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Dad_iEarlier this week, I received news that my father had suffered an accident while on holiday in France. He’d fallen out of a loft, and suffered head trauma. He was in a coma in the hospital, but when the doctors ran their tests there was no sign of higher brain functions. He’d already gone. He would have been seventy this December. 

It’s a shock of course, losing a relative always is. But in some respects, it’s not as distressing as it could have been. We all have to go sometime, it is inescapable, and I feel he would rather have gone like this – in a random accident, being the same indomitable spirit he had always been – than to fade away in a hospital. We had to go through that when my mother died of stomach cancer, and it was especially hard for him as he wasn’t raised to share emotion openly.

As a young man, he worked with seaplanes and boats while stationed with the RAF, first in Ireland working with Sunderland flying boats before being stationed in Singapore in the late 50’s. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis he was in Gan, a tiny island in the Seychelles, south of India; a refuelling base for the southern ocean passage. It was all a grand adventure to him. When he mustered out, he took a number of different jobs before meeting my mother and starting a family. 

We moved to the Isle of Wight before I was one year old; they were building Stansted airport near where we lived, and my parents didn’t want to live in the shadow of jet planes. So I grew up in the bucolic splendour of a small rural island, just thirty miles across. It undoubtedly secured my love of nature, and as a family our house was overrun with animals – at one point we were living with more than two dozen different species.

As a coastal tourist destination, we had many amusement arcades and piers when I was a young boy. Several burned down in mysterious fires as I grew up; I guess it wasn’t as prosperous a living as it could have been. My Dad loved taking me to the arcades to play. He was in charmed admiration of my competence at videogames, which is a wonderful thing for a father to offer a son. He genuinely enjoyed watching me play arcade games, as they were too fast and demanding for him to enjoy himself. 

For several of my birthdays, he took me across to the amusement park at Southsea, just an hour’s ferry ride across the Solent. It was the site of the largest amusement arcade for hundreds of miles, and it was always a great pleasure to go and see the new games. I first saw the 1983 Atari Star Wars cabinet there – it was a sensation at the time, and it was several years before any of the Island arcades could afford one.

My father was a Christian in the same manner as John Waite’s character of John Walton Sr in The Waltons – doctrine mattered little to him, and he was not a regular in Church, nor did he belong to any particular denomination. Rather, his Christianity defined his moral and ethical world. It encouraged him to travel to Africa in the early 1980’s to build hospitals, first in Ghana, and later in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). It supported him through the tougher trials of life. 

He was very proud of me for going to university, and my various degree courses; he came up to Manchester with my sister and Nan for my undergraduate graduation ceremony. And when, several years later, I was to get married in a field in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, he and the rest of the family flew out for the wedding. I am so glad that both my Dad and my Nan were able to be there that day, along with so many of my friends (whose tent, incidentally, was struck by lightning a few hours before the ceremony).

Thankfully, I don’t feel I had any unfinished business with Dad. He knew I loved him, I knew he loved me, even though he wouldn’t say something like that out loud. My wife and I had him up to visit a couple of times over the last few years, and he did some work on the house which was a great help to us and a cause of satisfaction for him. The last time he visited, he confided in me that he was struggling with getting old. He was still willing, but his body was no longer as capable as it once was. He still enjoyed life, but it seemed to me that he feared aging to the point of incapacity more than he feared death. 

Dad was an exceptional man, filled with an exuberant love for life and a playful spirit. I feel lucky simply to have known him. That he was my father was an immense blessing.

Albert William Charles Bateman, 1936-2006

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames

Game_writingcover_1I'm proud to announce the publication of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, the first reader on the topic of game writing, written by the IGDA Game Writers' Special Interest Group. A dozen other people worked with me (as editor) to write the chapters, and another half a dozen worked as sub-editors - my thanks to everyone for their contributions . This book takes a skill focus, and looks at how game writers working today get narrative into games. It is far less speculative than most books on the subject of game narrative, and I might even venture to suggest it's more useful because of it. This is a book about how we currently get stories into games. Anyone interested in learning these skills would do well to pick up a copy. It's available from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Published by Charles River Media, ISBN 1584504900.

Beware of Cats!

Mrsmoozles Anyone fondly remember the golden age of 2D action adventures? Easy controls... simple yet entertaining stories and puzzles... cute graphics... I certainly do. Check out the demo of Steve Ince's Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso which you can get here. This is vintage stuff, although if you're looking for something new, it won't push your buttons. I found it charming - retro, but with a lot less friction than the classic 2D action adventures. And it's got anthropomorphic animals to boot!


Skepticimage11 A Skeptic (strictly, a scientific skeptic, as opposed to a philosophical skeptic) can be understood as a person whose framing belief system presupposes the existence and validity of a truth value system such as ‘true, false and meaningless’ and who vigorously attempts to determine the truth values of all propositions they encounter. This effort to determine what is ‘true’ and ‘false’ is peculiar to each individual Skeptic, but as a social group Skeptics manage to achieve a high degree of consistency in their beliefs (although only if these beliefs are compared at the same historical point, as Skeptics of different eras believe radically different things). 

One way of looking at the driving force behind Skeptical beliefs is to imagine that its goal is to mimimise the number of false positives in the individual’s belief system, without any concern for the number of false negatives. This is to say, a typical Skeptic is resolute that they will not accidentally believe in the truth of a false proposition, but they do not seem to mind whether they believe in the falsehood of a true proposition (future evidence, they may presume, will eventually correct any such error).

From a philosophical vantage point, Skepticism involves as big a leap of faith as most religions, requiring as it does the absolute belief in a value system containing ‘true’ and ‘false’, and the capacity to reliably ascertain these truth values. People raised in Western society are often culturally conditioned to these assumptions, which makes it easier to follow this particular belief. Indeed, individual Skeptics often attempt to deny that there is any role for faith in their belief system: this can be likened to the process that occurs when religious individuals deny that their belief system is a religion, preferring to call it a ‘way of life’. 

Contrary to popular belief, not all Skeptics are atheists. In fact, atheism is a relatively young movement for Skepticism, although in the twentieth century it began to become the norm. (Christianity used to be the most common religion for Skeptics). This is not to say that Skeptics do not follow religions: indeed, many Skeptics identify as humanists. A few, such as Martin Gardner, have a theistic outlook. There need not be a conflict between Skepticism and religion, since by definition questions dependent purely on faith (such as religious belief) are untestable propositions and therefore outside of the remit of Skepticism.

In practice, Skeptics get into the most trouble when they attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance caused by encountering people who believe in untestable or ‘false’ propositions (from the perspective of the Skeptic). Untestable propositions are obviously outside of the capacity of Skeptics to express a definitive opinion, being by definition immune to a truth value system; a few Skeptics attempt to relieve their internal mental discord by assuming that untestable propositions are false. This is all well and good for an individual Skeptic (whose belief system, after all, comprises only of those entities which can be confidently assigned the truth value ‘true’) but can become problematic if the Skeptic tries to enforce their beliefs on others (this indeed is a problem for all belief systems). 

Skeptics are most valuable in the sciences, where they can serve as a source of resistance to new ideas, constantly examining experimental protocols for possible sources of error, and challenging assumptions. In doing so, Skeptics have contributed to revealing a systematic problem in the sciences which has yet to be resolved, namely that individual beliefs cannot be eliminated in the interpretation of scientific results. For instance, a famous experiment (the Ganzfeld) has gradually had its experimental method tightened to the point where it has been contended that the only remaining objection to the experiment’s results is fraud. (I make no claim as to the interpretation of the results of this experiment; I remain agnostic). But if one can use accusations of fraud to dispute experimental evidence, then all science is reduced to belief. This may be an inevitable and inescapable problem for science, and we have the diligence of Skeptics to thank for bringing it into clear focus.

When one suspects that there is ‘a logical explanation’ for something, Skeptics are a superb source of interpretations. The Skeptics Dictionary, written and maintained by Robert T. Carroll, a devout Skeptic, summarises hundreds of down-to-earth explanations for various phenomena. Some of these explanations will doubtless seem quaint and amusing to future generations, but in keeping with the suggestion that a Skeptic’s goal is to mimimise false positives in their own belief system, this body of work is essentially flawless. (People who are not Skeptics should maintain a sense of humour when examining such material, however).

The scientific neutrality of Skeptics cannot be assumed, however. The Amazing Randi (James Randi) is a stage musician turned vigilant Skeptic; he offers a one million dollar prize to anyone offering evidence for paranormal or supernatural effects under agreed test conditions. I am somewhat doubtful that anyone can claim to be unbiased when one million dollars are on the line; I would not trust experimental results from someone who stood to accrue heavy costs in one outcome and not the other. Mr. Randi’s protestations that he would be delighted to find evidence of paranormal effects do not strike me as especially convincing, although I accept that he does believe in his own claims and that his intentions are honourable.

Another area where Skeptics are invaluable is in debunking fraudulence and chicanery. Skeptics work hard to reveal when innocent people are being swindled by con artists and the like. However, here a certain caution is required: one must be careful to distinguish between an intent to defraud, which most people agree is worthy of exposing, and an intent to entertain. Some Skeptics believe they must expose all instances of people asserting a ‘false’ belief. Putting aside the issue of whether the Skeptic’s assertion of ‘falsehood’ is sufficient grounds for such an attack, using one’s own belief system to police what is or is not acceptable entertainment is behaviour on highly suspect moral ground. We would not tolerate such belligerent behaviour from religious groups, and we should be equally careful to protect against it when it originates from non-religious groups.

Similar caution must be taken in the context of medicine. It is appropriate to raise concerns when research indicates an alternative therapy has deleterious effects on health, but a lack of evidence for the benefits of such treatments is insufficient for any significant conclusion. I urge Skeptics to remember that the placebo effect is a powerful treatment effective against almost all illnesses (probably excluding schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder) and that Beecher’s research in 1955 demonstrated that the effect could generate objectively measurable improvements in pain management for as many as a quarter of patients thus treated. Khan’s study of antidepressants in 2000 showed a 30% reduction in suicide attempts for placebo, and 40% reduction for those treated with drugs. In this light, I personally feel it is pharmaceutical treatments which warrant the greater scrutiny, since they often achieve just a few percentile points improvement over the placebo effect but at considerable economic costs, and usually with significantly negative side effects. Perhaps there should be more debate in this area.

Lovers of evidence, logic and testability, Skeptics can be a valuable addition to any culture, but as with any belief system it is important to ensure there is balance. Any belief system causes problems when it tends to extremism, as arguably happened with Skepticism in the case of Wilhelm Reich, whose books were burned in 1956 by the FDA in the United States. Some people, such as Robert Anton Wilson, accuse the Skeptically-biased Committee for the Scientific Investigation into Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) of effectively being responsible for Reich’s death. I suggest interested individuals investigate this matter in their own time and draw their own conclusions.

In terms of the number of entities that exist in an individual’s belief system, Skeptics have the 'smallest' realities of almost any belief system. Only those solipsists who believe themselves to be the one thing they can have any confidence in existing have definitively ‘smaller’ realities. To the Skeptic, this 'tiny' reality is a great comfort, as they firmly believe all ‘false’ entities have been removed. Conversely, many people find that ‘false’ or untestable propositions enrich their life or their happiness. For instance, studies repeatedly show that those with a religious belief system are happier people on average than those with no such aspect to their belief system.

Skeptics are the friction that keeps science from advancing too rapidly in random directions, and the watchdog that endeavours to keep the experimental method honest. They protect innocent people from being duped by unscrupulous swindlers, and provide logical (albeit dry) explanations for all manner of phenomena. As a part of culture, they are inescapably valuable – but as with any belief system, we must remain vigilant against extremist and fascist tendencies. No single belief system should be empowered to enforce its views against the wishes of others.

The opening image is The Skeptic, by Robert Hall. I found it here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.

Out of the Cave

Returning from my caving trip in the Brecon Beacons, I was struck down with one of the worst colds of my recent years. (Incidentally, I finally found Porth yr Ogof, the cave my father took me into as a child, and possibly the most hidden spelunking site in Wales). I am at the moment recovering from the latter stages of the virus; the worst of the symptoms have passed.

I do not begrudge colds, however. It seems to me ever more likely that viruses have been one of the chief sources of genetic novelty for all life - I wrote about this before, some older hands might remember. It's actually an interesting hypothesis worthy of investigation, but it was dismissed out of hand because I was mistaken for a Creationist. Hands up if you've ever heard a Creationist propose a mechanism for genetic novelty... Anyone? I defend Creationists from time to time because they appear to need support from someone, and I stand by my assertion that salient criticisms of evolution (vital to improvement of any scientific endeavour) more commonly originate from Creationists than from elsewhere. Perhaps Creationists are just more motivated to look. For the record, I feel Creationists have tragically misunderstood the Bible, but I fully support their freedom to do so.

Skeksis All this leads to my next post, which is the piece on Skeptics I've been meaning to compose for a while. Note, in the UK we usually write 'sceptic', but I accept the US spelling as a usefully distinct proper noun. I find it aethetically pleasing that it looks a bit like 'Skeksis'. I have struggled to approach anything close to neutrality in this post. I probably failed. Still, it's a big step for me, trying to write about Skeptics as a valuable part of culture.

Those of you here for posts about games have probably not read this far, but I suspect next week will see more ramblings in this area.

Oh, and I understand that when I go back to work today the Beta build of Play with Fire will be waiting for me... I'm greatly looking forward to seeing it!

Have fun!