop reading, and I understand and apologize if it caused offense.

So what am I, another cold Atheist? Or did I flip over to something a little less control-oriented like Buddhism? The answer is neither, and all of them. I decided, based on everything I've learned, the best I can do is describe myself as Agnostic.

Now, as with any label, this word carries with it a definition and connotation.  Some feel that being agnostic is pandering to ALL possibilities for the sake of salvation - sort of like betting on Black AND White at the casino for the assurance that ONE of them must be right.  Others think that a gnostic is a scared atheist - unwilling to go as far as to claim there is nothing simply because the notion is to terrifying to accept.

I will say that I am agnostic for neither of these reasons. I have come to complete terms with the fact that I could be absolutely wrong on all counts.  I have come to terms with the idea that by not picking a particular team to play for, that I may implicitly be excluded by all of them should a particularly exclusive version turn out to be true.  I have come to terms with the idea that I have completely broken my confirmation to catholicism - and if I find myself before a very somber St Peter, wagging his finger and telling me that I chose poorly, that I fully understand the rules of that religious universe to believe that I must suffer eternal damnation or a very very long stay in purgatory.

I will also say that if the Atheists turn out to be right, I won't feel bitter hollowness that my life was ultimately meaningless. I will simply be thankful for the unique opportunity to have live manifested as a human being capable of loving and laughing - and not just as a rock or a piece of glass.

I believe, based on what limited information and compelling data we currently have, that we seem to be the only uniquely existential beings in our observable universe, and that this was no accident.  Not to say that we are somehow uniquely immune to Darwinian science, but just that we appear to have a little something extra in us that is more than simply being at the top of the food chain which appears to be from some advanced prototype or being or God-plan, who knows, but again it wouldn't surprise me.

I would not be shocked in the least at several potential outcomes. I wouldn't be surprised that God DID made man. I wouldn't be surprised if Xenu ordered airplane space ships to to be flown into volcanoes and exploded ( just find it laughably unlikely). I wouldn't be surprised if we are the miraculous living will of stardust that created this planet and everything on it millions of years ago.

I just believe that no particular version of these myths that we have seen throughout time, including (but to a lesser concern) science got it 100% correct. I believe we cannot even presume to know what did or did not happen at the beginning, especially since all of those stories were first passed down orally, then latter hand scribed, then later reviewed, changed, etc by countless hands and for countless (not all of them innocent) reasons.  

Simply put, if we did at one point have ONE known and recorded creation, be it apes or the rib of a man, that it was subject to thousands and thousands of years of the most lengthy game of Telephone ever witnessed - and furthermore, that at certain places along the way - certain groups of people came to like certain stops of the telephone game along the way so much, that they simply broke away from the core and began to elaborate and re-interpret the story in even more distorted ways because it fit with their views of how the world ought to be governed.

To say that the real, true, word of some omniscient 3rd party deity was magically preserved across all of those hands, kingdoms, ages and people is absurd to me - unless again you take the metaphorical view of "The word of God" to mean the words of honest to goodness men who lived in a time where these moral codes were a much-needed handbook to help the population live.

Which leads me finally to the paradox of my writing this evening regarding the idea that any one religion is "correct".

Paradox 1: Who?


Say for arguments sake that the Christian "God" is the one-true God.  Rules there say that playing for another team is expressly prohibited, as called out the core rulebook, aka the Commandments.

Now, say, you are a child born on a farm in China, where your family doesn't really have money and you essentially survive on running the farm.  Say the only deity you ever even HEAR of is Buddha.  There you are, living your entire modest but devout life without even so much as hearing the word God spoken to you.

Now think about this - are people like this unwillingly damned?  I mean that's not JUST breaking the 1st commandment - that's an entire lifetime of not being baptized, participating in the Eucharist, observing the Sabbath, observing Easer, Good Fridays, or even so much as hearing one Gospel of the Lord.

Now really imagine God sitting in a room with one of these people after expiring, rather than imagining this magically dehumanizing BS that gets sold to you that their souls just don't pass go and get rerouted somewhere else. Imagine God himself having to make this call for the first few times before it got automated.  I mean the guy did nothing wrong, he loved his family, and simply because no human missionary happened to knock on the poor guys door and asked "Have you found Jesus?" - the guy is just SOL?

Sorry, but I can't buy it.  I don't think God would be so callous.  I have read articles regarding this very subject - the optimistic ones try to dance around the topic by saying that IF you've heard the gospel, and reject it, then you are condemned (sounds fair), and that if you never heard it, then you will instead by judged by "Natural Law" or "They Royal Law" (aka the golden rule). Hey, that doesn't sound so bad, right?

But here's the real kicker, if God turned out to be compassionate to this man's plight, because he otherwise lived a fruitful and loving life, then doesn't this then undermine the entire doctrine of NEEDING to know the gospel?  Heck, it might be a greater service to someone like this to NOT tell them about the gospel, and simply teach them the golden rule for fear that in a predominantly Buddhist family, that it may not pan out to conversion - at which point the very act of trying to evangelize to the poor guy unknowingly printed his ticket to hell?

Either way, I believe these are things where focus is highly discouraged, because it undermines their power in the same way that translating the Bible out of Latin was such a big deal.  Decentralization of power and control is a big no-no in more circles than just politics and money.

Paradox 2: What are the odds?


Again, assuming that if one particular religion is correct, and that people who believe in not-this are wrong and cast out of whatever awesome place comes in the afterlife, it pays to look at the scoreboard in a broader sense than you might be used to.  Let's look at the top religions by followers:

  1. Christianity (2.2 billion)
  2. Islam (1.9 billion)
  3. Buddhism (1.5 billion)
  4. Hinduism (1 billion)
Fairly healthy spread. World population clock shows 6.8 billion people in the world. Let's do some salvation math.  If you're Hindu, a whopping 75% of the world disagrees with you - on up to Christianity, where %68 of the world population is on on their way to hell - that is unless they have not heard the gospel, in which case it's the Golden Rule test to see if they pass into the same pearly white gates as everyone else who had to really learn.

Now really, doesn't this seem sightly unrealistic?  I wager it's safe to say that the world is at least small enough these days that all 4 of the top religions have heard of each other, and that there is little reason for these numbers to sway wildly from where they are now unless people start getting eradicated.  Doesn't it seem highly illogical that a supreme being has a hard time winning out in a majority vote vs. the overall population? 

This division alone tells me two things: 1) They each have a core set of values that are perfectly fine to live by (ignoring the fanatical extremes for a moment) and 2) We can't agree because they each "feel" like a rightish answer but we can't commit to proving or knowing that only one is the "real deal".

Conclusion

Back at the beginning of this, I spoke about how Thackeray's quote was the embodiment of what I believe in. No, it may not have been the version of God you were looking for, but it personifies the version of God that everyone can stand to learn from.  The metaphor of the divine is all around us, every day, but it's not the possession of some third-party deity - it is quite simply, and always has been, just us.  A baby, who has yet to even comprehend God knows only her mother's face.  That face is the center of her universe, her God. And when she grows up to have children of her own, that legacy is passed downward to her child.  

I have one final story to tell - not a paradox, but really a theory that summarize the open-mindedness that I carry within me that there may very well have been something advanced before us that made us.

Consider the problem we have now with space travel.  We have an extremely hard time shipping a fully grown person light-years and light-years away to a distant, inhospitable planet - so what do we do instead? We send machines that act as our eyes, hands and ears.  What are we looking for? Various things, amongst them signs of life, but more importantly, signs of life-supporting planets that we could one day expand to.

Now let's say that we found such a planet, but it was very far away.  Even if we tried to send babies a-la Superman, this planet is so far away that it would still be too far out to make it in a lifetime. 

Suppose, for a moment, that someone comes up with a brilliant plan - if we can pack up a bunch of seeds - sperms, eggs, etc... and send those towards the planet in deep space, why we could keep those seeds dormant until arrival, and kick the planet off with a little spark of life!  Do you think we would try such a plan? I do - and I think you're probably feeling me on where this is going....

Say we only had enough genetic material to get things started - but we can't even really grow a *normal* human because the planet isn't *exactly* like earth - we might have to try a few generations and revisions before we get it right.   Or hey, maybe the planet we find already has some basic life on it, so we decide to toss our secret sauce into an existing animal archetype and see if we can't create a hybrid long term?

So we make it happen, but maybe we're scared for them psychologically - I mean if we hang around with a couple of robots and tell them "Yeah we grew you on this distant planet so uh... get to breeding please" - it may not leave the best of intentions - sort of like the perils of telling a genetic clone that he's a clone, you know?

So maybe we decide to pull out once it seems like things are set up to run automatically - maybe we observe from afar without too much interference so that they don't realize what we've done. Maybe we show up every so often to "help" ensure that they stay on the right track - maybe give them a little literature or a whisper here and there about some of the stuff we learned on behaving back on our planet...

You think we'd do it? What if that is our history? Just one of the other possibilities that would not surprise me in the least.  I believe that genetics carry in us a very positive bond to what we are and what we've been before, and I believe it would be just a matter of time that those people we created would start looking up at the stars and wonder - where'd I come from.... really?

10.05.2010

Brief Insecurity

Not one to whine - but sometimes the difference between what I've learned, vs. what I used to think, vs. where we are as a whole, vs. where we are potentially heading...leaves me with this feeling that I can only put to words using a movie analogy:

I feel like Neo must have felt, after having woken up in his personal tub of goo, after pulling away the sustaining, parasitic tubes; after wondering what the hell he was supposed to do then, suspended there so high in the vast, towering network of other people precariously sleeping in their own tubs of goo.

Except - I'm not Neo - I'm just some poor inconsequential schmuck, and there's.. really no one expecting me on this other side. And when the giant mechanical squid comes to toss me into the pool, left trying to swim with my feeble, atrophic arms, there is no Nebuchadnezzar to fish me out at the last second, infusing my transformation with a plan or a real purpose. And even if I managed to swim instead of sink, said to-hell with waiting for a purpose, and created my own - what then?

My brief insecurity is that we're not just stuck in those tubs of goo living the lie, but at worst living in the same defeatist way that Cypher wanted to even when presented with the knowledge that it was a lie.  That at best it's just a handful of us splashing around in that pool of enfeebled realization while the Nebuchadnezzars, the Morpheus', the Zions of our world are only tolerated to exist in-so-much as they allow us to "express" our dis-contempt but never actually, fundamentally, change the structure of the established system.

That even this is just another method of control as the Architect described - where we huddle around together in the comfort of our achieved understanding but that, ultimately, it is meaningless in the stranglehold that the status-quo already finished establishing decades and centuries ago. The Morpheus' come, and they motivate, but once they motivate too well, they are killed.  The Nebuchadnezzars come, and they might fish out a few important people, but they are eventually destroyed.  The Zions might even rise, and organize with them many followers, but those too are eventually disbanded or destroyed or worse - placated just long enough until a mutation occurs - that is - until the system simply re-invents another innocuous way of establishing the same control.

"Wake up!" - Zach continues to chant...

9.24.2010

Evolution (What's Next?)

Been a while since I've written - lately a lot of what I've been watching and reading about have danced around the topics of group psychology, and the way the mind works. A few TED talks - featuring a philosopher of consciousness talking about the marvel of how our brains, the amalgamation of thousands of cells capable of processing information together - a little Bernays (Propaganda) describing the psychology of the masses, and even an anthropologist describing the science of Love - and it got me thinking.

If early evolution - like really early evolution - like two cells coming together and deciding to team up to make some shit happen evolution - has been a series of collaborations - then I think I understand where it's all going.

But first, let me set the stage-

We can say that evolution is more than just the combining of stuff. There's lots to be said for the very specific ways things evolve that not just accuracy by volume.

For instance - animals as far back as the dinosaurs all had very specific places for features - location of the mouth/teeth, eyes, "arms", "legs" etc.  Sure, you have variations - 2 legs vs 4... long legs vs. short, etc, etc - but you don't, for instance, hear of a dinosaur with 9 mouths randomly placed around the body, indicating that the genetics didn't know shit all what to do and just decided to install mouths everywhere thinking it would help.

And sure, there's always the one-off type creatures - but if you were to chart 'em all as far back as possible, there seem to be a lot of common design patterns.  For human evolution - the same story.  There aren't ancient monkeys with 14 arms at one point where our genetics were trying to figure out if 7 pairs were better than 1. No monkeys with opposable thumbs on their ears or the back of their knees trying to figure out what the best place to grab shit will be. No forward facing eyes and eyes coming out of your ass for maximum protection.  The indication is clear - the direction is clear - there's some underlying, strategic process that has some precise sense of what it needs to accomplish to take things to the next level.

And if there's clear indication that there's an underlying, genetic strategy as time goes on, there certainly had to be key milestone times in evolution where those hundreds and thousands of genetic plans came to fruition.  I mean think of the turning point when we first developed a skeletal structure. Lungs to breathe air.  Eyes to see, ears to hear. I mean you're literally talking about turning points where years and decades of evolution invested in producing and assigning cells to perform these very specific, at first non-working, non finished tasks with the knowledge that at some future state enough of these cells will come together and arrange in such a fashion that one day, you flip the switch and... bam, let there be light.

It's hard to conceive of "elation" at such a primitive level - but certainly there had to be some very strong, positive feedback when these genetic milestones were achieved and later revised and improved - if even as minor as gaining more ability to find and consume more food, that success feedback had to to exist independent of just a purely survival sense of survival vs. death.

The key is motivation - the realization that as a single cell, you quickly come to grips with the limitations of your physical existence, and the only recourse is to combine with other, equally limited cells to produce something "more" that could not be achieved alone.

Zoom out a bit more - systems of cells agreeing to specialize in interdependent, symbiotic ways - the thousands of cells that agree to pump blood as a heart depend on the thousands of cells that infuse that blood with oxygen, and they both depend on the safety and structure of the thousands of cells that decided to focus on being a rib-cage.

Zoom up a bit more and look at the subdivision of labor within the brain. Here's one overall organ with cells broken out into little cubicle powerhouses, each responsible for processing the stream of information being brought in through the various senses, and trying to interpret it all to form a mental model.

Just in the way we recognize the people we see is a complex division of data between the optic nerve, who hands off information to a very specific area responsible for recognizing faces specifically, who then ultimately hands the information off to a portion of the limbic system responsible for assigning value to the faces we recognize (colleague vs. child vs. mom vs. wide).

Put that all together - somewhere amongst this giant mass collection of cells - through specialization, our bodies are capable of the extraordinary feat of having them all work together as a team to be "human".

One more set-up point before I get to the future. Stem cells - we've learned that so many of these different organizations of cells within our bodies come from a set of basic blank cells that can become cells of all these various types depending on what they are assigned to do.   This is not unlike being a baby - a clean slate of a human who can grow into being a thousand different variations of itself given different experiences, nurturing, stimuli, etc.  It's the same model on a grander scale.

So let's put it all together and make it relevant to today's world, although I'm sure some of you know where this is going.  Cells quickly found their own physical limitations - the result was to work together with other cells. Groups of cells ran into their own limitations - so they began forming systems, organs, etc.  As human beings, these systems did a great job of overcoming survival, conquering the food chain - but we developed always as social animals - we need each-other... two heads are better than one and whatnot. That interdependence has developed and heightened our communication skills - skills that we didn't necessarily need to survive in the primal sense - but skills that we needed to further the development of our consciousness and interdependence.

And all along we've done this hand in hand with technology - moving from chisels to pencils to keyboards to cameras - further refining the way we record and store information from our limited physical experiences... and now, the explosion of the internet... the convergence of information - the almost obsessive attachment to things like Twitter, Facebook and other mediums.

Todays times are more exciting than ever, and I believe the information-elation we feel with todays world is the same genetic feedback we go when we developed those basic features.  The web and the ability to connect with so many people is exciting because it's almost like developing a new organ - a new extension of ourselves that furthers our desire to grow.

I think that we have truly turned the corner on a core genetic plan. We're on the precipice of the next "opposable thumb" by using these technologies to conquer the final physical limitation of the human form - the idea that I can only physically be in one place at one time, thus limiting the number of other human beings I can interface with in person.  Now I can be... well.. anywhere without having to physically move. I believe that this development is, and will be, the cornerstone of the next phase of human evolution.

The idea that my bag of brain cells with a mouthpiece can interface with all 6 billion other bags of cells and that we, as a whole, are creating the next level of abstraction in the same hard-to-visualize way that our individual brains are the culmination of 10 trillion individual cells negotiating their environment.

Think about that for a moment.

If we could collectively group everyone in this world in the same sort of arrangement and structure than the brain has, what would be possible? If we could take ALL the musicians and artists and writers and philosophers and call them the "creative" part of our world brain. If we can collect all the chemists and physicists and engineers and call them the rational side, etc, etc.. how amazing would that be?

If you're fond of the general model - then it explains the world in a whole new way I didn't see before.  In the same sense that it takes 10 trillion cells to form up enough mass and direction to comprise the human brain - perhaps its taken 6 billion of us to mass up to to a breaking point to become something more?

Yet another perspective - sometimes our species things in terms of diversification. All things in moderation. Jack of all trades, master of none.  While this certainly has its advantages - I think perhaps the real goal is to be exposed to all of these things so that we can hopefully find the thing we're good at and passionately driven to specialize in - and then maybe our eventual goal is to BE that thing whole-heartedly and make it OK to be highly specialized because we can depend on the rest of the system of people around us to cover the gaps where we are lacking.

My argument here is that many of us have become obsessed with information, even information that doesn't affect us at all, because our world-mind is still a chaotic mass trying to map itself out.  It's like some of our consciousness' are trying to form and understand what thats structure is already and will be so we're constantly scanning for meaning and knowledge to see how it all fits together.  Certainly not everyone is like this - there are of course plenty of people who would read my crappy little blog and simply thing "damn dude you think about a lot of stupid meaningless shit" - and if I'm way off on all this, I guess I can't blame them :)

The idea of interdependence and specialization is, at least, true in something like love relationships. Healthy couples tend to involve two people who have strengths and weakness that compliment and offset each-other - and together they can accomplish so much more because of it than they could before because they don't have to constantly balance the things they are good at with having to manage areas where they lack completely on their own.

So in an optimistic light - maybe as much as we complain about the... unsavory... aspects of our people- the ignorant, the angry, the liars, the unfaithful - maybe instead of those aspects being diseases that have to somehow be eradicated, they are merely individual cells within the system that mirror some of the basic inner demons that we each possess within us - certainly no one is above jealousy... ambition, etc - undesirable urges that we pride ourselves on overcoming because those conflicts and choices breed better behavior via a deeper understanding and confrontation.  

So maybe, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe these idiots, assholes, and douche-bags are necessary conflict and reminders of what we are trying to rise above?  And maybe sometimes the psychology behind the seemingly irrational behavior is a necessary refection on what we have yet to address and overcome within our continued growth?

As exciting as it is to think of our world as a whole mind of specialized minds all churning together to make a whole system - the inherent problem is the very strength that got us here - independent thought - consciousness, and the ego.  In thinking about this, at first I wanted to treat it as the difference between humans and the organization of cells I described earlier.  I wanted to go down the path of complimenting our individual cells for lacking that individual ego and being willing to give up free will to perform specific tasks for the overall good of cell-kind - but then I realized something.

Our internal systems have the same damn problems we have in human society.

Take the act of smoking a cigarette.

Now give your body systems involved with smoking identities and call those groups of cells people.

The brain weighs in at a 7.44% on the brain-to-body mass scale for humans. The brain people then represent an almost equal match to the "top power structure" in the world today.  The conspiracy theories work just like the brain - they pull the strings, the world (body) moves, but the results are not always appreciated.

So the brain people are really keen on getting some nicotine introduced into the system and they put the word out that they need to make some shit happen to remedy the desire. The message goes down to the arm people, who in the sense of cigarette smoking don't really give a shit other than having to operate the matchbook because the assholes in accounting were too cheap to spring for a lighter.  Cigarette goes to the lips, inhale and... the fuckin people in Lung-land go ape shit.

Sure, those fuckers up in Brainywood are having a grand old time getting high, but they're stuck sorting out all the fuckin Tar and other shit byproducts they don't have to deal with.  The lungs might protest with a little cough - but fuck it, the brain is going to care about it for a few minutes until another few beers go down and they want to bum another one.

You see, if our consciousness is the culmination of all of these signals and stimuli arcing over trillions of cells - our daily lives are filled with internal civil wars of disagreement and the Brain makes all the calls. And if the brain keeps pissing off the body, writing checks it can't cash? The people down in Lungland or Prostateria will eventually say fuck it and shut the fuck down.

It's crazy when you think about it- but this world we live in really isn't all that different. People decide to do stupid (and helpful) things all the time that will have significant, lasting effects on other people in other areas and other systems. It's damaging to think that, in our defense, we're only affecting ourselves with poor behavior, but that's really not the case.

Generational scarring works just like our body - occasionally people come along and do some seriously damaging shit (hitler, stalin, justin bieber) that leaves lasting effects felt by generations that follow - this is like permanently damaging an eye, or needing stitches,  that scar tissue develops and is a reminder of those experiences.

So whose to say that even our egos, our conflicting personalities aren't just a magnification.. the sum of trillions of mini egos within each and every cell within us expressed?  What will that look like when you move to this next layer of abstraction, where every individual's 10 trillion brain cells is represented by a chaotic democracy of consciousness, and then all that rolls up finally to a global consciousness of each of those delegates? At the very least - it certainly puts significantly more weight on the idea of the kinds of people we allow populate the world....

...but again, only to a certain extent.  As much as I welcome the concept of a unified world-mind, I woefully caution about the dangers of trying to force common thinking. In the same sense that not all the cells in or brains think and behave in the same ways and patterns, so to must we AVOID attempts to assimilate individuals to ANY one way of behaving, no matter how noble or morally adjusted.  Trying to bring all of our cultures together, trying to bring all of our political views together, trying to bring all of our beliefs together under just one banner is a guaranteed way to end up as something terrible - like the cold and unfeeling Borg or the moronic society portrayed in Idiocracy.  We NEED to preserve our differences as much as possible and cultivate and promote the beneficial aspects of all societies in order to maintain a well-rounded world mind.

And finally - onto technology. I believe that even if we could wave a magic wand, overcome our political and socio-eco differences, and mash together into this beautiful world mind - we would quickly begin to realize the  physical limitations of  that global mind.  You see, as great as it sounds to have 6 billion people in a world mind grow into 20 billion people to push out our computational power, we're already taxing the planet just to sustain the 6 billion we have now.  I believe this is where our parallel obsession with technology will play in. I believe we will be able to, in some way, completely overcome the bio-neural-technology barrier and be able to progress to a level where we exist bioelectronically, and thus will have less need for full physical bodes as we have today.

It sounds Matrixy-creepy, I know, but if you think about it, the very design of our bodies was only really a means to an end. It was intended to conquer survival, the food chain and continue to advance our own inventions.  If nutrient rich food on this planet always existed in goo form, we wouldn't have teeth, shit we may not even have jaws.  If a new baby out of the womb had this same goo to drink for what it depended on, women wouldn't have tits and thus men wouldn't be attracted to them.  Everything we have was a means to an end, and for survival, we were trained to be attracted to those things to keep the race going.

But once these bodies become unnecessary? Who knows what we will evolve into.  Maybe future generations will be evaluating hotness based on the mathematical structure of another e-humans. Or maybe our super models will be those e-people who have harmonic signatures, or are perfect primes?

I hope that, within my lifetime, I can at least see glimpses of things actually transitioning into a "next level" direction, although what we've been fortunate enough to witness already is astonishing to think about. I really hope we don't fuck it up along the way, and explode millions of years of work in a flash of glowing white light over some stupid shit like who owns the dirt between the borders of X, Y and Z.  And I certainly hope that the conscious mind - that 7.44% brain ratio that calls the shots- doesn't continue to develop at the the hands of who we see today. I hope we can leverage this information surplus era to finish seeing past the bullshit and correct future generations to form for us a stronger world mind.

Either way, I'll at least catch y'all on the flip side, one way or the other.