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September 2007
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November 2007

EA Reneges on Original Games

Remember back in July when newly appointed EA CEO John Riccitiello shocked the gaming world by admitting that EA was boring, and committed to creating new and original IP? It was an encouraging sign - perhaps the industry was ready for some much needed change. How utterly ironic, then, that we totally misunderstood Mr. Riccitiello's intentions. It wasn't that they planned to take EA's huge capital and invest in original games, but rather that they intended to buyout the largest independent developers and acquire their catalogue of original product.

In case you haven't heard, the news broke last Thursday that EA is purchasing the holding group for both BioWare and Pandemic for $855 million, which also happens to be Riccitiello's old company.

As Corvus acerbically denounced:

EA was sitting on $3 billion before this purchase. But why spend that money creating new jobs? Why spend it diversifying the market a bit? Why spend it fostering competition? Far more lucrative and easy to spend it snatching up an existing infrastructure.

The message this sends to the industry does indeed seem to be: there's no need for publishers to invest their capital in original product; they should simply seek out already successful studios and acquire them. Riccitello's previous comment was not a commitment to creating original product, as we originally believed, but just a commitment to selling it. I suppose we were naive for believing otherwise.

If Riccitello is to regain any credibility in the eyes of the gamer hobbyists, we had better see some sign of investment in original game projects beyond this acquisition strategy. Now would be a good time to draw attention to any original projects EA might be investing in outside of the spotlight, thus assuaging our concerns that this buyout is the sole extent of their commitment to originality.

It's ironic: in November, the release of Crysis and Army of Two will meet my target of three original titles in a twelve month period, thus dissolving FEAP (the Futile EA Protest) - my personal stand against EA's poor track record in original products. Perhaps it will be necessary to consider an appropriate successor.

Most recent original IPs from EA:
Black (Criterion), published February 2006 (acquired through acquisition of Criterion)
Boom Boom Rocket (Bizarre Creations), published April 2007 (Xbox Live Arcade)
(EA Montreal), published August 2007

The Rights of the Unborn

Sperm_fertilizing_egg_2 The moment a sperm fertilises an egg, an inexorable process is put into motion that, all things being equal, results in a child. The rights of the unborn can begin no earlier than this point – fertilisation – or else every sperm is entitled to rights, an absurd proposition that makes every teenage boy into a mass murderer. But this is not to say that we must grant all of our human rights at this point in the process – a process that will result in a person is not a person – and it is this disagreement that lies at the heart of the abortion dispute.

There is no more contentious issue in contemporary metaphysics than abortion. That it is a metaphysical issue is beyond dispute, since there is no absolute way of assigning when a human life begins – it is up to the individual to determine this for themselves. On the one hand, we have people who believe a human life begins at fertilisation (the pro-life camp), often as an outgrowth of religious beliefs, although note that the establishment of fertilisation as the beginning of the life process is a scientific belief. On the other hand, we have people who believe that a woman has a right to control her fertility and pregnancy (the pro-choice camp), which leads to the metaphysical belief that the earliest states of the development process – the zygote, embryo and (to some extent) the foetus – are not yet a human life.

As with any purely metaphysical argument, it cannot be resolved through discussion. To one who sees the early life process in terms of an unborn child, abortion is the murder of innocent unborn children – the very idea causes cognitive dissonance for obvious reasons. But equally, to one who sees the early life process as a physiological state inside the body of a woman and not (yet) as a person, the pro-life camp's rhetoric causes cognitive dissonance – especially in the light of the fact that many such people know friends or relatives who have terminated a pregnancy, and the framing of their loved ones as child killers naturally causes strong offence.

The metaphysical positions involved are not subject to change, therefore if this problem is to have a solution in the spirit of relative ethics it requires concessions by both sides. The pro-choice camp must concede to their opponents that – at the very least – an abortion erases a potential child from the future. Conversely, the pro-life camp must concede to their opponents that legal bans on abortion do not prevent abortion, they rather create a dependency on “backstreet abortions” which make the procedure vastly more dangerous, placing the life of the pregnant woman at risk. Since the pro-life stance prioritises human life, it has a duty of care to the potential mother that cannot simply be overlooked.

There is some common ground between the camps that it worth emphasising. Most importantly, neither side likes abortion – pro-choice advocates are not walking around with a T-shirt reading “I heart abortion” – both sides see it as both serious and unpleasant, and share in common a desire to reduce the number of termination procedures that take place. At the moment, approximately a quarter of all pregnancies throughout the world end in abortion – and almost half of these occur in countries where abortion is illegal. For context, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of abortions take place during the period of pregnancy when miscarriages occur (i.e. the first twenty weeks). Almost a third of all pregnancies end naturally in miscarriage during this period. This also means that one in three abortions effectively induces a miscarriage that would have happened anyway – it is not the case that every abortion erases a child from the future.

The Catholic Church is a major driver in this issue, because it takes an absolute stance and refuses to allow for abortion under any circumstances. The political theorist Bhikhu Parekh, who I’m honoured to report was appointed to the House of Lords in the UK in 2000, has provided a balanced perspective on the Catholic stance to abortion. He has said on the subject:

When the Roman Catholic Church insists on the sanctity of human life and rules out all forms of abortion, it is clearly being absolutist, unworldly, unrealistic, and oppressive. However, is also serves the vital function of affirming an important value, nagging our consciences, requiring us to reflect publicly and critically on our moral practices, and forcing us to consider issues we would happily prefer to suppress or ignore. We might, and in this and other matters should, challenge and even reject the Church’s views, but this does not detract form the fact that its voice deserves to be heard with respect.

He challenges the Catholic position, noting (among numerous other arguments) that if the Catholic Church can think in terms of a just war, it should also be able to think in terms of a just abortion. He also observes that while it is free to ban abortion for its followers, it has no right to force this value upon society as a whole – and if it insists on behaving otherwise, then liberals may attempt to force their value of equality of the sexes upon the Catholic Church, requiring the ordination of female priests and even female Popes. Perhaps his strongest argument on this issue is that “banning abortion damages human dignity as much as and to an even greater degree than allowing it.”

There is a larger issue in the Catholic Church’s position that Parekh does not touch upon. If the aim is to reduce the number of abortions (a goal the opposing sides of this issue have in common), then we should strongly advocate contraception – preventing a pregnancy through pre-emptive methods must be more desirable than terminating it. When Christian Churches support solely a policy of abstinence in respect of sex education, they are being irresponsible with the lives of children. Advocating abstinence is reasonable – but this does not circumvent the need for adequate sex education. The condom is the most powerful tool we have for minimising the number of abortions that take place (not to mention preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS). I contend it is only a matter of time before a Catholic Pope changes the Vatican’s stance on contraception; its followers already possess a diverse range of views on the subject.

Some will argue a position that equates to demanding that teenagers be responsible with their sexual activity. It is wise to caution prudence, but unreasonable to expect perfect compliance. Whereas other mammals go into heat periodically, and can be isolated during this time to avoid unwanted pregnancies, humans are effectively in heat from the onset of puberty onwards – and animals in heat experience a powerful sexual drive that can be utterly overwhelming. This does not mean the individual is not responsible for their actions, but some diminished responsibility does occur – giving all the more reason to advocate the use of contraception and, for that matter, to encourage masturbation as a means of releasing sexual pressure in teenagers. If one cannot prevent sex from occurring – and we clearly cannot – we can at least council safer sex. In terms of minimising abortion, this is the responsible course of action.

The ethics of abortion rest upon the individual’s beliefs. From a theistic perspective, the decision to abort a pregnancy is between the individual and God; otherwise, between the individual and their own conscience. It is a terrible choice to have to make, but if a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy that is her judgement to make. The decision to become a parent must belong to the parents, and thus to the potential mother. We have no more business interfering in this than we do in any other aspect of family life.

Those who wish to represent the rights of the unborn are free to do so – but if they resort to intimidation and inflammatory rhetoric they become self-defeating. Those they wish to convince are not swayed by such an approach – rather, they become further entrenched in opposition as a result of such aggressive tactics. Christians who oppose abortion must find a way to feel compassion for the woman, as well as the unborn child, otherwise they fail both in their religious duty and in their goal of being persuasive. People are not open to influence by those who do not respect them.

The metaphysical disagreement over when a human life begins will not be resolved, therefore we will all have to compromise to some degree. Now that abortion has been culturally established, it cannot be eliminated – the genie is out of the bottle. But we all more or less agree that we want to minimise abortions, so we should focus on this common goal. There is no better way to achieve this objective than providing adequate sexual education to teenagers, and, if they are unable to resist sex, teaching them to always use a condom.

This is an extremely contentious issue so please, play friendly in the comments.


We're coming to the end of the second part of the "Ethics Campaign", Future Ethics, so it's time to wheel out one of the two big issues remaining: abortion. The other major issue - war - will have to wait for the final part of the campaign (tentatively entitled Justice) which will begin shortly. I expect the entire campaign will be concluded by the Winter Festival. Stay tuned!

New Lifeforms

The Guardian reports that a group of researchers are poised at the brink of creating “new life”:

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth. Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before". 

Before we discuss the ethics of this matter, it is necessary to clarify the science. Firstly, it is vitally important to appreciate that scientists do not yet understand every aspect of how DNA builds an organism, nor are they collectively convinced that DNA alone is sufficient to engineer life-forms. It will some day be possible to create “designer lifeforms”, and to program DNA (and whatever epigenetic mechanisms are also required to make life) – but that is not what is going on here.

There is a parallel to be made with software engineering and hacking. A software engineer designs and implements an application from the ground up. A hacker takes an existing application and alters its functionality. We are a long way shy of true genetic engineering – rather, we are gene hackers. The synthetic chromosome is a manually sequenced DNA strand copied from the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, but edited to remove “junk DNA”. This should work. But it is a lot less than the creation of a designer lifeform in its full extent. 

Nonetheless, what is being proposed does have great potential for biotechnology. It could be used to create bacteria that convert dangerous waste products into harmless chemicals. It could also be used to create bacteria that would be fatal to a specific ethnic group. As with much of technology, the opportunities are accompanied by risks. Perhaps the biggest risk is: if the hacked organisms can breed, which is the intent in most useful biotech, we face all the problems of introducing foreign organisms, coupled with the risks in hacking something we only understand in broad strokes. Remember what happened with rabbits in Australia, or kudzu in the United States… Our track record with transplanting lifeforms from one biome to another is poor, and the risks with new lifeforms is potentially higher.

The question has to be: do we want to go down this road? (Or rather, do we want to go down this road now?)

The Human Condition (4): Work

What Hannah Arendt refers to as work is the fabrication of things, those objects which – by virtue of their comparative permanence – create the “human artifice” within which we live. Unlike the products of labour, which are consumed, the proper use of the creations of homo faber does not cause them to disappear, and it is this facet which “gives the human artifice the stability and solidity without which it could not be relied upon to house the unstable and mortal creature which is man.” We are talking, therefore, of things such as buildings, tools and art – the many aspects of the human condition which may persist, even beyond the life of their creators. 

Fabrication in Arendt’s view is a process of reification – the taking of a concept and converting it to a physical thing. Key to the implications of work in Arendt’s terms is that this image or model that guides work “not only precedes it, but does not disappear with the finished product, which it survives intact, present, as it were, to lend itself to an infinite continuation of fabrication.” This idea has reached its culmination in the arrival of automation, which takes the reification process out of human hands and places it into the domain of machinery. Thus utility and beauty – the conventional standards of the world – become sidelined as objects are instead built according to the nature and limitations of the machines.

In doing so, a crisis of purpose occurs. In the work of homo faber, Arendt asserts that “here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organises them.” For instance, in the creation of a wooden table, the end (a table) justifies both the killing of the tree and the destroying of the wood. (In Arendt’s view, all fabrication involves violence against natural processes – even the working of metal still involves the interruption of a natural process, albeit the inconceivably slow geological processes). Regrettably, this thinking in terms of ends and means de-emphasises the role of humanity in these processes – if fabrication is to be meaningful, the ultimate end must be humanity itself, else we are making things solely for the purpose of making them. 

Unlike the animal laborans, which can have no inherent public realm in and of itself, homo faber produces a distinct public space, but it is not the political realm. Rather, the public realm of homo faber is the exchange market. The danger of this, however, is that when the marketplace becomes the central focus of society (as in capitalism) the fabrication of things ceases to be about the creation of use objects, but rather of exchange objects – the utility or beauty of the things created becomes secondary to their monetary value.

Again, the purpose of the fabrication process – serving humanity – has become lost. It is not that the marketplace is inherently problematic, but rather that the shifting of the production process to the creation of consumables (rather than lasting things) devalues the merits of fabrication. One can take pride in a well-made thing, but a consumable is merely fleeting. One of the many casualties in this shift of focus to a consumer society are works of art which “because of their outstanding permanence… are the most intensely worldly of tangible things.” In the marketplace, however, art is only valued for its exchange value, and not for its potential to enrich the spaces in which we live. 

Arendt suggests that just as the animal laborans needs the help of homo faber to ease the burden of labour (by making tools) and provide a space to live (by erecting homes), so “acting and speaking men need the help of homo faber in his highest capacity, that is, the help of the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monument-builders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all.” A focus on “the driving necessity of biological life and labour” or “the utilitarian instrumentalism of fabrication and usage” denies our capacity for speech and action, by which we take control of our world. 

Next week: Action

Bye Bye Backwards Compatibility

Sony have announced that the latest PS3 unit is not going to be backwards compatible with PS2 titles. Apparently, their justification is that only the early adopters want this functionality:

The new model is no longer backwards compatible with PlayStation®2 titles, reflecting both the reduced emphasis placed on this feature amongst later purchasers of PS3, as well as the availability of a more extensive line-up of PS3 specific titles (a total of 65 titles across all genres by Christmas).

Now I will happily concede that the importance of backwards compatibility next to other factors such as price and the availability of new titles is lesser, but it is not irrelevant. Take my own situation: I have yet to decide when or which "power console" I will purchase... Initially, I imagined it would be a PS3, but increasingly I find myself swayed towards a 360 instead. The reason? I'm not finding any reason to prefer the PS3 yet. In my case (which is probably not indicative of a general pattern), the lack of backwards compatibility is another reason pushing me away from staying with Sony. (Ironically, having just moved from Europe, one of my reasons to want a PS3 would be to play PS2 games that came out after the move, such as Okami).

Sony seem to believe that backwards compatibility is something only early adopters care about. They're partly right. The type of person who traditionally acts as early adopter is the most likely type of person to care about backwards compatibility. Nonetheless, this is probably a blunder for Sony (albeit quite a small one) in that not all the people who would normally be an early adopter have yet committed to buying a PS3. This gives them another reason not to and - more importantly - it creates widespread negative PR for Sony among the technologically savvy, who will be advising many other people whether to choose a PS3 or a 360.

Is it worth it? Joystiq estimates the saving to Sony by dropping the backwards compatibility is $27 per unit. That actually does add up to a significant saving on the scale of unit sales that Sony is aiming for, but it also shows up another problem which is not good news for the electronics giant. If Sony are looking at saving money on a per-unit basis, it is practically an admission that the PS3 is not doing as well as they had hoped - since clearly, if sales were brisk and on target there would be little reason to consider a cost-saving redesign.

I see this move as an admission of market-weakness on Sony's part. The company that in the previous two console cycles dominated videogames has been caught napping by Nintendo, and beaten at its own game by Microsoft. Ironically, back in the mid-90's it was Sony who outmanoeuvered Nintendo - devastating their rival's market share by offering a developer-friendly open market as an alternative to the draconian (and highly unpopular) terms offered by Nintendo. Just a decade later, and it seems as if the tables have turned once more.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Microsoft have still not demonstrated the ability to appeal beyond the game literate market centre; their hit titles for the 360 (Gears of War and uberhyped Halo 3, with an honourable mention for the less popular Bioshock) have all been shooters with limited mass market appeal, and the 360 is being outsold not only by both the Wii and the DS, but by the old PS2 as well. Perhaps Sony can gain ground on their direct competitor by hitting Microsoft where they are weakest: appeal to a wider audience. Trouble is, Sony first party games have rarely shown this capacity (Gran Turismo being the only notable exception), and all the big third party games have opted to release cross-platform. The presence of the next GTA game on the 360 is a savage blow to Sony - one they should have paid handsomely to avoid.

The loss of backward compatibility isn't a huge problem for Sony. But the fact that they have resorted to such a step is a sign that Sony does have a serious problem, and one that they apparently have no idea how to overcome.

A Different Kind of Halo in Church

The New York Times carries this article about Churches in the US using Halo 3 as a means of attracting teenagers. I can't advocate violating the M for Mature rating on the game, but if Churches want to offer videogames to attract teenagers they are free to do so. I would prefer it if there were videogames with Christian content they could offer, or at least something compatible with Christian philosophy, but of course Microsoft have spent so much marketing money on this particular game that I can't blame local communities for wanting to piggyback on the interest that has been fostered. At the very least, I don't see this as particularly different from getting the punters in by showing movies, which is a widespread practice. It all smacks of prioritising a metaphysical future, however.

Oh, and this line in the original article:

Microsoft says that Halo 3 “is on track to become the No. 1 gaming title of all time.” utter tosh unless "No. 1 gaming title" means something other than best selling videogame title, as Halo 3 is nothing of the kind and never will be. (Target to beat: 40 million, Number of 360s: 12 million. You do the maths).

Freedom and the Future

Only a Game stalwart zenBen asks:

How should we spend or sacrifice the quality of the now in deference to the future? What I mean is, applied to myself: should I be dedicating my life to research on green tech instead of games, even though I would be less happy doing it? (Not that I might not do it in future). Applied in the general case, should we possibly suspend ethical considerations in the name of a more secure future?

This represents two slightly different issues in my eyes. Firstly, justice between generations – which is to say, the extent to which we owe an obligation to our (or our societies’) future generations. Secondly, freedom in the face of crisis – when we see a crisis, are we obligated to take action to prevent it?

The subject of justice between generations is complex, and I will largely skip over it here (interested readers will find a detailed summary of the subject in this piece by Michael Wallack of the Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland). Suffice it to say, there is increasing recognition that the decisions we must make in the present must take into account the coming generations, despite our inability to accurately predict the future. However, this subject rapidly ceases to be ethical and becomes political – this issue is decided by our societies, our nations, on a collective basis and cannot be determined by ourselves as individuals.

The issue of freedom in the face of crisis, however, is entirely an ethical subject. Let us examine zenBen’s situation: he feels that research into green technology would be in greater accord with his ethics than his current research into games, but believes he would be happier remaining in his current field. Does he accrue an obligation to follow his social conscience?

I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic no. As members of democratically organised communities, we have many ways of affecting influence, and we should not presume that our professions or vocations should be chosen on this basis. I tend to take the view of the Dharmic religions that we each have our own path, and we should find this path and follow it. Like the sculptor uncovering the statue in the marble, we must find our calling within ourselves, and not let our social conscience sway us otherwise. Some people are natural activists – those of us that lack the skills and constitution for such a job should not think ill of ourselves because this is not our calling.

When we see a crisis, we should take action – but that action need not and arguably should not be a change in career. Instead, we should take action in the many other ways that are open to us – by joining and supporting organisations that share our concerns and employ people with the skills to be activists, by being active politically (which means more than voting) and perhaps most importantly by being an ethical consumer – voting with our dollars, pounds, euros, yen and so forth. Few things hold such influence as how we choose to spend our money.

If there is a crisis – such as the current environmental catastrophe (by which I do not mean global warming, per se) – we can act against it in many ways. Write letters to your political representatives to let them know what you think on these issues, and ask questions – it forces politicians to have a stance, and respond to your challenges. Every letter a politician receives is treated as if it represents the views of at least a hundred people, and as such a single letter can wield more political influence than a single vote. Be ready and willing to attend marches and demonstrations on the subjects you care about – in short, be ready to stand up for your chosen causes.

Most importantly: vote with your money. Support those companies that validate your ethical position, and boycott those that flagrantly disregard the issues of importance to you. In the context of green energy, for instance, the facts suggest we should aim to buy fuel from companies getting oil from Royal Dutch Shell and BP (with billion dollar investments in green energy since 1999) while boycotting Exxon (who has thus far invested nothing in green energy). Economic actions wield the power of change perhaps more potently than voting, as you can not only influence the action of corporations, by doing so you can also affect the political landscape which is powerfully influenced by changes in the business world.

We need not suspend our ethics to secure the future - rather, we should act upon our moral concerns. We are not powerless, and our political influence does not end with the vote. Take action in the causes you believe in, but do not presume that you must give up what you enjoy to have a positive influence in the world.

Lounging Lizard

Lizardfinal I found this fellow (and others like her) while hiking in the Smokies with my wife this week. Lizards are relatively unfamiliar to me (there are few in the British isles) but I think she is a Northern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus); the lack of colour and the pronouncement of the bar markings suggests to me this one is a female.

Any budding herpetologists out there able to confirm my identification of this species?

The Human Condition (3): Labour

In the twentieth century, the work of Karl Marx produced sharply divided opinions – in part from a scepticism directed towards the Marxist states, such as the Soviet Union. Hannah Arendt criticises Marx, but does not dismiss his work in its entirety. Although Arendt is vehemently against totalitarianism (and, in fact, produced some of the best studies on the subject), Marx’ work contained thoughts and ideas that remain relevant.

Following Marx in part, Arendt distinguishes between labour and work, the latter (which we will look at next week) being the means in which things with a degree of permanence are created, while the former being primarily concerned with the maintenance of life. In her terminology, labour is concerned with the meeting of needs that occur from necessity. There is thus a cycle associated with labour: necessity creates needs, labour provides what meets these needs, the products of labour are consumed – thus restoring the original necessity. This cycle repeats indefinitely: there is no de facto escape from labour in life.

Labouring, in Arendt’s view, “leaves nothing behind… the result of its effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort spent”. The endless repeating of the labour cycle implies a certain futility, but Arendt stresses that the labouring is still “born of a great urgency and motivated by a more powerful drive than anything else, because life itself depends upon it.” She refers to humanity as a labouring creature as animal laborans, stressing the point that in the context of labour we are an animal like any other, as all animals must labour in order to live. (This term is to be contrasted with humanity as a worker i.e. as the creator of things, which she terms homo faber). 

Marx’s vision, in Arendt’s view, was to recreate ancient Athens, but with machinery replacing slaves. The criticism she raises in this regard is that Marx (like other thinkers in the workers’ movement) presumed that free time would eventually emancipate men from the necessities of labour, thus automatically nourishing “higher” activities. A century after Marx, Arendt observes the fallacy of this assumption: “the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites.” Instead of being freed from labour and consumption, the process of consumption is instead expanded from necessities and into luxuries.

Arendt thus raises a complaint aimed directly at the consumer society, claiming that – since labour and consumption are part of the same process – the consumer society is synonymous with a society of labourers. She notes: “the emancipation of labour and the concomitant emancipation of the labouring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly meant progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that is was also progress in the direction of freedom.” 

The transforming point in history in this regard was the industrial revolution, at which point people ceased to be the measure of how labour would be conducted, and rather it was the remorseless machinery of the factory which set the pace. Indeed, Arendt notes that the reduction of working hours in the twentieth century was merely a belated push back towards normality – prior to the industrial revolution, it seems people only worked approximately half of the year!

Arendt’s central criticism in respect to labour is the idea what we live in “a labour society which lacks enough labouring to keep it contented.” She suggest that “the universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in our society… are but two sides of the same coin.” The central sign that this is the case is the extent to which modern economies have become “a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared.” Thus, she questions the organisation of all modern economic activity, and challenges us to consider our relationship with the related activities of consumption and labour. 

Next week: Work